Generating Game Ideas
Minimal: A pen, paper, and a device with internet connection.
This tutorial is the first on a (predictably enormous) series of tutorials starting from a will to make a game, to a playable demo (or eventually a complete product – it all depends on the type of game). Here, you will start with nothing more than that will, and will end with a rough idea to a game. Let’s call it “Game Idea V0.1”.
Now, I know you have a lot of ideas to the next great success to hit the shelves of the stores, or for the next big Indie hit which will revolutionize the way we see videogames. But what I will teach you is a method to generate ideas from scratch. This method, used to “generate” creativity may be applied in all areas, and in games it is extremely useful to start that sparkle that makes you (and me, and “others like us”) have a good idea for a new game, character, weapon, level, etc.
In this tutorial I will also introduce what I use as my “first game document”, helping me to keep a game idea to work on later, without losing too much time on it.
Game Design, Creative Thinking, Lateral Thinking, Game Document, Video Games, Creativity.
Sometimes you have to look to your side to find the best path forward
Let’s start with the obvious: you can’t even remember how many different games you thought of doing in your life to this point. I can remember having ideas for games when I listen to some music, watch a movie, play a sport, read a book, navigate trough Google images’ search. And, of course, when I play a game (video game or not). About this (and I completely lost my reference on this, so you’ll have to believe me on this one), I recall reading an interview with a reputed game designer who defended the idea (or something similar to the idea) that a game designer should go out, listen to music, play games, talk to people. Experience stuff. This is extremely correct! The powder to creativity is everywhere.
But there are also some methods you can use in the process of having ideas, successfully in use in different areas, from management to design, from banking to marketing. One that I particularly like (and we will use in this tutorial) is Lateral Thinking.
My first contact with Lateral Thinking occurred in my game design discipline at university. It was a brief notion of what it was, but enough for me to read more about it, mostly in these books: (link) and (link).
Lateral thinking was first introduced by Edward de Bono (link), and putting it simply is a process of generating new ideas whereas breaking out the concept prisons of old ideas. There is a lot to know about Lateral Thinking, and I encourage you to read more on it. But for this tutorial, I would like to say that using Lateral Thinking, it is possible: a) to make the mind navigate through concepts and ideas that usually are not even considered and b) keep usually discarded (or wrong) ideas present, for with new knowledge they might just become the correct way to get to something out of the ordinary.
I find lateral thinking useful in creating a “completely different” starting point for my mind to wander. And then I just let what I know about games (conscientiously or unconscientiously) do the rest, and put me in the right track. Because it is very hard to create something COMPLETELY original, but even if you’re using some tested and successful formula, you have to give it some new flavor, or no one will even notice your work.
So, what game shall we make?
I recommended two sets of required material for this tutorial. I strongly recommend you to buy the book I introduced there. The book has 62 exercises you may use in different occasions, and it is an amazing tool.
But let’s be honest: most of you will not buy it. At least not until you’ve tried it. So there’s another way. I will explain one modified version of one of the exercises in the book, and using a random word generator (the book has a “built-in” generator as an appendix) online I will try to show you how Lateral Thinking works. You have my word that what is here in the tutorial is REALLY what happened while I was generating the idea for the game (I did not chose the words, they were random). I will also try to describe the path my mind too. But first things first: the process.
- Write “Random Word Generator” on a search engine, and use one of the hits to generate 6 random words. I liked this one and this one. I prefer the first for it allows me to pick a number of words, and I prefer not to have an associated image to what I’m thinking about (for it may bias my ideas). But in fact, an image may also be another cool input to your mind, so it’s up to you really. Just pick a generator, and get 6 words. And use the words you get, don’t just keep randomizing until you get a set you like.
- Now, you have to organize them in sets of 3 words (as many as you can, actually, but for now let’s try to get between 3 and 6 sets). This organization is not random: you have to justify why you organized them like this. Relax on that justification. Just justify it without self-criticism, even if you think it is a somewhat dumb reason. Oh, and don’t take more than a couple of minutes in making and justifying one set.
- Think of a game using the 3 words in some (or all) of the sets you just made.
It may not seem all that good, but remember: we’re only generating an initial idea; it must always be developed later (this time, with game design methods and concepts). Just drop the skepticism and let’s give it a try.
WORDS: lasso; escape; toilet paper; reindeer; press; cough.
SET 1: lasso; escape; toilet paper – Because both lasso and toilet paper could be used to escape from a tall place. Only one of them with chances of success.
Set 2: reindeer; press; cough – Because somehow I taught that if all Santa Claus’ reindeers have a bad case of couch, it will be in all press.
