Tools don’t stifle art!

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Aug 132013

Luke McMillan has a nice article on Gamasutra entitled “An Intro to RLD,” which is about using math to assess the difficulty of jumping puzzles (and by extension, other parts of the content ramp in your game design).

I’m not here to talk about the article. It’s a nice article. I’m here to talk about one of the reactions to it.

The article is a nice, straightforward illustration of how quantitative methods can bring greater clarity to something that designers do every day, usually by “feel.” And of course, the challenge with “feel” is that it only arises from experience. As I have termed it before, the “apprenticeship model” of learning game design: you do it until you develop the feel, and have internalized heuristics of your own for things like difficulty ramps. Then you struggle to communicate those heuristics to others, and they learn it the hard way themselves.

Michael Joseph, in the comments, states the following:

  • that the article shows “a desire to depersonalize game design”
  • that no one has “proved that ‘zen’ style of game design is a significant problem”
  • that these methods are “design encroachment tool by the business side so that any hairless monkey can churn out a game”
  • and that the method “reminds me of the Auto-Tune used by some singers with questionable talent.”

McMillan responded very politely to this comment. I on the other hand… this stuff makes me mad enough to be sarcastic and blunt. I apologize in advance to Joseph, since I know his track record in the industry, and it doesn’t seem reflective of the comments he’s making.

I can only presume that he thinks that measuring when cutting wood for a table is depersonalizing carpentry. Forgive me if I prefer not to live in a house he builds. I have not noticed any lack of creativity among architects simply because they measure stuff a lot.

The “Zen style” isn’t a problem, unless you are trying to, say, work with another designer and want to communicate with them. Or want to tweak your game balance. Or want to train a new designer. The reason it is a problem is simple: the lack of a common language. That would be why designers have been building a common language for decades now. There isn’t any need to “prove” this; a given designer either runs into these issues or they don’t. If they do, would you deny them the opportunity to try to fix it? If you don’t run into these issues, please share how you avoid them; I would be stunned if it didn’t turn out to be “depersonalized” craft language.

The elitism inherent in “with this tool, gosh, any hairless monkey can make a game” is shocking. At a time when the industry is in a ferment over increasing the democratization of game development, increasing access for the disadvantaged, increasing diversity and new voices, the idea that a tool is bad because it increases access is frankly appalling. I don’t think this how this comment was meant, which means it simply wasn’t thought about very hard.

Instead, I suspect (especially given the Auto-Tune comment) that it was meant as a cry on behalf of artistry instead of “soulless business,” similar to the piece by Liz Ryerson that I wrote about the other day. In which case, it misses its target. Plenty of deeply artistic, personally expressive designers use mathematical tools to balance their games, sort of how plenty of musicians use the math inherent in leading tones and chord progressions without having to resort to Auto-Tune.

We disdain Auto-Tune because it does something for you that you cannot do yourself, and thereby also removes all the personal expression from the process. But we don’t disdain singing on pitch, or tuning your guitar, in the name of “personal expression.” This tool doesn’t even come close to being Auto-Tune. It’s not “auto-balance my game.” In fact, I hate saying it’s “a tool.” It’s more like a set of practices.

There really isn’t a reason to fear the tool. There may be a reason for a designer to fear a businessperson coming in and using the tool as a bludgeon. That’s certainly the undercurrent in the air these days: that artistry is compromised by having to think about money, audience, etc. But let’s be honest, businesspeople will happily bludgeon with whatever is handy. Remove all design tools, and they’ll bludgeon you with the budget instead. In the case of a self-funding indie, they’ll bludgeon themselves, as they wrestle with the question of artistic integrity versus putting food on the table.

Let me turn away from Joseph’s comments for a moment, since what follows really doesn’t apply to him. This all reminds me of something I have heard many times from artists in different fields:

“I have my own style, and I’m afraid that if I take classes, that I would learn to do art like them, and not like me.”

