May 30, 2016

World Building: Part 1 The Rules and When to Break Them

You Have To Know The Rules Before You Can Break Them

This article is the first part in a short series giving advice and my experience on world building. When writing fiction, it is sincerely advisable that you take time to consider the fundamental elements and rules of the world your story takes place in. Some writers like to do this at different points in their project, however I like to begin with it, before any characters or plot can be decided. Hopefully I will be able to justify why.

Part 2: Resources and Materials is here and Part 3: Conflict is here

I like to begin by deciding the mechanics of the world I am creating. By this I mean deciding very early on what is physically (and magically) possible in the world. Allow me to apply this to some well known examples (regardless of whether or not the original author did this in my order):

The Hunger Games: Takes place in a version of our world in the near future, what is possible in our world is also possible in the fictional world, with the addition of some technological advances such as holograms and genetic engineering (the canines from the first book and the sewer monsters from the final book).

The Lord of The Rings: Takes place in a medieval Europe influenced world, with the appropriate technological advances (no electricity, but they have a gunpowder like substance). Significant differences include the possibility of existing after death (the Ring Wraiths and Gandalf) and magical abilities mostly tied to specific individuals and objects. Also some creatures exist as a result of magic instead of evolution.

Harry Potter: Takes place in a modern day version of our world, in which it seems like anything is possible due to magic. But almost all magical powers and actually tied to objects (wands, horcruxes, enchanted items). There is also the possibility of existing after death, seeing into the future, and also the possibility of time travel, but these are generally tied to objects too. Also some creatures exist as a result of magic instead of evolution.

Marvel Universe: Molecular Change, Magic, Time Travel, Interdimensional Travel, Altering the Fabric of Reality, Emptying Your Wallet.

This exercise enables my writing in a number of ways. First of all it allows me to intelligently choose what is at stake for my story. The reader will have a difficult time feeling invested in the story and feeling genuine dramatic tension if you have not made it clear what is possible at most given moments. I do not need to explain all of the rules to the reader at once, but I can certainly drip-feed them in a way that builds their understanding of the world the story takes place in. 

Once I have established for myself the rules and what is possible, it makes the next writing tasks much simpler for me. If I want to write a story about a character who has special powers, knowing what world they exist in helps define exactly what is special. The same is also true if I want to write a story about a character who has no special powers (for example Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit). If I want to write a story about a city that is in danger of being destroyed, what could possibly destroy it and what could possibly save it based on the rules I have made? (For example the 1995 movie Jumanji).  If I want to write a story about a magical race of vampires, establishing what is and is not magically possible for them helps me decide how they can possibly live alongside humans and helps me avoid writing myself into a corner (for example the Blade movies).

Finally, establishing what is and is not possible in your world allows you to then break the rules for important blockbuster moments. This is also called a deus ex machina, which translates from Latin as "god from the machine." In ancient Greek and Roman dramatic performances, when a character was in a hopeless situation with seemingly no way out, a god would appear to save them, represented by an actor suspended by a crane (hence "god from the machine"). Some popular examples:

In the 2009 Star Trek movie, it is made clear that it is not possible to teleport an individual using a ship's transporter while traveling at warp speed. Then near the end of the movie in a seemingly hopeless situation, after creating enough tension, Scotty and Kirk successfully escape their situation by using the transporter at warp speed.

In the Matrix Trilogy, the movies go through some lengths to explain how the Matrix works in order to establish some rules for the world. Then in Matrix Revolutions, Agent Smith who is a computer program manages to assimilate and control an individual in real life (Bane, a crew member of the Zion hovercraft Caduceus) for a particularly impactful twist.

And of course, in the 1984 Ghostbusters movie, Egon makes it very clear that the characters should never cross the proton streams, saying it would result in "all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light." However at the end of the movie when the characters are out of options, they cross the streams and save the city.

Once you establish the rules, you are then at liberty to break them, as long as you do not rely on this too much and then damage trust with the reader. One of the reasons audiences lost a feeling of dramatic tension over the course of the Harry Potter movies is that is seemed the characters would keep breaking the established rules to get out of danger so much that the rules became meaningless and so tension became much harder to create.

