I've written previously on the importance of finding unconventional inspirations for video games. I thought I'd share some of mine. These are videos I find myself returning to again and again, sometimes years after I first watched them.
Watch how much emotion these artists are able to wring out in just seconds of video, without saying a word. That's something we in games can do, and should aspire to. Indie-minded friends, we can go WAY weirder.
1) You Belong to my Heart
First, something from my childhood. Something Disney managed to release during the Second World War as a goodwill message to Latin America. I think it's fair to say that Disney is a company that banks on nostalgia, but this is so strange it's never mentioned anywhere. I'm talking about The Three Caballeros.
Here's Dora Luz and Donald Duck singing a song called "You Belong to my Heart."
Maybe it was the limited supply of children's VHS's at my local library, but I never got sick of watching this. I think the desire to collect strange flowers in space never left me, which should surprise no one who's played Gravity Ghost.
Apparently some contemporary viewers were scandalized by Donald's apparent lusting after a flesh-and-blood woman, plus some of the following scenes about a dancing cactus were not exactly in line with wartime morality. But little me didn't care about any of that, because space flowers.
2) Return as an Animal
At the Indiecade independent games festival in 2009, games journalist Brandon Boyer (who would soon be named Chairman of the Independent Games Festival), implored us game developers to incorporate unconventional art styles, unused aesthetics, and general weird stuff into our games. He shared this video, which I'm fond of watching at 3 in the morning. I find it very peaceful. I'm not sure why.
Gaijin games are perhaps best known for their Bit Trip Runner and Bit Trip Beat series, but it was a little-known prototype they released in 2011 that has the boldest aesthetic. Front and center is a flailing, skeletal astronaut, still wearing part of his destroyed spacesuit. I have no idea what the story is, but I was immediately drawn in by the premise.
4) Little Boat
This is a student animation by Nelson Boles. And oh my god, the emotion in this video. It'd bring a tear to a glass eye*.
*An expression I learned from Tom, a wonderful Scottish game reviewer who recently played Gravity Ghost.
5) The TV Show
You can watch this 100 times and you'll still find something new to notice. It's that good. As an example: I've probably watched this 100 times and I just noticed the colors in each scene match the colors of the TV test pattern.
It's rare to find something that makes you want to get up and dance, let alone something that makes you want to simultaneously jump through your TV.
I have no idea what this is, but Keita Takahashi linked to it once and now it is forever with me. Some of Gravity Ghost's unpolished, handmade look owes itself directly to this video. I think there is such a thing as overpolished. If you can't draw a straight line, don't. The wiggly line might be more interesting.
7) Molten Light
Trigger warning: The next two videos may be disturbing for some. There's animated blood, protruding bones, violence, nudity, etc. So if that's not your thing feel free to skip to number 9.
I've been a huge fan of Canadian artist Chan VanGaalen since I was in university. Not only does he write his own songs, he animates his own music videos and invents the occasional instrument. All his work is worth checking out, but Molten Light stands apart. To me it's the story of something so terrible it cannot be undone. Some people sing about love. And some people write songs where the chorus goes "She'll find you and she'll kill you..."
8) WOFL 2106
WARNING: This video gets LOUD. It's VERY sudden. I wouldn't wear headphones (seriously).
Some of the viewers on Vimeo experienced ringing in their ears, so please, turn the volume WAY down.
Okay, ready? It's by the master of the intersection of disturbing and cute, David OReilly.
Well that all got a lot more disturbing than I intended. Let's pull it back to something that's at least a little uplifting.
9) When I Grow Up
I cheated, this isn't an animation. But it tells a fascinating story almost entirely with environment, camera work, and mood.
There's a real gift in being able to take the familiar and everyday and twist it into something disquieting and foreign. Much of the darkness in video games comes from violence, but that's not the kind of darkness that most of us experience in our everyday lives. More common are the mundane horrors of living: family dischord, feeling cast out by friends, worrying about one's level of professional achievement, watching a loved one slip into dementia or disease. These are some themes that video games are just now starting to explore.
There's a scene in this video, no more than two seconds long, in which someone (possibly meant to be the main character's father) looks on with disapproval. That's it. It's riveting.
I suppose that's not exactly uplifting, but hey, at least nobody died. Let's try one more.
10) The Parachute Ending
I considered ending with any of the following videos: Little Twelve Toes, I Say Fever, Don't Go Phantom, and Move Your Feet. But those all sit comfortably in the category of 'music video', without standing as works of animation unto themselves.
