Archive for the ‘Development Process’ Category

Final Fantasy IV
One game, many playstyles. I want to give players the power to express themselves in pursuit of their goals, to do what they want, when they want, and to empower them to create beautiful and original experiences in the process.

I’m a nut for beauty in myriad forms. My entire life is devoted to creating it, whether it’s beautiful music, beautiful emotions, beautiful pictures, even a beautiful life. It’s not just visuals, but the aesthetics of absolutely everything.

Most games are showcases of the efforts of people making beautiful things. Designers teach each other about how to make rewarding feedback loops and plan difficulty curves, level layouts, cutscenes. They make games that give you tasks and challenge you to learn skills that will let you accomplish them, or provide puzzles and challenge you to tease out a solution. These games create beautiful experiences, and give you chance to immerse yourself in them. They take your ticket, hold your hand, and take you on a guided tour of the museum of amazing gameplay.

It would be easy for me to get carried away by the current, and design games like that. I tell myself (tut tut, I say) that not everyone loves making things as much as I do, and games that lead people along by the nose are the most mass-market games, the way games have to be. Secretly, when I find the need to tell myself these things, I know it’s because I’m suppressing my passion with false pragmatism. Then someone makes The Sims, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, Little Big Planet. BAM. It’s not about difficulty curves anymore. It’s not about cutscenes. It’s not about story, or building a flow channel. It’s about you, the player, doing whatever you want to do, when you want to do it. The world salivates over freedom, and I keep living as a dreamer in denial.

Everyone loves making, customizing, living on their own terms. We play with legos, dolls, action figures. We draw cartoons, write rap lyrics, photograph architecture. We raise children, record videos, tell jokes, plant gardens, dance, sing, pick out clothing, cook food, cheer others up, laugh at jokes, fall in love, build sand castles, play Will Wright games, and in endless other ways, love to make wonderful things, wonderful moments, wonderful relationships, wonderful life. Even when we watch television, we’re appreciating the output of thousands of other creative people, and then we get up and do something amazing of our own.

I’ve devoted my life to creating beauty, and I don’t want to stop with what I can create with my own pen. I don’t just want to make levels, I want to make algorithms that can generate thousands of beautiful levels in the space of a single breath. I don’t just want to create games, I want to create games that empower you to do beautiful things and create beautiful experiences for yourself. I want to empower you to do things I never imagined and have a wonderful time doing it. I don’t want to show off what I did. I want to let you play.


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Childhood Passion

Final Fantasy Tactics

As a kid, I used to read about games only because I wasn’t playing them. My love for games was desperate — my gut would ache, I would feel heat in my stomach, shortness of breath in my longing for other worlds, escapism, power, love, and wonder. When I encountered great gameplay, I basked in it. I loved games so much that it hurt my ability to function in the real world.

One time I took screenshots of Final Fantasy Tactics, at that time released only in Japan, and used the photoshop clone tool to edit out all the Japanese text, replacing it with my own. I visualized what the scenes were about, what the menu options were, how the characters moved across the screen. I wished I could manipulate the placement of characters as well, but the clone tool wouldn’t replace background art. I spent hours crafting and polishing something that nobody would see, just the product of my pining for something that didn’t even exist.

I never look forward to games that way anymore. There’s far greater happiness in my contentment, but there’s a spark I’ve missed. I’ve lost something. Now I read about games because I’m studying my craft. It’s a different kind of passion. It’s like saying I’m passionate about mathematics. I don’t stay up late at night, forgetting to breathe. When I encounter good gameplay, my brain doesn’t explode in joy. The gears turn and I analyze it.

Sometimes I want to experience that wide-eyed childhood passion, and stop thinking so hard about games. Sometimes I want to immerse myself in other worlds and other ways of thinking, to learn new things I’ve never learned before, and be continually amazed. Sometimes I want to lose sleep in anticipation of christmas and birthday presents, and be heartbroken by the difficulty of following social graces instead of rushing to a computer or console to play.

