Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Idea Origins, originally on GameCareerGuide

I've not written much here lately because I'm working on a book and contributing articles to Gamasutra and GameCareerGuide. I'm going to put some of the older ones here. This one was "Idea Origins" 9 Dec '08, The following has been revised a little from that original version.

The idea is not the game

"Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as invention, you know. It's only magnifying what already exists." Allie Fox, character in the film The Mosquito Coast

How important are ideas?

Most novice designers think that their main task is to come up with a great new idea. They think a great new idea will necessarily become a great game. Also, to them an idea must be new to be great. You can see folks like this asking in online forums for help in turning their idea into a game; they almost never find a collaborator, because ideas alone are nearly worthless.

As Allie Fox says, the reality is that there is hardly ever a new idea--"nothing new under the sun"--rather there are new ways to use old ideas.

Furthermore, for every person who gets an idea, there are usually dozens or hundreds of others with the same idea.

Think about the category of novel writing. Almost all novels are variations of ideas used in novels published in the past. It's how the writer presents the ideas that counts, plus a dollop of luck. There is nothing notably new in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, but it has sold over 60 million copies. The same can be said about movies, hardly anything is new.

How often do we get a really extraordinary new idea in games? In non-video gaming, we have Avalon Hill'sStalingrad/Afrika Korps/Waterloo, TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, Wizard of the Coast's Magic:the Gathering. A game as successful as Trivial Pursuit or Settlers of Catan is a simple variation on games that came before. In video games, there have been many technical advances, but few really new games. The Sims comes to mind, but it was preceded by a game called Little Computer People which Mobygames calls “the mother of The Sims”; have you ever heard of it? A new idea does not guarantee a highly successful product, and highly successful games usually have no new ideas.

It doesn't make sense to try to come up with a "great idea": your chances are worse than one in a million of coming up with one. And if you did would you recognize it as a great idea?

Because ideas on their own count for so little, publishers want games, not ideas. Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen; everyone in the game industry has ideas. Recognize that your "great idea" is probably not that great, not that original, and not that interesting to others. Virtually everyone thinks their game ideas are extraordinarily good, and everyone is wrong almost all the time.

This is hard for beginners to accept, partly because it’s easy to come up with a few ideas, so it’s nice to think that you only need to come up with a great idea to make a lot of money. No, there’s a lot of work in making a successful game, beginning with generating LOTS of ideas. The more ideas you have, the more likely you’ll have a few really good ones that can become really good games.

There’s a “pyramid” of game design (see illustration) that goes like this:
• Lots of people get ideas
• Fewer successfully go from general idea to a specific game idea
• Fewer yet produce a prototype
• Fewer yet produce a decently playable prototype
• Very few produce a completely designed game
• And very, very few produce a really good complete game

As we progress in this chapter I’ll talk about how to get ideas, what to do with those ideas, how to turn those ideas into specific game ideas, and so on to reach the prototype. Everything applies equally to video games and non-electronic games.

(For more about the worth of ideas alone, see Tom Sloper’s advice at

How many ideas?

“It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” Edward de Bono

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Linus Pauling

“Every contrivance of man, every tool, every instrument, every utensil, every article designed for use, of each and every kind, evolved from a very simple beginning.” Robert Collier

If you have no ideas, you’ll never have a game. How many ideas do you need? The more the better. Most of them will never become games, let alone good games. It’s another sub-pyramid as show in the accompanying illustration (which ought to be much wider than it is tall, but is a conventional pyramid for the sake of clarity).

[Illustration miniature included here, larger version attached separately]

If all this is true, then you know you need to generate a great many ideas in order to have a few that might ultimately reach retailer shelves. Remember the conventional wisdom that upwards of 90% of the video games that are initially funded–that’s the plans that are good enough for someone to be willing to pay to have them developed–never reach the public. At some stage they’re canceled or the studio fails for other reasons. One of the more well-known boardgame designers estimates that 60% of his games will not be published. And for every idea that is good enough to try to turn into a game, there are many, many ideas that don’t make it.

