What if we don't succeed?

This is the second article in the Back to the Future theme week series.

One of the most useful advice that has proved its worth to me again and again, both in creative work and in business life, is "fail early, fail often." It might sound counterintuitive, but it simply means "have a lot of ideas, discard the bad ones before you've spent too much time on them." The word "failure" is used here in the most positive connotation it can have.

Not all ideas are equal. In the best case scenario you get an idea, realize immediately that it's not viable, and discard it. Even though the idea was a failure it was useful because you can now focus on better ideas. If you have 100 ideas it's best to shift through them quickly instead of finding the hard way which of them is the gold nugget.

Even if a project is based on a good idea, the details will need constant revisiting.

Doc Brown pointing at a sign in a miniature model that says "Point of no return"

Don't let a bad idea get past the point of no return.

The creators of Back to the Future had always envisioned Michael J. Fox to play the protagonist, Marty McFly. When the filming started Fox was unavailable because he was starring in a popular sitcom Family Ties. Eric Stoltz, an up-and-coming young actor, was cast instead.

A billboard crediting Stoltz as the star of Back to the Future

In an alternate timeline, Stoltz was the star of the film. (Screen capture from Fringe.)

In late 1984, after a few weeks of filming, it became clear that Stoltz wasn't right for the part. He was by all accounts a good actor but he just didn't have the personality or the comedic sense that the part required.

At this point they had basically three choices. Keep filming with Stoltz, risking an inferior end result; change the lead to someone else; or try again to get Michael J. Fox on board. Thankfully they went with the third option and managed to strike a deal with Fox and the producers of Family Ties. Fox joined the cast, Stoltz had to go, and the movie was better for it.

Changing the lead actor was a dramatic decision and it was made right before the point of no return. Recognizing the failure earlier would have saved them a lot of money and wasted effort.

Two pictures from the same scene where Marty McFly looks at his young father in the past, the first one with Eric Stolz and the second with Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly

Above: Eric Stoltz as the original Marty McFly.
Below: Michael J. Fox in the final film.

Other famous but less dramatic "failures" were the first drafts of the script where the time machine was built from a refrigerator instead of the iconic DeLorean, and the original ending in later scripts which involved getting the 1.21 gigawatts of energy to power the time machine by driving it into a nuclear explosion test.

A storyboard frame showing a nuclear test tower

A frame from an early version of the Back to the Future storyboard

The moral of the story is that it's best to fail as early as possible. It opens up a possibility for choosing something better.

The important thing to acknowledge is that you can't plan for success when you're doing experimental or creative work. Failure is always an option. The only time you can plan for success is when you're doing something that's already done and tested before, like assembling Ikea furniture or designing a game by cloning an existing one. When you're creating something new, no-one can tell if it's really going to work or not before you can see it in action.

It's also important to not take the principle too far. Some ideas need time to grow to their full potential, so discarding them would be a mistake. Balancing between being bold enough to discard probably bad ideas and holding on to potentially good ideas is the hard part.

Identifying failure points

Coming back to game design, failing early means identifying potential failure points, testing them, and making correcting moves or even discarding the project if needed.

Pretty much every aspect of game design is a potential failure point. To name just a few:

  • Game mechanics
  • Plot and story structure
  • Characters and character relations
  • Setting
  • Geography
  • User interface

The key is to think what will be this game's innovation. Tried and tested details probably won't be a problem, it's the things that are going for something new that are most likely to require repeated iterations.

Once a potential failure point is identified, the best way to find actual problems is prototyping. Make a small example that shows the thing in action; implement the game's core mechanism, at least partly; start writing from the climax of the story instead of from the beginning; write the key interaction between main characters first. Once you have something concrete, no matter how small, you can more easily get a sense of whether it will work or not.

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