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?

Posted in Game Design Theory | 2 Comments

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!

Posted in World-Building | 6 Comments

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.


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. 


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 🙂


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!





Posted in Illustration | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in Game Design Theory | 6 Comments

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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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.



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