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Why not Amazon? For one, illustrated non-fiction isn’t well-suited for the Kindle format. Also, at a €14.99 price point, Amazon’s cut amounts to €9.75. Well, no.
Level One: Spawning Ideas
With ideas, it’s not that difficult, it’s not that simple. As Richard Feynman put it, in his Caltech commencement address in 1974, the first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. Basically, the whole process of developing your ideas into a viable game concept consists of not fooling yourself, and you will be tempted to fool yourself every step of the way. However, tools that support the creative process are not only a great help if being creative doesn’t come naturally to you, as mentioned in the Preliminary phase. They also help you control your creative torrents when ideas do come naturally to you. Methodologies and paradigms exist both to support and to constrain.
Beat 1. Confusions
Fooling yourself begins with having ideas in abundance. Perhaps you can spawn dozens of ideas in one brainstorming session alone, and some of them look good on paper. The more experience you acquire, though, the harder it will become. That’s because accumulated experience, training, and knowledge equip you with the mental apparatus to assess your ideas quickly, and weed out those that lack originality, feasibility, playability, or market potential almost automatically. When that happens, ideas are no longer cheap. They’re precious.
Another form of fooling yourself are pet ideas. Shaped by personal experience and cultivated for years, the perceived quality of a pet idea with its endless stream of exciting particulars is often an illusion, created by the combined psychological function of biographical significance and the sheer amount of time and thought it has consumed.
Neither clinging to a single idea nor producing great quantities of ideas haphazardly will get you very far. What you need is the practice and the experience that comes with discipline and challenge.
Artists sit down for a sketch or a drawing as soon as they can spare a minute. Writers write a number of words or pages per day or per week. Musicians practice their voice or their instrument every day for hours on end. What are you, the game designer, doing on a daily basis to hone your craft and develop your creative expertise?
Playing games is a good place to start, and it’s a vital part of being a game designer. But you won’t learn to design great games from playing games alone, in the same way that you won’t learn to write best-selling novels just from reading best-selling novels or paint pictures to be acquired by Guggenheim just from visiting art galleries.
Thus, you have to practice regularly. First, you create an idea. Then, you sketch it out across the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map, Game Mechanics, Ludology, Cinematology, and Narratology, for the structural organization of what might later become a game. Finally, you figure out whether your idea holds up to expectations or not, and why.
Walk into the wild, along this level’s upcoming beats. Try to develop one brand-new idea per week. Create, sketch, analyze, rinse, repeat.
Beat 2. Constituents
Books that tell you how to spark ideas and be creative have always been part of a thriving genre. It won’t hurt to read some of them. Advice differs widely, but what a creative idea is can be boiled down to a version of the following formula: a creative idea is the product of persistence, constraints, and an unfamiliar combination of familiar ideas, and the result should be original, interesting, and relevant. That’s it. It’s brief enough so you can learn it by heart.
Let’s unpack this formula and have a closer look at its constituents.
Persistence means two things: creating ideas as such, which we’re in the process of discussing, and refining promising ideas, which we will discuss in Level Two: Panning for the Core.
Constraints are desirable. Constraints can be genres and platforms, available technologies, prevailing market conditions and audience expectations, the limits of your skills, knowledge, and experience. Whatever your particular constraints are, they define the space in which you can excel, and that makes them desirable. In this space, importantly, the value or relevance of your work can be measured against that of other works. But here’s the tricky part. Your budget must not be a constraint but something that is determined by your constraints. It would be highly detrimental to your game if it could become a better game with a higher budget! Thus, you need to develop a clear mental picture about the constraints you face or choose to face, and then embrace them.
The third constituent, combining familiar ideas to create something unfamiliar, can be practiced with random input methods. Such methods have been around for a long time under many different names. Among the most well-known is Edward de Bono’s random word method, associated with his concept of lateral thinking. The random word method is used to solve defined problems by introducing a random word to the problem, to force the brain to think “laterally” in different angles and directions.
Certainly, trying to come up with a game idea is not a defined problem in that sense, so we have to tweak it a bit! Instead of introducing a random word to a known problem, we will shuffle and manipulate the characteristics of several random items and use the most interesting relations between these items to generate new and unfamiliar ideas. The principle is the same (random input) and the principal effect is also the same (forcing the brain to enter unfamiliar territory). But the output is notably different because the input itself is the problem you have to solve in creative ways.
What’s more, this technique is not restricted to words. You can use random words, random images, random sounds, even random events, and combine them in any manner you like. With respect to words, you can also differentiate between nouns, verbs, and adjectives; each category brings its own flavor to the table.
