Thursday, March 31, 2011

Creativity and the Interpretation of Dreams

A few minutes ago, I was placing an entry into my Dream Log.  This is the journal where, for almost the last five years, I’ve documented all of my dreams.  At least, I’ve documented the ones I’ve managed to remember.  As a result of this one caveat, the log is considerably shorter than it should be.  Sometimes, I go for a stretch as long as one or two months before coming up with any sort of memorable dream.  Other times, I wake up three mornings in a row acutely aware of what was in my head the previous night.  This past month has been pretty dry.

While entering in my latest dream (which had something to do with Frank Sinatra deliberately ignoring me in my grandmother’s living room), I realized that my last dense cluster of logged dreams occurred when I was in the middle of writing my newest design document.  In a desperate effort to add one more piece to my portfolio before GDC, I had been completing my first game design in two years.  It felt great to have the creative juices flowing again.  I was brainstorming (by myself, somehow), testing game systems in my head, and constantly jumping around the problem of how to create a game that should, by conventional means, be impossible to create with modern technology.  It was a sea of creative energy I hadn’t been immersed in since my sophomore year of college, and frankly, it felt great.

At the same time, I started waking up with new dreams in my head.  It probably wasn’t the most productive dream cycle I’ve ever had, but the best one in a long time.  Since completing the main design and returning from GDC, the development process has come to a screeching halt.  Aside from the growing concerns of everyday life, I’ve been wrapped up in the frustration of not knowing where to go for information and not wanting to perform the research I’ll need to actually complete my game.  The creative energy has tapered off into a sea of internal mental debate and complaining.  In that same time, the dreams have come to a screeching halt.

This is what brings me to today’s thoughts.  I know that dreams can be useful in aiding creativity, but does this relationship work in reverse, as well?  Does a creative mindset actually aid in the retention of dreams?  I would say it does, and while I’m not in a position to truly test this hypothesis, I feel that it makes some logical sense.  Dreams have so much to do with imagination, and the imagination is incredibly active during a creative process.

When working on a design, there are so many factors to consider.  How does the game look and feel?  How does this system or that system work?  What kind of style fits with the mechanics?  Never mind these questions, but also all of the intricacies of each of these questions and the miniscule details that make up their answers.  Your brain is always searching for a new way around each problem.  Thoughts come and go in your head, and as you enter into the right frame of mind, thoughts that would normally flash by without notice stand out.  You start to take note of the little things that pop up in your mind, no matter how basic.  As you do, new ideas begin to occur to you; ideas that suddenly make perfect sense (or, at least, make more sense than they would in everyday life).

When I think about creativity this way, it’s easy to see how it might impact the way I interpret my dreams.  Dreams themselves often seem to work in much the same way as those random thoughts that suddenly fit together and make perfect sense.  Dreams combine elements hiding away somewhere in your brain and somehow blend them into a situation you believe and accept.  That is, of course, until you wake up.  When I wake up from a dream, my first thought is generally, “Wait…no…that doesn’t actually make sense at all.  There was a car driving on the same surface as a jet-ski.  Why did I think that was normal?”  Like the random idea that comes and goes unnoticed, the dream suddenly doesn’t work.  My brain discounts it as nonsense and throws it away, whether I want it to or not.  However, under the creative mindset, my mind seems more receptive to the idea of that dream.  When I’m being creative, everything seems more useful.  I tend to hold onto that dream as though it’s somehow going to prove beneficial to me later.  It may be apropos of nothing in my current life situation, but my brain is trained to pay attention to it.

I find it to be a fascinating cycle.  Ideas presented in dreams can help to jump-start creativity through their randomness and vague sense of believability.  At the same time, creativity can help put me in a mindset to be more aware of those dreams and consider their potential.  With the way these two concepts seem to feed off of each other, it’s amazing how easy it is to drop out of a creative mindset.  All it takes is a few days of neglecting to apply those creative thoughts to solving problems.  A single distraction can break the cycle and ruin a thrilling streak of creativity.

I think the main idea to take away from this line of thinking is that it pays to pay attention to your dreams.  The way you see your dreams reflects on the way you see the rest of the world.  As with most things, it’s easier said than done. 

Then again, this was a pretty complicated topic to discuss, so I could be wrong on that last fact.   

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Woes of Networking

It’s been almost a month since I returned from GDC ‘11 (or GDC 25 if you want to confuse matters).  As I recall from my attendance of GDC ’09, it seems to still be the place to go for inspiration when you’re looking to create games.  It feels great to talk games with people who know games, hear talks from industry professionals, and act like a true member of the community.  Moreover, it’s great for an upstart developer like myself to sit in a packed lecture hall and hear someone like Nintendo President Satoru Iwata call you a “colleague”.  It’s a somewhat empty statement, but it does make you think, “Do I really work in the same business as that man?”

