TGC '10 Keynote: The Craftsmanship of Creativity

| 9 Apr 2010 00:45
image

John Zuur Platten is a creative dude. Along with his partner Flint Dille at the Bureau of Film & Games, he's responsible for the writing in a number of AAA titles, including The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Ghostbusters: The Video Game, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, Wheelman and the upcoming adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. He's also working with Vin Diesel on a script for Hannibal. But by his own definition, he's no artist. Instead, he's a craftsman.

Platten's keynote at Day Two of the Triangle Game Conference was all about this dichotomy between art and craft. Titled "To Me, It's a Table: The Craftsmanship of Creativity," it offered solid, practical advice for anyone in a creative industry who struggles with the long process of bringing his or her ideas to fruition.

Platten's central analogy was a sort of defense of games as commodities rather than manifestations of lofty artistic ideals. "Let's say that you need a table," Platten said. "So you come to me and you say, 'John, we need a table.' And I say to you, 'OK, what do you need this table for.' 'Well, we need a dining room table and we want it out of wood,' and I say, 'OK, so far so good. How much are you willing to spend for this table?' And you tell me '1200 bucks.' 'OK, good, I can do that for 1200 bucks. When do you need this table?' 'Well, we need it in four weeks.' 'OK, I can get that table to you in four weeks - sure, no problem.'

"Now, four weeks later, I'll bring that table to you. We'll put it in your dining room. It'll do everything you want it to do. It'll be functional, it'll look good, you'll have gotten it on time and on budget. And you might look at me and go, 'Hey, John. This table's beautiful - it's a work of art!' But to me, it's a table."

Platten wasn't suggesting that games have no value as works of artistic expression. Instead, he merely wanted attendees to know the line of thinking that allowed him to break into the games industry in the mid-'90s and thrive there ever since. "You can be highly invested in the art that you create," Platten said, "but if you aren't willing to also be a little bit mercenary and be a little bit of a craftsman in the product that you create, you'll drive yourself crazy."

Platten then laid out the tools of his craft: an exhaustive 10-step process detailing how to transform an idea into a viable IP without going over budget or past your deadline. The first step is to study the subject that you'll be writing about. Surprisingly, Platten said, many developers skip this step - they'll start working on a military game without ever figuring out basic information like the hierarchy of the military, or whether the air force refers to a helicopter as a "helo" or a "chopper." This step can be as simple as a Google search or as complex as actually diving into the world of your game ("If you're writing a Western, go ride a horse," Platten said), but it's mandatory for creating a believable and engaging experience.

The next step is to actually document your thoughts on the subject. "I don't want to spend six months thinking about the idea; I want to get some stuff on paper," Platten said. In this phase of the process, the goal is to accumulate as much information about the subject as possible - photos, music and text alike. He advised the audience not to be too critical, but instead to paint in broad strokes. "The key thing is, you gotta get working" Platten said.

Once you have a rough sketch of the project, Platten said it's time to step back and reflect on the work. What inspired you when you wrote it, and how did you connect it to your life experience? "Ultimately, we create stuff that we know," Platten said. He referenced his client, Vin Diesel as an example: "Vin is a huge D&D geek ... he's also a huge World of Warcraft geek. The reason he became an actor in large part is because he loved being a dungeon master - he loved the process of creating and acting and going into this fantasy world, and so that led him to a place."

From there, Platten said, you must distill your idea down to its essence and expand what's left to compensate for it. He mentioned the rule of three: "Find three ideas that work, and make them work" - otherwise it's too easier for the script to become muddled and confusing. More importantly, though, you need to be able to communicate the essence of your property with a one-liner. Platten mentioned talking with Frank Miller about a game based on his Sin City universe, and Miller elegantly summarized the setting in a single sentence: "In Sin City, people take a lot of killing." From there, Platten was able to extrapolate that Sin City isn't a place with much in the way of cannon fodder - "this is not a world where bullets mean that much."

Optimizing the work means adapting your idea to suit its intended medium. "Who is your gamer/user/audience?" Platten asked. He also advised creators to embrace clichés, because they're there for a reason. There's an established language of game design tropes that it's important not to overlook. "People default to crates and barrels because they work," Platten said.

