Creative process, communication and other lessons learned from our first book
Not everything about our approach to our first book, Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation, went perfectly. Yes, we are very happy with the final result - but some of the methods we took to get there could have been improved.
Here we present four key lessons that we've embraced based on our experience thus far, all of which are being wholeheartedly employed in the creation of Oddworld: Abe's Origins with a view to making it the best it can be.
We hope, too, that you find something personally useful in what follows as we firmly believe that these lessons can be harnessed across any and all creative fields.
Embrace a concept, but stay fluid on the details
Without a concept you’ve got nothing. You’ve no firm goal, you can’t define a plan and you’ve no way of focusing your motivation.
Once you’ve a concept that you’re happy with, all future decisions should serve that ideal. Constant changing of your project’s core is going to cause delays and confusion. In the worst cases, flip-flopping will result in an unfocused final result or see you abandon your projects altogether through alienation from your original goal.
However, you should be open to change when it comes to how you go about making good on your concept. It’s impossible to define every element of your project from day one and you shouldn’t try to. This will only lead to undue distress as you find your unrealistic deadlines and ideas fall by the wayside under the pressure of reality. It also limits your creativity by denying yourself the space to improvise and riff off of what you’ve already done as you go.
When we’re building the flesh around our skeleton of wider goals, we constantly ask ourselves: How does this element relate back to, and promote, my original concept?
If you can’t define a meaningful answer then it’s likely that the element you’re working on in that moment is going to confuse your finished work as opposed to empower it. In such cases don’t be afraid to pause, step back and rethink what you’re doing.
It took us a long time to build up this kind of discipline when we first began planning and writing our first book. We have worked hard to avoid this with Oddworld: Abe’s Origins. Important, too, is to trust yourself and your creative ability to rework or remake an idea should you decide that your approach requires changing.
When editing a book, for example, it’s always better to improve upon what you’ve written and designed as opposed to have to replace whole sections in their entirety when you find they don’t work whatsoever. The same concept can be applied to game mechanics and level design, scenes in a movie or even the talents of individual players in a football team.
Keep your goal fixed in your mind, but stay fluid in how you achieve it.
Embrace your differences
Stace and I work differently. He prefers to work during the day to a regular schedule, whereas I find my mind and creativity is more active in the quiet of night. Before I’ve gotten up he might have ticked off a swathe of items from our to-do list, whereas I’ll have done the same after he’s gone to bed.
Rather than try to forcibly lock both of us into a rigid structure that compromises us at our best, we’ve taken the decision to embrace - to an extent - a work-when-you-want philosophy to getting things done. In this way we allow ourselves to take advantage of our personal preferences, give each other the freedom and trust to work without supervision and provide space to cultivate our own thoughts before we come together to debate next steps.
We do, of course, still spend a lot of time working together at the same time. This is vital for making sure we’re always working towards the same goals and remain equally motivated in completing in the task at hand.
Finding this balance has taken quite some time and it certainly wasn’t there when we first began planning the Kickstarter campaign for Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation, nor when we began writing the book. We each became frustrated at the working style embraced by the other and didn’t have the necessary structures in place to intelligently, efficiently and thoughtfully overcome the obstacles that arose as a result.
The key for us getting past that was to understand the how and whys of our working styles and to embrace the potential for a combination of our approaches to get a lot done in a short space of time. That, plus regularly setting aside time to get together to thrash out ideas, critique what we’d achieved and setup a schedule for moving forward.
You don’t always need to force yourself to adhere to set working hours to succeed to the best of your ability, and this is especially true of small teams that have a greater potential for inherent flexibility and dynamism. However, you need to be very clear in your communication and trust one another to get the job done when the need arises.
Criticise, critique, question
Take time to thoughtfully critique your progress and do not be afraid to be critical of any idea or work in progress. This doesn’t mean that you attack everything and tear it apart, it means you work to fully understand what you’re doing and why and whether you’re doing it in the best way possible.
Apply that criticism to your ideas, what you’re working on now and what you’ve worked on in the past. Through this you can learn a huge amount about yourself and how to improve what you do.
When writing Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation we didn’t initially have the kind of editorial processes in place that would allow Stace and I to perform quality criticism of each other’s contributions.
In part this was due to poor time management and a lack of resources, but it was also down to a lack of experience and, frankly, a lack of emphasis on the idea of critiquing each other and ourselves. We were so dedicated to getting the book finished that we forewent some of the criticism that we should have been performing during the ongoing creation of the book.
This ultimately hurt us as it meant we had to spend more time in the editing phase than we’d planned in order to back-date this analysis and critical discussion, causing us to delay the book’s release multiple times. Slowing down to criticise yourself as you go can, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment, save you a lot of time and energy further down the line.
With Oddworld: Abe’s Origins we’ve been hyper-critical of ourselves from the off. The mocked up book designs you see on here and throughout our Kickstarter campaign, for instance, underwent a huge number of changes, with a lot of ideas being rejected or iterated upon to find those we’re happy with.
The very idea of whether or not we do a ‘Game Collection’ at all has seen lengthy debate, too, as has who we trust to work with on its production. We’ve thought long and hard about the best way to approach the Oddworld story and how we provide both scope and detail within a finite number of pages. There has also been heated discussion as to whether we want to aim Abe’s Origins solely at existing Oddworld fans or to take into account a wider audience interested in games and design as a whole.
And, we’ve taken time to get our editorial processes in line.
Show your working
When we launched our first Kickstarter campaign we were nervous about interacting with the community that might spring up around the project. We didn’t want to say or do anything that would upset people or give the wrong impression of ourselves and, especially, we were timid about showing our work and presenting our ideas whilst we were writing and designing the book.
We’ve come to learn, though, that our community is supportive and understanding and that the more information they have the more empathetic and interested they are. This sounds obvious, but when you’re deep in the process of creating something that you want people to enjoy, it’s easy to be defensive and hide what you’re doing until you’re ready to show the finished whole.
The more you show and the more you open yourself to your audience the more you benefit from their support and their feedback. Sure, there will be some people who aren’t happy with what you’re showing - but in those cases we’ve found that the rest of our community, armed with understanding, take their time to champion our vision and intent. We’ve also become much better at filtering out the useful community criticism, which is a vital skill for anyone and everyone who engages with people through the internet.
We’re very grateful for the reaction of our community and we hope that this insight into our creative process, and how that has evolved over time, serves to highlight that. We’ll be sharing more as a matter of course as we move forward with this project and future ones.