Nonetheless, when all is said and done, GDC has never quite been able to come through for me.  I attended this year’s GDC with the hope, possibly the last-ditch hope, that I would hit it off with someone who has the power to recommend me for a job.  Failing that, I was at least hoping to learn something that could really help me in my efforts to develop independently.  Unfortunately, I fall into a category of game developer that GDC isn’t really designed for - an independent designer looking for a team to work with.  Then again, it could just be me.

I’ve never been great with the game conferences.  This is only the fourth conference I’ve attended (along with MIGS ’08, GDC ’09, and MIGS ’09), and though I’m getting better at the whole process, I’ve found that networking isn’t a process that comes easily.  Montreal International Game Summit 2008 was the first game conference of any kind that I attended.  I was still a student at the time, and it served as a means to simply discover what this sort of event was like.  I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, which is good news.  I was still occupied with school, and even if I was offered a job, I had no plans to take it if it were to interfere with my graduation.  As a result, I didn’t attend MIGS to meet people.  I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing at MIGS ’08, never mind actually getting something done.  Rather, MIGS gave me a chance to dip my feet into the whole experience before attending GDC ’09.

Though I knew more what to expect, GDC ’09 was still something I wasn’t entirely prepared for.  I had prepared some business cards by this time, but still being a student, my portfolio was still in the works and I suffered many of the ills of MIGS.  My flagship portfolio piece, Project I, was still in mid-development as a senior project.  Not only that, during the time my friends and I were at GDC, Project I was being run through the blender and completely reworked, so we had that looming over our heads.  The added size of GDC over MIGS threw me another curveball.  That blow was lessened by the fact that I had only been able to afford an Expo Pass, but said pass severely limited my access to the conference.  I still wasn’t sure what the whole networking thing was about, but I did my best perusing the show floor and Career Pavilion for three days.

I knew my graduation would be coming soon, so I was more interested in obtaining a job by this time.  Still, as I had little to show, it quickly became apparent that nothing much was going to become of my time there.  I returned from GDC ’09 with the sense that it was actually a poor networking experience.  The Career Pavilion was staffed with HR personnel who weren’t interested in discussing their products, students much younger than myself filed through assembly-line job application booths, and it seemed like the only people you could actually talk to were amateur fans only interested in throwing out as many résumés as they could.  I greatly enjoyed being able to attend, but it all felt a little bit worthless.

I didn’t begin actively applying to industry jobs until just before MIGS ’09.  This was the first conference I would attend as a graduate looking for a job.  There’s not too much to say about MIGS ’09, other than the fact that I learned a useful lesson: game conferences aren’t just about meeting big-time speakers.  I had spent much of my time at MIGS ’09 waiting around after talks in an attempt to strike up a conversation with the speakers.  These people, according to my logic, were the only people who mattered.  They had the expertise and positions to qualify as speakers at a major industry event.  What good were the attendees?  They were in the same boat as me, showing up to learn something new.

That was the big lesson I took away from MIGS ’09.  A game industry event is attended by industry professionals.  It doesn’t matter if attendees or speakers are major executives or college freshmen…they’re there because they have an interest in games.  More importantly, everybody knows somebody.  Making a connection to a professional through a friend of a friend of a friend isn’t that far gone from making a direct connection to that same professional.  It didn’t occur to me until long after the conference that networking wasn’t necessarily about meeting important people, but just about meeting people.  The more people you know, the more access you have to the right person.

With that in mind, I set out for this year’s GDC.  This time, I knew what to expect.  This time, I would go in prepared.  I drew up a plan of which lectures to attend long in advance, and I started drafting out some questions that I thought might pertain to the topics of the talks.  Even if I didn’t get to ask them, they would at least make me a more active thinker.  Unlike MIGS ’09, I promised myself that I wouldn’t ignore colleagues just to push my own agenda.

All told, it hasn’t paid off yet.  However, I felt much more productive at GDC ’11 than I did at any previous industry event.  I came home with my supply of business cards nearly exhausted and a fresh stack of new cards from various attendees, mostly people in my same situation.  I quickly took the initiative to contact everyone who gave me a card, and received back a number of replies.  Seeing presentations of independent games in a massive awards show is a massively inspiring force, and I returned from the event hyped to get back in tune with the world of games and get something completed, published, and shipped to the public.

And yet, while this all felt very good and very effective, the old ways have returned.  Everyone I met has dropped off the radar.  Any applications I filled out at or since GDC have completely vanished into the ether without so much as a “your application is no longer being considered.”  It’s nothing I can really blame the event for…it’s more the fact that I just don’t take an interest in what people do.

