Game Design: Double Vision

Been working on a new thing this week. Surprisingly, this isn’t me getting distracted and butterflying off; it’s actually a core part of my plan.

Working on a single project at a time, from start to finish, without a break, is not an efficient way for me to work. Many other creative folk I’ve talked to have said something similar, though this is not a universal approach. Incidentally, I slightly envy the people who are able to focus on a single project from start to finish without interruption, month after month without loss of enthusiasm, but only slightly. This is because I think that this monoculture approach is a suboptimal strategy for creatives, as I’ll explain.

There are several reasons you might want to have more than one project on the go at once.

The first is that any creative endeavour benefits from being put in your desk drawer and ignored periodically. Once you’ve got your first flush of ideas down and have battered it into a functioning draft, you’ll have a stage of testing and improving. That gradually loses steam, and this is when you can shelve it for a while. Not that this break needs to be very long – a day will do at a pinch. Longer is more effective though.

When you return you’ll be refreshed, invigorated, and enthused with new ideas to fix old issues. You’ll be better able to see the odd gaps, the rough edges, and the darlings that need murdering. If your work includes any text then your ability to edit it improves immensely for the fresh eyes you see it with after a break.

I’m a firm believer in recruiting my subconscious to help with work in a somewhat structured way. To me, my subconscious is like another person I can give awkward puzzles to and move on while they fix them. They may be unpredictable and scatty, but they usually come up with the answer I need in the end. The trick is to give it time to work in its own way, and preferably time when I’m not trying the same thing consciously. This makes swapping between projects very effective. When you get stuck on one you pose the problem to your subconscious and move on to the other project while your back brain gets to work. After a few days you return, and you are likely to find yourself with a slew of fresh ideas to tackle what had stymied you before. At least, it works like that for me.

Note that it’s better if this pair of projects is planned rather than accidental. This allows you to consider synergies and efficiencies of resources beyond your time. It also allows you to choose projects that complement each other in terms of time of type to make the most of the change from one to the other. I find it best if you pick two quite different projects to emphasise the change. It’s also better if you focus on a single project each day. Sleeping is a great reset.

So, the idea is to have two different projects on the go at once, and work on one of them each day. You already know the working title of Project Shuriken. My second project is currently rejoicing under the codename Project Fishsticks. More of that soon.

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World-Building: Mind the Gap

There is a Gap between what you know about the world you build, and what your audience knows about it. You know this already. After all, it’s obvious. What may be less obvious is why this Gap is so important, and the benefits and potential pitfalls it represents.

 

What is the Gap?

You made up your world, so you know all there is to know about it. Your audience only knows what you’ve told them and cannot hope to have your encyclopaedic understanding. This is normal. You don’t want games full of endless (and irrelevant) details about the world they’re set in, and balancing the amount of exposition you use is a perennial challenge in stories… at least it is if you want to write them well.

You have almost certainly come up with all manner of information about your world that doesn’t fit neatly into whatever you’re using it for at the moment. This will remain hidden for now, possibly emerging in a later project, possibly remaining concealed forever. This difference in knowledge between you and your audience is The Gap. At least, it’s today’s Gap. As you invent more details The Gap widens. As you tell more tales The Gap narrows. The Gap ebbs and flows. Secrets are revealed only to be replaced by new mysteries. The Gap is ever-changing yet always present.

 

Why is it Bad?

There are several inherent problems with The Gap. Here are two:

  • Temptation.
  • Lack of Empathy.

The temptation is your understandable desire to share all the cool stuff that you’ve come up with. All creators know the feeling. You’ve been having so much fun in this new universe that you can’t wait to tell people about it. That cool secret that the vizier has, the best way to tickle a dragon, how to do the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs… all that good stuff. You can’t wait to share. Well hold your horses, boss. You might need to keep that to yourself.

A common mistake of inexperienced world-builders is to give in to the urge to spill the beans too often or too soon. This is often cited as the root cause of plodding, exposition-heavy writing that stalls its own pacing with pages of irrelevant world detail. In reality, the world is there to be a setting for a story and needs to serve that purpose.

