After hearing Nathan Vella's talk at Indiecade this year, I reorganized my personal website into three distinct categories: creator projects, collaborator projects, and contributor projects. Contributor projects are projects that don't really reflect my vision, or whatever you would call it. My input was limited to simply helping it exist somehow. The team or project was missing a piece, and I could fill that role, or complete that section, and help realize someone else's vision.
This is something I used to do a lot of, but as a freelancer. There was some satisfaction there but it was different than what I've been doing lately. For the last few years, I've had the opportunity to work voluntarily as a contributor, or "pinch artist", on some high-profile projects, most notably Polytron's much-anticipated ambient-exploration platformer FEZ, but also on the iPad port of Aquaria that my company published (and a bunch of other small things too). It has been a massively rewarding experience, even though the work itself is not always particularly thrilling.
"Adam helped us out in a lot of small ways. After Paul Robertson was done with the big batch of animations we contracted him to do, we'd still come up with new details we'd need animated. things like waterfalls, caustics and additional effects and character movements. Adam offered to help, we quickly agreed to a super amicable deal, and that was pretty much it. Since he wasn't a full-time team member, i'd just ping him a few days in advance, asking if he could make time this week for this or that, and then he would! It was really nice to have this kind of "casual contractor" we knew we could count on whenever we needed something new animated." (Phil Fish)
What is a "pinch artist" exactly? To me, it means a few different things. One, I am bringing all my skills to bear on this project, and all my sensibilities as an artist, but my goal is to realize someone else's vision. Sometimes this means emulating or manipulating another style (Derek's gorgeous backgrounds and sprite work in Aquaria), or helping to design a new approach to something that suits everyone involved (like square water for FEZ). But the pinch artist is there as an assistant, a facilitator, an enabler. A pinch artist is not a critic, and a pinch artist never makes a suggestion they don't want to personally commit to implementing (unless they are specifically asked for feedback of course).
A pinch artist is not a full-time contributor. A pinch artist may not even contribute a full person-month of hours even at the end of a multi-year project. A pinch artist may not be an "artist" in the traditional sense at all - maybe they are a web guru, or a database genius.
"As with most game designers, I've got reams of ideas that I'd love to see implemented. In some cases, time constraints prevent those ideas from coming to fruition. In other cases, a lack of artistic or technical skill will stand in my way. But when Matthew and I sat together for a day or two, some of those ideas have suddenly become possible. Matthew is an expert with Unity and database technology, and working with him we created some tech just for the sake of building something fun. In one case, we built the database backend for a collaborative level editor that would allow for a number of concurrent users never seen in a game before. Building tech or even small games in these rapid development settings is often the best way to evaluate whether a game idea, or a piece of tech is worth investing real blood and sweat into." (Andy Schatz)
A pinch artist may not even be a "specialist", even if that's their role on your project. But generally speaking, the pinch artist is a part-time helper with a specific focus and a specific ability that helps get the project into the air with just a little less friction and terror, and a little more quality and attention to detail.
"There's two benefits to having someone contribute to your project. First, work gets done and you don't have to do it. This sounds super simple, but when your pushing to finish a project and time is at a premium, one less component to worry about is a godsend.
The second is less obvious but much more important. It adds another fresh set of eyes & a fresh perspective to the project, often when you're utterly burnt out and have lost all your perspective. Games are a medium where one little idea can push a project from good to great, or from great to greater, and sometimes subbing in a pinch hitter will provide that. It could be as basic as a redesign for a small piece of art or an additional sound for a key moment… or as big as a design concept that adds a ton.
On #sworcery, Jim Guthrie's music was the hallmark piece… but one song & one set of sounds came from Scientific American (aka scntfc). The moon grotto song, and listening station sounds really added to #sworcery. Not just in a "hey this is cool" way, but in a tangible, "the game is actually better with them" way." (Nathan Vella)
Part of the power of being a contributor is the 80-20 rule, or the idea that sometimes a lot of the value or appeal of a finished work can be created with relatively little time and effort. Inviting contributors to work on your game or getting the opportunity to contribute to someone else's game improves the likelihood that you'll find more of those little gems that have a big impact.
In games, though, maybe the most common manifestation of the 80-20 rule is that the first 80% of a project takes just 20% of the overall effort, and the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. Pinch artists can help chip away at that latter 20% in a way that is psychologically and objectively meaningful, remaining fresh and excited about a project that may have lost some of its luster for the core team.
Haha, this is starting to sound like a public service announcement isn't it? "Help change a life; become a pinch artist today!" That makes it sound like charity work or something, which isn't quite how it works or feels. But it is a scale of collaboration that was new to me a couple years ago, and I've been noticing more and more is a really positive thing, especially for smaller studios. Even as a relative control freak obsessed with my own ideas, I've really enjoyed making contributions to my friends' games over the last couple years.
For game makers who are looking for a way to blow off some creative steam, donating a little bit of your time to helping someone else's game exist is a great way make the world better and still expand your own gameography and experience at the same time.