The Creative Flow


I’ve gone over feeling in games quite a few times already in previous posts, but I’d like to touch upon it once more.  This time I’d like to try to focus on my actual process a bit.  We’re making a lot of headway with our current project for a great client who has given me 100% freedom to explore his game’s design (as Lead Designer), and I think that I’m on to something.  Before I even begin working on Pre-Production, I’m already working inside of my head, circulating ideas around my brain stem and percolating feelings within that.  I’ll mainly be winging it here, as I’ve not actually given this too much thought aside from a few passing hours here-and-there, so please bear with me and try to follow along.

1.  Thoughts:  In the early stages of our process, when we’re juuuuust getting a client on-board, I will immediately begin to analyze their brand and their message.  Who they are, what their product or brand is, and what message they convey not only explicitly, but implicitly.  How they carry themselves, how they act, how they speak to me.  This part is the most crucial, because it always informs the rest of my creative process.  I analyze whether or not they are a “nostalgia machine”, if their brand relies on throwback references to the 80’s/90’s, what their lingo and lexicon are like, and what their audience is.  We’ve been extremely lucky so far to have been working with very creative producers of nostalgic material, which has led us down the “2D pixel” route, but there are infinite brands and feelings out there, so I stay alert.  At this stage I’m taking in a ton of input from them as data, and arranging my thoughts with this information.  Mixing it around.  Thinking about it and letting all of that simmer.

2.  Feelings:  The next step, after my brain is full and solid, is to begin connecting those first thoughts (now more complex and accurate with respect to the brand) to feelings in game-form.  This part is much more nuanced, as it requires me to begin extrapolating my thoughts into possible or potential game formats.  2D side-scroller, platformer, top-down exploration, color schemes, juice, etc. etc. etc.  In my head I play through dozens of game scenarios, utilizing three decades of game experience (not game dev experience, just game playing experience) and I make sure to note everything that just feels right with respect to my thoughts on the client and their brand.  I DO NO PHYSICAL WORK at this stage.  Everything is being done in my head, and this is important because I don’t want to get distracted by outside input.  This part feels more pure to me, like playing inside of a cosmic game system made of smoke and clouds.  Everything moves at my whim, and I can change anything at any time and play it back.  It’s creatively pure, and perhaps ironically one of the most satisfying and freeing stages of the process.

This is basically me for the first month.  I'm insufferable.

3.  References:  Once I’ve begun to feel myself hooked on a possible game scenario, usually by consistently returning to it in my head (basically becoming addicted to it), I feverishly dig into video game references across history, my own library, and Google.  This is the point where I actually begin manipulating the outside world through playing other games, watching other games, studying movement, game flow, and styles of lots of different games in order to further refine the huge chunk of granite that is my idea.  My job at this stage is to follow through the Thought -> Feeling -> Idea process and produce a game design which I then present to the rest of the gang, including visual references and concept pieces that I draw up myself in order to supplement the idea.  I need to get the feeling across to them, as video games primarily ride on the back of the players’ primitive-but-honed autonomic responses, and that is best done through visual representation as well as verbally walking them through the precise sequence from a player’s point of view.  “This is how it will feel to (do X action)”.

4.  Feedback:  This part is all about communication.  Lots of back-and-forth with the rest of the team, adding things, subtracting things, generally honing the design down into a more perfect specimen.  If the idea were that block of granite, this is the part where we mark the lines where we will chisel.  All of us have the client’s best intentions at heart here, and we mark the granite at our own unique angles, utilizing my first three stages as a general base from which to work.  Each of us also play different sets of games in order to gain additional insight into achieving more feeling from the design.  This part is hugely collaborative and really involves lots of communication, which is a skill in itself.

5.  Pre-Production:  Once we’ve settled on an idea, Nick and I will immediately set to work for an allotted amount of time (2 weeks to 1 month) to bang out a very rough prototype.  Think of it like a miniature copy of the granite block that we quickly hew into a small, rough statue to show everyone what the actual piece will eventually look like.  The focus here are absolute fundamentals.  We get the base art down, though rough and ugly, as it must at least move in a way signifying the final product.  And the feeling of the mechanics must be felt here by the end of this stage.  We iterate.  Iterate.  ITERATE!  We cut away and add as needed until we hit the sweet spot and the whole thing, though extremely raw, feels right.  An extremely important second goal here is to make it easy for others, ourselves and our client, to extrapolate from this rough version.  I want to hear something like “I can definitely see where you’re going with this.”  That’s key.  And it must be genuine.  Everyone else needs to understand the vision by the end of this stage.  If they don’t, we RE-ITERATE until they do.

diskobolos, 2nd Century BC.  Literally a ton of work went into this.

6.  Production:  Once we’re not only agreed on the vision, but unanimously excited about it, then we set to work on the granite markings.  On the statue itself.  This is the part of production which is actual production.  The heavy lifting, the long, sleepless nights of coding, digital drawing, animating, level building, and on and on.  The stuff I don’t need to drone on-and-on about when you can simply go search all of it for yourself on YouTube.  This is the stuff you might have already gotten a taste for in your own pursuits.  But at least stages 1 through 4 might be new, novel, or fresh to you.

And there you have it.  A little overview of our months-long process ramping up toward a development timeline.  I hope you’re able to get something interesting out of it.  It's time for me to get right back into the thick of things here, so please feel free to shoot me a comment or question below!  Have a great rest of the week, good luck and good skill in your development, and KEEP PLAYING!