Most people today don't think of game ideas as anything more than what they seem to be: Ideas. I mean, ideas are ideas right? Not necessarily. This series of articles (which will number four) will cue you in on how to reach out and grasp an idea, and then look at it in various ways, incubating it and letting it grow instead of mutilating it with a quick death.
Originally, this article was meant to instruct you on how to make a good game design document. In drafting up that article, I realized that what I was saying was only the middle part of the entire design process, and I didn't want to leave out the beginning and then end. So I chose instead to do this four-part series.
Now then, lets talk about your ideas, and how to mold them into the perfect vision of your game - in your mind's eye alone.
Have you ever read [i]The BFG[/i] by R. Dahl? It told of a Big Friendly Giant who caught dreams with a net and stored them in bottles. He could mix and match dreams to make any kind of dream imaginable. Then he would go out in the dead of night and, with a long blowpipe through the bedroom window, give the dreams to kids as they slept. Some dreams were pleasant, other were horrible nightmares.
Game ideas don't differ too much from the description of dreams. Just like the dreams in the book, game ideas are floating all around you. Also like dreams, some turn out to be wonderful, while others are nightmares (read carefully, and you'll avoid the nightmares). To catch one, just take your imaginary net and reach out to grasp it. Where? Well, ideas can spawn from almost anything, a magazine, a movie, a TV show, a book, something that happened in your life, something you'd want to do, and on and on.
The easiest way to come up with an idea is to not think about it. Keep a clear head as you walk around, looking at things, thinking of things. Don't be thinking [i]Hmmm, would this make a good game?[/i] Doing this will only utilize your analytical aspect, not your imaginary aspect. Trying to analyze an idea before you've really dreamt about it leads to a high rate of idea mortality (No, this is not a statistic). Instead, when you see something that you think could make a good game, your brain should shout out [i]Gee, that would make a cool game![/i] If this act was done unconsciously, it's a good sign. Quickly reach out with your net and grasp that idea; hold on to it. Now that you have it stored away in gray matter, you might want to try looking for some more ideas. If not, then on to the next section you go.
So now what? You have the idea right? Let's head home and start to ink it out on paper right? No! You do that, and again, you'll bring in your analytical department. In other words, you should not be thinking this idea is outrageous or would never work. After getting the original idea, you will have to flesh it out in your head. Think of all the possibilities; come up with lots of features - even if they seem impossible. If you need to, then make a list on a piece of paper. But after jotting down an idea, move along without thinking about it again. This lets you separate your thoughts and leads to a more diverse result.
This period of incubation should take a few days, even a few weeks if you aren't in a rush. Throughout it you should be spending time just visualizing the game in your head. Again, do not write or draw or sketch [i]anything[/i] on paper. If you do this, you will solidify that fact in your head and changing it will be very difficult. (not to mention bringing up your analytical side, but you've heard enough about that already).
As stated in the above paragraph, a few days or weeks - there is no set time limit. If you're a born visionary, you may be able to flesh out the idea into something that seems solid in your head in a matter of days. Others may take longer. Also, feeling when an idea has come along enough to write down is quite hard. I like to think about it until I can visualize it in my head with no effort at all. And I don't mean just a few screens, but the entire game: what the graphics will look like, the menus, the characters, vehicles, levels, what it will sound like, etc. Sure, it seems like a lot to think about, but that's why it can take a few weeks.
Now that we have the idea set in our heads, its time to make it semi-official.
[size="5"][b]Jotting It Down[/b][/size]
The time has come. Well, not quite. You aren't going to start writing the design document yet (just to let you know, that's part three). Instead, you are going to construct a features list, maybe a few sketches and then, guess what? You're gonna think some more J
The features list is a pretty straightforward thing. Now that you have all your ideas solidified in your head, you can safely put them down on paper. Again, I didn't let you do this before because you may have wanted to change an idea or image in your mind. The thing is - if you imagine something, say a dragon with spikes along its spine, and then draw it, the image of the spiked dragon will solidify in your mind. So if you wanted to change it into a dragon with no spikes and a blunt head, you'll find it hard to imagine it. Or, if not hard, just [i]not right[/i]. This feeling can lead you to sticking with the original idea. It's not a very serious threat, I admit, but it can still happen.
Anyways, now is the time to purge your memory and dump it all onto paper. A feature list can be as long as you can make it. Include every idea you ever had about the game, one after the other. They don't have to be related to the one before it, or in any particular order. Just write them down. Again, you must still keep a clear head and not think about them any more than you already have, if you manage to do this, I can guarantee more ideas will pop up. Stash those new ones away to think about them (jot down a very short description if you think you'll forget).
After you are done with the features list, put it aside and take some more time to think about any new ideas you may have had. Add those later on. When you're done with all that, the next step is the Test of Time (*shudder*).
[size="5"][b]The Test of Time[/b][/size]
Now it is time to see if your idea qualifies to advance to the next round. What is the Test of Time? It's very simple - don't worry. It does, however, require a bit of self-control and some time, so be prepared. The procedure is as follows:
[list=1][*] Take all drawings, sketches, notes, diagrams, and your features list and stash them all in a nice dark, dry place where you won't want to get them for a few weeks.[*] Purge your mind of any thought about your game. Disown it, kill it, let it fade away from memory.[/list] Ok, why in the world are you doing this? The explanation is that while you were dreaming up this wonderful new game idea, I had you so caught up in it, thinking its going to be The Next Best Thing, you may not have realized how much it actually sucks. [i]What!?[/i] you may say - [i]I've spent all this time coming up with a sucky game idea?[/i] Not necessarily. I didn't say it would suck, I said it might.
Being the final test of an idea, it's important you do this correctly. The hardest part is not thinking about the game and having to put it aside for so long (4-6 weeks). The best thing to do, if you're a full time game designer, is to use this time to think up a new game idea. Not only is 4-6 weeks enough time for incubation of a new idea, it'll help take your mind off the old idea. Then, when your new idea is ready for the Test of Time, you can take out the old one, dust it off, and place the new one in no-mans land. A wonderful cycle.
Now, pulling the old idea off the shelf, if you remember nothing about it, that's good. In fact, that's excellent! Don't worry about forgetting stuff; if you did the job right, you should have all your ideas written down. Now leaf through the papers and look upon each with a new eye. If memories start to flood back in, squash them and take in everything as if it all were new to you. Don't let your past feelings for the game idea get in the way of the new judgment.
So what's the verdict? That's your job. If you're leafing through the papers and saying [i]Did I actually think of this?[/i] Then into the shredder it goes. Congratulations, you've just killed your own game idea you thought was so great. It's a tough thing to do, but doing it lets you know you can spot bad ideas and deal with them accordingly (and not waste money on developing them). If you're flipping through and saying [i]Yes, yes, very good[/i], then you are cleared for takeoff!
Congrats, you've just given birth to a little baby game idea. Aw, he's so cute... *ahem*. I mean, jolly good show. So what's the next step? Breaking out the chainsaw and trying to cut your game idea to pieces (figuratively, of course). In the next installment of the series, The Design, I'll lead though the process of trying to kill your idea. We'll look at it from every angle, knead it, beat it up, look for flaws, and more. After passing all these trials, it should emerge sharper than a diamond. Until then...
Questions? Comments? That's what email's for...