A Charming Lot - Mikko Laakkonen

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This is part of a series of interviews with the team behind Critical Charm and those who helped us getting our game together. Here’s Mikko Laakkonen, our Art Lead!

So Mikko, you’re an artist and game designer with an almost profound love of Guild Wars 2. It’s something we discuss constantly, even though I’ve never played it. For those who haven’t, what is it about that game that inspires you so?

Though I am a big fan of the game and I carry a lot of personal thoughts for it, I definitely can't speak for the majority of hardcore fans. I play GW2 very, very casually. But as a budding developer/artist I resonate with this game a lot. I'll do my best to describe my feelings, though it might seem lofty.

Guild Wars as a franchise is a series that started with the concept of dong things different from contemporary design. Back in the day, the community that built around the first game has a very distinct outlook and preference to the game. All the way to the point where some standout old-school Guild Wars players now work within the company. The ambition and the design-philosophy for the most part carried over when the developers decided to make the sequel. Though the games are extremely different from one another, that initial love for the series keeps the beating heart of the game alive I feel.

Why I personally feel drawn and inspired by the game is that energy. The game is made by people who love it, it's played by people who love it. Though I did not play the first one, I've gradually grown more ties with the game. The developers pour burning effort in to the content they create and it shows through the years of lessons, mistakes and successes. They've made an excellent game that I consider is truly worth it's weight.

A lot of people, from user- and developer -side seem to consider only specific types of business models for these games, but Guild Wars 2 to me personally sets a shining banner of example on how you can do it. It even feels like new MMO's popping up these days really aim for that standout crowd, evolving the design-DNA further.

You’ve also been a teacher, more specifically a game art teacher, so what about Guild Wars 2, it’s production processes or style have you used in your lessons? Or are there other games you prefer to reference for your students?

I try to keep my thoughts very open, looking for lessons in art or design anywhere as much as I can. These days it's even easier, with a lot of design-analyzing content being made on the common web. Guild Wars 2 has an extremely unique art-style and many lessons in the design itself which could be very valuable for multiple fields in game development.

However a lot of times the application of said lessons can be very narrow in terms of applicability. I think this goes for any type of game. In terms of just development and methods used, many are the same and are easily taught as just individual skills. Ex. particle systems or gameplay loops. The substance in between is the second level, where we can start finding for the truly relevant stuff. The part which I find personally the most interesting/useful.

How can we utilize these specific systems to have them feed into each other to create coherency. I find Nintendo's design lessons to be the best here, as almost everything they do is purely functional. Ex. Mario is soft everywhere except at the bottom of his shoes, goomba's head is soft. Inklings in Splatoon are squids, spreading ink is what they do and it makes sense for the gameplay function of territory control. Overall, any game is good for scrutiny and it always is pretty awesome to see/imagine how much thought goes in to what might seem like a very minor or arbitrary thing in games. That said, it all ultimately boils down to crafting entertainment. So I find the best design lessons to be in your own sense of fun.

Finding the fun can be difficult, especially in the prototyping phase as so much can be further down the line in terms of development, especially in games like Guild Wars 2 and other MMOs, where the quest for gear or raids are not immediately encountered. Or if you look at strategy games, the pay off for a manoeuvre or placement of troops isn’t immediate. What’s your advice to students when they’re creating something that isn’t as focused on immediacy?

Woo boy... I can't say I'm much smarter any designer or a student. However I feel that boardgames, tabletops.. even some very tightly-knit mobile games are worth investigating. Hell, even rock-paper-scissors. I mean anything, how can you break the thing down to it's simple parts.

Looking and listing why something as rock-paper-scissors makes so much sense. In essence, I feel that the more small you can try working it out from, the better. Building systems comes out as an emergent reaction from anyone's own design-thinking. Then structuring, iterating on top of those core-systems.

From outside perspective: GW2 might not look like much. It's the 6 years of development they've had to perfect their formula and 6 years of me as a player discovering that path which makes me appreciate the quality of their storytelling, as an example. In a way living alongside the things that inspire us will put you on the right path. The more we can experience "the fun" the better we get at expressing it. Design of fun requires us to have fun. I don't think we can truly make good games without that type of energy. It's a heart-brain sorta thing?

I’d say it takes more than experiencing the fun, it’s certainly part of being a good creator regardless of medium - seeing what else has been done. But there’s also a need for critical thinking. Having gone through school for this and taught game art, is critical thinking being included as part of the education? And if so how do you improve on it? Yes I know I’m throwing you all the hard questions.

Critical thinking is a sensitive subject for up-and-coming students. Especially when you first start, you might be just overwhelmed by the mountain of things you need to know. Even after having finished my studies I recognize similar energy in myself. I feel that good feedback culture is something we strive towards probably throughout the entire career path.

It does start in school and even after that. Finding ways to improve that sort of discussion is necessary and it needs to be clear the moment we decide to do anything creative. Endorsing open conversation, exposing ourselves to other types of mediums, we need to maintain a clear perspective and still be able to identify problems. We're hired by the basis of our tasks, but ultimately the team works towards an idea. And everyone has their own ideas.

That's extremely arduous to do on a daily basis and it will leave the majority of us very tired at the end of the day. Not to even mention the other stresses of development. Endorsing healthy communication, unblocked criticism. Seeing past your own work and being able to collectively solve problems is the key to that I feel. It all adds up to the very much crucial energy maintenance.

So is it just Guild Wars you turn to at the end of the day to unwind? Or do you have other hobbies that help? Can you even draw or paint for fun anymore or work on your own game projects now that you’re a professional artist and game designer?

Guild Wars like other MMOs are easy to play in their practically endless nature of content. I do work on my own projects when I have spare energy, it's all the same in a way. I find design, 3d, 2d all relatively fun hobbies and or things to do at work. With said activities, I never specifically feel like I'm working, though I try to maintain a healthy sense of pride in doing so.

But similarly to my colleague, if I can find the right time and game for that kind "me-moment".. I thoroughly enjoyed games like Okami, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Monster Hunter or the sort. The most recent, though a very short one was Katamari Damacy re-release. If not playing games, I'll probably be watching a play-through, analysis or stream on any kind of game.

Awesome, thanks for talking to me. And one of these days I’ll get around to playing Guild Wars 2 with you.