Great music videos are not the point of this post. To fit the criterion of 'videos I find myself revisiting over and over', I realized it had to be this one: The Parachute Ending by Birdy Nam Nam.
Once again, we're plunked down into a world that barely resembles ours. But watching this video is the feeling of being along for the ride.
The visuals remind me of playing King's Quest VII for the first time as an 8-year-old, wandering out into the desert, and watching my character die of thirst. Over and over. Until I realized that the playable map was a small island, surrounded by certain death. The only out was to solve the puzzles and survive - which included a terrifying interaction with a red-eyed spectre who the desert had already claimed. All this from a children's game. I was hooked.
I hope you enjoyed these videos, they're a huge source of off-the-beaten-path inspiration for me.
Also, if you haven't already, please consider preordering Gravity Ghost on our brand new store page. For a limited time you can preorder for $9.99 ($5 off the launch day price), and you receive 2 copies - one to give away to someone special.
I promise you: this game will be weird.
First off, exciting reminder:
Gravity Ghost will be available for preorder next Monday, August 26!
You can purchase it via the Humble Store on this very website. :) Please help us spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, or however you fancy. Our small indie team thanks you 100%.
Second order of business: swag. And not the kind that teenagers advertise on their t-shirts. The good kind.
Earlier this week I made dozens of little bottles with ghost foxes to sell at our Gravity Ghost booth at PAX. When I was a kid I would make my own toys out of polymer clay. Seen through that lens, my career choice is...unsurprising. :)
Here's what the process looked like:
This tiny fox in a jar shall be my muse!
Stab. In the background are some planet-like treasures to put in the bottles.
Keeping the foxes a constant size. Hey, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, that's a good show!
With the prototype finished, I'm ready to begin mass production
This little guy sits comfortably on a penny
Just 64 more to go!
Craft station alpha. Nerdy poster art sold separately.
One of the bottles contains a girl instead of a fox.
Ready for baking!
Meanwhile, my good friend Renee fills the bottles with colorful sand, glitter, beads, bells, feathers, seashells, and tiny stars.
Great job, Renee!
Putting foxes in the bottles. They all fit because I am a wizard.
Always good to have on hand. ...Eh? Eh????
The universe gets revenge for my puns by having me cut dozens of tiny tags.
Ready for stopperin'! Time to get the hot glue gun and the plastic gems.
All done! That's a giant spoon on a regular-sized table, if that helps.
Teal or no teal?
Blue ocean of stars.
All that's missing is a new home. If you're coming to PAX, stop on by the Gravity Ghost zone at the Indie Megabooth, and one of these can be yours :).
I often refer to the team that’s building Gravity Ghost, and it’s time I gave a proper introduction. Many people have helped out along the way, but at the moment there are four of us: Courtney, Ben, Mike, and Erin.
Ben, Erin, and Mike, seen here in our natural habitat: a coffee shop with free WiFi and a loose policy about loitering
Here are three questions I asked everyone to answer:
- What is your background (education, work, etc.), and what are your favorite types of games?
- What have you worked on?
- Why work on indie games/Gravity Ghost in particular?
Courtney Stanton, Producer
Courtney + screenshots from Hansel & Gretel: Lost, Fieldrunners 2, The River
Hi! I’m Courtney, and I’ve been making games for a few years now. My background is in project management (what the non-games world calls production), and I’ve worked with lots of different kinds of tech companies and teams, inside and outside the games industry. I’ve got a BA in Communications & Culture and an MS in Project Management, and my “day” job these days is working as a program manager for a pretty big tech company here in Boston, MA. My role on Gravity Ghost has been as a production consultant, working with Erin on the schedule, scope, and prioritization of tasks to develop and ship Gravity Ghost.
I like to play a huge variety of games, in terms of mechanics and narrative, but I mostly like anything that engages my brain in some way; this is also reflected in the types of people I like to work with when making games! I’ve worked on interactive storybook iOS titles, tower defense multi-platform games, and sometimes I go off in my own little corner and produce things in Twine when the mood strikes.
I like working with smart people who are good at what they do, which is how I started working with Erin on Gravity Ghost*. She and I were standing in line for a hot dog a few years ago and I mentioned that I was starting to think about doing project consulting for indie devs - a couple months later, she told me about a new game she was prototyping and I jumped at the chance to work with a talented person on an interesting project.
