Picture a mess of thoughts
 How do you get from an idea to a practical game design? I wanted to write a very basic article to give new designers a feel for how to start “game designing”. As a game designer I come across a lot of people pitching game ideas to me. A good thing, because I love hearing someone talk about their ideas and inspirations. But an “idea” is not yet a game so… what’s the game?

Some people tend to think a game designer is the one who comes up with the entire game concept. Some sort of all knowing concept guru who can solve any problem. This is in my personal experience, and for those in the games industry, far from the truth. I love brainstorming and coming up with ideas. However, when it comes to generating ideas or concepts I always advocate everyone can have great ideas. And as such, especially in an creative team, everyone should be stimulated to pitch in their ideas.

A concept or idea could be as broad as “an space MMO”, or as specific as “Players gain political power with which they recruit soldiers. Then they fight other players over control of the most territories”. And yet if you would ask a developer to start developing your game based on that alone, they probably wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if you are just a solo indie gamedev, its good to have clear what your “game” is, before you just start developing. Don’t get me wrong on many occasions have I just started making a game, but I can’t remember an instance where I didn’t end up redoing code or altering designs.

And that’s where a game designer can truly shine. I often explain what I do as “Turning an idea into an develop-able game”. As a game designer, next to shaping the experience of your player, you are responsible for working out the nitty-gritty details of how a game works. But where do you begin, how do you turn your/an idea into a proper game design?

Research…bla bla bla

Forget the research, let’s jump right in and do this! Who needs research anyway? Sadly you do, and more so probably lot’s of it. My experience has thought me most creatives don’t really thrive on research. But believe me, before you start always do your research!

As Roy always says “Everything is already invented, just not now and not by me.”. There are literally millions of games made, and before you can make one that is unique, you’ll have to know what is out there. As a game designer you should always strive to come up with interesting new ways to tackle problems, excite and engage players, but it’s not a bad thing to get inspired or informed. Know what players are looking for in the type of game you are making. If you trying to make a space MMO, look at other space games. Read articles and reviews about these games, learn from their mistakes and their success. If you feel lost and don’t know where to start, try to create several keywords for your idea (rpg, space, mmo, character building etc…) and research games matching 1 or more keywords.

 Think Mechanics…

When we look at what a game truly is it, if we strip away story, art and flavor texts we are left with mechanics. Mechanics describe everything that influences the way your game is played and the way a player interacts with it. Because of this, mechanics have the power to invoke specific feelings, and convey certain ideas -Game designer Ian Bogost called this “procedural rhetoric”, an entire topic off it’s own- to players.

Coming up with mechanics should be easy enough, after all you have done tons of research, right? But throwing a bunch of mechanics on a pille and calling it a game is not how things work. Take a step back and look at the mechanics you came up with for your game. Examine their interactions with your game and players. Make sure they don’t contradict each other, the goal of your game and how you want players to interact with your game. Think about the behavior your mechanics envoke in the players. Is this something you want for your game?

…and what they do for your game.

Think about mechanics as mechanics. Look at every little rules, feature or system in your game as a cog. Ask yourself if they all fit together and make your game turn. How hard it may be, if the answer is no, you must “kill your darlings”. Scratch out the mechanics that don’t work or invoke unwanted behavior in players. You can and (believe me) will find a new project or idea to make that mechanic work.

A trick I picked up is to just visualize yourself playing your game in your head. It’s a thing I constantly try to do when designing. Really try and visualize for instance opening up the box and setting everything up, playing a few rounds or  running a tutorial. It sounds silly but I found it helps me keep focused on how the game actually works. If you ever get stuck you know where to work on next. Its therefore a great “tool” to figure out what the areas are you haven’t thought about enough.

Writing a Game Design? Do I need to?

Yes. Now that you came up with an idea, did your research and played around with mechanics you should (if you haven’t already) start writing a game design document. Writing a game design document is not only good practice it also will help you get your thoughts in line. Many times you will come across things you haven’t thought through or forgot completely (like with the visualization exercise). It will also help you communicate your idea to others. If you managed to structure your thoughts and write them down it should be easier to clearly share your ideas with other devs and players.

