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The Flipside of Ideas

An illustration of a glowing light bulb surrounded and almost obscured  by a whole bunch of inactive light bulbs.I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is to have diverse influences in your life when you’re attempting to do anything creative. Probably the biggest hindrance to living in such a remote little place as I am now, is that there’s not a lot of external stimuli. Online interaction today appears to herd all of us into our predefined groups as much as possible – suggestions of who to follow based on similarities to who you already follow, music recommendations based on the music you already own…

Still, there’s also the risk of over-saturation. Do you remember the weird plasticine modelling clay you used to play with as a kid? Beautiful, bright colours. But after a while, after smooshing them together and picking them apart tonnes of times, all the different colours started blending. And then, you got to the point where it was simply not possible to pick them apart again and you just mashed them all together. All those pretty colours mixed to become a blob of gross-looking, pasty, off-green sick.

And that’s what will happen if we all try to blend all the awesome things we can think of into one thing all the time. We’ll all simply come up with the same bowl of off-green sick.

A book, game, movie doesn’t need to be everything for everyone all the time. It never can be, and anything that tries to be that, is destined to become bloated and clumsy, and ultimately, a flop.

I actually don’t think I’ve really mentioned this yet, but the game I’m working on combines (predominantly) puzzle game ideas, with RPG elements and has the working title of “Alchemy Hex”. Thus I’m obviously targeting two main demographics: people who like puzzle games and people who like RPGs, with the hope that there’d be a crossover happening, getting mainly-RPG players interested in puzzle games, and vice-versa. In other words – this game will most likely not appeal to RTS players. It will most likely not appeal to FPS players. And that’s okay.

I think the trick is just to never lose sight of your idea in its purest form. That’s why I’m so keen on keeping notebooks and diagrams within easy reach. In the past few weeks, I’ve become so focused on the mechanics of the game and how it influences the level of difficulty, that I started becoming a little obsessed with difficulty levels. If you look at the little notebook icons I made, there’s even a sticker specifically for difficulty level (and in fact, I think it was probably that very aspect that inspired the idea for the notebook stickies in the first place). Then, last week, I looked at my original diagram, and gained a little perspective again: the RPG elements. That’s precisely why I wanted them in there, but I’d kinda lost sight of them. The game’s difficulty will be and should be determined by the skill and ability choices you make. There’s really almost no need for a difficulty level setting at all. It’s basically a moot point. And I’d been spending so much time on trying to figure it out (I think there’s some metaphorical life lesson hidden in there somewhere…).

Fortunately, I had the notes and diagrams to help me regain some focus again and point me back towards my original plan.

A photo of a cork pin-board with two mindmap diagrams as well as plastic bags containing alchemical symbols on hexagonal grids.
My pin-board with the original diagram(s) for my idea, as well as some material that’s been added since then. Of course, a lot of what’s on the diagram isn’t even relevant any longer, but it’s still a crucial document in my process.

Another problem with idea generation though, is when you get a whole bunch of ideas that you think are all really good, all at once. It can be difficult to filter them and keep the really useful ones. At the moment, since I’ve been working primarily with my hands, paper, scissors and glue, the idea of turning this game (which was from its inception intended to be a computer/mobile game) into a board game as well, has been milling around in my mind a lot. I never latched onto it though, since it was never the primary concern.

Besides, I couldn’t imagine how I would make a game intended for one player, into an enjoyable board game.

And then that single little thought triggered a whole avalanche of ideas… “Just make it a board game for two players then.” Which became, “Why don’t I add two-player support to the digital game?” That progressed into a whole brainstorming session of what would constitute a two-player version of the game. Then, multiplayer… It got to a point where I now actually have what I believe to be a legitimate idea for expanding the game into a multiplayer game. I was almost as excited by this as I was when I had the original idea for my game.

But. I’m already in way over my head as it is. Adding multiplayer support at this time will delay the project by months. It’s not so much that the game mechanics or anything would differ drastically, it’s just that on top of everything else, I’d then have to start worrying about network communications, synchronisation of game elements across devices… Will there be a lobby, will it be peer-to-peer or direct connection? Will it be real-time, turn-based, e-mail driven…? That’s all way too much for me to be worrying about now. So… looking back to my original diagrams and the work I’ve already done, I decided that I really want to do the multiplayer thing. But not now. Once the game as originally envisioned is released, and if it is successful enough to warrant expansion, I’ll look into the multiplayer aspect. And then, who knows, possibly the board game idea too.

What I’ve learned from all of this then, is to always stay open to new ideas, but not to lose focus of what it is that I actually set out to do. 😉

PS – Some other interesting things that have happened during the past two weeks, is that I’m now helping out at the local high school. It’s going to be kind of off-topic, but I’ll probably write about that next time.

