Tech+Art Podcast: William Stallwood


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Welcome to the new Tech+Art Podcast!

Join us on this adventure as we meet & speak with: artists, makers, researchers, designers and creators from all background and fields.

Our objective is to understand their creative perspective, dive into their workflow & creative process, be inspired by new ideas and their work – and stay one step ahead of cutting-edge industry developments.

"A lot of people talk about failure and they’re right. The more times you fail the better. And as an engineer and a programmer, you’re failing every time you do a keystroke. "


In this episode, we’re chatting with Will Stallwood, a creative engineer and the co-founder of Cipher Prime – a small multi-award winning creative studio in Philadelphia.

Will joins us to share his story making experience-driven indie games, his creative process for approaching both game design and his current work around both daily shaders and installations.

Question 1: How did you end up getting your start with design & creative coding?

[ 5:11 ] – I was doing a lot of Photoshop and I wanted to make more things, and I just kept working with people; cause they could do the engineering and coding part of things. It really wasn’t until I discovered Flash – and Flash just changed my entire life. Flash was when I was like ‘wow, programming is sort of a thing I can do’. And it wasn’t until I realized I could use code to make pictures… there was such a solid disconnect for me from like learning C++ when I was a kid, was like in DOS on a terminal. I had such a big disconnection between how do I make a graphic out of this – and it wasn’t until I used Flash that I was like ‘wow this is a thing that is even possible’.

Question 2: Over that 10 year period, what’s your day-to-day like? What types of people do you work with and what kind of problems do you all try to solve?

[ 8:53 ] – And then we had put a demo up of Auditorium. And what we were doing is every single day we were putting up a new version of this game with one single level on it. And I was doing some little – it was Adwords at the time, I think I was spending like $20 a week on Adwords – and one week we went up to like 1,000 plays. And we were like ‘woah, something’s happening here’. And we changed a little thing and then it was like 2,000 plays a week, 3,000 plays a week. And then about 8 months later we were at about 1 million plays a month – something like that.

Question 3: What is your creative process like? Where do you get ideas/inspiration from?

[ 12:14 ] – A lot of that was just kind of really working hard and being so inspired by little micro things […] As a studio – and even myself – the macro was never really important […] A lot of the things we were doing were very similar to like what VJs do. But for us, instead of being a live performance we wanted it to be a set thing that you could perform with. So if anything, a lot of the thinking and process to our games was more about ‘well, what if the game was a musical instrument?’, you know, abstracting that back to more of a game format.

[ 13:20 ] – And a lot of the things that I did from a design process is what I call ‘controller first design’. Which is ‘ok, you’ve got a single button – what can you do with this single button?’; ‘ok your controller is three buttons – what would you do with three buttons?’; ‘if it was one button and it was a knob – what would that look like?’. So instead of spending a lot of time worrying about what the game was, it was actually spending a lot more time with how somebody interacted with the game

[ 13:53 ] – But a lot of the process or way we did things is backwards. All of our puzzle games, everything was made in reverse. So what I would do is I would throw a whole bunch of things down for our levels and I would save them. And then I would unload them in reverse. So that the beginning of the level that you would start at, was basically the end of where I got at.

[ 14:24 ] – It would be like rolling in at 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, leaving at like 1 to 3 o’clock at night – almost everyday, for about 10 years. And just being totally, totally consumed by this thing. And just having the greatest people come in-and-out of my life.

Question 4: What has been your most ambitious project to-date?

[ 14:52 ] – In hindsight, looking back, the community was the most ambitious project. But we didn’t ever realize it was a project. The community was built by accident. The dev night was built by accident. I really just wanted to make more things. Like I wasn’t satisfied with just making things during the day.

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Question 5: How did you go from a Flash shop to leveraging newer technologies?

[ 18:43 ] – We wanted to be on more platforms and we didn’t know how to do that with Flash. So we just got there by need.

[ 18:49 ] – The first game we made, was a game called Pulse for the iPad in Unity. […] But I couldn’t figure out how to get any touches – at the time – to work on an iPad. I tried getting into xcode and all of that. And god it was just rough, very, very rough for someone like me to do that. So what I did is I built the entire thing in Flash – in like a night. And I came back to Dane and I said ‘Dane, pretend you’re touching the screen’. And so I had him play this game in like a very crappy way on the screen. And he still was not super convinced. And over the course of the week I got friends to come over and do this and pretend to play the game on the screen. And we noticed that people would play the entire level – and we were just asking to like suspend disbelief for a few moments. And we actually realized that it didn’t matter they were successful or unsuccessful at all. It just did not matter.

[ 20:32 ] – And now a lot of the stuff I do is glsl, these days. I convert things when I’m doing shaders for Unity. I actually work a lot outside of Unity, because, as a tool I feel like it very powerful, but I don’t find it as a very creative, expressive tool. So I still actually very much miss those days of Flash. And that was sort of our workflow for a while, is design things in Flash and then figure out how it worked in Unity.

Question 6: And so for that creative aspect that you just mentioned there, what’s your process or through process to find that creativity through other tools?

[ 21:48 ] – If the entire creation process is not instantaneous its not really one that I think is very good for me. A lot of people talk about failure and they’re right. The more times you fail the better. And as an engineer and a programmer, you’re failing every time you do a keystroke. But most of the time you don’t notice you’ve failed until you’ve saved the program or complied it and re-ran. So I try to work in environments that re-run on every single keystroke.

[ 22:10 ] – For a lot of the prototypes and stuff that I build now, I do a lot of web-based stuff and a lot of it is actually like pencil and paper and moving objects around on the wall. If I have to throw paper plates across the room to get ideas across – that to me is instantaneous, it’s right there, I can play around with it, it’s tangible, it’s fast. So anything that I can do to not be in a tool that’s so constricting and not real-time – I will do. Most of the time I think about the ways to complete something before I touch the code.

[ 23:07 ] – Almost all of the tools I use now are tools that I’ve made myself. They’re almost all based on using this tool I used in his [Patricio Gonzalez] browser to learn shaders.

Question 7: Where do you think this creative industry is headed?

[ 26:05 ] – I have a really strange outlook now. When I first started getting into this stuff, I really thought that being more technically proficient was the answer. You know? That the most important thing was skill grabbing […] But what I learnt with doing these dailies everyday is I spent a lot of time doing a lot of different things and what people got attached to […] I looked at a lot of the installations I like and realized that most of them […] were not very complex. They weren’t the ones that were driving technology in this crazy skill grabby, ‘you have the best render’ kind of way….

[ 27:31 ] – If we think about the fact that most of my ideas were generated outside of games for games, it makes sense that if we really want to push forward, paying attention to the human element as we dive into technology – is I hope where we go with it.

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