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I think creativity  can be thought in terms of improv, you know like improv theater.  All of the  improv comedy sketches I’ve seen start with the moderator saying something like “we need a volunteer from the audience, a score from a popular movie and a ball from a popular sport.”  This invitation is offered to the audience and pretty soon there is a nice young man standing on stage with the actors, we have the score from Jaws and a football …. and then the actors go to town.  The volunteer from the audience, the movie music, and the football function as a delineated space with which the actors are obliged improvise within.  In the case of improv theater the purpose of the entire exercise is to make us laugh and to entertain,  however I think this method or process is an essential and vital part of all creative endeavors.  The trick is to figure out what your constraints are, what your creative corral is.  In the case of our improv troupe, the comedic talent and the skills of the actors is required for a successful performance, however without the presence of a creative corral the actors skills would be bereft of context and therefore any performance attempted would have no meaning.  The visual artist must also figure out what her creative corral is.  Color, composition, media, theme, audience, tools, visual influences, mood, skill and talent all serve to define a creative space with which the visual artist is obliged to work within in order to create new art.  While the actors at the improv theater have their creative parameters defined by the audience, the visual artist, to a large extent, has to figure this our on her own.  This concept of a defined creative space can also be applied to games.  At a very fundamental level, a game is also a place where people can express their creativity.  But in order to make the play/creative experience meaningful a creative space must first be constructed.  For games this creative space is typically defined by but not always limited to rules, mechanics, game board, play field, number of players etc.  Again without these sorts of defining constraints the players have no place to play and their ambitions for creativity are left unfulfilled.  So creativity is an improvisational act performed within established parameters, and to a large extent the success of any creative endeavor is determined by how well a creator fashions her creative corral.

When I was a kid I purchased a Revell model kit of an AH 64 Apache attack helicopter.  With great excitement I brought the kit home, sat at my desk and un-boxed my new project.  As I opened the box it dawned on me the scale of the task I had given myself as a removed what seemed like endless little plastic components, each suspended by its own little plastic bracket framed in a larger matrix of other parts.  It seemed to my kid brain that there were thousands and thousands of these pieces.  Of course there were only a few hundred, but a few hundred nonetheless.  To my relief as I rummaged through the contents of the box I found a set of carefully rendered instructions that showed detailed drawings of each numbered piece, explaining in very explicit detail which pieces fit with other pieces and the proper order in which the various parts needed to be assembled.  Armed with my trusty E-XACTO knife, a tube of model cement and the instructions, I managed, over the course of a few summer days, to assemble a very accurate scale model of the AH64.

1230_2_rev4046_4 17862_3_a74cd1 Revell 85-5443 Apache

 

 

It never once occurred to me that I should discard the instructions found in the box and attempt to build the model without them, using my intuition as my only guide to assembling all those little plastic pieces.  In fact if somebody had suggested this to me I would have taken them for a lunatic.  It was hard enough to put the darn thing together with the aid of the instructions, but to attempt it without them would be a fool’s errand…. I still maintain this opinion.

As a grown up I don’t have much occasion any more to assemble model kits, although I think it would be super fun.  I have however had occasion to participate in assembling something that is far more complicated and with orders of magnitude more working parts than any plastic model kit, namely video game entertainment software.  Even though there were tens of thousands of functional components to the games I worked on, many of those who were responsible for the successful completion of our game chose to forego creating and following a thoroughgoing instruction manual that might aid us in our production efforts. Its not too difficult to predict what would have happened if I had ignored the directions when assembling my model helicopter, the results would be, well, sub optimal, thus were the outcomes of  many of the ill or no planned video game projects I’ve worked on.

