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Walk in the Gamer's Shoes
When we think of art students, we often imagine a stereotypical young bohemian crouched in the hallways of the Louvre, madly copying the works of the great masters. The reason they do is because there is no better teacher than the artists that have come before themselves. Once they have studied the masters' technique, composition, use of light, and understanding of the human figure, they can then move on to create a unique style of their own. To ignore this phase of learning is to cheat oneself of the hard earned lessons of years past.
The same is true of the virtual world. The last 5 years have been filled with opportunities to observe what has worked and what has not. Many things about the creation of computer generated worlds has improved. There may be some elegant solutions we once learned, but have now somehow forgotten. We all remember past favorites that had some wonderful element or item that we wish we could take into some of the games we play today. Why did they die out? Becoming a designer of 3D worlds means walking the virtual streets of games both past and present. Turn off those Bots and really explore. Wedge yourself behind crates, scour the dark corners, and examine how the textures are applied. Be critical, but not so much so that you are blind to a level's brilliant moments. If your 3D game will be competing in the market with a similar game, find out all you can about it. Read their articles and play their demos! The kiss of death comes when you stubbornly hold onto the false belief that your game will be so much better that you don't need to look at your competition. New ground is being broken weekly, and to deny the potential learning from your peers is to cheat yourself of innovations that could only help your product in the end. The more time you spend studying the work of master level builders, even if they work for your competition, the better a designer you will be!
Lastly, get up from your computer and examine the real world around you. Watch how the light changes during the course of a day. Examine the tactile difference between surfaces. Notice how you "know" whether an object will be soft or hard before you even touch it. What makes a place feel hot, or cold? How are your emotions triggered by where you are? What is it about certain vistas that leave us speechless? Watch how movie directors light their sets. Notice how stage actors draw you into the drama. Look for the hidden methods painters and photographers use to sway your attention to those elements that are most important to the story they are trying to tell you.
Become a master of observation in the physical world and then bring that knowledge back into your work as a creator of the virtual. Combine this knowledge with your experience and your vision for what is possible and you will create spaces that will compel, delight, terrify, and set our imaginations on fire!
Don Carson is a freelance designer and conceptual illustrator. For many years Don worked as a Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of the Walt Disney Company. Some of the attractions he helped to design are Splash Mountain for Walt Disney World Florida, and Mickey's Toontown for Disneyland California. Don continues to work as a consultant for Disney from his studio, as well as for companies like the Jim Henson Co., Universal Studios, Microsoft, Zowie Intertainment, Sierra, and Coca Cola.