Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Practicing Agile on Art

To practice the kinds of principle which are described by Lean I started with creating a piece of music. I like making music, it is meditative and it uses some of my usually dormant skills which when I fire them back up gives me a serious dose of pleasurable feedback chemicals in my brain. Anyhow, creating music is an example of a very well defined production system and I like making abstract generalizations from things I know well to things I know less well. On the whole I can claim to be quite an efficient music production team all on my own, something I have a hard time claiming for the art of making games. Games require so much wider skill sets to go from idea to fully implemented in the cases that I am interested in so I can’t make a micro experiment to test the concepts of Lean development on my own with the game medium, and I can’t program well enough to make anything useful.

One of the great advantages with creating music is that I have access to a relatively decent implicit iterative method which covers the full production pipeline. I can tell if the instruments are tuned poorly, if the arrangement is busted and such technicalities. I can even tell if playing the instrument in the recording is giving a result which pleases the musician. This means that I pretty much know when I am cheating the creative process by accepting less than flawless components in the production. I can also cheat and get some explicit feedback from various sources such as sending snippets to friends over the internet or check details with a spectrum analyzer etc.

I also know that the end result is the interaction between the components and that I will not really be able to know in advance if a production will be good or not. I can generally feel it growing if I keep working on something which keeps me motivated. Almost everything which I ever finish is based on a mashup of old prototype songs. This mashup process is something similar to stage gate portfolio management which defines little pieces but without the information of how the pieces should interact to deliver an impression. This is also poorly managed by me with various references in my brain and plenty of broken snippets of recordings which I usually forget about. To bring this mess of components to life as something which I can claim to be something I finished I have to work through what my limited experience would label as a large process. I don’t like using samples, when I try I tend to get bogged down in editing the samples so its more efficient for me to just go straight at making the whole arrangements and tweaking the hell out the individual instruments.

The way I make music is fundamentally iterative. The goal is a mix of creation and refinery towards reaching greatness. Greatness is a state of perfect fit, “the goose bump factor”, an implementation which creates unique emotional response of some kind. This is hard work, I am rarely motivated enough to not give up and leave the effort as a part of the busted stage gate portfolio. It happens sometimes that I keep on going and the finished results are what I can use to run production technique experiment.

Writing this I sense that I will not be able to combine the whole argument in one big post. I will have to dig at details another time if I get there but I got some direct references at this point.

1 – Make it Flawless; applies to music production. This is a well known oldskool audio engineering principle which says that: “Make quality recordings of sounds; you can not make bad sounds good by tweaking them.” You can also not effectively engineer up a poor performance or a bad melody through creative editing, you can make it better yes, but you will be much less efficient than making the recording good in the first place. Compromising these early stages of the music production is like technical debt in software development, you can use them to move fast to a certain point but you will never reach greatness unless you go back at a later point and fix it. Such late fixes are often big risks as the new recording might interfere with the whole arrangement. This often leads to cascading failure of the whole production and all you get is yet another ambitious component of the stage gate portfolio.

2 – One piece Flow; this very much applies to music production. If you fail to follow it you will fail the Make it Flawless principle and learn to accept a poor result. The trick to one piece flow is to know your production method which is much easier in the world of music than when making games, especially for me since the process of making music in my case happily operates at a loss as long as I have fun with it. In the world of music production this goes through layers of development. You will benefit greatly from having the rough shape of the arrangement in place before starting to mix, you don’t start with the mix because then you will break the idea of one piece flow and en up with all pieces. The real question here is what the “one piece” is. In music the “one piece” is a multi dimensional argument. It can be used for an instrument, section, harmony, melody, mix, arrangement, lyrics and so on. The matter is the ability to identify the pieces and to learn how to be satisfied with one particular piece. This identification has its roots as a craftsmanship based on skills, theory and vision.

3 – Maintain multiple options; this is integrated with tools pipeline. In an ideal world I would call this “the mix” which is what you do last before sending the work to the ears of an audience. I am not sure if this is because I want the reference to fit or if it fits. The idea also carries through the arrangement by the theoretical structure of music theory. There is this huge set of lore which a master musician can use to apply multiple options to any given situation. I am not a master in this sense but I had an awesome Jazz teacher who showed me a few things about which doors can be opened to toss things around in a technically “legal” manner. It has been half a life time in my world since I had those lessons but their fundamental concept remains with me still. I’ll tell you the secret right here: All that theory is just a shortcut for connecting your ears to be the judge of what is good. It is a great shortcut and it is the key to collaboration and communication about the creative process of the medium. But it is nothing which resembles strict laws and the rules are there to be broken by the creator at will.

4 – Avoid Waste. This is a tricky beast, also very relevant to music. Defining what waste is in a music production is not that straight forward. Recording random things and putting them together is generally waste, sometimes it is a process which rapidly can fill up the stage gate with concepts. The real answer to the question of what waste is depends on the vision and goals of the production. If the goal is to increase the stage gate then an ambitious mix is waste, if the goal is to deliver on a vision then aimless noodling and random recording is waste. To know how to spot waste you need to be a well practiced craftsman of music creation.

My biggest problem for my music hobby is lack of vision. I like to blame this on the extremely efficient development method which gives me an extremely agile context. The studio software allows me to change anything at any time so I never feel like I have to spend any effort at creating a vision for the work. This makes it easy to get a false sense of progress towards greatness and the lack of vision rears its ugly head as technical debt within the whole arrangement which sends everything to the stage gate relatively often.

All of this stuff is generally applicable to most things in life. The biggest problem with implementing process optimizations toward value production is a lack of common grounds for communicating these kinds of ideas. Just as it is hard to make a band play good music without a fundamental common ground in music theory it becomes hard for a game developer to make good games without a common ground in development methodology and game design theory. Lack of common ground will require blind faith which is a rare human trait and it rarely lead to good results.

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