Production isn’t something that a lot of indie devs think they can afford to spend time on, and I don’t want to tell people they’re wrong necessarily -- as an indie, you know your game and your team better than anyone else. But for this project in specific, it’s be an absolute pleasure to see Erin and her team take a tiny demo that was more of a screensaver-toy than anything else and turn it into the amazing game that is Gravity Ghost!
*Editor's note: Aw, stop :)
Ben Prunty, Music and Sound Design
Ben + screenshots from FTL: Faster than Light
I'm Ben. I arrange sound into pleasing patterns for a living. I tried working at regular jobs, but I'm so bad at it that when an employer reads my resume, the company he's working for immediately goes out of business. Here are some jobs I've held in the last ten years or so: cleaning toilets, managing a GameStop, ripping apart about ten thousand computers at Google, unpacking shipping crates at 4AM, and helping volunteers record audio books for dyslexics.
Throughout all this time I was making music constantly and slowly working my way into the game development community. Then I made the music for FTL and now I don't need to keep a day job and employers no longer have to suffer.
The only thing you really need to know about me is that I've beaten God Hand. This act required a superhuman level of insanity and masochism. I suffered approximately 40 heart attacks and still get post-traumatic stress whenever I think of any one of its many, many boss fights, but now I can solve almost any problem with punching.
I hope I can punch the Gravity Ghost soundtrack into something vibrant and wonderful for you.
Michael Stevenson, Programmer
Mike + screenshots from Red Frame, Snail Break
I'm Mike, a programmer, educator, and former stop-motion animator. I started making games as a young kid, often building simple point-and-click adventures in HyperCard on an old Mac. I loved creating worlds, and this extended into all kinds of different media. In college I focused on film and animation, and spent a couple years as a professional stop-motion animator and prop builder.
During my transition from animation to game development there was one particular experience that stood out: while showing my film Pigeon Pilfer at an animation festival the kids in the audience would often yell at the screen in an attempt to guide the main character, but the film wasn't able to communicate back to them.
I realized that most of my creative ideas were actually much better suited to interactive experiences. It wasn't long before I stumbled upon the indie game development community - it was chock full of awesomely creative and technically savvy people who shared similar goals. I felt at home right away, and my career as a indie game developer was born.
When Erin showed me the prototype of Gravity Ghost last year I was immediately drawn to it. The game cultivates the sort of player experience that I'd wanted much more of: exploration and discovery, without violence or urgency. It's something I had to be a part of!
Erin Robinson, Game Design and Art
Erin + screenshots from Spooks, Nanobots, Little Girl in Underland, Puzzle Bots
Hey it's me, Erin!
This is my 8th year making games. I make indie games because of their unstated promise: that any universe you can imagine, you can create - and share with other people. A game is so different from a book or a film - when my work is done I can just say, "Here's how to move around" and give someone a complete world to lose themselves in.
I occasionally teach college courses in Unity/C# and game prototyping, because I love to see the worlds that other people create. It’s my third year of teaching and I hope I get to keep doing it for the next 50. I am always floored by the creativity of students. An offbeat game made in two weeks, to me, is more interesting and special than the latest multi-million dollar shooter.
I started my career as a psychology major, planning to become a neuroscience professor. I worked as a research assistant in a lab after I graduated (incidentally, if you ever want to hear how great the hippocampus is, hit me up). I decided research wasn't for me, but conveniently, I already had a publishing deal with Wadjet Eye Games to make my first commercial game, Puzzle Bots.
I learned to make games by collaborating with people I met on internet forums. My job - “independent game developer” - didn’t really exist when I got started, which I think says a lot about how much our industry has evolved. To me, it's also a sign of how hungry the gaming audience is for creativity.
Adventure games are good at creating experiences where story and gameplay are inseparable (and I love them), but I think adventure games as a whole are pretty broken. There's still no elegant remedy to the problem of 'what happens when I get stuck?' I’m still really interested in trying to tell a story through interactivity - and puzzles are only one of many ways to do that. At the start of this project I felt ready to try a new approach, so I made a physics game with story elements.
Gravity Ghost is the culmination of all my ideas about game design from the last decade. It’s a game about running, jumping, flying, and being a different kind of hero - one who must create, rather than destroy. I’m curious to know what you’ll think of it - and hopefully you won’t have to wait long. The game is scheduled for release in 2014 (yay!) and we’re all super excited about it.
In-game art is a strange beast. It needs to be detailed enough to look good in screenshots, but iconic enough that a player speeding by knows what's happening. Often what a player sees is different from what the developer sees. Even people watching the game over someone's shoulder perceive it differently.