As a young game artist in the early 2000’s I had never heard of waterfall, or agile or scrum, but I think if I had to characterize the way many of the projects I worked on were structured, I would have to say that they most closely resembled the agile model.  We had our meetings and our daily task lists and all that.  We also worked looong hours that resulted in precious little positive returns.  So having endured too many years of the same approach yielding the same imminently predictable results, I figured out  how to structure production in such a way as to offer the best possible chance that the game would be super engaging to the user and not make everybody on the team want to quit by project’s end. The specifics of what I came up with is probably too lengthy to describe fully in this post (I will probably go into greater detail in subsequent posts) but really, when you think about it, its no more complicated than what I learned as a kid the summer I built my Apache helicopter model, namely, when presented with the task of putting together a profoundly complicated thing, always, always, alway have detailed assembly instructions and make sure you have the requisite discipline to follow them.

 

Nothing comes from nothing said Rogers and Hammerstein and they were right. So the creative process can be a little bit mysterious to some.  Although I’ll argue that many, many people who may not consider themselves creative, are actually involved in all kinds of creative activities.  I would often hear from my programmer friends at work, after looking over my shoulder at some picture I was working on, say something like “man I wish I were as creative as you!”  I was humbled by the unsolicited compliment, but the thought inevitably would pop into my head, “of course you are creative, what do you think you are doing when you polish off your 12,000 line of code ?”.  But think about it for a sec, I think a fairly workable definition of  creativity would be to bring into existence something that had not existed before…. whether that is a  cake, a chicken coop, an illustration, a song or computer code.  So like I said, there a whole bunch of different kinds of people, from a variety of vocations and walks of like,  bringing into existence all kinds of things that did not exist before.  All this bringing stuff into existence being done by people that would never self identify as a creative person.

I think a lot about creativity and how we humans make stuff, how we bring things into existence, it fascinates me.  I teach concept art classes to undergraduate students.  My students are young people who have aspirations, one day, to become successful visual artists, many of them want to break into the video game business.  The majority of the assignments I give my students is to draw and paint some “thing” some sort of object living or otherwise.  Having said that,  unlike, say, a figure painting class, where the task for the student is to faithfully paint a reproduction of what they see in front of them in the form of a human model, in my concept art class, students are required to create something that has never ever been seen before, which is the special design challenge of the concept artist.  And not only to draw and paint something that has never existed, but to do it in a way that is so artful and clever as to cause the viewer to suspend their disbelief and imagine, even if for a moment, that somewhere, somehow out there in our vast universe, such a thing actually exists. The design challenge to create a pleasing representation of something that the artist is currently observing is hard enough, but to add the challenge of creating something that cannot be seen adds significantly to the problem.  So how does a concept artist go about creating say a Grapthark Dissolver?  Well she goes about it thru a process called in Latin, creatio ex materia, or creation from pre-existing material.

In theological circles there has been a debate for several years as to how exactly the world came into being.  For some religionists the world was created from nothing, how the earth came to be is a mystery, an arguably physical thing that one moment was not here and then suddenly  now was.  This argument is called creatio ex nihilo which is Latin for creation from nothing, now you don’t see it now you do.  The other argument posits that God basically constructed from stuff he had on hand, from existing matter, creatio ex materia, creation from pre-existing matter.  Its like God wanted to bake a cake so he grabbed some ingredients, combined them just so and viola! a delicious cake or uh a planet.  I’m a Mormon and we believe in the latter, of course I have no personal recollection of the dawn of time and how things went down nor has God personally shared with me how the earth was exactly made, but I like the creatio ex materia idea better, why, couple reasons, its not a late invention of sectarian christianity, and its seems to be more consistent with how I’ve observed the creative process works.

On occasion one of my students will turn in somewhat mediocre work.  When this occurs, my first question to the student is, “where is your reference” and usually the answer is “I don’t have any.”  If the assignment is to create a design of a military style automatic rifle, its impossible to created such a design if you have no or only marginal familiarity with military weapons.  Its like drawing water from a well and pulling up an empty bucket… its impossible to draw water from a well if the well is dry.

Its easy to see how this idea could apply to making concept art,  but I believe the this principle is universal.  Human offspring cannot exist without the union of an ovum and sperm. One cannot create a meaningful research paper without thoroughgoing references to source documents.  And, well as far as a video game goes, a development team must reference other video games, other traditional games, a host of cultural memes, and a bunch of other stuff which I cannot list here, in order to make their game interesting and enjoyable enough to capture the attention of the video game purchasing public.