If you make games, and have loved them the way I have, channel some of that raw childhood passion into making the kind of games that would take your inner child’s breath away. It’s not enough to have smart design, precise balance, and clever execution — lose sleep with love of the thing you’re doing. Do the first thing that comes to mind, fly, and at least for a time, let yourself break free of second-guessing, sanity checks, and doubt.

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Team Fortress 2
Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Team Fortress 2. “Talent” itself is no different.

Can Valve make bad games? In an interview with Game Informer a couple of years back, Robin Walker said of Team Fortress 2’s extremely long development cycle:

We were building things that were known as TF2 internally. We ended up building probably three to four different games. We didn’t like many of them. The real changes, for example, we were doing the commander mode stuff that we did in the first version, and it just wasn’t fun. It was one of those great things where in theory it sounds fantastic but when it comes down to individual experiences of players like–the guy being told what to do by the commander, or the commander himself, we just never found something we felt was that fun.

That’s pretty pat. Yes, they can. They just don’t release their bad games.

In her post on Cred vs. Influence, Brenda Brathwaite wrote this about the credibility of brilliant people who make mistakes and become dismissed for them:

I want to see our masters explore new mediums. I want to encourage their creativity and support their efforts even when they don’t succeed – especially when they don’t succeed. I want to acknowledge that there is something in their brain that doesn’t work like the something in my brain or your brain, and give that brain the creativity, the room, the respect, the love and the support it needs to make genius, make mediocre and make garbage. We must encourage the free exploration of ideas, of patterns, of play, and not beat our masters into the ground with their own legends. Otherwise, they stop. They just stop and go away, and we don’t learn from them anymore. We blunt them, and that is a tragedy.

I agree. Her post is about smothering criticism and lack of faith directed at successful people who produce inconsistent and experimental work. My post is about smothering fear and lack of courage coming from amateurs and hopefuls who produce poor and formative work. The lesson is the same, but even more so. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to produce garbage. When you’re charting new territory and exploring new ways of working, it’s inevitable. When you’re learning a skill for the first time, it’s universal.

It is much easier to criticize than praise, to the point that constructive criticism is a difficult and trained skill. And though pursuit of praise is shown to be the more driving motivation in humans, the avoidance of this abundant criticism is itself very powerful; we want to make the grade, live up to expectations, and save face. As a result, many people fear trying their hand at an art that interests them because they are afraid of failure. Others will pursue the art, but are afraid to show it to anyone, so that they can avoid criticism. This fear of failure is one of the greatest mistakes a creative person can make.

When I took a writer’s workshop class in high school, the teacher had an agenda for our writing quality: we were to write the worst garbage ever written, every day, at the start of class, for five minutes straight. This would go in our journals. We turned these in, sure — but by folding a page in half, we could signal to him that we wanted him to skip that page when reviewing what we’d written. Thus, we could write anything. Anything at all. No spelling, no grammar, the same word fifty times in a row, personal, inappropriate, whatever we wanted. And then, once we wrote several pages of stream of consciousness garbage, we would write some more. If this was garbage too, that was fine. If it wasn’t garbage, that was great. But it could still be garbage.

We would give feedback to one another’s work — but it would be three things we liked, and one thing we thought could be improved. The first number could increase. The second number could not. Writing at all mattered more than anything when it came to writing well. You didn’t have to try to write well to learn to write well. Nor did someone have to tell you what was wrong with your writing for you to learn to write well. You just had to write a lot of garbage. Soon enough you wouldn’t be able to help but write better, because you were always learning to write, always refining your voice and clarity with every cluster of letters that you rudely shoved onto the paper. It was crazy. But it worked.

When I took a class on level design, and we started to work on real time strategy maps and first person shooter levels, we took a similar approach. The instructor talked of a study in which pottery students were split into two groups. The first was graded entirely on how many pieces they put out, regardless of quality. The second was graded entirely on the quality of their final project. It should come as no surprise that the first group produced far worse work at the beginning — and far better work by the end. They didn’t even have to be told to produce better work. They just could, and they wanted to. Nobody had to push them to do better work. They just had to produce lots of garbage and they couldn’t help but improve. We approached level design from the same angle.