SET 3: lasso; escape; reindeer – Because a lasso may be used to capture a reindeer, which naturally tries to escape of being captured.
SET 4: toilet paper; reindeer; cough – Come on, was I really the only one who imagined a reindeer with human behavior, coughing and using toilet paper to clean its nose? Maybe I was.
SET 5: reindeer; lasso; toilet paper – 1 weapon, 1 tool and 1 “trustful companion” to a very strange hero. Which is which? I suppose it’s up to you…
SET 6: reindeer; lasso; toilet paper – A reindeer hero, using a lasso as a tool and toilet paper as a weapon. Is it similar to the last set? Yes it is… but I never said I was good at this.
So, before going any further… a little self-criticism here! I must confess that I grouped some of the words already thinking of a game (or at least a character for it). This originates groups which easily transform into a game idea, but were created with a biased mental process. I suppose there’s no right way here: if you skip a step and imagine a game using those words and not a group, you should take note of that idea. And if you imagine a game with all 6 words (or 1), you should take note too. And if after thinking of a game, your mind goes to imagining a completely different game, take note too. The way I see it, while you’re using lateral thinking, you should try to follow the rules to generate really different ideas, and break the shackles holding your mind. But if you’re on a path, and you see another path filled with wonders, explore that path. And if it means breaking the rules of the exercise I explained here, by all means, break them!
Anyway, continuing to the game ideas:
Game 1: you’re a princess living in a castle, imprisoned by an evil witch. You need to escape through towers and walls. And before you think about using your hair, let me say this: Rapunzel is dumb. Who would use hair to climb? You will use lassos and toilet paper! That’s more logic, isn’t it? But there’s a problem: you have a limited amount of both. They have different characteristics: toilet paper may be used in different quantities, the more paper the thicker. And the thicker, the more it lasts without ripping. Lasso is indestructible (at least with a princess’s weight), but there’s not much of it. So, the game is pretty much a puzzle where
you have to decide how to use your resources as you go down, risking breaking your neck, going to freedom!
Game 2: A childish hidden object game. The intro shows a newspaper saying all Santa’s reindeers have a bad case of couch, which will make it impossible to distribute gifts this year. Kids will have to help Santa as he gets the different ingredients to make a potion which will save Christmas.
Game 3: You’re a keeper in a natural wildlife park, alone for the weekend, for some reason. This is the weekend all reindeers decided (‘a la “Chicken Run”’) to make a great escape. You have to use your faithful lasso in different ways to get them all. Humor from the ways they try to escape (steal your jeep, disguise as bunnies, etc).
Game 4: Honestly, here I can only go from the character on which I thought when grouping the words to some sort of point-and-click graphical adventure. Then, I automatically remembered Sam & Max (link) meets Lumpy from Happy Tree Friends (link) – which is a moose, I know, not a reindeer. Probably we could use the “press” word to make him a retired, grumpy journalist, always coughing and cleaning his nose with the toilet paper (cheaper than tissue), and eventually with some sort of digestive problems (“gastric” humor? – again, the toilet paper), who has to investigate something. This sort of game needs A LOT of writing… but an idea is an idea.
Game 5: There’s an old Portuguese saying stating that “If you don’t have a dog, hunt with a cat”. Urho is a Finish boy (they have reindeers in Finland, and it is a beautiful country to inspire a game world) whose family was kidnapped, and he now has to save them. He is a knight, on a quest (RPG?). But his only weapon is toilet paper, his only tool is a lasso, and his only mean of transport (and side-kick) is a reindeer. “If you don’t have a dog, hunt with a cat”, for your family must be saved.
Game 6: Again with toilet paper as a weapon (I suppose my mind is resisting diversity), a Lara Croft (or Indiana Jones) look alike reindeer will need to go through caves filled with enemies, to get some weird artifact. It’s the return of Pitfall (link) – or a game mocking Pitfall’s mechanics – in the good style of old-fashion 2D action platformers.
So there you go: 6 amazing game’ ideas. Perhaps “amazing” is a little too much, for they all sound kind of dumb. And probably they are. But let me ask you this: would you buy a game where a yellow dot walks through a maze eating smaller dots and running from ghosts (Pac Man)? And isn’t the premise of a worm using a space suit fighting an evil enemy kind of stupid (Earthworm Jim)? Just don’t judge an idea too fast.
And now imagine this: if you did this exercise for a year, everyday, 10 minutes a day (maybe a little more), how many game ideas would you generate by the end of the year. Do you honestly believe they would all be bad? Try it for a month, and start building your pack of “proto-proto-proto-games” to work on later.
