Professional game designer Andrew Rollings discusses various ways you can come up with great ideas for your next game project.
Getting an Idea for a New Game
Game ideas come from almost anywhere, but they don’t walk up and
introduce themselves. You can’t sit around and wait for inspiration to
strike. Creativity is an active, not a passive, process. You have to put
yourself in an inquisitive frame of mind and then go out and look for game
ideas. Look everywhere. Some of the most mundane things could be hiding a game
idea. Even delivering newspapers provided the basis for a successful arcade
game, Paperboy, though developers spiced up the job by letting the player
break windows with the newspapers and making him dodge cars on his bicycle.
One idea isn’t enough. It’s a common misconception that a brilliant
game idea will make you a fortune. In fact, this occurs extremely rarely. You
might think you have the game idea of the century, but concentrating on it
without bothering to think about other game ideas is a little like pinning all
your hopes on a single lottery ticket and not bothering to get up for work while
you wait to see if your numbers come up. Unlike lottery tickets, ideas are free,
so think about new ones constantly. Make a note of them and go on. If one seems
especially promising to you, then you can start to expand and refine it, but
don’t let that prevent you from thinking about other games as well. When
thinking up game ideas, more is always better.
Dreaming the Dream
Many game ideas begin as dreams. Not real dreams, but daydreams, things you
think about when you’re staring out the window or watching the clouds on a
summer afternoonæthese are the thoughts that you have when you let your
mind roam free.
Computers can make dreams real. This is the unique characteristic of
interactive entertainment that sets it apart from all other forms. Interactive
entertainment can take you away to a wonderful place and there let you do an
amazing thing. Books and movies can’t do that. They can take you away to a
wonderful place, but they can’t let you do an amazing thing. Books and
movies can create fantastic worlds and show them to you, but they can’t let
you be part of them. Computer games create worlds, and they can let you live
inside of them as well.
A lot of computer games are light entertainment, designed to while away a few
minutes with a puzzle or a simple challenge. But larger, richer games begin with
a dream. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I wish I could…”
or “Imagine what it would be like to…,” then you’ve taken the
first step on the road to creating a computer game. The computer has the power
to simulate reality (with varying degrees of accuracy), but, more important, it
has the power to simulate dreams. Computers can create almost any sort of
experience you can imagine visually, even experiences that are physically
impossible in the real world. The design of a computer game begins with the
question, “What dream am I going to fulfill?”
Perhaps it’s a dream of exploring a dungeon infested with monsters.
Perhaps it’s a dream of coaching a football team. Perhaps it’s a dream
of being a fashion designer. But before you do anything else, you must dream the
dream. Understand it. Feel it. Know who else dreams it and why.
Game Ideas from Other Media
Books, movies, television, and other entertainment media are a great source
of inspiration for game ideas. The game Interstate ’76 (see Figure
1) was inspired by 1970s cop shows. Movies such as the James Bond series often
inspire games. Any story containing an exciting action with something important
at stake can form the kernel of a game. Think over the books you’ve read
and the movies you’ve seen, and ask yourself whether any of the scenes in
them could serve as the basis for a game.
1 Interstate ’76 was a great game inspired by another medium.
You can’t, of course, go stealing other people’s intellectual
property. Even if the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland seems like the
basis for a great game, you can’t go ahead and make it without
Disney’s approval. But you can certainly make a lighthearted game about
piratesæas LucasArts did with its Monkey Island series.
You should also look beyond the usual science fiction and fantasy genres and
beyond the usual sources. How about poetry? Beowulf’s epic battle with the
monster Grendel and then his even more terrible battle with Grendel’s
mother in a cave at the bottom of a lake sounds like the basis for a game.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” might make you wonder about cavalry
tactics. What are the advantages and disadvantages? Would a game based on
cavalry warfare be interesting to anyone? It’s worth thinking about. The
smash-hit game The Sims was partly inspired by a nonfiction book called
A Pattern Language, which is about the way people’s lives are
affected by the design of their houses.
