Creative Toolbox

Creative Toolbox: Upping Your Arsenal of Techniques

Posted on Posted in Creative Leadership

Note: This post on the Creative Toolbox expands upon my original post,  The 5 Essential Qualities of a Creative Director, and is part of a series that include modified excerpts from my book, Directing Video Games: 101 Tips for Creative Leaders.

“We are so screwed,” I thought. It was May 2015, and we had two weeks to finish a demo for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. This was going to be the big reveal of our first virtual reality game, Edge of Nowhere, and would coincide with the announcement of Insomniac Games and Oculus VR’s new partnership.

We had solved some huge VR-related challenges, from motion sickness to frame rate issues. Yet our horror game was falling flat; none of our play testers were getting scared. The monsters romped around like people in rubber suits. It had the madcap pace of an “endless runner” mobile game rather than the rising tension of a Lovecraftian horror adventure. There was so little time. What were we going to do? The solution was to use techniques from the creative toolbox of 1970s horror films, Jaws and Alien, which essentially delivered scares with creatures made of “people in rubber suits.”

We shrouded large sections in darkness and played chilling sounds of rushing monsters; leaving much to the player’s imagination. The pace was slowed down to build anticipation and deliver a scare at just the right moment. These techniques were easy to employ, caused players to scream, and made our demo a success.

3 Ways to Build Your Creative Toolbox

Discovering techniques to solve creative problems takes time. Over the years, a director learns how to face the usual production problems (which I’ll cover in a later post), but in terms of creative decision making, a knowledge base of creative techniques is necessary. I found there are 3 things you can do to develop your creative toolbox:

1. Know Your Genre

Once a team knows the type of game they’re going to develop, it’s time to start playing similar games. That may seem obvious, but can easily be forgotten when the temptation is to avoid copying and instead forge a new path. Yet people will likely run into the same issues previously faced by talented teams. If these problems have already been solved, why not benefit from other’s hard work? Not only will the team avoid wasted time reinventing the wheel, they can expand upon these known features and build something unique.

On the first Ratchet & Clank, we drew inspiration from the Mario and Zelda games; analyzing how to build a platformer with responsive controls and RPG elements, like an inventory and purchase economy. While perceptive players may spot similarities, these inspirations combined with our own unique approach led us into new territory.

2. Get Inspired by the Unusual

New ideas don’t always come from playing games. The degree of creativity and innovation is often a result of the diversity of your inspirations. For example, director Ken Levine’s Bioshock was inspired by Ayn Rand’s novels and their unique philosophy, which was part of why that game was hailed for its original vision.

It’s tempting to draw inspiration from Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or last year’s hit game, but that will often lead to a derivative experience filled with clichés.

For Edge of Nowhere, we read the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, to construct a tale about a polar explorer’s descent into madness and the unsettling horrors that lie just beyond the veil of reality. Yet I also found inspiration in the film The English Patient, a tragic love story about two cartographers in the late 1930s. Uncommon to the horror genre, and especially Lovecraft, the love story angle gave our game a unique twist and a compelling reason for our protagonist to venture into danger.

3. Live Life

Experience for making games does not always come from books or staring at a screen. I believe the best games offer unique insights into life and can simulate experiences that resonate with people’s real world problems. If you want to make something truly unique, look outside the usual entertainment channels, social media, and web searches.

For example, the inspiration for Paper’s Please, a game about a border agent in an eastern block country, was inspired by designer Lucas Pope’s own experience of observing immigration officials during his international travels. The Legend of Zelda was influenced by Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood when he explored the hillsides, forests, and caves of his home in Sonobe, Japan. When thinking of Ratchet & Clank, I recall trips to cities like London and Tokyo, desert camping trips, and toys I had as a kid.

If you believe games are a medium of expression, a medium that transmits and expresses the struggles and successes of being alive, then it’s your duty as a game creator to go out and live a diverse life so you have something unique to say through your games. 

For the next post, I’ll share thoughts on the fourth essential quality of being a video game creative director: Lead Effectively.

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101 illustrated tips to improve your creative leadership skills.


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