I usually associate this with youth and inexperience. Think about what it implies:

  • Fear: that your style will not survive contact with other influences. Which also implies
  • Deep insecurity about your skills, coupled with
  • Arrogance, to believe that your “style” is somehow unique in the artistic history of the world, and
  • Disdain or lack of understanding of the hard work it takes to master new skills, and
  • A lack of discipline, in that the person believes that the learning you could get wouldn’t improve your own work.

Look, being serious about your art and your craft means a lot of woodshedding. It means a lot of practice. And doing that means being a vacuum sucking up every little bit of knowledge, every rule of thumb, every example, everything you can learn from. You don’t have to believe it all. I don’t know anyone who does. But you can’t even disbelieve it if you don’t understand it.

If you’re scared that learning how to run a spreadsheet of your difficulty curve is going to make your work soulless, maybe it didn’t have a very strong soul to begin with. Learn how to do it, and then feel free to ignore what it says, as a conscious artistic choice. Accept the possibility that just maybe, the tools might actually propel you to greater artistic heights. After all, Picasso was able to leverage careful study of visual arts into flights of fancy that helped redefine visual representation. He did it by woodshedding a lot.

Grump over.

  21 Responses to “Tools don’t stifle art!”

  1. “any hairless monkey can churn out a game”

    yeah. i totally chuckled out loud.


  2. oh, and i should probably stick this in here too:


  3. In defense of that feeling described near the end, the fear (in abstract) that personal identity will be subsumed by cultural identity, I think cuts a bit deeper than might be suspected. Sometimes fear and insecurity are justifiable, if not understandable when a surrounding culture is hostile to certain core aspects of personal identity and demanding assimilation, and may not need to be coupled with the latter elements to represent a real concern someone may have about an offer of being instructed in the “right way” to engage in personal expression or in creating the “right kind” of personal expressions (as the offer is sometimes perceived).

  4. Peter, I think that is a common fear. But IMHO, you’re more likely to be subsumed in cultural identity by living life unexamined. Classes and the like are about observing the water one swims in.

  5. I think that what Micheal’s comments highlight is how personal design practice is. I like to think of it in a similar way to brand loyalty. People will often argue something which is incongruous to their own beliefs simply because they believe if the opposite is true, then it somehow invalidates their worth. However, things are never black and white, polarized opposites. I felt that I had made this clear in intro which also acted as a type of disclaimer where I talked about the personal nature of design and how RLD is often an internal mechanism that Zen designers use. (but don’t necessarily articulate)

    Either way, I appreciate Micheal making the comments in the first place. Although I may not agree with him, his points are valid to him personally and still worthy of broad discussion within the community.

  6. My favorite relationship with the game I’m working on are the tools that I have to use. If I have poor tools, I will (and have) rant about them until I finally break and rewrite them myself or persuade other designers/programmers to improve them (in their spare time, if I a producer disagrees – happens often, actually). Sitting at my machine using data mining to get a better understanding of the variables I wish to tweak is like a treasure hunt to me. I do have an architectural/mechanical engineering background. That background aside, I find it ridiculous that a designer would never use math to make all decisions during a game’s development. I absolutely love making informed decisions and I heavily rely on all the data sources I can churn out to make those decisions. In fact, I like to see an overwhelming amount of data points to make decisions.

    One of those decisions was an issue with spawn systems in Star Wars Galaxies becoming maxed out and causing clumping and server performance hits. I had a poor tool that was written in Microsoft Visio that would attempt to display regions where things should spawn. After fighting with this tool for a couple days, I finally re-wrote it to pull and display region information in an efficient way so we could make better informed decisions on how to fix the issue. After that data was available, I was able to rewrite the spawn system which eliminated the clumps of creatures, move away level 50 creatures on the edges of cities that new players started in, etc… A whole host of problems were identified and fixed just by improving one tool that showed Venn diagrams with NPC statistics.

    Through using data mining in a tool, you can become intimately immersed in your game’s elements. Your understanding of the game is very deep with that “data intimacy”, even if you designed it from the ground up.

