Core memory

Anecdotes and reflections from Atari veteran and et coder howard Scott Warshaw…

GIVE A MAN a beer and he’ll waste an afternoon. Teach him to make beer and he’ll waste a lifetime. Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes when people are given new technology/resources they end up victimizing themselves. It’s the eternal question when wishes are granted: reaped or raped?

To illustrate the point, we need look no further than the Western cultural icon for the game industry: the average church on Sunday morning. An odd metaphor for an atheist to construct, perhaps, but when it comes to metaphorical church construction, the Lord apse those that apse themselves.

Think of a choir. People singing together under good direction generate power, harmony, counterpoint and synergy. The choir presents a wide range of possibilities extending beyond the capacity of a soloist. Still, most choirs maintain soloists as well. The soloist provides a clarity and simplicity the choir lacks. Also, changing the soloist has a far greater impact on the performance than changing a choir member. A soloist is not better or worse than a choir, but it is true that the overall impression of the product varies more as you change soloists.

The soloist versus the choir. One voice versus many. The choir has more power, but it also has more momentum and consequently lacks maneuverability. What happens when circumstances demand changing a song in the programme? Changing a solo simply requires working with the soloist. Changing a choir’s performance, however, requires that every member receives, understands and accepts the change. More people means more communication, more resistance, more time. And Sunday is fast approaching. What about learning a song in the first place? I believe the whole process is much simpler if we pick a song everyone knows.

The same principles operate in games. Back in the day we were soloists. Everyone sang their own song. Now choirs dominate production. Take brainstorms, for example. At Atari, everyone attended the brainstorm – after all, those were some of the best parties – and afterwards we’d all take off in our own direction. The intoxicating air of inspiration made it easy to be less judgmental and more receptive to the flow of ideas. Each of us chatting and waiting for that one idea that showed potential for our dev system.

Nowadays, only some of the team attend the brainstorm. Everyone must then come out and move in the same direction. This is a different dynamic – and not one conducive to the basic rules of brainstorming, and certainly not conducive to great parties. In this situation, everyone is looking for the idea as opposed to an idea and the entire choir must agree on the same song. This is a recipe for discord, not harmony.

But why must this undermine the pursuit of new gaming approaches? Well, Sunday is coming and if the choir ain’t ready you can’t pass the plate. Hmm, it’d be so much easier with a song everyone knows. So you pick an Al system your people know and you re-use a collision-detect system, why try to rewrite the entire kernel at a time like this? By the time you’re done ‘brainstorming’ like this you’ve locked yourself into a game that will behave a lot like the other game, which is basically an organ donor for this one.

And that, boys and girls, is how video games are victimized by greater resources.