So a lot of people talk about applying good software industry practices to game development. I just had another idea: how about we apply good food industry practices to game development?
It just so happens I've read three books on cooking and restauranting, all of which I recommend: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For The Food, and America's Test Kitchen's The Best Recipe.
From Kitchen Confidential, we learn the importance of speaking other languages so we can work with our immigrant help; the importance of firing people if they're late to work and don't call in first; and the importance of crunch time. Sounds like being a cook is much less pleasant than being a game developer. Good thing they're so well paid.
Okay, so I'm being snarky. Seriously, there is some stuff in the book that I think does apply: he talks about the difference between craftsman and artist. This is something that Pete used to talk about at Treyarch; although Die By The Sword was something of an "art project" for us, after that we were pure craftsmen...(although you could argue that the swinging system in Spidey 2 was "artsy" we still had our eyes on reviews and sales - if the People didn't like it, it would get cut)...and by craftsmen I mean we were trying to do a high bang-for-buck job that our clients would appreciate and that would be commercially succesful. Chris Crawford is an artist. A fine artist. We were craftsmen.
Bourdain also has a chapter on firing, one that's fairly merciless on those who coast, cause trouble, or can't cut it. His argument is that it's a dick thing to do--he argues that it's almost as bad as murder--but you've got to do it anyway: if someone can't help you bail water out of the lifeboat you've got to throw them over the edge. I agree with that one too. (Let the flame wars begin?)
From The Best Recipe we mostly have just recipes. What's interesting there is the approach: they experiment with dozens of different variations on a given recipe, doing blind taste tests, and then publish the most succesful result. What you end up with are recipes where, if you mess with them, you're fairly likely to make them worse. That's been my experience, anyhow. Another thing about this book is they have recipes for all of these common-man foods: hamburgers, steak, chicken, turkey (this is the recipe to use for Thanksgiving, yo), meatloaf, pasta. I started using these recipes and I became a much better cook overnight. All from a book. (I've said it before and I'll say it again: books are good.) So what we learn here is that playtesting is important. We knew that already, but does anybody playtest as extensively as America's Test Kitchen tests its recipes? Imagine every time you tweak or tune a parameter of your main character you have a group of volunteers rate the experience!
And, finally, I'm Just Here For The Food.
You've never been to my house so you ask for directions. I fax you a very precise list of instructions designed to get you where you're going. Distances are calculated to the tenth of a mile and landmarks are described in Proustian detail. You arrive without a hitch.
But do you know where you are? If a tree had fallen in the road or a road suddenly closed, would you know what to do? Unless you have a GPS in your pocket, I'm eating lunch alone.
If only I'd send you a map instead.
That's what's wrong with recipes. Sure, they can get us where we're going, but that doesn't mean we know where we are when we get there. And it would be a real shame to make it all the way to a souffle without realizing that scrambled eggs are just over the hill and meringue's just around the corner.
The rest of the book is his "map" of cooking. He describes all the basic kinds of cooking, the principles behind why they work, how to do them and how they relate.
Could such a book be written for game development? - and I'm thinking specifically right now of game mechanic development. In A Theory Of Fun Raph Koster shows us how certain game mechanics relate to each other, and on one page even has a map of a handful of games and their relations, but it isn't the sort of all-encompassing map of the terrain that I'm Just Here For The Food is. Zimmerman's Rules of Play has the sort of scope I'm imagining, but goes far beyond rules & mechanics. The game design pattern wiki could become this, but it's in its infancy. Such a work would be encyclopediac, much larger than Brown's book, I think. And would it be useful? The way I imagine it in use is you're working on, say, a stealth game, and your kleenex testers are telling you they're not enjoying it, so you turn to the "stealth game" section of this game mechanic map, and there would be a list of various rules that different stealth games have, and why they work together or don't work, and you might say, "Aha! My patrol paths are too long; the player spends too much time doing nothing; it's right here in black and white." [Side note: stealth mechanics are usually just tweaked timing mechanics; there's little difference between sneaking behind a guard in Beyond Good and Evil and avoiding a stomper on a timer in a side-scroller.] Just like Alton Brown's book tells you what temperatures work for different kinds of cooking. You'd never come up with a Tetris from using such a reference - it would purely be a tool for commercial game makers who are doing evolutionary experiments in established genres.
You can apply any field of learning to any other field of learning with a little creativity, I guess.