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Why Brainstorming is NOT Game Design
by Adam Saltsman on 09/19/11 07:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

As we continue our discussion about brainstorming, I think it would be good to clarify the different activities that fall under the brainstorming umbrella.  Some things that I consider to be integral parts of a "brainstorm" might include:

  • thinking up and writing down ideas, tool-assisted or otherwise
  • discussing ideas (verbally or in written form) with peers or prospective audience
  • imagining and/or doodling some basic visualization of ideas

I don't think I've missed much, but if I have I am open to updating the list accordingly. Short of any surprising additions to that list, I can define brainstorming as the collecting, formulation and consideration of untested ideas.  Exercising our taste and judgment during the initial phase of a project is a crucial part of controlling the scope and direction of our work.  While I happen to believe that formal brainstorming is usually a waste of time, the process of thinking up ideas is an unavoidable and necessary parallel process to creation.


Brainstorming vs Game Design

As stated above, while we have the capacity to vet ideas on paper to some extent, at no point in our brainstorming process do we actually test the ideas.  From my perspective, even though brainstorming is both fun and necessary, the fact that they are just unproven ideas makes brainstorming wholly distinct from the act of game creation, and thus distinct from the discipline of game design, even though our game design experience obviously informs the way we formulate and consider our ideas.

It's obvious to me from game design literature, education and tutorials that this may come across as a controversial idea, which I hope to clarify here.  First, this is not a value judgment about brainstorming; frequently engaging in brainstorming doesn't mean you are somehow inferior or not a game designer or anything crazy like that.  Thinking things up and discussing them with friends, peers, and even family is a critical part of how I approach all my game ideas.

Second, in no other art form or discipline is the recording of untested ideas assigned inherent value or considered an important part of the actual process.  To illustrate, let's pretend we are an Italian rennaisance artist, in the year 1500 or so.  Like a game maker, we are multi-disciplinary and interested in a lot of different things: art, science, and so on.  We decide that one of our on-going projects for the next few years will be a painting.  We've already got a few things going on the side, but we feel like working on something new.  So, we start thinking up ideas - brainstorming, if you will:

  • sculpture?
  • philosophy?
  • painting?
  • oooo painting sounds good!  what sorts of things should be in it?
  • hmmm, portraiture seems interesting, i haven't done much of that
  • ok so a portrait - portraits of nobles are cliche, let's do someone else...
  • i'm thinking a woman
  • ok so it's a painted portrait of a woman, let's define some features:
  • palette: browns, yellows, maybe some greens
  • plain features, neutral posture, simple garments
  • pastoral background
  • ambiguous expression

I would argue that this list of ideas, on its own, has absolutely no value whatsoever (yet). In fact, I would argue that this list never even existed, but that's probably a discussion for another time.  We can see in this imaginary list how we vetted some ideas to narrow our focus or interest, and made an outline of some of the things we want to see in the painting, and it looks promising.

But obviously, this brainstorm and the actual Mona Lisa are incomparable creations.  Not only are the ideas in our brainstorm untested and unproven, they are still abstract enough (despite their high level of specificity) that we could paint dozens of paintings based on that outline.  In retrospect, with the Mona Lisa "proven" to some degree, this list of inspirations, if it existed (which it didn't), would be interesting and even valuable.  But now, before the idea has been evaluated through experimentation and the process of creation, it is essentially worthless.

So why bother harping on brainstorming like this?  At the end of the day, what's so important about brainstorming being separate from game design?  My concern is largely that aspiring designers, practicing junior designers as well as industry/art-form outsiders will all continue to believe that simply writing down some ideas is the same thing as creating an interesting work.  This illusion can only continue to harm the industry and the people who wish to engage with it, regardless of whether they are employees, players, enthusiasts or artists from other disciplines.  It's inaccurate and not reflective of the way any other discipline, be it science or art, is approached.


Ideas vs Execution

Whenever the topic of clones comes up, one of the stronger arguments in defense of cloning can be paraphrased "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything."  As you may have gathered, this is a phrase that kind of clicks with me in a pretty fundamental way.  I can imagine there being some exceptions to this rule, but I can't think of any at the moment.  But this phrase is used to justify, excuse or otherwise legitimize games like Angry Birds or Ninja Fishing, which provide some surface polish and control adaptations to an existing and successful prototype or game that someone else tested and proved.