  7. β€œI have my own style, and I’m afraid that if I take classes, that I would learn to do art like them, and not like me.”

    I’ve heard this from time to time. And I loved your retort. It implies fear; insecurity; arrogance; disdain; and lack of discipline. Perfect!

  8. I like flying by the seat of my pants. But when I come up with a good bass riff (for example), my wife makes me write it down, so I don’t forget it. And she’s right. Jam for fun, but follow the tabs when there’s dough on the line.

    I believe every artist in every field, including game design, has the absolute right to do whatever the hell they please in pursuit of art. What the artist doesn’t have is any reasonable expectation of money and/or approval for efforts that eschew technique and execution.

    And here’s the dirty little secret of iconoclasm; the artists who most successfully shatter the rules are the ones who first master the rules. Throwing away the rulebook without reading it is just lazy.

  9. >β€œI have my own style, and I’m afraid that if I take classes, that I would learn to do art like them, and not like me.”
    >I usually associate this with youth and inexperience. Think about what it implies:
    >Fear … Deep insecurity … Arrogance … Disdain … A lack of discipline,

    This is true almost all the time, but you do have to be alert to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the person is old and experienced and really does have their own style that they don’t want to pollute.

    Also, being fearful and insecure aren’t necessarily bad. If you have a vision for your game or whatever but it’s proving hard to hold onto, and only by actually making the game will you be able to express what you’re trying to say, then you will indeed be insecure and fearful, and for good reason! That doesn’t mean the result won;t be a masterpiece, though – plenty of artists now recognised as geniuses were filled with self-doubt. If you allow yourself to look at other games, you may find yourself taking ideas from them that make you lose touch with what you’re trying to say – you get caught in their gravity, which is precisely what you’re trying to escape.

  10. You know, painting just hasn’t been the same since they invented brushes and oil varnishes. Any asshole can pick up a mortarboard and camel-hair brush these days and make realistic art.

    There is a danger in letting the tools dictate the art. But given that our current number one artistic problem is that the sheer manhours required to make our primitive handcrafting methods turn out acceptable games is choking us under layers of bureaucratic management and risk-averse business decisions, I’m all for better tools. Anything that can be automated, *should* be automated, in order to allow design effort to be focused on the actually interesting stuff.

  11. […] Luke McMillan goes into great detail about how to quantify for designers what has been a very wishy washy explanations for a critical element of play: game feel. Raph Koster then defends it on his own site against some of the commenters miss the fact that tools don’t stifle art. […]

  12. As a former art teacher, I have a lot of thoughts on this article. One thing that people get confused about is “style.” As in, they are supposed to “develop a style.” No… Your “style” is your personality. Everything we learn and experience, every experiment in life and in the studio informs us on the next step. Eventually, your “style” emerges on it’s own. Trying to consciously develop “your style” is probably the wrong approach. Your personality and your experiments result in a type of “handwriting” that becomes your personal style. People are trying too hard to be… what? Relevant? Unique? “Cutting Edge”? Pfft. If you don’t like what you’re doing, try doing the opposite– Don’t like what your realist approach is garnering? Go abstract. Work back and forth between abstraction and realism. Try a limited color palette, then work in graphite for a few weeks, then open up with all your colors… Go to the museum, go to the library, go for long walks with your dog. Eventually, the “you” in your art will emerge naturally from long practice. They key is to keep trying new things, and what works will find it’s way into future works… Consciously trying to develop a “style” is like trying to decide what sexuality you are… It’s just a function of who you are at birth, what you experience in life, what you find rewarding… It’s “just you.” If you consciously try to find your style, it’s probably going to look and feel very phony (at least for a good long while.). Eventually, you find you have painted yourself into a corner, and it’s that much more difficult to break away from what you “think” defines your work (and, by extension, what defines “you.”) “Just do it”… not just pretty words πŸ™‚ eh… Something to consider.

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