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LESSON #30:
IF YOU HAVE TO ASK

August, 2003

NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.




IF YOU HAVE TO ASK

A lot of people come to me, or post on forums that I frequent, seeking game career advice or answers to specific questions.

And sometimes, I look at a question and sigh. It's clear to me, just by the nature of the question, that the asker faces many obstacles on the road to success - and that those obstacles may be self-imposed.

Financier J.P. Morgan was asked by a reporter how much Morgan's yacht cost to operate. "If you have to ask, you can't afford it," was Morgan's reply. The point is that there are questions that tell a lot about the asker just because the questions were asked.

Let's take a look at a few specific examples.


"Will creating mods make me more attractive to potential employers? Will it give me an edge over other applicants?"

This question shows that the asker would prefer not to spend the time creating a mod, if he doesn't really have to. If he can find a way to skate easily into a game job without going to all that work, then that's fine, to his way of thinking. See why this is a problem? Game companies want to hire driven, motivated, passionate self-starters. A person who is driven to make a mod, then maybe a second one to do it better after having learned from the first one, then can't stop himself from starting up some other intense project, is exactly the kind of person the game companies are looking for. Game companies aren't clamoring to hire the kind of person who asks whether he should be making mods or not. So just going by his question, the asker of question A is doomed to fail from the start.


"I want to try making a mod, but there are so many different mod tools out there. Which one is easiest to use and has the most features?"

This question shows that the asker (1) is lazy and (2) doesn't understand that ease of use and having more features are mutually incompatible.

1. Okay, the asker of question B might be less lazy than the asker of question A. But he still isn't the driven worldbeater that the game companies are looking for. Asking people which mod tool to use ignores the fact that different strokes work for different folks. What somebody else recommends might well not be the best choice for you. Last year I wanted to find a program that would let me create simple 3D graphics. I went online and downloaded demos and tried stuff. I went to the computer fair and found some cheap programs that weren't available as downloads. Eventually I found something that worked fairly well for my needs.

The point is, if someone wants to try making a mod, he should just grab the first thing that's handy and try it. Going around asking people is a timewasting activity, perhaps unconsciously intended to procrastinate doing any actual work.

Just go for it! That's what I mean when I say "follow your passions." You should TRY to DO stuff. An awful lot of people just TALK about doing stuff and never actually DO it - and those people have a hard time getting anywhere in the game industry and blame some big conspiracy or something when it was just their own lazy fault! So GO FOR IT, I say!

2. A game designer knows that adding features always means adding complexity. The mod toolset that's easiest to use probably has limited functionality. The mod toolset that has the most functionality is most likely challenging to learn and use.


"I want to make a career in developing games. Should I study programming, or should I study animation? I'm not very good at math, unfortunately, and I'm not very artistic. Maybe I should break in through Q.A.?"

This question shows that the asker (1) is clueless about other jobs besides programming, graphics, and testing, and (2) probably doesn't want to go to college, seeking an easy route to success.

The asker of question C should educate himself (not by asking people questions, but by doing real research) on careers in games. And if he can go to college, he most definitely should.


Here's a variant on this same question:

.i. "i want a career in gamez but i suck at programing and got no art talent so i had a brillient idea - i shuold be the guy who has the ideas and tells the programers and artists what to make so tell me how 2 get that job"

The way this question is written, it's clear that the asker (1) is not living on planet Earth but rather on Cloud Nine, (2) doesn't understand that chat room writing has no place in the business world (or he may just be borderline illiterate), and (3) may be unable to ever find ANY kind of job. But for a moment, let's imagine that instead the question is written this way:

.ii. "Since I have no skill at programming or art, it occurred to me that another avenue where I might have a chance is design. I could be the person who conceives the games for the others to execute. College is out of the question for me, for reasons I won't go into here, so could somebody advise me on the quickest way to attain that position?"

He's worded the question much more intelligently, but he's still got a problem.

Just by asking this question, it's evident that the asker of question D (whether written well or poorly) is seeking an easy quick way to the top. He can try going the Q.A. route, but it's going to take longer and be more difficult that way in the long run. The path that looks the easiest at the outset doesn't necessarily stay that way for its entire length.


"Please take a look at my online portfolio and tell me, is it good enough to get me a job in games?"

You can tell from this question that the asker (1) is insecure about his work, possibly harboring feelings of inferiority, and (2) is lazy.

