Gravity Ghost

Music Writing: Tech for the Creative Process

Here is esteemed music guy Ben Prunty talking about the creative process - and weirdly, he wrote it before he saw my post about Sustainable Inspiration. Some creepy telepathic shenanigans going on here.

Hello again! My last post was about as abstract as you could get on a development blog, so this week I'm going to try for something more useful to other musicians.

1) Listening to music and Evernote as a composing tool

I listen to lots of music. In lots of different genres. I have a premium subscription to Spotify and I run that into the ground. Whenever I hear something that stands out, for instance, an interesting rhythm and tempo combination, unusual chord progression, fun synth programming, or whatever small detail that catches my attention, I’ll mentally file it away. It's a kind of 'inspiration seed' to be pulled out later when I want some kind of springboard into a new track of my own.

Often this is literally filed as a short sentence in Evernote, like:

"5/4 time signature at around 180bpm, like in Floex's Casanova, makes for a good rolling, exciting rhythm."


"the chord movement in the third measure in the verse of Queen's All Dead, All Dead is really cool. Figure out how it works."

Sometimes I'll tag it with 'Gravity Ghost' so when I search for all my GG-related notes, it'll pop up as an appropriate seed. Using Evernote is almost exactly like having a giant spiral notebook with you at all times to scribble in, except you can organize everything by subject or tags and keep it in your pocket if you have an iPod touch like I do. I highly recommend using it. You can even draw in it with the right add-ons. Seriously, stop reading and just download Evernote right now (PC, Mac, iPhone/iPad). I can wait.

Here’s me using Evernote to collect images of paintings I like into a makeshift art gallery. I never stop finding new uses for the software.

2) Writing Chords and Melody

Usually the first thing I try to do is come up with the chord progression and some simple melody to make sure the chords can be tied together well. I'll sit at my sweet digital piano and bang on the keys like an angry monkey until something good emerges. A great tool to help with ideas is an iPad with the Polychord app. Bananas and fur help with the monkey part.

Give Polychord a key signature and it'll show you all the standard chords in that key, displayed as big buttons, plus all related chords as smaller buttons. When you tap a button, you hear the chord played. It's a wonderful (and dangerously, time-sappingly fun) way to experiment with new and unusual chord progressions that you wouldn't normally think of.

It also comes in black, but who would use that when you have these colors?

So I try to come up with two or three different chord progressions. Overall structure isn't too important to me at this stage. I'll come up with a simple melody or two as well. These will most likely change drastically or be discarded altogether during the production process, but it's good to have something to work with in the beginning. Hey, now I have all the building blocks with which to construct a cohesive piece of music!

3) The Gravity Ghost Instrumentation Suite

So with every project I work on, I build a small suite of instruments that will be the first things I grab when I start up a new track. I'll cull through the literally thousands of digital instruments that I have and pick out the ones that are the closest match to what I'm envisioning in my head for the feel of the soundtrack as a whole. Some of them will work and some won't. The first couple of tracks I produce will pretty much determine what goes into the suite. I'm not limited to those sounds alone, but they are a good starting point. This method does two things:

1. It helps keep a speedy and efficient production schedule. Instead of searching through all my instrumentation every single time I start a new track, I load up appropriate sounds from the suite right from the start.

2. It helps ensure that the soundtrack as a whole has a wonderfully cohesive sound.

Of course, each individual track has its own identity and needs, so I'll still be looking for new sounds all the time anyway. The best ones will get added to the suite and will most likely be used again in a future track.

A special mention must go out to Jeremiah Savage, the sound designer who developed the amazing Acoustic Refractions sound pack for Native Instruments. Acoustic Refractions has some of the most beautiful, quirky instruments, many of them built from the sounds of everyday objects. They're rich with detail and subtlety, and are infinitely customizable. Unfortunately, Acoustic Refractions was discontinued last fall with all the other Kore instruments. Regardless, when you hear the Gravity Ghost soundtrack, you'll hear much of Savage's work in my own.

In the next post I'll talk about the actual production. See you then!

Filed under: Creativity, Music No Comments

New Toys!

I really ought to write a post introducing our team. That way when I say things like "Mike built this totally sweet plant editor" you'll know who I'm talking about.

Anyway this new plant editor is totally sweet. Check out what I made today:

Welcome to my space garden.

Somewhat interesting backstory about the color palette:

The art store right next to my favorite café was going out of business. They were out of almost everything, including pencil sharpeners, erasers, and colored pencils in colors you'd actually want.

