How to make a good idea into a better idea...

For many people who want to be Game Designers, the most difficult thing about the process, aside from the actual work, follows soon after the initial spark of inspiration strikes. More often than not, the first mistake a budding developer makes is to get inspired and immediate start the execution of the game’s design, usually after slapping together a whole lot of hype to get other people interested in his or her project. Screenshots, like an actual plan, are optional. A great example would be GamerJoe21 taking a shower, thinking about the ‘kick-ass war movie’ he saw last night where ‘that dude did that awesome thing with that minigun’. GamerJoe21 gets inspired to create a ‘totally kick-ass war game’, hurriedly washes, rinses, repeats, then towels off and rushes, towel still wrapped about his unsightly hips, to sit on his Target-bought faux executive computer chair, opens up a game engine of his choice (such as FPS Creator or RPG Maker) and starts to slap something together with all the enthusiasm of a fifteen year old buying his first dirty movie from his older brother.

Don’t laugh, it’s probably happened numerous times…

Unfortunately, for a game to be the best it can be, there must be some amount of planning and preparation. I know, I know. It’s hard as heck to sit down and plan something out instead of just sitting there and making the game, start to finish, making things up as you go along. But consider this from a logical and practical standpoint: One of the single most successful series of our time is the Harry Potter series. The author of that series painstakingly planned almost every major plot point in the series, from the first page of the first chapter of the first book, to the end of the epilogue of the seventh book. While there was quite a lot of spontaneous writing, for no creative process can be totally contained within a box, Rowling had a plan, from day one, for the story of Harry Potter, and knew where, and how, she was going to get there. Even if you hate the Harry Potter series, despise the characters, and get violently ill every time you see Daniel Radcliffe, you have to admit that Rowling told an incredibly well woven story.

“But wait! Christian, Rowling herself said lot of things happened that she didn’t expect, and---“ Blah blah, I know, and you’ve just missed the point, so I’ll say it in plain English, in bold face type, and underlined:

While you need to leave room for creative spontaneity, the game design process is so complex that you must have, at the very least, an outline of what you want your game to accomplish, where you want your story to go, who is involved in it, what they will have at their disposal, and how will they get there. That’s done through a process called Creative Thinking!

So the question is not what your game will be about, for you’ve already satisfied that in the first part of the Game Design Process, namely inspiration. Now the question is how you will go about telling your story. You need to fill in the gap between your starting point and ending point, or if you don’t even have an ending point, you need to put it all together. You need to generate, organize, and outline your ideas. And the best way to begin this creative thinking process is with a technique called Brainstorming.

Brainstorming is a creative thinking technique by which a large numbers of ideas are generated towards the goal of finding a solution to a problem. In this instance, the problem is the story of your game, how it will flow, who will be involved, and what the outcomes can, or will, be. Despite the commonly accepted idea that Brainstorming is solely for groups, it can be applied with incredible success to the individual. In fact, individual Brainstorming can be more powerful than group Brainstorming, because there is no anxiety against speaking your mind, no fear of rejection of ideas, and no negative criticism to stop you from continuing.

In order to begin Brainstorming, you must first define the problem. A great way to start that is to get a blank sheet of paper and write the problem down in the center of the page. Then just start to write out ideas that come to mind, single words, phrases, sentences - whatever else comes to mind. Let’s say that you want to define the over-all plot of your game, an adventure game about a young Native American who is an outcast in his tribe due to his disregard of the ‘old ways’, and yet is forced to both learn and embrace his heritage as a brave when an ancient evil is awakened in a nearby mountain, threatening the safety of the entire tribe. So you write down, in the middle of the page, ‘Native American fights Ancient Evil by embracing Tribal Ways’. The next step is to write down whatever comes to mind when you look at what you wrote, in a circle around the ‘problem’. It can be a single word, a phrase, or more! Let’s say that three things come to mind immediately: ‘Old Ones’, ‘Shaman’, and ‘Insanity’.