Regarding point one, someone whose work is truly excellent probably doesn't have to go around getting opinions on it from strangers. But you're probably asking why I said he's lazy. Consider. It's always important to understand why a question is asked. What will the asker do with the information if the answer goes one way, and what will the asker do with the information if the answer goes the other way? If his portfolio isn't good enough to net him a job, then he'll have to continue honing his craft. But if it's judged already good enough to net him a job, then he won't have to put any more work into it... right? Just as with question A above, the asker should be driven to continue creating more artworks, simply because he's passionate.

Whether you're an aspiring programmer, designer, artist, tester, or whatever...

You should already be doing stuff that would increase your employment appeal, just because you have a passion for doing it, you can't stop doing it, and your friends are a little worried about you because you do it constantly. People who are like that are exactly the sort of employees the game industry is looking for. If you have to ask questions like, "do I really have to do all that stuff" or "have I done enough of that kind of stuff," then you're doomed to fail.


"I want to get a career in games. What subject should I major in, and what degree should I get?"

[Sigh.] I get asked this a lot. The problem with this question is that the asker is seeking a one-size-fits-all solution. How about this... There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. We are all different. YOU are different. You should get shoes that fit YOUR feet.

A couple weeks after writing this article, I got another question like this one. A wannabe wrote on my game design bulletin board that he wanted to become a game designer, and wanted to know, "Is it best to start by designing an RPG, a First Person Shooter, or a Board Game?" I was flabbergasted that anybody would respond to the edict, "Follow your passions," by asking "What should my passions be?"


OTHER TYPES OF PROBLEM QUESTIONS

I wrote in Lesson 3 about how to ask a good question. (I'll try not to rehash that here.) But I've come to see that there are many more dimensions to questions than that. But before I get into those other dimensions, a little rehashing first.

When I wrote about "good questions," it should be self-evident that there must therefore (by implication) be such things as... bad questions. In spite of what you may have heard. I recently had a guy on the IGDA "Breaking In" forum who called me on the carpet for my having chided a poster's bad question. This guy railed, "Good teachers know that there is no such thing as a bad question." I suppose this guy on the IGDA forum really believed there is no such thing as a bad question. And clearly he was intent on insulting me (implying that I'm a bad teacher). Probably because he had asked a bad question before, and I hadn't let him get away with it. No good deed goes unpunished, they say. Point is, there most certainly is such a thing as a bad question. But beyond questions that are... well... bad, there are questions that are illuminating, questions that are obfuscating, questions that lead you down the primrose path.


SEMANTICS

It often happens that semantics (the choice of words used) can negatively impact an asker's chances of getting the information he seeks. When I question an asker's choice of words, I'm not doing it to be thick. I'm trying to understand the narrow focus of the question so I can aim for the bull's eye.

A lot of times somebody will ask me a question about "game design," and it seems from the wording of the question that the asker isn't using the same definition of "game design" that I am. When that happens, I define my terms and/or ask the asker to define his terms before I can answer.


THE PRIMROSE PATH

I've become very much aware of the disconnect between the question being asked, and what the asker is really wanting to hear. In effect, the asker (by the nature of the questions he asks) often leads himself down a path that leads him to a place other than the place he's trying to get.

I recently had a person on my mah-jongg bulletin board ask me if a Hong Kong company that made a mah-jongg set was still in business. The quick answer would be "yes" or "no" - IF I happened to be in possession of that information (otherwise the quick answer would be "I don't know," and that'd be the end of the discussion entirely)! Along with the question, the asker mentioned that the set "seemed to be" made of ivory and bamboo, which told me that the set in question was probably very old (70 or 80 years old). And the very fact that the asker asked if the company was still in business made me wonder why s/he asked. The only reason I could think of was that the asker wanted to get replacement tiles - and that would have been so much simpler a question to have asked in the first place.

"Do you know where I can get replacement tiles?" is a MUCH simpler question than "do you know if a Hong Kong company is still in business after 80 years?" I mean, I have an FAQ about how to get replacement tiles! Heck, I probably have those replacement tiles myself, that would fix the asker's mah-jongg set just fine! We could have spent weeks on an information hunt about that company, calling in favors from acquaintances and ex-in-laws in Hong Kong, just to find out if that company is still in business. But if the guy had just asked me for tiles, he could have had them already!

A lot of times these primrose path questions are asked because of assumptions on the part of the asker. Perhaps the mah-jongg asker assumed that tiles that matched perfectly would be impossible to find, unless the tiles were made by the same manufacturer. If that's what the asker assumed, he assumed wrong.