It might sound like, after bashing on brainstorming for the first half of this article, I would thoroughly support this practice; after all, I clearly believe that ideas are cheap.  The problem is that these games are not cases where someone saw some pure ideas scribbled hastily on a whiteboard, and then went out, tested, and proved a specific formulation of those ideas.  These are cases where someone saw existing execution and duplicated it.

If someone creates a blog where all they do is write down unproven, untested game ideas, and then cries foul when someone actually develops, tests and refines one of those ideas in a physical prototype, I don't really have a lot of sympathy for them.  Thinking up those ideas may not have been trivial for them, but they never checked to see if those ideas were valid or interesting in practice.  They never actually engaged in game design.  They made lists of features they thought the Mona Lisa should have.

Ideas are cheap, then, but prototypes are not just ideas.  Prototypes and finished games are science experiments validating those ideas, and elevating them at the same time.  So when the argument that "execution matters" is used to prop up unethical cloning, I am compelled to remind those defenders that "prototyping matters more."

To illustrate, however simply, the importance of the games that were cloned, and to emphasize how much they matter, consider this: Radical Fishing can and did exist without Ninja Fishing, but Ninja Fishing obviously could not exist without Radical Fishing.  Likewise, Crush The Castle had 30 million plays on just one Flash portal before Angry Birds existed.

One reason ideas are cheap is because they are easy.  But prototyping and actually making a game idea for the first time, that explores those ideas and figures out how to make them work, is difficult, and the most important part of execution.  Without this step, there can be no polish, no cloning via "execution".  So, despite my disregard for the inherent value of mere ideas, I place a very high value on proven ideas, and I can't get behind the idea that execution validates a clone.


Conclusion

Of course, we can look at this situation from the science angle too, instead of the art angle, but the results are the same.  Consider, for example, the process of a hypothesis surviving experimentation and peer scrutiny to become an established theory.  Hypotheses are a dime a dozen, maybe cheaper; but a theory that stands the test of time expands our boundaries and our understanding of the world around us.  Having a good hypothesis is an important first step; imagination matters!  But ultimately, the only way to validate or value those guesses is to start experimenting.

Writing a design doc for the Mona Lisa should not be confused with painting, nor should formulating a hypothesis be confused with science.  Likewise, brainstorming should not be confused with game design.  Collecting, formulating and considering ideas in our heads or on paper is a necessary, valid and positive process to engage in throughout painting, or science, or game design, or anything else; but it does not in any way represent the core practices of these disciplines, or the ability to create something meaningful.

However, we would do well to remember that once proven and tested, an idea is no longer just an idea; it's a work of art, or a scientific breakthrough, or an interesting game, and should be accorded the respect that achievement deserves.  Forgeries, plagiarized research and unauthorized clones should be recognized for what they are, if not by the general public then at the very least by practitioners and enthusiasts.


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Comments


E McNeill
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Re: brainstorming, I still don't get why you don't consider it the first step in the process of design. A list of ideas lacks value in just the same way that an incomplete game lacks value. Sure, ideas need to be tested, but how do we determine which ideas? And if some people can generate better ideas (for later testing), why shouldn't we applaud that skill? I get why you wouldn't want idea generation to be overly valued, but that seems already covered by the "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" philosophy.



Re: execution, the Mona Lisa was not the first portrait of a woman. Why esteem it so much, when the same subject matter has already been covered in that medium? I've played Crush the Castle and I've played Angry Birds. There's a lot to complain about the latter, but it's unquestionably different in important ways. The controls, graphics, theme, content (levels), and even mechanics (the different bird types) are all distinct from Crush the Castle. Is Starcraft II a clone of Dune II? Is Half-Life a clone of Doom? I say no.

Adam Saltsman
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Neither brainstorming nor prototyping are solely the first step in any worthwhile process, and at no point do i say we should neither celebrate nor get excited about ideas and thinking them up.



As for the second part, Angry Birds' connection to Crush the Castle is comparable neither to Half-Life & Doom, nor "every portrait of every woman before 1500" & the Mona Lisa (though I did not assert that the Mona Lisa was unique or special). As (I think) Colin Northway eloquently put it: "just because the line between cloning and taking inspiration is blurry doesn't mean it's not there."



