Monthly Archives: March 2018

Much as I’d like to think of time spent enjoying good art as a sort of exercise of the mind and the spirit, there’s an assumption there that I wonder about sometimes – no, not the mental or spiritual benefits of art, I am generally convinced of those, but the benefits of good art in particular, as compared to bad art. Surely, while learning about another artist’s carefully conceived and expressed world view is worthwhile, so is picking apart a poorly formed piece of claptrap to discover aspects of your own worldview. Bad art, acknowledged as such, can be a path to self-discovery – simply finding the words to describe what it was you disliked about something can be as beneficial as any other experience engaging with art.

This is why I hesitate to class the experiences we can have with art into any sort of hierarchy of quality. The movie or book or game may have been clumsy and naive, but it might still have genuine insights which were not heretofore available to me – or maybe it was a masterpiece, but still contained niggling flaws which I am compelled to catalog and describe. This is all valuable. What is not valuable is deciding partway through what the experience I am having is and ceasing to engage with the work – to decide 10 minutes in that because I understood the particular narrative trick at play I have nothing to learn, or that because I didn’t understand how it was done there was nothing I can do but gawp in awe. It’s tempting though, to dismiss something as beneath notice or embrace it as beyond knowledge. It’s freeing, being able to enjoy something solely as an experience, in the moment – but it’s also constraining, believing most things to always be beneath notice or out of reach.

I guess if I could distill my general philosophy it would be this: Pay Attention. This doesn’t stop at art. People who are contemptible and unwise often follow some rule of behavior, and even if it’s an foolish and destructive rule it’s better to know what it is, and why it is, than to not. Every friend and ally and mentor and hero carries deep flaws and unseen scars: We are all different, and no one can really live someone else’s life or create their art. We can’t trace, we can’t copy, we can’t merely emulate, we have to actually learn how to make our own art and our own lives. No role can be sufficiently modeled before the fact: Eventually you have to become whoever you are.

All we can do is our best to learn what we can and give what we can. None of this can happen if my understanding stops at friend, ally, mentor, hero, just as it can’t if I write off someone as loser, idiot, asshole, enemy: Understanding cannot stop there, even if it’s easier that way.

We have to look closer. We have to not turn away. We have to see.

It turns out that the skill of making games is more than just the skills of making the components of a game. This is something I feel like I’ve had to confront more and more: Despite spending a lot of the last decade building up my game development skills, I have almost nothing in terms of actual finished games to show for it. For a few years, at least, I could reassure myself that I was just starting out, that eventually all my work will build to something – but, now, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a gap between the skills I have and the skills actually needed to do the thing. I have to think that maybe, rather than practicing making art and music and programming and so forth, I should have just been practicing making finished games, even if they were tiny, since that was the real skill I wanted.

This is not a new insight. I’ve heard similar things from lots of solo developers, people who get stuck in one project and only manage to shake free by creating lots of small projects. It’s easy to rationalize reasons to stay in your comfort zone, though – or, at least, a comfortable distance away from your comfort zone.

It’s a common fallacy to believe that every problem can be broken down into smaller components. We believe this because it’s necessary to believe this: Large and complex problems cannot be wholly comprehended in their entirety, so we develop methods of breaking them down to make them manageable, to allow them to be solved piece by piece instead of all at once. However, the map is not the territory: When you create a task list, when you write down every anticipated facet of the problem, it still isn’t the real problem you were trying to solve. You can solve every component of the problem as you understand it without solving the actual problem. You can know how long the boards should be and still cut them short, you can know how to perfectly cut a board and fail to hammer the nails in straight, you can know how to hammer the nails but not how to fit the pieces – in the end, you actually need to know how to make a chair if you want to make a chair. Making a chair is the skill you should be training – so why do I worry so much about practicing my measuring, my cutting, my nailing?

When you lose sight of the forest, it seems like the same trees keep showing up, over and over. I focus on architecting and crafting bits and pieces of my imagined game and yet very little of the game seems to get made. I plan what I need, build it, and then when I get there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and I go back and I rebuild it, and then when I get back there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and I go back and I rebuild it, and then when I get back there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and at some point, if you find you keep going back to the drawing board, maybe it’s time to invest in a portable drawing board. Maybe it’s time to buy an eraser if you keep redrawing. Maybe it’s time to buy a straight-edge, if the lines keep turning out crooked. What I mean to say is, I need to be working on the game, not the engine, not the animations, not the design, not the story.

