On the subject of time

It's a fine Wednesday of February, and I'm sitting in my living room at four in the morning, typing these words. Just a few minutes ago, I poured myself a half glass of wine and smoked a cigarette, celebrating the end of "my first week", as a matter of saying. I'm done with paid work for the week, and I get a few days to enjoy doing what I'm really interested in these days: creating games.

I recently bought a copy of Richard Williams' "The Animator's Survival Kit" — both to satisfy my curiosity, train myself, but also lend it to friends who might want to get better at animating characters. In the preface of the book, Richard tells a story: his story. How when he was young, he thought he had it all figured out, and then he realised he really knew just about nothing about animation. And then he tells that bit about training with Ken Harris, his "animation master".

Much later, I was able to work with Ken Harris, the first 'real' master animator I met, and whose witch in Broomstick Bunny I had traced off. It's generally agreed that Ken Harris was the master animator at Warner Bros. Certainly he was director Chuck Jones's lead man.

In 1967, I was able to bring Ken to England and my real education in animation articulation and performance started by working with him. I was pushing forty at the time and, with a large successful studio in London, I had been animating for eighteen years, winning over one hundred international awards.

After seven or eight years of working closely with Ken, he said to me: 'Hey Dick, you're starting to draw those things in the right place.' 'Yeah, I'm really learning it from you now, aren't I?' I said. 'Yes', he said thoughtfully, 'you know... you could be an animator.'

After the initial shock I realised he was right. Ken was the real McCoy whereas I was just doing a lot of fancy drawings in various styles which were functional but didn't have the invisible 'magic' ingredients to make them really live and perform convincingly.

So I redoubled my efforts (mostly in mastering head and hand 'accents') and the next year Ken pronounced: 'OK, you're an animator.' A couple of years after that, one day he said: 'Hey, Dick, you could be a good animator'.

Emphasis is mine — what strikes me about this story is just how long it spans on the timeline of Richard's life. Eighteen years of prior experience plus nine years of practice with Ken equals... twenty seven years of learning, just to get a "You know... you could be good at what you've spent most of your life practicing. If you really applied yourself, I mean." What a lesson in humility.

In the rapidly moving game industry that, even as self-crowned indies, we must navigate, twenty seven years is an eternity. And yet, the time it takes to become good at something is definitely measured in years or decades. It's easy to discard the importance of time when you have already benefitted from it. I am twenty three years old, I have practiced programming since the age of eleven, which means I have had twelve years to get there — when I say something is easy, I am being unjust: I have been dealing with these problems for a long time! Nursing a beginner will require patience and understanding.

There is quite a large quantity of common sense that relates more or less closely with the point I am trying to make in this post: practice makes perfect, for example. Ever since I watched a gameplay session of Our Darker Purpose on the Northernlion Live Super Show, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly was bothering me with the game. Why was I uncomfortable watching someone play it? Why did I feel that there was wasted potential?

Surely I could point out individual flaws, for example the map placement, or unnecessary pixelated appearance of some of the UI elements. I could also comment at lengths on the animation, even thought it would be out of place for me as, if I tried, I wouldn't even come close! But it is much more than that: what bothers me with Our Darker Purpose is that it lacks the touch of someone with experience.

I never thought the art in the original "The Binding of Isaac" game was bad. In fact, I liked it! It was not before I read Edmund McMillen's words that I started to question it. He wrote, online, that he could not be bothered to look at it again, that he was sick of it, and that it was a rushed work which he was ashamed of. What strong words for a game immensely more successful than he had previously conceived!

And little by little, as I kept playing the game, I started to see what Edmund was talking about. There are shortcuts, cheats, that were taken during the entire production of the game. Even Isaac's walk cycle is subject to harsh criticism. Taking advantage of Flash, many character animations take advantage of horizontal and vertical scaling instead of proper animation frames. And so on. But, so many things about the game feel right.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from experience in a particular craft is, given time constraints, where can we cheat and get away with it, and what needs hours of tuning, otherwise it will be "off" and ruin the whole. It is not surprised that Edmund got it right — a quick look at his Wikipedia page is enough to make it clear that he had a lot of time to get things wrong, and to learn from it.

As for Our Darker Purpose, it seems to be Avidly Wild Games' first commercial release. Now, I am not saying it is bad game. I am not even implying that everything is bad about it. I appreciate in particular the theme, the writing, and the art that was delivered by the artist in the team. But I am saddened to see wasted potential — simply because of trivial things like a hasty flame animation, a hitbox that's too big, or a roll cycle that could definitely have used a day or two of tuning.

What about me? And my games? Pride is not a feeling I am often graced with: while I don't hesitate to be critical of others' work, I am even harsher with mine. I do have one regret: in the past, I have kept different roles too separate. In purely software projects, it's hard to separate roles cleanly, but it is sometimes worth it. In games in particular, I believe it is in our best interest to blur those lines. This, among other things, comforts me in my choice to switch to a more artist-accessible technology — and to assume lead sound designer position in a project where I still have to do do most of the coding.

As for learning, unfortunately, this is not 1967, nor ancient Greece: being someone's disciple in our field is seldom a well-defined or well-accepted principle. However, via tools like Twitter or devsofa, implicit relationships are created, where more experienced individuals gently nudge beginners in the right direction. It's not the same as working nine years in someone's office, but for most of us, it is as close as we can get — and I'm okay with that.

What about Lestac? According to this list, it's only my 13th public release (counting even minor entries like joke textual games), and I have only been seriously at it for three years, and yet I have already to put it out there for money. Shouldn't I have waited for it to be "good enough"? Well, the response is the same as always: selling a game as an independent developer who isn't too keen on approaching publishers right now, is hard. It will take time and tries to get it right. So I might as well get started as soon as possible.

And if it takes me another twenty years to make a game I can be really proud of, then I will keep training for it. But I know I won't get there by completely ignoring my health or quality time with loved ones. And on that note, I will return to peaceful reading with another half-glass of wine. Have a nice week!

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