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The Idea: Working for it

November 26, 2007

Sometimes, a game idea will just hit you – fully formed, and it’s all right there. All you need to do is get it down on paper before it gets away from you. I don’t know how it happens for other designers, but this is how it sometimes happens for me.

When I was working on Wizardry 8, I designed an entire portion of the narrative based on this all-of-a-sudden rush thought I had. I was on transit at the time, and I must have looked panicked as I rummaged around for a piece of paper. I ended up writing it on the margins of a newspaper as best I could. The idea had arrived complete in my head as if I’d been working on it for hours. I hadn’t, consciously at least, but you wouldn’t have known if from the output. Of all the games I’ve worked on, that one is still my favorite.

Other times, you have to really work for the idea. I’m designing a game now for a client, and I’ve been toying with a few ideas for it, but I can’t seem to settle on a genre for the IP in question. It doesn’t naturally suggest one like many IPs do. Think Reservoir Dogs or Natural Born Killers. See how easily a genre suggested itself? It doesn’t always work like that, though.

For this game, it boils down to this: what does the client want the player to feel/learn/get out of it? What genre will best provide that opportunity while also providing a good gameplay experience that gets progressively more challenging? A few genres would fit okay, and I’ve been tinkering with various cores and feature sets over the weekend. (Note to future designers: this doesn’t mean I sat at a desk and starred at a screen all day. I does mean that I played 5 or 6 different games trying to think of how it would look in those worlds, screwed around and played Mario with my kid for a while, painted a room while thinking about it, re-read the material they sent me, and then waited for my head to process it. A lot of designers work like that. You fill your head and wait.)

Finally, I got a breakthrough with a particular play dynamic this morning. I hadn’t yet settled on the genre, but the dynamic really struck me as something that would be intriguing, difficult to master and provide the player with something the client wanted. It doesn’t always happen this way – usually, the genre comes first (or comes with the project, having already been decided). So, I’m off to finish this particular doc, now with Genre +1.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Patrick Dugan permalink
    November 26, 2007 9:04 pm

    I think the key is taking a step back, going on a walk or taking a nap, or even better doing something that is tangentially related to the project but without having too specific of a goal with it. For instance, with an A-life/painting game idea I recently visited an art museum here in Buenos Aires, and got some key insights just from the unfocused exploration.

  2. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 26, 2007 9:45 pm

    Yeah, the step back really is important. In playing the games and even painting the room, I was hoping for it. I was even further hoping for it when I started the post last night. Nothing. πŸ™‚

    I should be glad that it’s not usually this way.


  3. November 26, 2007 10:05 pm

    I think I read something about this awhile ago, but I can’t think of where. Ah yes, of course. Here it is:

    I think coming up with mechanics first and theme/genre later is more common in Eurogames. To take an example, Settlers of Catan has nothing to do with settling an island, and everything to do with trading, production and building. It could just as easily be a space exploration game, or a highway construction project, or any number of other things. And Settlers has a pretty strong theme by Eurogame standards! In Eurogames it’s more common to create the mechanics first, and then find a suitable theme later. I suspect that your recent foray into boardgaming has awakened this instinct in you πŸ™‚

    For me, I’d add a few other experiences when trying to be creative:

    * Sometimes I just wake up and am in a highly creative mood. There’s no games or mechanics that occur to me, but I know instinctively that there is one in my brain somewhere just struggling to get out. I sit down for a few hours and somehow a game idea emerges. (Usually this happens when I’ve had little room to be creative in other areas of my life for awhile, and my brain starts fighting back.)

    * Sometimes when I need to be creative and I can’t, I like to talk to other designers. Other people will usually come up with the obvious things that I managed to stupidly miss. Aside from that, talking with other designers about game design is one of the most fun games ever πŸ™‚

  4. November 26, 2007 10:12 pm

    I’m in the process of trying to think of a project that I want to do for a independent study class next semester. I want something that I can work on, not only for the semester, but for the entire year.

    I played a few independent games, and tried to think about different scenarios that could be based off of various elements; water, fire, earth, wind, etc… I found a great example of a game based in water, and another game based off of wind, but nothing revolving around fire or the earth.

    I took a step back, jumped in the shower, thought about it… Bing. Jumped out, started to write.

    We’ll see how the instructor likes it.

  5. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 26, 2007 10:13 pm

    “Sometimes when I need to be creative and I can’t, I like to talk to other designers.”

    Funny enough, I almost called you. Next time, I won’t think twice. πŸ™‚

  6. November 27, 2007 2:07 pm

    Here’s a quotation that I love that:

    “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
    – Thomas A. Edison, Harper’s Monthly, 1932. US inventor (1847 – 1931)

    In fact, sometimes inspiration just stumbles upon your head without any real effort, but even after that, you always have to struggle a lot to get it properly done.

    It’s been a while since I’ve created a private blog just to write down some ideas of mine, just as they’ve come to my mind. And some days later I try looking at them and choose the one I’m going to work on.

    I’ve been enjoying the experience so far. πŸ™‚

  7. Brian Shurtleff permalink
    November 27, 2007 10:15 pm

    I think there are certain activities that, when done, get ideas to flow. Once the brain is engaged in one area, switching gears over to creative thought maintains the mental momentum, if you will.

    I present two examples:

    Me and a friend of mine all throughout high school were amateur filmmakers. We still collaborate on screenplays or bounce our script ideas off one another.
    When doing so throughout the years, we’ve always gone to the rope swing in his back yard. We take turns swinging around and just talking about the ideas.

    This sort of adds in the “talking to other designers” technique to the mix, but we were definitely always more creative when talking there, on the rope swing, than we were elsewhere.

    At the time we created an amusing theory about this, that unused ideas sagged and settled down in your feet and the act of swinging around caused them to flow back up to your head. Fun anecdote aside, I think my more recent hypothesis that once you get the brain engaged in something (in this case the mental calculations of the swinging dynamics) it is only one short hop into shifting into creative though instead.

    That theory has been realized due to phenomenon #2:

    I found when I read, ideas start churning, sometimes even completely unrelated to the subject matter of what I’m reading. Usually it is related – I read some sort of fact or concept and immediately think if I can apply it to the game project I’m currently working on or even a completely different game I may make later. The book’s subject matter doesn’t even have to be related to the game’s subject matter – sometimes a completely random fact will trigger just the idea you needed.

    As I said, sometimes the idea you end up with isn’t even remotely related to what you just read either.

    I recently had an experience similar to yours of trying to find a scrap of paper while on a flight when something (I still have no idea what) I had just read in a book about writing triggered an idea to make a game that’s sort of Ikaruga meets Pong, but radial. I have absolutely no idea how THAT came out of the subject of writing, but it did. Again, brain engaged…

    I’m currently reading book on the history of salt, which is one small little anecdote after another, and therefore makes it great for popping random ideas in my head.

    Of course, I’m thinking some activities might be better than others, in engaging the brain to hijack it to generate ideas. Did painting a room work for this or not?

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