It’s hard to know which one you’re doing sometimes. I was able to spend this much time working on these things because I convinced myself that this was the game and that this was how you work on a game. Indeed, I will probably be able to use much of this work at some point, I will be able to integrate these constructs at some point – but they’re not part of the game, not yet. It’s easy to rationalize an awful lot by saying “this will probably come in handy, eventually”. Even if it’s true, why not just do it when eventually happens, instead of now? How much time will you save by having it ready ahead of time, as compared to the time you will have wasted if the time you were ahead of never arrives?

This is why I put EverEnding on hiatus. I needed to get my hands on a project, to actually work on the game itself and expand it out from its core, to build something relatively simple and straightforward and develop it and see what it could be by slowly turning it into that. And yet, already, I see myself doing the same thing as before: Figuring out scripting systems, building editors, planning tilesets, prepping ingredients instead of cooking. To a certain degree these things are necessary, but certainly to far less of a degree than the one I’m cooking at. Maybe it’s worth it, too, because I’m building these tools with the intent of making the process of developing and expanding the game as rapid and iterative and intuitive as possible, so it’s really just one step removed from doing things the way I want to be doing them. That’s what I hope, anyway.

I think it’s mostly fear that pushes me away from the game itself, the core skill of making a game. Never asking means never being rejected, never creating means never failing, except in small ways, learning failures, failures you wanted all along because they were really successes. The technical problems I keep finding myself solving are imposing, but quantifiable. I don’t need to have anything to say, because I have a problem to solve – I don’t need to access beauty or meaning, because right now I just need to make the tools that I can use later to express that beauty and meaning. So I can kick the can down the road a bit longer, and not worry for a bit more whether I can actually make a game that people will care about. And, as long as I keep doing that, I never will.

One of the most common ways to evaluate a game design decision is in terms of “risk and reward”. Usually we assume that that whenever the player takes a risk it should be to attain a commensurate reward, and so we try to encourage the player towards risky play by offering such rewards. Risk-taking is something worth encouraging, so the logic goes, because it increases the tension and therefore the excitement of the gameplay.

This assumption raises some questions. Does risk actually make the game more exciting? Since there’s always a threat of failure in any challenge-based game, if the ‘risks’ provide rewards that increase the long-term chances of success, aren’t actually risky overall – they’re just the most dangerous inflection point of a strategy. If they’re risky because they have a random chance to fail, they likely fall into one of two categories: Either an unnecessary chance of creating a failure where none exists, or a necessary gamble to take in order to gather the resources needed for success. Either way, the risk is usually either always worth taking or never worth taking, and the game becomes just a test of luck and of the insight to know whether the coveted resources are necessary to victory. Conversely, if the risk is a test of skill, then it becomes something similar to the luck test but with unknown odds of success – but, again, the player either needs the resources or they don’t and they either have the skill to mitigate the risk or they don’t, and in either case the strategy is simple and straightforward.

The trade-off of risk and reward is, by itself, an incredibly tedious way of balancing a game. Once you know how a statistical game is optimally played, it stops being very interesting: Blackjack is not interesting because it’s a good game, it’s interesting because there’s money on the line, so unless you want to ratchet up the stakes of your game to include real life consequences (beyond wasted time), the risk/reward model exemplified by the casino is not one to emulate.

There are a lot of tools that are useful to describe some aspect of game design, but they are hazardous to use prescriptively as a blueprint for what a design should look like. Genres, as well, are great for describing fiction, but sticking too closely to their conventions is anathema to the imagination. The issue with “risk and reward” is that the risks and the rewards aren’t actually what’s interesting about the challenge of a game. There are two things that are interesting about game challenges: planning and mastery. The most satisfying experience in a game is coming up with a plan and then executing it – or failing to execute it and having to improvise a new plan and execute that. While viewing a player choice as a risk and a reward can give an insight into how these strategies will take shape, it almost never shows the whole picture.

