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Start Before You Have an Idea
by Chris DeLeon on 03/11/14 02:29:00 am   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.


I received this message the other day:

"I don't know how to come up with an idea for a game. My problem is that I can't come up with an original idea. I had many ideas for games, but it turns out those have already been created by other people."

This is a common source of paralysis that I hear variations on pretty often from people trying to get started. Let's look at some ways of bypass these barriers and get back to game making.

You Don't Need the Idea to Start

Contrary to popular belief, it often works out pretty well to come up with the idea after starting it. This is not the chicken and egg problem that it appears to be.

Start building something. Pretty much anything! Anything simple enough that you realistically could finish in a straightforward, predictable way. Make "just a racing game," "just a puzzle game," "just a strategy game," "just a sh'mup," "just an overhead action game," "just a platforming game," etc.

Ask yourself what's the bare minimum basics needed to be coherent as one of those recognizable game types.

Just start piecing it together.

The different ideas, including what's going to make it special, will often develop midway from the details, process, and personal interests, strengths, and constraints.

How the Ideas Emerge

While dealing with those parts and watching it take shape in stages, you'll begin bumping into all kinds of ideas of different things to try. Different ways to approach common problems. Different directions to take the game in. Different things to let the players do.

Some ideas arise from incomplete implementation, a discovery in the cracks of work that you can latch onto and grow into something deliberate. Others may take form while trying to figure out a simpler or more time efficient way to accomplish some immediate goal, involving some approximations or accepting certain limitations. Ideas can also take shape as just needing to fill in for something in a way that you're able to do well (or well enough!).

Doing this on the fly helps find the workable intersection between current capabilities and current curiosity. Often the key "idea" of the game that really sets it apart isn't even something easily described at first, but is instead something subtle in the gameplay that only arises from back and forth tinkering with the machine.

What to Do

Step one: if you're not already actively working on a project, pick an old or otherwise relatively simple type of game or two and start trying to implementing parts of it to get some momentum. Get yourself further along in the process. Create a situation in which you can have ideas that you'll be able to promptly put into action, in a context that's at least partly functioning.

Only with the foundation of some code and functionality in place can the imagination begin to orient itself in concrete possibilities rather than random dreaming. Plenty of concepts that are interesting to think about might not work particularly well in a videogame, or might need a huge budget and large team to get it done. Using this approach you'll always be building in a way that necessarily fits in a game and - just as importantly - within (or just at the edge of) your present skills.

You're not someone else. You don't know the same things, care about the same things, or work the same way. Your work simply isn't going to wind up the same, unless as a deliberate practice and learning exercise you go out of your way to specifically copy some particular example in as much detail as possible (a fine way to just practice when new, though of course that's more questionable when business gets involved).

How Well It's Done Matters More

Concern over originality at the idea level, rather than in the details and execution, stems from overemphasizing the importance of the idea. To put it bluntly that's just not really how media, whether entertainment or art, works. Of course the topic matters to an extent, it can drum up certain kinds of excitement or imply connection to certain audiences. However much of its impact resides in how well it's done in the eyes of the audience that it reaches.

Star Trek didn't invent space ships and science fiction. Quake didn't invent zombies, grenade launchers, or gothic(-ish) architecture. Godfather didn't invent mob films. Super Mario Bros. didn't invent platforming or saving captured princesses. Back to the Future didn't invent time travel. These are so well done that they captured people's imaginations.

This isn't just about TV shows, games, or movies. Moby Dick didn't become a classic because the idea of whale hunting is cool. Moby Dick is so well put together that it creates interest in what it's about.

The idea of Mona Lisa is... well, you get the idea.

Pick something to do, practice to do it better, and you'll discover your own tricks along the way to make them more personalized and unique.

Rapid Prototyping

The other approach to come up with gameplay ideas that haven't yet become a common pattern is to rapid prototype, which requires a high degree of development fluency and often returns a relatively low yield. However it's one source for original and decent things that aren't evolved from things that began as clones. I took precisely this approach for InteractionArtist, when I built an experimental interaction project daily for seven months. Those 219 prototypes yielded... just a few iPhone games.

That's still thinking by building. It's just not starting from as established a foundation, accepting a higher chance of producing something uninteresting in exchange for a shot at coming out of the process with something more unusual.

Don't Wait for Inspiration

Waiting for an original idea to just happen is an unproductive trap.

Ideas grow out of action, iterative building, and through collaboration with others that have different tastes and strengths than your own.

Want to come up with more ideas? Start making something.

