Breaking The Wheel

A photo of John Boyd, author of Destruction and Creation

Destruction and Creation: John Boyd’s Analysis and Synthesis Loop

Here’s a question for you: is dog-fighting (the airplane variety, not the literal kind) an art or a science? It’s obviously an art, right? Two pilots, and a wide-open sky – the possibilities for maneuvers and counters are positively endless. Endless, that is, except for this funny thing called “physics”. Far from being limitless, a pilot’s options are severely restricted by his altitude, speed, weapon load, and aerodynamic characteristics. The man the world has to thank for codifying this realization is one of the history’s great iconoclasts: United States Air Force pilot John Boyd. But Boyd’s gifts to the universe were not limited to the military, and one of his last major labors before he died was a paper and presentation he called “Analysis and Synthesis” or, alternatively, “Destruction and Creation.”


By Reading This Post, You Will Learn:

  • About John Boyd and his contributions to strategic thinking
  • What Boyd’s Destruction and Creation (or Analysis and Synthesis) loop is
  • Why analysis is only half the battle
  • Why synthesis is just as important
  • How to apply the Destruction and Creation loop to game development

Forty Second Boyd

Boyd is a figure who only recently crossed my path, but has had a massive impact on my thinking none-the-less.

If you had asked the pilots the Greatest Generation, they likely would have said that it was an most definitely an art. The most skilled pilot would always win the fight. That was how pilots perceived, and taught, dog-fighting. It was nest of anecdotes and idiosyncratic beliefs, and you either had that killer instinct to win or you didn’t. Pilots weren’t trained, they were born. Then, along came John Boyd. Boyd was a legendary pilot, who earned the nickname “Forty Second Boyd” for his ability to best any other pilot in simulated dog-fights in 40 seconds or less.

His gift was not due to superior instinct but instead to superior understanding: Boyd simply understood the physical abilities and limitations of his plane better than his opponents. And, over two landmark papers, the prosaically named Aerial Attack Study and his research into what he called “energy maneuverability theory”1, Boyd demonstrated conclusively that, far from being a mysterious and entirely open-ended art form, dog-fighting was very much a science.

Boyd’s Legacy

How persuasive were his findings? Boyd could compare any two planes, for instance an American fighter jet and a Soviet MiG (it being the cold war and all), and predict, based on aerodynamic characteristics, weight, speed, and altitude, in what scenarios the American plane would come out on top and in which the Soviet plane would win. His research was so compelling (and Boyd so forceful in promoting it) that the pentagon used it to design both the F-15 and F-16 jets.

Further, his briefs on strategy were so compelling that he is a legend in the United States Marine Corp, which is unheard of for a an member of the Air Force.

If you’re a regular reading of Breaking the Wheel, you might recognize why I am so smitten with John Boyd2. Here’s a guy who took something long considered to be a black art where only the strong and cunning survive and proceeded to find the order underlying the chaos. A man after my own heart.

Analysis and Synthesis: Destruction and Creation

Boyd had a legendary temper, and one very easy way to piss him off was to call him an “analyst.” In Boyd’s opinion, that was akin to calling him a halfwit.

Analysis is the act of breaking down some topic, subject, event, or phenomenon, into its constituent parts, in order to understand them. Fair enough. But, in Boyd’s opinion, analysis was only half the battle. What good is understanding some aspect of a situation? How useful is it to know that Netflix provides unlimited time-off when designing employee compensation plans? Or that cover-based shooting was a core design element of Gears of War? That information isn’t just useless in and of itself, it’s dangerous.

Less than the Sum of Its Parts

If you just blindly say “Netflix is a successful company, and they have unlimited time-off. We should have unlimited time off too! We’ll attracted much stronger candidates!” you may be sewing the seeds of your own destruction. Unlimited time-off works for Netflix because it suits that company’s culture and operating model. That doesn’t mean such a program would work for you. In fact, it might be such a disastrous misfit that it causes your own company’s culture to self-destruct, either because people take too much time off or (and I’ve seen this happen) none.

It also does zero good to feckless tack a successful mechanic from one game into yours. For reference, see: Dead Space 3‘s micro-transactions, Sim City‘s multiplayer mode, and pretty much everything in Resident Evil 6. The results speak for themselves.

In short, breaking something into its constituent parts, destroying the concept of the thing in order to analyze it, is a necessary but not sufficient activity. What it necessary then, beyond analysis, is synthesis. Synthesis is were the hard work of creation comes into play. You need to take the idea or ideas that came from analysis and think about how they work together…or don’t.

The CliffsNotes Version

Destruction and Creation is available, in its entirety, from multiple websites. Here for instance. But gird your loins: it is not an easy read. Boyd, for all his Herculean might as a thinker and autodidact, did not have a compromising bone in his body. And that lack of compromise is apparent in his writing. The man did not meet the reader halfway. The brief is borderline impenetrable. But here’s the elevator pitch version. Analysis (or destruction) is the process of breaking things down and understanding the constituant parts. Synthesis (or creation) is the act of culling concepts from those constituant parts and compiling them into something new.

But even that isn’t the full story. Once you’ve synthesized a new concept, you need to break that new idea apart and re-analyze the constituant elements. Why? To ensure they are internally consistent with one another and to see if any of those concepts mutated during the act of synthesis. And if the ideas are inconsistent with each other or if one or more of them changed, understand why. Then re-synthesize. And re-analyze. Over and over until analysis yields no further inconsistencies and synthesis induces no further changes.

