This article originally appeared on PocketGamer.biz on 7th March 2014.
I recently asked a indie dev friend what his next project might be. He explained that while his technical ability was (more than) there, he struggled to think of a good mobile game idea that he felt he could stick with to completion.
This is the blank piece of paper problem.
When you can do anything, the paralysis of choice can mean you do nothing or, just as bad, try to do everything.
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler, or possibly Douglas Adams
Most of my experience has been with work-for-hire, where you always start with a brief. Now, you may not agree with the brief, but at least it’s not a blank piece of paper.
It comes with limitations, with objectives, with measures of success (“It needs to get players thinking about x topic”/”It must use y brand assets”/”It must have z plays in the first six months”).
Then there’s brainstorming, refining, and stress-testing ideas with colleagues before pitching back what is, by then, a fully formed (and hopefully good) game concept.
I’ve been thinking how techniques from that collaborative formal-agency-pitching approach could be applied to to help other mobile indies break through their own creative blocks.
To arrive at your own brief – some self-imposed limitations – it’s probably best to start by thinking about what you want to get out of the experience of making your next game.
Is it about generating a certain amount of revenue? Trying out a new technique? Shipping within two months? Working on a new platform?
It doesn’t have to be long, but just clarifying what constraints you want to give yourself will allow you to be much more creative and give you something to measure a game’s success against afterwards and learn from.
Have you implemented that new technique? Did you ship on time?
I’m a firm believer in that the only way to get to good game ideas is by wading through a swamp of truly awful ideas.
If you fire enough bullets, eventually you’ll hit the target. It might seem counter-intuitive, and feel particularly hard or weird if you’re by yourself and don’t have team members to bounce off, but stick with it.
The first goal is to come up with at least fifty starting points, all a variant of Thing 1 + Thing 2.
These Things can be anything – a genre, specific mechanics, the platform, art styles (or just artists), musicians, films, books, types of story (wandering around TV Tropes always sparks something for me), a random asset from the Unity Asset Store.
Or, my personal favourite, just a dreadful pun-based title. For example:
- Cart racer based on 1950s US gameshows
- Apocalypse Now dating sim
- City builder inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch
- Match-3 rails shooter
- 3D text adventure with a jazz soundtrack
- Underwater 4X game for Pebble smartwatches
- Hairdressing sim set in a Tolkein-esque universe: Perm-an-Ent
Once you’ve got your list of fifty game abominations it’s time to take them seriously. Pick ten at random and think through how you’d actually turn them into a game you might actually play.
It’s fine to diverge at this point and tweak the core idea – the point is to get a paragraph or so of notes and doodles for each that turn them into just-about-plausible concepts.
So now you have three lists:
- a list of constraints
- fifty bad game one liners
- ten average game concepts
Found an idea you can run with? Great! Take that one and go – Godspeed!
Still stuck? Find some trusted friends and pitch each of your ten ideas to them. The process of talking it through with someone, anyone, will help sharpen your own thinking, and expose any obvious flaws. Make lists of notes from everyone you speak to.
Sleep on it
Ideas that seem brilliant at 7pm are usually rubbish by the next morning.
Give yourself some space away from your ideas, let them fizz about in your subconscious for a few days. When you re-read your shortlisted concepts, alongside notes from trusted friends, you’ll either be blown away by your brilliance (great, make that one!) or deeply ashamed of your idiocy.
Don’t worry if you’ve still not cracked it – you just need more bullets. Start again from the top.
Remember: the goal of all of this is only to kickstart innovation and get you thinking out of your established routine. Anything coming out of this process is by design only the very first step toward making-your-next-game.
I guarantee that if you do this enough times, you will think of something that surprises you. Come to think of it, a Match-3 rails shooter could actually work pretty well. A sort of 10,000,000 meets House of the Dead.
Has anyone already made this? Bagsies!