Certainly everyone has different views and places value on different things, and sure, Doom and portraiture paved the way for Half-Life and the Mona Lisa, and yes, there are such things as genres of game.



But do you genuinely see Angry Birds in the role of Half-Life, and Crush The Castle in the role of Doom? Or Angry Birds as Starcraft II to Crush The Castle's Dune II? That seems like a misleading generalization with no consideration of the respective games' designs, aesthetic, history, financial success or innovations beyond basic attributions or claims that there is in fact no line between innovating in a genre and cloning, which again, I and many others have refuted over and over, with varying degrees of eloquency.



I don't mean to be combative, but I don't want to be dismissive either; it's just that this is kind of an absurd argument and has been made often, especially in the last few weeks. I definitely meant no offense, it's just really hard to take it seriously as a claim (unless you were deliberately trolling me, in which case, touche!)

E McNeill
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You're right that brainstorming isn't the first step; I should have said "earlier" step. But still, I don't quite understand your motivation in excluding the generating of ideas from game design while including the elaboration or exploring of ideas. All are worthless in isolation, all are valuable in concert.





I'm not trolling when I discuss cloning, but I imagine I come at it from a very different perspective: I made a game that was accused of cloning the games that inspired me. This despite the fact that I had the blessing of the creators of those games, the fact that there were major differences in mechanics and presentation, and the fact that my game was a genuine labor of love on my part.



Imagine that Crush the Castle had been made in a much more stripped-down way. Imagine that the controls were downright clunky, if functional. Imagine that the art was just circles and rectangles, that the game was hard to find online, and that the mechanics and content were as minimal as possible (one type of rock to throw, a few levels to play). Then, somebody takes that game as inspiration and makes Angry Birds. Is that a clone, in your eyes? It seems that it must be, since the "physical prototyping" was already done, right? But there's a huge gap between those games.



In my experience, things like tweaking controls, twisting mechanics, and polishing presentation make up the majority of my time designing a game. I think Angry Birds went well beyond "surface polish and control adaptations", even if it's still a rigid-body physics game at heart. And I think its creators deserve design credit for that.



Clones exist, and they're definitely distinct from mere inspiration, but I think you're far too harsh in where you draw that line.

Adam Saltsman
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That's a good way of putting it I think - that elaborating on ideas IS game design, but coming UP with them isn't. It is a bit harsh, and as I said many times now making stuff up is important in making games or making anything else.



It might seem like a weird distinction, but I just don't see what the actual writing down of ideas has to do with the actual nuts and bolts process of game design. Again, as I have said many times now coming up with and writing down ideas is important for every creative act, I just don't see what it has to do with the craft of game design is all.



And yes, I will grant you that if Crush the Castle was unknown, unpopular, not fully explored, unthemed, and so on, then the gap would be greater, and thus Angry Birds position on the sort of Clone Axis would be different accordingly.



But Crush the Castle WAS themed, and made sense, and was HUGELY popular for a Flash game. I would actually argue that Crush the Castle's marriage of system and scenario actually made much more sense than Angry Birds, even if it was less mainstream.



Are there more offensive cases of cloning than Angry Birds? Definitely. Ninja Fishing prime among them! But I don't know how to slice the clone cake in order to get Angry Birds on the right side.

E McNeill
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It looks like my disagreements are primarily about where to draw the lines of classification, then, which makes it much easier to understand where you're coming from. I tend to integrate brainstorming into the design process of my games at many points along the way, but I suppose you could either say that brainstorming is part of design or that I'm taking a break from design to brainstorm.



I had a different enough experience with Angry Birds and Crush the Castle that I'm still ready to give some design credit to Rovio, but I accept that there are clones that truly don't deserve any such credit. See Galcon versus Galaxir on the Android Marketplace for my favorite example (though that clone didn't achieve near the same level of popularity, I'm sure).

W Marsden
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I had followed the Radical Fishing/Ninja Fishing controversy and found it a bit odd that you said that:



"I will grant you that if Crush the Castle was unknown, unpopular, not fully explored, unthemed, and so on, then the gap would be greater"



From what I've seen, Radical Fishing wasn't a hit in the Flash market and was relatively unknown (definitely not as popular as Crush the Castle). I didn't see it on any top lists on any Flash portals and I never heard of Radical Fishing, nor did lots of people until the whole Ninja Fishing thing. And as far as theme goes, I would say it was pretty generic, yes?

