Creative Coding

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People often put creativity and logic at odds. This seems rather silly to me, an unnecessary and limiting binary. You have to be very creative to solve problems with logic, and creative efforts often demand a applied and determined logic. Creating a plot that keeps your reader engaged requires creating an internally consistent set of rules for your setting and applying them. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they found it odd that I loved both creative writing and mathematics, but honestly I love systems. When I started coding I found a wonderful blend of the creative creation of systems, and the analytic study of those systems. Plus, it makes me feel like a sorcerer.

I think that when you empower the player to experience and enjoy those systems and if you make powerful code you give designers the feeling of directly making the action. But there will always be a gap between design and code implementations. I cannot give a designer a tool that codes for them, and even the most detailed instructions are ultimately interpreted or else your map is as big as your world. And that is why as a new game designer I felt it was imperative to learn to code and to dive as deeply into that part of our field as I could. It’s wonderful to get to input values into a publicly available variable and change how high a character can jump, but I wanted to create how the character jumped. Does it use physics, or translate its motion across spaces? Is it pulled by an invisible game object, or are the motions one to one with animation? As a writer, I wanted to create stories to put in my games, but I wanted even more to lay the narrative in the foundations of the actions and logic that created meaning for the player moment to moment. I want to give the player the best tools to make their most meaningful stories within the worlds where they play.

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The Truths and Myths of Being a Level Designer

Calling yourself a level designer is tough.  It’s a soft skill that you can’t prove easily like art or programming.  It’s far more psychological and subjective than that.  That is to say, an artist creates visuals and a programmer creates gameplay.  If the game looks good and plays well, these two departments have done their job.  But what about level designers?  Sure, you can judge based on the difficulty of the level or the ability to complete it (hopefully without the use of cheats), but the goal in level design is to evoke various emotions from the player at specific times in the game – usually to line up with story elements – while using the game’s mechanics to their fullest potential.

Level design is playing with virtual Lego

Think of the Lego creations you made as a kid – the ones where you used your imagination to create something (i.e., not from an instruction book).  How many of those would you call portfolio worthy?  Probably not a whole lot of them.  Either because you were 7 years old and had a much better imagination back then, or because you were 7 years old and you had no idea what level design was.

This should go without saying, but creativity and imagination are valuable resources in the video game industry.  But they must be accompanied by humility and the ability to accept criticism.  “This is my creation, and it’s perfect!” will not help you find or keep a job.  Iteration is a constant in game design, and very much level design as well.  I’ve created levels that have gone through dozens of iterations, and still feel like they need improvement.

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On the Other Side of the Table

I’m Alvin and I graduated from the VFS Game Design Program. As a student, I focused on learning as much as I could, and everything came at me so fast that often the details got fuzzy. As a Teaching Assistant, or being on the other side of the table as some like to call it, that focus needed to be redirected toward fine details and assisting students.

Within a three hour lecture, a student is given a lot of information that they’re expected to just remember. But obviously there are going to be points that stand out more, and there will be points that they’ll forget altogether unless they put it into practice daily. The majority of the students probably won’t care about that small portion of information that was forgotten. But when a single student comes to us with a question about even the most minuscule detail, it’s up to us to have an answer they can trust and move forward with.

Now I’m not saying as a TA you have to immediately study all the details and potential questions that students may have, but one of the most important things is to be prepared. This may require that you’ll have to do the assignment yourself to really understand where the questions are coming from, and what other potential questions may be. It’s also very important to have a solid foundation of knowledge on that particular piece of software. If you understand all the components that you’re working with, it just takes a bit of disassembling and finding the source of your issue. Most of the problems students have will come down to the fine details; being prepared and having a solid foundation just makes things easier.

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