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Game Ideation For The Everyman

 
18-May-2011

All games, regardless of medium or success, stem from the abstract construct of thought we know fondly as the 'idea'. It all has to start somewhere after all, be it on the proverbial drawing board, along the margins of your thesis paper, in your sister's diary or even the back of a paper towel.

It goes without saying that simply having an idea is practically useless (this applies to most, if not all industries really). These days, you could pick anyone off the street and chances are that they probably have a couple of pitch-worthy game ideas up their sleeves, ideas that will likely never see the light of day. Simply put, game ideas are aplenty. On the other hand, game ideas that are acted upon and further developed however don't come along quite as often.

In truth, it takes a good measure of dedication and perseverance to see one's ideas realized. That, however, is a topic for another time. For now, let's shift our focus to the actual birthing of a game idea.

And no, there's not going to be any 'thinking out of the box' going on here. I mean, who has the say as to what or where the box is? What actually constitutes the box, and why do we even think within it to begin with?

I come to you now as a gaming enthusiast and an aspiring designer to share a number of pointers and 'soft techniques' that I've personally found useful while in the process of creating and brainstorming ideas, for games or otherwise.

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That Is Not A Game Idea

Before we delve deeper into the subject, let's get one thing straight. An idea for a story (character, background, fluff, lore, etc., what-have-you) is NOT an idea for a game. A story may or may not influence the overall design of a game and even its mechanics, but a story is STRICTLY NOT a game idea. A premise for a story may too influence a game's design, but DO NOT turn the premise into the core design philosophy of a game.

This is one of the most common mistakes fledgling designers make, yours truly included. I'm sure most of you out there have, at some point or another, come across a situation that goes kind of like this: "I HAVE A GREAT IDEA FOR A GAME. IT'S ABOUT ARMORED DRAGONS FROM SPACE THAT ATTACK THE EARTH AND KIDNAP OUR WOMEN!" That is an idea for a story, not a game. Get the picture?

So, let's now take a step back and look at this simply. Ideally, a game idea (in the strictest sense of a 'game idea') involves an abstract collection of rules, constraints, boundaries and possibly a goal. At its bare minimum, it may even simply manifest as a general gameplay direction or premise. In essence, it's about laying the foundations or manifesto for a set of mechanics that, upon further development, will pass off as 'playable'.

Imposing Self-Constraint

One of the first things we have to take into consideration is the necessity of scope and self-constraint. It is all too tempting to simply wade into the vast expanse of the ocean that is the collective consciousness and, with our bare hands, simply fish for the next great game concept. As beautiful as it sounds, regrettably, it's not all too practical in terms of productivity.

It is very stimulating (not to mention enjoyable) to simply ride the stream of consciousness in hopes of eventually landing upon the shore of a brilliant idea. Our mind, however, processes thousands upon thousands of thoughts at a blazingly fast pace and without the proper cognitive sanctions, the chances of getting lost in one's train of thought is pretty high.

This is where scope, themes, constraint and focus come into play. As an individual or within a group, identify a theme, or range of themes, that peak your interest(s) and brainstorm with said themes in mind. Better yet, set yourself a challenge or a number of constraints by which your brainstorm must adhere to. These methods do not stifle the ideation process. Rather, it forces you to explore more options and perspectives within a specific scope, which in itself is very conducive to the brainstorm.

Identifying And Solving A Problem

This has to be one of the oldest tenants of inventing. It first involves identifying one of the many varied problems or dissatisfactions that life has to offer, then seeking a means that would ideally solve or appease said problem or dissatisfaction. Essentially, the solution has to remove a thorn in the side of mankind and in turn, make the world a better (and easier) place to live in (not to mention potentially making you a truck load of cash). This is a thought process that can easily be applied to game ideation.

The market provides a huge collection of case studies that may be easily drawn upon by gamers and designers alike. In every game, there will be features and/or problems that don't sit well with any given particular demographic of gamers. More importantly, in every game that possibly exists, no matter how 'refined' or 'perfect', there will always be room for improvement. This is something that designers can easily capitalize on.

Identify a game, a game feature or a gaming/genre trend that displeases you, your colleagues or the general gamer populace. Take that, chew it over and break it down. Make it better, for you and the rest of us gamers and enthusiasts alike.

Don't Try Too Hard

I'm sure a lot of you out there can sympathize with the fact that some of our best ideas hit us at just the most random, unexpected and sometimes, inopportune moments. You know what I'm talking about; those moments in the lavatory where you get struck by a flash of brilliance, only to discover that you've run out of paper towels to not only have your great idea jotted down, but to clean yourself as well?

