Development As A Video Game

We all know I like to make analogies. Recently I was inspired by a Penny-Arcade (PA) comic to analogize by two seemingly disparate parts of my life: development work and video games. I realize that niche filled by my readers who also find themselves in this crossover is most likely limited to me, Jeff and Paul, but for anyone else out there who might be interested, I hope you read on.

In the comic from which I draw my inspiration, the main characters of PA, Tycho and Gabe, find themselves discussing two recently released video games: Starcraft 2 and Civilzation V. Both of them being sequels and continuations on wildly successful franchises, these games often find themselves together in many a gamer’s collection. The comic opens with Gabe lamenting over the pace of the most recent Civilization game, especially when compared to Starcraft, while Tycho attempts to explain that, “Civilization has a different pace… Relax. Start small.”

“Like how small?” asks Gabe.

“Like, making pots.”

I chuckled at this for many reasons. Working in development for going on two years now, you need to appreciate starting small. Coming from America to Kenya is often like coming to Civilization from Starcraft, and the comparisons don’t end there.

Just looking at the title of Civilization should give you a hint to its scope. You are litlerally thrown into a world with nothing but the ability to make fire, or, if I remember correctly, not even that. You win your game by either conquering and vanquishing your foes, forming a global alliance, building a structure of monumental importance or taking to the stars. Games can take hours, even days, depending on the scope of the paramenters you set, such as the number of opposing civilizations, or the size of the game map.

Starcraft on the other hand is a significantly faster paced game. Matches can be over within minutes, depending on your opponents play style. There is also only really one way to win: kill all your opponents. Your economy is limited in the number of resources you manage, your army size is fixed, and the maps represent kilometers of space, not hundreds of kilometers. It’s a different game entirely.

Yet to the untrained eye, these games often get generalized a level too far, and thus lumped together. In both games you manage resources, you manage “units” representing individuals, you manage infrastructure, and your ulimate victory or defeat is based on how well you do these things. But the games could not be further apart when looked at closely.

Too many development agencies and individuals come to Kenya trying to play Staracraft. With their zerg-rushes of resources and volun-tourists, armed with paint rollers and youthful exuberance, they feel that by vanquishing the foe within their 10 meter radius, be it local orhpans, AIDS, or trash collection, they have saved the world. It’s a complaint we have heard before so I will not expound. And for some, the rush is enough. If the Starcraft play-statistics are to used as a measure, it is in fact one of the most widely popular forms of development around.

But development needs more pots, to paraphrase Tycho in the comic. Development starts small, and this is something that should be cultured and nurtured amongst the development players. Starcraft matches come and go, sometimes a dozen or so in a day, but Civilization matches are for the memories, with hours of arduous decision making and setbacks, but hopefully with ultimate triumph as you watch your spaceship travel off into the stars, knowing you have advanced your civilization to its next level. It’s not the same shot of adrenaline that you get from Starcraft, but more a sense of supreme accomplishment.

Will Civilization V sell better than Starcraft 2? No. Will the entire country of South Korea fall in love with Civilization the game, the way they have for Starcraft? No.

Just the same, the volun-tourists will still arrive in Kenya in droves, and the money and resources will be spent as if there’s no tomorrow. People want that adrenaline fix, it makes them feel alive. What we need is for the adrenaline junkies to take a back seat and let the civilization builders in: those who are content to sit and make pots or weave baskets or simply teach, happy each time any accomplishment occurs, instead of rushing down their tech trees to get to the latest and greatest.

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