Platten recommended that writers bounce ideas off of each other to flesh them out. "Creativity is a contact sport. That means we're going to get together, we're going to roll this idea around and that's how it's going to be," Platten said. It's only through this back-and-forth that you learn what ideas are truly important to you - but that doesn't mean you should cling to them. Platten recalled a moment while writing the third version of the Hannibal script for Vin Diesel where he became so attached to a key scene involving the death of Hannibal's elephant that he couldn't stand to alter it at Diesel's request. " At that moment, I was an artist and not a craftsman," Platten said.

With all that legwork completed, you can start playing with the idea by mashing it up with other subjects. Here, Platten showed a pair of slides depicting equations for a couple of the most successful movies of the last 20 years. Martial arts + leather + guns + virtually reality = The Matrix, and more comically, Ferngully + Dances With Wolves + MechWarrior + 3D = a huge pile of cash to sleep on. Some of the best ideas, Platten said, are really mash-ups of existing ones.

The next to last step is to iterate by trimming away the ideas that didn't pan out and polishing the ones that are left. "Revision is progress," Platten said. He recalled that he had never once worked on a game that started with 15 levels and shipped with all 15. "More does not equal better - that is thinking from 15 years ago."

And perhaps the most controversial stage in the process was the last one, which most game developers are intimately familiar with: the crunch. Platten revealed himself to be a proponent of the practice, but not in its soul-destroying, home-wrecking form. Instead, Platten views crunch as a challenge that lets you flex your creative muscles and improve as a craftsman in the process. He compared crunching to weightlifting, where the only way to make progress is to push yourself: "If you want results, you've got to feel the pain."

At a glance, Platten's approach to game development may seem overly clinical and rigid, but he's not arguing for those in creative industries to divorce their emotions from their work. Instead, he's simply suggesting that the studied, meticulous approach of a master craftstman may be more fruitful for game makers than the free-form, whimsical approach of an artist. In a way, it's an attempt to demystify a process that can seem almost impenetrable to those outside of game development. You may not need a lathe or a belt sander to make the next Mass Effect, but you do need a blueprint - and Platten was kind enough to share his.

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yeah,

oppp7:
Interesting, I always thought the creative process of a setting or story was something people just sat around and thought about for a few hours. I never knew it was so involved.

I guess the credits having people who only worked on the story should have tipped me off that there's more to it than that.

The problem that is probably a big factor is that games need to make money, or at least, that's what the big companies running the consoles want to do. They want to safe, proven game to bank on, and are much more cautious to bet on a horse of another color.

I mean, I wish it weren't that way, but it is. New and unique games do get made and do make money, but more often then not they get passed by. Psychonauts, Otogi, etc are a few really great, beautiful and unique games that didn't sell all that well sadly.

Actually that's a good point. I guess then that I'd change my earlier statement to read "I wish there were more artists in charge of development teams". In other words, I think the industry could use a few more auteurs.

I feel that this is the healthiest attitude to take on the subject. Any person of taste will value works of art over machines that just work well.

Susan Arendt:

Here's the thing, though: games are not made by a single person, they are made by teams. So who gets to be the artist, then? In rare cases, a team will happily go along with a single person's artistic vision, but most of the time, everyone wants to have at least some say in the project, if only to preserve their sanity. That's where being a craftsman comes into play.

Indie games are the exception, of course, because they oftentimes actually are made by a single person.

Actually that's a good point. I guess then that I'd change my earlier statement to read "I wish there were more artists in charge of development teams". In other words, I think the industry could use a few more auteurs.

Susan Arendt:

boholikeu:
While I understand his view that "craftsmen" have a much easier time making it in the industry, I still wish that there were more "artists" making games.

Here's the thing, though: games are not made by a single person, they are made by teams. So who gets to be the artist, then? In rare cases, a team will happily go along with a single person's artistic vision, but most of the time, everyone wants to have at least some say in the project, if only to preserve their sanity. That's where being a craftsman comes into play.

Indie games are the exception, of course, because they oftentimes actually are made by a single person.

And sometimes, a single person taking full creative control stops working as soon as success is reached, and that single person is left without anyone to challenge them, all the crew around simply trusts and nods affirmatively. George Lucas, M. Night Shyamalan and Richard Garriott are good examples of this.

But anyway, this is a topic i have a love-hate relationship with. While emotionally i have a passion for pure, untamed artistic vision, rationally i'm well aware that such visions have to be tamed, castrated and sometimes caged to conform to certain needs. It's like capturing a rare, beautiful animal: it's pretty to look at in captivity, and useless in the wild. But deep down, we know that's where it should be...

