For two years now I’ve been thinking about revising my site, the intent being to make more frequent contributions about the design and development of interactive entertainment that involves the user on an emotional level. The main motivation for increasing my presence is that I’ve hardened in my belief that too many games fail in this regard simply because there is a lack of understanding about how writing and design choices impact the emotional potential of interactive works. Leaving aside whether I’m personally qualified to exploit that potential, the fact remains that our industry is still struggling to define techniques with which we can reliably generate the same depth of emotional experience that audiences enjoy from movies, television, theater and literature.
It was with this lofty goal in mind, then, that I began to tinker again with a new site design prior to the 2002 Game Developers Conference (GDC). Unfortunately, as had happened several times before, I quickly ran up against my own limitations and the limitations of the web development software I was using. Frustrated as I was, however, I vowed to persevere against all odds this time, and committed to having the new site up before I left for the conference in mid-March.
Despite my dedicated and considerable efforts, however, each step forward was met with a half-step back. Even common site design features were simply not available to me because of the limitations of the software, or my lack of understanding of the same. As time wore on and the GDC hurtled toward me I became increasingly distracted by the idea that a local web developer could rescue me from my self-imposed predicament. When this seductive fantasy began to sap what little remained of my resolve I decided to quash the idea once and for all.
So I called Marti Mullen, a friend in the web development business, my hope being that her rock-bottom quote for a new site would come in at around a half a million dollars. That would make it clear that it was up to me to get the job done, and I could quit trying to reach my goals through means other than hard work. To my surprise her price actually seemed quite reasonable, and as we talked about the issues I was wrestling with I became convinced that she not only could, but would take care of my needs in every way. I left the conversation feeling more relief at the idea of being allied with a group of professionals than I would have thought possible, and I told her I’d call her back if I thought I could justify the expense.
Not surprisingly, what followed was substantial internal debate, which, had I scripted it, would have invariably called for a little angel sitting on one shoulder and a little devil sitting on the other. Rationales for approving the expense, and thereby relieving me of my self-imposed obligation, competed full-tilt with the reality that there would be no clear way for me to generate a direct return on such an investment. Despite the fairness of the price, for a sole proprietor it was going to be a considerable outlay, and I simply couldn’t see how to balance the books.
Poised to err on the side of caution, I realized suddenly that I was falling down on the same issue that I was frustrated with in my own industry. Here I was, famously unqualified to build a web site of even marginal complexity or functionality, yet I was still thinking of doing it myself to save a few bucks and gratify my own ego. How would that be any different from a game developer with no writing or design background who insisted on acting in those roles simply to wield power or save a few dollars? The answer was that it wasn’t any different, because in both cases the wants and needs of the intended audience were being completely ignored.
I’m still uncomfortable with how long it took me to recognize that customer satisfaction was the key issue I was facing, as opposed to how much the site would cost, or whether I could warm my soul by taking credit for its design and development. Maybe I didn’t see it because my original home-grown site had served me well, or because I wasn’t thinking about how the new site objective (communication) was different from the old one (online resume). What was clear, however, was that I hadn’t spent the past fifteen years as a web developer, I’d spent it as a writer and designer. If I honestly felt that my skill set, fueled by long years of practice and experience, was of value to the end users of the interactive entertainment I helped to create, how could I deny that that same kind of professionalism would be of value to the visitors of my site?
In the end it was a simple decision. If I believed I was right about the interactive industry’s need to take writing and design more seriously, then I literally needed to put my money where my mouth was in order to build a site that would help me most effectively make that case. And that was true even if I couldn’t figure out how to generate a direct return on my investment, because that wasn’t the appropriate financial test. The only issue that mattered economically was whether the expense would bankrupt me, because that would by definition preclude me from attaining my goal. As long as I had the funds, and I did, I needed to treat money as a means of improving effectiveness, not as an end in itself.
The site I ended up with was the result of all this anguish, and its simplicity was the result of intention, not restriction. In fact, a number of the design choices I made in preference of simplicity were actually difficult to implement, and it was only because I had professionals doing the heavy lifting that I was able to achieve the clean look and feel I desired as well as the functionality I wanted to provide.
In the end, not only did Marti and her staff at Procend do the job I hired them to do, but they solved problems I hadn’t anticipated, walked me through decisions I didn’t fully understand, and helped me exceed the goals I’d set out to achieve. In particular, Marti’s Creative Director, Karl Koch (pronounced ‘cook’), not only helped me solve every issue I was wrestling with, but he also helped me define exactly what it was I was trying to accomplish in the first place. While it’s one thing to give the customer what they want, it’s another thing entirely to make sure they get what they really need, and Karl saw to that at every stage.
If that all sounds like a sales pitch, it is, but not for Procend. One look at Marti’s client list will tell you she doesn’t need any favors from me. Instead, my pitch is that the people leading the development of interactive works need to put their customers first as well, both by rejecting the opportunity to indulge their own creative vanities, and by budgeting for the involvement of professionals who can maximize the narrative potential of the games they are making. If my own experience with the design and development of this simple web site is any measure, those developers with the courage to take these steps will ultimately be more likely – not less likely – to fully realize their vision.
— Mark Barrett