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The 'Ideas' Guy
by Kimberly Unger on 03/10/09 12:54:00 pm   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.

 

"Well, really I'm more of an idea guy."

Its a turn of phrase that makes me wince when I see it in class, or hear it drop from the lips of a new and untested game developer.  When I see it as an instructor it usually heralds trouble.  It's almost a form of foreshadowing warning me that this person is missing a skillset somewhere and they're hoping having a great idea will make up for that. 

There are a lot of ideas out there.  Many original, many rehashes of the same thing we saw last year except with bigger guns, or shinier puzzle pieces and the occasional piece of transcendental brilliance. 

I'm not bagging on people with great ideas in general, but when it comes to games, having a great idea is simply not enough to get that game made.  You need to have something else, another skillset beyond just coming up with "great ideas".  Ideas, I hate to say, are a dime a dozen, especially in an industry as creative as our inherently tends to be.

So what's your "in"?  What's your route to production going to be?  You have to step up to the plate and be a salesman.  You're going to have to stand in front of people and *ABOVE ALL* communicate

You're going to have to show someone or a group of someones exactly how cool your game is.  You're going to have to paint a picture up inside their heads that is so compelling that they have no choice to buy-in. 

This goes beyond just selling your idea to a producer, in order to get anything created, whether it be concept art or programming tech, you are going to have to convince people to help you out, to produce spec work on YOUR idea, versus the five ideas of their own that they already have cached and ready to go. 

In all cases (code, art or sales) you're going to need a design document.  It's like the pass or go question from a producer, "do you have a design document."  There are a rare few instances where something scribbled on a cocktail napkin over lunch is going to suffice, but I would advise against betting on that situation when you're first starting out.   As an "idea guy" this is where you have your chance to shine. 

A design document involves a lot a writing, a lot of thinking, a lot of what if's and why thats.  It's the first hurdle, because if you cannot put one together, then the game's over before it starts.  They are time consuming, tedious things, and noone's going to handle that bag of snakes for you. 

But if you don't have artistic skills, and you don't have programming skills, then this document is where you have to make your stand.  The prose needs to sing, the gameplay descriptions leap from the page and burrow hungrily into the mind of the reader like something out of a Steven King opus. 

The spelling needs to be right (and shame on you if you rely on spell check to save you) the grammar makes sense, the descriptions thorough, the characters well developed and consistent. 

If you can't code, and you can't draw, then you're going to have to write and write well because after the meeting or the phone call, this is what's going to be left behind to speak on your behalf.  You want it to never shut up. 


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Comments


Michael Kowalski
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Loved this article, wish I would have read it two years ago when I began my student life as an "idea guy." It took many long hours and a grain a salt to figure out that you can't just appear like some rock star designer and start barking orders to make a great game.

Kimberly Unger
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It's a hard thing to tell someone, that the idea alone isn't enough. Lots of times, the "idea" is a pretty solid one, but without any support (even if it is just the design documentation without any concept art or code) it's not going to get off the ground.

Joshua McDonald
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I have a hard time believing that even this would cut it. Whether you're applying for a job or pitching a game to a publisher, sure you can hand them a big pile of papers with your brilliant idea, but somebody else is going to hand them an equally brilliant idea with a working flash prototype or a collection of good concept art.



In a panel at PAX, this very subject came up, and the unanimous answer from the long time industry veterans was that documents alone just don't cut it. You need a prototype of at least one aspect of your game, even it if is only a board game, to really have a reasonable shot.



Besides the document issue, the other problem with what seems to be a great idea is that it often has critical holes in it that won't show up until there has been some attempt to implement it. I hesitate to call anything a great idea until I see some implementation.



On the other hand, if you're independently wealthy, I'm sure you can find plenty of skilled personnel willing to create your idea for you as long as you supply paychecks.

Toby Hazes
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Love this article!



Heh, I faintly remember saying "I'm more of an ideas guy" myself in a dark, dark past... Now I hear other freshmen say it.



But I do agree wholeheartedly with Joshua; Design Documents are -not- a good way to communicate your coolness. It's not 'sparkable' enough, it might not convey that spark of enthousiasm, motivation, awesomeness. At least not when it comes to communicating inhouse, with art and code, in my experience.



An embarrassingly simple flash demo, or a live pitch, or a simple storyboard can do so much more! My personal favorite is making a lot of moodboards =)

Joshua Dallman
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Great blog post. I am a game designer and producer. People I meet often ask if this means I do the programming or the art, and I say neither but I work with those people. Their reply then makes ME wince -- "Oh, so you're the ideas guy." Ouch. Even typing it is painful. Yes, coming up with new game ideas and making the game ideas of others sing is a part of my job, but it is not the most difficult, interesting, or substantial part of my work and contribution.



First there's the pitch document, which comes before the design document, and is replete with marketing-speak, target demographics, and historical data as a basis to predict if the game will be a success. To write this, you need to have good industry knowledge and keep it updated on a daily basis - you have to know what has sold in the past, what people want today, and what the various markets are behaving like to predict the trends of the immediate future. Even if you're not going to a publisher with it, you need to justify creating the game at least to yourself, if you hope it to be a commercial success and not just a personal piece of art.



