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I Have an Idea for a Game

November 21, 2011

(I get a lot of emails on this subject. This is my answer to one such email.)

Game companies aren’t interested in outside ideas. At our company, we have a backlog of easily 20 games that we would like to make, and these ideas come from the likes of John Romero and Tom Hall. An idea is only that. There are a 1000 ways for it to go wrong in its execution. Ideas and concepts are a dime a dozen.

Game design is not the idea. It is the execution.

So, if you desperately want to make games, the only advice I have for you is to start making them. You can work your way up through QA as others have done, or you can learn to code. In my own job, I work with three other designers who can code, and I would be a much better designer if I could.

Being a game designer and being responsible for multi-million-dollar budgets requires years of expertise and proven practice. Passion is only 5% of the puzzle. Discipline born of experience is the other 95%.

While our products are compared to the movie industry, we as game designers are much more like doctors. The only reason that I get to operate and sometimes put an entire company’s stake in my hands is because I spent years apprenticing and understanding the systems that I am working on. I know how to fix things through iteration when stuff goes wrong and when to call something DOA. In my case, nearly 13 years had passed before I became a lead, and during that time, I learned from a lot of great people. I am still learning. To go back to the movie metaphor, a game designer is also not like a scriptwriter (though a game writer can be). We are much more like directors. We need to be aware of how everything interacts with every other thing and always mindful of the player experience. That means we DO need to know how the camera and everything else functions and how it affects the final product and, like Orson Welles, sometimes we cut holes in floors and innovate the art.

Directors and game designers know how to execute an idea. It is every last little detail that makes a great movie and a great game great. That comes from experience and from working with others who have done it.

But, it can be done. Literally not a day goes by that I don’t think about Notch and the wonderful game he created in Minecraft. It is the greatest success story in the game industry, and I hope many more find even a quarter of his success.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 10:35 am

    Great advice. I have been following it for the past year or so. I started with ideas that I thought were amazing (well almost every idea is amazing before testing it), and the games ended up less than worthless.

    However now about 100 ideas and 8 different game prototypes later, the games are starting to be playable. Nothing yet to the level of publishable, but local folk can play them and enjoy it. (I call it the Board Game Geek rating climb. You start with designing games at 1 and slowly move up to about a 5. After that good ideas start to matter more.)

    My question, perhaps for another post, is how as a new designer to get over the hump from games that folk enjoy to recognizing that you have a game with quality, a game that could be shown to a publisher?

    Perhaps a question more easily answered is what do you look for in a complete game submitted by an unknown designer?

    • November 21, 2011 11:08 am

      If you’ve got a complete game… why wouldn’t you publish it yourself?

      • November 21, 2011 11:24 am

        I have thought about taking that route with Kickstarter or bootstrapped, but there is a lot to be said for having a publisher assist in the refining of the end product, especially if it is your first.

  2. November 21, 2011 10:35 am

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Brenda.

    Now I have somewhere I can send people when I get this response after telling them what I do 🙂

  3. Ian permalink
    November 21, 2011 12:10 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I went through a phase of humouring people (James Wallis had a standing deal – if you bought him dinner, he’d listen to you as long as the food lasted). And it is interesting what they say.

    In almost all cases, they have an idea of the theme or setting of a game. “I have this great idea where you are a spy who is trying to infiltrate the resistance, and bring it down”, “I have this idea for a game where you have to manage a cheerleading squad, and deal with their training and their emo days.”, “you play a necromancer in a battle with other necromancers, and you raise the bodies of long-dead warriors”, and so on.

    Rarely do they have an idea in terms of the feel, construction or interactivity of games. But in my experience, its often something that good game designers who’ve worked in the industry can talk about at length. “I’d like to take the levelling mechanic of social games, and really try to push it in an FPS context.”, “I want to use the basic quick-hit approach of Mafia wars to tell more extended narratives with proper story arcs”, “do you think that not knowing if your ally is a traitor would work in an RTS?”, and so on.

    But there really *are* people who’s ideas change the industry. These ideas are likely to sound very unlike game designs. “I have an idea for a game which is free to play, but where bling is sold based on a top-up micropayment account, and players can get in game benefits from introducing other players” (imagine if you’d heard that idea in 2005, say – you might, as I did, have dismissed it as naive). Unfortunately I can’t come up with the equivalent example for now. And if I could I wouldn’t be sharing it. But I believe strongly there are equivalents. Things that would, or could, change games.

    I’m not disagreeing that its still 99% execution in all cases. That the craft and sweat of the game designer is in making the detail contribute to the whole.

    But ideas are important. They can be powerful catalysts. The best game designers are marketers – who can sell internally and externally why the design *matters*. I know folks who’ve walked out of 6-figure jobs to eat Ramen for a game idea. I know folks who’ve raised millions in investment on a game idea. But I’ve never met anyone with that kind of idea who thought shlocking it round established game companies was a good idea.

  4. November 21, 2011 1:31 pm

    I think you meant Orson Welles? George Orwell was a writer.
    This reminds me of an interview of Stephen King I read a while ago. He talked about people thinking anyone can be a great writer just like that. Well, if you want to be a writer, then write. It’s that simple. Only through experience you will develop the skill to call yourself a writer. I think his point was quite valid for many craftmanship roles. And game design has a lot of craftmanship to it.