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Game Design: Winging It

I Have No Idea What I'm Doing Meme

So here’s a confession: I know nothing about game design.

I was never even very good at web design (and so I always went to great pains to refer to myself as a “web developer”, should someone see something I made and go,”Ummm…” Easy to bow out then by sticking on the “developer” side of the fence :P)

What on Earth then has made me think that I can design a game? From scratch…? Well, actually… Nothing did. I don’t know that I can. I do know that I want to try it though, and I do know that I’m busy trying it. And I do know what I do like in games.

I know that I want games to be mentally stimulating and challenging, but not to the point where they frustrate me so much that I want to throw the controller at the screen. I imagine dudebros would refer to me as a “casual” gamer. As such, I’m usually very grateful if a game has a difficulty setting. If I get just a little too frustrated with “Hard” or “Normal” mode (as “Hard” seems to be called nowadays… o_O), it’s nice to know that I can scale it down just a notch and still get a good degree of enjoyment out of a game.

But, I’m finding it’s really difficult to figure out what differences there should be in difficulty levels… I’m starting to suspect that even the basic idea of my game would prove to be rather difficult to complete, so a varying degree of difficulty is almost compulsory if I want people to play the thing and not give up after the first level. I just don’t even know how to go about it thinking about it. Because what I’ve also realised, is that it’s nearly impossible to work this out on paper. And I suppose that’s where that apparently well-known (?) gamedev wisdom (that I’ve obviously only very recently heard), “Make a prototype as soon as possible,” comes from.

I don’t think it matters in the least how well your game works as an idea, or on paper – it needs to work as a game. As Erin Hoffman said, “A game isn’t really a game until someone is playing it.” (Please also refer to this article that I reblogged on my tumblr earlier this week – if you’ve read this far, it’s something you really ought to read as well.)

So how am I ultimately going to design a game without having any experience in game design? I’m going to implement these ideas I have in a real thing, a non-paper thing, a semi-playable thing, and just see if they work. And if they don’t – reboot, rewind, redefine. Or possibly even scratch them entirely and come up with new ones (I had some metaphor in mind all week about pillars and the Mines of Moria or something, but it became all muddled up in my brain and it makes no sense any more…).

I suspect most people think that the programming is the hardest part of making a game, probably followed by the graphics and animation. They may be right. But I – ridiculously inexperienced as I am – firmly believe that by far the hardest part of making a good game, is game design. So suddenly, the significant concern that has plagued me about how to make these hexagon-things actually work in Unity, doesn’t seem quite as terrifying any longer. I’ve started thinking of it as that thing that will actually be assisting me with the part of making a game that’s even more complex. Trial and error, until I get it right. I’ve got the time…

Thus, in the end, I think that the true difference between a professional artist/musician/programmer/whatever, and a newbie, isn’t really measured in skill – it’s measured in efficiency. Someone who’s been doing whatever you’re doing for years and years doesn’t necessarily have more talent or better ideas – they’ve just become “well-oiled”. They can generate ideas far quicker and execute them in far less time than you probably can. And that doesn’t mean they’re better than you are. It means they’re more efficient than you are. And the only way you’re going to reach that level, is by spending lots and lots and lots of time doing that thing (what’s the thing about 10,000 hours…?) Basically – you have to suck before you’re going to get good. Unless you were conceived by an Atari and an NES and your first words were, “Here’s an idea: There’s this Italian plumber…” For everyone else – we have to learn by doing. And failing.

Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try… Ummm… No… Not quite… Try. Fail.

And maybe… someday…

Try.

Success.

That’s the formula I’m going for with my “game design” at this point.

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Reboot – Part 2: To Reinvent or Not

I’ve wanted to “work for myself” for a very long time, possibly since the first job I’ve had. I’ve never functioned well in office environments. Around 2007 – 2008, I tried freelancing as a web developer (as I was formerly employed as exactly that) and ended up hating it so much, that I’ve more or less lost all interest in web development.

What do you do when roughly the only trained skill you have, becomes something you’re not interested in anymore? I harboured dreams of developing stand-alone management applications that I could then sell to clients – a complete software suite that, unlike CMS-based websites, would not necessarily need my continued interaction with the client (aside from support calls, etc.). I certainly had the skills to execute this and yet, it didn’t happen.

What I kept telling myself the problem was (and at least partly, it was), was the inability to make money from such an idea until I had a finished product. In other words, in the couple of months it would take me to develop something like this, I would have no income, but I would still have rather significant expenses. Part-time job? Working on the project in the evenings? I’ve tried that in the past and it just didn’t work for me. I tend to get so involved with the other work that I do, that I end up not having the energy or motivation to work on the project (also, part-time jobs in South Africa generally don’t pay enough to augment this kind of process – the other thing you’re doing would need to bring in money at the same time too, in order to keep up with rent, groceries, etc. So full-circle – the thing I’m doing isn’t currently bringing in money that I can survive on. The End… :/ ).