Game ideas can crop up in all sorts of unlikely places. Just as great
scientists look at even the most common things in the world and ask how they
work, great game designers are always looking at the world and wondering if it
can be made into a game. The trick is to develop a game designer’s
instincts, to look for the fun and challenge even in things that don’t
sound like games at all.
Game Ideas from Other Games
A great many people who play computer games want to design them as well.
Something about playing games stirs up people’s creative juices. When you
play a lot of games, you develop a sense of how they work and what their good
and bad points are. Playing games is a valuable experience for a game designer.
It gives insight and lets you compare and contrast the features of different
Sometimes we get game ideas through frustration. Most of us have had the
experience, at one time or another, of playing a game that wasn’t quite
right somehow. The user interface was awkward, the game was too difficult, or
the payoff was boring. We think, “If I had designed this game, I would
have…” We have in our minds an imaginary ideal game, the one that would
fix all those problems and the one that we would make if we had the chance.
To learn from other games, you have to pay attention as you play. Don’t
just play them for fun; look at them seriously and think about how they work.
Take notes especially of things that you like or don’t like and of features
that seem to work particularly well or particularly badly. How do resources flow
into the game? How do they flow out? How much is luck, and how much is
As creative people, our instinct is to devise totally new kinds of games that
have never before been seen. Unfortunately, publishers want games that they are
sure they can sell, and that usually means variants on existing genres, perhaps
with a new twist that they can use in marketing. This is why we keep seeing
sequels and thinly disguised copies of earlier games. As designers, we have to
learn to balance the tension between our own desire to innovate and the
publisher’s need for the comfortably familiar. Leonardo da Vinci warned
against persistent imitation, however, in his Treatise on Painting:
The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the work of
others as his standard; but if he will apply himself to learn from the objects
of nature he will produce good results. This we see was the case with the
painters who came after the Romans, for they continually imitated each other,
and from age to age their art steadily declined… It is safer to go directly to
the works of nature than to those which have been imitated from her originals,
with great deterioration and thereby to acquire a bad method, for he who has
access to the fountain does not go to the water pot.
There is a downside to deriving game ideas from other games. It tends to
result in games that look or work alike. It’s an evolutionary, not a
revolutionary, approach. Deriving game ideas from other games is an excellent
way to learn about games and gameplay, but if pursued exclusively, it produces
similarity and, ultimately, mediocrity. The greatest games break new ground.
They’re unlike anything seen on the store shelves before. To achieve that,
you have to dream.
From Dream to Game
A dream or an idea alone is only a start; it is not enough to make a game. A
dream is a fantasy that you have by yourself. You can make computer games purely
for yourself if you like, but most of us don’t have the money to do that. A
computer game is something that you make for someone else. You’ll also
discover after you’ve built a few games that playing a game that you worked
on is a very different experience from playing a game that someone else has
created. When you know what’s on the inside and how it works, some of the
fantasy is lost. Just as actors often don’t watch their own movies, some
game developers don’t play their own games. For one thing, of course, if
it’s a single-player game, they already know how to beat it. But the
experience, the dream, isn’t quite the same when it’s a game you built
yourself. In your heart, you know it’s an artificial simulation.
The chief purpose of a computer game is to entertain someone else. This means
that you and your development team are the performers, the people who create the
entertainment. An essential part of your job is communication, transmitting your
dream to your audience, the players. If the game is in a well-known genre and
setting (for example, a World War II flight simulator), you can be pretty
certain that a number of people already share your dream. But if your game is in
a new setting (a futuristic city of your imagination, for example)æand
especially if it’s in a new genreæyou have to be very careful and
thorough in communicating your dream to others. Some of the very first questions
a publishing executive is going to ask you are “Why would anyone want to
play this game?” and “What’s going to make someone buy this game
instead of another?”
But what does it mean to entertain someone? Many people think entertainment
is synonymous with having fun, but even that isn’t completely
straightforward. People have fun in all kinds of ways. Some of those ways
involve very hard work, such as gardening or building a new deck. Some of them
involve frustration, such as solving a puzzle. Some, such as athletic
competitions, even involve pain. One person’s entertainment is another
person’s insufferable boredom. In building a computer game that entertains,
it’s important to understand how it entertains.