  5. Chris Pioli permalink
    November 21, 2011 1:39 pm

    The biggest problem with ideas is the implementation. How are you going to take that idea and turn it into manageable, configurable game mechanics? And then how are you going to program those game mechanics into code? It takes lots of planning, documenting, and software design (oh yeah, and writing code). There are hundreds of methods to implement a single idea, and odds are only a few of them are going to produce the experience the “idea man” wants players to have.

    Ideas are definitely something: a starting point.

  6. November 21, 2011 1:59 pm

    Yep so true Brenda. I often get people tell me they have this great idea for a game but I’m just not interested. I have a backlog of game ideas from the last 28 years to deal with first!

    • Snoopz permalink
      March 25, 2012 7:55 pm

      Yeah, Brenda so true. Everything you say +10.
      Can I sit on your lap now? *bark*

  7. November 21, 2011 5:32 pm

    Interesting comments certainly. I am in fact the person that bothered Brenda with this question today.

    I can see where the thoughts are coming from for all of those who are in the games industry but I think there are two kinds of people who might send this sort of email. The first is someone with an idea they think is great because it’s theres (everyone has an idea right). And the second is a person who has a desire to make games and thinks they have what it takes but just doesn’t know how to penetrate the industry. I am the latter.

    What strikes me as interesting is that from the industry people you downplay ideas and talk up execution. But if we all take a reality check, walk into any games store and have a look at what games are on sale, what we will find is a lot of ideas clogged up with poor execution. Now there are game lovers, I think we are all in that category and we will happily play bad games just for the love of games. But if you actually speak to the regular console or PC user and ask them what games do you enjoy playing, what games do you find yourself playing again and again. I think what you’ll find is all these games that are being produced have a shelf life of a month if you are lucky. The fact is the market is saturated with poorly executed games. And why? Because companies are willing to spend big bucks to push out games without taking the time to develop a concept from individuals with the passion for simply a making a great game that has some integrity.

    Now I am not in the Games Industry (hence my email to Brenda). I have been offered a job as a QA recently, sadly it is with a QA company not a QA department within a games company. The crucial difference being that it is a lot harder to get to where I want to be because I would have to establish myself and then move jobs as opposed to working my way up the company. The situation I am in is that I truly believe I have creative vision, communication, leadership and concepts not just on story line but across the board from game hud to mechanics to missions to skill tress etc. Why? Because like many of you games is my passion and I have played countless titles and over the years have developed in myself a sense of what ingredients you need for a good game.

    Now I know a lot of you will disagree with what I’ve said. But like any young writer, actor, designer, artist… If you don’t strongly believe in yourself then you won’t make it anywhere. And I’m sat here looking at my concepts contemplating what skills I have and I truly believe that the piece I am working on most recently is a game changer for the industry. And what makes it a game changer isn’t the plot or genre it’s the format of play. I believe this because I’ve spent years playing games with large communities and I’ve heard time and time again the complaints with release after release. And it’s not about taste, it’s about quality look in any genre racing, fps, rpg and you can pick a handful of great examples in a sea of failure. For me this year Skyrim has clawed back some respect and given players a reason to hand over their cash, very few games do that, most end in disappointment.

    Last think I’ve got to say is I love the blog Brenda, keep it up! 🙂

    • November 22, 2011 9:40 am

      Thanks for asking this question wgoodspeed. It inspired a great blog from Brenda and some good discussion. I like your reply too, which was very eloquent.

      I myself am in your category. Passionate about making games, and trying to find a way to share my creative vision with the industry I love. I am in the film/animation business, and finding the prospect of going back to the bottom as a QA to be an unexciting choice. I’d like to move sideways somehow, but I don’t see many ways in. So, despite my main talents being in art and design, I have learned to code. (Encouraged by Brenda’s point that this may help). Anyway, I have found the danger of coding to be that a) it leads you to be better qualified to enter in a coding job and b) jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none thing starts to happen, making you not suited to any posted job. I haven’t given up though. I have released my first game this year on Facebook, called Nightmare Cove. I am proud to say I executed something. (Next time – smaller scope, and tighter design doc) 🙂

      I just wanted to both say good luck out there and to second your point on the blog – thanks so much Brenda! This blog has helped motivate and inspire me, as well as direct me to resources out there.

      • November 24, 2011 2:39 am

        Good for you! The reason I suggest learning to code is so you can create games with the aim of getting a job in design. This not only gives you experience, it raises your resume above 1000 others that come through the door. It shows an applied passion.

        When we were watching the movie “The Social Network”, John turned to me and said, “See? That’s the importance of programming.” Mark Zuckerberg had been able to create the idea that the twin brothers merely dreamed of.

  8. November 21, 2011 6:25 pm

    Somehow, the more starkly honest and frank you are about the industry, the more encouraged I am to keep working at being a larger part of it.