The result was me buying a bunch of weird colors and sharpening them in the café with a razor blade (they weren't out of razor blades). You'd be amazed what you can get away with when everyone is on a laptop.

Anyway, this page of my notebook was a product of the 'weird colors.' I liked the way that tree looked and tried to reproduce it in the game.

What space trees look like, probably.

Tl;dr: Constraints are good, they force your creative side to do things you find uncomfortable. With razors.



Hey everybody! Exciting stuff is happening. I spent last week at E3, and got a chance to show the game to Kotaku. Head on over to their post to see the first-ever video footage of Gravity Ghost on the internet:

So adding 'triple threat' to my business cards.

Filed under: Game dev 2 Comments

Sustainable Inspiration

Maintaining your creative gusto throughout a project is nearly impossible. When you're feeling creatively depleted, it's tempting to either soldier on and hate every second, or give up completely.

But I think there's another option: actively filling up your inspiration stores. These are a few ways I know of to give yourself a creativity burst and get mentally 'un-stuck'.

1) Screensavers save

I've been saving cool images on my hard drive for years, but they mostly end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. Then I learned of a better alternative in a GDC talk by Hanford Lemoore. His idea: set that folder of cool images to be your screen saver.

I've adopted this idea and I think it's great. It brings up all sorts of neat things I had nearly forgotten - derelict buildings, nice illustrations, funny cat pictures, etc. And something about how the images are shuffled randomly, playing only for a few seconds, makes you process them in a different way.

The difference in emotional tone between a picture of ancient pottery and a cartoon about Kermit the Frog really jolts your creative side. You only have a second to think, 'Oh, that's neat' before something else takes its place.

"We're context-free!"

What I didn't expect was how immediately relevant some of the pictures were to my game. It wasn't long before I started to see solutions to my game design problems. E.g.: When I wasn't sure how to fill out the vertical space in a certain level, I came upon picture after picture of waterfalls and bridges.

It would be easy to create a shared folder (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) and have several friends save images to it. I imagine it'd be like a shared iTunes library of visual inspiration. If anyone decides to try this, let me know.

2) Buckets, not lists

I found so many images in my collection that were directly relevant to my game that I started putting them in one folder. But when that started to get chaotic, I thought of a bit of design advice given to me by Robin Hunicke: "Buckets, not lists." That is, it's better to group things into broad categories than simply add them to a pile.

I applied the buckets rule to my pile of Gravity Ghost inspiration images. I look at these all the time, and add to them almost daily. Here, friends, are my buckets:

I use these folders mostly as stored inspiration for art style and mood for different sections of the game. This is from the folder marked "Spring":

And this one is from the cryptically titled "Terrariums+Geometry"...

A few inspirational quotes have snuck in too.

Preach on, Jake.

There are a few websites designed to let you save images you like (E.g. Pinterest, like this random person's folder for "Design"). It's very different from something like tumblr, which only lets you aggregate things in one place. If you don't mind keeping your images online, these sites can help you keep large quantities of inspiration manageable.

3) Cast your net wider

You'll notice that none of the images above are related to video games, and I don't think that's an accident. Video games have a well-established set of aesthetic themes, and I'm trying to stay away from them. Not because those choices are bad, but because I want to create something unique.

Little Big Planet used the rendering power of the PS3 not to create realistic-looking humans, but to make the game look like it was entirely handmade. I'm a sucker for original art styles.

The inspirational quotes folder strikes again!

I understand there are important business decisions that go into determining the look and feel of a game. But if you're here, you've probably got a bit of an indie bent, and I encourage you to cast your net wider. And not just for art - for settings, for protagonists, for game mechanics, and anything else you think games now are missing.

We've got enough games based on other games. Look to your hobbies, your travel photos, your favorite childhood books, etc. and see what comes back. I bet your creativity will surprise you.

4) Step away from the computer

Recently I started to feel like none of my work was getting done fast enough. I knew that wasn't accurate, but I realized one of the culprits was probably the handful of constantly-updating websites I like to visit.

So, I took a two-week Twitter and Facebook vacation. Already I appreciate the larger attention span I have for my design, art, and coding problems. It's amazing how much you can actually get done in an hour if you set aside everything else.

It's largely overlooked that there's a deep pleasure to really getting your head into a problem, and the even greater payoff when you think of a solution. But it takes time to get into this state, and involves barricading yourself against interruptions.

For a bit of celebrity endorsement of that idea, here's John Cleese talking about creating 'oases of space and time' in which to work on your problems.

A 10 minute internet video? I believe in you.

