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Overcoming Creative Block in Level Design

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What is Creative Block?

Are you a talented level designer (or a 2D/3D artist or any other creative artist related to game design)? Good to know. Do you know the ropes of your trade and have mastered the basics? Great to hear. Have you ever sat in front of your whiteboard/computer screen, gawking emptily without a clue on how to proceed with your project/idea? I can’t hear you… you have? Well, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, because it happens to the best of us.

What you, I and thousands of creative people have faced at one point (or many) in our creative career is called creative block. Originally, the term was referred to as “writer’s block” because writing, and literature in general, was the predominant form of creative arts and this is where this mental block was originally uncovered and studied back in the 1950s.

In a classic definition, writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. Or it can be rather extreme, with some "blocked" writers unable to work for years on end, and forcing some to abandon their careers.

With the advent of newer technologies, writer’s block is not limited to writing anymore and now encompasses a broader range of creative disciplines, level design being one of them.

There are many articles that deal with writer’s block in the classical meaning of the term and what I will try to do here is focus on a creative area that I know best — level design and game design in a wider scope.

Overcoming creative block

Before attempting to overcome creative block, it is good to know what actually causes this mind-boggling process that can hinder and even endanger our creative work if not dealt with properly.

The most known reasons for the block include lack of inspiration, distraction by other projects or the overwhelming scope of the project itself.

Other reasons might be on a personal level such as physical illness, depression, the end of a relationship, financial pressures, and a sense of failure when the person feels intimidated by a previous big success and thinks he might not be able to fill his own shoes (this is referred to as paralyzing pressure). An over awareness of audience can also be paralyzing and can cause creative block.

Lastly, a major cause of block is your brain’s auto-censor, the self-critic within you. You become overly judgmental of your own work, harshly criticizing it and relentlessly aiming for perfect. You can even start viewing your work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.

If it’s any comfort, some of the greatest writers in literature — Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway — were tormented by momentary lapses in their ability to produce text, but managed to overcome the block to produce timeless pieces of literature.

I’m not revealing a secret when I tell you that I experience creative block on several occasions whether in level design or when writing articles such as this one you are reading now. Many times I have gazed at the blinking cursor on my monitor with ideas vaguely floating in my head, not knowing what to write and not finding that perfect word to start a sentence with.

However, being in the level design “business” for as long as I can remember, I have devised some techniques that help me combat block and will help you overcome the creative block you will most certainly encounter during your creative work.

I have mentioned most of these techniques, albeit not in detail, in my paper “A systematic approach to level design” published in March 2012. I will elaborate on each of these techniques in the hope of laying ground for feasible solutions that will aid you in combatting block.

Reboot your brain

Simply press the “reset” button found behind your left ear. If you are last year’s model, the button can be found on the back of your neck. In case of…sorry, wrong article.

Joking aside, what I mean by reboot is that you need to relieve your brain from the project on-hand that is causing the block.

If you have been sitting in front of your monitor for the past half hour doing nothing but daydreaming and having random thoughts battle inside your head, then it’s high time for a reboot. Save your work, leave your workstation and have a brain restart.

This can be done in several ways depending on the type of person you are:

  • have a conversation with the wife/girlfriend
  • call your parents/relatives
  • pay a friend a short visit
  • take a walk in the park/around your block
  • hit the gym for some squats and deadlifts (one of my favorite)
  • take your car for a quick drive
  • take your camera for an impromptu photo-shoot
  • watch some TV/DVDs
  • listen to some music
  • etc.

It really depends on your character type and what you consider relaxing/mind freeing but the goal is to let your brain have a cold reboot and get away from the project that’s causing the block. It will surprise you that creativity will flow back without notice while you are performing one of the above tasks that discharge your brain and its creative center.

It is worth mentioning that physical exercise is important for mental activity as fresh blood will be flowing through your system and consequently to your brain.

If you are stubborn enough to keep working on the project despite nothing happening on the computer screen or paper, then you will further aggravate your creative block and push yourself into depression and lack of inspiration, which in turn might lead to the project’s untimely demise and further frustration for you. It’s an infernal cycle that you need to break, and allowing your brain to start fresh is one the methods that works.

Create something else

This is a helpful and educational technique that I resort to very often. Not only will you let your brain have a break from the map you are working on, but you will also educate yourself and learn interesting new things in another discipline.

