On Creativity

Posted by Alex Jordan on

After watching a friend play through most of Uncharted 2, I thought, "This is the kind of game I wish I could make." It was a somewhat unfortunate thought to have, for many reasons.

Firstly, there's the issue of how relatively uninspired the game is; it's little more than the high water mark of the video game industry's desire to successfully emulate the thrill and presentation of big budget Hollywood movies. "Handsome, funny Indiana Jones analogue partners with sarcastic romantic interest to beat a homicidal mad man to a long-lost treasure" doesn't exactly scream originality. The game was amazing to behold, obviously, but played it safe content-wise. In imagining myself at the helm of a blockbuster video game project, I'm really wishing to faithfully execute some well-worn cliches... just with a grand scope and lots of Triple-A polish.

But, more unfortunately, wishing to make my own Uncharted 2 made me realize that those fantasies lay wholly in the realm of Bigger Is Better. Of going big, or going home. Dreaming is important, and ambition is important, but wanting my name attached to the next Uncharted or the next Assassin's Creed or the next Half-Life is misguided. It's not misguided because I have no chance of reaching those heights, of course. No, it's misguided because it incorrectly conflates my pleasure in playing a world-class game with the pleasure of being responsible for creating such a game.

It's an odd admission to make. Video game designers and artists - from the coder mired in C++ to a modeler churning away in XSI Mod Tool - become designers and artists for three reasons. One, they love to play video games. Two, they love to create. Three, they love to have others experience what they create. It's really that simple. Being responsible for a tremendous, blockbuster video game satisfies all of those statutes, to be sure. It's just that doing something small-bore or something lesser in scope can also accomplish those things. So why do my dreams run towards grandiosity as opposed to mere satisfaction in my ability to create, and play what I create?

I'm troubled by this notion, as I have to admit to myself that creativity is not always a major lure for me when it comes to game design. It's recognition that I can fall into the same trap that everyone else in the industry does, the trap of having played a cool game and thinking you could make the same cool game, BUT BETTER! You have GREAT IDEAS that would be PERFECT with gameplay like this! And in executing them, you discover that you've been iterating, building on those that have gone before you. You're sticking with the tried-and-true, perhaps swapping in different plots and characters and gameplay features. You might be making one hell of a game. But you probably aren't being unique. And you're not being as creative as you could be.

Thus, I find myself trying to reign in these impulses. Yes, Uncharted 2 was great. By virtue of owning an Xbox 360 and PC, I'll continue to play great games that are tremendous in scope. And I'll occasionally dream that I could be the guy producing such games. But if I can dare to dream, why not do something much harder? Why not admit that reality has its own allure, and that opening my eyes and resigning myself to the grit of the here and now might be a small price to pay for doing what I've always loved, all this time.

I've been living the dream.

It's astonishingly easy to forget. The pulsating thrill of joining the Firearms Half-Life team and getting my works released online... the rush of leading the World at War development team... the joy spent in sculpting worlds and cultivating the fruits of my imagination, for others to see and experience... those feelings are often buried by the ebb and flow of reality. Half the close-knit Firearms community wound up hating my guts towards the end. A tempest in a teapot, naturally, but it was my teapot. World at War crashed and burned and never came close to seeing release, and managing the various personalities on my team was incentive enough to drink heavily. These days, Around The World is a fairly unambitious edutainment game that will face competition from someone who released before me. Development on it consists of hovering in front of my laptop, constantly slaving away in C# or Photoshop. Even minor additions to the game take untold hours to add. I often finish an avowedly mundane task and find that it's 1 AM, and I need to get to bed for work in the morning.

And then there's the acknowledgment that I have a life beyond indy design. A few years ago, I quickly realized that modding was a young man's hobby. All the time spent churning out maps and models and playtesting a total conversion is usually something only a high schooler or college student has the time for. It's probably not a coincidence that I pulled the plug on World at War within a few months of getting a full-time job after graduating college. Indy development of smaller, more discreet games is much more manageable than the multi-year churn of developing a total conversion. And even then, there are the long hours spent at your job in front of a glowing monitor that painfully transitions into the long hours spent at home in front of a glowing monitor, even though it's your own monitor and your own game. The temptation to do other things - to see your girlfriend, to hang out with your friends, to watch a movie, to cook dinner, to exercise, to play another video game - is strong, and it's often irrestistible. As a result, design progress is slow, and it's often marked by things getting accomplished instead of doing something more social or more relaxing.

It ain't all fun and games. It's a slog.

But that's the way it is, and that's the way it always will be. Big budget games don't cost tens of millions of dollars just because of takeout pizza bills. Hard work has to be done! And they have to do it for a living, 40, 60, 80, or 120 hours a week. That's creativity on a schedule. If you're a low-level artist, it's fulfilling someone else's goals. If you're the producer or taskmasker, it's management-management-management, the act of which often feels like the very antithesis of being creative.

So, I need to keep my eyes open. Indy game development will never be perfect. But I often look back and realize I've had fun, or that the experience was worthwhile. Even the disaster that was World at War gave me priceless experience in creating game art and managing a team. And I have to admit that creativity is always within my grasp. It may not, and probably never will, culminate in the production of a blockbuster video game. And sometimes it's a painful process that needs to be escaped from. But so long as I hone a creative mind and mix the reality of what I can accomplish by myself with the idealism of bold, new ideas in game design, I can accomplish great things. Heck, I can even dare to accomplish mediocre things, so long as I tap into the passion of creation and the satisfaction of letting others experience that creation. Those feelings are pure sustenance. And they don't have to come from a huge project. Ambition doesn't always have to be about big games or having your name in the marquee lights.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go back to being an undistinguished blogger/designer and working on my undistinguished geography game... because it's fun, and because they represent important steps to be taken on the road of creativity.