Luis Guimaraes
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I totally agree with the first section explaining what's brainstorming. But then really that list doesn't even have one single line I can find an idea in, is that for sake of sounding absurd? Those are like first thoughst that happen in less than a second before one single actual "idea" comes up in a brainstorming (which means a list that's very, very open for not so good sounding ones). It seems the whole "ideas are cheap" discussion is more about standards than anything else.

Michael Curtiss
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While my experience in drawing, painting, sculpting, and programming has forced me to understand, empathize, and agree with your perspective and intent here, I feel like this is a non-issue... When an individual actually begins making things and is serious about it, the realization that process is what is important will become imprinted on the brain eventually. Otherwise, the end product will not look very good.



Again, I think this mindset is an unavoidable byproduct of actually getting down and dirty and making things. So, I think the best way to combat an obsession with idea is to get people making things!



edit: But I think we can both agree that brainstorming can help to generate the initial vision.



And thanks for making Flixel.

Adam Saltsman
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Yeah absolutely! Once you start making things this becomes very clear I think. It's kind of a catch-22 though - if you never get past the brainstorming stage, then you never start making things, so you never figure out how important that part is... tricky!

Michael Curtiss
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Still, I don't think this is something one will really understand until he/she spends time making things. Hence the binary responses this thread is getting.



I don't know, maybe you have had better luck of convincing others in this regard as I have.

Eric Schwarz
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It's an interesting situation in that the games industry is typically home to dedicated game designers, especially in the AAA context, and they generally don't need to have a full understanding of development tools, scripting and so on, yet at the same time to actually get into the games industry or get your feet wet and make an indie game, you need to learn at least some of those skills before anyone would even bother looking at you. I'm not going to say what I think is the right approach, because I feel that there's validity in being both a "pure designer" and a "guy who knows lots of stuff and also can design games", but I can certainly understand frustration when someone "steals" another's idea that was never actually turned into anything. Some people simply don't have the means to build games themselves, and while one perspective may say that should be remedied, another might say "why should a script writer need to be a director, editor, producer, and set designer all in one?"

Steven An
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I think as the industry matures and things settle down, pure designers will be a more sensible role to play. But these days, it seems dumb for any studio to buy a design doc in the same way movie studios buy scripts. There's just too much unknown territory in game development right now, whereas with a movie script you have a decent idea of what's possible.



Basically, it's tough to predict what will work and what won't. So pure designers, in order to make a living, probably need to work with a full team as opposed to just selling design docs (like script writers - although I'm not sure how they earn a living exactly)

Kevin Kissell
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A well written design document is just a road map to a possible great game. Hollywood will pay money for a script, spend 100 million and produce a poor movie. If I was George Lucas, I had a 325 pages design doc and walked into the front door of EA games. Bet you anything they will listen, however the average Joe who writes possible game ideas in his spare time, will not be given the time of day. I may not be George Lucas, or an expert in game creation, but I could tell by reading a document if the idea has merit or needs a rewrite.

Kain Shin
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Like

Steven An
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Agreed completely. What Angry Birds does bring to the table, however, is marketing and aesthetic appeal. Those angry lil' birds sure are catchy! And that's very valuable. And ya know, there is some value in being able to clone a really good game and do it well. People who can paint replicas are highly skilled indeed! The developer in me hopes Rovio does something more original next time, but from a consumer perspective, I just want something fun and polished. And marketed well so I hear about it.

Glenn Storm
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Well put, Adam. Thank you.



Like and agreed, but if there were an established place in the design process for brainstorming, it lives early in pre-production. Other design disciplines have found the innovation dividends are great if you can reframe the problem. (in games, the 'problems' may be to make your IP distinct, new, etc.) Case in point: Proctor and Gamble take on Irish Spring [http://vimeo.com/21316624] This is a talk about the origins of a particular brainstorming (management) technique that expands and narrows the discussion to appropriately focus a team's efforts. Worth the 10 minutes to watch.