I personally like to differentiate between a game design document and content document whenever I can. A game design document would only hold how the game works and interacts with the players. Story, level designs, card designs, script and everything else would be written down in the content document.

Fine… but how do you write a game design document?

Writing a big game design document can seem daunting, especially when you don’t know where to start. So where do you start? Frankly, just start. I too struggle sometimes with what to put down on paper first. So I just start writing. Sometimes I start writing a summary, or I start to list and explain the main mechanics, or I describe the main player interaction. At times I simply start with the table of contents, organizing and thinking of every subject I want to write about. Slowly you will start to notice everything will come out.

Then after I think I put every thought on paper I start restructuring and rewriting the document. I know this probably isn’t the best, most organized way to write a document, but hey it works for me! After I restructured and rewrote everything I like to read the document as if I don’t know my own concept. This takes some getting used to but can help you spot the first mistakes. If you are a single gamedev, and feel you have covered everything you could leave it here. If you are working on a creative team however this is the time to let everyone involved read your document. Be open to their feedback and be prepared to rewrite some sections again. If everyone (read: most of the people) think it captures the concept and answers development question for them you are good to go!

Just start…

If experience thought me anything it’s you can’t think about everything. At some point in the design process you should have figured out what it is you want to make. That is the best time to start playtesting and just try stuff out. Make a (paper) prototype and “play” with it. Test your theories, and mechanics you are unsure about or just go play with how your game feels. Usually only after I make a prototype I get a really good feel of what I need to or want to change.

It’s also very useful to have others play your prototype. Ask what they think, what they would improve or change. And be prepared to take their brutally honest opinions. This is what will make your game, your game design and your game design skills grow. However hard it may be. Remember when you show other people your prototypes or demo’s to always make clear what they can expect. What it is they should focus on. Also tell them what you want to get out of them playing it. Be specific what kind of feedback you’re looking for, and where they should comment on.

Go back to your Game Design document…

Again? Yes! Your game design document should be a “living” document. There is nothing worse than reading through a year old game design document that isn’t updated to the latest rendition of the game. I know creatives want to create and get their hands dirty, and don’t usually want to do the “paperwork”. But when you don’t keep your game design updated idea’s and work will get lost.

Keeping a well updated game design document also helps your team stay on the same page. Nothing worse then people working and checking different documents, causing problems down the road. Again, even if you are just an solo indie gamedev, this is so important. I learned this the hard way. I have “lost” many games by not updating or writing an game design at all. All that was left is just some scribbles an vague memories of what a great game it could have been.

 

There you have it, an idea of how to get from an idea to a game design. I would love to hear your workflow and game design tips for new game designers. Post them in the comments and give us a follow on twitter or instagram!

Though I often catch my self reminding people creativity can’t be forced, or at least I like to believe it can’t, sometimes you must. As much as I’d like to wait for the ideas to just come, brainstorming is part of any creatives day. For me, as for many creatives, brainstorming just “happens”. Though over the years I noticed for some people this is not the case. In a professional setting you don’t always get to choose with whom you brainstorm, or for what reason. Out of pure curiosity I started analyzing what went right or terribly wrong during my brainstorms. I looked not so much to the outcome of the brainstorm but to the actual brainstorming itself. After reviewing all my notes I concluded the better brainstorm sessions all had three things in common. I have summarized these in three simple “rules” I like to follow. Before I start I do however want to press having a great brainstorm doesn’t necessarily bring forth a brilliant idea, and good brainstorming takes practice. But we should always aim to build the climate to have an optimal brainstorm and a happy team.

Thinking inside the box.

