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Hello, my friends and fellow game designers!
There’s this chart that does the perennial rounds among my visual arts friends. It’s a skill acquisition chart, and it shows how we acquire skill at drawing out of step with our developing skill at seeing. If you have visual artists in your streams you’ve probably seen it.
It’s a useful and reassuring chart, and I wish the same info made the perennial rounds among game designers too. So I’m going to present it here, in steps, applied to skill at game design.
Chart 1: Skill Acquisition.
The more you practice a skill, the better you get at it. However, you get better in steps: rapid improvement, long plateau, rapid improvement, long plateau. Most of the time, you’re basically the same amount skilled as you were yesterday, and you’ll be the same amount skilled tomorrow. But periodically, you experience a rapid and dramatic improvement in skill, and leap up to the next long plateau.
Chart 2: Breakthroughs & Periods of Incorporation
But wait, there’s this thing that happens when you hop up to the next plateau.
You can see it clearly, watch it in real time, when you’re trying to beat Super Mario Brothers for the first time, so think back to that summer in 1986 or whenever the NES came out. (I suppose that those of you who are younger than me will have to think of a different video game.)
What happens is, you can’t beat a level, and you can’t beat it, and you can’t beat it for a long time – it’s above your current plateau, you see – and then suddenly you just completely nail it, you blow through the level like it was nothing, and you’re amazed. But then, the frustrating thing: you can’t do it again. You try and try and you can’t duplicate that breakthrough experience. Only gradually, after the breakthrough, does your skill level really and reliably reach its new plateau.
It’s too visually messy to include this breakthrough & incorporation process in the rest of these graphs, but please remember it’s there!
Chart 3: Creative & Critical Skills
So now let’s pull your skills apart, let’s say game design on one hand and game analysis on the other. Game design as a suite of creative skills, including design, development, and production; game analysis as a suite of critical skills, including understanding, interpretation, and vision. Making games vs understanding games.
As you work to develop your game design skills, you inevitably develop critical skills as well, but you develop them out of synch. You’re mid-plateau with one set of skills while you’re hopping up to the next plateau with the other. They leapfrog!
Chart 4: As Your Skills Surpass Each Other
Here’s my version of the chart that does the perennial rounds with my visual arts friends. It shows your subjective experience as your creative skills and your critical skills surpass and resurpass one another.
As your critical skills overtake your creative skills, you become aware and more aware of the failings and weaknesses of your creative work. Last week, your game design work was amazing; now, it’s like it’s getting worse right before your eyes.
Of course it’s not getting worse. It was good when you made it, and it’s good now. It’s your developing critical skills that make it seem worse than it was.
The lesson that this chart teaches, and it’s a valuable and reassuring lesson, is that your experience as a creator cycles. You’re a great game designer, then a mediocre one, then a great one again. Your game is as good as anybody else’s out there, then all you can see is how much better others’ games are than yours, and then you’re creating games again that are as good as the best games in the world.
If you follow a thousand game designers on Twitter like I do, you can watch this cycle play out every day! Every day, some of us are crowing about our designs, and some of us are bemoaning them, and we take turns, back and forth and back and forth. We’re all just working our way through the inevitable cycles of our creative work.
Aside: Emotional Cycles
This creative cycle would be hard enough to deal with all by itself, but of course what happens is, it layers on top of our ongoing personal emotional cycles and circumstances, whatever they happen to be. Anxiety? Depression? Isolation? Anger? Fragility?
When down cycles overlap and compound one another, it can turn into a real bad ride.
Chart 5: Taking a Longer View
So I don’t know about you personally, but I can tell you that for me, when my creative work cycles down, even when I’m in a good emotional place otherwise, I’m prone to overwhelm. Here’s how I try to deal with it instead.
When my critical skills outstrip my creative skills, I try to look back into the past beyond my current plateaus, to see the analysis and the designs that I’ve tested and built upon, and even further back to see the designs that I’ve genuinely surpassed.
And I try to experience my frustration not as frustration, but as a feeling of potential: I know that there’s another level of game design ahead of me. I’m not there yet, and I don’t even know for sure what it’ll be like, but I know that next breakthrough is coming. I can grasp and strive toward it.
This works pretty well for me. Maybe it’ll work for you too. When your critical skills outstrip your creative skills, it can feel bad, but it’s an essential part of the skill acquisition cycle.
That’s what I’ve got. Thanks for reading!
I haven’t been able to figure out where this insight originated and who to credit for it. I know that I brought the sawtooth breakthrough & incorporation chart with me from a language acquisition course I took in college. It’s possible that Shattered-Earth’s is the first version of the leapfrogging creative skills vs critical skills chart that I saw, and it’s likely that I first saw it because Joshua A.C. Newman shared it with me, but if you happen to know who I should be crediting here, please tell me.
Thank you for this insight, whoever’s it is!