The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Iconoclasts are annoying and hard to work with, but is it still worth it?

Creator Styles, Part 2

Some commented on my previous post on creator styles that I was comparing apples and oranges—individual artists versus the team dynamic at work in video game development—but was I? Actually, schools of art provide something of a corollary. In these schools, individuals with shared goals work closely together, learning from one another to advance the aesthetic they are trying to achieve. As David Galenson notes in, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, we should remember that:

[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.

Certainly, there remain differences in the contexts, as the artists are still creating their own individual works, but there are also situations like studios where works would be executed under the name and direction of a master by various artists, etc., and the Brothers le Nain even worked on one another's paintings.1

And so, as I continued to peruse Galenson’s work, a passage leapt off the page at me:

What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

He’s talking about van Gogh, an artist instrumental in the Impressionist movement. Obviously, using van Gogh as the example here is somewhat charged due to his mental instability and eventual suicide, but it’s also inarguable that he was an artistic genius. Because he had his own ideas, he moved to the middle of nowhere, perfected his style, and then unfortunately went a bit crazy.

And, in the team-based creation process of games, a van Gogh sounds like a troublemaker, right? There needs to be unity, everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction. Wrong:

[W]ith astonishing speed van Gogh gained a knowledge of the methods and goals not only of Impressionism but also of Neo-Impressionism,2 and he became acquainted with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and a number of other young artists who were developing a new Symbolist art.

And, yet we know that van Gogh clashed with his contemporaries, as well as his brother Theo, repeatedly. When he left Paris for Arles it was partly from exhaustion from his work,3 but also because his personal style was diverging from Impressionism and he knew they would never accept it. In his own words:

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully. […]I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of the red and green[…]."

This passage shows how he is moving past the strict dictates of the movement to explore the new territory that was to show the way to Symbolism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. But the clashes still weren’t over—when Gauguin came to visit and paint with him, they had a massive quarrel: van Gogh threatened his colleague with a straight razor and then used it to slice off his own ear.

In the world of game development, I have championed passionate people, and especially those whose views are not mainstream. This can be a tough row to hoe: management typically dislikes disruptions and sees “company culture” as monolithic; a world where everyone plays nice and gets along. My view is that different perspectives, devil’s advocates, and clashes, as long as they can be kept constructive, make a work stronger.

In my brief encounters with Hollywood, I’ve seen how sycophantism can distort the creative process: those who should be challenging an artist instead simply say “yes”. I'll provide one salient anecdote: when an actor improvised a line about creativity saying, “Use the left side of the brain”, everyone on set fell over each other to confirm that this was correct.4

Perhaps I relate to the ear-lopper role because I’ve lived it. When I got into game development, I did so very much as an outsider, in terms of nearly everything: influences, experience, values, goals. I was perhaps even more of an outsider than van Gogh— he at least was attracted to a school of painting, while I entered a medium wherein various genres and styles coexist, many times even within companies. On top of this, my first real development role was in Japan.5

Working in Japan was pretty crazy—basically nearly no one in the company had the intent to make games, instead they were recruited as unskilled workers graduating from university to be サラリーマン6 for whichever company made the best offer, including banks, or electronics manufacturers, or whatever. Whether they came to have passion or even aptitude was a matter of complete happenstance. And indeed, even those who did succeed often did so only to see their ambitions crushed, as they typically had little control over the strict hierarchy in which they existed. Of the handful of Americans I worked with in this organization, none were on the creative side: they were either translators or programmers, just as likely to fit into their roles as their Japanese counterparts—I’m not sure if any besides me continued in the field.

Then there was me. I’ve already detailed some of my background in earlier posts, so I won’t belabor the point here. On top of all that, I came from art school, believing in the integrity and grand potential of the medium, rather than thinking of games in terms of a set of genre-defined components.

And indeed, although I clashed strongly with many teams, especially early in my career, I feel it is appropriate to credit the successes of games I’ve worked on to my nontraditional approach. The very name of my blog, which comes from the Japanese expression, 出る釘は打たれる,7 reflects this.

  1. Art historians are still trying to puzzle out which of the brothers is responsible for which paintings.

  2. Originally called Divisionism.

  3. He produced some 200 paintings during this time.

  4. It’s not. My colleague, another pilgrim in this unholy land, gazed at me imploringly. “We’re not here to fight this fight,” I told him, sotto voce, “they’ll just have to fix it in post.”

  5. I had previously been a “production assistant”, a bit of an omnibus support role, and before that an independent pen & paper games designer.

  6. sararīman, "salary-man", is simply a white-collar worker for a corporation in Japan, but also implies lifetime employment.

  7. Romanized as deru kugi wa utareru, the phrase roughly translates to "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down", though I’ve taken only the first part.

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Level Designer (Zombies)

PlayStation Studios Creative Arts

Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Lead Concept Artist

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
Technical Designer at High Moon Studios

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
VFX Artist
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more