So the next time you are combining ingredients to make something, remember that this act is an act of creation and and expression of creativity and the very process that is responsible for bringing everything we see around us into the world, and perhaps, even responsible for the very globe we stand upon.

WotD_soul sliver_finish_smfinal cyborg_orange lightenvironment_individual terrain componentsWOTD_paint concept oneWOTD_color scheme full playfieldWotD_red skeleton_finish-RecoveredMark Jarman Hands Study 02Mark Jarman Hands Study 01

Before anything shows up in the game you first have to figure out what it looks like.  Somebody on the dev team at some point in the development process has to figure out what a given thing is supposed to look like.  It can be a 3D modeler or heaven forbid a programmer, but really the best person to figure out what something in the game looks like is the concept artist.  At first blush that may sound like a fairly easy straightforward task, however doing good and competitive concept art is a really really hard thing to do.  A good concept artist needs to be an expert at human anatomy, animal anatomy, architecture, industrial design, landscape painting, and special effects.  Plus the concept artist also has to be adept at understanding how to create all these disparate things in a number of different styles, conforming to whatever the style guide demands.  Concept artists need to be paid more.

I’ve heard a lot said about planning, to do it or not to, which flavor of planning is best, stuff like that.  I am a firm believer in intention and organization.  Let me just say that so-called “crunch” is always a consequence of making mistakes, and the best way to mitigate mistakes is to be diligent and smart about production design, however you feel that is best achieved.  But… life still seems to resist organization, not sure why, maybe its the second law of thermodynamics being expressed at a meta level.  Whatever the reason, life is unruly, capricious and unpredictable, and while its wise to be diligent in organization it still must be done with a nod to the God of Chaos.

I was on a panel once discussing the topic of dealing with the business side of being a commercial artist.  For some reason the panel got sidetracked and we began talking about how best to organize an art business.  We discussed some details of how that might best be done, and then one lady on the panel threw out a metaphor that I thought was extraordinarily insightful.  She, like everybody, stressed the need for diligent and competent organization, but then, feeling a need to concede that there is inevitable chaos said “you know, you have to try to organize but good organization is more like surfing the chaos.”

The moment she said it I did a mental “duh.”  Having had time to think about it since then I think her analogy is remarkable apropos, especially to game development.   I’ve often said that game development was a lot like putting together a master level model kit.  When I was a kid I bought a Revell model of a UH 60 Blackhawk helicopter.  This thing was so detailed that it had every working part in the rotor assembly!  I didn’t count the number of parts but there were hundreds and hundreds.  Then I pulled out the instruction sheet.  I don’t remember exactly how exhaustive the instructions were but I do remember that the sheet was so big that once unfolded I couldn’t figure out how to fold it back up again properly.  My first impulse was to chuck the instructions all together and just “intuit” my way through the project.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I didn’t want to waste the twenty five dollars I spent on the kit, the only chance I would have to successfully assemble this beast was to assiduously consult the voluminous assembly instructions, which I did.

Fast forward to the middle of my game career, suffering through another crunch period, calculating that my real hourly rate was less than what I made flipping burgers at Hardees in high school.  For some reason I thought back to that helicopter model I completed as a kid and realized that the entertainment software we were trying to assemble had waaaaay more digital parts than my helicopter model had physical parts, and that my model kit had waaaay better assembly instructions than did the game project I was working on.  Little wonder that we were enduring yet another episode of crunch, and given this new revelation, suffering needlessly.  Armed with this new insight I determined that if I were ever in charge, I would do my best to create as complete a set of assembly instructions as I possibly could.  In 2010 I got the chance.  I’m pleased to report that the art team I headed up never worked extra hours, produced an ambitious number of assets, won a national art award from Unity, and had 3 months of DLC in the can when the ship date arrived.  So yes, you can create a game without crunching, I’ve done it, and yes there are also black swans.  But, it took profound effort on my part and was very, very taxing. If this sort of effort were to be extended across multiple back to back projects the risk of manager burnout is high.  I guess this is why most managers default to lax planning.  Better to burn out my subordinates than me, its a matter of blunt self preservation.