May 27, 2016

Having One Purpose

Why Many Projects Do Not Reach Completion

There are many reasons a creator may abandon a project. The most common reasons I notice are that creators beginning from awkward starting points (see my article about Game Design Flow), lack of proper planning, and not staying true to the purpose of the project.

For this entry I would like to focus on the last point. When I begin any project I know that my chances of success and following through with it will be heavily determined by knowing exactly why I am pursuing it. Whether it is to make money, change career, learn a new skill or simply for the joy of it, the reason itself is not important. The vital part is knowing clearly in your mind what your reason is and staying true to it.

If I begin a project with the intention of making money, and after a few months I try to have fun with it and make something I would enjoy consuming, then I am likely not succeed at either and burn out from trying to pursue too many objectives with the end result. I would end up trying to please a target consumer audience and myself at the same time and my attentions would be too diversified.

If I start a project with the intention of learning some new skills, and after several months I attempt to turn the project into something profitable, then I am likely to lose motivation as I am constantly bumping up against my skill limits as I try to make a product somebody might be willing to spend money on. I will likely abandon the project due to my levels of expectation constantly fluctuating.

I do not mean to say that you cannot have a lot on your plate, by all means diversify your efforts. You might have to raise a little money to keep a passion project going, or learn a new skill to complete a long complicated project. My point is to keep in the front of your mind the fundamental reason why you are making your project. Because in my experience, when you begin to spread too thin the why, things get messy.

Go ahead and look in the mirror and ask yourself why you are making something. In my experience, the shorter the answer, the better you will be able to stay motivated and on track. Try to remember the real reason you started putting pencil to paper, or whatever your first step is.

Stay true to the spark that lit the fire that started the engine. (A steam engine... a fire in any other kind of engine is no good). A huge part of following through with a large project is managing your expectations, and that can be almost impossible if you are not honest with yourself about the purpose. 

May 23, 2016

Motivation, Energy and Focus

Advice and Remedies for Staying Productive

Whether you are working on creative projects full time, part time or in your spare time, motivation, energy and focus can be some of the largest challenges to contend with. These demons affect everyone differently, and the most valuable work you can do is learn about yourself, what makes you run and what helps you function. In the mean time, here are some practices which help me stay productive.

A Faction Crest created by Jason Chen which seemed suitable for this topic

A strange psychological trick I use on myself is to write down everything I need to do in a list. I have different lists for the day, week, month and so on. I think this improves my productivity because it externalizes my tasks, making them less personal or less intimidating. When you can see a weeks' work broken down into small individual tasks its seems much more manageable, and it feels great each time you get to cross something out when it is done. Sometimes when a list is half done I will rewrite it, and appreciate that it is much smaller than the original and allow myself to feel some pride.

I keep a notebook (actually several notebooks) for creative ideas like characters, story points, marketing ideas, article topics and so on. This takes a lot of pressure off of trying to remember too much, and I feel that writing down ideas (instead of typing them on a computer or phone) actually helps me be more creative and free-thinking. I can sketch things I have a hard time describing or draw arrows connecting different thoughts in a more illustrative way that opens up my imagination a little more.

Sometimes when I am feeling low I allow myself to imagine the best case scenario. I imagine that my project is wildly successful, popular and talked about. I imagine that it receives enough attention that movie studios begin fighting over the rights to turn it into a movie where my characters are played by A-List celebrities and I get invited on to talk shows to talk about my process and influences. Insane right? It might be unrealistic, but it does put me in a good mood, and then I do better work.

My philosophy is to have too many ideas. If one in a thousand of my ideas is a good one, then I should be having as many ideas as I can every day. This makes it a little easier to throw out ideas that do not work and not get too attached to any of them if they are coming at a quick pace. The notebooks come in handy for keeping all of them, and it is entertaining to look at notebooks full of ideas from years ago and see how far things have come.

Find a piece of art, code or writing that somebody made and try to imitate it (I mean imitate the style or structure). You should notice that it is difficult to do, and this will help you appreciate what that person had to go through, how much time and energy they used, to get to that point. Incredibly few people are so talented they can just produce great work without  a mountain of practice, and reminding yourself that everyone has to work incredibly hard to be great at something can take some psychological pressure off of yourself and readjust your expectations to be healthier.