You might be wondering what specific tree the branch up my ass came off of at this point – that is to say, you may be wondering what actual game design decisions I have in mind when I say that this faulty metric has led designers astray. The first example I have is probably a contentious one, because I know lots of people really like it, but I think that parrying in the Dark Souls games is garbage. You have a game that rewards careful analysis, positional play, and timing, and then you also include a mini-game that lets the player ignore all of those things if they can hit the button at the right time. “Do or do not, there is no try” may be helpful advice for space wizards, but it is a pretty lousy way to design a game. By the metric of “risk and reward” parrying looks like great game design – you take a risk of eating an attack to the face for the reward of distributing an attack to someone else’s face! – but in terms of giving the player something interesting to do it fails. It’s Guitar Hero with the sound turned off. It’s a Quicktime Event with no button prompts.

Shields in Dead Cells share most of the problems with parrying in Dark Souls (which makes sense since that’s what they were clearly inspired by), but a much bigger issue are the cursed chests. In Dead Cells, a roguelite game where each run is unique, you frequently find cursed chests. These chests contain a fairly useful reward – a bit of money and item-unlocking currency, a high-level weapon, and the equivalent of a level up – but in return they curse you, which means that if you take any damage before the curse is lifted you instantly die (the curse is lifted after you kill 10 enemies). These become an incredibly awkward piece of design, though, since both the risks and the consequences of those risks increase rapidly to the point where there’s essentially no way for the rewards to keep pace. Early on, if you find a cursed chest there’s very little reason not to take it: If you die you don’t lose very much, and it might give you just the item you need to pull your run into shape. Past that point, though, you start to risk completely losing 30 minutes or more of gameplay, and having to completely redo the relatively rote early levels, in order to get an item which you’ve already probably got something more useful than and gain some currency you don’t need. So, in this case, not only is the trade-off not very interesting, but the choice is usually obvious based on your situation.

So how do we try to make the choices in the game interesting, if not by measuring their risks and rewards? The key to whether a choice is compelling usually lies not in what we risk or we sacrifice, but in what we need to take into account to make that decision. If any given choice could be good or bad based on the situation, that generates an interesting thread of thought to follow – assuming those externalities themselves are interesting to navigate. If a choice will always be great in a particular scenario and you know that the scenario will be in play when you take the choice – IE if fire weapons are extremely useful against the ice monsters and the next level is populated entirely with ice monsters – then it’s not really an interesting choice whether or not to take it, since you know it’s optimal. These sorts of obvious best choice situations can be good for pushing the player to try a new mechanic, but aren’t interesting in and of themselves. Conversely, if you know the next level could have ice monsters or robot monsters or a dark labyrinth, and while the fire sword isn’t great against the robots it’s fantastic against the ice monsters and also can help light the way through the labyrinth, but the laser is more generally viable against the robots and ice monsters but has limited ammunition, but you’re really most comfortable using the poison scythe and generally prefer it – this starts to become a really interesting choice, one generated from the specific combination of the situation and how you in particular feel comfortable playing the game.

A great example of this kind of decision-making is the choice of whether or not to take a given card in Slay the Spire. When presented with a set of potential cards to take, you weigh them in terms of their general usefulness, their usefulness in the deck you have now, their usefulness in combination with other cards you might get in the future, the likeliness of getting those cards, what boss you’re expecting to fight, and more. Every decision has a risk and a reward, sure, but the designer didn’t determine what the risks or the rewards were in an excel document, these risks emerged from the nature of building a deck, and the reward is of seeing a machine you have built work flawlessly.

There’s a lot you can learn from thinking about a given player choice as a risk and a reward, but there’s even more that can be obscured if you trap yourself into seeing it only through that lens. Every player decision has to have context, has to have its place in an overall strategy that emerges from the player’s engagement with the game’s situations and tools. If it does not, it’s a coin flip or a Quicktime Event.

Oh well this is awkward.

Effective, um, like 5 days ago, the EverEnding project is going on hiatus. For how long? I’m not sure! I’m pretty confident it’s not permanent, but I’m also pretty confident it’s going to be for at least a month or two, and maybe as much as a couple of years depending on how those next couple months go.