Yes? No?

Well, the point I'm trying to make here is that a lot of times, ideas simply come to us as and when they do. Our subconscious mind works at a pace that far surpasses our waking consciousness, constantly analysing, associating, reasoning and ever so subtly communicating. Every now and again, our subconscious lets slip a new idea or a brand new perspective on things that, with the right amount of cultivation, has the potential to translate into a ground-breaking concept for a game.

It's one of those weird cosmic ironies where the amount of effort expended searching doesn't necessarily translate into the quality of our quarry (that being the game idea).

Don't discount the undeniable merit of hard work altogether however. All I'm saying here is that sometimes, we simply need to take a step back and proceed with calm and moderation, trying as best as we can to not lose sight of the spontaneous nature of the creative process.

Unlikely Pairings

This point is really more about experimentation than anything else. As a simple exercise, simply take a stab in the dark and toss a number of random 'things' together. Anything works really, be it themes, objects, people, behaviours, ideals, etc. It's kind of like putting together a collage, just that it'll be in your head and it probably won't be very big in scale.

This little exercise works wonders for those of us looking to create and/or discover uniquely quirky premises or story settings. Don't go overboard though. As I've mentioned in an earlier point, it's always a good idea to lay down some sanctions or have a scope or direction outlined before you let your mind run wild.

What If?

While we're somewhat on the topic of experimentation, a good life habit to adopt that greatly facilitates the ideation process is to simply question. More specifically, constantly toss 'What If?' around as the ebb and flow of ideas begins to wash over you and/or your fellow brain-stormers.

Having chanced upon a potentially brilliant game idea, a simple 'What If?' opens the door to even greater possibilities, allowing us to see the potential flaws and successes of the idea at hand. With each 'What If?' asked in response to a potential idea, we embark on a renewed train of thought that explores brand new perspectives, all the while rooted to the core idea that we began with (serving as a cognitive sanction).

Using 'What If?' requires one to have an open mind and when done right, effectively counteracts the complacency that one might unwittingly gain in the process of coming up with and developing an idea. It is a control measure that keeps our mental egos in check. In short, it goes something like, "Hey, I have a great idea!", shortly followed by, "What if we took that idea and did to it, would it work better or worse then? Would it work at all?" As it happens, this also works extremely well while prototyping and play-testing.

It's about experimentation as much as it is about exploration. Start questioning now. Set off a chain reaction of ideas leading to new possibilities which further leads you to newer ideas, etc. You do the rest of the math.

Learn To Let Go

Don't get clingy. Every now and again, you're going to come upon a game idea that may not work out the way you intended/require. Alternatively, you may chance upon a game idea that has already been done to death, and yet still somehow passes off as a great idea. In both cases, you're going to have to learn to dump it (or rather, temporarily set it aside).

I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a 'bad idea', simply ones that may require a GREAT deal of revision before being put into use. This, of course, applies to game ideas and the ideation process. Many a times, we find ourselves clinging to an idea, no matter how flawed and/or impractical. While that speaks of passion and pride in oneself, it also screams stubbornness. Much like my previous point, it's about having an open mind, and in addition, objectivity.

Again, there really is no such thing as a 'bad idea'. If you have an idea that you love but just can't get to work, learn to simply set it aside, put it on temporary hold and move on. Let it mature for a short while and when opportunity calls, your idea will be sitting right where you last left it waiting for you.

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The ideation process is multi-dimensional and can definitely be approached from any number of directions and methods. It is an activity that is not only mentality stimulating, but also highly enjoyable and most importantly, productive (more often than not at least). Within the scope of gaming, ideas are the clay by which designers mould new experiences and better modes of gameplay that will, for now and for years to come, continually evolve and encourage greater immersion and player interactivity.

However, to re-iterate what I mentioned at the start of this piece, it takes a tonne of work before ideas truly come to fruition and materialize as something tangible, or in the case of a game designer, playable. Don't let that discourage you however, after all, as I've mentioned, it all has to start somewhere.

What is your take on ideation and the brain-storm? Have you used any of the 'soft techniques' that I've suggested and/or mentioned? Do you agree with my take on the varying mindsets to adopt while creating ideas? Might you have any nifty tricks of your own that aids with your ideation pipeline (I'm sure you have a couple)?


 
 
Category : Gaming
 
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