When I was in college “Thinking outside the box” was all the rage. And it might even still be. But I like to think inside the box, or rather, hang on to the rim of it. For me, giving myself boundaries means I have a clear frame of reference. In the end it’s important that all noses are pointing in the same direction and all involved feel satisfied with the final idea. Often when everything is a possibility, people choke, not knowing where to look for ideas. When everything goes, the team tends to lose focus. During this article I will be talking a lot about focus. I do want to point out I am not talking about focus as in concentration. Though that can be important too, many creatives (like me) are off the rails and work best like that. The focus I am talking about is the common goal of the team and what the team wants to get out of the brainstorm.

Just as focus, another important part of brainstorming is “bouncing off” each others ideas. This “adding” on to ideas, develops the ideas and enables everyone to pitch in. But when everyone is thinking worlds apart this is near impossible. Besides, when there is no common vantage point, strong creative minds (at least in my personal experience) like to push their own ideas, making it harder to come to a common conclusion. Therefore having a frame of reference is important to know where to look for ideas. Remember the box you are thinking in is by default infinitely large. Having a box therefore does not exclude any idea, but it should bring the team together in the core of it’s idea’s. Starting a brainstorm needing to come up with a poster campaign for a client and finishing with a first person shooter is what we want to avoid at any cost.

How do you create that box I hear you ask? In some cases when there is a clear question that needs answering the box is clear. However sometimes a brainstorm could just be about “Create a campaign to improve our ratings”, or “Let’s come up with the next Minecraft”. In these cases it’s important you formulate your own questions. A way to look at a brainstorm is as problem solving tool, so figure out what the problem is you are trying to solve. Don’t just put “how” in front of it, “How do we create the next Minecraft!”, that doesn’t help anyone. But really look to the core of what you are trying to do. Why do you want to create the next Minecraft? To make money? Then your question could instead be, “What video game in the current market would sell best?”. Or do you want to give players a gamifyed creative experience? Then your brainstorm should be about “How do we gamify an creative experience”. Your motives are important when you brainstorm. When working for a client, try and figure out what your client wants. There is a saying “Tell us the problem, not the solution”. If a client wants to improve it’s ratings, figure out why the ratings are low and fix that problem instead.

Earlier I shortly mentioned bouncing off each others idea’s. I think associative thinking is of great importance when brainstorms. A little game to train associative thinking is the “five steps game”. It is really quite simple, just take two random words (for instance the first two words you see in a newspaper) and make 5 “logical” steps, associating from the first word to the second. Key is to always to use 5 steps, even if you could do it in less, this is what should trigger you to think differently. Try not to use basic properties like color or size. Using applications, historic backgrounds or trivia proves way more fun and challenging.

 

No No

One of the most important rules. Never in a brainstorm say “no” or use any other form of negativity. I always compare a brainstorm to a train. It needs to pick up speed and once it’s moving it should keep going, and everyone should get on board. This again ties in to “adding” and developing each others ideas. The train should only stop when the end station is reached. Saying “no” or something in line of “That is a terrible idea” usually stops the train. Even more so it gives the originator of the idea a bad feeling, making it more likely for him or her to stop sharing idea’s. The absolute opposite of what you would like to see happen in a brainstorm. Now this might sound a bit childish, but believe me I have seen grown people act like 2 year old’s.

Still it is very human to judge the ideas that you will hear during a brainstorm! It is just a part of the brainstorming process. Judging the ideas, or any brain-fart for that matter, by itself does not have to be a bad thing. And it shouldn’t have to be a negative influence on the brainstorming process. As with almost anything the trick lies in how we communicate. Rather than just blatantly say “that’s a terrible idea”, and stopping that metaphorical brainstorm train, try diverting the train instead. I noticed this can easily be done by using a “or..”-sentence. “Or” works great in brainstorms to divert the conversation, without disrupting the flow, while still treating all participants with respect. Being negative, as we concluded is a bad thing. Being critical however is not. Soem ideas might actually be really terrible or completely fall outside the carefully crafted box. Then a great way to change the direction is simply by asking a question. Asking how an idea fits in the given assignment or helps solve the problem can help clear the air, and even change your perspective on the idea. But remember to always stay positive! You should always try to create a safe environment for a brainstorm. Everyone should know they can always say anything without being shunned or laughed at. Having everything be shared is most important. You never know what could trigger the perfect idea. And whenever a great idea comes up that has nothing to do with the current brainstorm, just write it down and move on.