The natural question to ask at this point is: Why? Good question! I’ve been feeling for a while that, while I still feel passionate about this project, I also have it backwards. I really feel that the optimal game development process is about getting a simple version of the game up and running and then iterating on that and navigating by your artistic sense towards the most interesting version of that game. However, with EverEnding, I’m constantly stopping and planning and designing and concepting before I even have part of the system up and running. This is still true even now when, OpenFL port notwithstanding, there’s nothing stopping me from getting the game playable and iterating on that bit by bit and improving it that way, rather than constantly trying to make Big Design Choices and Sweeping Revisions. I keep thinking about the forest that will grow here someday and forgetting to plant the trees.

Which segues naturally into what I’m going to do now: I haven’t decided. Or rather, I’m specifically avoiding deciding anything but the most basic generalities of the project. It is going to be a game, and I’m going to be streaming its creation – I dunno if it’s a stream anyone will be interested in watching (so far it seems not to be, judging from the 4 streams I’ve done already) but these streams are just as much for me as for any hypothetical audience. The streaming is to keep me honest, keep me focused on the task at hand for a couple of hours with no web browsing or procrastinating. It also provides a way to document the history of the project, so I can see exactly how much progress I’ve made in a week or a month or a year from now.

Now, while I’m trying to avoid deciding as much as possible, I know this much about the project: First, it’s a top-down adventure game in the vein of the Zelda series. Second, it takes place in one big area instead of discrete dungeons, probably a mansion, possibly haunted. Third, I want to fill it with secrets and details, most of which I’ll figure out on the fly as I work on it. Right now the working title for the game is The Third Story, as a slight play on words both for a large mansion and for uncovering the stories contained therein, but that’s likely to change any time I think of something better. For the time being I’ve been mostly just laying the foundational code – which is mostly pretty tedious to watch, likely one reason the streams haven’t been popping. However, as the project progresses I want to do all of the scripting and level-building within the game itself – so, once I reach that point, the streams will be a lot more level editing/scripting and a lot less walls of code.

That’s all in the future, though! For now, the game is just blocks that move around and spit text at each other – no graphics, no collision, no sound. I intend to keep up the monthly DevBlogs here, but the contents will be related to the new project. I don’t want to rule out the idea of doing more work on EverEnding, though: Since I’m developing this new thing in OpenFL, I should be accumulating a lot more familiarity with how things work in that API, and this may give me exactly the energy and confidence I need to finish the port and get the project up and running again. Also, just looking at and listening to the materials I’ve created already makes me a bit homesick for the EverEnding project, so I’m not sure how long I want to stay away… But I’m confident this is the right thing to do. For now.

I already feel tremendously better morale-wise, just being able to work on a project where I feel like it’s always moving forward. If nothing else, I’ll be able to apply some of the methodology I’m picking up here – not just in terms of OpenFL and game development, but also in terms of livestreaming and documenting development and using that process to bolster my creative energy.

It feels good to be seen – even when no one’s watching, just to be willing to be seen is worth a lot.

Every day I try to be a bit better at everything I do. Some days are better for bettering than others, but bit by bit I feel like I’m getting there… wherever there may happen to be. As time has passed, though, I’ve come to interrogate my reasons for wanting to be better, and what ‘better’ means. Implied in saying that I want to be better is that I want to be better than something, or perhaps someone – a lot of ugliness can hide behind this idea of self-improvement.

Practicing and developing a skill is a form of empowerment, and all power can be abused. It’s necessary, sometimes, to take a moment and figure out where you’re imagining this skill taking you: Do you want to express or to impress? Do you want an audience or do you want fans? It’s never strictly one thing or another, because brains just aren’t that well organized, but it’s unnerving how the power fantasies can creep in. The step between wanting to be respected for your work and wanting to be A Celebrity is one that’s difficult to see sometimes, and I expect never more so than when you straddle it (though sadly I cannot comment from personal experience). It doesn’t help that, at some point, we each have something to prove: That we can create good work or make it as an artist, that we can get a crowd going or get a good review, whatever. Sometimes wanting to impress someone or show someone up is just the push we need to get started, but these sorts of social motivations do not age well – a push forward is great when you can’t start moving, but much less useful when you’re looking out off a cliff’s edge.