But it was when I took DigiPen’s introductory drawing class from B. J. Becker that this philosophy was taken to a whole new level. Two hundred sketches a week, every week. That was homework. Quite a few more in class. Emphasis on speed and emotion. And then, when we showed our work in class, we threw it on the ground, where everyone could see everything. He walked around the room, criticizing and praising at will, and calling most of it crap. He would walk or draw on drawings, getting his hands dirty, leaving footprints and corrective scribbles all over student work. Then we would start again. For those who entered with their egos held high, he quickly destroyed them. Like the army, he would demolish your old preconceptions, and rebuild you into a machine that serves his purpose — to become an artist. I entered as a mostly straight A student, and exited with a failing grade. Then I came back to take it as a summer class with my full focus, and was proud to walk away with a B-.

Because in fact Professor Becker succeeded. He changed the way I looked at not just drawing, but learning in general. You’d make crap. Lots of crap. And you would try to make it good. But you wouldn’t worry too much about it if it wasn’t good. You’d just make some more. And if people criticized your work, and called it crap, and ridiculed it, and literally stepped on and scribbled on your best work, you would just look at it differently and realize if they’re right. In so doing, you would improve. It’s still great when people love your work, but your passion comes from in you.

They say you learn by making mistakes. But when you learn an art, try to train a creative skill, to develop “talent”, you don’t just make mistakes. You make foul, horrific, disgusting trash. Things nobody wants to see because they’re just that bad. The professional isn’t good because they’re blessed and don’t make garbage. They’re good because they keep making garbage, they keep learning. Eventually they have so much experience doing poor work that they develop professional consistency — and then you pay them lots of money to do their art, because you can’t tell when they’re screwing up, since even their mistakes look good to you.

That can be someone else who goes through all that work. Or it can be you. Some of the most brilliant and skilled people have produced more garbage and made more severe mistakes than most amateurs ever will. You just have to accept that and stop expecting yourself to be perfect, instead pursuing the craft because you love the craft, and you can train that brilliance in yourself.

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Starcaft 2 Third Person Shooter Mod
Giving level designers potent tools allows them to surprise you. Blizzard promises that Starcraft 2’s campaign editor will do just that, empowering players to create entirely new game types, like this third person shooter mod created in-house.

Making your level designers happy and creating emergent gameplay are actually not very different things. They aren’t linked in the sense that they go hand in hand, but they do need the same things to craft interesting experiences. Emergent gameplay can be encouraged by increasing the number of verbs available to the player, objects in the world, and interactions between verbs, objects, and object behaviors. Empowering level designers works much the same way — the more parts they can play with in the editor, the more things they can do with those parts, and the more mechanics in the game, the more often they will surprise you and the more interesting and varied the gameplay they can create.

A great example of this is Little Big Planet. We might say this game has emergent gameplay because players can make incredible adventures up to and including tetris, space invaders, and asteroid lander games, which are then published online for other players to use, far above and beyond the content put into the game. But it’s not really emergent gameplay, per se — it’s that they packaged a level editor into the game, and the level editor exposes immense potential for interaction and creativity. They cast their audience as level designers and then greatly empowered them.

It doesn’t take a mountain of complexity to gain traction here, just interacting mechanics and interesting tools. Given only blocks, running, and jumping, a good level designer can still maintain the player’s interest in a platformer for a fair amount of time. But give them spikes, fall damage, breakable floors, pressure plates, openable gates, weapons, enemies, and health potions, and they’ll build you Prince of Persia.

More than just opening up possibilities, the more level designers are empowered through the interaction of the content and mechanics, the more they will have fun making levels. Creating a game becomes its own game to them; they play and entertain at the same time. It’s like dungeon mastering. It’s why they love game design.

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I’m very lazy.

