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A Love/Hate Relationship with Ideas

April 25, 2013

Game designers are smack in the middle of an endless maelstrom of ideas. Said ideas come from a variety of people with different skill sets and are destined for an equally complex group. Contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of our work is to come up with new concepts. The rest is idea transit: a blend of meetings, arguments, writing, flow charting, number tweaking, coding (not in all companies but it’s a growing requirement) and whatnot.

Unfortunately, everyone involved, including the designer, loves their own ideas and hates to let go of them.

Our Own Ideas

First things first: if you want to get into the industry to develop your perfect game without anyone’s interference, you need the skills to do so single-handedly, and accept you probably won’t make a living out of it. That’s a valid choice. However, the strength of most games lies in the team behind it, and the designer’s ability to draw from and sort out other’s ideas.

The problem is that our own ideas are always our favorites, but they aren’t always the best.

Keeping an emotional distance from a project is necessary to weigh each idea against other people’s suggestions, time and budgetary constraints, and perceived value for the player. On the flip-side, being a passionate advocate of the concept gets other people motivated about it.

There’s no secret measurement for the right balance of holding on to our ideas and letting others alter our vision. It depends on the team and our experience. One thing is certain, our ideas will be tried and changed during development for a variety of reasons and we need to get comfortable with the bittersweet trade-offs.

Our Team’s1 Ideas

Everyone has ideas. Several people outside and inside the industry think they can design games. As a result, a significant part of our team feels at ease walking up to our desk to discuss their ideas. That’s alright! Given the chance, their ideas can significantly strengthen our own.

The challenge? The team also favors their ideas and hates to be turned down. We need to account for that in our interactions or they stop sharing ideas with us — not a good thing in the long run. We need to take time to analyze their ideas’ value for the big picture. We can’t say yes to everything or we’ll create a Franken-game, lifeless pieces sown together.

We need to avoid “designer ego vs team” decisions, and convey a “together for the player” message. Rejections should be based on meaningful arguments (“no time/budget” is a recurring one). Conversely, recognition and support of team’s ideas that better serve the user is important. If the team’s idea neither serves nor hurts the project, we can push aside our love for our ideas and let them use theirs: it fosters motivation and ownership.

Our Client’s2 Ideas

People who are not directly involved with the development of the game also have ideas. This is where most Franken-games (games that come out with a mix-and-match of the features that were popular six months before) are born. It’s easy for the design team to say it’s the client’s fault, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

Granted, some clients have a veto or at least a lot of weight in decision-making, and we can’t do anything about that. But there’s often more room for discussion than we think. The problem is that ideas from clients/publishers/marketing guys have a bad reputation, which pull us away from the “together for the business” solution-finding mindset.

Some market/business insights are very valuable in making our game successful. Suggestions, even the ridiculous ones, stem from a perceived issue/concern. That issue/concern is what we really need to address. By stifling the primal knee-jerk reaction and finding our way to the problem behind the client’s idea, we can design a solution that serves the client’s purpose without ruining fun factor and budget.

Our Audience’s Ideas

Last, but not least, our players have ideas. Simply put, we cannot afford to hate these ideas no matter how they come to us (metrics in on-going games, reviews from previous projects, forums, etc.) Yes, they can be harsh and yes, they can go completely against what we thought would be fun. Like for the client, we need to find our way back to the root of the issue. Like for the team, we need to show why certain ideas don’t work and support the ones that do.

The audience may not know everything about the industry, but knocking down the thoughts of the end user will rub them the wrong way (with good reasons) and rob you of sales and glory.

Closing Words

Game designers endlessly juggle with ideas. No shortage there! We kill our darlings for the greater game, hold our grounds against the Franken-game, and fold other peoples’ ideas into our own. It’s a constant push-and-pull, love-and-hate deal. We can’t seem too stubborn about it or  too flaky, and will sometimes be accused of both in turn no matter what we do.

It would be easy to hate ideas if we didn’t love seeing them come “together for the greater game.”

1. Team: My generic term for all the people actively working on the project in an equal or subordinate relationship with the designer (as opposed to the client.)
2. Client: My generic term for all the people overseeing/not actively working on the development: producers, marketing guy, head office, external client, etc.

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