Sunday, May 11

Wooden Barrel Game Design

Gamasutra recently interviewed Jenova Chen, creative director of Thatamecompany, the developer behind flOw and the upcoming flOwer for PlayStation Network.

Chen has a lot of interesting things to say; he has a unique conception of and approach to game design. At the end of the interview, Chen dicusses the quality of game design and development.

Earlier I was commenting on a lot of games from big publishers, how they feel like it's made on a pipeline. Where the head, in the beginning, is awesome, because the people who work on it are great, but then the middle part is really lame because they slacked off, or the tail is really bad because they cut it.

So we used to use a metaphor: a barrel which holds water, a wooden barrel has all these pieces, and you use a frame to put them together. Each piece is for a different aspect of the game -- one is for the graphics, one is for the sound, one is for design -- and if any one of those is short, the water that you can hold is only up to the shortest part. And the water is the satisfaction of the player.

If you have terrible graphics, and everything else is great, the player will probably just keep saying, "Oh, the graphics suck!" But, meanwhile, if you have really wonderful graphics -- like real graphics -- but the gameplay sucks, they will still think the game is mediocre, because the gameplay sets the cap.

So, as a small team, there is no way that we can create a cap, a taller piece than a commercial game, but our goal is to keep every piece at the same height; so it could be even higher than some of the commercial games.

This analogy is not only beautiful, but also apt. His assessment is also absolutely spot on. Gamers and the media, both often cynical, will attack the lowest common denominator of the game. The features of a game should match up. The graphics, gameplay, sound, and all of the other aspects of a game should be given equal attention and focus. Not only that, but the features of a game should work together, should cooperate with one another. Otherwise there will be holes; some aspect of the game will be lacking. We want our games to be whole.

Image from
My Garden


  1. Anonymous5:33 PM EDT

    While a beautiful concept, it is also blatant plagiarism of Justus von Liebig's analogy for the Law of the Minimum. You have to know that most educated folks would recognise this, and at least give credit to the source.

  2. I personally was wholly unaware of this, and I'd be willing to bet Jenova Chen was as well. I just googled Law of the Minimum, and indeed, Chen's Wooden Barrel concept is quite similar. However, this does not mean that he stole the idea. People frequently arrive upon similar concepts without any knowledge of one another. This is stated in Darwin's parallel evolution theory.