I need to get a few things done today. Among them, I need to get a few more job applications out and I need to practice some programming. I woke up this morning wanting to talk a bit about the value of ideas.
I’ve worked with designers who have hoarded their ideas, remaining quiet and sullen throughout their careers. I’ve worked with designers who were insistent that their ideas were the very best, that everyone else was an idiot, and that we simply had to implement what they wanted. I’ve worked with designers who were convinced that they had the idea for the next multi-million dollar hit. What’s more, they were going to make it on their own. They’d get their game on Steam, and it’d hit the top of the charts. That’d show us. That’d show us all!
Designers who behave like that are generally afraid. They’re afraid of losing control of an idea, they’re afraid of rejection… and this fear is fed by a disproportionate sense of value that they’ve given to their ideas. This isn’t to slam anyone. Early in my career, I dealt with those same fears, and I made those same mistakes.
Every designer who enters game development — heck, everyone who enters game development — has a creative streak. Everyone in game development has an idea. Many of them are excellent ideas, although most of those ideas aren’t exactly practical for whatever projects their company is currently developing.
But that’s okay! It’s still good to be creative. Creativity helps fuel passion, and that passion helps teams make better games. It’s harmful, though, when that creativity folds in on itself, resulting in people who believe that their ideas have some deep, intrinsic value.
Ideas are cheap. They are plentiful. It’s important to recognize that. Pick up a book of writing prompts. That’s a book filled with ideas. Pick up a book of applied business psychology, centered on sales techniques. That’s also a book filled with ideas. Pick up a recipe book. Again, it’s a cavalcade of ideas.
We tend to get attached to our ideas because we came up with them. We make the mistake of assigning our ego and our self-worth to those ideas. Once we allow ourselves to de-emphasize the importance of any one idea, we free ourselves up to have more — and more interesting — ideas.
Developing an Idea
Let me walk you through an idea I had, out of the blue. I was reading through one of my old notebooks, and I came across an array of little facts. One of them was a piece of folklore that stated, “If the doors in a house are locked, the soul of a person dying in that house won’t be able to escape.”
I collect little bits and pieces like that, precisely because they’re interesting and offbeat.
I thought back to my Classics education. Hermes wasn’t simply a messenger god; he was also a psychopomp… that is, a god that could help souls make the transition between this world and the next. What if the player took on the role of Hermes, solving little puzzles in haunted houses? What if Hermes had to help them find their way out, so that they could move on?
I sketched up a little logo, while I thought on the idea.
Doing that gave me a chance to consider what the game mechanics might be. Maybe ghosts can’t pass through closed doors, but Hermes can open them. Maybe Hermes can pick up certain items, like keys, and use them once. Maybe mirrors can suck ghosts in, trapping them and causing a level failure. Maybe some levels could have mourners. And the mourners could be distracted by flower arrangement. Hermes is associated with FTD, after all. So maybe the player could win or purchase boosts like that, in order to distract NPCs that might otherwise close doors or scare off the ghost. Maybe the ghost could be lured by music. The Greek gods like lyres. Maybe Hermes can have a lyre-type boost, triggering music to play in a location for a certain amount of time. What if the haunted houses had multiple floors? What if there were ghost hunters? And so on.
I then took the time to sketch out what a game level might look like, given some of the things I’d considered.
Undoing the Idea
I already know what you’re thinking. “How morbid! This idea is weird and unmarketable.” And yes, it very well might be. I already know that my sense of humor is skewed. But what if I told you this same set of mechanics could be used in a game where the player is a forest ranger.
And what if, instead of ghosts, the player was trying to help obnoxiously cute animals, like bees and bears, get to safe locations in the forest, away from the tourists?
Suddenly, it has a significantly broader audience appeal.
Even though an interesting snippet of folklore gave me my initial idea, it wasn’t the premise that made this idea interesting. The premise simply got me to start asking questions. Its job may, in fact, be done at this point.
My idea became more interesting once I started considering the game’s potential mechanics — that is, the parts that would make up the idea in its implementation… the things the player would actually experience. I started to consider ghost behaviors, other NPC behaviors, object behaviors, and so on. The game’s core loop remained simple, yet the potential interactions became richer and more complex.
Finally, I stripped the thematic window dressing, taking the mechanics and applying a more marketable premise on top of it. I could do that again, in fact, if it turns out that forest rangers and critters are, for whatever reason, unmarketable.
Too often, designers will decide to die on the hill that supports a beloved premise or setting, and that’s unfortunate. If the core mechanics work well and are compelling, it should be easy to come up with an engaging premise. The premise delivers a narrative context, and a good designer can make any narrative context effective within a solid systems framework. On their own, however, the mechanics that support the interactive loop should be enough to tell the player why they’re performing the in-game actions. The core interactions should be satisfying on their own. If they’re not, then you don’t have a game.
The Idea is Dead! Long Live the Idea!
Ultimately, I’ll probably never see that idea brought to life. That’s okay. The exercise had its own value, as it made me consider the implications of my choices and made me consider how I could make the interactions interesting to the player. Someday, I may take one of the smaller ideas — like the idea of a mirror/portal that tries to absorb any character within (n) game units of the object — and apply it to another game. As this idea resurfaces in my mind from time to time, I’ll consider other aspects of that very simple obstacle, such as, “How do we communicate the effect of this item to the player,” and, “How do we make this interaction feel less unforgiving?”
I’ll say it again: ideas are cheap. They’re not without value, but they are plentiful. Because they’re plentiful and cheap, we shouldn’t be afraid to break them apart, reassemble them, and void their warranties. Freeing ourselves to do that will not only make it easier for us to come up with more interesting ideas, it’ll help us better recognize the good ideas that others have. By doing that, we’ll discover that we have hundreds – perhaps thousands – of opportunities to create something truly wonderful for our players to experience.