The Perils of Feature Creep: AIR to App Store, Day 5

Feature Creep. It sounds nasty, doesn’t it. Like the title of a Charlie Sheen movie or an album by Simon Cowell.

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In the game design world, feature creep is every project manager’s nightmare and the curse of the creative. It blows out budgets, can ruin the balance of a game and break artists and programmers under its sheer weight. But what exactly is it?

Feature creep has described as “The misguided notion that somehow more is always better.” That sums it up pretty perfectly for me – it’s when developers throw in feature after feature into a game, often without rhyme, reason or request. It’s 14 different game modes, it’s playing a game using wildly inaccurate hand gestures instead of a control pad , or it’s the ability to design a player’s socks and shoes in an NBA game.

In essence, it’s putting stuff in a game just … well, just because you can. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. Once, I was building a huge adventure RPG, Swords & Sandals 5, and devised a complex time of day weather system. I got so enamoured by my own cleverness, I started adding in phases of the moon. Soon I was adding in half yearly eclipses, blood moons and so on. You know who noticed these features? No-one. Not a single soul.

Another time, I created a football simulator called Heroic Sports Football. I worked so hard on this game. I created 64 teams, complete with logos and team mottos. The Italian team mottos were in Italian, the South American teams in Portuguese and Spanish. Why? Because it amused me. But I did this at the expense of the game play – the controls of the game were not refined. The game suffered because of it and ultimately was neither a critical or commercial success ( though I suspect the hefty $20 price tag had something to do with that – a decision out of my hands, but that’s a story for another day.)

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Feature creep is a problem of passion. It’s hard to step back from a game and say “Why am I adding this? Is this for my benefit, or for the player’s?” . Small details in games can be totally charming – my games are full of little details that make them stand out from another developer’s work. However, the key thing to take out of this:  New features cannot be at the expense of the core gameplay.

In the words of the great Bruce Lee, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.” . It’s why Halfbrick’s Jetpack Joyride was a big hit. One button gameplay, one game mode. It’s why people loved the first Star Wars with it’s simple tale of good and evil, and why people hated the prequels – with their malarkey about trade disputes and kitchen sink of special effects.

So what does all this talk of feature creep have to with development on my two week game? Everything, in fact. I am at the crossroads – on my left, a straight paved road leads off into the distance, flat and safe. That way leads to the completion of the game on time. The other, a cobblestone path overgrown with weeds and sprawling in all directions – that way leads to adventure, and of course, to feature creep. I’ve basically built the complete game engine now. All the key pieces of the game are in, and I’ve started thinking of ways to make the game more interesting to me, the developer (bear in mind, I’ve had a week straight on it ). This is a dangerous way to think. You need to be able to step back and imagine yourself playing the game for the first time. Do you need 5 game modes? Will your game benefit from a full 24 hour weather cycle? Probably not.

Yesterday I added both those things. The weather, whilst pretty, didn’t add that much to the game , in fact having 24 different times of day actually looked rather ugly. So I’ve cut it back to 3 times of day. Morning, afternoon and night. I’ve cut out the 10 different weather patterns, and cut that down to three. Fine weather, light snow and light rain. The game modes – 4 of them worked, the fifth was a failure , so it gets cut.

Don’t be afraid to chop up your game like Swords & Sandals’ beloved John the Butcher*. Go to town, take out the things that aren’t immediately obviously beneficial to the game. Your game will be lighter and better for it.

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* Funny little side story here. The character John the Butcher was based on my first employer as a teenager, a rude, ruddy faced bear of a man called John Woolridge. My job was to clean his butcher shop, removing gristle from the meat machines, hose down the shop and sweep out sawdust. I got fired after less than a week because I was not strong enough to move a heavy wooden block – I tried hard, I really did. With a steely glare, he tossed me a ten dollar note and told me not to bother showing up again. Revenge came a decade later in the form of my game Swords & Sandals – the pig-hatted John the Butcher became an arena boss for the players to fight. The game, of course, became a worldwide hit and John the Butcher was immortalised as the villain he always was (in my eyes, at any rate). To date, he has been killed over 400 million times by surly, thin teenagers from Norway to Brazil. A heartwarming tale of petulance and the consequence of wronging a game developer.

Cheers, Oliver

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