Now you need to look at what you just wrote, and write down what comes to mind from that ‘offshoot’ idea. So your eye catches ‘Old Ones’ and you write down ‘Cthulu’, ‘Shub-Niggurath’, and ‘Dagon’ (For the sake of Lovecraft purists, Dagon is actually a Deep One, not an Old One). Then your eye catches ‘Shaman’ and you write ‘Totems’, ‘Visions’, and ‘Tomehawk’. Lastly, your eye catches ‘Insanity’ and you write ‘Hallucinations’, ‘Shamanistic Rituals’, and ‘Asylum’. Now this is were you keep going until a real plot comes out and slaps you in the face, but to save time, let’s say that the story is as follows:

This story is told from the point of view of the Protaganist, who is incarcerated in an Asylum, having apparently lost his mind after his entire Tribe was wiped out on their Reservation one weekend. The tale he tells the doctor interviewing him is about how a Government sponsored oil dig awoken the Old One Shub-Niggurath, who proceeded to destroy his Tribe, gaining back her strength, and preparing to destroy all life on Earth. The Protagonist, who was a no-good punk that rejected the ways of his tribe, was forced to master the Shamanic arts in order to stop Shub-Niggurath from getting strong enough to take over. Armed with only his grandfather’s tomahawk, the Protagonist set out about the Reservation, gaining the power needed to stop Shub-Niggurath and save all life on Earth.

As you can see, just by a very short Brainstorming mock-session, we have taken a basic idea from the first part of Game Design Process 101, and turned it into a full-scale game plot. However, the creative thinking isn’t over yet! You can apply the exact same process to your Protagonist character. In the center of the paper, write down, ‘Punk Protagonist who learns the Shaman ways through adversity’. Begin the process anew, looking at that statement and writing out things such as ‘Gets in trouble with the Law a lot’, ‘Disrespectful’, and ‘Really looks up to Grandfather’. We can continue this indefinitely, but for the sake of brevity, here is what I came up with for our Protagonist:

The Protagonist is a twenty-one year old Native American who is being raised by his Grandfather, the Shaman of the Tribe. The Protagonist’s Caucasian name is Eric Roughwater, and his Tribal name is Eagle-that-Dreams-to-Soar. He’s resentful of his Tribe’s old way of life because his parents, who supported the Tribal Ways, were killed by a drunk driver when Eric was only eight years old. The drunk driver was a rich Caucasian businessman who hired a fancy lawyer and got an acquittal from criminal and civil court, while Eric’s parents, who were poor, were buried in wooden boxes. Eric routinely gets in trouble with the law for causing general disturbances, usually with his old refurbished Army Jeep, what he’s painted jet black and named ‘Black Mamba’. Eric can’t seem to hold down a job, or keep a woman, and gets drunk almost every weekend. Throughout all of this rebellion, Eric deeply cares for his Grandfather, the Shaman of the Tribe, named Guiding-Wind-Beneath-Spirit-Wings, who has raised him since his parents died. When his Grandfather dies during Shub-Niggurath’s initial attack, Eric starts off on a quest of revenge, but learns, during the adventure, to spread his wings and soar.

Now that you have scene the power of Brainstorming, it’s time to move on Brainstorming’s Brainy Smurf cousin, Mindmapping. The Mind Map, classified as visual thinking, is one of those neat little processes by which we take all those abstract thoughts and create an interconnected and organized arrangement of ideas, concepts, and information. Mindmapping is one of those tools that people often confuse with Brainstorming, but is actually quite different. You see, by taking the ideas generated via Brainstorming, and mapping them out into something you can visualize, it is far easier to not only cohesively piece together complete elements to your game, but to connect and relate them.

Going back to our game, let’s say that we’ve Brainstormed ideas on the main plot, the protagonist, the grandfather, the protagonist’s current girlfriend, and the antagonist, Shub-Niggurath. Now to properly create a Mind Map, let’s put the ‘Main Story’ in the center, and around it place ‘Protagonist’, ‘Grandfather’, ‘Girlfriend’, and ‘Shub-Niggurath’. We’ll color code each one for now, this will be important later. Protagonist will be red, Granfather will be blue, Girlfriend will be yellow, and Shub-Niggurath will be green. Now that we have colored, the Mindmapping can begin.

