Picture this: I’m fourteen, and I’m in my bedroom waiting for my brother to get off the Super Nintendo. He’s playing Madden (yes, it was around back then), and I’m getting impatient.
“Hey, when are you going to be done?” I ask.
“Why?” my brother says. “What do you want to play?”
“I want to play Mario Paint,” I say.
My brother scoffs and points at the new PC at the other side of the room.
“Hey!” he says, “you’ve got a freakin’ two-thousand-dollar Mario Paint right there!”
I didn’t admit it at the time, but he was right. Courtesy of my friends at the Modesto High School computer lab, I had Autodesk Animator and Adobe Photoshop for Windows on my 486. A professional creative suite, one far more robust than Mario Paint, was at my disposal.
So why in the hell was I jonesing for a sit-down with Nintendo’s chintzy pretender?
Well, aside from the fact that my Super Nintendo was practically my best friend at the time, Mario Paint was just so much more approachable than anything Adobe or Autodesk have ever made. It had style and showmanship. The title screen was interactive. The menus were colorful. There was punchy, catchy music to listen to. Every tool made a sound: paintbrushes pecked at the screen, the Undo button barked, and the navigation buttons all made little clicks and clunks. And when you were ready to wipe up your mess and start making a new one, the game offered an array of screen-clearing tools that the did the job with unique 16-bit effects.
Since this was a cartridge on a relatively feeble chunk of hardware, Mario Paint was extremely limited. You could only really paint with sixteen colors, the music composer allowed no sharps or flats, and the animation program only allowed the production of nine frames. I never made anything worth keeping on Mario Paint, but I didn’t care, because I always enjoyed using it.
It reminds me of how I feel when I mess around with Maxis’s hyper-criticized classic Spore. Maxis knew that the heart of the game was its personal connection with the player; the idea that the player’s characters and stories would always be more interesting than something a studio could present. So they poured their efforts into these delightful creation programs and built them into the game.
Players — myself included — ate this up, and they cranked out millions upon millions of creatures even before the game was released. I can understand that! Spore’s creation tools are so intuitive and so much fun that an artist can move from vision to finished product in minutes, all the while watching it spring to life bit by bit. The creatures move and react to every adjustment the player makes to them, providing a powerful, and continuous, feeling of creative gratification.
It’s a hell of a lot more fun than the God-damned Maya tutorial I fumbled through recently. I spent hours making an un-textured butterfly-thing and then struggled just to make its wings flap. I remember nearly tearing my hair out because I couldn’t find the “edit curves” menu option, even though I had just used it minutes earlier. That tutorial was a joyless slog, and it made me depressed that I needed to learn so much confusing bullshit just to express an idea in my head. I realize that 3D computer modeling isn’t supposed to be simple, but who said it has to be so fucking intimidating?
I remember reading that people often used the Sims games as rudimentary home design tools. I can understand that! The Sims 4 is a hell of a lot more fun to use than most of these advanced 3D modeling programs, and I’m saying that as someone who usually hates building homes in The Sims.
It’s very, very easy to forget that art is supposed to be fun. There are so many outside factors that can sap the joy of creating: deadlines, marketability, ambition, impossible standards…any one of these is enough to constipate an artist. The message becomes one of work, “MAKE THIS.” What we need are tools that feel like toys, or that at least have toy-like options, which will remind us of the Muse’s true message, which is “START WITH THIS, AND SEE WHERE IT TAKES YOU.”
I can only hope that companies like Nintendo and Maxis, who are enjoying phenomenal success with games like The Sims 4 and Super Mario Maker, will share a little of their magic, and teach creativity and productivity designers how to give their products some much-needed creative heart. Sure, it’s important to be proud of the work you create, but I’d much prefer to have a great time making it.