Behind the Release of Axis Descending: The Sketchbook

Lately, the potency of a physical sketchbook and a digital notepad has been on my mind. A few times this week alone students looking to get out of additional class-related tasks because they know everything students have been looking for an explanation regarding the weekly 5 page sketchbook/note requirement for relevant courses. I have engaged in a number of discussions about this so far, but I am not convinced the concern is entirely alleviated. It only makes sense, then, to explore this topic even further for this month's Axis post and how it relates to the project, its process, and how I am able to make it all happen given a full-time four-fold schedule. Asking an art student why they should have a sketchbook is a silly concept. The answer is more than obvious. It is almost primeval it is so primal. Given the questions I have received this week, or the gossip related to demanding sketches and notes I have overheard through the grapevine, I have to beg the question: why is this even being questioned? Asking a game art/development student why they should have a sketchbook should be no different.

In the early stages of Axis, and my development experience in general, I didn't sketch anything. I jumped right in to the project software and went at it. I made art, I made things move, I crafted code and made mechanics work. I pushed myself into it to finish it quickly under that guise of a "two week thing". I got carried away because I didn't examine the idea's potential, or how it could be more than what it initially was. I jumped right in without researching a thing, internally or externally. The art was ill-conceived, the animation was rushed, and the code was haphazard because I didn't take the time to do what a sketchbook or notepad does best: it allows you to explore. That is what it is about, after all. Not busy work. Not perfection. Not a container to have to fill each week for a grade. In a way, it is not even about practice, since that emphasizes repetition so strongly. It is exploration that allows you to avoid ill-conceived art, take the time to understand the principles of motion and spatial relationships as they apply to animation and its principles, and it gives you the forethought, preparation and hindsight to plan ahead with code. It allows you to work out some of the details you simply cannot while in production mode in the software. It can be asynchronous, available and sitting idle and ready for you to tap into its potential by your side while you work.

"We find you need to make a game wrong at least two or three times before you find the right path. ... We took a lot of opportunity to design and explore, knowing that a lot of it would be thrown away."
Ken Wong, Lead Designer of Monument Valley via Gamasutra (over 24 million users have downloaded the game as of January 2016)

The sketch/notebook acts as a collective compendium of your mind. A lexicon of potential thought, exposed on paper as the profile of a human face or a misaligned list of things "to-do". If it is left in the mind, it will inevitably be forgotten. On average, people can hold around seven things in their head at once. Anyone involved in production should take note of things, even if they seem unimportant or innocuous. By doing so, you will be surprised by how many tidbits of information have since left your mind when you revisit pages that were recorded on months ago. The act alone has numerous universal advantages, but this should be obvious.

For those seeking employment, or making any attempt at communicating their capabilities as an artist or designer through critiques, reviews or interviews, this tome is an utter conversation starter (look for page 41 in the link). Every prospective Game Art student at Lawrence Tech has to submit an electronic portfolio .pdf to the admissions department (hi Adam!) which is inevitably approved or denied by me. It is abundantly clear when someone takes the time to draw, take notes, and simply reflect in their spare time with a piece of paper. When I review portfolios for National Portfolio Day, same deal. When I get applications for roles within grant funded projects or Infinite Machine, the same. The exploration pays off. It becomes experience, not of technical know-how, but fundamental knowledge. It denotes an understanding, an ability to plan, an ability to communicate, and an ability that exceeds all others: the ability to think things through, which makes the creator desirable and more relate-able for employers.

My schedule is by no means uncommon. As the Director of the Game Art program at Lawrence Tech, a Father and a Husband, it can be difficult to find time for the demands of Independent Game Development. Last year, as I was completing my Masters in Experiential Design and adjusting to the changes associated with having your first child, my schedule was even more chaotic. I simply couldn't do anything productive with this line of work at times, rightfully so, but I was able to simply write things down for later. This has proved invaluable for times like this, even now, and has encouraged me to keep a notebook handy wherever I go. At work, it isn't far away. Seeing the work of peers and students inspires the most left field concepts related to my own work. Without writing it down, knowing me and my memory, it would be lost in time. I know I'm not alone on this.

My sketchbook has inspired some of the most well-received mechanics within the game. It has improved the polish of my art, my animation, and simply stimulated production at times when it otherwise would not have happened. In many ways I don't even sketch a thing. I work out my thoughts in visual form to try and just get them out of my head. For character designs, they act as my reference for initial silhouettes, outlining, and the filling in of flat color that leads to the shading and polish of a finished NPC. For enemy design, I get to flesh out their behaviors, attack patterns, and weaknesses without touching the software whatsoever. For the world and level design, I demonstrate a feeling or theme to the best of my ability and place the initial lay of the land. I list objectives. Crafted items. Crafting requirements. Quest objectives. Story beats. Things to do. Things to fix. Things to make. Things to rock.

Some of my favorite things about the game have come from my lexicon. If it were on Yelp, I'd be a regular and give it 5 stars with a raving and down-to-earth review. Huey, the friendly sparring partner of Axis who grants a few skins and power-ups to the player originated as an exploration of potential NPCs. I made familiar faces and colleagues. I made people I happened to cross paths with. It made me curious about their purpose and role within the game's world. Who are they? What do they do in this world? This consideration will be evident in the final product, even in Beta 3, and I guarantee will be a selling point with the product.

To summarize why students and creatives in general need to utilize a sketchbook/notepad, or tl;dr if you're nasty:
Provides Exploration of Concepts
Enables Planning of Goals
Acts as Physical Record Keeping
Encourages Clarity of Thought
Stimulates Growth

And for students still contemplating this come on, the 5 page requirement isn't even that bad.

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