Try to have someone in your life (even if it is an online community) where you can talk about your ideas or projects now and then. I find that when I take a little time to talk about what I am working on, and the progress I have made and the new skills I have learned, I feel proud of myself and get a new burst of energy to carry on towards my goal. You don't need the validation of other people, but it is important to listen to yourself talk positively and passionately about what you are working on, to remind yourself why you started and why it is important to you.

I make a conscious effort to separate creative work and logical work. Usually during the day I will come up with ideas, plans, writing and other creative work, and in the evening I will dedicate my brain to implementing and carrying out those ideas in a practical and more logical way. I am much less productive if I try to be creative and logical at the same time. One personal note that may not apply to everyone, is that I consider problem-solving to be a creative task, not a logical one, and so I fit that in with my creative time. If a mechanical problem is giving me too much trouble, I will walk away from it and try to solve it in my creative time the following day.

Do it Anyway
Make time to carry out an idea you are not sure will work. If you can, try to take an idea you are not really confident about and try to see through to the end result. The worst case scenario is that you will have wasted some time but will have learned something. Allowing yourself to do this occasionally will also take some of the anxiety out of failure, and is good practice for not feeling like you have to get things right all the time every time.

One last note, if you are having difficulty focusing, staying motivated and keeping up energy levels, it can be a sign that you are working too hard, need to evaluate your routine and do a little self-care. There is nothing wrong with taking a step back from your situation and asking yourself if it is sustainable and healthy. There can be serious consequences if you burn out or sacrifice important responsibilities and relationships to muscle through your projects. Take care of yourself.

May 20, 2016

Transparency, Openness and Sharing

How much should I share? How should I share?

The internet has blessed us in many ways. It has made it possible to learn new skills independently and at your own pace, expose yourself to vast worlds of new sources of inspiration, and it allows me to get a little support from family on the other side of the planet.

One very important but less explicitly talked about feature of the potential of the internet is for sharing our projects and creative works. But I have noticed some trepidation about when and how to do it. So this post is about my perspective on this issue.

First of all it is very wise to make it clear to yourself why exactly you are looking to share something you have been working on. It should really be one solid reason, and it should be worth taking time to consider properly if you are unsure. Below I have listed a few possible succinct ideas.

  • I am sharing this because I made it, I am proud of it and I would like it to exist out in the world.
  • I am sharing this to ask for specific feedback on how it can be better.
  • I am sharing this to take part in a community or start a conversation.
  • I am sharing this to build a community and following of people with similar tastes.
  • I am sharing this because I want people to buy it and make me lots of money.

I am sharing this because I want to know if it makes you claustrophobic

Once you have made this clear to yourself, it is equally important to be explicit with the internet why you are sharing what you have. Sharing a picture with no message will most likely result in chaos or disinterest, because people will really not know if it is meant for them or not. The internet can also be a cruel and mean place, and so by clearly stating that you intention is, for example, to start a conversation and not for critical feedback, it takes a little power away from the trolls and makes it more likely that the community will be on your side if some anti-social behavior begins bubbling up.

If you are sharing it for two (or many) different reasons that is great, but my advice would be to find different and more specialized groups and share it separately with that separate intention clearly stated. Find a group that is mostly about critical feedback and ask them for exactly that, while also sharing the same item separately on a consumer page advertising it for sale. Trying to do both in one place will make it less engaging and muddy your intentions.

Timing is also important, I live in California so I make sure to share my work early in the morning so that people in other time zones are less likely to be asleep when it hits the internet. But you should be free to experiment, maybe more of your potential audience is online in the evening, or maybe your community is more active on their lunch breaks. It is important to try different approaches and track activity if you want to make the most of your time and efforts.

One last piece of advice on sharing I would make (and this might be controversial) is to share everywhere that there might even be a hint of suitability. This is important research and you can narrow down your effort once you get a sense of where your work gets the most attention, where you get the most value, and which communities get the most value out of you.

For example I posted this art and link in five different subreddits and I can very easily see which groups have a stronger reaction to what I am sharing. Over time I can use this information to focus my efforts in areas where it will be more effective.