Then there's the design document, which there are entire books and lectures about how to write one clearly and effectively. Most are terrible, and writing a good one is an art onto itself. These documents are often woefully under-detailed. Saying "the game will have sound effects for all major events" is not good enough for the design document -- you haven't designed anything by saying that. Which game events will have audio effects, what will those effects sound like, what mood you are going for, and WHY you want a particular mood are all further things you must describe. A glaring omission in most design documents is WHY -- WHY you have designed the characters the way you have, WHY the art style is the one it is, WHY the level design should be a certain way, and so forth. As you say, this takes a lot of consideration, and is more than simply coming up with ideas.



Then there's the technical design document, which gets into the nitty-gritty of power-up values, pseudo-code, and other programming-like details.



After all this your job doesn't end - you don't feed the documents into one end of the game-making team and have a finished game, exactly how you imagined it, come out the other. There's the back-and-forth iterations for approving concept art; constant communication with the game artists and programmers to actually produce the game; stopping constantly to make sure the game is following its vision; do technical, art, playtest QA; resolve emergent technical, art, and gameplay issues; if there's a client or publisher you communicate to them the game progress and deal with any contract or milestone issues. And at the end of the day, if the game sucks, it's YOUR fault, and YOUR job to analyze and quantify how it sucks, why it sucks, and how to fix it.



I've definitely made a game career without being a programmer or artist, but as you say in your blog, you have to have SOME skills that are outstanding on offer. In my case it's communication (verbal and written), organization (of ideas and people), industry knowledge (both historical and current), technical and art knowledge, and lastly, "great ideas." But the great ideas part doesn't stand alone and is worthless to a client, developer, or publisher without its accompanying complimentary skills.

Bart Stewart
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What's wrong with being an "ideas guy?" Even if ideas really are a dime a dozen, they still have to come from somewhere.



There've been a spate of articles and essays and blog/wiki posts of late on this subject. Most of them say the same thing: having some supposedly great idea isn't enough. Selling a game requires at least a solid design doc, and much more often needs a playable prototype... and even that's only good for about a 5% successful sell rate (if that) for someone without a track record.



Those points aren't wrong on their specifics. But I think they unfairly minimize some other important points related to ideas and game design (and designers):



1. Having "an" idea doesn't make you a good game designer. Being able to have lots of ideas is more important.



Someone whose mind is both fertile and adaptable is likely to make a better designer of games than someone who's wedded to one single idea and who is determined to make that specific idea a reality as a game. The latter kind of person is valuable; they deliver concrete products. But the former kind of person is valuable, too; they make good games better.



2. Ideas may be a dime a dozen, but GOOD ideas are considerably more valuable.



A person who's capable of consistently generating good ideas -- where "good" means "appropriate for this game, reasonably cost-efficient to implement, and fun for the target market" -- should not be dismissed as merely an "ideas guy" as though anyone can do that. Anyone can't.



...



As advice to people trying to sell one cherished idea for a game, there's nothing wrong with "write a strong design doc" and "build a working prototype."



How about some advice for people looking to make a career out of designing many games of various types?



Is being known as an "ideas guy" really such a bad thing for these folks?

Percival Nghiem
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Great thread. I think a good number of readers would like to see the most of the entire package mentioned in this thread, say for an older shipped title. Kind of like Gamasutra's show and tell postmortems, but broken into docs.



1. Pitch Doc

2. Design Doc (or Flash Demo, or Storyboard)

3. Tech Design Doc

Kimberly Unger
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Hi Bart!



Having *an* idea doesn't make you a great game designer, but having *lots* of ideas doesn't help either unless you know how to use them to build a game. It's that second part that is so often lacking, knowing what is needed to make a game out of that idea, that is the difference between being being an "idea guy" and being a "Game Designer". Hence my suggestion about building design documents. The process of putting together a design doc, even without the demo element, will make you think through these ideas and learn (by main force occasionally) how to take the idea and make it into a an actual game.



If you are looking to get into the industry in Game Design, you've got two basic routes (anyone feel free to correct me if there's a way around either of these). Get in wherever you have applicable skills (code, art, QA, writing, IT, management, wherever) and learn the industry, learn the process, develop contacts and design documents of your own. Companies are often quicker to listen to ideas from within (and its easier to get a face-to-face discussion with someone who can sign-off on the idea).



If you don't have "applicable skills", then you may need to tread the well-worn path of option #2. Make the game yourself. Take that design document and find artists and programmers who think it is as worthwhile as you do. Get them to buy-in. Bringing a product to market from concept stage to actual publication is a big deal, it takes a *lot* of work (especially with no money) and if you can pull it off (even if it never makes much money) you have just gone a long way towards establishing your credibility as a game designer.



There *are* people out there in the industry who are predominantly "idea guys", but they are usually proven quantities. They have a string of games under their belt and they know what has to happen to bring one of these ideas to final form. Unless you are talking about some of the old-skool ladies and gentlemen, who started their careers back when COBOL was still a viable programming language, they probably didn't start out as Game Designers. They started somewhere else and worked their way up or in.

