Every aspiring game developer has a game idea in their head that’s just itching to get out, given the chance. Coming up with the initial idea is the easy part, indeed. But like I mentioned in my earlier blog post, game design is about making numerous small decisions, not just the big picture. Think of it like drawing an image: In the beginning you set the outlines, but eventually you will have to fill up every single detail of the game — and that’s the hard, time-consuming part.
You may have a solid core idea and you could easily make 5 levels or challenges based on that alone. For example, let’s say you’re developing a platform game where you can gain more air time by shooting with your gun to the opposite direction for a recoil boost. You could easily develop a few introductory challenges around this basic skill set. Or, in a match 3 game, simply introducing the gameplay mechanics could give you the first 7 levels (like it did in our game, Gem Slide). However, there will come a time when you will need more variation in your challenges, and that’s when you’ll have to come up with new stuff.
Regardless of what kind of game you’re developing, you’ll always need to fill out the details. You may know that your game revolves around battling enemies, and you’ve had one or two enemy types thought out in your mind, but you find it hard to come up with all the rest of the adversaries. Or, you may know that your game has certain kinds of puzzles, but a fitting idea for level 25.
And this is where you can run into a roadblock.
Luckily for you, in this post I’ve gathered 10 tips that you can try out if you’re in a dire need of ideas, but none are coming out. I’m well aware that all points may not apply for everyone, but I would strongly suggest you approach these tidbits of information with an open mind: You can’t judge something before you’ve personally tried it. With this mindset, I’ve tried and found many helpful ideas for game development and life in general, even if I was slightly skeptical at first.
Before anyone is able to bring up the “creativity can’t be taught” argument, I’m going to shoot it down: I strongly come down on the side of nurture in ‘nature vs. nurture’ debates. My opinion is not a mere matter of belief, as I’ve personally witnessed positive development many times in myself and in people around me. Despite the seeming ‘lack of talent’, people have managed to succeed in what they’ve wanted to do — as long as they have put the effort into it! So, if you’re not already doing so, learn to think that doing a lot of deliberate practice will get you where you want to be — even if you don’t consider yourself talented. This is actually such an important topic that I think I might touch it more in depth later, in a separate post. For now, if you want to read more about it, I recommend you check out this overview of a book called “Talent Is Overrated”. I completely agree with the principles it presents.
Now then, let’s move on to the tips!
- When the ideas *do* come, write all of them down. There are times when the ideas will come to you, and it’s important to capitalize on these moments. This goes for every idea, regardless of when you get it or how bad you think it is! Even if you wake up in the middle of the night and experience a brief “Aha!” moment, jot the idea down, or at least record a few keywords so that you’ll remember it in the morning. Seriously, do it. Your memo will be an invaluable resource when you’re having a lack of ideas. That’s when you can turn to your trusted idea bank and see if there’s anything usable there. If you’ve written down 100 ideas, there are bound to be a few good ones among them. Even the poor ideas have their use: By glancing at them, you may find a way to improve on them, or they may branch into something completely different once you give them some more thought.
- Combine ideas. Let’s face it: In this world, it’s really hard to come up with something truly unique. Whenever you think you’ve got a new concept in your hands, it’s highly likely that someone else has already come up with something similar. However, taking two existing ideas and combining them can result in something that hasn’t been seen before. For example, the indie game Crypt of the Necrodancer successfully combines a roguelike and a rhythm game. A pretty nice concept, don’t you think? Here’s another, smaller-scale example that I consistently use in level design: Say you’ve introduced two (rather basic) elements in your platform game, laser cannons that shoot at fixed intervals and trampolines, and you’ve used them separately in previous levels. You could make the next section in a level utilize both: jump on trampolines to avoid hitting laser beams!
- Split ideas into pieces. In a similar way, the anatomy of a match 3 game was analyzed in my first development blog post for Gem Slide, you can do the same for any game. Basically, you can take any existing game, level or mechanic idea and break it into atom-like pieces. Change any of these small components and the overall idea will quickly transform into something different.
- Question. Question everything. This is a bit related to the previous point, as questioning everything will help you view matters from a new perspective. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t take anything as a given. Question what would happen if you did A or B in your game. Question what would happen if you changed part X of your game. Question if there’s a better way to do things that other games of the same genre are doing. Question, question, question. With a load of questions, you will naturally seek answers for them, and once you find a solution, you’ve come up with a new idea.
- Listen to music. Studies have shown that listening to music while working can boost your creativity. Personally, I prefer music without vocals, as otherwise, I may begin to lose focus on the actual task I’m supposed to work on. If the song does have vocals, it has to be so familiar that I know the lyrics by heart. Maybe a bit unsurprisingly, my preference in this matter is game music. Don’t you just feel energized listening to nostalgic tracks from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Mega Man X? However, I urge you to find out what kind of songs work best for you. By the way, besides creativity, music does wonders for my motivation: When I’m creating a game, I may listen to background music that might fit the game/level I’m currently creating, which really makes me want to finish the level as soon as possible.
- Go walking. If you’re doing creative work, you don’t actually have to be at your computer to work. Why not go for a stroll in a quiet area to help you organize your thoughts? Studies have shown that taking a walk can do wonders for idea production. Besides, a little bit of exercise is never bad for game developers or anyone who spends a lot of time in front of the monitor.
- Take a break. You can’t force creativity, so sometimes it’s just better to take a break. Just like for any other kind of work, there’s a limit to how much you can consistently do efficiently. For creative work, many feel this limit is reached at around 4 to 5 hours per workday. (Apparently the great mathematician Henri Poincaré felt the same way.) By efficient, I mean an amount that you can sustain for 5 days a week for a couple of months in a row. Of course, you can temporarily get even 8 hours of efficient work in for a few days in a row, but the odds are that your pace will drop sooner or later. Eventually, this will force you below the 4-5-hour mark as you just don’t have any creative energy left in you. If you’re past that limit, it’s wise to stop thinking about that particular problem and let the solution incubate in your subconsciousness: You may very well have the solution the next morning when you wake up.
- Refer to other games. When taking a break, you may feel that your time is wasted if you’re not working on anything productive. However, like I said, it’s crucial to let your mind recover from all the hard brainwork. Still, there is a way to kill two birds with one stone: While on a break, why not play a few games as well? Take a look at other games for inspiration. Think about what you would change in another game if you had the chance. See what kind of solutions have been used in other games. Referring to point 1 again: Even if you’re having time off and enjoying your favorite games, be sure to take note of ideas that pop into your mind as you’re playing the game. A few words of warning, though: Don’t become a copycat and grab everything directly from other titles.
- Consume other media. Besides games, other kinds of fictional (and factual) works are a great source for ideas. Read books and articles, watch movies and series. Enjoy and relax, and let the ideas come to you.
- Find your optimal working time. Do you know that feeling when it’s well past midnight and you know that you should be going to sleep, but you keep on writing down ideas anyway, because if you don’t, you know they’ll be lost forever? No? Then it’s highly likely that you’re not a nocturnal person, like me or Edmund McMillen (I believe he mentions this in Indie Game: The Movie). Still, even if you’re not nocturnal, I believe that all people have their optimal times when they function the best. Find out yours and attempt to time your creative tasks during that time period.
Well then, I hope you have found these tips helpful in filling out the details of your next masterpiece! If you did, feel free to leave a comment in the section below! Now then, stay tuned and take care!
PS. This post was written at 5 AM. Thanks for reading and good night!