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Opinion: No One Cares About Your Cool Game Idea
Opinion: No One Cares About Your Cool Game Idea
December 8, 2011 | By Mike Birkhead

December 8, 2011 | By Mike Birkhead
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    35 comments
More: Console/PC, Design



[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Vigil Games' Mike Birkhead explains why the job of a designer is not to "sit around all day, locked in a room, only emerging to grace others with her brilliance".]

Ideas are worthless. The only currency that holds any weight is the ability and drive to execute. That awesome game idea you have, the one that's going to "change everything", the one that you're going to sell for a million dollars, the one that no one has come up with yet…

Frankly, no one gives a shit. Harsh, but then, the truth is not pleasant; it is just that, the truth.

The Truth

There still exists, despite major strides, a minority of people that hold to this image of what designer do that could not be more antithetical to our true purpose. One of a lone idea-guru, high on his mountain, dispensing with equal measure silken tongue and crack of the whip. Oh, if only someone would hear your idea they'd see they cannot live without your brilliance.

You must understand why this is never, ever, going to happen. The job of a designer is not to sit around all day, locked in a room, only emerging to grace others with her brilliance. A designer's job is to listen, collate, and analyze the ideas of the entire team, so that she can skillfully weed out the fun, practical, and relevant ideas for the game you are making.

There lies your first mistake. A designer gets ideas from people constantly, and if they aren't, the smart designer seeks them by actively mining her team. She hears, considers, and rejects ideas constantly; not to mention the ideas she internally rejects, which go unheard.

You see, there is nothing to learn; no skill that suddenly makes your ideas better than anyone else's. In fact, it is more correct to say that instead of being a conduit of great ideas, the designer is the game's greatest critic. You fulfill this role through two skills that you DO learn on the job: Critique Analysis and Adaptability.

Critique Analysis

A designer that locks himself away has made two mistakes. One, as I've already stated, is that he misses out on great ideas from all around him. Second, and more important, is that designers require honest and consistent peer review.

Designers, when first starting out, always make this mistake – I was no exception. They hold onto their ideas until they are seemingly perfect; like Gollum they hold their precious close, and woe onto he who criticizes it. I call this Ugly Baby Syndrome, for just as no one likes to be told their baby is ugly, so does the designer who coddles his idea hate to be criticized.


Don't Be This Guy

Let's say, for argument's sake, that you have a great idea. Try a little experiment. Find one person and explain your idea to them – out loud. I guarantee that hearing your idea, as you describe it, forces you to reconsider some part. Now, try it with a second person, a third, ten people. Not only will you be working on your ability to communicate, which is dreadfully important, but you will also be learning the valuable skill of taking feedback.

Fact: someone is going to hate your idea. Maybe not all of them, but someone will complain about something

Enter the first great skill. Watching and listening for what, exactly, someone hates about your idea, which may or may not necessarily be what they saythey hate. Additionally, be ready to hear, "I dunno, I just don't like it", a lot. Sometimes that's ok. It's true that you cannot please everyone, but you must always be aware of a common thread of failure.

Say you have a boss fight that nine out of ten people dislike. Some say he attacks too fast, some say he hits too hard, maybe some even say he's too easy. Which one, if any, of those complaints are valid? Time to execute. Your job is to weed through all that detritus, decipher the truth, and make the correct changes.

Which brings us to a great truth that you discover. No matter how great the idea sounds in your head, once it gets into the game it never quite turns out as well as you thought. As long as you vigorously quest for the best out of your designs, it will constantly be evolving, and you will have to adapt.

Adaptability

The game is a living, breathing entity. One day you come into work to discover that the creature you were expecting, the one that had that big reveal in your level, that one that you designed an entire encounter around… cut. Months later you learn that, no surprise, the game is behind schedule, and we aren't going to have time to finish at least a third of your level… cut.

Here is your job now: take a level, missing its central creature, missing over a third of its playable space, and make it work. This is not a unique story. It happens a million times a day to every game ever created.

