Plans Not Surviving Contact With Reality

A small hiccup yesterday, with Real Life getting in the way of what I needed to do here. All under control now. At least, as much under control as it can be. So no panic.

Apologies to anyone who might have been anticipating the first of my posts on illustration and digital art yesterday. That will have to wait till next week when I should have more to show you as well.

Other than that, things continue apace, with plenty going on behind the scenes. Next week should now see the first whole week of all 3 regular posting slots. Once that settles in I can get ahead with the writing, which will avoid the odd Real Life hiccup getting in the way of regular broadcasts.

So no need to adjust your sets.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 2 Comments

Game Design: Project Shuriken

Thursday posts look at game design using things that I’m working on as examples. This makes them part design diary and part theoretical discussion. Note that these are real games that I’m currently working on for Quirkworthy, so I don’t know if they will end up being published, or how much they will change in the process of development. In the end they may turn out to be duds, in which case we can explore why they didn’t work. Whatever happens, I hope that you’ll find some interesting morsels along the way.

I’ll start with a game that I initially came up with during a train journey. This starting point alone illustrates two important maxims:

  • Always carry a notebook.
  • Write down ideas as soon as you have them.

 

Notebooks

I use the Notes app on my iphone for most notes these days. However, I do still carry a notebook on train journeys, and I can write faster than I can type on my phone which gives an advantage to the old school approach there. In addition, I find it easier to draw on a piece of paper, though that is changing as I get more used to the various apps. Still, on your phone you don’t have a stylus worth spit, so you’re reduced to finger painting…

Whatever format(s) you choose, make sure that you have some way of taking notes nearby at all times. You never know when you may have a great idea, and they are fleeting. Write them down as soon as you can. Writing down 10 that turn out to be meh on later study is definitely worth it if you also capture 1 good one that you would otherwise have forgotten. More than once I’ve had a great idea that I convinced myself was so good and so elegant that I didn’t need to write it down as I couldn’t possibly forget it. Then I forgot it.

Write it down. Do it immediately.

 

Project Shuriken

I’m calling it that because I don’t have a name I like yet. That’ll come. Either way, this initial idea I had on the train was for a game of competing ninja clans.

The story is that they are trying to impress the Imperial staff so that they will gain their patronage. To do this, they have been given a test. The various ninja clans who are in the running (represented by the players) are despatched to a province that is full of seditious mutterings and dubious behaviour. They need to prove themselves by finding out who is loyal and who is a traitor. If anyone. Could all be just rumours.

The game plays out with each player allocating their ninjas to various missions. These can be spying, assassination, theft or whatever. Generally not assassinations as that raises too many alarms.

So far, so average.

What I thought was clever, and why I’m doing something with this idea rather than the hundreds of other ones in my notebooks, is the next bit. The targets of these mission are 3 or 4 local families. They are all different, and have varying strengths and weaknesses. Each family has a number of defined characters within in it, usually the heads of the families. The missions available to the players are not only the Imperial ones, but also ones generated by the families themselves, both as protection and spying, attack, and so on as they vie for power among themselves.

Players could even take both the infiltration mission against a family and that same family’s defence mission. They can then choose to deliberately fail whichever one was of most benefit.

I also want to track how the families feel about each other, and have this influence which missions they offer, and against whom.

Overall, the players should feel like they have wandered into a living environment which they can take part in, but which won’t stop and wait for them if they fail to act. It’s an idea I’ve used before. It’s hard to get right, but great when it works. Definitely worth the effort.

The original notes also include some example layouts and more mechanical details. That’s all well and good, but it’s more illustrative of the sort of flow I wanted to have rather than hard and fast rules. This flow is what you’d expect from the description: players win “contracts” and allocate resources to completing missions. Depending on the type of mission they end in different ways and there are rewards for completing and failing. In the background, the Imperial envoys are watching. Eventually the game ends and one of the player’s clans is adjudged the winner.

I’ll get into more detail next time. Till then, keep your notebooks handy!