There’s a bit of a qualification in order here, however — I say I’m lazy because I hate work and love play, and spend a fair amount of energy avoiding or procrastinating work in order to play more. In fact, my love of play, and desire to share this with others, is part of what drives me to make things that others can play with. But I’m also perfectionist. That means I tend to avoid starting new projects, but while I’m working on something, I work hard to make it good. Then, if nobody is lighting a fire under my ass, I tend to get bored and wander away leaving it half-finished. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does things like this, because questions about this sort of behavior pattern is all over personality tests.

Recently, Mike Pondsmith, the instructor teaching our game mechanics class, assigned us to play Cafe World on Facebook for five days. Now, I avoid games like this. I avoid persistent online games in general because they are work-ish to me, requiring an ongoing commitment. But like reading books, having someone order me to do it is a fairly decent way of getting me to make that commitment. So I played Cafe World. And I made a nice, pretty cafe, and built a spreadsheet analyzing the economy of the game and determining optimal strategies, and downloaded apps to help me schedule my time, and ended up with the highest score in the class. Because even though I wouldn’t normally play a game like that — and I quit playing immediately after the next class — once I got into it, I was in it to win it and my perfectionism kicked in.

In another example, I recently started a Let’s Play and Tutorial video series to teach new players how to play Liberal Crime Squad, an open source game by the guys behind Dwarf Fortress that I serve as the de facto maintainer for. Now, once I committed to doing that, I went the whole nine yards, getting the right software, multiple test runs, experimenting to find the best file format to maximize picture quality without clogging my hard drive, prewriting to plan out what I wanted to cover, and so on. For the first ten minute video, I spent a good five or six hours getting everything right. Feedback was strongly positive, and I’ve made fifty minutes of video total. But the playthrough isn’t finished, there’s more to cover, and I haven’t worked on it in weeks. Do I have time? Sure! I’m just lazy about it.

I worry about this. One way to describe my version of laziness is a lack of initiative. I do what is expected of me, and I do it as well as I possibly can, because I take pride in my work, but beyond that, I do very little. I don’t usually attend conventions, I avoid the unknown, I don’t network proactively, and I dread applying for things (colleges, scholarships, internships, jobs) for no other reason than because self-promotion is a LOT of unsatisfying work. Unfortunately, those are the types of things I’m afraid I have to do if I’m going to end up where I want to be. I’m not incredibly ambitious, but I do want to spend my life doing what I love while surrounded by brilliant people, and to do that I have to attend conventions, embrace new experiences, network, and apply aggressively.

The interesting counterpoint to this is that when left without obligations of a creative nature, I become discontent. I feel like I’m wasting my time, wasting my life, wasting my abilities. I become driven to do productive things. I become proactive because nobody is pushing me do things. This is how I worked through homeschooling, this is how I got into developing Liberal Crime Squad, and this is how I started this blog — I abhor work, but I am driven to do things, and to do them extremely well if at all possible.

I’m sure there’s plenty of people like me in the industry. I just worry I’ll have trouble getting a job at a studio that will satisfy my perfectionism and surround me with brilliant people.

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As I walked up behind her computer, my mom’s scout class hero was retreating behind a group of her own buildings, while an enemy army closed in to slay the hero. When the other player somewhere across the Internet took his turn, he cleverly decided to seal the exits, trapping my mom’s scout back here in hostile territory, where she had no escape. With little health and a line of forbidding pikemen facing her, she couldn’t survive charging the enemy lines. Mom explained the situation to me, and I suggested destroying of the buildings — the other player had treated them as impassible terrain, but because the buildings were owned by my mom, they could be quickly dismantled to enable her scout to slip through past enemy lines and toward safer areas, before the pikemen could close in. The maneuver worked — by sacrificing a single non-critical building, she escaped and her scout lived to scout again.

