Bull Session

Creative Routines

May 14, 2015          

Episode Summary

What is the connection between creative routines and output? How do our approaches to creative projects — from writing to game design to music to user experience — effect the way we produce? In this episode of the Digital Life, we discuss some of our favorite methods for digging into problem sets, and how our ways of solving them in different creative areas can and should cross-pollinate.

Jon:
Welcome to the episode 103 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. What’s new in The Digital Life this week?

Jon:
I thought this week on the podcast, we could talk about one of my all time favorite topics which is the intersection of creative routines and design process. As creative people, as designers, we have different ways of leveraging our intellectual skills in that area. Everyone’s got a different take on it. I always like to hear from folks who are in different creatives fields from myself. Additionally, when you come together as a studio or as an agency, there’s this intersection of this large group of creatives and you need to figure out how we’re going to get the best results out of this group of people.

If you have a UX team or development or whatever your creative team is, they sort of have to decide how they’re going to best be productive and sort of turn out the work. I thought today, we could talk a little bit about creative routines from the personal side as well as the studio or agency side. Let’s get started with that. I think maybe folks know this about you, or not, on this show but in addition to being a design leader and founder of a couple of companies, you’re also a game designer. That’s sort of one of the things that you love very much to do but it’s your full time endeavor.

I wanted to ask you from the game designer perspective, when you are sort of digging into a new game, are there are any routines that you follow or are there any sort of creative design routines that make it easier for you to create new products?

Dirk:
Yeah, the games I’ve designed are table top games. I’ve published six so far. The first thing for me is context. I mean, it’s very similar to UX design where I start with a theme. There’s something in the game design community, there’s a tension, sort of a philosophical difference between designers who design for the theme of the game and designers who design around mechanics that they have in mind for a game. I’m firmly a theme based designer. I start by researching the hell out of my theme. I spend dozens of hours, I think in a couple of cases it might be hundreds, really, really getting into it. Reading books, researching things on the internet and then doing massive documentation and organization, typically in Google sheets, sometimes using the Google sort of Word equivalent as well.

The early weeks or months of my work on a game are really all about that. While I’m doing the research, I’m starting to stub out ideas certainly of mechanics that would go with it. But for me, the authenticity is really important of the mechanics being crafted to best represent and evoke the theme. Procedurally, I start with theme, think strategy, put all this time into research and the mechanics sort of blossom out of that. That’s how my process begins.

Jon:
As you’re spending those dozens, even hundreds of hours, sort of immersing yourself in the topic area, this is something that user experience designers do as well when they’re sort of first getting the feet wet maybe in an area that they might not be familiar with. Do you find that the inspiration for the mechanics comes as a result of that immersion or do you have some ideas that are … in other words, is it the research and then sort of digestion of that research that generates the inspiration for how the game is built?

Dirk:
Yeah, that sure is. When I’m talking about my game design process, I mean, typically the short hand way that I talk about it, I say, I read a book on the topic and by the time I’m done reading that book, I’ve got the game designed in my head. That’s generally true. But I’m open, even though I have that game that I think is correct in a certain way, I am open to how the additional research will possibly change that, so not just flush it out and extend it but perhaps completely rethink it. Relatively early in the process, basically after completing the first book on the topic, I’ve got a designed in mind that is typically, it’s 40 to 80% of what the final game ends up being basically.

Jon:
During this research and sort of search for insight period, are you … what’s your output at this stage? You said you’re stubbing out ideas, is that mostly written out or I mean, are you doing sketching or other kinds of visualization? How do you create the initial creative output from your research?

Dirk:
It’s 100% in essentially word documents and spreadsheets. I mean, back in the days when I was a practicing designer, I mean, my weakness was that I’m not great with the tools. I mean, I’m not a great graphic designer. Within sort of a limited visual vocabulary, I can make something but especially since I’m not doing it anymore, it takes a long time. It’s really difficult and ultimately what’s possible within the extent of my vision of articulation, it’s generally not acceptable in the context of what I would want to be evoked from the game.

There’s a scenario where I really depart from other game designers. Generally, when I have this initial concept for a game, I then hire the artists to do it. Most game designers would start with basically very lightweight, low fidelity prototyping whereas for me, again coming from software and user experience, we’ve always believed in high fidelity prototypes as quickly into the process as possible. I’ve extended that into my working game design. The only challenge is, other than the printing costs of the game, the second biggest expense is the art. By getting the art engaged so early in the process, there’s definitely going to be some throw away there.

The art budget for me on a game that I do is generally a fair bit higher than most other game designers. That’s a hard cost that is the consequence of my process, but for me, it’s just the way it needs to be done.

Jon:
What you’re saying, I mean, I know both of us really enjoy writing. Would you say that you’re design process has evolved from your writing process? Just curious about that because, I mean, I’ll expand on this a little bit later but I know a lot of things that I do as a designer derive from how I began as a writer.

