Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Honing Creativity - Guest post by Joseph Coco

I like to think of myself as a creative person, though not an artist. The engineer in me spends a lot of time refining processes, a must for anyone whose obligations don't vary enough to keep one's interest. So why should creativity be any different?

Mental muscles

I recently attended a creativity lecture by Scott Thorp, a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) who has been studying the creative process. Much of his advice I was already implementing in some manner or another, but I did find that I am not explicit about my creative processes. I am the type of person to decide to be creative, but I won't explicitly implement creativity inspiring techniques. I just begin using techniques as them pop into my head. For instance, I wouldn't write an article by just writing, I would mull over it until I had solid ideas in my brain or on paper.
As it turns out, there are exercises one can do to start the elusive creative juices flowing. This shouldn't be a surprise; I'm sure you've played some classic adventure game or Scribblenauts, and somewhere in everyone's consciousness they realized they were creatively solving problems. Scott, among others, have lists of these creativity exercises. Some of them are targeted, to minimize group-think; some are practical, to generate a creative solution to a real problem; and some are abstract, simply to strengthen one's creative muscles.

creativity: the production of novel and useful ideas.
In other words, creativity is not tantamount to eccentric and occasionally excludes it. A creative thing must be greater than the sums of its parts in a given circumstance, so the hat your friend made of beer cans and peacock feathers might be pop art, but is not necessarily creative--even if he did get mad praise for it during Mardi Gras. I provided some examples to help illustrate the point.

Not creative


The creative process is hands on. You don't need a chalk board if you're operating solo in your art studio, but it is key in a group environment and I would advise it for anything long-term. The tremendously popular comic artists and writers of Penny Arcade operate around a 'funny board,' onto which anything remotely funny is added and is periodically wiped as the ideas evolve or are passed over. Basically, document your process, not just the results, as a means to develop better ideas. When I develop an idea I mark it down in my ideas list or investment journal. Sure some of them are bad, but it turns out other people have my ideas as well and explore them, so they can't be that bad. I would recommend documenting them in a portable form dedicated to your ideas. Consider the following options to best suit your environment:
  • small notepad
  • document on your cell phone
  • Google spreadsheet
  • Google word document
  • word document stored in Dropbox
I am personally using a Google word document with four basic fields: title, need, audience, and description and/or notes. I generally don't share my ideas except with those I trust, however, after much deliberation, I decided Nattosoup people are good people and I pulled this out of my idea hat:

Little Nemo platform video game
NEED: Mediocre, many platformers out there, all with interesting styles, though few with such an old style.
TARGET: Old film enthusiasts, platform video gamers.


The creative process involves both work and time. You have to thoroughly hash out a problem which, for fine arts, would mean fully exploring the emotion you wish to express. You can obviously break down this process to be granular, but the key idea is to fully considered your task then do something else, preferably not associated with the original task at all, but rather, relaxing. You don't need to have a eureka moment. Your subconscious will siege the problem and hopefully will return anything useful. As much as people would like to idealize great thinkers, once the waiting is over it's back to work.

Exercise-driven creativity in action

Throughout college I documented my ideas with the dream of one day having the free time to work on them. I've finally begun work on Let's Play TV, a Netflix for people playing video games basically, but those ideas are solidified so I thought it would be best to start with the Little Nemo idea.

I did some more research on this idea and discovered that there was already a Little Nemo game, but not exactly in the same aesthetics of the 1911 animation. Even though I have not read the comic or seen the feature film movie I grasp the style and I believe that carried over well to the game play and visuals. I never intended to steal the story or characters from Little Nemo, but now I'm sure I don't want to, though it is in the public domain now.

Now that I have a kernel of an idea I can try to grow it. This is my first time explicitly following a creative exercise so I decided upon the SCAMPER questions as it seems good for fleshing out ideas.

  • use 3D models with a shader and distortions to make it look like Little Nemo
  • environments could also be 3D while maintaining platformer aspect (similar to Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria)
  • art could mimic a different, historic animation style
  • The game could be a shoot'em'up platformer
  • massive multiplayer online game
  • be mobile-based
  • take place in Slumberland
  • utilize an alternate input device such as the Kinect or wii-mote
  • animation could be distorted by humans rather than algorithmically
  • allow the player to draw their main character in a basic vector form (similar to Magic Pengel)
  • art of character could be a stylized version of the player through the Kinect
  • use same algorithms to distort music as art
  • since the concept of this game is about the aesthetic rather than mechanics, potentially merge other ideas such as my beat-based game ideas with it
  • integrate social networks into game in some manner. If shader is created can potentially mine social networks to create the context of levels. An exploration into the current state of your social networks if you will (+1 idea!). This works particularly well if the game is dream themed as lack of context is good
  • integrate Google search history into game to generate levels
  • each area represents a primary color
  • progress through animation styles as time passes in the game
  • animation could change with the environments (different levels manipulate characters in different ways providing different game mechanics)
  • extend a general game engine for games mimicking the art the Little Nemo
  • save mobiles (non-player characters) rather than having to destroy them like in most platformers
  • player discouraged from interacting with game by introducing an auto-pilot feature which performs well
  • mobiles can show stronger positive connection to each other than negative intentions to player
  • controls can be affected by the visual distortion algorithms
  • theme could be sleep without the undertones of Slumberland
  • night-time sounds for background noise / music
Modify / Magnify
  • brain-wave generation tools (requires headphones) to put player in the right frame of mind (lull them to sleep)
  • brain-wave sensor to measure concentration to control character, the less concentration the more visual distortion (representing different modes of the game)
  • excessively large main character
  • importance of items signified by size
  • art of levels become progressively more colorful
  • levels represented as comic book pages, must find a way to get to the next panel
  • sometimes control the level rather than the character
  • gigantic world with the ability to grow and shrink main character to discover miniature worlds with which you can interact (reverse of Katamari Damachi). You would progressively get hints about what areas had more detail
Put to Other Uses
  • educational experience about sleep
  • integrate a CPU donation system into the game and potentially use it as part of the visual renderings
  • develop into a general story-telling platform
  • mine information on how gaming affects mental state if brain wave sensor was integrated
  • the world is a visual representation your file system and you have to organize it in some manner. Primarily useful for artists works or photo collection
  • Not a game, but only a visual shader for 3D models
  • Flexible game mechanics
  • no heads-up display, would die from inactivity. Mobiles would simply interfere with goals of player
  • release game in installments, one per level. Potentially as mini games on mobile devices
  • reverse music
  • reverse dialog (speaker becomes listener)
(purple signifies I believed it was a good idea)

It's difficult to determine how many of the plausible ideas were generated as a direct result of the SCAMPER method versus simply just thinking about it. Presuming the primary focus of these exercises is to promote creativity and not to maximize the outcome of the creative processes, I would say the SCAMPER method works great. Lately I've been thinking about my ideas passively until I am prepared to create them as I am currently idea-rich and time-poor.

Quick tip

I mentioned I've used creative techniques before. Specifically, I find it helpful to impose arbitrary restrictions on a project in an attempt to prevent myself from being narrow-minded. It also helps maintain interest. If you find yourself easily overcoming the hurdles you've placed simply redefine the parameters and start over.

Ego / Mysticism

Scott pointed out art students are the most likely to drop his course as they frequently either assign mysticism to their creative process or believe it to be an inherent talent which one has or does not. It's a shame really as I believe artists could not only grow artistically faster if they directly practiced being creative but could also make their process more efficient, have a stronger connection with their customers, and better train artists in their crafts. I'm not sure if famous artists use these methods, but I doubt it would hurt and it's certainly worth a try. Let me know how these processes worked for you.