Feels Like ‘Work’

At first the writing came easily, words falling onto the page almost as quickly as I could conceive and then type them. After years without a real creative outlet, I think it was just a case of opening a tap and letting them pour out. Because of the huge size and scope of the universe that we’re creating, I could look in any direction and find fertile ground to go and wander in, creating structures without fear of contradicting canon. Of course at that stage continuity wasn’t an issue as nothing had come before.

As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, I did plenty of background planning, sketching the very broad outlines for the factions and main characters, and prioritizing the best order to tackle them. This still left plenty of room in each individual piece however, enabling me to just write, sometimes for hours without needing to stop and check the details. This was also very convenient for my haphazard way of writing: ten minutes on the tram here and half an hour after the kids have gone to bed there, able to just pick up where I left off the previous time.

Now I’m covering events that interact with previous writing and characters who’s timelines need to match up with each others’. This stifles the free-flow of thoughts that characterised my earlier pieces and that is, well, annoying. I guess this is more like ‘real’ writing. It certainly feels more like work. It also lends itself to more sustained periods of preparation and writing, with each session needing ten minutes of prep time where I look at the history tracker and the short guides to get prepared. When those ten minutes are followed by an hour of writing, that’s no problem, but when they’re followed by only ten minutes of actual writing and I need to repeat the same process the next day, the ratio of time spent working versus the end product produced is getting lower.

So to combat this I guess I have a couple of options: I could just write whatever comes into my head and rework it later, editing the details on future drafts, or I could pre-plan each piece more thoroughly, plotting the points I should hit and details I should include ahead of time. I’ll probably give each one a try and see which feels right. Of course there is the third option: when stuck, save and close the fiction piece and write a blog post instead.

Foundations Laid

So now the proper work starts. Simon and I decided early on to spend much of our initial effort doing groundwork before getting to the more interesting aspects of the creative process. With him, it has been the huge task of setting up the business and sorting out myriad contracts and official bits of paperwork. For me, it has been the more mundane tasks of deciding on a process that fits around my life and schedule; where and when to write (on my iPad while travelling for the most part), how to decide what to work on next, and whether to slowly go for a first pass finished product or knock out quick, rough drafts and constantly iterate.

There are also practical decisions like how and when to best communicate with Simon, when to be proactive versus when to discuss, and whether or not to stump up the cash for professional tools that enable direct uploading to our project server. Which reminds me, Simon also had to set up our server…

I have spent a good few hours preparing faction histories, story timelines, and a master work tracker, as I know from experience that without these tools, I’ll start going in a million different directions at once. My project management background means that I definitely find splitting writing up into discrete, smaller chunks keeps focus and motivation high, and ameliorates the panic that can appear when starting out on a huge new activity.

The five Ps of Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance have always been true, and the size and complication of building a viable business from the ground up only magnifies the importance of getting your house in order and being prepared for every eventuality before getting stuck into the fun creative stuff.

Now that we have a centralised area with the ability to track work and keep a tight hold on canon, all that remains for me to do is to write tens of thousands of words of gripping, original, and exciting fiction. But that’s the easy part, right?

A New Perspective

I have always been into movies in a borderline obsessional way, staying up late watching TV, renting VHS, and eventually amassing a frankly silly DVD collection. About fifteen years ago I wanted to better understand exactly why the films of great directors – like Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock – were critically revered, and so I started to actively educate myself in cinema. I watched all the extra features, read magazines, joined forums, and bought university ‘Film Studies’ textbooks. I started to understand themes, narrative arcs, mise-en-scene, and the building blocks that went into every movie.

This understanding of the components that contribute to that nebulous ‘magical’ quality has given me an appreciation for some film-makers that I hadn’t previously understood and now I see every film in a new light (although I don’t care what the critics say: I still hate Bresson). I find myself constantly noticing clever editing tricks or lazy directorial choices and exposition. I don’t enjoy films more now that I know more about them, but I do tend to have stronger extreme feelings, so I really hate bad films and really love well made ones.

This has been on my mind recently for the first time in a decade as I am now viewing lots of things through a new ‘educated eye’. Going through the process of starting a business from scratch means that every area of my hobby is torn down to its constituent parts, evaluated and costed.

Every website I look at I am thinking about the quality of the design, every rulebook I read has me counting up the number of original art pieces and calculating in my head the cost, and with every model I handle I am evaluating the sculpt quality and the way the cuts are designed and hidden. Like with films, I find myself being drawn to the extremes: the clunky art direction and bad font choices at one end, and the delicately detailed paint jobs and cleanly and consistently designed pages of the best books at the other.

It would be nice to win the lottery and start a business without compromise; have renowned artists producing dozens of concepts, veteran sculptors sending multiple designs to be mass-produced in injection-moulded plastic, and a rulebook with original art on every expensively-designed page. But that is the end goal, not where we are now.

We have been lucky to work with some truly talented artists and sculptors, and seeing Simon’s and my ideas come to life through them has been inspiring. But now we have to make some difficult decisions about when to compromise and when to go for broke, and that is difficult for two guys who have exceptionally high standards and can’t help looking at everything through a hyper-critical eye.

The hard part isn’t producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures that are really good on a finite budget – I can see how we could do that if we were prepared to constantly compromise. The hard part is producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures on a finite budget that look like we had to make no compromises and had millions to spend.

Creative Collaboration

My professional life has never really involved being artistically create up till now. So, although I have been expecting to experience different thoughts and emotions working with Simon and our artists than when working with my colleagues in my day job, it is still a pleasant surprise to realise that we can shape the reality of the universe we are creating simply by thinking it.

Last month Simon and I were having a conversation about whether two of our factions would once have been allied and, after discussing a few pros and cons, we paused and I wondered to myself how decisions like this could be taken in an environment with no hierarchy to ask, no best-practice to implement, and no existing process to follow. Then it hit me: “Yes” I said, “They were allies a few decades earlier. Because I just said so.”

Now this decision was not Tolkien deciding that Saruman was a bad guy or George Lucas announcing that Vader was Luke’s father but, for me, it was a pivotal point in my understanding and appreciation of the creative process. It is still very early days in this project but mine and Simon’s aim is to create a successful game, based around an original IP that could conceivably one day support multiple expansions, secondary games, novels, and spin off films, so it is taking a little time getting used to the idea that I have the power to make sweeping changes to our game universe by simply having a thought and writing it down.

I had a second ‘moment’ last week while discussing the fundamental design of one of our game’s main characters with Simon and one of our artists. The discussion involved an iterative process that I now see will spiral outwards and affect the rules of the game and the fiction of the universe. The backstory I have written moulds the way the artist designs the look of the character, which gives Simon an idea for a weapon or ability that would fit particularly well, necessitating a slight rule change. That in turn gives me an idea for the character’s back-story, which is then discussed again through the prism of art, rules and story, each feeding off and influencing each other.

It is a much rewarding process and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing with for as long as possible.