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What we’ve given you so far is an informal method of capturing your ideas and organizing them in a coherent and useful form. What comes next is a more formalized system of brainstorming. This is necessary when you are given a specific problem to solve or project to develop and must go deeper than a mere concept.
Structured brainstorming is a powerful skill. And, like any skill, it takes practice to become good. There are brainstorming beginners and brainstorming experts and the difference between their abilities is akin to the difference between an average golfer and Tiger Woods. Expert brainstormers train themselves in how to generate workable ideas and solutions to problems, while amateurs fling out random ideas and hope something sticks.
Let’s take a simple example of structured brainstorming, where you’re given the task of coming up with an idea for a game. There are no limitations on the type of game, the budget, resources, or anything else. Where do you begin?
A good place to start is with things you love. The best game ideas tend to come from your heart. We all have things we’re passionate about—ideas that make us excited—images lodged in our brain that we won’t let go of. Focus on what inspires you: works of art, culture, nature, etc. Think of your fantasies, your hobbies, games you play over and over, childhood dreams, and things in life that spark your imagination. Now begin writing these down on paper. Like any creative work, a game should be an expression of your inner self.
Exercise 6.5: Growing an Idea Tree
Start by planting five trees. Draw five lines on a piece of paper, each representing one sapling. Spread them out so that each line can grow. Now for each line write down one of your passions, whether for sports or adventure or magic or games. You should have five trunks each with the name of something that excites you below it. Then make each of these trunks a branching point, and above each one write down two ideas that stem from it. Now you should have five trunk ideas and ten branching ideas. Repeat the process again, making two more branches sprouting from each of the existing branches. The branching ideas should be in some way related to the ideas below it. Don’t edit yourself too much, but try to see the connection between the branches as your idea tree evolves. You can repeat this process as many times as you like and see how the tree takes shape.
What you’ve created is a systemized structure for your thoughts. Each idea tree embodies a common theme. If you look at them as a group, you’ll see patterns of ideas sprouting in all directions. Now as the trees grow, you can apply certain conditions to them. The conditions will yield different growth patterns. The conditions can be as simple as limiting yourself to “dark and scary” ideas. Each of your five trees, under this condition, will yield different fruit. Or your condition can be “medieval adventure.” You can have one tree focused on philosophy, another on conflict, and one about history. When you apply the “medieval adventure” condition, it may surprise you how each tree transforms. We call this system idea growth. It’s a method for brainstorming and producing ideas that you may not come up with otherwise.
Creating an idea tree is just the beginning. The next sections outline several other methods you can experiment with. There is no single best solution. You may find that some methods work better for you than others. We encourage you to try all the methods and vary your approach. The key to productive brainstorming is finding the right balance of stimulation and structure. If you can do this, you’ll improve both the quantity and quality of your output.
One of the tried and true forms of brainstorming is making lists. List out everything you can dream up on a certain topic. Then create other lists on variations of that topic. You’ll be amazed at how many great ideas come out in simple lists. The process of writing them down helps you to freely associate and organize at the same time.
Take a deck of index cards and write a single idea on each one. If you want to be frugal, cut the card up into smaller cards. You can save a few trees this way. Then mix them up in a bowl. Now take out the cards and pair them. For example, “nectar” may appear with “giants.” Perhaps, your next game will include “nectar giants,” whose bodies are fluid and smell like persimmons. You can concatenate sets of two, three, or four cards. It doesn’t matter. And the more wild ideas you throw into the bowl, the richer the combinations become.
Take a dictionary and open it up to any page, then start with the word you see first. Wherever that leads is fine. The same can be done using a newspaper or magazine. Open it up to any page, then start writing something down in relation to the topic you see. Try to fit what you’re writing and seeing into your overall objective of creating a game concept. You can do the same with random web page searches or using the phonebook. Vary the medium but keep the process consistent.
All the previous techniques try to spark your creativity through a certain amount of randomness. On the other side of the spectrum, you might try doing research into a subject that interests you. Always fascinated by ant hills? Find out how ants live and work. Research how they communicate and interact. Is there an idea or concept in this research that you can use in a game?
Figure 6.2: Idea cards
This is where you shout out whatever comes into your head while a voice recorder is running. After five minutes of auditory abuse, go back and transcribe your mad ramblings. There’s often a prized nugget hiding in your verbal blitzkrieg.
Exercise 6.6: Research
When you find an idea that you like through brainstorming, do some research to find out more about the topic. Is there already game that resembles the one you have in mind? If so that’s fine. How might your game be different?
Sit down at your computer and start writing like crazy. Don’t worry about being coherent. Don’t think about punctuation or spelling. Just write as quickly as humanly possible. Whatever comes out is fine. After ten minutes of spewing words on a particular topic, stop and read over what you’ve done. Sometimes it turns out better than work you’ve spent days perfecting.
As the Greeks proclaimed, moderation in all things is usually a good rule. This isn’t true for brainstorming, however. Sometimes extreme measures are needed. This means dragging yourself out of your house, no matter how painful that sounds, and putting yourself into new situations. No, videogames and television are not the extent of the known universe. Force yourself to try something entirely different, like whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, snorkeling, or parachuting. And whenever possible, jot down how you feel and whatever pops into your head.
It’s often good to pick activities that in some way relate to the game you’re designing. If it’s a shooting game, try going to a firing range and unloading a few rounds. If it’s a puzzle game, head for the science museum. But don’t limit yourself too much. Maybe trying something unrelated will produce the breakthrough you require. We even suggest such simple experiments as locking yourself in a darkened room for 20 minutes and allowing your mind to clear, or turning up the music and dancing wildly. The only rule is to do something you normally do not do.