The First Document
Do you know those hoarder guys? You should become a hoarder. Not of all junk you can put in your house, but of all ideas you have. Keep them all in some “idea warehouse”. For me, it’s a folder on Dropbox. When I have an idea, I edit a text file and put one more entry, with a little description, somehow resembling the six I wrote in the previous section. I know people who use Google Docs for the same thing, or a notebook app on the smartphone, or even the good old paper notebook. This is a good thing to do, and I advise you to write your ideas somewhere where they can be buried and revived later.
When I have some spare time, I go to my “gamesToBe.txt” and pick one (sometimes, one that is just laying there for months). This idea will then go onto the next stage. For that, I use a document format I picked from my Game Design discipline, where I studied under Rui Prada (link), Carlos Martinho (link) and Pedro Santos (link). By “evolving” my idea to the next stage, by using this document, I have the opportunity to develop it a little further, without having to define it a lot yet. This format also has the advantage of not making me write a lot (actually, it prevents divagations), hence being fast to write.
Next, I will introduce the document’s format, with a little description of all its parts:
- Title – The game’s title, even if temporary.
- Author – It’s you, right? Unless you have a cool name like “The Artist Formerly Known as Batman”.
- Idea (maximum 2 lines) – A simple description of your game. It may be vague, and may or may not include some story.
- Gameplay Idea (maximum 5 lines) – A description of the ways the player interacts with the game, the game environment (if it applies), some rules (if you already thought of some) and player rewards and punishments (if it applies).
- Gamebox Idea (maximum 10 lines) – Imagine you were responsible to write the text appearing in your game’s gamebox. You have to sell your game, making it interesting, in a few words. Write them here. I always find this to be useful, for when I try to write “selling points” in a game, I usually end having some new ideas for the game.
Now applying this format to one of the games imagined with Lateral Thinking:
Title: Downhill Royalty
Author: João Camilo
You’re a princess, imprisoned by your evil witch stepmother. But this is no fairy tale, and you’re sick of waiting for your prince. You now have to escape, using what you have.
On a 2D side-view, you have to control your princess as she escapes from being captive, using what you have in your room, and managing such resources. And what do you have? Toilet Paper and a Lasso. And even those don’t last forever. It will have to do, as you descend from the highest tower, transversing walls. And remember… mind your feet, for if you fall from too high, you’re dead.
This princess is not in another castle! She is in this castle, in the highest tower. And man, is she pissed! She needs to escape. Alone. Not waiting for any prince, or worker from the tertiary sector to save her!
- Escape the tallest tower, jumping and running from your caption.
- Use your lasso and toilet paper to help you from falling and breaking your neck. Yes, toilet paper. You do what you can, with what you have!
- Your resources are not infinite, so use them wisely. It’s like a puzzle: use your mind.
- Have fun with all nonsense humor, and fun references.
- 3 difficulty modes, to really test your skills.
- Amazing cartoon look, appellative for all ages.
After writing this document, and before saving the idea, I added something to the template I “stole” from my teachers: “brainstorm references”. And what is this? Pretty much a place where I put everything which I think could be, somehow, used later to help expanding the game idea, whether it is a graphic inspiration to the character or the game world, a game with a theme or gameplay similar to the one I imagined, a book with a similar story, etc. Put here pretty much all you can think of, without thinking too much (leave that for later). When possible, I try to include an image for every reference and a link to a website where I can get more information or eventually play a game (when I reference a game). Just that, without further explanation or connection (except when I have something I consider being an amazing, one time, idea – never happened). Connect the references with the game is a job for “the future me”. For this game, a (reduced in size) reference section would be:
As you may see, I picked one of the previous ideas to continue developing, not because I think it is a winning idea, but because I think in the next tutorials we can improve it. Besides, the finality of this series of tutorials is not to create a game which will make me rich, but to create a game which allows me to learn and teach something about game design and development, and it’s better to start with a simple game. I could choose to make an AAA title, but let’s be realistic here: I do not have the resources (or the skills) to do that. Furthermore, I do not wish to repeat the process of generating an idea. But clearly, if I was making a game to sell, I would not settle with this fairy princess stuff!
In this tutorial I introduced a method to generate ideas for games. Although you probably don’t need this method to have ideas, the fact is that using this you can probably generate ideas you would not have otherwise. In fact, by applying what you learned here, over time, you can create a lot of ideas for games, and eventually have some real good ones.
I also introduced a format to use to keep all your ideas somewhere. Ideas are money, and you should not throw yours away.
With this tutorial, we started from scratch and got to an initial game idea, to be developed further in the next tutorials.