I got my mom a glass of water (no ice) and attended to other matters, until I heard her call my name. I came and she said “Dude, look at this.” Her scout hero was coming up behind her opponent’s hero as they explored a new area. Here were two unique buildings — a unique mine that produced double gold, and a unique logging yard that produced double wood. Both were neutral, and could be captured or destroyed by either player. Together, they were virtually game-winning, if they could be held. Suddenly, by some chance of the map generator, this little forest nestled up against impassible mountains had become a major point of contention.

Her opponent’s hero was not a scout however, and didn’t have the sight range to detect pursuit. The opposing hero charged up and siezed the mine, then proceeded past the two buildings up to the base of the mountains to pick up a one-shot resource pickup that was one of the many placed randomly in the map to further reward exploration. Mom wanted to capture this area too — but she had only that scout hero in play, and it couldn’t go face to face with the more combat oriented opposing unit in a straight fight. She asked what I thought, and we agreed on a cunning plan…

Mom rode her scout up to capture the other building, then immediately constructed a fort in front of it. While her opponent busied himself just out of sight range with collecting resources, she used the one-turn reprieve to construct a hasty army, built from all of the gold she had left in her reserves. Two units were more powerful, level 2 combat units, while the rest were level 1 combat and utility units. She needed to build a mixed army that looked more scary and effective than it was. From here, she spread them out in a line, and trapped the opposing hero against the mountains, using her opponent’s unique mine building as if it were impassible terrain. As the opposing hero quickly returned to face this assembling host, we worried he would judge the army and scout to be insufficient to stop his hero, or that he could break through where priests or peasants were all that held the line and thereby escape. Instead, he fell for it — destroying his own precious double efficiency building, he fled the area, repeating my mom’s earlier maneuver and leaving the lumber yard to her to capture and fortify.

When we saw the frustrated message from the other player indicated he was nearly ready to rage quit over the degree to which he was getting outmaneuvered by that measly scout, my mom literally laughed out loud. She said she had no sympathy — his hero could have easily broken through elsewhere in the line. I agreed. The whole maneuver could have collapsed as he brought in reinforcements before we could retake the mine, and with little money left, we wouldn’t be able to reinforce from the fort. He lost this corner of the map because he didn’t play the best game he could, and because he fell for a trick designed to get him to use a maneuver demonstrated earlier in the game, even though using it here was to his detriment.

Mom was on her way to winning the game when I suddenly woke up from my afternoon nap. I realized that everything I’ve said in this post so far was a dream — and that the game my mom was playing was as fictional as her opponent. I studied dreams and dream interpretation in high school, and am blessed with frequent, memorable, and vivid dreams of my own. This particular brand of dream, in which my subconscious designed a significant proportion of a video game that doesn’t exist in the real world, then has me play it, first happened to me in middle school — and today’s dream was the second day in a row that I’ve had one.

I’ve been told I’m very creative, but I think that often means that I work hard on making the few ideas I actually have presentable. It’s like the famous Thomas Edison quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninty-nine percent perspiration. Even so, that flash of inspiration at the very beginning is still necessary. Thinking of the PAX 10 this weekend, whether it’s DigiPen’s own Tag or my roommate’s Closure, these games win recognition and admiration because of the flash of insight, the kernel of the idea that bore them, not the months and months of labor that were absolutely necessary to make that idea into a reality that could impress people.

When I think of creativity, I’m thinking of ideas. I’m thinking of the inspiration that has the potential to give birth to amazing new things. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough of that… and at other times, I feel reasonably confident. I dream about games that are conceived and designed in my sleep, by my subconscious. This dream explored emergent possibilities and tactics, first strategizing and then judging courses of action; it included unit types and power comparisons; it even brushed across the underlying world creation mechanics.

I do have plenty of ideas. And as long as new ones come to me in my dreams, I always will.

I hope anyone reading this will consider commenting on this post in particular — I’m interested in hearing if other players or designers have similar experiences in your dreams, coming up with new ideas. If you’re an architect, do you design buildings in your sleep? If you’re a musician, do you compose music in your sleep? Do you ever write down or otherwise record these ideas? Do you ever act on them?

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