An example that springs to mind is the realistic gore in Left 4 Dead 2. When I first saw the game I was struck by how much more graphic it was compared to Left 4 Dead. Yet when I played, I stopped perceiving that entirely - once a zombie was down, I never looked at them again.
Much of Gravity Ghost is spent flying through the air. I knew I wanted as much contrast between the planets and the background as possible. I've increased that contrast several times now, and it's always made the game better.
Consider this very old mock-up I did:
I began by trying to simulate a handcrafted feel. The sky and the planet are different colors as well as different values: the planet is dark, the sky is light. But just by looking, could you tell me which part of that planet you would land on? (The answer is you'd land behind the 'hills', on a round collider). What about the trees, would you collide with them, or are they just for decoration? It is visually ambiguous, which was no good.
Notice the large planet in the center. Here, I've added a texture to the round collider, so at least it's clear which part of the planet you'll land on. The other planets still have curvy surfaces though. And what do the different colors mean?
It turns out the only planets that actually do anything different are the light blue ones, which behave like water. I was trying to add variety to the designs of the planets, but I only created visual noise. People thought the red planet was dangerous (actually, nothing in the game is dangerous). And the darker planets blended right into the background, even when the game was in motion. Oops.
To get away from the texture-heavy art style above, I tried re-imagining what the game would look like with a clean vector style. This isn't bad, but the ambiguity about the collision is still there (do you land on the hills, or not? Would you think you were going to crash into them, if you were flying towards them?). And there's still some problems with contrast. The planet surface is very light, but the planet center is the same value as the background. Clearly this wouldn't solve my contrast problem. Plus the idea of doing custom art for each planet seemed exhausting.
You may remember this image from an earlier post. Here is the beginning of our terraforming mechanic. Each planet represents a different possible state for a planet to be in, having been terraformed by dirt, water, seeds, or a combination thereof. When I tried this art in the game, I discovered I really liked the way the white planets contrasted against the dark blue sky in the game. I cleaned up this art a bit and this is what we got:
Okay, so it turns out the only handy picture I had was this joke image about Gravity Ghost's secret 'bikini mode.' Anyway, the planets (sans bikini, oh la la) stayed in this state for more than a year.
This image was in our first blog post about the game, and I would look at it often. As you can see, it's shaded more like it's a sphere, unlike the white planet above, which is flat. I finally decided to update the flat planets to look round, and this is the result.
The moons are now shaded like spheres, and they have flat images overlaid for the various terraforming states. Lots of people asked me if the water planets were sawblades that were going to kill them. Video games have ruined all of us, forever.
Gravity Ghost now has some new planet types, each of which required unique art. I'm back to my initial problem: How do I create art that stands out from the background, yet is visually distinct enough that a player flying by can identify everything clearly? Other games can play with the profile of distinct game elements, but I'm afraid it's all circles for me.
Here's what the planets look like now. Can you tell what each of them does without checking the filename? If you can't guess, I don't blame you - it's an ongoing evolution. :)
The original title of this post was "modular level construction," but that's not nearly as fun. :)
I'm currently adding all the necessary story beats to the game. This means having all the story locations in the game, even if they're just roughed in. The next round of playtesters should be able to play through the story, and we can see if any changes are necessary.
The game has several large 'story planets' that play like traditional platformers, albeit on a radial world. The character movement - running, jumping, riding moving platforms, etc. - was done a few months ago. All the main characters are in, and the beginnings of a working dialog system.
But how does one build structures on a radial planet? Would the people there compensate for the strange curvature of the world? Or would they build straight up and down and hope for the best? Trying to imagine how such a planet might look, I did a quick digital painting and built a level on it. The platforms are those dark red rectangles.
The big problem with this is that it's inflexible. I could move the individual trees around, but moving the platforms too much from the art made the whole thing look terrible. And the house was stuck where it was.
I tried simplifying the items I put in the game. In this image, things like the garden and the tea table are represented symbolically. And while it was easier to move the pieces around, it didn't convey the scale I was hoping for. If I couldn't figure out how to make a rough draft, how could I jump straight to the final version?
Then, while working on an unrelated system, I had a brainwave. Most systems I prototype start as cubes and cylinders - primitive geometry that's easy to manipulate in Unity and other 3D programs. Why not prototype the locations using cubes as well?
I made this house today. It's not perfect, but it does start to communicate the feeling I want the player to have as they approach and explore the house. And the nice thing is, the floors already work like floors because the platform system was already in place.