  9. November 23, 2011 7:57 am

    It sounds like great advice and the reality is someone has to take things from design to execution. But what saddens me about this situation is I think there needs to be more of a balance somehow between passion and discipline (or skills in implementation). Many of the games I have played in recent years have been lacking in the imagination department. Of course this could have more to deal with publishers and inherent risk, but it’s a shame the medium has become so watered down because we have to focus so strongly on the process instead of the core idea. The analogy to “doctors” is a great one, since it sounds as if all the trials surmounted in making games tends to turn one “clinical” about the whole exercise.
    As a gamer and long time consumer, I can only hope that designers and developers are focusing some effort on making tools which streamline the process. Because it seems to me, that all of this effort spent on the execution can often make one lose sight of the reason you got into the field in the first place, to tell a story, or to immerse a player in a hitherto unimagined place. The movie making process is full of similar hurdles and pitfalls, many which still persist even though that medium has had more time to evolve. But where they seems to differ is that many of those smaller details are handled by people that are qualified to do so. And the big picture is not always handled by a Director who has worked his way up building sets or putting makeup on the actors. What I’m trying to say is although I understand why being a coder is important to game design, I’m not sure that coders see the world in the same way that their audiences do sometimes to the detriment to the end product. What we need is a bridge from imagination to the end product, to me that is the goal.

  10. November 23, 2011 1:11 pm

    What’s Nike’s slogan again? How this could be applied to almost anything in life where thinking != doing.
    You need one of, if not both of, two things: money and vision. Sometimes, in the case of a true visionary, you are able to surround yourself with those who are capable of implementing your vision. More often than not, the crowd-forming of capables comes via the tool of money. But the most common is where vision and money intersect for anyone and that is with oneself proper. If you don’t have the vision and dedication to make it happen yourself, how can you expect anyone to assist you? If you don’t have the money to support yourself while chasing down this dream, how can you expect anyone to share in that dream?
    Great post!

  11. November 26, 2011 6:04 am

    Hi! I was reading an article( about game design portfolios and the use prototypes instead of design documents. I was wondering if scenarios/adventures for pen and paper roleplaying games count as prototypes when applying for a level designer position for example. The scenario is still on paper but have been playtested and improved through iteration. How about pen and paper role-playing games? Do they count as finished games too?


    • November 29, 2011 9:40 pm

      Yes and no. It depends on who the reviewer is and his or her opinion. What is a “finished game” to one may mean it is actually a finished electronic game.

  12. November 30, 2011 2:28 pm

    I had a somewhat related question: I’m taking the advice “Make a game!” to heart, but is there any weight placed on WHAT I actually produce?

    I saw this formula:

    Full Game > Prototype > Resume > School

    I’m making a simple top down shooter in Unity as a solo project. I also have projects that I’ve pushed to the prototype phase, but I want to push this one to an actual release

    Would I not be taken seriously if I only have digital game prototypes in my portfolio? Or used simple game builders like GameSalad?

    Sorry, more than one question. Loving the book btw!

  13. December 22, 2011 7:54 pm

    First off I want to say how great of a blog this is and it has brought many points to my attention and made me a better as a whole.

    Your post is completely true, the small details are the most important things, recently I entered a Competition called the Ludem Dare its a 48 hour game creation project, after receiving the theme I had an idea within minutes, it was Simple a Puzzle game with a Time Traveling robot nothing spectacular but I saw some potential game-play wise, after spending a couple hours (which is still honestly not a lot of time but I didn’t have all that much time to begin with) i refined the concepts with ideas such as limited time in the past, the types of puzzles (though sadly i only had time for lever puzzles), among other things.

    In the past I’ve dived straight into an idea without any forethought and ended up with a game full of features that I though work make the game better but in the end ended unfun and unnecessary. The point is that without creating goals before hand you will end with a monster of unconnected features in a shell of a game.

    Since im mentioning it i might as well have a shameless plug for the competition and my entry 😛
    My Entry:

    Looking forward to further enlightening posts

  14. January 18, 2012 11:29 am

    I remember when i wanted a game and i tried and tried to get it to run and work and in the end i learnt it just such a hard thing to do to get a game idea from you head to the graphics sound programming onto a computer and actually play it. and after all that one year latter i learnt it more fun to play them.

  15. January 19, 2012 12:11 am

    I love this post. Having wonderful and creative ideas is certainly one thing. Taking the initiative to execute the idea is another. However, resources and financial backing are often the largest obstacle to many of these ideas taking flight. As you said in your post there is a great deal of work to do and many factors to consider to ensure that a good idea gets made into a good game. Perhaps, it is a good thing then that such a barrier exists, it ensures that only those dedicated enough to learn the craft of game design will be worthy of making their good ideas into wonderful games that we all can enjoy.

  16. March 14, 2012 10:59 pm

    Sounds like the reason the same sorts of games get made over and over again. Fresh blood never enters the process.

    Sure there are a million wafty overview ideas with no idea of actual moment to moment content. But its a situation ripe for stagnation all the same.

  17. Matthew permalink
    March 22, 2012 7:55 pm

    My idea for a game…A spiritual successor to Wizardry funded through Kickstarter made in the vein of Wizardry 7 with modern high-def 2d visuals but with essentially the same mechanics. Someone go do that. You can have all my money.

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