Some people might call this shameless spamming, carelessly spraying my links around everywhere it might get a look or two. But as long as I read the description of the groups and make sure I am not breaking any of the group norms, this is important work in finding out where exactly there is an audience and community for what I am producing. It takes time, but if you are willing to be brave, transparent and engage with the communities you can really get a good sense of where your work should live and where you should be spending your time online.

... you will also learn where the trolls live. Mostly under bridges. 

May 16, 2016

Creativity and Originality

How Do I Be More Creative? How Do I Become More Original? 

To oversimplify the philosopher David Hume, I believe there are no truly original ideas, only taking simple familiar ideas and combining them in new ways. We get impressions of the world through our senses, and by reorganizing our impressions we can produce new combinations that are seemingly original and new.

Hume uses the example that we can imagine the fantastic idea of a golden mountain, by combining two impressions we are familiar with, the idea of a mountain, and the idea of an object being golden. A more interesting example might be combining a Wild West story with a space setting to create Joss Whedon's Firefly, or the ancient Greek myth of Hercules combined with the Arthurian legend of Sir Galahad to create Superman.

This might sound disheartening at first, many people strive to invent something truly new or dazzle the world with an original idea and so saying that it is not truly achievable might come as a downer. But really I think this levels the playing field and takes a lot of pressure off of creative work. Many people might believe they must really make something out of nothing, that has no resemblance to anything that has come before, which frankly sounds terrifying. It is much more achievable to take experiences, combing them either by knitting them together or coating one with the other, and experiment to see if the result could be enjoyable.

For my current comic book project Nevera Tales, I am retelling a story about two very different characters who normally would have nothing to do with each other and have no common ground, but have to rely on each other to survive. For this element I took inspiration from the awesome movies Léon: The Professional and also Silence of The Lambs. Stories where the older, experienced and morally questionable male character forms a functional relationship with a younger, inexperienced and morally set female character so that they can both survive an extreme situation.

Another area of the comic book which used a great deal of influence was the narrative voice. I have always enjoyed narrators who have unique perspective on time, in this case because of being undead and what the passage of time must mean to a character like that, which can be seem used in the movie Interview with a Vampire and the video game Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

More influence for the themes and setting came from the movies The Man in the Iron Mask and also The Shawshank Redemption. But why am I being transparent about all of this? I believe there is a great deal of unfair pressure on creators to create something original and not directly embrace their influences, in case it makes them look less legitimate or credible. I think a creative culture which encourages the opposite would be much healthier and realistic, where creators openly discuss where they get their ideas from and how they combine them into interesting results.

I would argue that the most successful ideas when it comes to writing and creating stories actually draw on very familiar experiences. Game of Thrones on HBO uses many familiar elements such as European history, dragons, Arthurian legends, which makes the show more enjoyable than if we were expected to digest and form a relationship with an avalanche of unfamiliar concepts. And after all, isn't that how we describe new shows, video games and movies to our friends?

"You haven't seen The Walking Dead? You'd love it, it's like 28 Days Later but with Romero Zombies."

"I can't wait to see 10 Cloverfield Lane, I heard it's like if Alfred Hitchcock directed a claustrophobic movie."

"I've played over 100 hours of The Witcher 3, it's got a combat system like Dark Souls but with a better version of Skyrim's quests."

This is getting quite long, so I'll pause here and talk about the benefits of transparency next time. But hopefully I have convinced some people that you do not have to create something out of nothing to make an enjoyable experience, and that the best way to be more creative is to go out into the world and have as many new experiences as possible, so you have a rich pool of ideas to draw on and play with.  

May 13, 2016

Game Design Flow

Mechanics > Theme > Setting > Story

I cannot say what will work for everyone, but I believe what has helped me was that I pinned down very early (almost immediately) the mechanics of the video game. What they player will be able to do on each screen, what will be possible in the game, and how the different features and mechanics will inform each other. Also, and just as importantly, what will the player NOT be able to do?

I decided that there would be an over-world screen where players would travel between locations and enter into battles, a location screen where players would interact with the world, a menu screen where players would manage their monsters and options, and a battle screen where players would engage in turn based combat with multiple monsters and capture them. Essentially a first generation Pokémon game with no items and an over-world transition like Chronotrigger or Final Fantasy VI.

