Creative Game Design Part I: The Blank Canvas

“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”
– Linus Pauling

I can’t be the only one who’s excited by what’s happening in the independent game development scene. There have been a ton of weird, wild and creative projects that have expanded the idea of what a video game can be, do and say.

Games like Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor and Papers, Please have shown that game mechanics alone are sufficient for social commentary, while boldly challenging the idea that “fun” must be the end goal of any design. Others like Shovel Knight and Stardew Valley bring modern design improvements to genres that have long been consigned to the dark corners of mainstream development, daring to ask what would happen if the design priority shifts of the early 3D era had never happened. Still others like Undertale and Unrest have taken up the torch of story-centric genres that lost their way as budgets ballooned and developers became more risk-averse, delivering on the promise of player choice in a way that AAA projects such as Mass Effect had to compromise on.

This is just a teeny, tiny sample of the explosion we’ve seen in independent game development in the last several years. If you’re anything like me, reflecting on these games is a discouraging experience. Every time I finish one of these amazing experiences there is a noticeable tension in my next game development session. I start to doubt my creativity and ingenuity. How could I possibly compete with something that good?

By upping my game, of course. Instead of getting discouraged, it’s time to get inspired. Instead of making design sessions tense, it’s time to make them intense. It’s time to think outside the box, to challenge myself and my medium. In other words, it’s time to get creative.

Over my next several articles, I’ll be laying out a design process that can help improve the creativity of independent game design. Ideally it’s the process I use to design my own projects, but in reality I don’t apply my own principles as rigorously as I should. (As they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy.)

Laying The Foundation

The first step in any creative process is brainstorming. In my experience it is also the most misunderstood among amateur designers. A strong brainstorming process is one of the biggest advantages that experienced designers have over amateurs.

Brainstorming is the foundation of any creative project. No matter how skilled you are, no matter how good your initial ideas are, doing a bad job at this step can doom the whole thing. This is especially true if you are designing as part of a team.

There are two equal and opposite errors that developers make in the brainstroming stage. The first is not doing it, or not doing enough of it. The second is the much more subtle sin of brainstorming toward the wrong goal. How to avoid the first should be obvious, but the second error is thornier.

Know Your Goal

Before you even set pencil to paper you need to ask yourself what you want your brainstorming to produce. The ideal product of this process is both a “game philosophy” as well as a reserve of ideas. Every time your project strays and you’re wondering where you went wrong, you should be able to look at your brainstorming notes to re-anchor yourself. Every time you hit a wall and can’t think of where to go next, you should be able to consult them in order to suggest ways forward that will organically fit the experience you’re trying to create.

Just as important is what you don’t want this step to produce. The end result should not be a structured design document with elaborate interconnections between mechanics. It shouldn’t be a story outline that accounts for every minor character and element.

All of that is important to have at some point, but that time is later. In order to produce quality versions of those things, you need to lay the proper groundwork. Brainstorming is that groundwork. Trying to skip the first step is poisonous to your work.

The Brainstorming Process

So now we know what we do and do not want from this process. How do we go about it? What does the process look like?

Creative minds all work in different ways. The value of the creative process is that different perspectives and experiences will produce vastly different outputs.  In that spirit, there is no one true method.

Furthermore, one of the hallmarks of creative work is its inconsistency. Why was Final Fantasy VII quite possibly one of the greatest games ever made, while its followup was much more divisive? Because game design is inherently inconsistent, especially as a team exercise. It’s like writing poetry by committee. The same team at the same juncture in their careers can create a masterpiece or a mess.

I can only tell you how my own process works. It is imperfect, but it is based on research and experience. I trust that you will be agile enough to adapt it to your own style and needs, or even realize that it won’t work for you and throw it out entirely. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are results that are closer to your creative vision than others.

A Comfortable Canvas

The most important thing you can have for brainstorming is a blank canvas. Whether that’s a word processor document, notebook, sketchpad, whiteboard or special software is irrelevant. The important thing is to pick something you’ll be able to effortlessly express yourself with.

