This is a transcript of the talk ‘Rapid Research’, given at Narrascope 2022. The slides can be found here. If you want to check out the other talks from the event, there is a playlist on YouTube.
Hi! Welcome to my talk on creative research. My name is Josh Unsworth, and I am a game designer and writer on Old World by Mohawk Games.
To give some context: Old World is a 4X strategy game set in the ancient world. One of the central changes to the genre formula is the introduction of characters. These are leaders and courtiers who have relationships, opinions and traits, creating a constantly shifting strategic landscape.
The game uses a storylet system with events which are triggered through different actions and states. Virtually anything, whether capturing a city, converting your religion, or discovering a new landmark, can result in an event where the player makes a decision that feeds back into the game1.
In my year and a half on Old World I have designed and written just over one thousand of these events (the game itself now has well over four thousand). Although the ancient world is a relatively ‘limited’ scope, at least compared to the entirety of human history portrayed by some other 4X games, the events I have worked on still cover everything from combat, intrigue, religion, diplomacy and education, with nations from vastly different cultures and customs interacting.
One of my main goals while writing these events has been to capture some of the variety and humanity of the ancient world, which has required thorough and in depth research. Going into the project I had some baseline knowledge of the setting as I studied Ancient History at University, although 10 years later it’s questionable how much I can actually remember!
But researching for academia and creative work are two completely different practices. In my previous work co-running a micro indie studio it was essential to be able to develop ideas quickly, adapting and learning new technical and creative techniques from different fields. On Old World I’ve had the chance to combine the different research methods I’ve used throughout my career for one ongoing project.
Creative research is seeking the answer to a question we have about what we are writing. There are two main goals, often intertwined: First is to build a feeling of credibility and trust in the world. It’s not just about getting every detail right, but it is building a weight and believability in the space. The second goal of research is to create new ideas and to find points of interest. As Hannah Nicklin says in her book about writing, as professionals we can’t always rely on inspiration2. Research is a way of finding connections that spark interest, and the better we are at it, the more lucky we will be in our search.
However, research takes time. In a creative project this often means that vast majority of research is done at the start. But then what about the things that we find during the process? And how do we know when to move onto creation? It is easy to be drawn into a continuous loop of research – it makes us feel like we’ve started the creative work, when really things will change the moment we put pen to paper. Making games is an iterative process and it’s important that our research exists within and supports that structure.
At its best the research will interweave with development, and from my experience this is the ideal state of working. Rather than a few sprawling sessions that break up creation, we want to use it regularly as part of the iterative cycle. The research gives inspiration for creation which then raises questions to research. As with any creative practice, it is worth taking time to reflect and question our process at each step so that we can get the most out of it.
The first area to talk about is what I think of as passive research and this is an ongoing process throughout a project, starting before we even know what questions we want answered. It’s the process of setting up systems to quickly and easily capture sources of inspiration, storing them in a personal library of ideas, where they can continue to grow and blend together.
This long-term mentality takes the pressure off trying to read and absorb everything as soon as you come across it. With the internet there is an overwhelming amount of information and inspiration. If you’re like me then it can feel as if you have to take in new sources immediately or they will be forgotten, but when I’ve tried this it breaks focus and becomes a fast route to burning out.
In productivity there is the idea of the second brain. It’s the concept of setting up a system that does a lot of the work for you, freeing your concentration for the important things. The idea is the same here. We want to create a system that make it easy to find, capture and store ideas as easily as possible. So it’s okay if they are forgotten about in the short term, as they are stored for when we need them. This breaks down into two parts: Sources and capture tools.
There are a number of programs for gathering streams together and the ideal here is to have one or two places where you can get uncluttered inspiration that is relevant to you. Programs like Tweetdeck can be fantastic tools for finding inspiration, especially for art and resources as one of the great things about our industry is how willing people are to share their processes and techniques. There is also so much incredible information in newsletters and blogs. I suggest using a tool like Inoreader to gather these all into one place, as it means less distraction and makes them easy to follow.
Tweetdeck – Can be fantastic if set up well, with lists for different topics and an unordered view. But for better and for worse, it is still Twitter.
Inoreader – Modern RSS reader which can also track newsletters and non-RSS websites. Advanced automation in the paid version. (Alternatives – Feedly, The Old Reader)
The danger with setting up these systems is that it’s easy to fall into hoarder behavior. So it’s vital to have an ongoing process of maintaining and adjusting your feeds, adding new sources and removing any that are more noise than music3.
We need somewhere to keep the things that inspire us. There are many tools but the general rule is the simpler the better. These three that I use have their own advantages and disadvantages, but they all have web extensions which means that almost anything can be saved with a couple of clicks. They also all have great search features meaning it’s easy to find things later on when they are actually needed.
Eagle – Great tool for quickly capturing images, sound and videos. Powerful tag and filter system.
Evernote – Easy to snip web pages and articles. Really powerful search, great even if you never use it for taking notes.
Notion – You can set it up for anything. Powerful, but can quickly become unwieldy.