So maybe surfing is the answer?  I think its worth try, anybody know where I can get a good surfboard?

 

 

We are no longer doing a Tron, “I’m running around inside the computer” thingy, we are now doing a Diablo “I’m running around the seven levels of hell” thingy.  But hey, as everybody knows, everything is a remix.  And for the incredulous… just follow this link:   http://vimeo.com/14912890

 

and some art goodness:

 

walk of the damned_player character_soul sliver_test walk of the damned_player character_thumbs

Our game is going to try to present the notion of the blessings and burdens of tech…. visually speaking we are thinking of illustrating this by the use of “rezing up” and “rezing down”  Typically the purpose of a high-rez character is to achieve a more realistic looking character, and a low rez character is typically associated with older, less technically advanced games.  So rather than just dragging out a Virtua Fighter look alike for our low res character, and another version of Master Chief, I want to try and find a cool looking visual metaphor for “poly count.”  At least that’s the idea.

hi poly char 01

Some of my most favorite games are designed by Reiner Knizia, and before you start straining your grey matter trying to remember which blockbuster video game he is responsible for, don’t cause he’s a board game designer and a prolific one at that.  Reiner is a bit of a legend in board game geek circles because what he can do with a set of rules and game mechanics and a bit of cardboard and plastic is well, just amazing.  After a evening of playing his games you are left with a sense of wonder and immersion plus you’ve had loads of fun.  What is doubly amazing, when you stop to think about it, is that he can deliver so much fun without tens of thousands of lines of code, over the top 3-d graphics, gut thumping sound, elaborate animation, or taunts, nope as I said before, his tool bag is pretty much limited to a rule book, a paper game board and a few wooden or plastic tokens.  So why do so many video games, utilizing a dizzying array of technological wonders, end up being just crap?  Don’t get me wrong there have been some amazing video games made over the years, but honestly, when compared to the entire lot, these games are squarely in the minority.  Most games are just dreadful and those that don’t completely suck are hopelessly derivative.  I mean really do we need another first person shooter?  Oh look its Quake with normal maps, HDRI lighting, and a grappling hook, and a trite morality lesson, wow.  I think much of the problem has to do with the technology.  Technology has a siren song that, for most, is just too hard to resist.  Too many dev studios assume that the clever combination of beautiful art and amazing computer engineering with a sprinkling of hackneyed game mechanics constitute a good game.  What these studios fail to grasp is that art and engineering are simply vehicles whose purpose is to convey a game design.  Without solid game design and brilliant mechanics, the concatenation of code and art is simply a simulation, you may be able to land the 747, and the experience may be uncannily realistic, but you’re probably not going to have that much fun.  So my advice, take a lesson from our distant board game cousins and make sure the video game you hope to make is fun to play with cardboard and plastic first, and if it ain’t, no amount of whiz bang tech is going to make it so…

If you read the post just below this one you will find my mini manifesto of how I think theme and story in games are great and can lead to good games but also games that have little or no apparent theme can be dang fun.  Having said that, I think its wise to attempt to incorporate theme or perhaps metaphor into a game.  So our team has been thrashing about for the past several weeks trying to discover a theme of sufficient depth.  I’m re-posting my comments on a proposed theme that I posted on our team’s Facebook page.  I need to point out that these ideas are certainly not exclusively mine.  We had a lot of conversations as a team and got a ton of super helpful insights from Jose Zagal and Bob Kessler, our faculty advisers:

