Releaser’s Remorse (Or “Why Game Grief Is Good”)

The beta period before a game ships is a bit like preparing for a big birth, but in some ways it’s more like knowing about your own imminent death. Core development is over and those sweaty glory days of being able to polish and tweak and balance are done and gone and will never, never come back.

This dread especially comes into sharp focus during usability testing. If you sit back and truly watch someone use your beta’d game and talk through what they are thinking there is a magical, dreadful moment when you’re out of the game designer corpus and seeing your beloved work through someone else’s unforgiving, skeptical eyes. The flaws pop like hairy pimples.

The  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of grief apply:

  1. Denial: This person doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Especially easy to do during executive or publisher reviews, since it’s a known fact that suits know nothing.
  2. Anger: How did this happen? That damn art house! Those idiot programmers! Am I supposed to catch everything here!? How could this have been missed?
  3. Bargaining: Give me a little more budget, let’s push out the delivery date by two weeks, and we can reach perfection, I tell you. Trust me!
  4. Depression: This game just sucks. 
  5. Acceptance: It is what it is. We did a fantastic job, all things considered, it’s got fantastic elements and will move the genre forward. It will be a huge hit and we’ll get to all the stuff we missed in the sequel. It will all be okay.

The key to reaching Stage 5, of course, is having enough experience and perspective to know the difference between fatal flaws (in which case the game really should have been killed for real or rejiggered way before beta, or you’re screwed) and flaws trumped by fun — issues with your game that the audience will work around or not really notice because they’re having such a good time.

The longer the development cycle, the harder this releaser’s remorse hits. And when the game finally goes out it’s only possible to celebrate the positive emotions that you as a designer deserve (joy, relief, sheer excitement) if you have worked through the five stages and acknowledged that a computer game like all art, and all else born from focused exertion, are more about the process than about achieving perfection.


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