In other parts of the media world – film, TV and even business, structured creativity has been a regular part of the innovative process for some time. The games industry may be a little behind the curve, but we’re beginning to realise its value. Coming up with and developing good ideas is a learnt skill, you don’t have to be born with it. With a little bit of training it becomes second nature.
Here are ten ideas to recharge your creative habit.
1. Go Wild
Don’t start by thinking about what’s possible, what the publisher wants or whether it can be done. Those are concerns for further along the development line. Crazy, wacky, apparently completely unworkable or just plain weird ideas are the best starting place for being original.
‘Singstar began life as a game idea about aboriginal dreamtime’, says Jamie Macdonald, former VP of development at SCE and now senior VP at Codemasters. ‘The central mechanic involved singing to trees in a forest.”
“We realised we needed the technology to identify pitch and rhythm. In the end we weren’t sure the market was ready for a game about aboriginal dreamtime but by that stage we’d developed a neat bit of technology. Then we thought – we’ve got this, can we use it in a different way?’ And so came Singstar.
2. Learn to think laterally
James Dyson famously spent ten years developing phenomenal power for his revolutionary vacuum cleaner. But what else could he use that technology for? What if you turn the one thing you know to be true about a vacuum cleaner on its head.
Redirect its incredible sucking power and make it blow. It not might be much use for a vacuum cleaner but it could be perfect for drying hands quickly. So Dyson was on to yet another revolutionary product – the Dyson Airblade hand dryer.
3. Don’t stamp on ideas too early
Those that start out wild are often the best ones but you need to run with them, explore the possibilities fully before you choose which to stick with. If singing to the trees had been chucked out as a downright loopy idea (which, some might say, would be a fair comment), Singstar would never have been born.
4. Give yourself constraints
Too much freedom can paralyse innovation. There’s nothing more intimidating than being told to go off and be creative. Some hours later you find yourself with a blank sheet of paper facing you, waiting for that great idea to turn up. Putting in some real or imagined constraints can help focus your thoughts.
Talking to Develop recently, Honeyslug producer, Mark Inman, described how their small budgets and lo-fi nature of the studio helped them produce claymation-styled puzzler Kahoots, one of the consistently highest rated games of the new PSP minis: “We’ve found that it’s actually no harder to charm someone with a game, make them laugh even, on a shoestring budget. In fact, it’s possibly easier, because the limitations seem to make us more creative.
"This was definitely the case with Kahoots, where we had an art budget of £35, and bought all kinds of stuff from Kentish Town high street to scan or photograph, made characters from plasticine and wool, and drew the interface with felt tips.”
5. Be prepared to be a little uncomfortable
Creativity relies on breaking out of accepted ways of thinking and operating. Provoke yourself and your team. Take risks. Ignore good judgment. Be silly and extreme, especially if it’s not in your nature to do so.
6. Failure is OK
It might even be a good thing. Most managers stop short of encouraging failure but James Dyson suggests failure is where true originality springs from. James Dyson made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before I got it right. Failure is a necessary part of process. It’s management’s job to ensure there is the capability to recover built into the team culture.
7. Use outsiders’ experience
It’s easy to be blinkered by familiarity. Refresh your thinking by changing the perspective.
While watching a Formula One race, Dr Allan Goldman and his colleague Martin Elliott realised the pitstop team’s smooth functioning could help them solve a problem. As head of paediatric cardiac intensive care at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Dr Goldman’s concern had been improving the critical post-op handover from the theatre to the intensive care team.
“We spoke to the F1 teams about the processes and safety culture and designed a simple process we could use,” says Goldman.
At Sony Jamie Macdonald found bringing in outsiders to work with a team led to new dynamics and new ideas: “Outsiders can break down internal barriers and draw out contributions from individuals from whatever discipline that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to voice their idea.”
8. Establish an ego-less exchange of ideas and comments
Ideally get in there right at the beginning - and then follow it through. When Kumar Jacob was director of HR at Criterion, he and Fiona Sperry, VP of games development, wanted new staff to understand their ideas were just as relevant to Criterion’s culture as their longer standing colleagues’. So, at the induction sessions, they surprised the newcomers by asking what they liked about their previous company.
“It worked on several levels” says Jacob. “It was a novel approach. The new intake felt listened to - and the good ideas they suggested were acted on. Sometimes immediately.”
On one occasion, while the session was still going on, Jacob and Sperry discussed and then implemented one of the new recruits’ suggestions during the coffee break.
“It showed them what a dynamic company they were joining,” says Jacob.
9. Do something different Mix it up
Try doing something entirely different – cooking classes or drumming workshops – and see how it refreshes thinking.
10. Introduce some structure
Structured creativity is about repeatable effective, idea generation.
At SCE Macdonald found in each team there would typically be one member who was considered the visionary.
“That’s not a bad thing but you need the process and creative structure to maximise their vision. Structuring creativity is about demythologising the creative process and bringing it into line with other parts of the business. All have a process and a technical infrastructure. This is no different.”
Smart people, working within a creative framework maximises the collective IQ. For Macdonald, the introduction of a structure enabled a quick and effective response to changing circumstances: “One week one team might need to respond to short term market opportunity next week it would be a long term product strategy. We would use the same overarching structure and process for both."
Embedding the creative structure into the company means senior management has more freedom. Responding to changing circumstances is no longer a problem because the team has the mindset to deal with it.
Gamers are ready for more sophistication and more innovation. Your audience is becoming more demanding.
Commenting on the critical and commercial success of ‘Heavy Rain’ in the Guardian recently Quantic Dream’s David Cage said it was time for the games industry to understand that gamers had changed: "The commercial success of the game shows one thing: gamers are not who we thought they are. They are older, eager for something new, ready for more sophistication than what most games have to offer."
Innovate and stay ahead. To quote David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising: Encourage innovation. Change is our lifeblood, stagnation our death knell.
Dinah Lammiman worked as development producer, reporter and series producer at the BBC for many years. She and Joanna Irlam, formerly of Criterion, set up Kudi earlier this year to provide tailor-made specialist training packages and creativity training for leading companies in both the games and media industries.