Bart Stewart
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Ideas may indeed be a dime a dozen. That's why most any person can usefully contribute to a brainstorming session. One of the rules of brainstorming is that you don't critique ideas or apply any analysis to them; the goal is not to assess the quality of ideas or their level of fitness for a particular purpose but simply to crank out as many as possible as quickly as possible. The necessary task of analyzing those ideas for fitness comes later.



*Good* ideas, however -- and, by extension, the people who can consistently produce such ideas -- are considerably more valuable. The combination of natural talent and relevant experience that makes a person better than average at starting a design process with high-quality ideas is not something that should be lumped in with random brainstorming; to do so is a bit insulting (even if unintended).



That said, there may be no better way of understanding the process of idea generation, assessment and organization than Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" metaphor/system. Being able to recognize and distinguish Green Hat (creative) thinking from Black Hat (analytical/risk-assessment) thinking is a crucial step toward insuring that you're getting the best possible ideas in support of a design vision.

Adam Saltsman
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I would counter with the proposal that there is no such thing as a "good idea" - there is only the ability to consistently judge and discard BAD ideas. And that is an amazing ability, that should be prized and celebrated. However, I think in most disciplines the ability to filter that way is dependent entirely on experience and expertise in the discipline itself. For example, a good painter is going to do a better job of filtering ideas for a painting than an architect, and vice versa.



So on the topic of brainstorming and game design, I totally agree that a good game designer is going to exercise better judgment in deciding what ideas to pursue and how to pursue them, and what ideas to discard as lacking promise or interest.



But I'm not convinced that there are people who just constantly invent "good ideas" even though they are unproven and unexplored. I know lots of people with good judgment about what ideas don't fit, and figuring out what avenues are most promising, and especially within disciplines with limited or strict histories, people who can throw out crazy-ass counter-intuitive ideas are definitely amazing. But I don't think it's accurate to say they come up with "good" ideas - they just pursue bad ones less often...

Bart Stewart
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> I don't think it's accurate to say they come up with "good" ideas - they just pursue bad ones less often...



Not to be argumentative -- I'm enjoying this whole thread -- but I think I need more evidence to be convinced that the quoted assertion is correct.



Let's go back to Nikolai Tesla as an example. I'm not aware that he spent time (like Edison) iterating to optimize predefined concepts. Instead, he somehow just seemed to have good ideas in an intuitive way.



Even if one wants to reduce "intuition" to a mechanistic deep knowledge of some creative space, such a person seems able to jump quickly to workable ideas without working though a generate-analyze-test loop to exclude less effective ideas.



But even if that's not the case, and one prefers to think of intuitive design as merely being so good as excluding bad ideas as to not even realize one is doing so, functionally it's a distinction without a difference. We're still talking about someone who shows up for work able to introduce a higher percentage of workable ideas earlier in the design process.



And that, I think, is demonstrably worth more than "a dime a dozen."



Sometimes I suspect that most of the people (and I'm not saying you're one of them, Adam) who quote that phrase do so because they themselves are better at implementing ideas than at generating them, and they simply want to feel good about their gifts. Being a gifted implementor of ideas deserves to be appreciated... but why should that appreciation come at the cost of denigrating someone else's talent for thinking interesting and useful thoughts?

Kevin Reilly
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As a non-designer, I really enjoyed this article and the attempt to differentiate between having an idea for a game and having a proven game design concept. In my profession I come into contact with professionals and creatives from outside of games who think they have a great idea and where they can pitch it (for someone else to do the hard work of proving it is great). My usual response to their inquiry of whether this would work or not is: "show me, don't tell me". Now I have some good literature to illuminate their misconceptions. Thanks!

Casey Dockendorf
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From my experience in the creative industry as a whole it seems like the least successful projects are the ones that have the least amount of brainstorming in the initial development phase. But it also seems that projects benefit greatly from more brainstorming throughout the development of the project, so brainstorming is GREAT! But I think some of the people here arguing are missing the point and that is that having an idea is no where near as valuable as executing an idea. Prototyping an idea, for anything, is significantly more effective than brainstorming and from a publisher or investors perspective you have already shown that you are capable of doing this you just need the funding to help make it better. Also initially a lot of ideas sound way better on paper then when it's actually executed in some viable form.

