Thursday, April 14, 2016

On unorthodox inspiration, and the creative process

Inspiration comes in many forms. A good creator -- or at least, one who intends to ever make a deadline -- is constantly soaking up inspiration from their surroundings. The quirks of the retiree in line at the grocer could be fascinating in your next villain. The flickering street lights and rain-filled potholes could provide the mood for your next composition. The filth and bile spewed in YouTube comments inspires dialog and life choices for your army of evil super mutants.

In fiction, I hope. If you happen to have an army of Super Mutants in real life, hit me up: I'll happily run PR for your Evil

Anyway. The creative process is a lot easier when you keep your eyes and ears open.
Normally, I give image attributions. I feel like, if Banksy wants to send me a DMCA takedown notice, that's a piece of performance art I *need* to enable.
Street Art is often crazy evocative. I got seeds for at least two Urban Fantasy stories just placing this image.

Okay cool I got it but why are we talking about this here lol

First of all, punctuation marks. They're important! 

Secondly, there's a big difference between creating on a deadline, and spitballing ideas at your leisure. If you've got a novel you're working on when inspiration strikes, that's one thing. But deadlines are a constant reality - and not just when dealing with a publisher. Sure, if I've got to come up with x different rifle scopes for an RPG by Friday, and a local Taco shop's new logo by Monday, I've got to crank something out quickly, so that I can get to the revision stage; you know, where content blossoms into something it's reasonable to expose other humans to1.

But it's not just publishers -- and professors, represent! -- who introduce deadlines to our lives. If you want your blues band to consider playing an original composition, you need to have something to bring to rehearsal. If you want your RPG campaign to really sing, it's good to have some idea what you're doing before the players show up2.

When pressed for time, coming up with something from scratch can prove difficult. Luckily, you don't have to, because you've been soaking up inspiration from your surroundings, like some kind of insatiable Art Vampire, taking snippets from every facet of life, and wrapping them up to store for later, like some kind of Dream Spider, ever wakeful, every hungry.

Unless that's creepy! In which case, maybe don't think of yourself as a weird vampiric dream spider. Maybe be a pony, galloping through fields of inspiration? You do you, mate - I'm not here to tell you what to do with your life.

Anyway! You've got your web, or your net, or whatever set up, and you're constantly supplied by the ideas you've taken from it. Cool! And this is good, because:

Ideas are cheap

While in graduate school, I had the opportunity (along with some students, fellow graduate students, and my mentor, the incomparable late Dr. Paul Skalski) to speak with the Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theaters, and all-around smart, funny guy. 

I thought heyhere's the guy who basically birthed the video game industry. I bet he's got some interesting ideas on where things are going. And he did!But more to the point, we were talking about the kinds of ideas that would make good games in the modern era, and beyond.

He made his incredulous face, and simply replied, "good ones." And then proceeded to lay some knowledge on us, advice for which I remain grateful to this day. He said, and I quote paraphrase, that ideas are cheap, good ideas are everywhere, and what really mattered was execution

He then went on to prove it. 

"Let's make a game, " he said. Well gee, guy who more or less invented video games, I dunno. We, of course, jumped on the idea. "This room, though you don't know it, is full of evil monkeys. And they've just gotta go." We agreed - evil monkeys were a problem no one wanted to ignore - so we acquiesced to his plan. 

Augmented Reality games had been a topic of discussion, so we bounced around ideas in rapid-fire, a smartphone app to see the monkeys, cooperation with other players to deal with them, geotagging different locations on social media - everybody was inspired. We spent a grand total of five minutes or so bouncing ideas off of one another, and we had a little pitch that sounded genuinely fun. 
If you look at images of Bushnell online, you might think
that he's got two facial expressions: smug, and incredulous.
Speaking with him, I can assure you; he's got a couple more,
but those two seem to get him through 90% of the day.
Bushnell smirked.

"See? That's a good idea. And that's the easy part. If somebody makes that game, the idea isn't going to be what makes it fun. 

It's the execution of that idea that's going to actually matter."

I had to admit that he had a point. Pong, the game that put his company on the map, is quite frankly, a boring concept: hit a ball back and forth. For that matter, the idea behind ping-pong, or tennis proper, is pretty boring too; hit a ball over a net, keep it in a demarcated zone. The concept isn't setting the world on fire.

But man. all of those games are fun as hell. 

Tennis (and its cousins, volleyball, squash, you name it) succeed because they're focused on the fun part of the game, and they allow players to make it their own. Hell, the Mona Lisa is just a painting of some lady. human beings have been painting other human beings since they figured out how to paint; one more is hardly something to get excited about in itself.


Now, it's important to note that Bushnell -- and by extension, your humble author -- never said that ideas don't matter. Great ideas are great! Innovative concepts can bring real power with them. Look at the works of Escher - innovative, original, fresh. If he'd used his geometric precision to paint bowls of fruit, it likely wouldn't have had the same impact on the world. But conversely, if he'd painted his mathematically-infused landscapes without that same precision, his ideas wouldn't have mattered.

Original, innovative ideas can be crazy awesome.

But they're not enough by themselves.

There's a lot to unpack here, and this entry is already a tad long-winded, so I think that another series of posts is in store. There's a lot of insight to be gained by learning from the tools of a different discipline and applying them to your own, and we're going to dive into some of them. But before we get into the particular insights of making characters from metal lyrics, or the essential principles of managing RPGs that can be taken from professional wrestling, we do well to remember that inspiration is everywhere, and ideas are abundant.

So long as we remember to put them to work.

1 - Note to self; edit blog before posting. Ah, crap.

2 - Dear players; I am so, so sorry.

3 - Bushnell, for his part, saw a lot of potential in Augmented Reality games, and mobile games in general. Which makes a lot of sense, given Atari's history; arcade machines were inherently social installations at their inception. Bars, pizza parlors, and eventually institutes dedicated entirely to them all had one thing in common - they were social spaces. Video games had an inherent social component at their inception. Now, with the advent of mobile smartphones, AR games have the potential to fill a similar role. 

It's a great idea. 

But I feel that the execution's been lacking so far.