Never assume anything! Ask what it is that you want to find out.

I had another primrose path question, two weeks after writing Lesson 30. A guy on the IGDA forum posted, asking which indy game competitions were most prestigious to win. The question kind of irked me because the asker sounded snooty - like he was interested in entering only "the best" competitions. My reply was that ANY competition his indy game could win would make his resume look really good. He wrote back saying he'd only wanted to know what competitions there were, and how to get in touch with them to enter his game! Well, if that had been what he'd asked in the first place, he'd've gotten an entirely different answer from me!
I used to feel constrained by the question (believing that the answer that had to be given was the answer to the question, precisely as it was asked) - lately I've gotten better at seeing through the wording of the question to get at the real question. But sometimes I'm still fooled... especially by primrose path questions like this.


Other times these primrose path questions are asked because the asker doesn't know what to ask.

A year or two ago I had a game biz wannabe who called me on the phone. I was patient with him for a few minutes while he enthused at me, but when he started asking stuff, I told him to read these Lessons. He sounded disappointed, but got off the phone. Then he showed up a while later on my bulletin board, asking stuff that didn't make sense. I don't remember what he asked offhand, but the questions came out of left field somewhere. I had to ask him to narrow his questions for me, paint me a target I could shoot at. Well, that seemed to just irk him. He phoned me again. He insisted that the way for him to get his information was by talking on the phone (the stuff he wanted to know wasn't in my lessons, and he couldn't get straight answers from me on the bulletin board). And you know what? He couldn't ask me good questions on the phone either!

It's okay if you don't know what to ask. Just be up front about it. "I know so little about this area that I don't even know what questions to ask. What I want to find out is [X]. So forgive me if the following questions are off the mark." Then ask your questions. It's okay. Now that the readers of your question know where you're coming from and where you're trying to get to, they can field your questions.

Oh. And don't phone me. Use the bulletin board.


THE HIDDEN AGENDA

Sometimes someone who asks a question isn't really looking for an answer - he just wants to make an issue of the question. On the game development newsgroups, there are regulars who love nothing more than to shine a spotlight on the flaws of the industry. These guys are usually lone wolf types - guys who are outside the mainstream (often because their personalities and lack of professionalism prevent their ever getting or keeping a real game biz job). They delight in questions that show how "unfair" the game biz (IOW, the world) is. The main purpose of their questions, then, is to bolster their own approach to making games. They've already been slapped down for wasting their time decrying the way things are, but they'd be happier than anything to get other folks to scream their complaints for them.

And there's a guy like this in the mah-jongg world, too. His agenda is to get everybody to buy into his trademarked rule set, so the way he sneakily tries to increase buy-in is by asking questions that highlight flaws in other rule sets that compete with his.

There's a wonderful line from The Simpsons. I think it's the episode "Bart the Genius," in which Bart has been erroneously assigned to a class for bright kids. The teacher tells Bart something and Bart complains that it shouldn't be that way. She responds, "Sounds like somebody has a case of the shoulda's!" A lot of people who have "a case of the shoulda's" like to ask hidden-agenda questions - their ultimate goal isn't to get answers, but to change something about the world that they don't like.

Another example of the Hidden Agenda question. Somebody posted on rec.games.computer.puzzle asking for strategy tips for a very simple tile-matching game on a website that had advergames promoting Chevron gasoline (utilizing those claymation cars they use in their TV commercials). I responded with info about where to get strategy tips for tile-matching games (on my website, of course). And then 4 or 5 days later I saw on rec.games.misc a two-post thread about online games for kids. The poster had asked where to find wholesome and educational games for kids online - the responder (whose email name included the word "teacher" in it) said to check out the Chevron advergames.

This sparked my curiosity and suspicion. It was unusually coincidental to see multiple posts about the same advergame site in such a short time period. I looked at the headers on all three of the posts - and it turned out that all of them had originated from the same university, and in fact the two newest ones had originated from the same computer!

The person who was looking for strategy tips wasn't really looking for strategy tips. She (if she was a she) was just promoting the advergame, using "stealth marketing." And the person looking for games for kids was doing the exact same thing. I guess this was a case of "primrose path question meets hidden agenda question."

So sometimes a question doesn't even deserve an answer at all!

More about "How To Ask Smart Questions" - http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html.


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© 2003 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.