Creative ability is a form of power, and the desire for it for its own sake can be destructive. When the power we crave is purchasing power, we call that desire ‘greed’: What separates greed from the mere desire for money that we all tend to share is that greed wants money for money’s sake, while the rest of us want money to buy necessities and luxuries. There aren’t as many words for when we stockpile other forms of worldly power just to enjoy the sensation of having so much power: Pride could almost describe it, but I think something more accurate might be contempt – since, in the end, what makes the accumulation of power satisfying is knowing that other people are thereby disempowered. Greed flourishes on poverty; poverty justifies greed. The more a greedy person can force the poor into submission, the greater their pleasure, because the social power differential that is created was the real goal of the exercise all along. Rich people often seem like idiots because they’re willing to buy fancy garbage that is useless: The truth is it doesn’t matter that it’s useless or that it’s garbage, the only thing that’s important to them is that it’s expensive and they have it and you don’t. The pleasure is derived entirely from having something that other people cannot afford. Whether it’s something actually worth having is secondary.

The world we have now is structured in such a way that you are forced to develop a certain amount of hunger for power just to sustain ourselves. If you don’t allow this desire into your brain, you can’t eat or sleep in a bed: You have to convince people in power that you are competent in order to earn the privilege of living. In this way we are trained from childhood to crave power and to assume that the pursuit of it is intrinsic to being an adult. Some people have tried to live outside of the structure of society to avoid this, creating self-sustaining communes and whatnot – but, when they are cut free from the apparatus that wealth has captured, the quality of living tends to be pretty meager.

All this raises the question: When we practice, when we improve, what do we want to do with the power we are accumulating? Do we want to do it to make beautiful things? Or do we want to do it to feel better than other people? It’s a fine line to divide the desire to be an expert from the desire to be an authority.

The saddest part is that taking pleasure in this sort of social cruelty overall probably increases your chances of being a “successful” artist. The more you crave power over others, the more you promote yourself, sell yourself as a genius, as a visionary, the more likely you are to convince people of your unique talent – regardless of whether or not your actual work is good, though that certainly helps. I don’t mean to say that every successful artist is manipulative and egocentric, just that being so generally makes it easier to become successful. Maybe this sounds like bitterness – I don’t actually have anyone in mind. I’m just observing a pattern that seems to fit the facts.

It’s obvious that politics attract the sort of person who loves power: This is the big flaw with the system, is that the people least qualified to hold power are the people who seek it, and these people are inevitably the ones who end up with it. What’s less obvious is that this happens in all fields: Those who want power, who believe in power, seek it, and usually they find it. Those who believe in power see everyone who doesn’t grab at it at every opportunity as weak and foolish. We have a word for people like that: President.

Myself, I used to crave a certain sort of intellectual power – I wanted to be A Smart Guy, the guy who figures things out and generally seems like the cleverest dude in the room. I’m still not entirely free of this, but I realized how toxic it became when it changed from trying to make myself look smart to trying to make other people look stupid. I would make little jokes that were biting and unkind, references they wouldn’t get, little verbal traps for them to walk into, trying to make them demonstrate they were worthy of having this conversation. In actuality I think most of the time these were relatively harmless, but particularly around people who didn’t know me it could be somewhere between exasperating and infuriating. Most of the time it was just joking between friends, but it was also a social power-move. I still retain many of these habits, but de-fanged – the joking between friends remains, but the anger and social greed has gone out of it.

The drive for intellectual supremacy is not any more justifiable than other forms of greed. Something I say a lot now is that intelligence isn’t real; what I mean by this is that the human brain has countless capabilities and aptitudes, and we basically just threw a rough collection of these into a bin and called them ‘intelligence’, and pretended it was something that could be measured. You can’t actually measure a brain’s propensity to come up with useful ideas or solutions: The only meaningful measure of a person’s ability to accomplish is that person’s accomplishments. We invented intelligence so that we could create hierarchies of genius, create a path to power for those of a scholarly bent. Rather than allowing people to merely do good work, we have to deify them, grant them intellectual authority, make them Smart or Talented instead of merely good at their work. Intelligence and Talent are not useful descriptors for anything real: They’re just a method for creating a power hierarchy.

