Lessons for Game designers from “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”

Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is a classic book in philosophy of Science. When I recently finished reading it, I learnt about the field of Scientific research in a very unexpected light. More importantly though, this model seemed relevant outside the field of Science. It could be applied to other creative endeavours like Game design projects. It helped me made sense of the difficulties I incurred in past few years while choosing the topics of my next project.

Here’s a short summary of the ideas in this book that are relevant to this topic. SOSR categorizes all the scientific research into two types - Revolutions and Normal Science.

Revolutions in scientific fields happen when a new Paradigm theory is introduced. For e.g. Newton’s theory of Gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Darwin’s theory of evolution, etc. These theories are revolutionary, because they provide a framework that their predecessors failed to provide and they are able to guide future research in those field better than other competing theories at the time.

Normal science is what most of the research that we know. It’s the research that takes place in the framework defined by a Paradigm theory. SOSR defines it as the research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying foundation for its further practice. The new practitioners of the scientific field (students) are taught about the current Paradigm’s framework from textbooks. They become researchers, whose main job is to verify the implications of paradigm theory - thus strengthening the theory or reconciling any apparent exceptions to it. When the scienfitic field ends up with multitudes of irreconcilable facts, it’s time for another revolution (for e.g. After two centuries of Newtonian Gravity it was time for Einstein’s relativity theory). Kuhn describes this Normal Science as puzzle-solving phase. Scientists are solving difficult problems, but the shape of the possible solutions is known to some extent. This makes the problem like a puzzle and is helpful in keeping the scientist motivated in finding the solution.

Determining which game to make is a very difficult question, especially when it’s also supposed to be your principal source of income. You want to make a game that satisfies many constraints.

In my past 3 years as solo enterpreneur I’ve evaluated many different project ideas along various criteria before I started pursuing them single-mindedly. These criteria were not so clear in the beginning, but over time I’ve managed to outline the criteria more distinctly.

A new game idea has to fulfill most of the following criteria to satisfactory extent.

  1. It should be enjoyable to make
  2. It should be enjoyable to play (by me and others)
  3. It should be within the scope of my capabilities (technical/artistic)
  4. If I need outside help (technical/artistic) it should be within the financial budget
  5. It should generate revenue (i.e. it should be marketable, not too experimental/niche)
  6. It should achieve some higher level goal/principle that gives meaning to my work

(5 and 6 are always at odds with each other)

These criteria are not entirely independent. When I’m in the phase of choosing next project, I’ll start working on some idea that fits some of the above constraints; but after spending few weeks it will fall short one of the remaining constraints. This would slowly (or all of a sudden) make me loose interest in that idea. This can be very frustrating, because the time and efforts spent on that idea seems to have gone waste. (I would later realize that it’s not total waste, because the skills learnt were a great assets for future). It becomes quite depressing when this cycle repeats many times (in last such phase I went though 6-8 such cycles in span of 2-3 months). You don’t have anything tangible to show for all these efforts and it all seems to be an excercise in futility.

However in past 3 years, I’ve also had periods of time when I am not facing such uncertainty. This is the period when I’ve committed to a single project. I’ve no doubt that the project will be successful when finished (which doesn’t turn out to be completely true at the end, but it creates positive belief in future and helps focus on work at hand). In such times, I am free to dig deeper into the implementation of the project. In this phase, I can face any design challenges or technical difficulties even if they appear huge and little outside my reach. I could break them down, analyse them closely and come up with a workable solution. This requires patient and persistent efforts. The kind of self-doubt or skepticism towards the project idea that I have before I’m committed to it is absent in this phase. If it weren’t, I won’t be able to focus on difficult problems like this.

I found these two phases in my work to be very similar to the Revolutions and Normal Science phases in scientific ventures. Of course the scale of the scope is different.

The earliest phase of deciding what your next game project is going to be, is like defining a new Paradigm. It’s a revolution, as far as your individual career is concerned. The tremendous uncertainty, frustration, self doubt and apparent lack of progress are as violent as the turmoils in societies at the time of social revolutions or in scientific communities at introduction of Paradigm theories. You are going through all what you know and applying to all possible ideas that you could choose for the next project and this does require a ruthless trial-and-error work on all of them. During such process you will inevitably find some of your long-held beliefs to be utter nonsense. There will also be positive insights, something you earlier found impossible might just turn out to be feasible with your skill set. But if you loose sight of this balance in the outcome, that may lead to frustration and depression. These are not healthy emotions and you should be careful not to linger in this phase too long.

When you have spent too much time doing research, finding that new paradigm for your next game project; it’s time to start making compromises. You have to soon return to Normal Science phase, so that you could produce some tangible work. This is necessary, because you could go on infinitely trying every variation of the constraints mentioned above. There is no perfect game idea. But that prolonged phase of research will leave you exhausted with not much to show for. When you realize you’ve hit that point, it’s important to review what you’ve learnt and try to come up with compromises that will allow you to settle your doubts and come up with a tentative foundation for your game project. Then you spend few weeks developing it. In a few days you will again find yourself wondering if this is the right path. But now you can show yourself the explicit compromises that you decided to do. This will strengthen your belief in the idea and you will enter the Normal Science or Puzzle-solving phase.


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