[Experienced sound designer Brad Meyer (DJ Hero) espouses a creative philosophy of taking a step back and making common sense decisions as the best method for reinvigorating that elusive creative spark once it's fled.]
As industry veterans, many of us grow stagnant in critically analyzing and adapting the way we design. We've been doing things a certain way for a long time, and when faced with tight deadlines we often don't take the time to evaluate the way we work and assess whether it is still serving us. I have felt this stagnation a few times throughout my career, and I consider it to be the designer's equivalent of writer's block.
"Designer's block" may be as simple as drawing a blank on how to approach designing a difficult sound, but it can also be a more fundamental problem such as falling back on stale, tired tactics just because "that's what I've always done." There are many causes of designer's block: extended crunches, poor design direction, a loss of inspiration, etc.
Fortunately there are several simple exercises we can do to reinvigorate our minds and get our design practices back on track. The fundamental ideas discussed here are not revolutionary; they're common sense, which is often the first thing that flies out the window during game development.
While this is specifically directed at sound designers, most of the exercises and concepts easily apply to other design disciplines in any industry. When you hit a wall, or if you are just starting out in the industry, these four simple rules can help save the day.
"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." - Ernest Hemingway
Most people assume that because we are in the audio industry, we must have good ears. What they don't realize is that critical listening is more of an exercise in using your brain than just having good ears.
The ear captures vibrations (sound) and conveys information about the sound, such as spatial positioning, to the brain. But it is the brain that processes the incoming vibrations into what we perceive as sound and gives meaning and definition to what we hear. The ear and brain work together to filter sounds so that we only hear what may be most important (or most prevalent) at any given time.
As an exercise, make a quick note of the sounds around you: mouse clicks, occasional traffic outside, muffled music from the headphones of the guy in the cubicle next to you. Now stop and listen again focusing intently on every nuance of the sounds you hear.
Perhaps now you've noticed the hum of the air conditioner, the whining fan of your dev kit, the occasional seek on your hard drive, footsteps in the hallway and a muffled conversation down the hall as well. No matter how sensitive your ears are, your brain constantly works to emphasize and deemphasize sounds based on their frequency, amplitude, and pitch.
Furthermore, as we focus ourselves more on a task, whether it's typing on a computer, playing a game, or raking leaves, our brain adjusts to what we hear. We can partially override our brain's penchant to filter sounds out by focusing on the sonic qualities of our location. This is an invaluable skill for a sound designer; one which most of us learn early on, but sometimes we forget how valuable this skill is.
If you find yourself mired in a bad case of designer's block, listening is a useful tactic to get yourself unstuck. If you are working on a real world game environment, go take a walk. Listen to environments similar to those in your game to hear how they manifest in the "real world." When approaching the design of various actions in your game, think about their real world equivalent and compare how they really sound versus how you want them to sound.
For example, before adding footsteps, walk on a variety of surfaces and listen not only to the differences between them, but identify the subtle details of each like the intermittent creak of wood, the heavy feedback reverberations of a heavy metal grate, or the inadvertent occasional scuffle step. Listen how different elements you hear define that environment as they apply to your project, and then construct a method for integrating those design elements into your game.