Posted in Random Thoughts | 14 Comments

World-Building: What Nobody Told You

Over the years I’ve created all or part of several fictional worlds, some of which were elaborate and sprawling, others small and contained. However, despite the fact that I know how to do this in practice, when it comes to writing about it I found that I needed to put my thoughts on the topic in a much clearer order. That process turned out to be quite illuminating. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be going through my take on the world-building process a piece at a time. I hope you find it useful. Any questions, please ask.

 

An Initial Understanding

World-building is a potentially very complicated and time-consuming process, so I want to start by going back to the fundamentals.

While I was preparing this article, I came to an understanding that I consider a key foundation stone for the whole process, but which I haven’t seen articulated anywhere else. It’s very easy to understand. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity though; there’s some real value in the pondering of it. The more I think about it, the more useful it seems.

This important fundamental is deceptively simple: world-building is not one process, it’s two.

Note that I’m not talking about the many, many skills that you can apply to world-building at a detail level. That’s way more than two. No, I’m talking about how you need to think about the idea from the start. It’s not one process that you’re embarking on, it’s two related ones. Closely related, to be sure, but not the same, and that difference is important. Understanding the difference will make your own world-building easier.

For the sake of argument, let’s call these two types of process Primary World-Building (PWB), and Secondary World-Building (SWB).

 

Primary World-Building

PWB starts with a blank sheet of paper and creates a new world. Critically, the only audience for this creation is you (or your team if you have one). The PWB isn’t going to be published anywhere, and some of the information included within it will never be revealed to the public at all. However, that information must still be developed because it’s vital that you, the creator of this world, understands how everything works behind the scenes as well as in front of them.

Writing PWB stuff is relatively easy because you’re talking to yourself. You shouldn’t need convincing that the whole idea is a good one, and you can use whatever form of shorthand, doodles, hieroglyphs, or mime you like to keep your notes (as long as you can decipher them later). This is like writing rough outlines for an encyclopaedia of your new world without worrying about the need to finish cleverly articulated essays on each topic. What’s important here is the quality of the ideas, not the quality of the writing.

Doing good PWB is about understanding those myriad detail skills and applying them to construct a coherent and interesting alternate reality. The primary skills required here are not writing, maths, or cartography, they’re basic research skills, common sense, and imagination. That should be straightforward enough, right?

 

Secondary World-Building

SWB starts once you have some or all of the PWB done. This is the version of your world that you tell the public in whatever format your end product takes. It’s a filtered version of your PWB work. Note that it isn’t the whole of the PWB world, merely a window into it, filtered by the limitations of the type of story, game, symphony, chocolate biscuit, or artwork you’ve chosen to produce. It’s not the scope that makes the biggest difference though; it’s the change in audience. Now you have the whole world to convince, not just yourself, and that takes a new approach.

You need to have made a fair degree of progress on the relevant parts of the PWB before you can really start on the SWB, so don’t dive in too early. After all, you need to be confident that you know what you’re trying to convey. I know that it’s tempting, but resist. Be strong…

SWB needs to be written well and written clearly because this is where you explain what’s been in your head to someone who lives outside it. If you’re anything like me, that can sometimes be quite a challenge.

While you’re telling the tale of your world to this wider audience, you need to build in suspense, mystery, and clever reveals without succumbing to tedious exposition. That takes skill with words. This ability to write well is the key to doing good SWB work (though it isn’t going to get far if the PWB you did was poor). The process can also incorporate music, art, and other mediums, but writing is almost invariably at the heart.

 

Why This Distinction Matters

There are several reasons why you should distinguish between PWB and SWB. The main two are:

  • It gives you more structure.
  • It focuses your effort.

World-building at its grandest is a colossal beast, but also an often vague and sprawling one. Any structure helps. This basic breakdown also helps you to see where your skills can be best applied, and where you might either need to find someone else with a specific talent, or to expand your own abilities. It also helps you see where you are in the process: moving from purely PWB to SWB being the key moment. Are you nearly there yet?

Understanding the PWB/SWB distinction helps avoid wasting effort (most often done by adding polish and detail where it isn’t required). Save your literary genius for the SWB; the bulk of the PWB can be rough notes. As long as you can navigate them, you’re golden.

