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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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