My canvas of choice is a notebook. I buy a fresh one for every project. There’s something very exciting about a completely empty notebook. I also got my creative start in notebooks, plugging away at personal projects when I was bored in high school. The familiarity makes the process nearly effortless, allowing me to focus on the ideas instead of the tools. As a bonus, a notebook makes it easy to add crude sketches, maps and charts to visually display information without having to change tools.

It is very important that you be able to keep your notes for future reference. If you’re using a whiteboard or similar (common in collaborative efforts) it is vital that someone records what gets written down.

Abandon Practicality

What I’m about to tell you is a secret of the universe, and if you don’t know it already it will change your life. Ready?

The most important thing to do if you want your brainstorming to bear productive fruit is to abandon all practical concerns.

The amazing thing about this process is the vast possibility. You want to maximize that. Do not consider any factors that could negatively impact your raw ideas. Not your own skill, not the limitations of your tools, not social acceptability, not the laws of nature and science. Let nothing restrain you. If you come up with multiple, mutually exclusive ideas, record every one and don’t worry about if any of them are even feasible.

If you get going in a series of ideas that excites you, write all of them down. You may begin to feel like you’re rambling or straying; push those natural objections out of your mind and see where the chain of thought takes you. Game design often starts with a good idea that changes until it is unrecognizable. Don’t fear it. The original concept for Banjo Kazooie has nothing in common with the final result, yet it is still one of the most influential games of its generation.

Pure Ideas

A vital attitude toward brainstorming notes is that you do not edit or censor them in any way. Don’t erase anything or scratch anything out. If you think of a better way to word something you’ve already written down, write down the new version next to the old and keep them both. I would even avoid rearranging them for clarity, although you can certainly try to keep your notes organized as you go. It’s not important, though, and if you overrun the margins you left yourself just roll with it.

This is the only time that your game will exist as pure ideas. As soon as you move on to your next step you will have to get more practical. Every step from that point on will move you closer and closer to reality. Therefore, if you want any magic to remain in the final result, you need to put as much magic in at the brainstorming stage as possible.

Now, obviously you may need to restrain yourself to some extent, especially if you must submit your ideas to oversight. There are also ideas that you can probably dismiss out of hand as so out of the pale that no modern audience would ever accept them. But as much as possible, let your mind run free and record the results. Take the leash off, follow the excited dog and see what he’s found. Even if it’s not what you expected, you will definitely be surprised.

Safety In Privacy

I feel like it’s important to state that these notes should be private. Nobody outside of the project should ever see them. In fact, if you have other teams that are not involved in core design they probably shouldn’t see the notes either. The only people who should see them are people who need to do so in order to do their job.  Vow to destroy every copy as soon as you publish.

You are going to come back to these notes, and some of them are going to be embarrassing. Depending on the type of game you’re making, they might even be the kind of thing that could damage a career. Do everyone a favor and swear a blood oath that your brainstorming notes will never leave the canvas you put them on. This security will ensure an atmosphere of free ideas that will produce a lot of options.

Conclusion

Brainstorming is an important creative process; the foundation of any project. The keys to brainstorming are to know what you’re trying to produce, use a canvas you’re comfortable with, and let your ideas run unrestrained and uncensored. Maintaining secrecy around your notes will ensure that the process is as unfettered and therefore useful as possible.

The process lasts as long as you want it to. When you’re finished and the initial excitement and inspiration have run dry, let it go. Hopefully you discovered a set of impossible, world-changing ideas. Join us in the next article where we start to tame this chaotic energy and turn it into something usable.

But first give yourself a break. You’ve earned it.

(If you’re looking for further discussion of the creative process, I recommend Roger von Oech’s excellent book “A Whack on the Side of the Head”.  Another excellent look into the creative process is Mark Rosewater’s regular column on the design of Magic: The Gathering called “Making Magic”.  It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in game design, even if you don’t play Magic.)

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