In short, none of the problems I have with GDC are anything I can really peg on GDC itself.  It mostly comes down to my own social ineptitude and lack of expertise.  However, I will say this much: networking events like GDC do not smile upon the introverted.  I always find it fascinating that an industry so full of introverts requires some serious extroversion in order to break into it.  To some degree, it makes sense.  Game development is a very team-oriented exercise, and communication is key in getting anything done.  I know this all too well.  Still, I find it annoying that you need to act like everyone’s annoying, probing friend in order to make any inroads.

Regardless of how effective it may or may not be in aiding a job search, GDC is an event I would never hesitate to attend if the opportunity should arise again.  It really is a fantastic event.  I would just prefer to be raising the money to attend GDC by actually making games.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


To me, it's a sign of a thoroughly-tested game when, after eight years and dozens of devoted playthroughs, you discover a new, miniscule detail that the developers have accounted for. Okay, maybe that's a bit complicated to use as a personal slogan, but that doesn't make it any less true.

I was recently playing though my all-time favorite game, Metroid Prime. This is a game I've been through at least thirty times. I know every nook and cranny of the game world. I've often stated that if I woke up in a random location on Tallon IV (the planet on which the game takes place), I would be able to find my way out...given access to the proper survival equipment. You get the basic idea. I am intimately familiar with this game - how it works, how it looks, and how it feels. Hopefully, you can understand my surprise when I discovered something new.

In the Chozo Ruins section of the Metroid Prime world, there is a room which contains a mirror. This mirror, to my knowledge, is the only accessible mirrored surface in the entire game. Taking place from a first-person perspective, the game does not regularly feature a full model of main character Samus Aran in order to save on space. Instead, most of the time, all that exists is a partial model of a gun hovering in front of a heads-up display. Thus, the reflection that appears in the mirror is not a true reflection, but a dynamic two-dimensional image. In other words, it's a picture that animates interactively, changing based on where the player stands. The overall effect is the appearance of a reflection. Now, I've looked at this image in all sorts of ways. I've turned left and right, jumped up and down, moved forward and back, and twisted all around. This time, however, something different occurred to me: what would happen if I entered into Morph Ball mode while looking at this reflection? This transition involves a swap from first-person to third-person view, and it's a custom animation which doesn't match the pose Samus holds in the reflection. I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, the mirror accurately matched the reflected image to the in-game animation.

I know, this seems like a fairly trivial observation. Indeed, it's a pointless addition to the game. It's hard to imagine that having that extra animation in there would have any impact on Metroid Prime's gameplay. For that matter, why waste the resources to make that mirror and program that reflectivity at all? The mirror is in place purely for aesthetic purposes, and its very existence demands the addition of this false reflection effect. Nonetheless, the people at Retro Studios took the time to not only add this effect, but take into accout all of the actions it must respond to. The end result is an object which, in fact, DOES affect gameplay. This mirror is unique, and its presence is enough to catch your eye, however briefly, and slow you down. Small details like this are prevalent throughout the game. Many go unnoticed, but their inclusion is genuinely vital. They each add to the illusion that is the game world, enhancing that ever-important concept of "believability". That believability is one of the key aspects that instantly made Metroid Prime into my favorite game of all time.

I figured Prime was a good topic of discussion for my first blog post about gaming and game design. Being the favorite game that it is, it's been a big influence not only on my overall design process, but on my very decision to become a game designer in the first place. I've thought for a long time about starting up a blog of some kind, but various things have gotten in the way. Chiefly, I've had trouble seeing the point. After all, who wants to see the rants and opinions of a nobody who hasn't had any real impact on the world? That's the big question of blogging, but it doesn't seem to bother the millions of other bloggers out there. Considering that, I figure, why not get in on some of the action?

More recently, my big block to joining the blogging scene is the fact that I didn't think I could maintain one. I have plenty to say, but typing it all out takes time. My attention span these days has been short, and it can be a long time before I actually get a complete idea sketched out. I didn't want to be waiting for weeks or months between blog posts. However, as I was recently advised, a well-thought-out and informative blog post made once a month can still make for a worthwhile blog. In the end, I obviously caved.

For the moment, I'm reserving this as a game-themed blog. I'll talk design philosophies, observations, and frustrations as I work to get my footing in what I'm quickly learning is a very unwelcoming industry. For instance, I had planned to wait until I held an industry job before actually starting this blog, but having waited more than a year for that plan to take shape, I've decided it's not worth it to hold back. So here I go, commencing my discussion on the world of games. Welcome to Gameland. I'll be around here somewhere. Help yourself to whatever you want...just try not to break anything.

Oh, and if anyone has any idea why I can't perform a simple copy-paste from Word into Blogger, please let me know. It's really annoying to have to type all of this up twice.