If you’re tempted to share a piece of your world’s history, ask yourself whether doing so works in context of the story you’re telling, game you’re testing, screenplay you’re writing… Would someone say that? Is it needed for the plot, the flow of play, or for character development? Does the game work better if players understand this part of the backstory? If not, then you may want to resist the temptation to put it in. Less is often more.

By empathy, I mean your ability to understand how a member of your audience sees your creation. The Gap is the difference in what you know and what they understand. To start with, this Gap will be total, and you need to lead them through the maze of this fictional creation very carefully, building juicy morsels of relevant knowledge on top of each other to build a tasty whole. But you need to do this without burdening them with endless pieces of fictional minutiae that will leave them confused and give them indigestion. They can only remember so many cool characters, famous events, and obscure types of spell. Adding more will simply push one of the others out of their short-term memory, and they may need to know that first one so that the plot makes sense.

The greater empathy you can have with your audience, the easier it will be for you to guide them through learning your world, and the more they will enjoy that experience. If you can see things from their place on the learning curve you will be better able to feed them what they need to follow along and to see things as natural and believable. This is always going to be a challenge because The Gap will always be there and you can’t entirely unthink all that you know. However, understanding that it’s worth trying to do so gets you at least part of the way.

 

Why is it Good?

Like the problems, the good side of The Gap is multi-faceted. Two of my favourite facets are:

  • Secrets and Suspense.
  • Illusions of Grandeur.

The first benefit is straightforward. You want to create suspense in whatever you’re making, and stories are always improved by surprises. You can only have these if there is a Gap because both secrets and suspense rely on revealing something from within it.

You also want to create a world that appears real to your audience, and part of that illusion is getting them to believe that it is complete. If they were to wander in any direction, or ask any question, there would be a coherent, consistent, and believable answer. Just like reality. More so, in fact, because the real world is sometimes a bit short on convincing answers whereas you will be expected to know it all. Of course, you haven’t really worked out the answer to everything they could possibly ask, but you have to put on a good show. Luckily, you have the perfect weapon here: in your stories you get to ask the questions as well as give the answers.

The illusion you’re going for is that the world continues off-screen, wherever they look. So mirror reality. Include inconsequential details and asides that don’t give enough purchase on the reader’s brain to distract them too much, but which pique their interest. These morsels suggest a world beyond without burdening the audience with the details and are often much more interesting for their implications than they would ever be for their details.

Think about the real world you live in for a moment. This is the only reference point your audience have to compare your fictional world to. You assume that the real world is real, but why? You’ve never been to most of the countries on the planet, or even all the states or provinces in your country, yet you believe they are there. Perhaps you only know a couple of facts about Paris or Berlin, but they sound like interesting places to visit. What about exotic and ancient cities like Beijing, or Timbuktu? Or bustling metropolises like New York or Singapore? You have an image in your head about these places even though you have not been to all of them. And even if you have been somewhere, a city is a big place and you saw only a part. In truth, The Gap exists between what you know about reality and the totality of what there is to know. You, and everyone in your audience, has spent their lives learning that as far as reality is concerned, The Gap holds the answers, whenever your author lets you peer in. Use this training in your own work. Just colour the background of your fictional world with broad strokes and worry about the details later if you ever need to. Allow your audience to believe in The Gap too, and assume that therein lies the answers to all their questions, just like it does in reality.

You build the illusion, and The Gap is a big part of what allows you to create it. Unless a piece of information is required for your central story, just hint, tease, and suggest in the way that real people do about passing subjects, and your audience will believe it because they have spent their lives learning how to.

The Gap is your friend.

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Game Design: How To Avoid Distracti… oh Look, Kittens!

It’s very easy to get distracted. Happens to me all the time.

Distractions aren’t necessarily a Bad Thing. I think they’re a sign of an active and curious mind, and that’s a Good Thing. I definitely don’t want to stomp on the inquisitiveness that causes them. However, I do need to somehow corral them so that I can get on and do what needs doing. How do I do that?

