Inspiration has struck. This is it. You know what to do, what it should look like, and how it should function. Holy shit, this idea is awesome, and off you are running. All you want to do is jot this down, write it up, or lay it out.

What image just popped into your head? If you pictured yourself at the computer, then you are doing it wrong. Why are you forsaking the pencil and paper? I never start on the computer, and you shouldn’t either. In fact, if you start on the computer there is a good chance that I hate you – yes I hate you. This rule applies regardless of whether you are a level designer or a system designer; if you start on the computer, you are wasting my and everyone else’s time.

For some reason we, as designers, have a tendency to idolize the computer and shun the pencil. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for moving to the computer, and that time is late in the process. Until such time, you will fail on two levels: First, you will never be adaptable enough for a real development process, and second, you will miss out on the power of doodling, yes doodling.

The Adaptable Pencil

This should be intuitively obvious to the most casual of observers, but just in case you’re feeling indignant let me paint you a picture, one that I’ve experienced first hand. A designer, using Illustrator, crafts over the course of several hours a potential new level for the game. His lines are clean, he’s added cool little images depicting battles, it is everything that a late process level should be. It is not, however, in the late stages, because this is for the kick off meeting: the first time you pitch a level to the team. The designer takes his level layout to the kick off meeting, where, in a very short time, it is ripped apart through constructive (ouch) criticism, and eventually it barely resembles its self. The designer then–this is the crucial part–returns to his computer, and over the course of several hours makes numerous cuts and welds to his layout. This new layout is taken back to the team, it is ripped apart, and then the process starts all over again…


I Have Pages And Pages Like This

What the fuck is that idiot thinking? (whoops it was me) I know, you read this and you shook your head, “Man that guy sure was an idiot.” Quite lying to yourself! I have seen this way too often, for it to be a small time thing. It is rampant, and it needs to stop. Imagine, instead, that this designer had started on paper. Oh, a change needs to be made? A few scribbles with an eraser. MERE SECONDS. He has, in seconds, done what the other guy took hours to do: change his fucking mind! Something that you should be doing all the time, at least in the beginning. I am not alone on this. A great designer, Frank Chimero, summarizes why he prefers to start on pencil thusly:

Process work on the computer looks like a messy version of something late in the process. With a pencil, process work, if drawn right, looks like a tight version of something early in the process. There needs to be vagueness in execution and clarity in concept and strategy at the beginning of a job, and I find that when I start on the computer, the opposite usually occurs. I have a tightness to the execution, and a vagueness in my concept, and that is a truly undesirable, frustrating place to be. It means one might be giving form and structure to something that might not be worth it. They are laboring on making something beautiful, when they’re not even sure if it’s the right thing to be doing.

- Frank Chimero

Why do we get trapped in the digital bog? Once one has committed to the “digital” process it is almost impossible to break form it, and why is that? Even when you know you are wasting time. I would surmise, though it’s just a guess, that it is our old friend Escalating Commitment. You have already spent so much time making it pretty, so when it comes time to make changes, though you realize it’s a waste of time, you feel compelled to keep pushing on. All the more reason to avoid the computer until the time is right.

The Power Of Doodles

I admit, I’m a doodler. An activity that, until recently, I never gave much thought. But then I came across an article that explained the power and benefits of doodling, which only solidified my belief that starting with pencil and paper is the true path. Wait, Mike, I’m a system designer, why should I doodle? I know it seems to favor visual problems, but did you even read the article? Its benefits are not limited simply to visual stimulation. Let’s review:

  • increase our ability to focus (especially when handling dull or complex subject matter),
  • increase information retention and recall,
  • activate the “mind’s eye,” or the portions of the visual cortex that allow us to see mental imagery and manipulate concepts,
  • enhance access to the creative, problem-solving, and subconscious parts of the brain, while allowing the conscious mind to keep working, and
  • unify three major learning modalities: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic

I hi-lighted the important bits, but the gist should be obvious: you done get smarter! It does not matter if you are trying to design a level in an FPS, design a new weapon’s attacks in an action game, or design the story for a new species in an RPG. Text or visual, it’s going to help you, and you would be a fool to ignore the benefits.


Even When I’m Writing My Pencil Never Stops

I’m not saying turn every piece of paper you come across into a wasteland of circles, squares, and (let’s be honest) crude penis-like shapes, but employing the simple rule that your pencil should never stop moving can be very effective for keeping the brain active.

Computers Rock

I love working on the computer, and I love all the benefits it brings. The computer is, when used correctly, a very powerful tool, such as converting Illustrator files into real, usable game geometry; not to mention the constancy and history of programs such as Perforce. Getting a playable space up and running quickly can be a tempting lure, but it’s only worth it if you are ready. I cannot express the concern any better than Mr. Chimero, “…one might be giving form and structure to something that might not be worth it.” And that, right there, is what you need to consider. When you take that first step down the digital journey, you are saying that this idea is worth it, that it is worth everyone’s time and consideration. So you better damn well be sure about it, because, honestly, I don’t really want to hate you. You’ll just leave me no choice.