Creative coding; discovery and joy

While I’ve spent the majority of the last decade thoroughly entrenched in the industry, the past few months of 2012 have seen me experiment a bit with the world beyond game design. During this break from the games biz I’ve been playing around with hardware hacking, interactive and generative installations and artwork, and delving into some theory on larger questions of art, design, and technology. As such, the following post deviates a little bit from the usual games-world content.

The use of the word “creative”, especially in the context of something like “industry creatives vs. non-creatives”, has always struck me as problematic. That notwithstanding, “creative coding” is something of a useful idea. There should be a distinct difference in the way programming is taught to artists from the way programming is taught to aspiring engineers, and creative coding ideally is a reflection of this.

Creative coding is about building something that is in the end usually non-practical. It requires practical components to be coherent and useable, but is most often not about building something that is explicitly utilitarian.

I’ve had a chance to participate in quite a few classes on this subject during my time off this year as well as in 2011. In these classes, most of the students in these classes are new to programming and come from various backgrounds in design or the arts. Processing, being extremely visual, is the natural choice. Nonetheless, I am often stunned at the failure of these classes to realize their potential.

At their best, they teach the basic concepts of programming in an exploratory, visual way. But most of the courses I’ve experienced this year were excrutiating live coding example after example after example, or long discussions and explanations on the technical nature of the issues at hand. These discussions are all eventually crucial to be sure, but they are not the way to introduce these ideas to design students in something like Processing.

What these classes should be about, before anything else, is the joy – the joy of exploration and discovery.

I keep coming back to this video, years later, to explain to people what I mean about joy. One of the game designers I admire the most, Steph Thirion, used to teach classes on creative coding. This particular video was using footage of the results from a 6 hour crash course with students who had no programming experience. They began with the source code for a simple breakout clone provided by Thirion, and ended up with this beautiful montage.

The wonderful thing about the computational, the generative, the procedural, is that things emerge that often cannot be accurately predicted by the person responsible for the underlying logic.

When you have a system and logic as a starting point, with creative expression as a goal, all it takes is a tiny bit of context followed by experimentation. You learn something new – “I didn’t know THAT would happen!” – and your brain follows up with “What if I do THIS…?” Its something like Jon Blow’s explanations on ‘letting the game design itself’ – its a process of taking a step, seeing something new, and taking another step, and something emerges in and of itself.

It’s also analagous to design thinking in general: design has long been discussed as an exploration-focused domain, rather than a problem or solution-focused one. Problems and solutions emerge and evolve together.

There is a joy to this process. There is a beauty to this process. It makes people feel wonder and want to understand and explore more. And for people who already have a design background, its familiar. This joy is why I started programming in the first place. Exploration is the key, and Thirion gets it – this video still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

22 August 2012 by Bryan
Categories: commentary | Tags: , , , , , | 1 comment

Hiding, Discovering; Beacons of Hope

While in New York over the holidays, the brothers Ma had the opportunity to head over to Eyebeam to take part in a playtest of a new installation game by Doug Wilson, called Beacons of Hope. I met Doug last summer in Denmark, where I had a chance to try some of his games and pick his mad-genius brain. In a Copenhagen university garage, he shared his idea for Beacons of Hope with me; it sounded inspired. We rode the E train and walked through a light drizzle to Chelsea.

Beacons of Hope is a quaint-sounding name for a game, especially for something as ostensibly experimental as this one, but it resonates meaningfully with the gameplay experience.

The short version of how it works is this: you stumble around in complete darkness with a dozen or so similarly hapless participants, tripping on makeshift barriers and groping helplessly. Meanwhile, motion-triggered flashes of red light from PlayStation Move controllers held by “monsters” briefly illuminate the space as they stalk and eliminate other players from the game by grabbing them. The players’ goal is to find three hidden “beacons”, (also PS Move controllers) which can shine a bright white light at the press of a button.

If all three beacons are found and triggered together, the monsters are defeated and the players win the round. If all players are eliminated, or they don’t discover the beacons in time, they lose. Any motion registered by the different controllers results in a cacophony of melodic and dissonant sounds, allowing players to get an idea of the current game situation by listening closely.

The game is creepy, confounding, occasionally thrilling, and like much of Doug’s work, social.

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10 January 2012 by Bryan
Categories: essays, reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 comments


The Shanghai Winnitron is finally, unofficially, complete. We’ll be having an official launch worthy of the Winnitron’s greatness soon with Arcade!

Final physical work was done about a week or two ago. The Brothers Ma and R3 in the space.

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05 November 2011 by Bryan
Categories: bros ma, china, projects | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

Winnitron Shanghai, WIP

So we’re in the midst of building Shanghai’s very own Winnitron for our friend R3‘s bar Arcade.

We had a chance to mess around with the Winnitron 1000 at GDC earlier this year. The Winnitron project captures perfectly both what is most fun and nostalgic about bygone eras of arcade games and also the independent, artistic, creative spirit of independent game developers. We instantly knew we had to make one for Shanghai.

We started planning in the spring along with our colleague Han Ling Quan. Shortly afterwards we decided to collaborate with R3 as the bar he was opening sounded like it was created with the Winnitron in mind. In short, perfect timing.

The Winnitron SH started coming together mid-summer and we’re putting the finishing touches on it now, with the help of the bar’s designers and contractors, and of course the Bit Collective guys, especially Kert Gartner, who has been supporting us every step of the way.

We’re almost finished! The cabinet is in the space now, LEDs and monitor in place, and the PC and electronics are just waiting for the final panel.

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17 October 2011 by Bryan
Categories: bros ma, china, projects | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 comments

Chinese studios, creative freedom

Several months back I had a chance to sit down with Wesley Bao of Coconut Island at their office in downtown Shanghai. They hosted Shanghai’s Global Game Jam earlier this year and I was intrigued by their approach and values as an indie studio – they seemed to set Wesley and his colleagues apart from the vast majority of the game development scene across China.

Coconut Island is odd for a homegrown studio – they target the international market almost exclusively, avoiding the Chinese market wherever they can. Is this the only way to have a “creative” independent studio in China?

Kill Screen posted my article and interview with Wesley here.

15 September 2011 by Bryan
Categories: china, commentary | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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