Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Mapping my Own Creative Process – How I (Don’t) Work

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 17, 2016

FK2JanCollectionI think I’ve discovered something about how my brain works. I don’t know if it’s cool or stupid, or just plain weird. All three, probably. Except cool. Maybe it’s cool that I’m finally figuring it out, and now I just need to know how to adapt to it.

I’ve been Game Mastering RPGs for local groups since I was 12 years old. While I’d sometimes run game modules, I loved designing my own adventures. What I’ve found is that it’s very hard for me to come up with a nice top-down design from the get-go. I work best thinking in terms of scenes and vignettes. I have to basically put my brain into the thick of these cool battles and adventures, see them in my minds eye, and then figure out a way to chain them together and give them structure. It’s like trying to make sense of a dream after you wake up. These connections foster creativity for other ideas. My best designs are bottom-up.

When I’m designing video games – particularly an RPG – I have the same problem, which makes it very difficult to organize a project from front – end. Again, I work best when I’m down in the guts of the thing, rather than trying to design from a 30,000-foot view. My creativity gets engaged once I’m already in the thick of things, laying down walls and encounters. Which is a SERIOUS pain in the butt, actually, because things are much harder to change when you are at that level.

When writing, I have tried very hard to outline and structure my stories from the top, so I know what I’m writing long before I start putting the details down on the paper. I fail almost every time. Not that I fail to outline… I outline just fine. But like they say, “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” and no plan survives contact with paper. I can rack my brain and spend weeks working out ideas, but its not until I’m actually writing the words on the paper that the best ideas start flowing. And they usually play hell with the outline. In fact, I’ve only had two stories really match how I planned them to play out from the get-go. And they were not my strongest stories. Some authors talk about how their characters take control once they start writing. Maybe it’s like that, but it feels like the story itself morphs in front of my eyes, and takes the characters with it, changing them to best fit the drama. Although that might be more of an artifact of stand-alone short stories, where the characters are more malleable.

Now, structure is still important. Perhaps it is even more important, in these kinds of situations.  If I design and write from the bottom up (or, in the parlance of writing, it’s more “discovery” writing… or, as some call it, “pantsing,” as in “seat-of-the-pants”), the need to keep an eye on the target and the mileposts is even more critical. Contrary to popular belief, for most people, limitations and structure actually aid creativity in most cases. For example, saying, “Create an RPG encounter for a low-level party” can cause either a level of creative paralysis or a tendency to fall back on familiar, overused tropes (Goblin attack! Giant rats in the basement!). But if you say, “Create an encounter with a dragon that is appropriate for a low-level party,” watch out! Ideas might start flying. Maybe it’s a baby dragon. Or maybe the party isn’t supposed to fight the dragon. Maybe the dragon asks their help! Or maybe its something the party must do to react to a dragon attack on the town. Or… something. Once a problem is defined, creativity starts flowing. If things are wide open or mushily-defined (for me), and if the goalposts aren’t really clear, the creative part of my brain gets lazy.

So the end result is… how do I take advantage of it?

For dice-and-paper gaming, I’ve found that the solution is just to start writing. I need to define the parameters… what the objective of the party is supposed to be, what their campaign obstacles are, and maybe some rough ideas about where they are going. If I have any cool ideas for scenes or encounters, I add those. But then I need to start writing things out. I don’t necessarily have to write it in full prose form for a third party to decipher, but it definitely needs to be detailed out for myself with enough information that I can understand it two or three weeks later.

For writing, it’s still an evolving process. I find I do need to have that structure and characters and concept in place to begin with, simply to have a place to start from. My creativity needs a foundation. So I think something along the lines of a minimal outline work best. I want a general idea of where I’m going to begin with, even if I know darn well that halfway through the process, all of that will change. That’s the advantage of a minimal outline… it’s all easy to change after-the-fact.

For game development… I’ve been at this HOW MANY YEARS and haven’t really gotten it down to a science yet? I think the answer remains in rapid prototyping and iteration. Which I do, and then I don’t do. It’s like I get it down to a rhythm where things are working, but then I second-guess myself because I’m not doing it the way I’ve been taught that I’m supposed to do it. The industry and marketing and everything else works best on “vertical slices” – get one section of the game working perfectly and looking ready to ship, and then finish writing the game. But when I do that – and it’s a hard habit to break – I spend all this time working on systems that I try to make perfect and ship-worthy, only to find they don’t work with the game as a whole and need to be torn out and replaced.

More and more, I’m convinced that the best approach *FOR ME* is to simply build a skeletal version of the entire game, with crappy everything, see how it plays, and then iterate. If I was the only guy working on the game, that would probably work. But other people don’t work that way. In a team, it’s very difficult to get everything to work that way. It’s very hard to catch a vision from someone else when you have only a raw, draft “skeleton” to look at.

This requires much more noodlin’ on. I hope to figure it all out sooner rather than later.



Filed Under: Design, Dice & Paper, Game Development, Writing - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    In your defense, the way videos games are made change every six months. Whether it’s the competition, the tech, or that consumers are fickle… nothing remains the same.

    Its funny though because I have the exact same thoughts often enough. I KNOW how I work best, but I often find myself reverting to traditional ways because I need to make it “work for the marketing” or something.

    I’m a big fan of rapid prototypes, and even paper prototyping as a way to solidify systems… but lord knows I’m far from having any process that actually works.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The flip side of the iterative process is that after a point it gets very hard to see the forest for the trees. You get used to seeing something broken or ugly or confusing for so long, you no longer see it. You are used to it.

  • Tom H. said,

    In professional gamedev, doesn’t one stereotypically prototype, with a small fraction of a full team, before building out a vertical slice? A prototyping phase should soak up a lot of those early iterations and radical systems changes.

  • Tesh said,

    Your brief aside on “vertical slice” trouble is exactly why I resist them when I have the chance in game dev. A perfectly polished vertical slice almost always results in tons of wasted time.

    …of course, the suits in an office somewhere without an imaginative bone in their body have to see such things before they understand the game, and marketers need stuff to work with… but then, when the final game isn’t like the vertical slice *because it almost never is*, nobody is happy, and the devs take all the blame.

    I think it’s a toxic feedback loop that makes games worse. I suspect a similar effect can happen with writing, though a lot of that loop is internal.

  • McTeddy said,

    Hey Tom, in my experience the answer is “Nope.”

    Game dev has relatively high prototyping costs and, at least at my studio, we were living title to title. This meant that most of our games were sold purely as an “Idea” and “Design Document” that were sadly untested and unproven.

    Once dev starts, it’s implementing pre-designed systems that have already been promised. We may do prototypes for tech, but redesigning and rewriting is already expensive at this point.

    Obviously, this IS dumb and failed spectacularly but some studios ain’t that bright.

    It’s not just small game studios either. I can recall a certain high-profile AAA flop in the last couple years that had to be rebuilt from the ground up because they only discovered it wasn’t fun after 2 years of dev and multiple showings at game shows.

    Rapid, cheap prototyping is important and if AAA actually wants to create better games for less money more studios have to embrace it.