And with that thought, I must leave you. I hope that idea has given you some food for thought. I’ll be back on Thursday to talk about game design, and next Monday for more on world-building. Until then…

Posted in Random Thoughts | 11 Comments

Just say No To Mediocrity

A couple of days ago I posted my plan. This is fairly brief summary as I was hoping that I could expand on it over time as people asked questions and the results of my labours made my intent more obvious. Better to answer real questions than just blither on about what I guessed was interesting.

Yesterday, tomsonn replied with this excellent comment that I want to answer in detail as it touches on many interesting considerations. The whole thing reads:

“If you don’t mind me saying (you probably will…), I think you’re on your way to mediocrity. Few people can do everything well, but apparently the plan is to do big time world building, game design and illustration all yourself… Occasionally that works out. Most of the time it leads to ‘heartbreaker’ games: well intentioned but overambitious with some bright sparks, unfortunately buried under or rendered impotent by too much bland filler. Long-winded excruciatingly detailed descriptions of an uninteresting world everyone of your audience has already visited a zillion times. Bland not-so-great illustrations dampening rather than firing up the imagination. Clunky rules that are sort of playable in practice.

Not saying this is what will happen with your project, maybe you will pull it off. I’m just putting this out here because if you go down the mediocrity route, you will definitely be cheered along the way by a small group of loyal fans & followers of your blog. Some people enjoy the familiar, especially when presented as something new. If you really want to succeed with something worthy of being called a gesamtkunstwerk, this is not your target audience.”

As I said, there’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take this a bit at a time.

“If you don’t mind me saying (you probably will…)”

I don’t mind at all; in fact, quite the opposite. People asking polite questions is to be encouraged, and the hard questions are often the ones with the most useful and revealing of answers.

Dissenting opinions are fine too, preferably backed up with some sort of cogent argument as to why. Just saying that you don’t like something is OK, but of no real help to anyone else. We already know that you can’t please all the people all the time. Tell us why something doesn’t work for you, and the rest of us might learn something. Or we might agree to disagree. Either way we can talk about it.

Random abuse, on the other hand, will be blocked. This is my space on the net, and I expect people to behave as they would if they were in my house. Manners are free. Rude people can leave.

“I think you’re on your way to mediocrity. Few people can do everything well, but apparently the plan is to do big time world building, game design and illustration all yourself…”

This is always the danger of trying to do several things at once: spreading yourself too thin. So yes, I agree that this is something to be aware of.

I’ve tried to mitigate this in several ways. Firstly, it’s being aware of this as a potential downfall. Knowing the dangers is usually the first step to avoiding them.

Secondly, I’ve been doing much of this for several decades. World-building, writing, and game design has been my day job for years, though always for other people. I’ve worked on various different fictional worlds, and seen hundreds of thousands of my words published about them. So I know that I can do this stuff. Art aside, the main difference with Quirkworthy is not what I’m doing, but who I’m doing it for.

Art, as I mentioned in the plan, is an old skill that I’ve neglected, and which is going to need a lot of work to bring back up to a usable level. But again, I have done it before, just not as recently. There’s no reason to assume that I can’t produce passable stuff by applying some focussed effort and getting back to regular practice. I’m hoping that you’ll be able to see for yourself soon enough.

Of course, in all these areas, you may like what I do or not, and may consider it good, bad, or indifferent. Whether you think that I can do them all “well” is up to you. All I can do is try to bring my 30 years’ worth of skill and experience to bear, and make things that I like and which I think have merit.

“Occasionally that works out. Most of the time it leads to ‘heartbreaker’ games: well intentioned but overambitious with some bright sparks, unfortunately buried under or rendered impotent by too much bland filler. Long-winded excruciatingly detailed descriptions of an uninteresting world everyone of your audience has already visited a zillion times. Bland not-so-great illustrations dampening rather than firing up the imagination. Clunky rules that are sort of playable in practice.”

This part of the comment expands on the previous section and is largely answered above. What I’d like to add is that while doing it all myself is a great deal of work, it also allows me to use a lot more shortcuts and avoids some other problems. It’s not just adding time, there are also considerable savings here.

In addition, you assume that I would decide something was finished with all these faults in it. I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough experience to be able to tell when something is this bad, and put it back in the oven for a bit longer.

