Elephant Juice

I DOUBT it’s something that’s ever kept you awake at night, but if you were to ask me which animal reminds me of game development – no, wait: which animal does game development remind me of – I wouldn’t have to think twice.

I’d say: the elephant.

Not because of any parallels to its great size, legendary memory, amazing senses or the fact that it’s such a tactile creature that displays many human-like emotions and can recognise itself in a mirror; not those echoes of crunch suggested by the fact that elephants only sleep for a few hours a day or are with child for so long; not because they can’t jump; and certainly not because Edison electrocuted one to make Tesla look bad.

I’m sure I had a point when I started writing this.

Oh, yes.

Making a game is very much like an elephant (said in my best Swiss Toni voice). Two reasons.

The first reason is an adage I came across many years ago that goes something like this:

There was once an old Indian craftsman who carved elegant elephants from blocks of wood. When asked how he did it, he replied, “I just cut away the wood that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

I like this because it reminds me a) of the value of a good point of reference (in this case an elephant) and b) not to get too precious about anything that gets in the way of making your game feel like your elephant.

The second reason is more recent revelation: the tale of the blind men and the elephant, my favourite version of which is the one written in rhyme by John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The point is, when making a game it’s surprisingly easy for so many smart people to completely mutually misunderstand what it is they are feeling – including the original creator.

To make a game is to make something felt and judged by the metaphorical blind all throughout its development, from conception to release and beyond. And the bigger the game you make, the more people you get poking, pawing, patting and petting your pachyderm from all perspectives.

Only when everyone has the same finished product in their hands do they really see and feel the same elephant. Up to that point, everyone involved – from investors to testers – experiences their own personal elephant.

Everyone involved in bringing an elephant to market has an agenda (call it a ‘focus’ because that sounds more positive). It might be how the elephant is designed or programmed or looks or sounds or feels or plays or is financed or makes money or functions robustly or…

You have an idea for an elephant. It’s trapped in your head, bursting to get out. You want to get it into everyone else’s heads so you need to express it. You start with words, spoken and written and printed; but no matter how invigorating your description, the formal arrangement of letters makes for too holey a net to capture your true vision.

Like scripts and screenplays, detailed design documents are easily interpreted by everyone who reads them – and everyone has their own ideas about what they feel and how best it should be felt. What the maker sees in their head is seldom what’s bought into – and the more novel the idea, the harder it is to make the figment reality, to give it substance.

So you draw pictures on the back of napkins, each of which says a thousand words; you more vividly visualise how the idea looks and sounds – and perhaps even bring that to life with animation, closing the gap… But even though people can see it, they still aren’t touching your vision, playing with it, experiencing it as you feel it. So you prototype the idea with suitable placeholders, which is more tangible and titillating, but it’s still not the full elephant.

It’s not until you try to bring your vision to life that you discover how nebulous it really was, how little you really saw with any real lucidity. You can’t see the joins, only the rose-tinted, Vaseline-lensed view through the keyhole you afford yourself. You see the moon (no doubt on a stick) in the sky so close and like a child you feel you could touch it; you kid yourself how easy it is to reach it. 💡

– Gary