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Opinion: Constraint-based design

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Climax Games technical designer Claire Blackshaw offers tips for applying articifial constraints to creative projects you've been given absolute freedom on.
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Climax Games technical designer Claire Blackshaw offers tips for applying articifial constraints to creative projects you've been given absolute freedom on.] In some cases the most destructive action one can perform on the creative psyche is to give it absolute freedom. The blank page, blue sky, and empty word document are among the most terrifying monsters in the creative world.
  1. Apply artificial Constraint
  2. Design within Constraint
  3. Remove Constraint
  4. Analyze
That sums up a little bit of advice I'm going impart as to how I defeat these monsters. I've used this model in various ways and below I'll give some examples of this simple piece of advice. One button The modern gamepad (or keyboard/mouse) provides a massive subset of control options. Too many in most cases. As a programmer I often just find myself going "bind" crazy because its easy to bind to a key. This leads to terrible interfaces; original Blender UI anyone ;) As a designer I often force myself to only have one button and one stick on a gamepad, or maybe just mouse interaction. I force myself to use less buttons than I think I need. Then I will often find ways to contextualize or simplify a mechanic or control. Leading to a more elegant control solution. This also means I can often later in a project arbitrarily say something like, "Okay we will map that Global button to Shoulder button, they aren't used anywhere". Which is great when in crunch or a great feature occurs late in development. Box it Often when doodling an idea I will just draw a box on the page. Then draw only inside that box. This only really works for visual designs but I find it works really well to focus once I have a set boundary. Coin Toss Have two options? Do a blind coin toss, and then before revealing the coin if you find yourself wishing for heads or tails you know your answer. Three point system When constructing a narrative it's easy to lose sight of the overall structure or lose detail. One trick I use is what I call the Bullet Point System. The system that forces groups of three means your always forced to find that third thing but also that you often self prune. Some of my best ideas come while reaching for that third point to fit. I also find that often something sounds great but then I can't flesh it out to three points so I discard it. Rules for the three-point system:
  • Write three lines
  • No line can go onto the next line
  • Always write three lines
  • You can expand a point with exactly three sub lines
Example - Story of lost boy:
  • Boy Gets Lost
    • Follows Butterfly
    • Goes into Cave
    • Can't See Butterfly
  • Boy Wanders
  • Boy Finds Way Home
    • Mother Asks where he has been
    • Boy Gives Silly Answer
      • Don't Retell Story
      • Child's Vision
      • Doubt the Experience
    • Butterfly Lands on Boy
Pick it Alternatively called the F it system this is for when often I'm uncertain or given too many options. If there are six different ways we can go, and we can't be sure which one to go with, well, then just throw hands in the air, F-it, and pick one. Most importantly, I document the choice! I will force myself to finish the design or complete going down the path, no regrets. Then if possible, when we have more time, I go back to that fork in the road and re-examine the choice. Though to be frank, it's rare that you find yourself going back and re-evaluating. Conclusion Keep It Simple Stupid! This is all very basic advice that I was hesitant to post, but then I recall watching a 30 minute cooking show on cooking Potatoes and thought, well, sometimes simple advice is very useful. ;) [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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