In general, your various descriptions of these failings basically amount to not liking bad writing, bad world building, and bad art. I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s not do that.

I tend to have higher standards than most people I work with as I’m something of a perfectionist (useful as an Editor, though often another pitfall to watch out for). As I have the final say in what gets released under the Quirkworthy banner, I think the danger for me is sitting on things too long because I don’t think they are good enough rather than releasing them too soon. As ever, you may disagree. It’s hard to prove without showing you a lot of finished stuff.

It’s also true that I am likely to get better over time, and that some of the things I release will be better than others. All somewhat inevitable.

Oh, one final point on this: format. I’ll be working in a variety of formats, and this avoids one of the implicit problems you hint at. A common mistake of inexperience with this sort of thing is feeling that you need to tell everyone all the cool background stuff that you’ve come up with, all at once. I think this is where your “bland filler” comment comes from. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing this long enough to have made this error and (mostly) learned from it. Also, importantly, I know that I don’t need to cram everything into one game or story or whatever because I can publish another short story next week, or another game next month. Each project needs the art and writing that it needs, and getting that balance right is more often an exercise in removing things rather than adding them. I refer you to my old post on murdering darlings.

“…cheered along the way by a small group of loyal fans & followers of your blog. Some people enjoy the familiar, especially when presented as something new. If you really want to succeed with something worthy of being called a gesamtkunstwerk, this is not your target audience.

I expect that I am currently writing for an audience of 3 men and a dog. Hopefully that will grow as I go on, and the size to which that expands will clearly be based on the perceived utility of what I do. As you say, it’s up to me to do good stuff!

Over the years it has become obvious to me that customers think they want new and different things a lot more than they actually do in practice. Time and again, in company after company, customer feedback and sales figures show that people ask for something different and then buy the familiar. You can see this most obviously in the endless sequels and remakes from Hollywood. Their research shows the same thing. It makes business sense.

For me, as a creative soul, rehashing stuff is dull, dull, dull, and not something I want to be doing. And yet, you must have something of that to keep people from becoming confused and lost. If everything is new then your reader feels cast adrift without reference points or compass. What’s needed is the right balance of new and old; and that’s challenging to find.

Your final point about what is worthy of being called a Gesamtkunstwerk is the one thing I might differ on. I don’t think popularity is a valid measure here.

Plenty of things are popular that are not the best. For example, McDonalds restaurants are hugely popular. However, I don’t think it’s very contentious to say that they do not make the best food. Ubiquity, low prices, and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns make up for that. You could argue that they make the best food at that price on that street, and you may be right. But best outside that limited context?

For me, whether something is or isn’t a good example of Gesamtkunstwerk is more about the process that created it and about quality than it is about popularity per se. I do need things to be popular enough to pay my bills, but that’s a separate problem. As far as a game, or book is concerned, I can envisage them being great examples of Gesamtkunstwerk without being popular at all.

 

Which Just Leaves Me To Say…

Thanks again to tomsonn for this great comment. I hope the above ramblings have answered some unvoiced concerned or questions for the rest of you. If you have other thoughts or queries, please drop them in the comments section below.

 

Posted in Random Thoughts | 7 Comments

Here’s the Plan

Today I want to talk about what you can expect to find here, on Quirkworthy, in future. I’ve already talked about some of the thinking behind what I want to do, but this is the nitty gritty. However, before we get to that, there’s one final piece of the meta puzzle to mention.

In the past I’ve used Quirkworthy to ramble on about all sorts of stuff, as well as reviewing the occasional game and talking about other products. I’ve decided not to do that any more. The focus will now be entirely on my own projects.

I may end up needing to use something external as an example or as reference for a point I’m discussing; it’s just not going to be the focus, and the more I make public of my own, the less I will need to do even that.

This change in focus also means that you shouldn’t expect me to cover work I do for other companies. On the one hand they’ve all got a fancy social media presence and staff to run their own programmes, and on the other I’ve got a bazillion things to do and there’s just me. They don’t need my help.

So to summarise: Quirkworthy.com is going to be a playground for me to discuss personal projects that follow the idea(l)s of Gesamtkunstwerk, and all come under the banner/brand of Quirkworthy. Simples.