Using a normal pen, start to draw lines from the central idea, the Main Story, to the various subtopics, such as Shub-Niggurath. For each line, just jot down a way the two relate. For example, from the Main Story to Shub-Niggurath, we could put down ‘was trapped in the mountain on the Reservation for ten thousand years by the Protagonist’s Tribe, and was kept there seven powerful Totem Spirits. However, due to the Tribe’s power waning, due to modernization, the Totem Spirits have weakened greatly’. Color that line green, since it’s directly connected to Shub-Niggurath. Another line could be from Shub-Niggurath to the Protagonist, with something like ‘senses within Eric the power to restore the Totem Spirits, and therefore sends her children to kill him’. Color that one green too, as it shows how Shub-Niggurath relates to the Protagonist.

Now this is where Mindmapping gets tricky. You don’t have to branch from topic to topic, you can branch from line to line as well. For example, you can draw a line from the Grandfather to the line about the Totem Spirts having held the seal on Shub-Niggurath, and write ‘knew about the Totem Spirits, and their weakening, so he constructed seven places of power (called Manses) around the Reservation that could revitalize the Totem Spirits’. Color that line blue, since it shows how the Grandfather related to that line. Another example could be a line from the line about Shub-Niggurath stopping the Protagonist, to the Girlfriend, saying ‘has her children kidnap the Girlfriend in order to draw Eric into a death trap’. Color that line green, as once again it shows a relation from Shub-Niggurath to something else, this time the Girlfriend.

Now that you have learned about Brainstorming and Mindmapping, it’s time to teach you one of the most powerful creative thinking techniques available, a perfect technique for filling in all the gaps you have left after Brainstorming and Mindmapping – Free Writing.

Free Writing is the technique in which a person just starts to write for a short period of time, without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic, to produce raw usable material. When performing Freewriting, get an idea in your head and just start writing, without stopping. In fact, if your mind blanks, write down ‘I do not know what to write’ over and over again until the creative thoughts pick back up, even if it’s in mid-word. Freewriting, also called stream-of-consciousness writing, allows you to tap into your very powerful, and very creative, subconscious, touching that untouched potential.

And that’s all there is to it! To illustrate the point, I’m going to perform a Freewriting right now about the Girlfriend of the Protagonist, and I will print it unedited and without any forethought. I am just going to let it all come out naturally. Ready, here we go:

‘The girlfriend is a not a Native American woman, but a woman from southamerica whose family was killed, like eric’s, when she was very young. Also, like eric, she was taken in by her grandmother, and taught the ways of her tirbe. However, her entire tribe was wiped out due to a Columbian drug cartel, and she was sold into the sex market. She eventually escaped into the united states, but holds deep bitterness towards men. She hooked up with eric because eric seemed to have ‘sad eyes’ and a soul she could see into. Eric just saw her for her hot looks, and didn’t think another thought of it. However, the girlfirne, her name is tracy or maybe trixi or something, has a similar destiny, even though she is not a fighter like eric. She is the bound physical form of quetzocotal, the Aztec feathered serpent, and is the only force that eric can use to destroy shubby in the final battle. This will kill her, unfortunately, but the world will be saved. Her skin is dark, her eyes are ruby-orange, and her lips are deep rose. She wears black jeans, a red-rust balzer, and a black mockneck that reads ‘you can’t handle this babe’. She assists eric in some parts of the game, but not near the end. And her name is going to be tricia.’

Whew. Lots of misspellings there. Lot of stuff I may not want to use, either. But over all, I went from a damsel in distress, to a co-star, to one of Eric’s final powers (or something he needs to utilize to win). The point is that with Freewriting, I just typed and typed, and created a great, usable set of ideas, without doing much more than a minute or two of typing.

And I’m not naming her Tricia, but I obviously want to name her something starting with a Tr-. And I’m not having her be from Columbia, cause I’d just rather it be Brazil. Looking over at, my eyes is caught by Trella. There we go. One female-co-star-turned-super-summon named Trella.

So as you can see, the process of Creative Thinking is not that difficult, it’s just a matter of knowing what the right tools are, and how to use them. So the next time you’re in the shower and are hit by that flash of incredible inspiration, take some time to work those ideas out a bit more, and flushed out the details. Your game, and your own mind, will be better in the long run.

Ponder that for a while and go do some creative thinking! Meanwhile, I’m going to think about how I want Trella to look in a bikini…