Bloodwork: Yanking a Bandaid

Here’s the header!

Bloodwork is frustrating me. I was going to do a whole thing on a combinatoric map of the game, here, for the way the card skeleton needs to work but then the rest of this talking about the art prototype problem kinda overwhelmed my thinking.

An Old Anecdote And A New Problem

At the stage I’m at in Bloodwork’s development, what I want to be doing is making a playable prototype that I can hand to my PhD supervisor and say ‘here is a completed game-playable entity that you can play without my direct supervision.’ Part of that involves

A long time ago, I sat next to I think, Stephen Medway, the developer of Blood on the Clocktower, at a small indie convention talking about game making. In that, I was forwarding my normal position of game development – make something, make anything, make it with the lightest and fastest opportunities you can, get something you can play with and then you can make it better. Medway, again I assume because I forgot the guy’s name, I just remember him talking about his game Blood on the Clocktower as his example, talked about how actually, his position was that games you show to people should be as polished as you can, that you should always present games in prototype form to people as if you took the product seriously.

At the time I was a bit annoyed because I felt like it was talking past me but also, chances are, I was just not understanding or appreciating what he was focusing on versus what I was focusing on. My take, as almost always, is trying to get people who have that idea, that want, to start making games, to be the first members of an audience. For me, starting making my first game was a matter of realising I needed to actually do it, and I’m always thinking about that anxiety. What counts as done? What can I share? And that degree of certainty, that desire to have completed, finished things, was my biggest barrier to get over. I needed – essentially – two university subjects to get there!

It’s weird to also consider just how meh I feel about Blood on the Clocktower in light of that anecdote. I don’t think I’m annoyed at the game because of it. I think that the game does things I dislike as a designer, and the philosophy of one person at a convention years ago isn’t actually important. I think that. I think that but I also am very good at convincing myself of things. Like I’m also not particularly excited by Monikers, or One Night Werewolf, but my criticisms in my own mind of those two games can be linked to specific mechanics, which… again, I can bring to bear on Blood on the Clocktower. And that position from again, I am pretty sure Medway, of make something with some polish (my words simplifying his words), is where I need to be next. When the game has substance I can start applying detail to that substance.

The Leviathan

The point of this is the consideration of the steps that follow after the first ones. Getting a game made enough to show someone, that I have done. Getting a play loop in front of someone so they can see the way that a core design experience iterates, that I have done. The progress of making a Bloodwork alpha model that looks like a game that a stranger could engage with is the next place, and that starts giving me ideas about the ways to express art in front of me.

And now…

deep breath.

My PhD Supervisor is a big advocate for generative tools (“AI Tools”), like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. He presents them as a useful tool that makes an enormous variety of things that are normally so time consuming as to be outside of our ability to do basically immediate, and he has a whole academic experience of the position of the legal disposition of the tools’ application.

These tools, to me, stand as a type of tool that can do impressive and complicated things and speed up processes I’m familiar with. I use one of them, a free use website that I’ve linked to in the past (dezgo) for random art for things like background images for RPGs, or quickly whipping up character art for unimportant situations. I’ve used it in a tangential way for shirt design stuff – like, hey, Dezgo, generate me a beer label, so I can use a generic beer label as an example to draw my own version off. These tools, to me, don’t feel like inherent evils – they feel like tools that need to be considered carefully, regulated, and publically disclosed.

Here’s the other thing, and this is where the bandaid ripping starts to sting: Regardless of how I personally may or may not feel about these tools, I would rather not use them for any publically presented work that represents me as a game designer. Why? What’s my rationale there?

Well, simplest and most basic thing: I don’t want my friends to yell at me. I don’t think they’re likely to, I think people would see my position as reasonable (using generative media as ‘sketch art’ as a step is a valid use of the tools just like clipart or screencaps). But I do think that there are people in the industry with access to money and power, who are in positions to do things like use their existing corpus of paid-for-art and cut out artists from their future development, and that stuff being normalised represents a real problem. If I, someone communicating about game design, trying to encourage more people to do things, do this thing, it might normalise these tools to other people, in a time when the normalisation of this toolset is a potential problem.

There’s more to it – there’s actual political considerations about the largesse of these tools, the availability of them, the corpus they draw from, things I would just rather not be involved in… these tools are right now, cute toys. I don’t want to get heavily entrenched with these tools for this element of my work, and I say that as someone who has taught students how to engage with them.

What Then?

Well, the thing that these tools offer me, really, is giant supplies of similar-but-not-the-same non-final sketch-value art. From where I sit, what I’d love is to be able to use art that can be the final art for a cheap version of the game, or have explicitly sketchy art for an interim version of the game. Using a generator to make a lot of art is super challenging for me with my current setup, since I don’t have one installed, I’d be sending requests to a website with a timer — and I mean, I’m talking about a big pile of art! — and that means what I want to do, the thing I really want to route around is my lack of inspiration and my lack of time.

I’m going to look for art bundles on itch and artstation. If I can find a big bundle of vampire art on those sources, I’ll probably grab it and use it as the ‘sketch’ art for the game prototype.