Joel (Spolsky) on Software has a fine new start to a promising series of articles on software design ("Great Design: What is Design..."). His perspective is outside of game development and its industry, yet unsurprisingly, there are similarities. After all, there is software in "them hills."
How should we parse the distinctions between the design of the MMOG as game vs. the design of the MMOG as an application? As with all software -- especially those structured around deep human-computer interactions -- distinctions among different types of design (domain vs. engineering) are tricky and to a degree, artificial. In the end it is always about the art of the possible. Yet it is still worth considering these relationships from time-to-time in the hope that we may better parse the constraints imposed by one form upon the other.
Then there is a point about chickens and lipstick...
Joel starts out by comparing art and function in software design. He draws an analogy between brownstone architecture in New York City ("the elaborate carvings, gargoyles, and beautiful iron fences?") and how their embellishment was the work of individual craftsmen and not part of the orginal specification (do "beautiful fretwork" here). The crisp claim is:
That's not design. That's decoration. What we, in the software industry, collectively refer to as Lipstick on a Chicken. If you have been thinking that there is anything whatsoever in design that requires artistic skill, well, banish the thought. Immediately, swiftly, and promptly. Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem.
By an 'engineering problem' Joel goes on to explain that he means a system of decisions based on requirements (function) and trade-offs (e.g. cost-benefit per feature).
It might be easy to dismiss this nuts-and-bolts perspective as irrelevant to a theory of virtual world design. What are the requirements of fun? What are the trade-offs of immersion? How to measure the ludic? It doesn't apply, right?
But this would be misleading. While we can quibble to the degree, in the end, every elf-in-tights you have seen is presented to you atop a vast pyramid of engineering (and game) design choices. Put it another way, given an infinitely better computing environment and platform (pick your metrics) , would virtual worlds look and feel as they do now?
To what extent is current virtual world design "a hack" to technology - is the MMOG a clever art, snake-like in tall grass (periodically capable of establishing a magical relationship with the users) whilst navigating elephant legs ?
First let's start with an easy premise. In any domain of software with any community of users for any application, the expectations, the shape of requirements always involves at least some 'art'. Even the most stodgy applications (oh, financial, logistics), where those systems intersect people some degree of fuzziness finds it's way. After all, why is so much energy exterted (or should be) in human factors when building user interfaces?
But back to virtual worlds. Raph Koster noted in A Theory of Fun:
The best test of a game's fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing. If that is fun, then everything else will serve to focus, refine, empower, and magnify. But all the dressing in the world can't change iceberg lettuce into roast turkey.
All turkey, no lipstick.
Do we wonder enough the design of the fowl, or do we spend too much time on the lipstick?