Whenever I feel that I hit a dead end on my map, I usually fire up Photoshop and start designing a new banner for my website or craft new textures for an upcoming map that is stylistically and thematically different from the current one causing me the block.

On other occasions, I take a break from mapping and write technical papers and articles (obviously). Recently, I took on the hobby of skinning and weapons’ finishes for CSGO and it’s a nice break from the map I’m working on and allows me to get back to it feeling fresh and invigorated.

Another way to look at this technique is to create another map that is different enough from the one you are currently working on without clear progress.

Professional writers always say that to fight writer’s block, you need to start typing. Sometimes the act of typing itself is a trigger for creativity even if you start by writing incoherent, almost gibberish sentences. It is way better than gawking aimlessly at the screen.

The same can be applied in level design and I say that “to fight creative block, you have to block” (no pun intended). The simple fact of laying the founding blocks/brushwork for a second map could be the trigger that lets you get back revitalized to your stalling map.

If you are working on a bomb/defuse map for Counter-Strike and you feel stuck, then start a small test map for Half-life 2 single player or even fire up UDK to create a small deathmatch map for Unreal Tournament. The possibilities are endless, but as long as you direct your interest to another small project that is diverse enough from your initial, block-inducing map, then creative juices are sure to flow back.

Ask for second opinion/help/suggestion - brainstorm

Asking for help might seem an obvious thing to do but many people tend to keep to themselves. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s embarrassment, but in all cases, not getting fresh opinions on your project will deepen the creative block.

Working intensely on your project will eventually drain your creativity at one point and you will develop tunnel vision and become engrossed in the project and ultimately hit the road block. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking a friend for help: send him the map for playtest, ask for his opinion, and request some suggestions; anything to get a new perspective on the map.

The suggestions you get might be the solution to your creative block and even if they do not work directly, they could indirectly spark derivative solutions in your mind that are enough to jumpstart your project and shift it to higher gear.

Another option to consider is to brainstorm ideas, either alone or with a friend or group of friends. Even the craziest ideas on how to proceed with the map or to tackle certain issues that are blocking you are welcome. You never know which one will make you hit the jackpot.

Write down ideas as soon as they pop

Part of being creative is learning that good ideas do not always come to us when we need them. We must learn to “catch” ideas as they arise, even in the most inopportune times.

How often have you got some exciting new ideas for your project pop in your head when you are stopped at the red light, when you are about to get in bed or when you are singing in the shower? (Yes, we know you sing in the shower).

Then after a while when you are sitting comfortably to your work desk, you try to remember those ideas and…nothing. Your mind becomes a blank page with nothing useful to retrieve.

If you can write down your ideas as soon as they pop, it would be the ultimate thing to do. Use a pocket-sized notebook in which you can scribble your thoughts, or use your smartphone, your touchpad; anything is fine to record those moments of insight that will be the cure for your block.

Divide the project into smaller chunks

This strategy originates from my own background in industrial engineering and project & operations management. It is easier to manage and control a project in small steps and increments than to be overwhelmed by it as a whole.

Working on a big map for a certain time can become tedious and motivation will begin to take a hit. The amount of work still to be executed becomes intimidating and the problem is intensified if you are also a perfectionist, not settling for below-par quality (and most creative people are in a way perfectionists).

The strategy I use is to divide the map into small parts, then build and test each part before moving to the next one.

There are many benefits from building the level in this way:

  • You will build faster as the focus is on one particular area. This is important to fight distractions that inevitably lead to creative block.
  • You can assign realistic and short time-tables for building each small part of the map. Short deadlines will boost your productivity and give you something to look forward.
  • You will get the necessary boost and self-motivation to work on the next part after compiling and play-testing each part at a time. You won’t be able to wipe the grin off your face after seeing your early level builds in action; this will open your appetite for further level building and anticipation for the next build play-test.

This strategy can also work in an alternate way: if you are working on texturing in your map and you hit a stalemate, switch to another functional area of the map such as lighting or props placing or optimizing. By moving away from the activity that was tripping you for a short period of time, your brain will cool down and you will almost certainly come up with bright ideas to overcome the block.

In the end

Creative block is a condition that happens to the best of us and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is not dangerous in itself, but left unattended, it can become career-threatening especially if you rely on your creative work to earn a living.