But whatever you use, three elements should suffice. You can try four or more, but chances are you will lose focus. Finally, combining familiar ideas to create something unfamiliar doesn’t have to involve random elements at all! You can deliberately and purposefully mix and match concepts from different domains, and we will come back to that later in the Process phase in Level Three: Plurimediality in the context of style. For examples of how to create something new and unfamiliar from non-random input, watch Feng Zhu’s GDC 2015 presentation “A Live Art Demonstration of Creating Worlds through Design Thinking,” especially from his “Ask ‘What If?’” section onward. It’s a great place to start.
Regardless which elements you use, here’s how it works. Pick three random or non-random items from search engines, playlists, art catalogs, news items, attic finds, or whatever you can think of. Then, try to find interesting relations between these elements and generate a game idea from and around these relations. Aim at sketching one idea per week.
Don’t become too attached to these ideas. The important part is the training and the practice you get out of it. Starting from scratch is hard, and your idea might look much more promising than it actually is simply because it already exists. Which is just another path toward fooling yourself. Only keep that rare idea that clearly sticks out as superior and promising. Dispose of the rest.
Finally, we need to unpack the formula’s tail that the result should be original, interesting, and relevant. Original means it’s not a copy or a rip-off product. Interesting means it has to be, well, interesting—you can create something that is highly original but profoundly boring. Relevant can mean a lot of different things in the context of games. A game can become relevant as an industry-defining artistic, conceptual, or technological breakthrough, descriptions of which will grace presentation slides on developer conferences. Primarily, though, it should be relevant with respect to the playing experience. This can stretch from the prosaic to the profound, from simply not having wasted the player’s precious time to fond memories for a lifetime, from an exhilarating afternoon to a startling personal insight, from a surge of pride for solving the game to deep emotional footprints whose traces linger for years. It is here that you should try and nail relevance. From there, presentation slides will follow.
Beat 3. Compartments
Now that we have gained an understanding of what a creative idea is, what then would specifically qualify as a creative idea in game design?
A lot more than you might think. It can be a rule or a game mechanic. It can be an interaction with the device or with other players. It can be a rich, atmospheric setting. It can be a complex emotion or experience. It can be a character or a momentous interaction between two or more characters, a dramatic scene, or even a complete story.
Whatever it is, it will fall into one of the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map: Game Mechanics, Ludology, Cinematology, or Narratology. A rule or a game mechanic falls into the Game Mechanics dimension; an interaction into the Ludology dimension; settings and artistic elements in general fall into the Cinematology dimension; and a character, a scene, or a story falls into the Narratology dimension. Naturally, most ideas will come as packages that already comprise elements from all four dimensions. While this might sound innocuous, it is in truth highly undesirable and a problem we need to tackle in Level Two: Panning for the Core.
There’s another exercise related to creating ideas, one that is less concerned with creativity and innovation but with structural thinking as one of the most critical factors in designing great games. Developing structural thinking will come in handy later in the Process phase, and you should add this exercise to your schedule. It’s based on Tracy Fullerton’s “Below the Surface” exercise in Game Design Workshop, and here’s how it works.
Take any story you come across. This can be from a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve watched, political or economic news you’ve followed, or a particularly interesting day or event or endeavor from your own life, perhaps even the progression of a complicated partnership or relationship. Take this story and break it down to its structural elements (all of which will be discussed in-depth during the Process phase): goals and subgoals, functional characters, rules and their constraints (which moves are allowed, which moves are not allowed), resources and their constraints, turning points and points of escalation with mounting difficulties that require more resources like funds, equipment, contacts, skills, wits, or empathy, to name a few, and so on up to and including climax and reward.
What this exercise will do for you, over time, is to instill a way of thinking. The narrative structure of a game—from the most barebone generated player narrative to vast, sprawling action-adventure sagas—should be inseparable from, and contained in, the mechanical structure of a game and vice versa. The way of thinking you need to acquire is to perceive these two elements, the narrative structure and the mechanical structure, without any conscious thought or effort, as mutually constitutive for designing games.
Make both exercises part of your daily routine, and don’t abandon them even when you’re in the process of actually developing a game. Like an artist or a coder or a musician, you should always hone your craft. And, not to forget, these techniques have the collateral benefit of rapidly enhancing your general and specialized knowledge. Many ideas from these exercises will compel you to do at least a little bit of research—in game-related fields, of course, but also wildly beyond. And the more you know, the richer and more compelling your ideas will be.
Remember, most of what comes out of these exercises should be discarded as a rule. Not every sketch an artist makes becomes a painting. Depart from that rule only if it looks and feels like a killer idea. In that case, put your sketch into your Ludotronics inventory and proceed with it to the next level.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One, Level Two, and Level Six.
Level Three through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.