Dirk:
Jeez, I never thought of that. I guess I’ll say yes. I mean, whenever I’m creating something, whether it be writing or design or games, I mean, for me it’s very intuitive. It just sort of pours out of me. I’m working on a game with another fellow right now, Rob Davio who designed Risk Legacy which was game of the year, he’s designed all kinds of really impressive games for a long time. We’re working on this. He really remarks that my process is that I go away for a weekend and I come out with just a crap ton of stuff that I’ve shut out basically whereas his process is much more slower and iterative and bubbles up over time. That’s just how I do everything.

It’s like at the point I’m ready to do it, I just put massive amounts of time in in a very short time frame and a lot of stuff comes out of me. I wouldn’t yolk that to the writing specifically and only I’d sort of stretch that across kind of all of the things that I do and I create.

Jon:
That’s interesting. I think there’s a couple of different threads there that I wanted to follow. But from the writing perspective, I know that as I became more familiar with software design, a lot of my process around design came from my understanding of information architecture and how ideas fit together. That was always, I mean, now I’m sort of translating that information architecture and user experience techniques back into my writing. I actually have lead both of those disciplines influence the other.

What I mean by that is now I actually go through an architect the things that I’m writing. I will sort of figure out how all the information fits together based on whatever inspired pieces I have and then rejigger those pieces so that they make the most sense within whatever essay or report or whatever it is I’m writing. I never did that before I was a more of in the software design field. I would just sort of … it sounds like I would do something similar to what you do which is just pouring, letting the inspiration flow out of you.

But now I’m much more mechanical. I’m using some software that I found helpful for that method of attack is I’m sure you’re familiar with Scrivener which let’s you sort of put together all these note cards in different orders. Then lately I’ve been using Ulysses which basically lets you put all these text snippets into different orders and manipulate those as you see fit. I’ve definitely evolved over time in terms of my creative writing routines and been influenced by the design techniques that I’ve learned over time.

The other thread that I wanted to sort of explore with you was this idea of world’s building. I know in the game, you’re creating these rich worlds where people can interact which is in some respects very similar to user experience design. Could you talk a little bit about how the world shapes up out of your initial take on the game itself?

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean, it’s really pretty procedural coming out of the research. As I’m doing the research, I’m sort of mentally identifying things about the theme that have to be in the game, things about the theme that should be in the game and things about the theme that don’t necessarily need to be in the game. It’s a matter of just thinking about the components of the game, the mechanics that the game is using and which of those fit in and how and why. I mean, there’s a lot of constraints with table top. The components are a big one to … you need the box to be under 2 kilograms to ship, otherwise, the shipping cost go through the roof. That’s one of the biggest hard cost with these things, sending boxes all around the world.

Components in the context, most primarily overall weight of what’s in the box but secondarily the cost of those components themselves is really critical and essential but there’s other constraints where the market for table top games has really moved the games that are 90 minutes or less, relatively simple, easy to learn, easy to get up into and play. That’s another constraint. I mean, the games I enjoyed growing up and probably the games that I sort of most naturally would be drawn to design are games that are a little more crunchy that might last a few hours but the market is putting these other constraints on it.

The way that the world is build and the story is told ultimately is fenced in by the thematic considerations from my research, the sort of business operational concerns around components and shipping and then sort of the business marketing around what people are buying and enjoying and willing to play.

Jon:
Yeah, I mean, as designers, we are either freed by our constraints or else we’re imprisoned by them and it sounds like at least with the game design, hopefully falls more into the freeing constraints rather than the imprisonment. You mentioned that you’re collaborating on your latest game. I’m interested in what you’re learning from working sort of shoulder to shoulder with another game designer, mainly to understand how you’re negotiating the creative process as a team. I know that can be challenging because I often write with a writing partner. What are the creative routines that you’re developing as a duo that you might not have leveraged if you were just designing by yourself?

Dirk:
We’re actually still sort of in early stages. In terms of the learning and the processes and stuff, still kind of feeling our way out of that. Let me instead flip it to you. You mentioned that you are writing with a partner, maybe you can give our listeners a little bit of a background in to the novel that you’re having published soon that the two of your wrote together and then pivot in answering your own question about the process of working in collaboration with Matt.

Jon:
My buddy, Matt, and I do a lot of or have done a lot of writing together. I think that particular collaboration is very personal and that we’ve known each other for a good long time. I don’t know that it would be all that easy to replicate unless you’ve been sort of creatively collaborating with a person for the duration. But we were good friends in middle school if that gives you an idea of the duration of this creative partnership. We’ve actually moved across a number of media. We did some independently published books. We’ve been in rock bands together. We’ve done a lot of writing together as well.

To answer my own question in terms of the creative, collaborative process, it actually goes back to the story telling, sort of the original art of storytelling when you are engaged in that in front of an audience sort of off the cuff. What I mean by that is even though we do a lot of world building when we are sort of figuring out the rudiments of this environment that these characters are going to play in, at a certain point, we understand the characters so well that we just start telling the story of the characters interacting within this world we’ve built.

