Knowing when to scrap it

Scrap cars leftFire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers goes on sale today on the PlayStation Network, and if you’re so equipped I suggest you have a look at it. I’ve been following the progress of this game since I first met Fire Hose founder Eitan Glinert at the inaugural Boston GameLoop in 2008, and it involves one of the most amazing development stories I’ve been privileged to personally watch unfold.

At the start of 2010, the nascent Scrappers was a side-scrolling action-adventure about superheroic construction workers, flying around and patching up bursting dams. I watched the developers demonstrate it at a local monthly game-developer gathering, and found it rather impressive. For the Fire Hose crew, though, it wasn’t quite gelling as a compelling play experience.

A few weeks later, I visited Eitan at a game-marathon-for-charity event that GAMBIT was hosting. He gratefully took a break from his nonstop playthrough of the first Final Fantasy to show me Scrappers’ current version. It barely resembled what I’d seen before: gone was the scrolling cityscape of crumbling dams and waterspouts, replaced with something that at first glance looked like a Tetris-based minigame.

Eitan explained to me that, while kicking around ideas for gameplay variants, the Fire Hose team hit on the seed of a uniquely chaotic multiplayer falling-block battle. They immediately saw that this model held an entire, sellable game all by itself, and that game was fun. And so, they decided to clear the table of the old design — with god knows how much time and resources poured into it — to focus on developing this idea instead.

As much a fan as I am of the Brooksian principle of “plan to throw one away”, and of being a harsh self-editor unafraid to throw one’s own priceless output into the fire for the sake of the greater work… at that moment I kind of thought that Eitan was off his rocker. Such a drastic shift seemed like a desperate move to me.

And one year later, I found that sidling past Fire Hose’s booth at PAX East was a challenge, so clogged were the surrounding corridors with folks gawping at the game, and waiting for their turn to play it. (And nobody could mistake it for Tetris anymore, either.) Time will tell, but by all appearances, the Playstation-owning community has been impatient for a while for the chance to finally give Fire Hose their money.

Despite the conceptual distance the block-battle idea had from the game’s original concept, and heedless of all the work put into the old model, Fire Hose shed few tears about stuffing it into the wood chipper and running with the better one. Because it was better, and they had the game-development chops to recognize this, as well as the courage and flexibility to do the right long-term thing for themselves, despite the pain.

I keep this story on one end of a mental continuum I use to help judge when it’s time to throw out what you’ve made and start fresh. (Joel Spolsky stands at the other end, wagging his finger.) My friends in the Boston game-development community like to grimly recommend “killing your babies”, but it’s not about destroying what you love for its own sake. It’s about simply allowing your eyes to open to the fact that what you thought was the final masterpiece was actually the rough draft. Celebrate that, and savor what that implies about how brilliant the actual work will be. And then light the match.

[Image credit:, CC BY-NC-ND.]

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2 Responses to Knowing when to scrap it

  1. Joe J. says:

    This is really what separates successfully software enterprises from teh Fails.

    I believe Twitter has a similar story, as did and many, many others.

    In my own projects, I can sometimes see/smell/tastes the suck, but it isn't always clear how to fix it.

    Anyway, good article.

  2. Jim Buck says:

    Did they throw out the *code* or the *design*? That's a world of difference. I'm sure they reused a ton of code. (I refer to your final paragraph.)

    Yeah, it looks great now and wonder how well it's doing today on Day One. Kudos to those guys for sure.

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