Alternatives – Obsidian, Raindrop.io, Miro, Pocket, Trello
Where possible, I suggest using using tags, but otherwise having minimal separation and organization. As well as saving time, there is a creative advantage to storing the inspiration that you save unsorted in one place. It’s been my experience that good ideas come from the friction of unexpected things colliding together. So by storing them all in one place we are maximizing the chances of interesting connections and juxtapositions to generate ideas that we would never have thought of.
These systems are useful for a single project but also for ongoing learning. I have them set up for Old World, and also for general game and narrative design resources. Once you find a system that works well for you it is then minimal upkeep to adjust as needed. If you want to look more into this then I suggest watching Tynan Sylvester’s GDC talk on the Ludeon Method4. It’s the production method he uses to capture and sort game design ideas but it inspired a lot of how and why I set up these passive research systems.
Next is active research. As we find these sources of inspiration, questions will start to form about your work. They can be narrow questions, looking for a specific term or event, or as wide as questioning if there’s a game or story in a particular theme or topic. This is where the active research comes in. We interview a series of sources, following the trail to find an answer to the question.
With the internet there are a large number tools right at our fingertips for this. The first and easiest to use are search engines, although they are not as simple as they seem. Search engines are becoming increasingly SEO and algorithm based, providing a curated list full of advertised pages and sites that the engine thinks that you want to see5.
Wikipedia is another great tool with some important caveats. You can never know who wrote an article and it is important to remember that each article is a summary of a vastly deeper topic. However, it is fantastic for quickly jumping between related topics and finding the terms and details you need to know to search elsewhere.
Youtube has videos on practically anything, but very few videos reference their sources so it is important to check the accuracy of the details elsewhere.
JSTOR is a website for academic journals. You can access 100 papers a month with a free account. It might be obvious, but the introduction and conclusion contain the main arguments in a journal article – so reading those first give a good idea of the points the article is making and if the contents will be useful. They can be dense to read, so journal reviews can be a great way to get a quick overview of a topic.
Many universities are now doing free online learning. Although most are more technical, there is a surprising array so it’s worth checking. Many museums are going through the process of digitizing their collections and making them accessible online, with high res images and descriptions of objects.
With books, local libraries often give access to a surprising amount of online material and check if you can order books in. Check for any public libraries in cities and institutions. For example in London I’ve used the British Library, The National Art Library at the V&A, the Wellcome Trust and the BFI library for Old World. Often you can’t take away but they have amazing collections and reading rooms. If you find books that are particularly useful then you might want to buy them. The prices for academic books are punishing, but you can find second hand copies for cheap online.
Follow people! Especially experts in the fields and people who regularly share sources. Getting an insight into their world and the resources they use is invaluable. And don’t be afraid to reach out and ask experts and professionals, it’s often the best way to learn about anything. Most people want to share what they know. However, be respectful of their time and really think about the questions that only they will know the answers to. You might only get one shot at talking to them.
Wherever you are looking for source material, check who wrote it. People can say anything, especially online, and it is always worth the extra time to check the author, their previous work and to think of what biases they might have and why they are writing from the viewpoint they are. Unless it is an original account or item, the creator is trying to make their own point or tell a story for their audience. So be aware that there has been this existing translation of the details.
While researching, it is useful to keep a record of your trail. It can be as messy as needed, just a page on Google Sheets with a list of hyperlinks copied in (although annotations are great). I have found it invaluable to be able to jump between sources as needed and it helps with staying on track. A detour is always worth taking for the chance it might bring something unexpected to your research, but if you find yourself drifting away from the original question then you can go back to the last relevant point.
The notes we have from research are not the end of the process. What comes next is an act of translation, as we take our findings and work out how best to use them in the game. The constructed systems and context of a game are never the same as those in the real world, so there are a number of considerations in how we use our research.
Research is not about facts but about the experience it creates for the player. It’s easy to get excited about the things you find but not everything has a place in the game and that’s okay. Trying to directly show the player all of the things you found is like explaining a meme, the context is lost and the effect doesn’t translate.
Even something as simple as finding the name for a specific tool raises questions about the effect on the game: Will the player know what this tool is without explanation? Will it hamper their ability to use it? Is a modern term better? What subtleties would be gained or lost?
There are also ethical considerations. Everything that you decide to both include and exclude in the game’s story and systems is making some kind of commentary, even if not intended. It is a part of our role as creators to take responsibility for this and to respect the material we find, which is often someone else’s lived experience. Question your preconceptions and assumptions throughout, and question if you are the right person to be telling this story.
In the end, there is no one right way to use your research, it is a question of sensitivity and taste.
What I’ve presented here is not a prescriptive method, but an invitation for you to reflect on your own practice to find a system that works well for you. Research is a playful practice. It is about discovering the unexpected interest and wonder in our world and translating that into a compelling experience for the player. No matter what process you use, keep this curiosity and humanity at the heart of the process and you can’t go far wrong.
Thank you so much for taking the time to watch this talk, I hope it has been helpful! This has been a very brief overview so if you have any questions about the processes, tools or anything else, please shoot me an email. Thanks again!