Destruction and creation, in Boyd’s view, wasn’t a one-and-done action. It was a cycle. A process.

Examples help.


Resources That Informed And Influenced This Post

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Example #1: Design

You have a game idea: you want to make a horror-based action game. And you start thinking through (read: analyzing) mechanics that you enjoyed in games you have player recently. You loved Borderland‘s stylized graphics. You also enjoyed the profound and existential dread felt by the characters in The Last of Us. And you loved how Dark Souls‘ multiplayer injected some unpredictability into the game’s campaign. And you’ve always been a fan of God of War‘s combat.

Awesome! You have a basic design concept.

But before you start sketching out storyboards, let’s synthesize these ideas for a moment. Let’s imagine a game that has all these elements. And now, let’s analyze THAT game. You may find that this round of analysis yields some problems – some logical inconsistencies.

Synthesizing the Analysis, and Analyzing the Synthesis

First off, you have a potential mis-match between your art style and your narrative style: an over-top, loud and proud aesthetic very well may distract and detract from an otherwise gravitas-laden narrative. Likewise, how well will you be able to relate to a character if her or she can also do double-jumps and shrug-off bone-breaking hits?

Further, if you employ a Dark Souls-esque multiplayer system – one where players can invade each other’s games on a whim – the pacing of storytelling in your game will impossible to predict. You would also have to deal with a regular mess of edge cases (what happens if another player invades in mintue 3 of this cutscene, versus minute 7?). Rather than a super-elaborate, firmly crafted narrative experience, you will need to atomize the story content into small chunks that play a specific moments. In other words, synthesizing your original target mechanics into a new game idea induced change on your narrative structure.

So, you take the results of your analysis, re-think the component ideas, and re-sythesize. And then repeat, repeat, repeat, until further rounds of analysis and synthesis reveal no new information about and induce no further change to your design.

Example #2: Marketing

In the Video Game Marketing series, I mentioned that, far from being a linear series of events, marketing is an elaborate soup of interrelated decisions and strategies called the “marketing mix”. The kind of games you make, the platforms you use, your target audience, your positioning, and your ads all interrelate and influence each other. A change in one portion of the mix can have cascading effects to the others.

In other words, marketing is destruction and creation writ large.

The Analysis and Synthesis Loop for Marketing

Lets say you want to build a multiplayer-focused strategy game, your prefered console is the PS4, you want to target casual players, and you want to position the game as “it’s like Minecraft, but…”. Each of those individual bits of analysis makes sense in and of itself. But, when you synthesize them together, the resulting construct will not avail much internal consistency. Strategy games aren’t a great fit for consoles. Casual gamers don’t tend to be big on multiplayer. Minecraft is certainly a gold-standard game, but positioning your game within that frame of reference probably doesn’t adequately convey the value of a multiplayer strategy game.

So you tweak the marketing mix. Instead of a positioning strategy based on Minecraft, you pivot to using the MOBA-genre as your frame-of-reference. Now the positioning and product are better aligned, but your product still isn’t a great fit for your target platform, and MOBA’s aren’t a frame-of-reference that’s well known to console players. You also realize that using a MOBA frame of reference caused your basic design concept to mutate from a typical RTS to a faster-paced form of strategy game.

This is Boyd’s destruction and creation loop to a T. Synthesizing a collection of connected ideas and analyzing if they work together – observing changes that the synthesis has induced or logical inconsistencies. Then adjusting as necessary, re-synthesizing, and repeating until additional analysis and synthesis reveal no logical inconsistencies and no induced changes in the component ideas.


Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

Strategic Design: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Game Development

Game Marketing Strategy: Mapping Out Your Path to Success

Market Positioning: The Art of Fighting Without Fighting


Summary

The opportunities to apply the destruction and creation framework abound. Business models, production models, art direction, music composition. Any activity that involves culling ideas from disparate sources is an appropriate place to run though an analysis and synthesis loop.

Will it solve all of your problems for you? Of course not. You’ll need to actually build the things you conceptualize. But the framework will help you think through the base logic of what you’re doing, and whether that logic is sound and internally consistent.


Key Takeaways

John Boyd was a fighter pilot and senior officer in air force who had a significant influence on aerial combat, military strategy, and strategic thinking

  • Among his most prominent contributions were energy-maneauverability theory, the OODA loop and his brief entitled Destruction and Creation
  • Analysis is a necessary but not sufficient activity; taking the results of that analysis and synthesizing the into a new concept is just as crucial
  • Without synthesis, analysis is just information; without analysis, there will be nothing to synthesize
  • You should perform analysis and synthesis repeatedly as a loop until further repetitions yield no additional insight

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  1. Boyd had other major contribution to the study of strategy as well. One of the most famous is the “OODA Loop” (Observe, Orient, Decide Act), which established that the winner of any contest was not the fastest person or team, but the one that would could most rapidly adapt and respond to change. He also was one of the leading thinkers behind the concept of “Fourth Generation Warfare”, the notion that modern conflict will not be between rank and file armies but small teams acting independently, yet in concert, towards a shared strategy.
  2. I should clarfiy that my fondness is for Boyd the thinker, not Boyd the human. We are all flawed creatures, but Boyd was as much of an overachiever in that cataegory as he was in dog-fighting and strategic philosophy. He had a close cadre of friends (nicknamed “Boyd’s Alcolytes”). But, outside of that, let’s just say you’d probably never actually want to meet him. Or work with him. Or be related to him.
Creative Commons License
“Destruction and Creation: John Boyd’s Analysis and Synthesis Loop” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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