Monday, April 11, 2011

The Workshop Process

If you're familiar with the game Minecraft, feel free to jump below the cut right now. For everyone else, a quick background: Minecraft is an indie game that's pretty unique even among indie games. For one, its art and play styles have already gained a huge amount of notice and praise both among gamers and the gaming press despite the fact that it's still in beta. But that's not what I'm interested in talking about today. What's really got me interested is its development process.

Back in May of 2009, a guy named Markus Persson started developing Minecraft. Once he got the game to a rough, but playable state (known as an alpha), he made it available to the general public for €9.95, or about half of the cost of the finished product. This served two purposes. First, it generated revenue to help continue developing the game, and second, it gave him an army of alpha and beta testers. It's not the path that video games, even independently created games, usually take. Open alphas are rare to the point of non-existence, and charging players to take part in beta testing is also deeply rare. I can't think of a single title, either independent or out of a studio, that has tried this before.

So, how's it worked out for him? 

Persson's system's worked out pretty damn well. The aforementioned huge amounts of buzz have brought this project from obscurity to the spotlight. Sales of Minecraft in the alpha and (currently ongoing) beta phases have garnered an estimated $33 million. Persson recently started a company called Mojang around Minecraft. Minecraft's army of supporters even won Mojang an advertising contract on The Escapist in their March Mayhem competition. Everything surrounding this game seems to be a huge Cinderella success story, and the game hasn't even been finished yet.

Recently, Persson took questions from his legion of fans on Reddit. When he was asked about whether he'd use the same development path on future projects, he said:
I think it's a great way for a small studio to do game development. It might not make sense for all types of games, though. I'd definitely want to release future games in the same way. Developing in the dark is scary and probably wrong.

To a lot of people in the games industry this probably signals a new way of developing games. It's not likely to change the way big corporations like Activision or EA put out games, but it does offer a way for indie companies and individual developers to make games that fit somewhere in the large gulf between simple, nostalgia- or art-driven indie games and the giant, monolithic AAA games.

The thing that really strikes me about this, though, is not the fact that it's a new wave in the games industry. Really, the thing that I keep thinking of is how this really isn't a new idea at all. It's just new to this medium.

Really, almost this exact model has been used in the theatre world for over 30 years. They're called workshop productions. While the exact nature and structure of the processes have changed from place to place and show to show, the basic idea behind "workshopping" a show is the same as the ideas behind Minecraft's development: getting an artistic project out in front of an audience to both build support and to draw criticism in order to help develop it into a completed work.

Working in a workshop production is a lot like being part of the beta process for a game. The director and actors involved with the project help the playwright find trouble spots and weak points. The resulting production is stripped down compared to an actual premiere: often script-in-hand, with limited technical elements. The audience is charged a nominal amount, usually just enough to cover the expenses of putting on the workshop. After the performance, the audience is asked to stay and share their thoughts with the playwright, who will then take these comments and suggestions when writing the next draft.

The workshop process is a valuable tool in the theatre world. It allows the playwright to see how their work holds up on its feet and in front of an audience without the risk associated with a full production. Running an open beta allows for much the same feedback.

This doesn't mean that there aren't flaws in the system. If other developers want to start using this process to develop games, it would behoove them to speak to people who've gone through the workshop process in theatre. Since this is my blog, I'll put forth a couple of issues I've noticed that could cross over.

One problem that I've seen come up many times is over-workshopping. I've read plays that have been through multiple workshops and read very blandly while trying too hard to be inoffensive. Plays that have had all the subtlety ironed out of them by playwrights afraid of the audience missing the point. Trying to make everyone happy is an easy trap to fall into. After all, why are you going through this process if not to respond to feedback?

Remember, though, that you can't make everyone happy all the time. Some people will always come up with criticisms and complaints, either to complain or just to be "helpful". Not every complaint is possible to fix without compromising the work as a whole. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and all that.

Another problem that can crop up is, essentially, the inverse of what Presson has experienced with Minecraft. For many people, if they pay to see a play (or play a game), they expect a complete experience. They take what they've seen and compare it to completed shows they've seen (or completed games they've played). Even though the whole point of the exercise is to find these problems and make the completed product better, some people won't understand or won't care about that difference. They'll comment based on their early experience, for better or worse.

While this hasn't been a problem for Minecraft, I have seen people commenting on the fact that they got tired of the experience or found it shallow and gave up. These people are in the minority, but they do exist. For another project, they could hurt it if they got out in front of the good reactions, which I find very plausible if Mojang uses a paid open alpha for their next project.

Issues aside, I think the idea's wonderful and I hope that more small studios and individuals grab onto the idea. After all, it's worked pretty well for theatre.

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