You want to get to a point where you have far more fruitful ideas than you can possibly turn into games even if you live to be a hundred. Ideas beget ideas, so the more you come up with, the more you get. As novelist John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” But this means you need a great many ideas.

There are creators who write just one novel, have just one hit song, publish just one game. In a few cases they may have had just a few ideas, though more likely, they had lots of ideas but only one “panned out”. If you want to be a professional designer, who publishes game after game, you need to be working on many games at once, and that means a very high volume of ideas.

How do you get ideas?

People ask novelists, “where do you get your ideas?” The answer is usually, “everywhere”. But what they don’t think to say is, they get lots of ideas because they’re working at getting ideas.

This is exactly the opposite of the common notion of creativity as “it just happens” or “it’s Art”. Creativity is partly inside a person, but most of it comes from working at it. For every genius like Mozart, who wrote music without thinking about it (“I write music like cows piss”) there are dozens of outstanding and great composers who work hard at getting ideas and revising those ideas. Beethoven filled notebooks with musical ideas. He wrote four different versions of the overture to his only opera, Fidelio. Yet both of these composers wrote music to make a living, not because of “art” or a high-falutin notion of “creativity”. "You can, for example, count on the fingers of both hands the number of musical compositions Mozart didn't write for money, and negotiating with Beethoven was like trying to take a steak away from a hyena." (Prof. Robert Greenberg in recorded lecture, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition", Teaching Company) If even the extraordinary genius treated his creativity as work, most other “geniuses” as well as ordinary mortals work at creativity.

In my own experience, I used to get lots of ideas for games and game articles, and much was published. Then for 20 years I decided there were more important things to do (learning computing and networking, and making a living), and those ideas stopped coming. Several years ago I decided to get back into game design rather than write computer textbooks, and now I have a vast collection of ideas and more to do than I have time for. That’s because now I work at getting ideas and developing ideas.

In other words, there’s a way to push forward with ideas, rather than wait for them to come to you. Don’t waste your time! Like many other things in life, getting ideas is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Hence the number two lesson in ideas, after “you need a lot”, is that “you have to work at getting them”. You have to keep part of your mind aware of your search for ideas, so that everything you see and hear and smell and touch is examined as a stimulus for game ideas. You may even sit down and say, “I’m going to come up with more ideas,” or “I’m going to think up a new game.” It won’t always happen, but often it will, and the more often you do it, the more often the ideas will come.

[game design game example – finally cracked it driving to Jim’s]

Game ideas are often generated by association with something that isn’t obviously about games. This is why game designers benefit from a broad education, from diverse reading, from multiple interests: they have more to associate with than the narrowly-defined “gamer” (or “fanboy/fangirl”).

Game ideas come from asking questions. They come from reading of all kinds, history, fiction, science, etc. They come from looking at pictures and maps. They come from talking with other people, even from using everyday things. They come from reading game rules, from playing games, from reading game reviews, from reading postmortems by game designers, from reading books about game design. Yes, there’s a lot of reading there, because when you read you’re often exposed to a lot of ideas in a short time, and the association may generate game ideas in your mind. Finally, ideas come from thinking about the ideas you’ve already had. Often a designer will have an idea for a game, get stuck on some problem for which there’s no evident solution, and years later associate that idea with another one generated at another time. These will combine to solve the problem and push the game forward. Almost anything can give you ideas. I’ve designed boardgames by starting with a particular kind of piece in mind. (More about this later in this chapter.)

Record Your Ideas

“Every composer knows the anguish and despair occasioned by forgetting ideas which one had no time to write down.” Hector Berlioz, composer of Symphony Fantastique
“Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” Howard Aiken

I firmly believe that some ideas will come to me only once, and if I don’t record them, I’ll never get them again. Even if you don’t believe something similar, you’ll admit the inconvenience of having an idea, forgetting it, and having to wait until it comes to you again, perhaps years later.

