Coming up with game ideas
Today, I received an e-mail from someone who asked me how I come up with ideas for my games. That’s a tough question. Coming up with game ideas is a creative process without much structure to it. Nevertheless, I do think it’s something you can learn. I’ll give you some tips I think are helpful when trying to come up with an idea for your next game. If anyone else has some tips of their own, please share them.
Pencil and paper
First thing I want you to do, is turn off your computer. No, wait! First print this article, then turn off your computer.
Seriously, you shouldn’t look for game ideas while sitting behind a computer. Once you have an idea, you can use the computer to document it, or test it, or blog about it. What you need until then, is a pencil and some pieces of paper. As long as you are sitting behind your computer, it’s just to tempting to do some programming. That’s way too much focus way too early.
When I try to come up with an idea, I sit down behind my desk (the one without the computer on it) and just start drawing. Don’t ask me what, because I don’t know before I’m actually drawing it. Often, I don’t even know afterwards. That doesn’t matter, though. After four pages of abstract figures, maps, mazes, stick men, grids, diagrams and fluffy creatures, I usually have something worth exploring a bit further. Don’t let the fact that you couldn’t draw a straight line if your life depended on it keep you from using this technique; I don’t.
If you still find yourself looking at your computer from time to time while putting your ideas on paper, find someplace else to work. Go sit on a bench in the park somewhere. Really, a computer is not what you need at this point. Computer: bad. Pencil and paper: good.
Quantity first, quality later
The days that I don’t come up with a game idea at all are pretty rare. Before you start thinking ‘wow, this guy is some kind of game idea guru’ I should tell you that about 95% of those ideas are shamefully bad. Of the remaining ideas, only about one in five is good enough to be turned into an actual game.
That may sound depressing, but it’s not that bad. Suppose you come up with one game idea per day on average. That means that every hundred days or so you’ll have an idea that’s worth turning into a full-fledged game. That’s a solid three games a year. Not bad at all.
The trick to coming up with a lot of ideas is to not censor too early. It’s perfectly okay to come up with ideas that are complete rubbish. You shouldn’t flaunt them to the world of course, but don’t think less of yourself because you came up with a stupid idea. I mean, I once thought about doing a side-scrolling car racing game! Really, I did. I was trying to figure out how to make it work all afternoon when I finally decided that the idea had less potential than an ice-cream stand on the South Pole. The point is that I took the time to approach the idea from different angles instead of outright dismissing it. I learned something about the nature of racing games that day and I might be able to use that knowledge for a future idea.
Don’t think too much
You shouldn’t think too hard if you want to come up with an idea. Put your mind in brainstorm mode, let the ideas flow through you and don’t interrupt the creative process. In other words, let your subconscious do all the hard work. If you start to consciously think about an idea, your mind will focus on that idea exclusively. Remember, you want to go for quantity first. When you have some rough ideas of the approach you want to take, then you can start releasing your analytical skills.
It’s like finding a specific book on an over-stuffed bookshelf. You can look at all the book one by one, but you’ll probably have more success if you take a step back, look at a lot of books at once and let your subconscious mind guide you to the right spot.
Designing around a single concept
One technique that always allows me to come up with plenty of bad game ideas (and remember, that’s a good thing) is to design around a single concept. For example, I might sit down and think: I want to come up with a game where you don’t have an avatar and can only influence the environment indirectly. This results in stuff like: a busy street with cars, pedestrians and bikers where you control the traffic lights. (I know you’ve been thinking about that one, too. Have you figured out that it’s a bad idea, yet? Well, it is.) Or having the player try to control the path of a couple of marbles just by raising and lowering the terrain. (I thought of that one on the spot! See, it isn’t so hard.)
Next question is how to come up with those concepts. I usually just run into them by reading a book or by playing other computer games. For example, I got the idea for the side-scrolling racing game by playing Motorama, which is a side-scrolling motocross game. I thought it was kinda cool to see a side-scroller that wasn’t either a shooter or a platformer, so I tried to come up with other games that use the concept of side-scrolling. You see, the concept doesn’t have to be brilliant, as long as it gets you thinking. If you’re curious, I actually came up with two ideas in a couple of minutes: the racing game and some sort of pinball game on a big field with lots of flippers and without a sink.
This one should be kind of obvious, but I’ll mention it anyway. Play as much games as you can, especially ones that are innovative. It’s pretty rare that a game will give you an actual idea for a game of your own, but you will find a concept you can use (see above) from time to time. You don’t need to play games for hours on end to find those concepts, just fifteen minutes or so will do.
Shareware games from independent game developers are your best source for ideas. There are two reasons for this. First, these games have a free playable demo, so you can play lots of them for no money at all in relatively little time. Of course, if you happen to like the game you’re playing, you have a moral obligation to actually buy the game, especially if it that game happens to be Trichromix.
Second, if you’re looking for something innovative, you will sooner find it among the indie games than among the retail games. As a starting point, take a look at the finalists in the category Innovation In Game Design of the Independent Game Festival Competition.
I recommend visiting GameTunnel regularly to keep up-to-date with the latest indie games.
Learn about game design
If you want to learn how to design games, you should learn about game design. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I have to admit, though, that when I try to think of an idea for a game, I rarely directly use my knowledge of game design. Still, I believe that your subconscious benefits from knowledge about game design when you try to come up with ideas.
You want to know a good place to learn game design? Why, this very web site, of course! Just subscribe to this blog by RSS. Or just surf to www.casualgamedesign.com regularly, if that’s what you prefer. There are lots of other sources, too, obviously. I can’t name them all here. I will add a seperate section to this web site with links to articles, blogs and books on game design in a couple of days. If I don’t, just spam me until I do. (Be nice, though.)
Keep at it
The final tip is to not give up. Think about games everywhere you go. If you’re watching a television series, ask yourself what a game based on that series would play like. (Charmed is a nice starting point, since that show has a concept that lends itself perfectly to a computer game.) If you’re watching a play (you know, theatre) try to come up with a game where the player is one of the actors and that’s actually fun to play. If you’re eating dinner, ponder for a moment how you could make that into a game.
Ever since I started blogging about game design, I see game design everywhere. Social interaction is really just game design. Running a business is really just game design. Making movies is really just game design. Figuring out how to run a country is really just game design. And you know what? All of those topics have been turned into games. Ideas are everywhere. (Source: Casual Game Design)