And this is precisely how the cycle has gone for me, probably since 2005. I get to the point where I realise the job I’m doing doesn’t fulfil me, I need to focus on my own projects, then I quit the job and focus on my projects, but before long, I panic, since there’s no “security” in my own projects… Continue reading Reboot – Part 2: To Reinvent or Not

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Reboot – Part 1: Drastic Changes

Grey arrows going in a circle, the last arrow, a red one, breaks the cycle and points in a new direction.

It’s been a year since I’ve started this blog. In that year, so much has happened, but sadly, very little of it was reflected here.

Shortly after leaving the comfort zone of my former employment, despite all my plans and excitement, I crashed and burned. I have lots of theories about this, but I’ll save that for another time.

I think a big part of my problem (?), is how easy I find it to stop doing something that goes against my grain. The moment I discover that a job/company/work environment stands in direct contradiction of my ethics & principles, I’m out of there. I’ve gotten a little better over the years – actually trying to stick it out and fight the good fight; to try to change things for the better. But in a corporate world, any perceived threat to “how we’ve always done things”, is instinctively fought from the get-go. It’s exhausting and I’ve almost always found it entirely fruitless.

Thus, I found myself in this situation again – having left a “safe” job that went against my principles. However, this time I had big plans. Still, another of my problems, is how easily I come up with plans – lots of them, all the time – but how my fear of failure keeps me from executing them. And yes – some of these plans may be utter nonsense, but at the same time, there may just be a great one among them.

Stewing in my dilemma, unable to choose any course of action, I sat around at home, worrying, getting depressed, even manic… Then, at some point, I decided to at least tell my parents (they had no idea that I was unemployed at this stage). I figured if it became necessary for me to become completely dependent on them, they at least deserved to know how I got to that point.

They then asked me if I wouldn’t consider moving back home to live with them. This was not what I had in mind for my new life of freedom, and I immediately rejected the suggestion. They suggested that I could clear my head, start afresh and do my planning from there.

From a financial point of view, it made sense, but in no other way could I think of this as a practical move. My parents live in a tiny town in the southern Free State. It’s extremely rural, unemployment rates are sky-high, and frankly, there is no work even remotely related to any of the fields I’ve studied. I couldn’t imagine it being a good place to start from. It felt like it would set me back even further than I was already – unemployed with no prospects, but now also in the middle of nowhere, 200km away from the nearest place that can actually be considered a city.

The irony is that, even as far back as 2010, I’ve expressed to another friend how much I’d actually love to live in my home town again. I’ve always loved the peace, the relative solitude, being so close to nature. When he asked me what was stopping me from moving back, I pretty much regurgitated the previous paragraph with some minor changes here and there. It came up again one day. He asked me again what was keeping me from doing it, and when I started listing the reasons again, he interrupted and said that I was just making excuses, because nothing I was telling him sounded serious enough or insurmountable to the extent that it should actually keep me from doing it.

But still, I stuck around, trying to “find my way”.

The turning point came in late April (2013). One day after I was due to go and see a Life Coach I had met to try to sort out my issues (and couldn’t, because my unreliable car gave up on me), my mom phoned me and told me that my dad had been taken up in hospital. He had had a minor stroke. Continue reading Reboot – Part 1: Drastic Changes

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The Ides of March

March was a rough month. Despite the fact that I left my job at the end of February, filled with excitement and passion for the blank slate of the future, I crashed and burned very soon after.

My biggest problem was that I still really didn’t have any idea of what exactly it was that I wanted to occupy myself with. Even though I received a much larger payment than normal (because of excess accrued leave), there were also much larger expenses that I needed to make – three kittens to get spayed, two bent rims on the car to get fixed and a tyre to replace.

After paying most of these, I realised I could actually only afford to get one rim fixed and not even a tyre replaced before I start going very far over budget.

I started thinking about the things I own that I absolutely never use and might be able to sell for a bit of extra cash. The only one that came to mind immediately, was a Marshall amp that I haven’t even plugged in since 2009 – ideal candidate.

Except… That’s roughly when the stress started settling in. Even though I’m trying to follow Leo Babauta’s tips for simplifying my life and getting rid of things that just clutter up the place and that I never use, there’s this stigma attached to selling your things in order to have money to survive. It smacks of desperation and calls to mind some sort of serious addiction. I was feeling like a dismal failure… Continue reading The Ides of March