In my opinion “No No” is one of the most important rules, even more so when working with children or teenagers. It’s important for them to realize each individual can (and should) contribute, and a team can come up with an idea together. Learning to use and hear other peoples ideas and visions instead of dismissing then right away, is a valuable life lesson.

 

Spill your guts out

For some people this is the hardest rule. Instead of using the “box” sometimes people feel trapped by it. Have you ever noticed during a brainstorm you were about to start a sentence but instead said “nah, forget it”. Did you ever had an idea but then realized it didn’t quite fit the assignment or just felt it was not good enough so you didn’t share it with the team? I think anyone has had that experience. When I notice this I always ask what they were about the say, and I encourage you to do the same. Sharing every thought with your team is the best thing you could do! Don’t fear if what you are about to say derails the train.

When we look at what really triggers an idea or inspires people. Is it words? Surroundings? Memories? Past experiences? The movie you saw last night? I believe all those and many more. During a brainstorm you might not be able to have your full mind-palace on beacon call. When a brainstorm is stalling or people are just plain out of idea’s what often happens is the team falls silent. There is this fear for bringing up stupid or crazy idea’s which makes people think to much about what they are going to say. The best thing to do in a situation like this is just say anything that comes to mind (even if it breaks the first two rules!). Talk about anything to get the train moving again, you can worry about getting it back on track later. Talk about that amazing movie you saw the other night. Talk about a project or case you found interesting. Even if it has nothing to do with the current question you are trying to solve, never keep anything to yourself. Your ideas or even the smallest word you say could trigger an idea in a team member. Which in turn can lead to just the idea you need.

 

That concludes the three main “rules”. Keep these in mind and you should be able to keep better, and most importantly more pleasant brainstorms. And remember brainstorming take practice!  Before I close there are two more pointers I’d like to share with you. They are not with the main rules as they are not so much rules but more personal standards I try to adhere to when brainstorming.

Less is more. I have a personal rule to never brainstorm in a large team. A large team for me roughly means more than 5 people. Though I always preach anyone can have ideas, I firmly believe not everyone in a company or large project-team should attend a brainstorm. Having too much people in a brainstorm can build unwanted tension, discussion, and is a guaranteed recipe for losing focus. Whenever a new assignment drops, there is a new business opportunity or a pitch, it is in a creatives nature to come up with ideas. Everyone in a creative company will have ideas. Therefore it is a great idea to get the input of every employee or team member. But get it beforehand and separate from the brainstorm. Have everyone pitch their idea via email. Then have the brainstorm originator pick the people with the best ideas to sit in on the brainstorm. This way there is also a bigger sense of “our-idea” in the company or team.

Time is everything. Don’t overdo it when it comes to the length of a brainstorm. In my personal experience after 2 hours most of the people are dried up and need recharging. If you haven’t come up with that killer idea, take a recces. Take a walk, a coffee break, go do some other work. Split up and most importantly relax. Don’t get stressed if the idea’s don’t come. I have had my best ideas in the train ride home after a way to long frustrating brainstorming session. Sometimes it is just better to take a break and come back later than to just keep brainstorming.

 

To summarize this all, I believe better brainstorming can be done by keeping these three simple rules in mind; Think inside the box, get your frame of reference right from the start. It is easier to come up with great idea’s if your team knows where to look for ideas. Never say no. Keep you brainstorming-room a “safe” zone. Respect you team members and try not to shoot anybody down to keep the ideas flowing and going. And last but not least, share everything. Never keep and idea or “brain-fart” to yourself. You never know what could trigger another great idea. Combine that with a small team and short bursts of time and you’re brainstorm is all set and ready to go!

There you have it some simple “rules” or guidelines that could help you get more out of your brainstorms. I would love to hear about your experiences brainstorming, and if using any of the rules helped your brainstorms yield better results!