I actually think in some ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the world building you’re doing for the games and then the world building we are doing so far as the output is a novel. In that, we spent so much darn time on it that the characters just sort of naturally behave in a certain way with each other because we know that … we know the personalities of each character so well. If I’m telling the story and then Matt will say, “Well, would they really say that? They’re more of this type of person.” Or sort of call into question whether or not we’re following it in the right direction. Of course, one of us is typing the entire time. A lot of it sort of organically rises out of that story telling capability that I think we all sort of have inside us if we’re the creative types.

You like to tell stories and you sort of choose your mode of doing so and then go for it. But I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that that wasn’t … that was just something we enjoyed working on different projects together. It just half this time that we’re working, it doesn’t really feel like work which is always the best kind. In terms of routine, I must say that as with … I mean, I know this very well from being a musician and designer, a writer, part of the regularity of that routine is what makes the creativity happen.

If Matt and I are picking Tuesdays and Thursday from 9pm to 11pm, right, to do our thing, then it creates a natural rhythm to your creativity and how your mind is sort of processing all this. If this regularity is happening, if this rhythm is happening, I find that I sort of adjust and look forward to that and the ideas that I have for the writing project will sort of naturally bubble to the surface at those times. I know this to be true with practicing an instrument everyday or making a little bit of progress on a design everyday. It really is about the persistence and putting in just that right amount where you can get out that creative energy for a little bit and then maybe go on to things that require a different sort of energy.

But I would recommend for, and I’m sure people in creative fields who are listening to the show already know this but the regularity and the routine of things and the steady pulse really makes such a huge difference. That’s how I’d sum up the writing process, at least from a collaborative standpoint. What other questions do you have on that, Dirk?

Dirk:
I’m curious, one of the real benefits of your partnership with Matt is that you two have been friends and know each other so well for so long. However, what are some of the downsides to the partnership? What are areas where either specific to this partnership because the two of you and how long you’ve known each other or just in general where maybe you’re thinking in this case, it might be better to just kind of be doing this on my own? What are the more negative sides of that?

Jon:
Yeah, I think I’ve worked in partnerships and I’ve worked by myself on different things and also on this last book project, literally, I’ve worked with large group of folks as well. I find that knowing your role within a partnership or maybe a creative group is essential, right? If you don’t understand your roles or if they’re overlapping roles or there are things where it’s sort of unclear who’s in charge of a particular area, that’s where you tend to get the most friction. I’ll say this is perhaps been most clear to me in music groups where when you’re understanding what role each person plays within the group, especially if you’re playing something like jazz where it’s largely improvisational for a huge portion of the time, if you understand what each person brings to the table, then it sounds wonderful.

But if you let ego and sort of self-centeredness get in the way of the music creation or really any sort of partnership, then that’s a sure sign that either you really shouldn’t be part of a group and you should be doing it yourself or perhaps you just need better definition of who’s leading that particular group. But I would say if it becomes very apparent in creative scenarios where you really need to share and be selfless where egocentric behavior can sort of derail the whole thing. I’ve been lucky in that. I’ve worked with a lot of people who sort of put the project first. I hadn’t run into that a whole ton but when I have, that’s sort of been the root cause of it.

Dirk:
I think your mention of ego is interesting because you have published before. You’ve published books but you’re certainly not known in the publishing world, maybe you can tell our listeners about Matt who actually is very well known in the publishing world. I’m interesting to hear about your comments, about your own ego sublimation in terms of working with Matt who, when the book comes out initially, it will be Matt who will be the star, you’ll be the other guy. What’s that like?

Jon:
Yeah, I mean, I’m very glad Matt … I mean, Matt has millions of books in …

Dirk:
What’s the real number? I mean, really tell our listeners what he’s done and what that looks like.

Jon:
It is millions. I mean, he’s sold a couple of millions of the Baby Mouse series. He has a couple of series, Baby Mouse is one of them. Squish is another one. I’m having a hard time keeping track of all the stuff that he’s working on now. In terms of it being like Matt is the guy with the brand and the name and I am not, that’s … I’ve never really thought about it in that way because it’s such a cool opportunity to work with somebody I enjoy working with. I hope I’m not the crazy person who’s like, they’re like, “Why is Matt working with this lunatic?” That’s kind of my main hope is that I’m not seen that way but I could very well be.

I don’t know. It’s a fascinating question. I think one day, would I like to be know for my books as well? Sure. Definitely. But I’m very conscious I think of progression in terms of creative and creative process. I know that you have to take the first steps to get anywhere. This is really a first step. I think that’s true of any creative endeavor whether it be UX design, music, game design, right? Those initial first steps are super important. No matter when you get to take them whether they’re Matt sort of took those first steps in his 30’s and here I am in my 40’s taking those first steps, I think they have to happen at some point. Otherwise, you’ll never sort of reach the place that you want to reach.

Dirk:
That’s exciting. Thanks for sharing, Jon.

Jon:
Sure. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitaLife.com, that’s just one L in the Digitalife. Go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, JONFOLLETT. The whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s GOINVO.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s DKNEMEYER. Email me at dirk@goinvo.com or if you’re also interested in my game design podcast, that is called The Game Design Roundtable which you can find on iTunes or you can find of the Googles.

Jon:
That’s it for the episode 103 of The Digital Life, for Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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