Trying to keep all your ideas in your head is “a fool’s errand”. The only way you can do it is if you have so few ideas that you’re most unlikely to be productive.

You should carry a notebook or other recording device with you almost everywhere, and when you get an idea, write it down (or record it by voice). I carry an HP PDA (personal digital assistant) that has one-button voice recording (not all PDAs do). I can record while driving because all I need is that single button on the side of the device. I can press the button, talk, and when I let it go it stops recording–a reasonably safe way to record things while driving. My cell phone can record, but this requires several steps, and I won’t divert my attention like that while driving. Moreover, my PDA goes into a cradle that automatically transfers my voice notes to my desktop at home and my desktop at work, so soon I have three copies. It’s easy to type the idea into my main idea database as I listen to my voice notes.

Students think I’m strange to occasionally talk to my PDA in the middle of class, but they soon realize the purpose. I call it “my memory”.

Don’t leave an idea as a voice file. Writing down ideas forces you to actually figure out and understand what you mean; many novice designers have "ideas" that are only in their head, and when they're asked to articulate them, they find out that there's a lot they haven't figured out (or have forgotten).

Aside from the PDA, I have a paper notebook in my “game box”, the box that carries games I’m playtesting. When I’m at game sessions, I can write more extensively in the notebook than I would record on the PDA. (And if I forget one, maybe I’ll have the other.)

Finally, I have a light laptop/tablet computer, and an even lighter, 700-hours on 3 AA batteries, solid-state storage, specialized word processor (an Alphasmart Neo) for note-taking when at game meetings. (You can’t type on a PDA, not with speed.) I don’t intend to lose any ideas.

I ought to have a recorder (such as my Olympus voice recorder) by my bedside for middle-of-the-night ideas, but I don’t want to wake my wife by talking, so I have a clipboard. And I’ve been known to get up in the middle of the night to write idea details into my computer.

In the 1970s and 80s the "data store" for ideas was notebooks and pieces of paper, sometimes typed (with carbon copies, if you were smart, as backups). In the 21st century the data store may still be notebooks, but preferably it will be electronic, whether word processing, or a specialist note program such as Info Select or OneNote, or voice messages to yourself, but it's got to be something that can easily be searched electronically and copied (backed up).

Computers are cheap and plentiful, and you should use some kind of free text database. A free text database has no fields such as you define in Microsoft Access or Oracle or (in older days) dBase. You type data in however you like, and the search facility of the free text database does the rest. Any word processor can be used this way, but specialized programs will be faster. Some designers prefer to use a spreadsheet program extensively, but I prefer the superior organization and searchability of a specialized program.

I have used one of the first free text database programs, called Info Select (, since the 1980s. It is my “desert isle” program, the one I’d use if I could only have one piece of software. It is fast, easily allows subcategories, and offers many ways to search. (It can also be word processor, email program, Web browser, etc.) It not only allows me to organize information, it allows a full text search in the blink of an eye (because all the stored information is loaded into memory). Unfortunately it is pretty expensive.

Microsoft One-Note is another program of this type, somewhat expensive unless you’re properly associated with a school that subscribes to Microsoft Developers Network Academic Alliance (which makes it free). A very simple free program of this type is Memento, the equivalent of post-it notes, and there are many other freeware programs that can serve.

Or you can use a word processor or spreadsheet, and organize your ideas by file. Most computer operating systems allow you to search through files for particular keywords, or the word processor itself may do this. The trick in any of these programs is to have those keywords in the notes you’ve typed. If you have an idea for a first person shooter, be sure “FPS” is there with the details of your idea. If you have an idea for a card game, be sure “card game” is in the file. Otherwise, when you try to find ideas you won’t find all that you should.

You might think this would take a lot of memory; no, an entire novel is roughly one megabyte of text, so as long as you don't store a LOT of graphics, it won't put much of a dent in your RAM, let alone your disk space.

If you don’t work well from a computer screen, you can print out your ideas and put them in a binder using sheet protectors. Or just have them in a pile. You definitely want to periodically look through your old ideas, as this is one of the best ways to get new ideas.

