“I may be exaggerating a little, but I feel like developing a large-scale video game like The Legend of Zelda is similar to setting out on a voyage across the ocean in the distant past… It’s similar to seeking a new continent that no one on Earth has visited before.
We set out from the harbor without a single sea chart. We start out not knowing what direction we’re heading in, and the small crew argues back and forth about where to go and what to do. Sometimes, we find ourselves adrift. Other times, we’re buffeted by storms and end up becoming shipwrecked. Still others, we cry that we’ve discovered new land, but when we make for shore, we end up at a loss when we find that it was nothing but a tiny, barren island.
However, we never remain in the same place for long, and as we keep moving forward, we eventually catch sight of the new continent we’ve been seeking just beyond the horizon. The crew gets bigger, and we all band together to make a push for the new world…
If we manage to make it safely to the opposite shore, then I know that fans around the world will enjoy what we’ve achieved. That’s the greatest gratification of making Zelda.”
—Eiji Aonuma, Legend of Zelda series producer
This is one of my favorite descriptions of the creative process. It makes sense that Eiji Aonuma directed one of my favorite Zelda games, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, a game about exploring an ocean of uncharted islands.
The sense of exploring the unknown without a map is an accurate metaphor for the experience of working on a complex, long term project. This kind of journey sounds like an adventure, but it’s also full of difficult challenges. How do we stay sane during a long journey like this? How can we make any progress at all when we don’t know where we’re going?
At Sandcastle, Foster and I are in the middle of a very long project. It’s a complex game, one that we’re really excited about, but it feels like what Eiji Aonuma described. We can’t always see where we’re going or how to make progress.
One of the best ways we’ve found to navigate this confusing, directionless state is to do a variety of both long projects and short daily or weekly projects, rather than just focusing on the one or the other.
In oil painting, this is called doing long studies and short studies. My oil painting teacher recommends working on many smaller, less complex paintings that can be completed in one or two sittings while working on a bigger, more complex painting that will take a lot more time.
The first painting is an incomplete long study in progress, and the second is short study that was completed in about two hours. The form of the long study is much more complex, and a lot more time is spent on the details getting it just right. The short study is rougher, smaller, and a simpler form so that it can be completed more quickly.
One of the main reasons my teacher recommends this approach is that it means you take a greater number of paintings from start to finish. There are things you learn from finishing something that you can’t learn from working on something but not finishing it for weeks or months or years. It helps you practice the entire process from start to finish at a smaller scale so that you can apply that understanding to the bigger things.
You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.
Partly in response to the difficulty of working on a long term project at Sandcastle, Foster recently started designing a mini game every day. Similar to a daily writing practice or small oil paintings, it’s a situation where he can complete a rough draft in a single sitting. Here’s one of his daily game designs:
This daily practice has made a huge difference to his perspective as a game designer. Not only does it give him a way to practice every day to sharpen his skills and learn more about designing games, but it also provides a daily burst of new energy and momentum. Starting something new every day generates new energy, ideas, and momentum that can be shared with our ongoing, long term project.
Hack weeks at technology companies and other game companies are another way to accomplish the same burst of energy. At Twitter, hack week means that everyone takes a break from their normal routine and major projects to work on a small idea, a rough prototype of a new feature or process. At Doublefine, their yearly Amnesia Fortnight is a time they forget about the bigger games they’re working on and break into teams to make a bunch of new games in a couple weeks. While not a daily practice, these condensed periods of variety are a huge motivator and source of new energy.
In my experience, another key benefit of a daily practice is that I’m less likely to be bothered or upset if one thing doesn’t go as well as I would like because I know that I’m going to come back the next day and do it again anyway. Some days will be great, some will be average, and some days it just won’t work. If I’m not doing it every day, when something doesn’t go well it’s can be a huge disappointment and frustration. But if I am practicing daily, I can trust that over time it will even out.
In the end though, this isn’t really about projects. It’s about practicing a skill, a craft, or an art over an entire lifetime. On that scale, the individual projects don’t matter. The journey isn’t actually about finishing this or that, it’s about the things you discover and learn every day when you sit down and practice. You can do that with long projects or short ones, but a variety is healthy, and doing short daily ones means you can always sit down and explore something new. The small projects are where the real daily practice takes place. On the outside it looks like you’re just quietly doing the same thing every day, but on the inside, you’re having this crazy adventure, exploring a new world a little bit every day.
If you’re lucky and motivated enough to keep making art, life is quiet, you get to work at what you love doing, happily chipping away at something, constructing something, adjusting to a cycle of highs and lows and in betweens, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it for two years or 50 years, the patterns remain exactly the same.
Published 10 January 2015
Kevin McGillivray is a web developer, writer, and teacher from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea.