Andrew Smith discusses best, and worst, practice for generating game ideas

â??Want to cultivate great game ideas? Be silly!â?

Ideas are a funny thing, because anyone can have one.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has them as literally physical (albeit invisible) objects that float through the cosmos and land in whoever’s brains are in the way. That suggests you could find out which way the ‘idea wind’ is blowing and increase your chances by standing upwind of everyone else, but in the real world this isn’t exactly feasible.

Some people are probably more prone to having ideas than others. I won’t say they’re more creative – that’s a different skill, and obviously some people are more creative than others (while some are more technical, others more pragmatic etc.) – but the first thing that has to happen when making a game is that idea. It is the seed, the kernel, the egg and the Alpha of any project. It should also be the Omega. It is that beginning and end, and be all and end all. The idea is everything.

Of course as a Designer I would say that wouldn’t I? So how do you get your team, your company, or even just your team mate to be more ‘idea-prone’?

The best way, and the most powerful, is to adopt a particular attitude towards ideas. I’ve often heard it said that in brainstorming meetings there should be ‘no such thing as a bad idea’. I sort of agree, but I have a better solution – get silly. If you’re serious about becoming more idea-prone, then it requires a base shift in the way you view life. Restricting this to a 2hr slot every Wednesday afternoon in a drab meeting room is not terribly effective. It’s like any habit – you’ll have to force it.

Make it your responsibility to look at the world in a different way. If you don’t read fiction, do. If you read a lot of one genre, try another. If you don’t watch movies or telly, do. Listen to some (ideally a lot of) music you think you probably won’t enjoy. Build up a store of mental imagery and experience, which you will draw upon at the most unexpected times.

Get silly. Often I hear Monty Python heralded as being pretty much the funniest troupe ever formed. In some ways, the secret to their success was their complete lack of fear. Fear of being silly, fear of failure, and fear of critical failure.

You see, fear is the enemy of expression, and what are ideas if not the purest form of expression?

Ideas should be free of prejudice, judgement and filtering at the beginning. It’s something we could all do with learning from in life, let alone games development.
Even if the biggest publisher in the world has given you the strictest brief you’ve ever seen, don’t feel afraid of being a bit silly with it at those early stages. That may sound like counter-intuitive designer-creative bollocks but honestly, allowing the slightest element of fear to creep in at such an early stage – when you’re trying to eke out the core fun of an idea, when it is at its most vulnerable – that amounts to giving it the kiss of death.

Ideas are totally vulnerable at the moment they are conceived. They’re hard to define, hard to grasp, and sometimes hard to communicate. But if they’re allowed to grow then they become one of the most powerful forces known to man. I’m not exaggerating, it is simply the truth.

Grab hold of that power at the earliest opportunity and let it flourish. It will only help you make better games.
Again this is all well and good, but how do you turn what is purely whimsical theory into a practical and applicable methodology?

Prototyping is one answer. It’s widely accepted as a way to prove an idea, and this is valuable, but I want to say now that it is actually far more useful as a way to let an idea grow into something pregnant with potential.
To prove something has potential is to assume it has none at the start. This negative stance is the wrong way to begin. You must see an idea for its potential, and allow it the time and attention of your team to show it, not prove it. Making prototyping part of a company’s culture from this much more positive and optimistic position will have a tremendous effect on what happens when you finally sit back and take a look at the end result.

It’s important, however, to exercise caution. It’s easy to get caught up in that undefined potential and let a prototype run away forever, never reigning it in for a health check. The fact is, while ideas are to be treated as fairly fragile and important, they are also incredibly numerous – but only if you’ve done a good job of encouraging their gestation. So there should be very little pain in letting failed ones go.

Simply cut and move on – another reason why rapid and constant prototyping should be a part of every games company’s DNA. The constant shower of failed and successful ideas, and their repeated refinement and resurrection should lead to a bounty of useful gameplay, new takes on existing methods of development and basically a massive backlog of highly valuable and proven knowledge.

You see, no idea is ever just ‘bad’, and no idea is ever simply ‘good’. The only difference is that certain ideas have their time – never throw any of them away, simply relegate them to a library, and refer to them when the time is right. Even an idea that constantly fails to become anything of use in a live project is still a resource from which to take useful information – it will have failed for a variety of documented reasons, and those should never be forgotten.

So go away, broaden your horizons, and then lobby your employer/employees to get silly. Get some ideas down on paper, and then have fun seeing where they take you! And don’t let it be just at 10:30am every Thursday; make it a constant feature of your professional lives.

Andrew Smith is a promising lead designer who recently won a place on the Develop 30 Under 30. Formerly at Proper Games, he now runs his own studio microstudio Spilt Milk.

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