Kimberly Unger
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Joshua and Toby, you're right, just selling an idea to a producer based on a text-based design doc isn't going to fly, but once you have that part, you have something you can use to bring in the missing pieces, finding artists and programmers to buy-in and help you out. Your absolute best bet is to get a demo up and running so you can *prove* how cool the game is. BUT, if you're an "idea guy", and don't have the applicable skills to build a demo yourself, you're going to have to start somewhere.

Joshua Dallman
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I absolutely agree on your "two ways to get in the industry." I had already spent almost a decade in IT tech support so I didn't want to "start over" as a low-level QA person and take a decade to work my way up, so I made my own indie game instead. That took 2 years adn $10k of my own money to create, and when I was done I didn't get a single publisher or make a single thin dime, but what I did get was an open door into the game industry as a designer/producer, and that was worth every penny and day of work spent on that game. Great advice, keep up the blogs.

Marco Piccolino-Boniforti
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Josh, it would be nice to hear more about your experience...

Glenn Storm
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A good point to make. I must admit to using the phrase myself, but in a slightly different context. Rather than using it to excuse myself from the legwork of game design, I was realizing this phrase came about as part of a soul-search during a time of transition from one highly collaborative artistic industry to another (animation -> games). This was one of several "constants" I stumbled upon while carefully considering a career change. And it was ultimately one of the stronger arguments that led me to transition from amateur to professional game designer. Yes, I confirmed rather quickly that ideas are simply not enough to shepherd a game design in the production environment. And to paraphrase an idea recently written about on this site, learning to be a conduit, an editor, a facilitator and at times a champion for other people's ideas turned out to be the real profession I had chosen. Luckily, I had just come from an industry similar enough that these organizational, collaborative and communicative concepts were not foreign and I was able to get my sea legs quickly. But for those interested in being "the idea guy", my advice would be, don't sell yourself or your game design short: Welcome all ideas to share the same creative space as your own ... then get to work.

Matt Cascio
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This article has proven to be quite a catch for me. Just last night I had been wondering what it is I could do in the industry considering I don't quite have the technical skills but I have ideas. I had read about the Design Document before, but I had forgotten about it. I couldn't be more thankful that I stumbled upon this article and read it, it has really helped me out. It has also shown me that the path to becoming a credible Game Designer is no easy path. At least now I know a goal I can set my sights on; constructing a design document.

Von-Carter Jones
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Great article and even better response thread. I am currently trying to get my foot in the door with…yes…”an idea”. I’ve worked in technology for 15+ years in bankingfinancial services and worn many hats designing solutions; storage engineer, system administrator, scripterprogrammer, project manager, etc. However, I’ve been an avid gamer my entire life; starting w/ the Atari 2600 and now “supporting” my habit on the Xbox 360, PS3, PC and to a lesser extent Wii. So being familiar w/ writing technical documentation sounds like a plus and, at the very least, a starting point. Thanks for the article and responses.

James Hofmann
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My experience with the professional role of game designers(after about a year of it) agrees with the consensus that they're mostly conduits/decision-makers/walking encyclopedias. The prototypical example is that someone on the team comes up to the designer and says, "how should detail x be implemented?" And the designer says "do it like y, because....." It's not in the GDD because it wasn't anticipated, but new ideas do not enter the discussion either. It's just a matter of applying the best-known design practices and adding some cohesion. If there's no designer or the designer doesn't know, then the gameplay is going to suffer because everyone comes to a different conclusion on the design's direction.



On content-driven games, people dedicated to level design and scripting are also commonplace.



It's a really, really good thing for the designer to be able to wear as many hats as possible, even if they aren't practicing the role, as that will let them "see through the ideas" of the rest of the team and anticipate concerns.

Erin Hoffman
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Great post. I try to talk to students when I can, and I don't think I've given a single presentation where someone hasn't asked at least one, but usually multiple of the following variant questions: a) how can I sell my design idea to a publisher?, b) how do I show my design ideas to publishers without them STEALING THEM ZOMG, c) how do I send my brilliant design idea to a studio and get to share half the profit after they develop it?



I wish anyone with any access to students wanting to get into game development would carefully and lovingly brand across their foreheads the phrase NO ONE WANTS TO BUY MY IDEAS. Backwards, so they can read it in the mirror every morning. Game development is about execution. If a person provides ideas (in any form -- blogs, documents, internet forum commentary) that aren't backed up by ANY execution in their career, the alarm bells should be ringing. Call me a cynic.



James (lovely surname by the way), I think I want to add "walking encyclopedia" to my business card now.

Kimberly Unger
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:D I think they'd fire me right quick for bringing a brand into the classroom :D



That's awlays one of they key questions, isn't it? The "How do I keep them from stealing my idea?" one. It's out there in every artistic form, whether it be game design, writing, you even run across it in fine art. Every time I discuss a concept I've presented, I get that back from someone I know "How do you know they won't *steal* it?"



Of course, that's what NDAs are for, but in my experience there are *so many* good ideas out there that the "Dark and Mysterious THEY" don't really *need* to steal them (nor would they have the time to cherry pick only the best even if they were so inclined).


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