Alvin Toribio II
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Hats off to Adam for taking a good stance on your beliefs, I think it takes a lot of courage for pointing out on what's really wrong in the game industry these days and writing it out loud. But I'm one of those people who believed that brainstorming is a good way to interact with your your peers just to see where everyone is at. Meaning, it is a good way to collectively improve and have everyone envolve as a team. I think brainstorming also promotes a healthy working environment for good ideas and forseeing a really bad idea as a team not as an invididual. My self motto is " My true strength is always in numbers " what I'm saying is, I can only be as good when I'm surrounded with openly minded talented people. After reading everyones responses on this article, ironically, I'm starting to get a sense that everyone, including yourself are " brainstorming " whether this subject matter is wrong or right.



The important part is that we are thinking- getting that imagination going, it doesn't really matter on what method people use- on how you go about on designing a game, or painting or creating the next best thing. It could be walking around by yourself thinking or listening to a song. I think great ideas can come from many forms of medium, it could be rediculous or just plain ordinary. Brainstorming is just not another method thinking of getting someone or everyone inspired. I think brainstorming is a social experience- that is just my opinion.

Adam Saltsman
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all very good points :) I brainstorm before and during all of my game projects, as I wrote in the article, and I find it a good process, as long as it's not too formal. My point is just that the RESULTS of a brainstorm should be tested BEFORE they are evaluated. I think that's a really important step!

Joshua Boggs
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Adam, thanks for the great article.



I should point out that nowhere in this article does Adam say that brainstorming is useless; only that it is *not* game design. On a side note, I think it's important to consider the word "design" as NOT just a noun, but as a verb. When you consider it as a verb, it takes on a much more concrete, and realistic meaning.



This article is NOT a critique on ideas, but a critique on UNTESTED ideas. It appears that a loud minority have misread this article, and have created a straw-man argument about the value of ideas. The article is very clear at the start that "the process of thinking up ideas is an unavoidable and necessary parallel process to creation"; and that the problem arises from "at no point in our brainstorming process do we actually test the ideas".



What I love about this article is that it to many I'm sure it's obvious and rings true. Sadly, the truth can be hard to swallow, especially when design is done from the safety of an armchair.

Dustin Chertoff
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I've only read a smattering of the replies, but I think the issue is one over the definition of Design (capitalized for a reason). Design (capitalized) is different from design. Design (big D) is an iterative _process_ that starts with idea generation and ends with idea testing. This is different from design (small d) that does not include any idea testing component (aka armchair design).



I think the value of this article is in saying that Game Design is an iterative process of idea generation -> idea communication -> idea prototyping -> idea evaluation -> idea modification -> etc.



Game Design (and Design in general) does not stop after idea generation and communication.

Michael Stevens
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"Second, in no other art form or discipline is the recording of untested ideas assigned inherent value or considered an important part of the actual process."



I'd advise you to read up on Sol LeWitt and conceptual art in general. I'd also argue that historically there are parallels in architecture.



Your example of brainstorming portraits is disingenuous. The software equivalent of the creative agency you ascribe portraiture wouldn't be a game, it would be something like a variation on a word processor. If we're going to pursue games as Art (or anything larger than "the least offensive way to spend a dozen hours") we can't do it on the back of a 17th century definition of Art. Iteration and refinement are invaluable, but they are not the core of a worthwhile experience.

Will Buck
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Agree with Adam here.



Ideas are very important, but they are of no real value until tested in some fashion, especially w.r.t. Games.



My "idea" that game idea X would be the most amazingly fun thing in the world, no matter the amount of logic or literature I can articulate to support such a claim, means nothing until I can "prove" the idea is fun. Until I have something tangible to play with that demonstrates how fun it really is.



To Eric's point, this doesn't mean I *must* have the skills to test the idea *myself* to be of worth to the creative process (being a logical and creative person is an extremely great skill in and of itself). However, if you can't do a proof of concept for your own idea, you then need to have a team with the means to aid you in realizing the idea and collaborating with you to iterate on that idea, before you should consider your idea very good.

Volker Morbach
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This whole article:



Yes. You need to understand the tools when brainstorming about what to do with those tools. Isn't that rather obvious?



Somebody who was involved in the creation of the computer game "impossible mission" a sidescroller from the 80's said: We had this awesome animation. So we made a game that used it.



Superb game design is something else however: It is about creating tools for something that you WANT to see in your game. Because the idea (on the game design level) is so awesome.