Storing drawings and pictures results in slower searches, because graphics take so much more space than words. Often a program will only search the name of the file, so you need to use long descriptive names. You can use a photo-organizing program such as Picasa (free from Google), or use a database program that handles graphics well.

If you speak to groups, as a teacher or as a proponent of games, be sure to record yourself. An MP3 player with voice recording, such as the Sansa e250, makes this easy to do, and with free software such as Audacity you can turn your talk into a podcast.

In any case, BACK IT UP. All your work will do you no good if your hard drive crashes or you lose a notebook that is your only copy. If ideas are worth generating, they’re worth backing up.

You can get along without using computers to record your ideas, as we all did 35 years ago, but you’ll save a lot of time in the long run by using computers.

Organize Yourself

I play about 30 of my game designs in the course of a year, and there are many more than that in some stage of work. Some organization helps keep everything straight.

When you have video games as your ultimate goal, the purpose of the ideas you generate is to contribute to marketing documents, and later to the large game design document that fully describes the game. You will be writing a plan for your game, so the more you write and the better you write it, the easier your future tasks will be. For non-electronic games where the immediate goal is a playable prototype, less formal notes are adequate. As long as you can understand what you mean, you can tell someone how to play your prototype when you make it. Keep in mind, six months (or six days!) after you write a terse note, even you may not understand what you meant, so try to be clear.

When I'm to the point of organizing ideas into a semblance of a game, or a game design for a video game, I make a separate note for each category of rules or mechanics (such as sequencing, movement, fighting, economics). For non-electronic games, I usually print these out to help me when I'm playing solo or in early playtests with other people, write further notes by hand on the sheets, then make changes on the desktop computer. (If I were a little more organized I'd probably have a laptop with me when I playtest, but that's one more thing to carry and secure. So I don't. However, sometimes I use the much more convenient Neo.)

At some point for a non-electronic game, often after playing a prototype a few times solitaire, I try to write organized but rough rules, as opposed to notes. I can color code the notes to show me which ones will “translate” into directly into rules sections, as opposed to others that are comments or more ideas. For a video game, the game design document describing the mechanics of the game is a more extensive version of a rules set.

I write the full documents in a word processor, WordPerfect. Much of the preliminary writing is done in Info Select, then transferred. But there are many, many revisions to a set of rules or a game design document, and those are done in WordPerfect, including revision dates. I am not fanatical about it, but I usually save each significant revision as a new file, so in the course of designing and developing a game I might end up with 20 versions. Microsoft Word is a more commonly used word processor; Open Office is a free substitute for Word.

WordPerfect makes it easy to make usable cards for games. I print on business card stock using the WP template, then put the cards in protectors for collectible cards (which can be had pretty cheaply, on sale, at Dave and Adam's Card World on the Internet, or at conventions sometimes). The protectors make the cards easy to shuffle, the card stock gives them sufficient stiffness. These are usually text-only cards; I've seen many prototypes with beautiful graphical cards, but I am not interested in spending the time needed to do this, preferring to concentrate on gameplay. Moreover, if I did spend a lot of time to make a playtest prototype, I'd be reluctant to change it, and that is truly a Bad Thing. Change is the norm when designing and developing games.

I am not an artist or a graphics person. I draw maps in CorelDraw, which does a fine job except that I haven't yet figured out an easy way to shade things. CorelDraw is a vector graphics program, not bitmap, and while this makes printing very flexible, it seems to make shading elusive, at least for me. So I export to PhotoShop, add shading, and import back in. You can see some examples on my Web site at

I get base maps from the Internet (out-of-copyright historical maps are available, especially at the Perry Castaneda Library (google it)). CorelDraw usually won't autotrace them satisfactorily, so I laboriously trace (with a mouse) what I need. This is not fun, but is quite practical. (Tracing with a tablet PC or Wacom tablet is easier, because you're using a pen, but I rarely use my wife's tablet laptop.)

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