Using the tried and tested simple techniques that I listed and explained, one can easily overcome the creative block in level (or game) design.

There are no more excuses to let that precious project of yours stall and die; now you know how to block the block before it blocks you.

Will2k

December 4, 2013




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  • will2k avatar
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by Paulmega**

    >
    > Thanks man, that was a great review by the way. Jeez, been 2 years already?

    Time flies :)

    > I've haven't stopped mapping though, I practice left and right to keep my skills up, but it's nothing serious.
    >
    > Currently working on something mall-like for CSGO!

    Good to know that and good luck.
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by will2k**

    > > **Posted by Paulmega**
    >
    > > Great read man, main reason why I've never really released a lot of maps is due to the fact that my inner-critic is waaay to critical.
    > >
    > > I hate my own work mostly, I always think others are better. :( It even stops me from entering contests.
    >
    > Paul :) it's been a long time; I haven't seen you around since your entry to the "dangerous cargo" contest 2-3 years ago.
    >
    > Let me re-quote myself from the article:
    >
    > >You become overly judgmental of your own work, harshly criticizing it and relentlessly aiming for perfect. You can even start viewing your work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.
    >
    > Yes, you need to critique your own work and push yourself higher; no, you should not overly critique yourself as this will push you lower. I remember reviewing your TF2 map for the contest and it was quite a good map. If you would have kept mapping and releasing, you would have probably made a perfect map by now :)
    >
    > Bottom line is to keep aiming higher in small reasonable steps and never look back.
    >
    > Good luck and hope to see you back in action

    Thanks man, that was a great review by the way. Jeez, been 2 years already?

    I've haven't stopped mapping though, I practice left and right to keep my skills up, but it's nothing serious.

    Currently working on something mall-like for CSGO!

    EDIT: and Clener74, haha, aww, I don't think so man, but thanks for the compliment I guess
    • Win x 1
    Mapper. And ting.
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by zamphire**

    > Very cool guide.

    Thanks.
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by Paulmega**

    > It even stops me from entering contests.

    Maybe we just missed many entries worthy of winning.
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    3 years ago:
    Very cool guide.
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by Paulmega**

    > Great read man, main reason why I've never really released a lot of maps is due to the fact that my inner-critic is waaay to critical.
    >
    > I hate my own work mostly, I always think others are better. :( It even stops me from entering contests.

    Paul :) it's been a long time; I haven't seen you around since your entry to the "dangerous cargo" contest 2-3 years ago.

    Let me re-quote myself from the article:

    >You become overly judgmental of your own work, harshly criticizing it and relentlessly aiming for perfect. You can even start viewing your work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.

    Yes, you need to critique your own work and push yourself higher; no, you should not overly critique yourself as this will push you lower. I remember reviewing your TF2 map for the contest and it was quite a good map. If you would have kept mapping and releasing, you would have probably made a perfect map by now :)

    Bottom line is to keep aiming higher in small reasonable steps and never look back.

    Good luck and hope to see you back in action
    cosa dici! avatar
    Mantra
    cosa dici!
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    3 years ago:
    Great read man, main reason why I've never really released a lot of maps is due to the fact that my inner-critic is waaay to critical.

    I hate my own work mostly, I always think others are better. :( It even stops me from entering contests.
    Mapper. And ting.
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by will2k**

    > > **Posted by 4Echo**
    >
    > > _I just do stuff_
    >
    > It's good you "do stuff" and feel energized but be careful, aimless energy without focus will get your efforts dispatched in several directions without tying loose ends on all projects. it's a potential ground for frustration.

    That explains why I'm usually pissed, but I usually finish my projects (excluding mapping since I get a mayor loss of ideas, which usually comes back to me a couple of days later).
    Only Perfection is Acceptable
  • will2k avatar
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    3 years ago:
    > **Posted by Tobbit**

    > Damn, this helped me a lot really.

    Glad to know it did :), and thanks a lot for your kind donation; although it was unnecessary, it is appreciated :)

    > **Posted by 4Echo**

    > _I just do stuff_

    It's good you "do stuff" and feel energized but be careful, aimless energy without focus will get your efforts dispatched in several directions without tying loose ends on all projects. it's a potential ground for frustration.
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    3 years ago:
    Damn, this helped me a lot really.
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Dec 5 2013 @ 5:46pm UTC
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