The best results often come from placing yourself in uncomfortable situations because these make you more aware and introspective. For example, if you’ve never volunteered your time at a homeless shelter, maybe it’s about time. Or ifyou’re the type that seldom goes out at night, perhaps a late night clubbing expedition is in order. Whatever it takes to break your routine and stimulate your brain cells.
The key is to always keep your project in the forefront of your mind. Don’t just take a day off. Make that day part of your brainstorming and tie everything that’s running through your head into your project. This is harder than it sounds. If you jump out of an airplane for the first time, it’s not easy to think of anything but your impending death. But for the sake of designing great games, focus on the experience and see if there are elements you can bring into the game world. The more conscious you are, the more you will retain and be able to use when you return to your home or cubicle. If done right, each experience will enrich the fabric of your life and spark a new wave of inventiveness.
The cardinal sin of brainstorming is to self-censor or edit your ideas during the process. This destroys all hope for creativity. Check your critical nature at the door and allow yourself to think freely. The more you open yourself up, the better your ideas will become. There will be plenty of time revise and edit and critique after the brainstorming session is over.
We can’t stress this enough. When brainstorming, you must provide a nonjudgmental environment for yourself to think. After all, some of the greatest inventions in history began as mistakes. Let yourself screw up. Encourage sloppy thinking. Strive toward the impractical. Bask in the absurd. Do whatever it takes to push yourself beyond your comfort zone into the realm where anything is possible.
Okay, so you’re ready to dive into a wild session of brainstorming; now, how do you communicate your ideas effectively to yourself and others in the midst of controlled chaos?
As you may have guessed, sitting at a computer is not always the best solution. The tried and true method is paper. Some people prefer notepads, others like continuous sheets of printer paper that go on and on, while others prefer scraps of paper or sticky notes. Our favorite is writing on a whiteboard, or on large pieces of paper taped to the walls. We feel this helps us express ourselves freely during this phase of the process. For one thing, writing against the wall gets you out of your chair and your blood flowing. It also lends itself to big ideas, sketches, and side notes. When your ideas are on the wall, they can be seen by a group. They can also been seen side-by-side at a glance. This helps spark more ideas and facilitates collaboration.
by Noah Falstein, The Inspiracy
Game design is my favorite part of game development, and brainstorming is my favorite part of game design. Brainstorming meetings are capricious, at one moment puttering along like an old jalopy on a bumpy road, and at the next zooming like a Ferrari on a racetrack, with the ideas coming so fast there’s no time to write them down. Ideas can come from anywhere—books, movies, television, and of course other games are frequent sources, but I’ve had ideas spawned from personal relationships, from dreams, from scientific principles, from art, from music theory, and from children’s toys. Ultimately I think most good ideas come from the subconscious and involve combining dissimilar things in novel ways. When a design client of mine is stuck on a point, I often find it useful as an exercise to pick something apparently totally unrelated to the concept to spark new thought. For example, if a real-time strategy game about rapidly evolving alien creatures needs a new creature type and attack, I might turn for inspiration to frothy romantic comedy films. There’s a scene in When Harry met Sally where Meg Ryan’s character fakes an orgasm in a crowded diner. For the game, that might suggest a siren creature that generates a fake mating cry that causes all enemies of the opposite sex to drop what they’re doing and head toward that creature for a few seconds. Ideas are everywhere.
One example of the evolution of one of my favorite ideas was in the original Secret of Monkey Island game from LucasArts. Ron Gilbert, the project leader, had worked with me previously on the game Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For that game we needed a boxing interface so Indy could box with an opponent, and I’d recently been playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! which had a simple, fun swordfighting interface. By changing swords to fists it worked great for us. The problem is, I neglected to tell Ron where the idea came from, so when Ron was talking to me about Monkey Island he casuallyremarked that he’d realized that the boxing interface would make a great sword-fighting interface for his new game. I confessed to the history of the concept, and for a while we were stumped. Then I suggested that some of the best classic swordplay in movies involved more talking than fighting—thinking of old Errol Flynn movies or the then-recent film The Princess Bride. That seemed more appropriate anyway for the comic tone of his game. What if sword-fighting in Monkey Island was about insult and rejoinder, not thrust and parry? And so out of movies, a classic game mechanism was born that proved to be one of the more popular parts of Monkey Island.
When I’ve told this story, some people have asked me if I felt embarrassed adapting an idea from Sid Meier. I might—if Sid hadn’t admitted publicly that several of the concepts in his Pirates! game werebased on what he’d seen in Dani Bunten’s Seven Cities of Gold game—which Dani said was in turn based heavily on a boardgame. Sometimes I think no idea can ever be truly original.
Noah Falstein has been developing games professionally since 1980. Currently he runs www.theinspiracy.com as a freelance designer and producer. He is also the design columnist for Game Developer magazine.
Figure 6.3: Working at the whiteboard
Writing against the wall is also handy for making mind maps. Mind mapping is a way of expressing ideas visually. You start with a core idea in the center and let related ideas radiate outwards. You can use lines and different colored markers to connect ideas. Mind mapping provides a structure for thinking in a nonlinear manner.
A good practice during brainstorming is to number your ideas. It’s helpful to be able to refer back and forth between several ideas quickly using shorthand when you are developing a big concept. The numbers allow you to do this without losing your larger train of thought. Aside from that, it’s satisfying to generate lots of ideas in a brainstorming session. The numbers will measure your output, serving a function similar to tracking distance when jogging or reps when lifting weights.
Brainstorming is a high-energy activity. A good session will naturally die down after sixty minutes or so. The mind and body need a break after that much focused time. So don’t push yourself beyond what’s reasonable. Whatever ideas you have after an hour or so can continue to be worked on in the coming days.
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