Great designers don't waste the breath it takes to complain, or waste the braincells it takes to wonder why, because they are already busy solving the problem. They are executing. Sometimes you execute well, and no one is the wiser; sometimes you don't, and your level feels off.


Again, this is why ideas begin to lose their power. Every day you see great ideas cut and recut, designed and redesigned, so many times over the course of the project that they truly never resemble how they did at the start. But all of it is done in the holy quest of making the best damn game you can, in the time you can. If you truly care about the quality, and if you have the drive to execute, then you never stop redesigning your ideas.

My good friend and I jokingly made it into a game. We call it our One Thing. The goal is to come up with one thing, one idea, and have it go from inception to the game shipping without getting changed. Between us we have yet to win the game. Not once. Does this mean we have flawed ideas? Maybe. But then, that's been the whole point, hasn't it. No idea is perfect.

Closing

If you have been paying attention, you will notice a giant hole in my thesis. If ideas are worthless, then why do we seek them out from everyone? No doubt you are currently thinking, "hey, I am everyone." They key is that we seek them from people who already contribute. Artists, animators, programmers, producers, and other designers. Not one of those people is purely an "idea person", and while yes these people exist, I hope that is not your aspiration.

Having brilliant ideas is definitely a boon — it's more than a boon, it's a requirement. The best designers I've ever worked with have stupid awesome ideas that leave me agape at how they fit the core; they are funny; they never accept anything other than the best, either from themselves or others; but most importantly their creativity is buttressed by other skills.

You must be able to execute on your creativity, or your imagination which looks to such great heights, will be nothing more to you than an anchor.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]


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Comments


Jan Kubiczek
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looking at the mcgyver picture i remember reading the other day that the series item combinations actually were inspired by (text) adventures of the time. is that true? ;-)

Brian Linville
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I wrote something similar in my blog http://dawnshinedev.blogspot.com/2011/10/ideas-are-worthless.html



No matter how great your ideas are, there are lots of people with the same ideas. They just don't have the skill or money to implement them yet. Every single programmer, artists, writer, and designer that works in the industry has game ideas. No one needs "idea people."

Luis Guimaraes
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Hey, I have an awesome idea for an article!

Mike Birkhead
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Well played

Bret Dunham
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Indeed

Ramon Carroll
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LOL. +1

Bret Dunham
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Missed the joke?

Martain Chandler
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The fact remains VC will only listen to ideas with $ attached to them.

Jacob Crane
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Very well said.

Michael Nicolayeff
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There is no shortage of good ideas or the idiots in charge that ruin them.

Ramon Carroll
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100%

Trent Oster
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Execution is everything. Without the ability and determination to make something amazing, any idea, no matter how great, will be a failure.



-Trent

Harry Fields
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That's why I keep a sharpened axe at my desk!

Anna Tito
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Agree whole heartedly. You can be as ideas rich or talented as you like but without execution it means zilch!

Bart Stewart
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Another "ideas are a dime a dozen," "I'm only saying this for your own good" opinion. Sigh.



It's true that there are a lot of people (who've never actually tried to craft a working game) who get an idea in their heads and decide that it's brilliant. This happens to would-be writers as well as to would-be game entrepreneurs. Any attempt to question them about the applicability of the idea they've latched onto is perceived as a personal attack motivated by stupidity, ignorance, or jealousy, and only confirms their certainty in the commercial jackpot their idea surely must be.



These people are not serious game designers, and they should not be lumped in with those who are. To do so blurs and demeans what a real game designer actually does and the talents and competencies required to be good at it.



A good game designer performs a special kind of translation: he turns a vision of play into a set of gameplay systems whose individual forms and integrated structure effectively realize that vision. No, of course not all the "ideas" that comprise the specific mechanics of the overall game will come from the Lead Designer. Good ideas are where you find them, and a good designer is always alert for what might help to achieve the vision regardless of the source.



But the process of architecting individual ideas into a unified functional structure -- that does, I think, benefit from being the product of one person's mental effort. Just as our most well-regarded buildings usually have a single lead architect, the best games have one Lead Designer, and that is not an accident. Coherent complex systems come from one person going into a room with no distractions and hammering out the first draft of a system of systems that translates the overall vision into a functional design.



