July 15, 2008
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Software ☙ Drama

Sanya Weathers is annoyed that game studios can’t deliver well-written MMORPG games on time. After all, people do produce plays.

And I don’t want to hear about how sometimes shit happens, or that the creative process cannot be regulated. My ASS. I used to do theater. If you’ve got good designers and actors, and adequate preproduction time that isn’t spent at a pool hall or in endless “conceptualization” mental masturbation sessions, you can sit down with a calendar and say “if we start on this date, we can deliver an enjoyable product on this date.” And that’s taking into account a workforce consisting of A) people who periodically have mental breakdowns to demonstrate their artistic purity, and B) people who are more emotionally stable but also more prone to “I double dog dare you to chug the rest of that Jagermeister.”

Part of the problem, of course, is the pointy-headed manager — the residual American belief that Good Management is a skill independent of deeply understanding the task you’re managing.

But part of the problem is deeper and more complex; software design and implementation is research. The finished game depends on engineering and art that do not yet exist, and while you can make intelligent estimates of their scheduling, you will sometimes find that your estimates are wildly wrong.

Weathers thinks the design problem maps onto the question:

We open Shrew in Venice on September 15; what schedule gets us onstage on time?

But the real question game designers face is something else — something that theater people know all too well:

I've told Tony that we loved Shrew and that we want to do Shrew Two, but he’s stuck with a problem in the second act, and now he’s talking about throwing away the whole third act and starting over. And something about roller skates.

Theatrical train wrecks happen all the time. Just in the last few years, the American Repertory Theater — an unusually well-funded and professional organization — has had a bunch of productions that went off the rails far enough that outsiders heard the crockery breaking.

These are the episodes that were visible to the front of the house; I'm sure there were plenty that we never heard about. Project management is hard, but art is harder.