The real question is not: "What can we do with this mouse?" The question that needs to be asked is: "Why do we need that mouse at all?"



As I said you need to understand the tools: But what are those tools? – The technical aspect is just one aspect of the tools. There are other games around, you know. Games that don't even use a computer. Imagine! So claiming that "game design is not brainstorming" is ... well ... odd. – It's like answering "How much money do you have?" to the question: "What are we going to do today?" If you get the idea and the marketing right you can publish a game in black and white 2D graphics ... How come? Was that not because thinking hard and coming up with hundreds and thousands of useless ideas in the process?!

Jason Bakker
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Brainstorming - coming up with ideas - is not game design.



Thinking critically about those ideas, mentally prototyping them, filtering out the bad ones, and finding the ones with the most potential to be good is, to me, part of game design.



I've worked on a project where I approached it with the mentality that prototyping is the only thing that matters. I would have an idea, and then, because the only way to truly know whether an idea is good or not is to prototype it, I'd put it into the game to try it out.



While initially this worked out okay (we were throwing out ideas left and right, based on solid tests - great!), we were soon spending so much time on testing ideas that we lost sight of what we were trying to make in the first place. These were all ideas that seemed like they had the potential to be good at face value, but in hindsight if we'd spent more time critically evaluating our ideas we'd have cut a lot of them before the prototyping phase and saved that precious time for the ideas that had the most promise.



I think there are lots of aspiring game developers out there who spend far too much time thinking, and I realize this post is mostly for them, to kick-start them into getting their hands dirty and prototyping their ideas so that they realise what works in their head doesn't work in practice, or at least doesn't work the way they might expect.



But what I've discovered through my experiences is that not thinking critically about ideas and choosing the ideas that have performed best in your head to bring to the prototyping phase can be just as fatal as not doing enough prototyping.



Prototyping is the surest way to test an idea, and in an ideal world we'd be able to prototype every idea that shows promise. Within the constraints of time, narrowing it down to the most worthwhile of the cheap ideas is still a key element of game development. Whether that fits semantically into "game design" or not is up to the individual I suppose, but a critical, personal judgement, whether of an idea or of its implementation, feels like design to me.



Thanks a lot for the post by the way! I feel like this area is something that we as developers need to think more about.

Wojciech Borczyk
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As somebody has mentioned - you are just BRAINSTORMING idea here. The idea in question can be stated as:

1) Brainstorming has limited use and won't get you nowhere

Actually, IF we are to test this idea 1), what we should do is EXECUTE it and see through execution how it works. Now, you see, here we are in a kind of logical trap. Because if you execute idea 1) and it will work, this would mean this idea was right. This in turn would mean, "brainstorming" this idea was worthless. This means, stating your assuptions in such way is of no use. Staying true to your assumptions you should rather say something like:

"We did game X and in this game idea 1) worked well".

But you can't say:

"Idea 1) works"

Neither you can say:

"In game Y idea 1) will work well".

- because it's just an idea, assumption, unproven test, something not executed. According to your point of view (execution is everything), idea itself is "cheap" and revealed only through "execution". Therefore, once again, your "idea" is just a "cheap idea", "worthless" as such and "won't get you anywhere". Only execution will. And only in particular sample of such execution. But this won't prove your idea right in any way according to how do you state this idea.



I hope you can see the kind of logical paradox I'm trying to state here. And this is not just pure philosophical argument per-se, because it's touching the heart of this idea.

Titi Naburu
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"while we have the capacity to vet ideas on paper to some extent, at no point in our brainstorming process do we actually test the ideas"



That means you don't have enough imagination.



Testing can reveal whether an idea works, but thinking about it -playing the game within your mind- can work too. So I propose to do both things. Plus, discarding a bad idea early is cheaper than doing it late.

Ben Schlessman
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"My concern is largely that aspiring designers, practicing junior designers as well as industry/art-form outsiders will all continue to believe that simply writing down some ideas is the same thing as creating an interesting work. This illusion can only continue to harm the industry and the people who wish to engage with it, regardless of whether they are employees, players, enthusiasts or artists from other disciplines."



I'm curious to hear more of your thoughts on how mistaking brainstorming for game design actually harms the industry. I don't think it was really explained anywhere.


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