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Whenever I teach a guest college to game design students, I do an exercise inspired by Interaction Designer Norbert van Geijn. He used to teach class at my university before I started Vlambeer over a decade ago, and one day he did an exercise about the fallibility of words. He asked each student to write down whatever word came to mind when he said the word ‘sun’. After a few seconds, he asked a person in the class to read out what they wrote down - and they had written down the word ‘light’. He asked the next person, who replied with ‘yellow’. As he went around the class, we came across words like ‘Holiday’, ‘Warmth’, ‘Summer’ – I had picked ‘Egypt’. In a class of sixty, the frequency at which two or more people picked the same associative word was less than ten percent.
What he was getting at was that words exist in the context of our own knowledge only, and that our choice of words is never coincidental. That class, almost fifteen years ago, was what made me realize that my sapling metaphor isn’t about how games relate to trees, but how the process of making games relates to trees.
Bear with me on this one - I know it's a bit more "floaty" than many of the business posts I do, but I do think business in games stands in service of the artistry and creativity of game creation - or at least, it should.
Games are not just mere calculation. Sure, games are the product of calculated design, writing code, adding assets and wrapping things up - but, the heart, the soul, the purpose of games tend to be a result of growth, of something almost organic. They start as mere seeds – a singular point of inspiration brought together from the vague consciousness of our lives. Then, the seeds grow into saplings with a direction – a three-dimensional vector, something one can pursue. Eventually, these vectors grow into a tree, growing into a shape rather than an abstract arrow.
We know where we plant the tree, and what type of tree we want it to be, and the general direction it’ll grow – but anything beyond that is something we can’t fully control. Or maybe, it’s something that we can control, but shouldn’t.
Very often, when we have game ideas, they are oddly defined. There are arbitrary specifics, like a boss fight at the end of the third chapter, a specific mechanic, or moment, or setting, or feeling - things that float in the periphery of our mind. They’re nonsensical and underdefined, and frequently they end up being scrapped halfway through the project anyway. But they’re seeds.
We find a spot where we want our tree to grow, a spot in the soil right beneath that point of inspiration, the place where we intend the tree to grow. The seed, our inspiration, grows into a thin sapling. We work on our game with reckless enthusiasm, those first wonderful weeks of developing something with potential, with direction, with a predefined purpose.
And then suddenly we’re off track. The sapling doesn’t grow straight up. It bends one way or another, it grows where we don't expect it to, and refuses to grow where we want it to.
Over the years, I’ve seen the reflex many designers have when that happens. I’ve seen it in myself, I’ve seen it in students and in experienced designers alike. It’s the urge to get back on track. The need to straighten the sapling back to what it was supposed to be. Straight up, a beautifully straight line from the seed in the soil to the point of inspiration right above it.
But as soon as you mentally start traveling upwards along the sapling from the seed, from the origin, the only points that really count are the points where you’ve been - and by exclusion, the points it hasn't gone. Every decisions, big or small, is informed by and will inform every future decision. Conversely, no decision can ignore the decisions that came before without re-evaluating them.
Like a sapling growing slightly in an unwanted direction, to it, the sapling doesn’t really care nor know where you intended it to go - it just grows. You can’t just recklessly go and bend it back onto the original path at the top, you’ll have to bend it from the ground up, or bend larger parts slowly over a longer period of time. If you don’t, it might snap, or - even if it doesn't - grow into something that ends up looking like it was forced into shape. If you decide you didn't like an older bend, you might have to remove everything down to the point where it first started bending, and then regrow it hoping that this time, it will grow the way you want it.
Near the roots, where the sapling has grown sturdier and stronger, a small amount of bending takes a lot of effort, but has relatively large repercussions for the rest of the sapling above that point. If you damage it there, the tree might just die as a whole. At the thinner parts, higher up, along the branches, a sapling is less sturdy, and while it is far more flexible, a bend won't affect the overall direction much, and the branches will only take that much bending before the branch or trunk will break off entirely.
What the metaphor was used for in my talks was trying to get at the importance of decision-making in design - not a focus on making the right decisions, but a focus on how to make decisions. The only choice you can't learn from is a choice never made - an assumption free of accountability. Sometimes, the right decision is to gather more information & perspective before deciding - sometimes it's to make the call right there and then and see how it plays out - it never is to push off the decision into the future without engaging with it. You can't learn how to distinguish a "good choice" from a "bad choice" through anything but experience, and you won't always get it right even with decades of experience.
The metaphor of the sapling, then, was naturally profound to me because it feels accurate from every perspective. You can choose where to plant the seed of an idea, you can guide it, you can have intent - but you also have to spend time letting it grow, seeing if something works, whether it does indeed work the way you hoped. How much time do you have? How much time will it take to let it grow and see if it's indeed what you wanted? How do you monitor whether its going the way you hoped while it's happening, instead of only checking the end result?
If games "live" while we make them, how do we ensure the growth we desire without damaging the organic thing at the heart of it? I don't think there is a hard answer to the question, but that doesn't mean it is not worth engaging with.
- Try talking to designers who worked on an indie game you've played, and have a frank discussion with them about their intent, their process, and which decisions were original intent & which were a result of decisions made because of spontaneous events during development - ad hoc problem-solving, resource limitations, deadlines, team changes, bugs becoming features, etc. If you don't have access to local game developers, many great post-mortems tend to distinguish between these two methods of creation.
- This might sound a little vague for an actionable: but continuing from the previous point - practice accepting that creativity doesn't always lead where you hope it will, nor always take the path you hope. Creativity isn’t going from point A to point B. It’s departing from a known point to an unknown. It’s having informed confidence that, whether the trip leads to something beautiful or not, at least we chose a path and followed it. If we knew where the journey would take us, it wouldn’t be an exploration – it’d be a commute. Design is the act of channelling such creativity and research into a targeted goal - a destination set by a combination of intent and circumstances, of goals and resources. If you're a creative, do not hold yourself to a standard of perfect intentionality. And, if you're not on a creative side of game development, understand that this is a critical truth about the creative process - it can be guided with boundaries, but it can not be controlled with force.
- Try to think of decisions as points on this metaphorical sapling. The further the sapling grows after a point, the harder it is to make adjustments to that point, as everything after it will be affected. Yet, the sooner you decide to cull a branch, the less time you have to see what positive effect it might have. With this in mind, try to evaluate your own current or previous decision-making processes - how can you optimize your individual or team processes to allow the growth of branches freely, while ensuring you don't have to cull months of work. Evaluate how ideas come to be, and what time, resources, & space are they allowed to grow? When do you decide that a branch is growing right or wrong, and how often are you cutting away parts that might take months to regrow?
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