This means that the top tabs will change, and the (now) irrelevant content will no longer be accessible in that way. However, individual posts will remain, for now. Tidying all that up is just nowhere near the top of the long list of things that need doing.

 

Details

Back to looking forward! What of the details? What’s the new version of Quirkworthy going to be like on a day to day basis?

Each week will have three posting slots, each on a different theme:

  • Monday: World-building and Writing.
  • Thursday: Game Design.
  • Saturday: Illustration.

Any additional posts for site news or whatever will be added around this framework as required.

With next week being Christmas, I thought I’d start the following Monday, the 30th of December.

 

World-Building and Writing

World-building is really what all my personal projects (and a lot of my client work) is about. You can think of the Monday slot as covering anything that isn’t art or gaming, with a special interest in writing. After all, defining a whole world is going to take a lot of text.

Pluto

Pluto: still a world even if it’s no longer a planet. 

This will cover both conceptual notions of world-building as well as examples of my own that I’m working on. Expect this to be where you’re first introduced to my new worlds.

 

This section will also cover various styles of writing  and written product that can help to expand your world, predominantly using things that I’m working on to illustrate the points.

 

Game Design

This is what most of you expect from Quirkworthy. The focus going forward will be on new projects of my own, and the issues and points of interest that crop up while I’m working on them. Plus, of course, articles about what the new projects are. Expect there to be several in process at any one time.

The Dice Are Fallen, Alea Iacta Est, Cube, Craps, Luck

Always make sure your dice are completely cooked through.

 

Illustration

I haven’t drawn in a very long time. Probably two decades or more. Before that I could draw adequately, if never as well as some I knew. Well enough to have had exhibitions and sold pictures though, so not terrible. Twenty years of rust has well and truly clogged those neuron paths up so I’ve a way to go before I do stuff of that quality again, let alone improve on that. Mind you, it’s all possible. Just takes practice.

Of course, my previous efforts were all before digital art was a thing. Now it’s not only a thing, but a pretty affordable one too. As everything I need illustration for is going to have to be digital at some stage, it makes sense for me to practice drawing again as a digital skill, at least as well as a traditional one, if not instead of.

This thread will cover my (mis)adventures in learning to draw again, as well as learning to use a bunch of software that I’ve either never used, or not used in many years. I’ll try to pull out useful lessons along the way in case they help anyone else.

 

What Else?

While the bulk of what I need to do falls into the three categories above, one could also add sculpting, animation, music, and other things to the list. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, and as required. Let’s not get carried away just yet. Game design, writing, and illustration are plenty to start with, and can cover most world-building bases between them. I can do all sorts of projects with those three alone.

Finally, in addition to this refocussing on the blog, I’ve had Patreon recommended by enough people for me to take that seriously as an idea. However, I still need to research that, so it’s for another time. Something to look out for in the new year.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 5 Comments

A Beginning, a Middle, and an End

I ended last time with a summary that mentioned a single thread which I thought ran through the highest quality work. This thread is story. Whether it’s game design, art, or writing, there is a story running through the best of it. At least, I’d say so.

Clearly there is story in prose, and games all have an initial state that changes as they are played – so there is a narrative to be pulled out if you want to. Art is trickier, but I think that even there a good picture can imply a before and an after to the specific moment illustrated, and that flow tells a story of sorts. At least, it implies one. It makes you think about the moment in the context of its before and after.

For example, whether you like the style or not, the posing of the characters, composition, and use of concepts familiar to the viewer give this evocative piece by Matt Dixon a sense of being one moment in a larger tale. Matt’s very good at this and this sense of time is present in many of his works. I expect to come back to this in more detail in a later post.

Image result for matt dixon robot art

Lots of little touches combine to demand a before and an after to this moment. Very nicely composed and © by Matt Dixon. 

Today I have a slightly different kind of post for you. Short, for one (for me). But really, the main thing I wanted to do was to ask you guys what you thought of story in games, and story in art. Is it something you look for? Care about? I know people that make up a story when they play anything, and others who don’t care about the most obvious narrative – they’re all about the mechanics.

What do you think?