The easiest way I’ve found is based on something I learned from meditation. When you’re trying to meditate, it’s inevitable that your mind will wander. You’re supposed to be concentrating on your breathing and you start thinking about what you’re going to have for tea instead. It’s normal.

The problem is that the frustration you’re likely to feel when this first happens is the thing that will break your focus completely and make the task impossible. This is a big part of why a lot of people give up. However, although you can’t avoid the interruption, you can learn to react to it differently. In terms of meditation, you recognise the thought, and that it is unhelpful for the current task, and then you put it to one side. The aim is to stay calm and to acknowledge rather than block. Blocking just encourages your subconscious (which is the source of the interruption in the first place) to serve the same thing up again a minute later as it realises that you were ignoring it. If you acknowledge the thought and then quietly put it down again, your subconscious may feel like it’s been heard and forget about it too.

In terms of creative work, I try something similar.

Here’s an example from this week. I was working on Project Shuriken and needed to reorganise some of my files. In the process of doing this, I came across something I didn’t recognise, so I opened it to see what it was. Unsurprisingly, it was the germ of a game idea I’d jotted down a couple of years ago. The rest of the things I’d gone through while reorganising stuff had been easy to put back. I’ve got hundreds of these files, so it’s not unusual. However, in this case some confluence of things that I’d been doing that morning combined to set off my creative juices, and all of a sudden I’d got a deluge of ideas for how to fix an issue with this idea, and where to take it from there. Nothing to do with Project Shuriken, but very much a distraction, and very much shouting for my attention RIGHT NOW.

So, what to do?

I used to try to stifle this sort of thing and get back to the task at hand. However, this doesn’t work. I know from past experience that my subconscious won’t shut up about this until I deal with it, so now I do the following.

Firstly, as with the meditation, I acknowledge to myself that I’m being interrupted, and that’s OK. It’s part of being creative. There’s no need to panic.

Secondly, I tell myself that I’ve got a 20-minute break from my main task to capture this new, feral thought, and tame the heart of it by writing it down.

By formalising these steps I’m telling my subconscious that I’m dealing with it, so that when I get back to my main task it doesn’t need to interrupt me again. It’s OK. You’ve been heard. It’s been dealt with.

Twenty minutes is enough time to brain dump what I have to start with and cover the initial burst of enthusiasm and ideas. Strike while the iron’s hot. Get it down while you’re got it fresh and you’re making all the connections. At some later stage you can come back and sift though it to see what you have. For now, you’ve got the main task to get back to.

Also, remember how much I like notebooks. I can’t say enough how vital it is to keep notes of your ideas. They are fleeting, and you never know which ones will be gems. Note them down while you can.

Overall, this has worked well for me. Sometimes the 20 minutes stretches into half an hour, other times I’m done in 5. It depends on what I’ve got. You’ll learn to know when you’ve emptied the initial bucket of enthusiastic ideas and froth. That’s all you need to do. Now your subconscious will go back to quietly plotting world domination, and you can get back to work.

Interestingly, far from eating huge amounts of time, I find this process often leaves me feeling quite energised, and my main task benefits too. Aren’t brains strange?

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World-Building: The Story Harvest

This is the idea of going through the closest real-world analogue(s) to the world you are building and collecting as many cool images, quotes, events, anecdotes, sayings, and stories as you can find. Focus on details that make the people seem real, like the living, breathing individuals they once were. What makes real humans who lived a thousand years ago live again for you, in your imagination, can help bring your fictional characters to life too.

You might have heard of this idea by other terms, such as reference, or research. That’s exactly what it is, though it sounds much less exciting than a story harvest, right? Names are important, which is another topic for another day. For now, let’s talk about how you can be lazy and let the real world do some of the essential work for you.

We don’t build worlds in a vacuum. There are two reasons why this matters: it makes life a little easier for you, and it makes understanding your world a little easier for your audience.

Earth’s history is full of billions of people who have lived their stories, leaving all manner of intriguing details and tales from which we can draw inspiration. We might as well use them.

