How to have ideas
Every game starts with an idea. But where do they come from, and how can you make that happen more often, or in a more constructive way? How can you be more creative?
Ideas on their own are only worth so much - it's what you do with the ideas that counts, as expressed so eloquently in this 2016 blog from Jamey Stegmaier.
I've always had a lot of ideas. Mostly terrible ones, but ideas nonetheless. My first idea for a game was bouncing around in the back of my head, on and off for about 15 years before I did anything with it. Then once I’d eventually got that first playable prototype, I found I was getting more ideas. Generally, they just pop into my head, seemingly by themselves. Once I started having ideas for games, I found they would appear at really inopportune moments, and I’d need to push them to the back of my mind until I had the time and space to get them written down
Then after about an hour it stops and I can park that idea until I want to make a first prototype or whatever. My mind has been purged and I can go back to what I was doing. I was trying to explain this to a friend, who said they had never had an idea in their life. And sometimes, even if you naturally have ideas, you might want to engineer that process, and to be able to quickly come up with ideas, solutions and options at will.
Now of course, creativity is about more than ideas - and it isn’t just about art or design. Creativity is your ability to generate something new and real. Sure, you’ll need an idea, and there may well be elements of art and design, but it’s more than that. It's how you see new opportunities, how you can make subtle improvements, how you can spot mistakes and fix them. It's even the way in which you approach problems and obstacles. So here’s 15 ways in which you can help that to happen, even if you don't think you're an 'ideas person':
Get out and about (if you're able to in the current climate). Go places, listen, watch, look for inspiration everywhere you go. Keep a notebook. Like writers do - write ideas down, even if they’re just scraps - you never know what might come in useful at a later date.
Be curious – question everything you do and everything you are assuming. Why does my game work this way? How could it be better? Where have I seen this (mechanism, theme, rule) done better? Encourage others to do this to you as well – this can be exhausting and demoralising if you do this too much (if everyone seems to picking holes in everything you do), but you can get some amazing, unique insights from those questions.
Check your perception: If you don’t see or think of yourself as creative, that can itself be a blocker. If you don’t feel like you’re creative, work and collaborate with people that are. Find out what they do and how they do it.
Be positive. Creative people (whatever they are) approach a creative situation with optimism, and allow themselves the time and space to create. This might be as simple as taking a 30 second pause and asking yourself ‘could there be a better way of doing this?’ If you can make this a regular habit, you’re far more likely to be able to create and problem-solve successfully. The founder of Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono, called this a ‘Creative pause’.
Understand what your ideal environment is for creativity – for some people it’s being surrounded by company, noise, stimuli – for others it’s a dark room or the daily commute. Mine is walking; and sometimes, just as I'm dropping off to sleep. What works for you?
One key aspect of creativity is problem-solving, and to be able to see a problem as an opportunity to improve, rather than as a roadblock. In game design, nothing is insurmountable, and nothing is necessarily the death-knell for your game. It’s just a problem you need to solve, which will make your game better. And every time you do, your game will be better than it was before – that should be incentive enough.
Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve, and don’t necessarily accept the first possible solution that comes along (but try it, test it, and move on to the next). If you can do this in collaboration with someone else, so much the better – everyone will have their own individual ideas, and people can spark off each other and build upon each other’s thoughts.
Immerse yourself in problems that arise. Break problems down into smaller ones, and tackle each part one at a time until you can make progress.
Park & revisit - If you really get stuck, focus on that problem, park it and move on to something else. Chances are the next time you think about it (or possibly when you wake up the next morning) you’ll have a solution, or a different way of thinking about it. But make sure you do come back to the problem rather than parking it indefinitely – even a day later, you’ll be surprised at how your perspective might have changed.
Go with the flow – if your activities seem to be taking you down a path you hadn’t initially intended, go with it and see where it goes. You can always bank what you find and retrace your steps, and maybe you’ll end up with two great ideas instead of one?
Collaborate – share, discuss, ask questions. Forums are an amazing place for advice. Share your ideas and your problems – your current thoughts could be the thing that solves someone else’s problem, and vice versa.
Read - other people’s blogs, design diaries and newsletters. Game designers tend to share what they do and how they do it, so learn from them where you can.
Empathise - Put yourself in the mind of the people you want to be playing your game – what would they want? What would you want if you were them? If your game isn't providing that – why not? If you can empathise with your players (ie your customers), you’ll be in a much better position to design the best possible version of your game.
If you’re not a wordy person, and don’t much like the idea of writing things down, try a 'mood board' - used by fashion designers and interior designers, you can use it for anything. You can do this using something like Pinterest, or the old-fashioned way by cutting stuff out and sticking it together. This will also come in handy if you end up getting to the stage where you want to employ an artist or graphic designer. Or try a flowchart, or a brainstorm, or a wordcloud, or just talk into a recorder app
Practise - all of this, whenever you can. Writers will tell you to write every day – write something, it doesn’t matter what. Same applies to design – get in the habit of designing. It doesn’t matter if your ideas are rubbish (remember, an idea is as good as the way in which you develop it), but your brain will get better at all of this if you make the time to think in that way.
Ultimately, creativity is a learnable, practisable skill. And ultimately, anyone can be creative. Yes, especially you. Try it, fail fast, fail again, get back up and have fun :-)