Posted in Random Thoughts | 14 Comments

Midlife Crisis or Cunning Plan?

We all end up as worm food eventually. That’s unavoidable.

I was looking through some of my old notes when I started thinking about this truism, partly (you will not be surprised to hear) as the driver behind a game idea, but partly not. You see, I have a very large stack of unpublished games and stories in my notebooks. Every day I add to the pile, sometimes just a little tweak to an existing notion, other times several whole games. It varies.

What doesn’t vary is the fact that it’s way easier to add to this pile than it is to get a project all the way through development and into print. Anything finished has taken a great deal of effort to get there. Way more than getting the core ideas down in the first place.

Ziggurat of notebooks.JPG

Some of my old notebooks. I generally work digitally these days.

What I was thinking about was simple: the list gets bigger as my ability to get it done shrinks. It’s hard to put exact numbers on this, but a very quick headcount looks like single figures % complete is to be expected. Half a dozen finished out of every hundred. Something like that. A sobering thought. YMMV, of course, and exact numbers aside I know that the majority of these notes will end up in the Soylent Green along with me, simply because of time constraints. What to do?

My answer was to plan better and be more focussed about what I spent my time on. This is partly why I’m back on Quirkworthy talking about Gesamtkunstwerk and the like. Fancy German words are not enough though. I need to fine down this enormous list of options into something more workable.

I’ve applied two main approaches to picking my projects for Quirkworthy.

 

Quality & Enthusiasm

My first thinning tactic started with quality. I thought, “not all ideas are equal – just do the best ones”. Now I’ve been doing this a long time, so my internal spam filters aren’t bad, and the dumbest ideas I come up with never even make it to the notes stage. Regardless of that, there is still a spectrum of quality in what’s been written down. All I needed to do was order them from worst to best and start at the top. Right? Not so fast.

What is best? And yes, I know: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Obviously. But apart from that. How do I know that this project is better than that one? Sure, I can make some broad assumptions, and that’s a start, but really? Best? Definitively? I wasn’t sure. I kept changing my mind. Turns out that “Best” was not the droid I was looking for.

After a few false starts I ended up applying a much more important criterion as my first step: enthusiasm. Which ones enthused me most?

In the end, it’s me that’s doing the work, and I’m a firm believer that enjoying what you’re doing comes through in the end result. That, in itself, should move me in the vague direction of “best”, if that still matters. Plus, if I only get to make, say, 30 things from my list of several hundred, they really ought to be ones I enjoyed most. This is still a bit of a slippery concept, but it felt easier to apply than best, so I went with it.

 

Killer Combo FTW

With the idea of enthusiasm in mind, I started going through my notes and applying a second notion: combining things. I’ve come up with a lot of different fictional worlds over the years. Many have been developed over a long time, and have evolved and sprawled as they did so. Far too many to do them all justice. So, I challenged myself to see how few I could boil it down to. If things were similar, could they be combined rather than thrown out? What’s unique and interesting about this idea? Can that squeeze in somewhere else or does it need to stand alone? Could these stories fit in that world? How about that character? Item? Dialogue? Magic system? Hairstyle? It’s an interesting exercise, and I think it has made the survivors of this cull more interesting places, with the combinations adding depth. The real world is, after all, a complicated place.

In the end I reduced this list of fictional worlds to a single digit total, which was a big drop from the original number. Not counting one-offs, obviously. They get a pass as they are so much less work.

I’ve also started enforcing the principle that all my new ideas have to fit into one of the shortlisted worlds. This helps avoid the whole thing sprawling out of control again, and so far it’s been working. Admittedly, there are corners of my notes that I haven’t yet corralled, so it’s ongoing, and I’m sure that I’ll come up with the odd one-off idea which simply won’t fit. However, the main boundaries are set now. Just got to make it happen.

This is where Quirkworthy comes in, and this shortlist is the constellation of worlds that I will be exploring here.

line

So where am I? My last post was about Gesamtkunstwerk and the idea of pulling together different creative strands to focus on a unified vision as a way to get the highest quality work. This post has described how I got to my shortlist of what to focus on. Next time, I’ll look at the thread that runs through all of these projects, and the one that has really been my focus all along.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 6 Comments