This week's post is a little late. I have been visiting relatives in SC since mid-last week and this morning was my father's regular bocce ball club meeting and I was invited to play as well. So, why not learn a game I haven't played before? But now, on to this week's post.
One of the biggest problems that students in game design often have is coming up with original game ideas. They have often played lots of games and selected a genre, maybe two, they consider to be their favorites and often stick to those experiences for their design inspiration. They have also followed a number of tutorials to learn about game engine basics using applications such as Game Maker or Unity. Quite often they take a tutorial they completed, make one or two minor changes, but basically submit the same game as their original work. And when I tell them that it is too similar to the tutorial, it needs some major work to make the game their own, I typically hear "I can't think of anything" as their response.
Writer's block is nothing new and yes, it happens to game designers just as much as authors. However, game designers have lots of ways to combat it. The first way is by playing lots of games. However, by playing lots of games, I am referring to different genres, not titles. By playing different genres and thinking critically about them, young designers learn what works and what doesn't. They can experience a wide variety of mechanics and formats. This is true even (heck, I would argue ESPECIALLY) when the young designer doesn't like a particular genre.
However, one of the best ways to find inspiration is simply exploring the world around you away from the console. This is often the most recommended form of inspiration that I hear repeated when speaking with professional game designers. Look at the world around you an draw inspiration from it. Visit new places and try new activities, then think about how those experiences can be used in your future games. This is not the fastest way to draw inspiration, but keeping a notebook with you at all times (or better yet, make a note file on your phone) to jot down ideas about what you see and experience can be useful. Make some quick sketches to help you remember how you experienced something in your mind's eye. You might not use an idea immediately, but it gives you something to go back to when you hit that designer's block!
So, how does this work? Let's examine an exercise in drawing inspiration from experience:
Just yesterday, I was sitting on beach at Isle of Palms in SC with my parents. They noticed a hole in the sand and knew right away there was a crab in it. We began watching the hole, trying to capture a picture of this busy worker each time he came up to throw sand out. How could this become a game? Well, I used to enjoy playing Dig Dug when I was a teen. Can I merge the mechanics of Dig Dug with the experience of watching the crab? Sure.
In my game, you play as a crab digging a hole to forage for food and hide from predators. You need to remove sand from the hole and throw it onto the beach while avoiding predators such as seagulls and people. While digging, you also pick up bonuses in the way of foraging for food or finding hidden treats in the sand. I could implement different mechanics to help the player like side crawl, run, dig, and claw pinch. Does a game like this need work to make it functional? Of course. But...it gives me a good starting point. I know some of the art assets I will need to create (crab, seagull, food, sand texture, people in some form, foraged items) and an idea about some of the mechanics being used. I can then flush out the rest of the gameplay from that point forward...but I have broken ground on a new game that uses both new and familiar gameplay in an original manner.
So the next time you need some inspiration, put down your controller and take a walk. Examine your neighborhood or be creative in thinking about somewhere you might visit more regularly like a restaurant or the mall. Doing so can really be the start you need for that next great game idea!
We have all heard the phrase practice makes perfect. But have you ever thought about what this really means and how it works? I am guessing the answer to that question is actually no, if you are honest with yourself. It has been said that people need to hear/repeat the same information/skills a minimum of seven times before it begins to stick. This is one of the reasons we ask students to repeat the same skill over-and-over again.
I have seen this force at work in my own life. As a child, I loved to draw. I would sit at my grandmother's kitchen table for hours thinking up all kinds of fantastical characters and scenes to bring to life on paper. Over time, I started to take my love of drawing more seriously. I can remember seeing ads in the local newspaper for home correspondence art instruction schools and practicing for hours until I was satisfied with my drawing of Tippy the turtle, Cubby the bear and the Pirate in the hopes of mailing in my application and winning one of their prizes, even though I was only 12 years old. I wanted to be an artist!
While I never sent my application in, my parents enrolled me in a local drawing class. I got pretty good too. My culminating piece was the head of a Siamese cat that I gave to my grandmother as a Christmas gift that year. It hung in her living room up to the day she passed away and then made its way back to me. Completing it took a lot of repetition and several months of practice for me. And, I felt like I was well on my way to achieving my goal.
Unfortunately, shortly after completing my cat drawing and as I got older, lots of other interests caught my attention and my practicing ground to a halt as a result. I quickly learned there is a downside to stopping any practice: you can un-learn a skill by ignoring it just as fast, if not faster, than you can improve through repetition. I am only now returning to my personal artistic pursuits after decades of ignoring my earlier interests in a desire to improve my classroom instruction on art as well as help me to relax more. As a result, I am back to starting out with stick people and other objects that are rather elementary in nature. In short, I need to get back to good, honest, regular practice.
These truths don't only pertain to traditional artwork, they are equally true with respect to the digital arts as well. I regularly require students to complete the same task in a variety of manners so they can grow to enjoy the activity as well as improve. Often, I find myself sneaking these skills into lessons by having them draw their own conclusions on how to complete activities without fully instructing them to use earlier skills in newer lessons. My hope is that these skills and techniques will become second nature to use but more importantly, they develop a lifelong love for the digital medium and, as a result, eventually pursue a career in the digital arts. However, when students fail to take repetition and practice seriously as a chance to improve and only put forth a halfhearted effort, both their interest and skills diminish over time.
This is one of those things that I struggle with in how the state takes a modular approach towards the digital arts and the game design concentration in particular. A prime example of this is how we are expected to teach students 3D modeling skills. There is a heavy focus on 3D modeling basics during a student's first year in the concentration while taking Scientific Visualization. However, the following year focuses almost entirely on 2D game design, with a minuscule 3D component being presented approximately three-quarters into the school year. By this time, students rarely have any practice with 3D modeling for a huge chunk of time as teachers often push forward with new material as presented in their curriculum blueprint. I would argue that students shouldn't even touch 3D modeling until their junior year class of Advanced Game Art & Design (AGAD), where their focus shifts from 2D to 3D in nature. In the meantime, they should gain a firm grounding in 2D digital techniques, which will serve them better, even in 3D modeling, when they begin creating skins to apply to their models. Sure, some basic 3D concepts can and should be presented during Scientific Visualization as it focuses on visualization techniques in general, but to provide students with a huge assortment of skills and then ignore continued development of them for the better part of the next year and a half does the students a terrible disservice.
What is my plan for the coming school year in reference to repetition and digital artistic skills? I am hoping to find a way to allow students the freedom to continue building these skills throughout the course of the year so they never lose them in the first place and requiring retracing one's steps entirely when they actively use them in AGAD. They may or may not be graded on these activities, but I want them to continue using the techniques so they improve and grow to love 3D modeling over time. Straying from traditional instructional time may make it more difficult to get through the curriculum as the state prescribes materials in the blueprint, but I believe my students will be better off in the long run for me doing so.
So, the next time you are asked to keep doing the same task over-and-over again and believe it is a mindless activity, don't complain and put your best effort forward. Challenge yourself to do something that uses those skills in an uncomfortable manner and over time, you will get better at using them. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy them and develop a lifelong desire to learn more about the techniques or even take on a career that continues using them.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.