 

Lazy Time

Almost all fictional worlds take most real-world things for granted. Magic aside, gravity makes things fall to the floor, water doesn’t flow uphill, and time travels in one direction. Physics aside, the humans in your world are likely to be happy when you give them precious gifts, and upset if you punch them in the nose, like real people. While they may have different cultures and live in a world with unfamiliar geography, the people in your world will probably behave in recognisable ways. This saves you loads of time.

Most fictional worlds use a real-world culture or two as their basis, whether this is made obvious or not. So, researching that history is a good place to start your own world-building. It could be as simple as a medieval European basis for a fantasy world, or the specific period of Japanese history I’m currently using.

I’m not suggesting that you should take everything wholesale without any spin of your own. Not at all. That wouldn’t be world-building; that would simply be writing history books. What I do instead is use the framework of a real, functioning, coherent world from history to paint in the broad strokes of the fictional world I want to build on top. That saves me a bunch of time, gives me a coherent foundation, and also offers me thousands of intriguing details that make my imaginary world seem more credible. This believable basis helps to ground the giant submarines, demons, and technomagi that I want to add on top.

For instance, let’s imagine that I’m writing a Victorian steampunk adventure. Why reinvent the way the London sewage system worked if it’s not a big part of your story? Why not leave the cab system as it was? Do you need to change it? Does it help add character to your world if you do? If not, if it only comes up in a passing comment, then why not just assume that these bits are the same, then if they ever come up you can use the real-world reference for them. You will absolutely need to consider how your wacky stuff interacts with and changes the way the basics work, if it does, but that’s much less work that detailing all of it from scratch. In this way, by using real-world references for some of your fictional world, you are left with more time to work on the innovative and characterful stuff.

One more thought: story harvests are a great shorthand to get you started. By assuming that, say, our sewage system is as it really was, we can call that done for now and move on to the next bit. However, if there was ever a reason to return to that question later, we can always add detail and change things up, as long as we can stay consistent with whatever we’ve already finalised. If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to want to change at least some of the early pieces when you get to the later elements, and see how some of the ramifications of your latest cool idea impact where you started. That’s why you write several drafts…

 

Easy Comprehension

The other thing that’s good about using real-world reference is that it helps your audience to navigate round the new stuff more easily. If everything is unfamiliar, then they are going to really struggle. The knack is to change just enough to make your work feel fresh and engaging, without changing so much that your reader hasn’t got a clue where to start.

As I’ve said before, people ask for the new and buy the familiar. So, you must give them something that they will find recognisable for them to start with.

That leads on to period character. Chances are that yours is not the first example of a fantasy world, steampunk environment, or whatever you’re working on that your audience has encountered. They will have expectations. You need to either meet these or usurp them cleverly. Twisting things is by far the more dangerous route, but the most rewarding if you can pull it off. Just remember that you can’t do it all the time or they will lose their footing.

 

Mythical Japan

For my fantasy Japan, I’ve been reading all sorts of things, though I seem to have gone down an intriguing rabbit hole of literary forms at the moment. Understanding how they wrote, and the topics they focussed on, tells me something about the culture as well as including all manner of potentially helpful period detail. It also gives me a framework for any written work I want to add to my version or provide as a background. Is this level of detail necessary? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I enjoy finding out, and I also enjoy knowing that my world makes sense, even if how it does so is never explained to my audience. As the creator’s enjoyment of the process often comes through in the form of a better creation, I take this as a good sign that I will end up with a result that I am happy with. Well, as happy as a creative ever is with their own work!

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Illustration: The First Step is…

Practising every day.

That’s the underpinning habit that will make any skill better. Art seems to be particularly obviously benefitted by regular practice as it is a visual medium. I suppose that music works a similar way as it’s very obvious if you’re still rubbish there too. Not that I ever learned to play anything.

With this in mind, I’ve been fighting a combination of inertia and the holidays to get back into this habit again, with spotty success so far. It’s a work in progress. Next week should be essentially back to what passes for normal when I’m freelancing though, so I’ve got no excuses. I’ll report back in 7 days and let you know how I’ve got on.

