Never before have so many had to wait for so little. We don't have to wait for telegrams or letters any more. We don't have to wait for tomorrow's newspaper - we just have to check our answerphone messages. A handful of nimble companies have even ensured that we don't have to wait for somebody to come back from a trip to Blockbuster or Borders (too soon?) if we want to watch terrible films and read wretched books.
Waiting for games, then - waiting for developers to down their tools and ship something - is one of the last hold-outs for people who like to twiddle their thumbs and just look forward to stuff. It feels virtuous. You get to stare at the screenshots a bit longer, and the developers get to 'move in close on the final pass', a phrase I've no doubt chucked into previews before, and which only serves to reveal how little I truly understand about the business of actually building games. No matter. Waiting's good for you. It's good for games.
And yet I'm not sure it's good for all games. Let me put it another way: there's been a trend recently where game designers have chosen to embrace really speedy development cycles, and I think I love it.
I'm not saying I reckon it would be nice if everybody did this. Take Uncharted, for instance, which is a prime example of the rewards you can reap when you take an elegant genre piece and send it off to the local French polishers for three years. I don't want to rouse Nathan Drake too early, to have him stumble into combat with his laces undone, his shirt not even half-tucked. I don't want BioShock Infinite to ship before Columbia's been finished, or a StarCraft in which nobody had time to focus in on the really good units. And yet some of my favourite games of the last few months have been made in less than 48 hours. That's a shorter period of time than it took me to work out how to get audio files off my dictaphone without deleting them.
A lot of this is because, over the past year or so, Ludum Dare has become my favourite website. I would like to say it's my favourite platform, really, because it's starting to feel like one. It's where I go in between doing things I should actually be doing, such as not accidentally deleting audio files, in order to peruse a wealth of curious gaming oddities. There's almost no end to it. It's like having a salt mine in your back garden except that it's not, if I'm being totally honest, particularly salty.
The games are the fruits of Ludum Dare's accelerated development events, each one providing designers with a theme and a 48 hour timeframe in which to construct an entire working prototype. It's a gamejam set-up that's becoming increasingly popular around the world, and it works so well, I suspect, because both that theme and that time-limit give creative people just enough structure to show you why they're creative people. They have to choose an idea quickly, build mechanics around it, and then get the whole thing to work. There's no time to wobble over decisions, no time to get lost in the niceties of art and audio, and no time - this is the big one - to layer on additional features. They're forced to be brutal with all those clever ideas that might improve things, but could just as easily destroy the game's overall focus. It's a chance for engineers and artists to just sketch something in quick strokes - with all the energy that that suggests.
The joys of Ludum Dare - just as the joys of The Experimental Gameplay Project, or dozens of other such communities and competitions - comes with rooting through the end-results yourself and finding the hidden treasure. What I would say, though, as a little direction, is that Ludlum Dare's recent theme "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!" had some particularly excellent entries, and any time you find something by Canabalt's tireless creator Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, or Steven Burgess, the LostWinds designer who's recently gone indie, or Droqen, a Canadian who turns out games that I love to play but don't like to think about while I'm eating, you're in for something special.
In truth, though, plenty of these games are special. They're built around a handful of striking mechanics, with art that often prioritises basic readability over anything else - which, ironically, almost always leads to an uncommonly strong graphical approach - and they don't outstay their welcome with too many unwanted levels or half-finished side modes. Playing them can even make an idiot like me appreciate the mysteries of design a little more, as they're not just games, but weird playable indicators of what's important in a game: guides to which feature is worth spending time iterating on, which elements will benefit the most from a little audio or a little colour, which mechanic needs explanatory text and which can be left to speak for itself.
It's a bit like being a burglar, I imagine. If you know you have all weekend to clear out somebody's mansion, you're going to end up taking all kinds of useless crap with you. If you only have an hour to bust into a penthouse, though, before the guards wake up, the gatling-gun robots come back online, and Mr and Mrs Whoever return from a fabulous night at the ENO, you're going to go straight for the jewels. Your approach will be pre-programmed to focus only on the really glittery prizes.
This gamejam stuff, this burgeoning rapid-prototyping movement, is starting to work its way into some surprising places in the wider design community, too. The Experimental Gameplay Project has contributors responsible for both World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth, while Jason Kapalka of Popcap, a company that in its own breezy way can compete with the likes of Valve and Blizzard when it comes to, you know, just hanging onto things, has admitted that Bejeweled Twist had an extra year of development in which nothing of too much value was added to it.
Elsewhere, Double Fine recently saved itself from doom in the boxed retail market by hacking out game concepts over intensive two week sessions known as Amnesiac Fortnights and then turning them into download titles, and at this week's Develop Conference, I learnt that Crytek UK put rapid prototyping at the centre of its work on Crysis 2's multiplayer content. Its designers churned out more than 65 different white box levels, each taking around 8 hours to construct, and then iterated from there. It suggests a really promising path for accelerated development, bringing tart moments of focused creativity to even the really large-scale productions, when and where they're needed the most.
If more time can give games polish, then, less time can leave them with a weird kind of clarity. Duke Nukem Forever, after all, took over a decade to complete, and what you got from that was a shooter that had been asphyxiated - and not in a sexy way, Duke - by design excess.
Most importantly, rapid prototypes and gamejams are great for players as well as designers. Ultimately, I don't really care if I'm getting my money's worth if a game's been lost amidst feature creep. I just want something dazzling to stir my calcified brain, and something truly unexpected to talk about afterwards.