(Something like this, but with a more detailed list of mechanics and features)

Getting this set early helped in a number of ways. Firstly it helped dictate a theme for the game. I quickly was only able to brainstorm a few themes that would fit well for a monster collection game. I wanted all of the collectible monsters to be of the same nature and for it to make sense for there to be hundreds of them in whatever world I crafted. In this way, undead quickly became a stand out option. Although the undead element was a little tired at that time in video games and other media, it was the simplest way to generate many different monsters (skeleton knight, zombie Viking, ghost samurai...) without infringing on any trademarks.

Once the theme was settled on, crafting the world became quite methodical. Based on a typical European medieval fantasy setting, but the world would be overrun with necromancers and undead. There would be no other forms of magic to keep the setting narrow, and so I wrote this into the lore of the world, that there used to be many kinds of magic but for some reason generations ago they all disappeared leaving only necromancy.

This then created a platform for storytelling; in a world overrun with necromancers and undead, what would a protagonist have to face? What would be their motivations and challenges? What destiny would make sense for them in a game where the central mechanic was battling and collecting undead minions, and to increase their power as a necromancer?

To summarize, my path was;

Mechanics > Theme > Setting > Story

Mechanics: What can the player do? What can the player not do?
Theme: What skin or theme would cover this set of interactions well?
Setting: What environments would be an engaging way to communicate this theme?
Story: What stories and destinies could take place in this environment?

As I said, this is not the only way to craft a video game. But if you do want to start from Story, or start from Setting, maybe another medium is more suited to your project (like a comic book or short story). However, with the flow I describe above, if I decide to alter the Theme, it will probably impact the Setting and Story, but if I decide to alter the Story, it probably will not impact the other elements, because of the one-way flow of crafting. This makes it much simpler to anticipate the ripple effect of any changes that might be made, and easier to maintain a cohesive vision as I described in my last post. 

May 8, 2016

Maintaining Vision

Why is it important to have a vision for your project?

A brief look back reveals to me that I began this endeavor in the summer of 2012, and although on the surface it can appear to have gone through several evolutions, the same essential vision has always remained the same.

This is important to reflect on because I believe that the validation, support and offers of collaboration I received early in the project was to do with the vision. It must have been so, because I certainly did not have anything of value to show in those first six months. Only my enthusiastic ramblings about a monster collection video game set in a world of undead monsters, and what the player could expect to do in that world.

With projects of this length, there are many ways which the design, art, engineering, features and story change as the project progresses. Video games in particular are notoriously long projects and it can be difficult to know when to deviate from your path or stick to it. Many developers consider the essence or vision of their project to be: what experience do I want the player to have?

I built a concept of the essence of my project by choosing a genre of video game, and reflecting back on games I had played in that genre, made a list of what features and mechanics of those games I enjoyed and added to my experience, and removed features and mechanics I did not enjoy or felt interrupted my experience. This is absolutely not the only way to design a video game, but this certainly helped me settle early on about what were the fundamental elements of my video game that would almost certainly not be changing. Or if they did change, it would become an entirely new project.

(Some of the titles I looked at to make a list of mechanics and features)

Of course it is very important to be flexible. During the construction of the video game I have encountered many obstacles, and to overcome or avoid them always added or took away some small essence of the video game. But settling as early as possible on the fundamental mechanics and features of what the player will and will not be able to do, will help you steer the project with confidence when you encounter turbulence and obstacles.

This is doubly true when working in a team and ensuring everyone has the same core vision in their respective roles. For example you don't want your concept artist designing monsters with kangaroo inspired legs if you know that there will be no jumping in your game, or your programmer coding a health bar if you know that the player will die from one hit of any kind.

This also makes it a little easier to walk away from a project. If you are working on a video game, it can be easy to fall into "feature creep", constantly making changes and concessions until it is warped beyond what you had first intended. But if you have a strong vision, and find yourself bumping up against too often or in ways that make it feel compromised, it may be best to throw it out and start over. It is important to know there is nothing wrong with that decision, and that starting over can be a great positive step, even if it feels scary or like you've failed. Show yourself patience and kindness and you are more likely to make the right decisions.