Step 2 in the process is rather rolled into step 1 when it comes to digital art, which makes for a particularly steep learning curve. This second step is learning how to use your tools.

Most people first learn to draw as a child, and you already know how to make marks with a pencil or a set of coloured pens when you do. If you revisit traditional art at school, you’ll start out with familiar tools, and graduate to more fiddly stuff (like the vile gouache, or equally vile oils) only later.

In the digital world, you need to learn how to get around your virtual environment in your chosen software before you can make your first mark with any virtual implement, so you’ve not got a soft option: you have to do the first two steps at the same time.

As I said before, I’m focussing primarily on digital art for the moment, so I’ve been slowed a lot by my inexperience in the software (and my avoidance of the easy route of practising traditionally). That clunkiness will go away with time and practice, and is a necessary step. Sure, it’s a bit frustrating not being able to make marks I know I could if I had a real pencil or pen in my hand, but I need to persevere. Hopefully this stage will be brief.

download-1.jpgI’ve got two bits of software to play with at the moment: Photoshop and Procreate.I’ll probably get Clip Studio Paint eventually too. Lots of good reviews. For the moment I’m playing with Procreate as it’s much simpler. I’m also sticking with fairly simple tools, just to get used to it all. Naturally, most of what I’ve done is complete rubbish, as expected. However, I thought I should show you a little, so here are a few of the more presentable scribbles.

Remember that each is really an exercise more than a finished piece. The aim here is to learn the tools and get back into the routine. I’m not expecting to have anything usable (other than for blog posts) anytime soon.

Ogre.png

This was done using someone else’s much better art as a reference. My aim here was to get the basic blocks of his shape right, and replicate some of his solidity while messing about with different brushes. The rendering is crap, but the overall shape is going in the right direction. Slowly. Abandoned this so that I could get on and try something else. Research shows that getting fixated on finishing every piece teaches you less than simply doing more. Trying not to be precious. 

Mountains.png

I like maps, so I thought I’d have a play with drawing bits to go on them. These are a couple of mountains. I used a few examples as reference for the general sort of style, though I did the shading wrong all on my own 🙂

Face.png

Used a photo I found on the net as reference. As with the others, by reference I mean to look at and copy, not trace. Tracing is useful in a commercial sense as it’s fast. Doesn’t teach you as much though, and learning is the aim here.

 

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag of bits so far, and will continue that way for a while yet.

One thing I’ll try to do in the future is something to illustrate each blog post. That would be a nice thing to aim for to start with. Some of those will need to be more infographic than illustrative, but it’s all practice and all eye candy. It will probably take a while to get up to speed, and I’ll be backfilling for a while. Like I said though; something to aim for.

It’s a bit sad to look at these and think how far I have to go. However, it’s a start, and that’s the important thing for the moment. Better stuff to come!

 

 

 

 

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Game Design: The Usual Confusion

Game design, like every other creative process, starts with endless possibilities. As you go through the various stages, your once infinite options narrow, and the vague initial spark coalesces into a fixed and final form. There are things to like about each step along the way, as well as things you might wish to skip past. But all of these steps are required, so you take the rough with the smooth.

One of the most exciting downsides of the initial stages is the mess and confusion. There are so many possibilities; which to choose?

Personally, I think this is my favourite part of the whole creative process: that early flush of excitement when your Big Idea could go in any direction, and you need to make grand, sweeping decisions. Anything’s possible. This step isn’t about making incremental tweaks in stats for balance, dealing with player experience, or grokking any emergent gameplay. That will all come later. For now, you are deciding where your new creation will fit into the world. What is your story? Who is your audience? And, when you know both of those key things, how will you tell your tale?