Hey guys I put together some thoughts about this new theme we’ve been discussing with Jose…. the most concise way of describing this theme is: the blessing and burden of technology or phrased a bit differently: the blessing and burden dichotomy of technology… please find my rambling paragraph below where I make a feeble attempt to add some detail to this idea. My recommendation is that not only should this be our theme but that we also articulate the ideas I’ve written below with as much depth and enthusiasm as we can muster next time we discuss this with the faculty…

the blessing/burden dichotomy of technology:
the promise of technology or labor saving devices is that our lives will become easier because of technology but what tends to happen is because of labor saving devices our lives become more hectic and harried. Also the same technology that allows us to communicate better with each other is also exploited by those who desire to use its power to gain advantage over others like unscrupulous businesses and tyrannical govt. entities. we have already discussed how this dichotomy is expressed in the world of computer tech, namely the constant need to purchase new computers, irrespective of the fact that a few months prior we purchase the latest and greatest computer which in short order becomes a dinosaur so once again we must purchase the latest and greatest ever remaining in the perpetual state of just maintaining but never really getting ahead of the tech curve, and as video game developers we are also obliged to stay on this treadmill, always remaining in a perpetual state of technological catch up…

Some ideas for game play: the metaphor of perpetually advancing technology is the metric for success, so “leveling” up represents an increase in technological prowess, however, as in the real world the more you embrace technological advancement the more difficult it becomes to stay “on top” of technology so we need to develop some mechanic that illustrates this reality, my suggestion is that as the player levels up she must collect or gain points or capture more and more “nodes” or “power ups” or what ever in order to maintain her advanced technological position, if she fails to do this she begins to “degrade” in fact it seems to me that the object of the game should be about which player can remain at the highest level of technological advancement for the longest period of time or at least until her opponent degrades out of existence.

We should also incorporate some irony into the game thru the use of some kind of clever mechanic where the “winning” player does move faster or have some kind of playfield advantage but as she advances it becomes harder and harder to maintain that advantage and that as soon as she falters she drops down the technology scale, and alternately the “loosing” player while less technologically advanced does not have to be as frantic in maintaining their technological position and can therefore take more time in making strategic maneuvers… nevertheless both players while pitted against each other in a tactical sense, they both share a common enemy namely the relentless march of advancing tech… so the object of the game is not who wins or who looses but rather whoever looses last wins! kinda like the old saying, I don’t have to run faster than the lion I just have to run faster than the guy running next to me.

I also like the term “dinosaur” used in tech circles to describe hopelessly out dated computer tech… I think that perhaps as the player descends down the technological ladder in the final stages of defeat the character transforms into a ever lower polygon dinosaur until the final end state of loosing the player is simply dinosaur skeletal remains

a note about mechanics we already have…. we can still keep the mechanics we have ie dynamic environment and territory acquisition and indirect attacks… in fact this idea of staying on top of tech makes the idea of territory acquisition more meaningful, here’s what I mean by that… a player’s increase in technological prowess is literally represented as increased territorial holdings (and in the appearance of their avatar although this is simply cosmetic) but in order for the winning player to maintain their preeminent position they must not only acquire territory but also maintain and protect it as well as continually growing their territory, so to reiterate, its this maintain/protect/acquire mechanic that is a literal metaphor of the “staying on top of tech” concept mentioned earlier. Also simply maintaining territory is not enough for the player to win. In order to win the player must also continue to acquire or grow their holdings, but in order to do this the winning player must fend off her opponents who are trying to take her held territories but also technology is constantly advancing so new territorial squares are being added to the play field and so her percentage of play field holdings will always diminish over time, unless she continues to add more and more territorial holdings, and to make things even more interesting at the beginning of the game playfield “space” is added at a relatively low rate, but as the game progresses spaces are added at a much faster rate thus making it increasingly difficult to stay on top of things… its this adding of playfield spaces mechanic that is sorta like the running from the lion metaphor I discussed earlier… and finally the game ends when the penultimate player ends up as a pile of dino bones… but as I said earlier the “winner” never really wins because “technological advancement” never stops, the winner is really just the last person to loose sooooo long post, but I think these ideas have some genuine merit and can make for a super fun game and has the added benefit of exciting the faculty from a rhetorical standpoint.. also I say we make a final decision on the direction we should go post haste because, as we all know, we have no more time to palaver!

Thanks