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The Creative Process #14 - Measurements
Time is ticking, line counts are rising, and dreams have to be trimmed to measure.
We’re getting down to brass tacks with IF Competition submission date only a few weeks away. This is the end line for my project Hand Me Down, an interactive fiction game about fatherhood and creativity. August has been a busy month so that September is merely also busy, and not insane.
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In May I took two weeks off to work on my game, dipping into some long service leave that I had accrued. Because of sick kids and my own poor planning, that session wasn’t nearly as productive as I had hoped.
It took a few months to acknowledge that I needed another go. The first two weeks of August ended up being much more productive, although I didn’t really take any time to just relax. This was totally self-imposed, and really, writing for a game is still fun, but I did notice I was much more work-oriented this time around.
In a way, I had to be. There were going to be no more chances.
I experimented with working to pomodoro timers. These are popular in productivity circles. You set a timer to work for 25 minutes. No wandering, no getting coffee, just bash away at the keyboard. Then you get a five minute break. Do a few of these cycles and then you earn a longer, twenty-minute break. The name “Pomodoro” comes from a little tomato cooking timer that people often use. Plus, it’s a catchy name and that’s how you survive in productivity circles.
I used Pomodor because it was free and simple.
This was effective as a pace-setter early in the first week. Later on I found the breaks were just breaking my flow. I had solutions to write. No time for a stretch, although that often helped.
I don’t think I’d work to a pomodoro schedule all the time, but it worked at home. At work where you might get unscheduled interruptions, it probably fares worse.
I got an enormous amount done - seven hour work days plus time at night. I haven’t really played any games this month, so it’s been a lot of work.
The other trick with a pace like this is to not resent the times you are forced to slow down and do other things. It’s good to have momentum and drive, but sometimes you just need to hang out on the floor with your son. He’s learned to crawl this month, so that’s been a blessing and a curse.
Paying for Colour Photocopies of Your Brain
Having read the interactive fiction community room a while ago, I felt like I needed to commission some cover art for my game. It would be trivial to get an AI generator to do it, and a little bit of work to get the idea in my head onto pixels via a generator. But I wanted something nice and authentic. It’d be a shame to do well and have cheap cover art.
I thought I might explain my process for commissioning art, to encourage others to do so.
I explored online portfolio sites, looking for people with a style of art that gelled with me. This is nothing I could put into a prompt generator. It’s a recognition and analysis problem for me. There were a few artists who had art that I really liked, but the style wasn’t appropriate for the game. I have a few artists that I like, support and have gotten art from in the past, but felt like they were not the right choices for this mini project.
I did find an artist in Queensland: Maggie McMahon. She had examples of her work for young adult/adult work, and a good diversity of styles. I approached her with a detailed explanation of what I was looking for:
A one-line explanation, including scope, audience, type of art, size and intended distribution.
Some previous years examples from IF Comp, to make the audience clear.
Why I sought her specifically.
A one-line explanation of my project that it was to integrate with.
My experience with art and commissions.
More specific technical details (like 700px square aspect picture)
Deadlines (which were many months away)
Information about licensing, namely I had to be able to share this freely on websites. I wasn’t going to sell it.
Each paragraph was short and worded carefully. I can tend towards the verbose, so I wanted it to be crystal clear.
Maggie was a delight to work with. She had a clear price, and revisions/alterations schedule. She understood my blatherings and made them into useful sketches.
We started with a few linework roughs to scope out ideas around the basic framework I suggested. From those I chose ones I preferred and why (I also got my family to assess them). After a few refinements, there were some colour roughs so I could choose things like line colours, skin tones and things like that.
One nice day in the middle of August I got the final version. It was great. One of the benefits of working with an artist is that I got to wax lyrical about some of the character ideas. For example, I assigned each major character a colour. Maggie was able to incorporate that into the colouring of the two characters in subtle but evocative ways. Ruby, for example, is red because she is fiery and bold, and has a symbol of a red dahlia. While not an initial character note of mine, Maggie explored giving her red tattoos, including a neat red dahlia. I was so taken by it, it has now become canon.
You are unlikely to have these explorations (or even, really, coherent detail) in anything computer-generated.
I’m very pleased with the outcome, and hope to make use of Maggie’s skills more in the future. I recommend you commission her!
All throughout the month I kept a keen eye on the calendar. I had even arranged a work estimate for the game versus the time I had until submission.
I had estimated about twenty nights’ worth of work. I had 38 days to go at that point. Even with a blowout of 50%, it was going to be okay.
Of course, that’s not how this went. I had finished the main portion of the game and moved wholesale into the mysterious twist part of the game. A section that was cordoned-off from the rest of the game, but very puzzle-dense. I managed to code some of these tricky puzzles and write some pretty decent prose around it all.
But it got to the end of August and there was still too much to do. I had planned on sending out some beta code to testers, including this twist part. But I still had a sizeable chunk to go. I could have shortened that bit — there is a natural bit you could truncate it to — but really, the entire thing was blowing a hole in my time budget.
After thrashing it out with ChatGPT, and then, more usefully, with humans, I decided to drop that entire section. The game still works. It’s approximately 40% less rad, but I still need to finish the finale, and it is more important to get a conclusion than more mid-game elaboration.
I may do a post-Comp release with that bit brought back in, but we’ll see. By submission time, I may never want to work on it again.
Measure All the Time
In a moment of reflection this month, I gave myself credit for improving as a creative. This has been a tremendous project. I have invested very heavily in it, but never wavered from the end goal. I’ve cut large parts of planned content, and did that assessment early when I could do something about it. Knowing when to cut your losses is an important skill.
I’ve also tried to enjoy the process and the result. There are lines that I still really enjoy reading, even though I wrote them.
I’ve been receptive to feedback, especially in the meta about me as a creative. Accepting when I’m fooling myself, how my mood affects my judgment, and when I’m talking myself into a hole. My wife knows me better than I do, so her occasional insights really improve my skills and my outlook.
Currently the game is over 10,000 lines of actual code. This includes a lot of prose that is considered to be “one” line of code. It’s one of my most expansive and complete projects I’ve ever done.
The work through September will be substantial. I hope I can keep a good pace and not burn out. I want to submit Hand Me Down with a sense of accomplishment, not bitterness. Then after that I might play Baldur’s Gate 3 and the rest of the IF Comp entries.
I already have ideas for future, much smaller projects. Also one or two larger ones, but it might be a while until I bite off anything as big as this.
In any case, wish me luck for the final few weeks!