Although I write a brief for each game I design, it’s often hard to put into words exactly what I want to do with it. It’s the feeling that I’m trying to evoke rather than a list of rules that’s important to me, and feelings are sometimes tricky to translate into game mechanics. This is why I explore more than one way to get to that feeling. At least, I often do, and this is the case with Project Shuriken. Don’t feel bad if you aren’t right first time every time. Every painter has bad pictures in their closet just as every game designer and every writer has rubbish ideas in their notebooks.

Another cause of these multiple options is changing my mind on what I want it to be. The initial ideas for Project Shuriken that I wrote down on the train ride work as a game. I know that because I’ve made mock-ups and played it. Subsequently I had more and better ideas and developed it into something that I think is far more interesting. However, I’ve thought of three different ways that I might be able to do this next bit, and as it’s probably more important than the initial stuff, I’ve been testing them out. There’s no need for all three as they cover a lot of the same ground. Including them all would be inelegant and unnecessarily complex. So, I’m experimenting at the moment. And this is exactly when I should be.

At the start of this process, before too much is nailed down, is exactly the right time to ask yourself “what if I just…”. You’re not going to upset lots of apple carts if things change right at the start. As the project progresses, this will become less true, and major changes will start to cost lots of time and money. That would be bad.

So, what am I saying? I think it’s two main things:

Firstly, when you’re early in the process, build in some time to experiment. Your first idea may not be as great as you initially thought when you look at it in the cold light of day. Perhaps it needs to be pensioned off before it causes any trouble. Or it may be that it’s no good itself, but it forms the perfect stepping stone to the best idea that could ever be. Either way, now is the time to make the big changes. Mull over things for a few days, or longer if you can. Brainstorm a bit. Can this be improved? Can that? Is this the best way it could be done? Should you just chuck that bit out and replace it wholesale? What are you trying to do with it anyway? Make sure that you’re comfortable with the core of your game; how it feels, what it has to say. Heed those niggles that tell you that things aren’t quite what they should be. That little voice often knows what it’s on about.

Secondly, don’t waste your creativity! You may, like me, think up three ways to do the same thing, and two will end up on the cutting room floor. However, those two are going to be perfect elsewhere, so make sure you’ve noted them down for later. You never know when they might come in useful.

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World-Building: Size Isn’t Anything

Other than bigger worlds needing more work, size alone should not be a concern for world-builders. A world can be as small or as large as you like. The only really important thing about size is that it is the right one for the job.

As I mentioned last week, thinking of world building as two things and not one may help you avoid unnecessary or wasted work; so too may thinking about the scope of your world in the early stages of your project. Too large a scope and you’ve wasted your time developing a load of details that will never impact an end product. Too small and you’re going to be backtracking frequently to fill in the gaps, breaking the flow of your later work. Some of this back and forth is almost inevitable as the creative process never stands still and things evolve. However, better to minimise the waste if possible.

This means that I include a very broad selection of possibilities in my definition of world-building, and not just complete continents or whole planets full of imaginary cultures (though these are impressive). Indeed, at its smallest, a world for a specific project could be very small indeed.

For example, adverts often present the real world with some strange twist that sells the product: talking meerkats, singing neighbours, animated breakfast cereal. You get the idea. In each of these instances, there is world-building. It is not the real world you are looking at; it is a fictional variant of one. If you really saw some talking meerkats or your cornflakes struck up a conversation over the breakfast table, I doubt that you’d have the inane grins and cheers that our advertising families do. These worlds may be very similar to ours, but they’re not the same, and someone had to create that difference, just like any other fictional world.

If you think that advertising is a little crass for the noble art of world-building, consider the short story, or even flash fiction. These bijou efforts can be extremely short, and yet the fictional worlds they present still need to conform to the ideals of good world-building for the whole thing to function at its best. Sloppy and inconsistent work at the world-building level leads to a substandard end product regardless of size.

In fact, presenting a world in a small format can be more challenging that one where you have room to develop ideas at length. As an exercise, try defining a new world with only 3 sentences to give the reader clues. How much can you cram in? Can you get across the sense of a different place?

Also, have a look at some adverts and try to work out what they’ve done to define their variant reality. Can you use any of these tricks to explain your own?

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