One more quick note, for people who care about aesthetics like I do. As I created the cubes, I assigned each one a colorful material. I have a small number of these that I use like paint pots - it's quick and it keeps the color palette consistent.
Building the rest of the locations should go pretty quickly now. Woo!
The very first version of Gravity Ghost was pretty bare-bones, but I noticed something about the way people played the game that surprised me. Playtesters liked to run in circles around the planets.
Old build, featuring high-tech spinning cubes.
There was no reason to run in circles. It often would have been faster to reverse direction and run the other way. Yet players kept running in circles, sometimes many times in a row, just because it played into this nice feeling of continuous motion that was already built into the game.
Enough people even said "I like running in circles" that I decided to turn it into a game mechanic. It solved another design problem I was having, which was how to give the player a simple way to choose which planets to terraform. The colorful trail behind the girl character would now have a purpose: to show you which trail type she was carrying.
I've decided to call the girl character "Iona", so let's use that from now on. There were three different trail types Iona could pick up: dirt, water, and seeds. She could now run in a complete circle around a planet with whichever trail type she picked up, and they could be layered in a crafting sort of way. Here's what the first art pass for that looked like:
Water, dirt, seeds, and various combinations thereof.
And here's what that looked like with some nicer art for the trails and planets:
The miracle of life.
Cool, so that all seemed to work. The next thing I wanted to do was twofold: have the trails be a finite resource, and have the trails be made of Iona's hair. We built a system where flowers would make her hair longer, and encircling a planet would decrease the length of the hair by the circumference of the planet. A fully terraformed planet would create more flowers.
Here's a video with the various hair trail types (I turned off the gravity visualization circle for clarity's sake):
When you see her hair length increasing spontaneously, that's me cheating with a debug button. Normally you collect flowers to make her hair grow.
You'll see that Iona's hair now responds to gravity. It's a game *about* gravity, so that should work just fine, right?
Look again. Her long hair gets spooled around the planets and seems to get stuck. It interferes with the free, flowy feel of the game. If you play this build you'll swear her hair is yanking her back down towards the planets when you jump (even though that's impossible).
But the hair has some cool features, too: it collides with the planets in a neat way, and follow's Iona's motion. Sure, it's a bit visually noisy, but there must be some compromise to make it work, right?
Nope. It was time to give up on the physics hair. Why? There was one important piece of visual feedback that the hair didn't provide, and it was so subtle it took me a while to notice what was missing.
Look back at the very first video. The trail shows exactly where you jump, creating not only those nice round shapes, but also an important visual guide. Like the dotted line in Angry Birds, it let you adjust your course and correct your aim if you missed your jump the first time. And I had totally forgotten about it.
After a good chat with our programmer Mike Stevenson, we decided to nix the physics hair and start again. I still had a problem: I wanted the hair to be a resource you carried with you, so its length would vary. But I also wanted the player to always have a long trail, to show where you had jumped. Here's the solution I came up with:
And here's what that looks like in the game now (though it's running a bit slower than normal):
We're also re-tuning the movement a bit, so we switched off her animation for now.
The feel of the game is worlds better. Running around collecting flowers to make your hair grow is strangely satisfying. It's built to make your momentum feel *good.* The hair doesn't pull in behind Iona yet, and we still have to hook it up with the terraforming system, but this is likely how the hair will behave in the final game. Art-wise, it's functional and readable, and we can tint the hair to represent the different trail types. The next time we revisit this, it will probably be for the final art polish pass.
Speaking of which, I've been trying to reconcile my love of bright colors with the fact that Iona should read as a ghost. That's the main piece of feedback I've gotten about her: she's cute, but not particularly 'ghostly.' Ghosts are typically transparent or white, and in games they're usually surrounded by animated smoke of some sort. But somehow that didn't seem right for Iona - she's very powerful, and I didn't want her to seem intangible.
With this coloration, there's much more white at a distance. But I gave her bright colors for highlights and shadows, as though the light hitting her is from some otherworldly source. I'll have more to say about this later, just thought I'd update you on Iona's ongoing evolution.
Back to the main thrust of this post, running in circles is now a core part of the game, and one that has a few more uses beyond what I've mentioned here. It wouldn't have become what it is without the input of playtesters, who found a behavior they liked and wanted to be rewarded for it in some way.
On that note, another thing playtesters tell me quite a bit is that they love trying to stay in the air for a long time without hitting any of the planets. This is on its way to becoming a game mechanic too, so stay tuned. :)
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!
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.
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.
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.
This is a picture of my brother. I threw it in here to break up this large block of text.
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.