Anyway, i'm rambling a bit. I hope i made myself clear enough :P

boholikeu:
While I understand his view that "craftsmen" have a much easier time making it in the industry, I still wish that there were more "artists" making games.

Here's the thing, though: games are not made by a single person, they are made by teams. So who gets to be the artist, then? In rare cases, a team will happily go along with a single person's artistic vision, but most of the time, everyone wants to have at least some say in the project, if only to preserve their sanity. That's where being a craftsman comes into play.

Indie games are the exception, of course, because they oftentimes actually are made by a single person.

Starke:

boholikeu:
While I understand his view that "craftsmen" have a much easier time making it in the industry, I still wish that there were more "artists" making games.

I'm not sure I do. Depending on what you're bringing to the table as an "artist", that can be a real train wreck. While this is a blueprint for designing a game, rather than designing a piece of art.

I dunno, lately I've just been finding small indie games where the developer is just making it for themselves to be much more fun. It's just frustrating when big-name games come close to breaking new ground for the medium but hold back in order to "please the crowd".

Chris Metzen should have learned this before starting to work with his team in world of warcraft. Would have been so hard to at least play again the RTS series to check if his new ideas of lore were not in conflict with the original ones, and ffs check the maps before messing locations all over the place? Cataclysm happened 5 years ago allready, lol. In a much more vast extension then I figure will happen now.

Newbiespud:

Starke:
I'm not sure I do. Depending on what you're bringing to the table as an "artist", that can be a real train wreck. While this is a blueprint for designing a game, rather than designing a piece of art.

The two are mutually exclusive? Sorry, I'm done.

Nah. But if I have to pick one or the other...

He wrote for Ghostbusters: The Video Game? Eh...

I just hope this guy has read Robert McKee's Story. That would make this image of him a bit less unsettling. There's nothing wrong with using craft, but... well, people might have different interpretations of what the "craft" of storytelling is.

Starke:
I'm not sure I do. Depending on what you're bringing to the table as an "artist", that can be a real train wreck. While this is a blueprint for designing a game, rather than designing a piece of art.

The two are mutually exclusive? Sorry, I'm done.

boholikeu:
While I understand his view that "craftsmen" have a much easier time making it in the industry, I still wish that there were more "artists" making games.

I'm not sure I do. Depending on what you're bringing to the table as an "artist", that can be a real train wreck. While this is a blueprint for designing a game, rather than designing a piece of art.

While I understand his view that "craftsmen" have a much easier time making it in the industry, I still wish that there were more "artists" making games.

Interesting, I always thought the creative process of a setting or story was something people just sat around and thought about for a few hours. I never knew it was so involved.

I guess the credits having people who only worked on the story should have tipped me off that there's more to it than that.

TGC '10 Keynote: The Craftsmanship of Creativity

image

John Zuur Platten is a creative dude. Along with his partner Flint Dille at the Bureau of Film & Games, he's responsible for the writing in a number of AAA titles, including The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Ghostbusters: The Video Game, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, Wheelman and the upcoming adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. He's also working with Vin Diesel on a script for Hannibal. But by his own definition, he's no artist. Instead, he's a craftsman.

Platten's keynote at Day Two of the Triangle Game Conference was all about this dichotomy between art and craft. Titled "To Me, It's a Table: The Craftsmanship of Creativity," it offered solid, practical advice for anyone in a creative industry who struggles with the long process of bringing his or her ideas to fruition.

Platten's central analogy was a sort of defense of games as commodities rather than manifestations of lofty artistic ideals. "Let's say that you need a table," Platten said. "So you come to me and you say, 'John, we need a table.' And I say to you, 'OK, what do you need this table for.' 'Well, we need a dining room table and we want it out of wood,' and I say, 'OK, so far so good. How much are you willing to spend for this table?' And you tell me '1200 bucks.' 'OK, good, I can do that for 1200 bucks. When do you need this table?' 'Well, we need it in four weeks.' 'OK, I can get that table to you in four weeks - sure, no problem.'

"Now, four weeks later, I'll bring that table to you. We'll put it in your dining room. It'll do everything you want it to do. It'll be functional, it'll look good, you'll have gotten it on time and on budget. And you might look at me and go, 'Hey, John. This table's beautiful - it's a work of art!' But to me, it's a table."

Platten wasn't suggesting that games have no value as works of artistic expression. Instead, he merely wanted attendees to know the line of thinking that allowed him to break into the games industry in the mid-'90s and thrive there ever since. "You can be highly invested in the art that you create," Platten said, "but if you aren't willing to also be a little bit mercenary and be a little bit of a craftsman in the product that you create, you'll drive yourself crazy."

