No, this is not an announcement of my next game (I wish). Rather, it’s a brain dump of my struggle with the process. It seems that in the game development community we often share the process of making a game and how it did afterwards. But it’s rare having some insight into what goes on before the project gets started. Where do ideas come from? Why do we pick one and not another? These are semi-coherent notes about the things I’m struggling with right now.
A new game for me starts as an idea somewhere, sometime, that got jotted down into my “game ideas” personal wiki page. I have that page accessible 24 hours a day on my computer, iPhone, or iPad. Only while I’m running/cycling or in the shower am I away from that page (and unfortunately, that’s the time when most ideas seem to spark). I make a point of not censoring any ideas: If I thought that something would be neat (not just gameplay, but a setting, a visual, a mechanic, or anything), I jot it down.
Over time, I accumulate quite a few ideas. Every so often I review them and I might expand on some and flesh out sub-ideas. Or they might spark different ideas of their own and I jot them down too. I never delete any of them, because I’m consciously trying to not censor anything yet. This is purely brainstorming mode. I’ve even sent emails to friends about possible game ideas straight out of this list, crappy ideas and all.
During this time I’ll rearrange the list. I’ll move more likely ideas up, or ones that I’m more excited about. That has the effect of a kind of bubble sort, so the better ideas somehow rise to the top (except for the brilliant ones hidden in the depths somewhere).
This list is particularly useful when I’m in the middle of a project and I have what seem brilliant game ideas. Do I put the project aside to do this great idea instead? No. Instead, I add it to the list with all the others. If I’m really excited about it, I’ll flesh it out as much as I can, but it needs to wait its turn. As you can imagine, after a few days, the idea doesn’t seem so shiny anymore, so it was a good thing it didn’t derail the current project.
Eventually the time comes when I need to pick a new project, and this is where the fun and the pain start.
You would think a good approach might be to read the list and start evaluating ideas. In a way, that’s what I do, but before I evaluate ideas, I need to some frame of reference to decide what’s a worthwhile idea and what isn’t.
In the past my criteria for considering a project involved the intersection of three requirements:
- The game must be interesting for me to work on. I want to learn something new and be excited about what I do. Not interested in cloning something or making a derivative game.
- A game I can realistically implement with the resources at my disposal. I’m not an artist, so that usually means not having a content-heavy game, and relying on code as much as possible (like the procedural geometry in Flower Garden–no artist modeled those flowers by hand).
- A game that has potential to sell well on the target platforms.
Unfortunately, meeting all those three requirements at the same time isn’t easy, especially given the astounding number of games already on iOS.
Before I go any further, I need to step back and ask myself a very important question: Why do I want to make this next game? This is a question we indies have the luxury of asking (and answering). I think most big (and small) studios are too busy staying afloat to be able to ask anything like that (besides, the answer is almost always “make more money” for them).
It turns out the indie life is treating me very well, so making lots money isn’t one of the main reasons to make this next game. That means I can safely remove that requirement from my previous list, which grants me a lot more freedom.
I’m probably going to spend the next 6 to 10 months working on this project, so it needs to be worthwhile. Does it need to be innovative and break new ground in a way no one has seen before? Does it need to make hard-core FPS players cry to be worth considering? Does it need to be radical, pixelated, mash up 5 different genres, an win the IGF and respect of my peers?
It turns out none of those are the reasons that drive me to make games. In the end, when I look deep down, the reason I want to make games is for the pleasure of taking a vision from the initial idea to something people can play. It’s the creativity involved that drives me. I imagine it’s the same reason people are driven to write or paint. If along the way, some of those games manage to be innovative, make money, or win an IGF award, that’d be fantastic, but in any case, the development process is its own reward.
Given all those factors, I can go down the list of games and evaluate each one. Does it have potential to meet those requirements and be a satisfying project? This might not come as a surprise for those of you involved in creative activities, but this is hands-down, the most difficult time of development for me. As long as I don’t have a project picked, my mind is constantly going over this. Anything I read, see, or hear is filtered and analyzed thinking of how it would fit in a game. During this time I’m often moody, volatile, and prone to depression if this goes on for too long.
Even though it seems I’ll never going to be able to come up with an idea worth doing, eventually something comes along, and the next phase starts.
I’ve already talked about prototyping at length before. I take the idea I’m considering and I try to answer the key questions in the shortest possible time. This is the time to shoot down any bad ideas, or prove why they’re not feasible or just boring.
The prototyping phase is a big high for me. It often involves manic activity and I can get a prototype done in a day or two from the initial excitement on the idea. The bad part is that most prototypes prove not to be that great, and they go back to the drawer of game ideas, and I’m left scrambling for another idea.
Struggle. Prototype. Discard. Repeat.
I usually repeat this cycle multiple times. Each time around I get more anxious, and the lows and highs are a bit more extreme.
Fortunately, at least so far, eventually I find a prototype that seems worth doing. Something I can see spending the next X months of my life doing. I usually run it by a few friends whose opinion I value highly, and if they’re excited about it too, then it becomes an internal green light and I move on to the implementation phase.
Apart from asking yourself why your making a game, here are a couple of things worth keeping in mind when picking a new project. They’re not new things and I’ve heard them before in one form or another, but they’re worth reiterating:
- Don’t compete with big companies. They can throw a lot more resources, and, most importantly, lots of marketing behind their titles. Don’t try to take Zynga head on. Do your own thing.
- Don’t chase trends. Take risks. Be different. You’re indie and have low overheard. Take advantage of that and do things the big boys would never dare risk $50 million on.
- Keep the scope of the project small and focused. It will be bigger than you envision anyway. By being small, you can come up with new ideas faster than big companies.
How about you? What’s your process for deciding to work on something? Do you struggle until you pick the project? Do you stick with an idea, or do you change and restart?