Archive for October, 2010

I Promise to be Brief

Posted by pcollier under Design Brief

Herbert James Draper - Ulysses and the Sirens 1909

Knowing what you want to achieve before setting out to do something is very important. It sounds like a bit of a dumb-ass thing to say, of course it’s important! But you’d be surprised how often designers can get over zealous when it comes to jumping into creation without due diligence.

The significance of a clear design brief is something I’ve only recently truly appreciated…and I mean ‘truly appreciated’ not just a superficial nod of the head toward it. I’ve realised that it is something my elders and those that are wiser have been attempting to drum into me since my school days. But as with many things the lesson has to be learnt for yourself for it to properly sink in. Which kind of makes this article a bit pointless, but hey you’re here now, so you might as well carry on reading!

Really it is a pretty simple concept. Ask what you want to achieve, and then fulfil it. To be fair at some level most designers will do this. The issue is the quality of this question. The key to becoming a great designer is becoming an expert in asking the right questions. The creation of the brief should be the hardest phase of a design process. It carries a huge amount of responsibility, as the old saying goes:

“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it”

If you don’t ask the right questions and are not completely clear with your brief then everything that follows suffers. In one fell swoop you can damn a project to costly delays and a poor end product. Yet even on a commercial level, it is apparent that designers across the globe have been all too eager to jump into development. The only way you can be clear with your brief is through knowing your target audience and what they demand. A deadly trap that many designers fall into is designing for themselves. Many millions of £$€’s have been wasted because of this.

A brief permeates every level of the design process and spawns many further, more specific, questions during development. If you get it wrong the design will move further and further away from any original intentions at every stage. A solid, well constructed, clear brief acts as a mast that, if necessary, the design team can strap themselves to in stormy Siren infested development waters (especially those pesky brainstorms). A clear brief makes the design process easier because it acts as a fixed point that designers can check against and keep referring back to. With an identifiable reference point it prevents you straying too far.

Our desire to create is an admirable human trait. But with inexperience the temptation to jump in and just start ‘making’ is strong, exuberance can runaway with us. It is possible, after all, to find problems through the act of creation. But without focus and direction these problems are much more likely to become icebergs able to sink your ship. You’re not quite setup to deal with the surprise. A clear brief allows for a more methodical design process which at every stage prepares you for the next. A healthy design process should be one of refinement not damage control.

Emotional Residue

Posted by pcollier under Discovery, Emotion, Story

Bioshock 2

Evidence of our lives and personal story are all around us. Everywhere we spend any time. I like to call it emotional residue. If you look around your study or living room and pretend you’re a stranger, what could you tell about your life? Our imprint on the world is determined by how we leave things and the extent of the impact. Like a safari tracker you can tell a lot about a person by their trail.

In game design we exploit this idea with environmental story-telling. In a narrative driven game it’s very important to flesh out the entire back-story of events. Ask the question, what has happened in the world you’ve created leading up to this moment in time? In a specific room or area we can then fill in that trail. Literally inject story, journey and life into that environment.

The fascinating thing about games as a medium is that they allow for personal discovery a lot more. I’ve touched on this before. In books and to an extent in films they selectively show or describe a world to you. In games there is more freedom for personal exploration and discovery. This means more to people. As a player it is your insight not someone else’s. Or at least that is the impression we create!

We can craft an emotive experience a lot better by looking at emotional residue. Games have got very good at dealing with action. The here and now, what you role is and what you have to perform. But to miss out on filling in all previous actions and life in that environment is a big missed opportunity. What can you learn from what has already taken place to make this moment more meaningful?

People talk about a place being steeped in history and of feeling a deep spiritual connection. This is emotional residue. We are reaching out back in time and connecting emotionally with every person who has ever occupied that space. Our physical environment is a deeply emotional canvas. You are sharing a collective footprint and mark in the world. To ignore this incredible opportunity to impart emotion and story in a game where players can physically (at least through an avatar) occupy that space and leave their imprint would be a travesty. It’s a remarkable string to our bow as a medium that few others can access.

* Thanks to Ian Hall, Liam Morrey, Neil Walker and Anthony Filice for the inspiration for this article.


Posted by pcollier under Attachment

Losing Wilson

Ever notice on a walk in the country how strangers say hello to you, but in the city not a peep? It’s a phenomenon I’ve always pondered. Now it could be that countryside folk are just friendlier, but I think this is a disservice to our city chums and I don’t believe it for a second! What I think it’s about is shared experience and connection. It is these things that can help inform us about attachment.

I believe that the bond between people is stronger the more unique the connection between them is, mother and baby for example. You are more likely to acknowledge a stranger in the countryside as opposed to a busy city street because an experience between two people is more unique than it is between a thousand. You are playing much more of a role in the exchange, really the location is irrelevant.

Our experiences in life define who we are, what we become. But by the same token, by being part of an experience you also help define and shape it.  There is a bit of you imparted onto each participant in an experience and vice versa. We can see a reflected fraction of ourselves in those we share experience with. We become attached because we leave a little bit of ourselves behind with them. It’s a beautiful thing really. Being a member of a crowd at a football match fosters attachment to the team because collectively the crowd’s supportive role is significant. The more we connect and impart, the greater the bond and the sense of attachment.

In game design how do we foster attachment, say, to an in-game character? Really any shared experience is going to be fake and not shared at all. The in-game character is artificial, it’s a one-sided affair, and really you’re alone in the game-world. But in successful games player attachment is real nevertheless. So how is this so? Well your role in the game has consequence. At least it appears that your input in that world and connection with its characters are meaningful.

Wilson and Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland in the film Castaway is an interesting case in point. Why does he need to characterise the ball by painting a face on it and calling it Wilson? We need an element of humanity in the equation for something to have meaning and attachment to develop. Even in the case of Wilson where he is nothing more than a sounding board.

I have a hideously dirty bean-filled throwing ball in my desk draw. I keep it because it reminds me of summer holidays as a kid playing catch on the beach with my Dad. It’s sentimental and I’m attached to it because it signifies a bond, a specific group of shared moments that shaped the relationship between my dad and me. Attachment comes in different forms, but the common factor is meaningful value. You quickly get rid of the superfluous if there are no hooks there. There is little attachment to be found when your role is/was inconsequential to the experience.

How depressing would our lives be with our existence unrecognised; to have no impact? We take solace in shared experience and connection because it adds meaning and value to our time on this planet. Attachment is created whenever your mark is recorded, through another person, a memento, anything capable of defining meaning to your life. It is why it is so traumatising to lose something you’re attached to, meaning is being taken away. On the other hand it can be unhealthy to be overly attached. Attachment can hold us back and prevent us from finding further meaning and definition elsewhere. Attachment is a very precious thing that can bring both great joy and sorrow. In game design it can therefore be an extremely useful tool in defining player experience.