I had a weird realization while sitting down earlier this weekend, determined to make a playable game even if it killed me: It’s really hard to make anything creative as an adult. It’s a challenge for me, at least.
Thinking back on my younger years when creativity seemed to come in a steady stream of sketches, words and designs, I spent some time wondering: what the hell happened? Shouldn’t my years of experience empower my creative process instead of hindering it? And more importantly, how can I train myself to stop shooting every fledgling idea down before it’s barely had a chance to fly?
Another year older, another year less confident
Remember how I used to make games a long time ago? I’ve been thinking a lot about the process I used back then. I was just ten years old with minimal outside training, and yet I was able to chart a course through the entire game-creation progress: design, programming, writing, everything. Those are skills that take a lifetime to master and, as an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time working hard to refine them.
But here’s what I keep trying to wrap my head around: a ten-year-old with a crappy, second-hand Mac in his bedroom — me, in this case — managed to crank out functional, personal, debugged, fully realized games. And now that kid’s an adult who’s trying to figure out how he can someday be as self-sufficient as he was fifteen years ago. Go figure.
So, what’s changed?
Anatomy of a ten-year-old game developer
There are several pillars of making a game. I’m paraphrasing, but let’s call them:
- Design (what does everything do?)
- Code (how does everything do what it’s supposed to?)
- Writing (how does the game communicate with the player?)
- Art (how is the experience enriched through music, sound, visuals, etc.?)
I managed to keep developing as an artist, writer and designer through high school, college and beyond, but somewhere around adolescence my interest in coding largely fell by the wayside. I took a year’s worth of Visual Basic classes as a teenager and wrote a few simple games that ran on my graphing calculator, but that was about the extent of it.
Clearly I’m still pretty well interested making cool, interactive stuff. But I haven’t been able to find the means to take all these ideas and commit them to something real, tangible and functional — something that’s programmed to do things. So what changed?
Most of my early coding education came from my family’s first-ever Amazon purchase: HyperCard in a Hurry. I spent hours scouring its pages, learning the tools and rebuilding the examples with more of my own improvised tweaks layered on top each time. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was knee-deep in the creative iteration process. It was pretty cool.
But one kid in a vacuum isn’t a formula for great ideas. Fortunately, inspiration was surprisingly easy to come by for the time, thanks to AOL’s file-browsing service. Hundreds of other aspiring HyperCard aesthetes would share their stacks with the broader public, eager to see them distributed and critiqued. For a kid on his own at the cusp of the Internet age, discovering a seemingly-infinite network of content to devour was mind-altering. It fundamentally changed my core values and thought processes. Pretty heavy stuff — and it was all thanks to some clunky, amateur HyperCard games.
Similar game portals have come and gone, but none of them ever managed to hook me like before. I tinkered with Flash games and toyed around with ActionScript, but nothing recaptured the thrill I got from playing through an undiscovered HyperCard stack and trying to figure out how I could reproduce the cool effects and clever functions other people had produced.
Content creation is everywhere in games these days. The simple fact that games like LittleBigPlanet and WarioWare DIY came from major game publishers demonstrates consumer demand for tools that enable the average person to create interactive experiences to play and share with their friends.
People like making games. I like thinking about how games work. So why is it so hard to find the right frame of mind to start creating?
In short: we rely too much on our own experiences. Doubt is a natural, healthy reflex we develop based on the times our expectations were betrayed, and it helps us steer clear of unnecessary risks. But being creative means taking all kind of risks, necessary or otherwise, and the burden isn’t on the creator to filter them out until they’ve been granted a fair chance to see the light of day. You’ll have all the time in the world to edit, but you need to start somewhere.
The challenge I’m posing to myself this week is to spend a lot more time letting ideas gestate and spring forth and a lot less time pruning out the ones that seem risky, unwise or nonsensical. Being right all the time isn’t very attractive, after all, and I sure as hell don’t know where else I’m going to get the inspiration to make something fun and worthwhile.
So that’s this week’s thought experiment. What works for you? How do you give yourself room to come up with awesome stuff without stymieing your creativity?
: Some great ones that come to mind include Newgrounds, Kongregate and Steam, but I never liked working with ActionScript so I ruled out Flash development a long time ago. Probably short-sighted on my part.