Still, I try to be better. All of this just means that, in the end, the responsibility also lies with me to decide what ‘better’ means, and what I need to do to get there. The only one I have to impress is myself.

Work In Progress

I’ve been trying to stream more. So far I just stream myself playing lots and lots of video games, which is… nice. It’s nice to have a reason to play games, because a lot of the time, without any direct impetus, I will just not do that. I do have concerns about whether this is a good use of my time and energy, whether I’m burning valuable mental and physical resources I could be using on my writing or developing my game. I worry about whether I’m making myself enjoy games less by playing them for an audience or whether it’s pushing me towards a narrower band of games. I think these worries can be adequately combated by the knowledge that if I were not streaming I’d be worried just as much about how I’m not putting myself or my ideas out there enough, not playing enough games to stay abreast of the trends and ideas, and that I was generally shrinking back into silence and isolation.

The grass always looks greenest on whichever side of the fence we have most recently vacated.

Okay then: Say I want to keep doing the streaming thing, but I want to try to channel all this time and energy into something that advances my ambitions of being a Well Known Creative-Type Person. At that point the obvious thing to start doing is to start streaming creative work as well as gameplay. This is eminently logical and also obviously terrifying – or perhaps that’s overstating the case, but it is at least intimidating, for several reasons. One reason is that a huge part of creating something is not having any idea what you’re doing and going down a bunch of dead ends before you begin to catch a hold of what kind of thing you’re actually creating. This can be an uncomfortable process here, at home, by myself, but the thought of exposing that process live on-stream? Oof. On top of that, it’s always deeply frustrating and depressing to me when I put a lot of work into something and share it and it gets absolutely no reaction: Streaming myself working would both amplify the amount of work I’m putting in and give me real-time feedback over how many (or few) people actually are interested and watching. It’s hard to believe that this would be conducive to creating more or better work.

Being okay with sucking at things was a necessary step for me to start actually improving – in particular with art, accepting that most of my drawings would be bad, at least for a while, was the only way I could silence my internal voices long enough to start drawing. Conversely, with music and writing, I think I benefited a bit more from a sort of blissful ignorance in not being able to see as clearly how not-great my early work was… it’s always easy to make yourself feel either good or bad about your work by when comparing yourself to different artists: Just choose whether to view yourself as a big fish or a small fish by calibrating the size of your pond as necessary. It’s easy to be the best writer in your class: It’s hard to be the best writer at your school. Of course, ‘best’ doesn’t mean anything in the first place, but try telling your brain that.

My perception of the inadequacy of my earlier work is a double-edged sword: I can be proud of how far I’ve come, but at the same time it leads to acute worry that I’m actually still incredibly far behind some hypothetical future me. How can I possibly put my work out there when I’m so much worse than I might hypothetically be in the future? How can I share work that isn’t my best work, even if this better work is entirely hypothetical? If I put any of this temporally inferior work out there now I’d only be embarrassing myself.

So, if I want to stream my imperfect creation, I have to not only be okay with sucking, but be okay with sucking publicly. I may suck less frequently now than I used to but every piece of music has a point where it sounds like crap and every portrait has a period of time where it looks like some grotesque misshapen caricature. In the past the main thing that has made me feel okay about these moments is that I was the only one who ever saw them: That’s a tough security blanket to burn.

Along with these doubts other doubts like to surface. I wonder if I’m actually as creative as I think I am, when it feels so much of the time like my work feels so constrained and fuzzy and meandering, when other peoples’ feels so extravagant and full of color and detail and purpose. I doubt whether the things I make are intrinsically interesting to people who are not myself, if there’s a gap between my idea of art and what audiences want to see, whether as I improve my ability to hew closer to my own creative ideals the actual output created by that work will become less interesting and my skill will only alienate me further. I doubt that there will be any place in the world that can accommodate the entirety of what I am or want to be, and I know that other people split themselves up into pieces and find places for parts of themselves bit by bit and I wonder why I find that so difficult.

Being full of doubts and questions is something that I have to resign myself to, the same way I had to resign myself to being bad at art to become better at art. The only way to find my way is to accept that I am lost, because otherwise I will march confidently off in the wrong direction forever, just like almost everyone else seems to end up doing.