When It’s Done

One line in Gimhyewon’s post got me to thinking about a topic that comes up a lot in art and design – the notion that creative work always feels incomplete and that a mature artist/designer develops the ability to know when to walk away from their work.

I’ve seen this play out in a particularly interesting way in my own work over the years. Creating computer games consists of an interesting mingling of what I refer to as “aesthetic creation” (making the sensorial elements of a game: images, models and textures, sounds, music) and “technical creation” (the authoring and programming of a game). In developing computer games on my own, I find myself engaged concurrently in both forms of creation, which has allowed me to observe an interesting contrast in the differing standards of completion for each of them. Specifically, the products of aesthetic creation can be considered done as soon as they are “acceptable”, whereas the products of technical creation are are not considered done until they are “perfect”. Think of it. A game can be considered done even if its aesthetic elements are such that they could arguably be made better, but that same game cannot be considered done until its technical components function perfectly. This is because the aesthetic elements in a game answer to no objective, testable standard that describes precisely when they are “done”. Indeed, an important lesson for new designers and artists is the idea of knowing when to let go of or “walk away” from their work. Arguably, the assets in a games could always be made a little better with just one more pass, but ultimately we settle for the best that we can do in the time that we have. But technical creation has something just short of absolute perfection as its standard of completion. Game programming, at least insofar as how it is experienced by the end user, must function as close to perfect as possible. There are even objective, testable standards for that perfection, such as that games not crash or function improperly (i.e. fail to track score or lives). And when a game does ship with programming that doesn’t quite function perfectly, the inevitable patches and updates ensue. By contrast, when was the last time you downloaded a game patch consisting only of slight revisions to the original game art or sounds? This is all particularly interesting for anyone developing games on their own, since they have to wrestle these divergent standards of completion into a workflow. In my work, when it comes time to execute, I tend to more or less do the programming first and then turn to creating the assets. As the old design saw goes, “First you make it work, then you make it beautiful.” Thus, in my workflow, the programming is done when it works near-perfectly and the assets are done when I hit my deadline.

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