5) Explain your problem to people who aren't into games

Nothing will toss you into a social black hole as much as talking to people who don't have anything to do with video games. You'll find half of your normal subjects of conversation cut off (and maybe even a chunk of your vocabulary). But before you swear off the idea, hear me out.

Last year I saw a talk by the creators of the Zooniverse project. It was a crowdsourcing site to classify galaxies photographed by the Hubble. They thought they might find a few volunteers, but they underestimated the internet's desire to contribute to science. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of galaxies was sorted in two weeks. Talk about inspiration.

Weather balloon and weather balloon.

After the talk, I went to dinner with the astronomers and a few people from our educational games group. I ended up seated across from an astronomer who hadn't played a video game since the original Super Mario Bros. (he didn't remember which one). When he found out I was a video game designer, he said, "Okay, explain video games to me. I know there's something to them because I can't get my kids to stop playing them."

I tried giving a few examples from different genres, but he hadn't heard of any of the games I mentioned. So I came up with an explanation based on Mario:

- There's nothing that says jumping on turtles and colliding with walls should be any fun, yet we know how popular Mario is.

- The answer is good game design.

- A game design is made up of nouns and verbs. Mario's main verbs are running and jumping. If we replaced all the art, it'd still be a game about running and jumping.

- It's the game designer's job to make sure those verbs are absolutely as enjoyable as possible.

- None of the verbs matter without nouns to act on.

- What the nouns are is not as important as the way the verbs affect them (e.g. turtles being 'stompable').

At this point, the astronomer said, "Ah, so Mario doesn't have to be going through pipes..." and I said, "Right, they could be ladders, or slides, or elevators." "And it wouldn't change the game design." "Precisely."

Maybe not the most elegant of explanations, but I was satisfied with that breakthrough. I then talked a bit about how a game designer would adjust actual numbers for things like jump velocity (trying to think of things an astronomer would care about).

I also talked about how a game designer would create levels that asked more and more of the players' running and jumping skills, and I think he got the point. I suggested that maybe his kids enjoyed their games because they offered an optimal level of challenge as their skills increased. He nodded and said he would ask them, and I could tell he was really thinking.

That conversation crystallized a few things in my mind about what exactly my job is. All the artistic flourish in the world won't matter if the game's main verbs aren't fun from moment-to-moment. Keeping that in mind is a good way to focus on what's important about the game, and where to best expend my energy.

I'll give another quick example. One of my best friends is a massage therapist. The last time she came to visit I started to complain about problems with our asset server, then realized I had to first explain what that was. While explaining that, I realized there were important things to work on that didn't require the asset server to be fixed. Boom, productivity boost.

6) The world is your Wikipedia

The last suggestion I wanted to make is a bit more subtle. I believe that the more research you do about the subject of your game, the better the final product will be. Everything you can teach yourself will deepen your pool of potential inspiration. Think of it as going on an 'information raid', pulling in large chunks of knowledge in a limited time.

Age of Accuracy II

In the strategy game X-COM, there is an energy source called Elerium-115 that is only found in the alien enemy's ships. It's incredibly valuable, but it's so fragile that setting off explosives too close to an alien power source will destroy it. Retrieving even a small quantity of this resource involves careful deliberation in a way that makes the game more interesting.

Elerium-115 isn't just an invented sci-fi resource. It's based on a real element of atomic number 115 ("Ununpentium"). In reality they haven't been able to make an isotope of Ununpentium with a half-life longer than a few milliseconds, making it pretty useless as an energy source.

Still, certain 'UFO experts' have been claiming it as a possible energy source for alien spacecraft since at least the 1980s. The idea is compelling enough that Ununpentium has shown up as an energy source not just in X-COM, but in Dark Reign, the Call of Duty series, and Tomb Raider III.

Is it possible that the X-COM designers would have had the idea to make an energy source rare, valuable, and fragile without knowing about Ununpentium? Of course. But by relating their alien technology to physical elements, I think they created a much richer narrative device, and lent some legitimacy to this alien technology.

I think this goes beyond appealing to the hard sci-fi crowd. This bit of extra research on the part of the designers probably gave them gameplay ideas.

I think that no matter what kind of game you're making, there's always something you can do to enrich your knowledge of the subject. Will Wright made Sim Ant by trying to simulate the behavior of real ants as closely as possible, and that insight fed directly into the creation of the Sims. Did you know each object in a Sim's house gives off 'pheromones'?

I consider seeking out inspiration to be a part of my creative process. I have a few sites I like to visit for this, but I'm always looking for more. So: what are your sources of inspiration? Now taking suggestions.