Even if a project starts out as totally unoriginal, with persistence and some practice it'll soon lead to directions you wouldn't have thought up otherwise.

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MrPhil Ludington
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The idea is like your finger, we all have them, but the implementation is like your fingerprint, everyone's is unique.

Nick Harris
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Copyright law protects expressions not ideas. Rather than building endless prototypes of potentially interesting interactive systems in the hopes that I will stumble on some kind of 'secret sauce', I just analyse existing games in the genres that I plan on combining and ask myself a simple question:

"How can I optimally integrate the best qualities of each inspiration?"

This gameplay analysis often provides ample examples of how not to do something - something that wouldn't be obviously wrong as a concept, but is tangibly awful when it becomes reified. However, it isn't enough to know that this is yet another thing to remember to avoid doing yourself in future as you only gain wisdom by asking another simple negative question that has the capacity to suggest an alternative positive solution:

"How should the problem have been solved?"

Often the answer is to not provide an alternative control mechanism, or to attempt to accomodate player agency with a choice between multiple endings when it is impractical to write a script to cover every permutation of play in an equally dramatically resonant way, but to eliminate this feature entirely. Mirror's Edge doesn't have a Sprint button, which would make freerunning more onerous, as it replaces this with the automatic gaining of momentum. Crysis 2 requires that you double-tap (Y) to equip grenades because it has used up all available buttons on your control pad by forcing you to manually control your Shield, something that Halo has shown can be automated. An originally planned ending for the Mass Effect series involving the immortal Reapers trying to avoid the collapse of the Universe due to species abuse of Dark Energy should have been adopted and the player's imagination relied upon to write the unfinished stories of the many unavoidable loose ends that would result from this deliberately unresolved, but understood, dilemma. There would be no final choice, no three canned alternatives and no clumsy unforshadowed Deus Ex Machina. Sometimes, less is more.

James Coote
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Different people learn different ways. Some learn better by trial and error, while others by observing what others do

Lewis Pulsipher
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"There is nothing new under the sun". If you're looking for an "original idea," you're doomed from the start. There are hardly any original ideas (read "The Idea is Not the Game"
php), and innovation is highly overrated (watch Innovation is Highly Overrated )

You can take existing ideas and combine them in new ways - or just better ways than others have done. No need to start out with "no idea".

Carter Gabriel
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There is plenty new under the sun. You have to be crazy to think you
can't make something new when video games are a brand new invention.

If you think no one can create something original in video games, you are WRONG. If you disagree you are wrong after reading this, you are an idiot.
Video games are phenomenally new, with very little done in the
past. Especially given how few games there are and how many of them are blatant clones.

The reason there are so few 'original ideas' is because everyone just wants to clone other games or are inspired by the games they love to create something similar. Rarely is there the accidentally recreation of old ideas or the difficulty of coming up with something original that is actually fun.

If you still don't believe me and still disagree, besides living in denial, just take a look at innovative games which become highly successful by breaking the mold. Not all of them are clones or modern remakes of classic game design. Some are fresh, new innovations in gaming with nothing similar to it in the past.

Matt Mirrorfish
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Ideas in my mind have zero value without execution. The overemphasis on ideas and originality is a classic sign that the person in question has never executed a creative project.

I think this is a very useful post, thanks.

Gautam Singh
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and this is what actually happens! We start with some initial idea but game ends up being something else! as we keep on getting better designs while implementing the initial idea. I think along with this we should follows what Vlambeer (Ridiculous fishing ) suggests ! He stresses on building one game per week! That essentially gives an idea about getting the know how of what works and what does not! here is the article

Alex Covic
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Here's an opposing thought:

Have something to say, before you start.

[Explanation, for those, offended by above statement:] While in the creative sphere (not just video games) the 'act' of 'doing' (something) is borrowed here, engineers are not making airplanes by accident?

The childish (positive term!) aspect of 'building something' - Lego, comes to mind - is a great starting point of creativity, but to play with clay and to make something worth other people's time (or their money), should come from a different place?

Execution is great, Mart, but execution of what? With what intent?

There are gazillions of 'creative writing' workshops, trying to convince you to 'just write' - and that's the kind of literature that is produced: garbage. This seems to me, is often the kind of 'yet-another-2D-platform shooter', '4-player-coop FPS', which ends up on iPhones or Steam (good for you, if you made money with it).

Find a problem first, to solve a problem, is the engineer's way. Is it not the game developer's way?

Anton Knyazyev
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Why do something if you don't even know what you want to achieve?