Platten then laid out the tools of his craft: an exhaustive 10-step process detailing how to transform an idea into a viable IP without going over budget or past your deadline. The first step is to study the subject that you'll be writing about. Surprisingly, Platten said, many developers skip this step - they'll start working on a military game without ever figuring out basic information like the hierarchy of the military, or whether the air force refers to a helicopter as a "helo" or a "chopper." This step can be as simple as a Google search or as complex as actually diving into the world of your game ("If you're writing a Western, go ride a horse," Platten said), but it's mandatory for creating a believable and engaging experience.

The next step is to actually document your thoughts on the subject. "I don't want to spend six months thinking about the idea; I want to get some stuff on paper," Platten said. In this phase of the process, the goal is to accumulate as much information about the subject as possible - photos, music and text alike. He advised the audience not to be too critical, but instead to paint in broad strokes. "The key thing is, you gotta get working" Platten said.

Once you have a rough sketch of the project, Platten said it's time to step back and reflect on the work. What inspired you when you wrote it, and how did you connect it to your life experience? "Ultimately, we create stuff that we know," Platten said. He referenced his client, Vin Diesel as an example: "Vin is a huge D&D geek ... he's also a huge World of Warcraft geek. The reason he became an actor in large part is because he loved being a dungeon master - he loved the process of creating and acting and going into this fantasy world, and so that led him to a place."

From there, Platten said, you must distill your idea down to its essence and expand what's left to compensate for it. He mentioned the rule of three: "Find three ideas that work, and make them work" - otherwise it's too easier for the script to become muddled and confusing. More importantly, though, you need to be able to communicate the essence of your property with a one-liner. Platten mentioned talking with Frank Miller about a game based on his Sin City universe, and Miller elegantly summarized the setting in a single sentence: "In Sin City, people take a lot of killing." From there, Platten was able to extrapolate that Sin City isn't a place with much in the way of cannon fodder - "this is not a world where bullets mean that much."

Optimizing the work means adapting your idea to suit its intended medium. "Who is your gamer/user/audience?" Platten asked. He also advised creators to embrace clichés, because they're there for a reason. There's an established language of game design tropes that it's important not to overlook. "People default to crates and barrels because they work," Platten said.

Platten recommended that writers bounce ideas off of each other to flesh them out. "Creativity is a contact sport. That means we're going to get together, we're going to roll this idea around and that's how it's going to be," Platten said. It's only through this back-and-forth that you learn what ideas are truly important to you - but that doesn't mean you should cling to them. Platten recalled a moment while writing the third version of the Hannibal script for Vin Diesel where he became so attached to a key scene involving the death of Hannibal's elephant that he couldn't stand to alter it at Diesel's request. " At that moment, I was an artist and not a craftsman," Platten said.

With all that legwork completed, you can start playing with the idea by mashing it up with other subjects. Here, Platten showed a pair of slides depicting equations for a couple of the most successful movies of the last 20 years. Martial arts + leather + guns + virtually reality = The Matrix, and more comically, Ferngully + Dances With Wolves + MechWarrior + 3D = a huge pile of cash to sleep on. Some of the best ideas, Platten said, are really mash-ups of existing ones.

The next to last step is to iterate by trimming away the ideas that didn't pan out and polishing the ones that are left. "Revision is progress," Platten said. He recalled that he had never once worked on a game that started with 15 levels and shipped with all 15. "More does not equal better - that is thinking from 15 years ago."

And perhaps the most controversial stage in the process was the last one, which most game developers are intimately familiar with: the crunch. Platten revealed himself to be a proponent of the practice, but not in its soul-destroying, home-wrecking form. Instead, Platten views crunch as a challenge that lets you flex your creative muscles and improve as a craftsman in the process. He compared crunching to weightlifting, where the only way to make progress is to push yourself: "If you want results, you've got to feel the pain."

At a glance, Platten's approach to game development may seem overly clinical and rigid, but he's not arguing for those in creative industries to divorce their emotions from their work. Instead, he's simply suggesting that the studied, meticulous approach of a master craftstman may be more fruitful for game makers than the free-form, whimsical approach of an artist. In a way, it's an attempt to demystify a process that can seem almost impenetrable to those outside of game development. You may not need a lathe or a belt sander to make the next Mass Effect, but you do need a blueprint - and Platten was kind enough to share his.

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