Jeff Atwood recently commented on a great video by to James Bach’s presentation at Google on how to be a Software Testing Expert. It’s fantastic – because it’s more about being an expert in your life then doing software testing. Read it, or watch it. To quote Atwood:
“What I love about James Bach’s presentation is how he spends the entire first half of it questioning and deconstructing everything — his field, his expertise, his own reputation and credentials, even! And then, only then, he cautiously, slowly builds it back up through a process of continual learning…
It starts with questioning everything, most of all yourself.
So if you want to be an expert in practice rather than in name only, take a page from Steve McQueen’s book. Don’t be the guy telling everyone what to do. Be the guy asking all the questions.”
This is good stuff. I can see my own evolution as a game developer in this, and I can tell by the questions I ask that I am a game developer first and an AI programmer second. I want to know comprehend design and marketing and production and animation. I hang out with those guys. I ask them questions. I get all up in their workflows every chance I can. I can’t stop talking about game development – I spent 3 hours last night on the phone debating how agile is agile enough. Questioning the context, questioning the reasoning, questioning the biases, questioning the implications. And then knowing I still don’t know enough, and we’re going to have to meet and talk again in a few weeks.
We have expert players too, and designs that succeed because they specifically try and create expertness. Most commercial games are mindless games – entertainment that is meant to divert, casually distract, immerse. I mean mindless in a desirable sense, a good sense. You’re still learning and using skills, but you’re also giving your brain a rest. Think television. RPGs, story games, adventures, Solitaire. And then there are mastery games. Games that push for complete and utter focus, attention, study, and skill. Games of such depth that they compel you to learn or stop playing. Starcraft, Street Fighter, Dynasty Tactics, Guitar Hero, Chess, Poker, Go, even Pac-Man.
Mindless games have specific characteristics, different goals that we’ve been optimizing towards these past years. “Hours of play”, not getting stuck, detailed environments, detailed stories, broad interlocking mechanics, many modes or styles of play. Mastery games optimize differently. Short, replayable matches, a high degree of challenge, deep mechanics that require study, one mode to focus on, physical or mental skills that reqiure training to perfect, a “game arc” of early, mid, and late game, and a stable rules set, sometimes with subtle variations to keep the high level play interesting, frequently multiplayer. Games that sweep your mind clear, demand utter focus and flow, and leave you asking questions when you’re finished.
Mastery games are our training of experts, our targeting and study of what an expert means.
The study of these differences and the study of why these differences exist, is fascinating design. Compelling are the borderline cases – is Left 4 Dead a Mindless game or a Mastery game? (Post your answer in the comments!) Speed runs are clearly mastery games. Are they still playing the same game everyone else did? Is the initial playthrough of a game ever for mastery?
See, I’m doing it again. Keep asking the questions. Be an expert at what you love.