Once this initial cut at a core design (not the details, just the core) has been constructed, you emerge blinking into the noisy, bright world, you put your ego in a box and you bounce your design off of other people. This is the analytical, iterative step of the practical design process on which Mike's opinion piece focuses. It definitely does matter. Those designers (and there are some, and I've fallen victim to it myself) who think they're able to skip this step by personally banging on their design documents until they're "perfect" will never ship a game.



But analysis is the third step. The second step -- the creative, system-generative step -- has to occur before there can be anything to analyze (following the initial articulation of a vision). And that system-creating activity is *not* the same thing as analysis; it requires a different set of abilities and skills and interests; it is crucial to the production of a thematically satisfying product experience; and it does not deserve to be dismissed yet again as "ideas are worthless."



It's always easier to criticize perceived flaws in someone else's creative work than to do the actual creating. Consequently, there are few people who are good both at functional creativity, at "practical imagination," and at enduring the constant barrage of "you obviously got X wrong" from critics who have never tried themselves to wrestle into existence a functional system of systems.



Rather than denigrating the rare system-creators for failing to act like "criticizers-in-chief" (as though analytical ability is all that matters), potentially driving them away from participating in game development, I'd like to read an opinion piece from a professional game developer that appreciates what the strategic creators of systems bring to the industry and that encourages the application of their unique gifts.

Ramon Carroll
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Hey Mike. I agree with you 100%. I think people fail to understand how cheap ideas really are. Especially in the game industry! Everyone's got them, and they are relatively easy to mine. Some game companies probably receive hundreds of submitted ideas per year from naive gamers who are looking to "cash in" on that "awesome" idea. When you've got an entire staff of game developers who are all (well at least most) avid gamers, its not hard to find a good idea here and there, especially among people who at least have some semblance of what it would take to implement them.



Design and ideas are not interchangeable.

Luis Guimaraes
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Exactly as Christian said.

Ramon Carroll
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At what point did I say that execution is all that matters? Do you honestly believe that games that fail, or only reach "average" status, do so because "the idea just wasn't good enough"? There's much more to the story than that.



The biggest problem that game developers confront in game design, in my opinion, is scope, not whether or not the idea was good enough.

Luis Guimaraes
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If my game idea sucks, it is my fault. Not some higher universal truth that I'm a helpless victim of.

Ramon Carroll
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Of course there are game ideas that suck. I didn't say that there wasn't. Sucky ideas can lead to a sucky game. However, it doesn't take an extraordinary amount of skill to come up with a cool idea. That's why there is no such thing as an "idea" guy on development teams. The ability to implement that idea (regardless of whether you came up with it in the first place) elegantly with a limited amount of resources, and even get it right within as few iteration loops as possible, is one of the things that makes a designer desirable to a company.



And since when is "scope" a "higher universal truth that you are a helpless victim of"?

Ramon Carroll
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I'd like to edit in the word "creatively" along with "elegantly", becaust that's just as important.

Luis Guimaraes
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Hey Ramon,



I wasn't replying to your above post on scope. It was just last thoughts on the overall discussion. Just a bit tired of all this "do as I say not as I do until you find for yourself", or "please don't take my job" or whatever else motivates this same argument over and over.



The "higher universal truth that you are a helpless victim of" is "all ideas are crap", like that was an excuse to make boring games.

Ramon Carroll
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I apologize, Luis. If I had paid more attention, I would have realized that your post wasn't connected to mine. Sorry about that.



I understand exactly what you are talking about though.

Luis Guimaraes
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I read your posts and mostly agreed on everything. The points is that it's a strange semantics discussion always. Everybody has the same arguments, knows the same things, but somehow one calls "idea" what others say "but that's not even an idea".



It's a common argument on these articles to say "everybody can say 'a game with zombies'", while most zombie games exist because nobody had any ideas...

Luis Guimaraes
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I do agree with the "do as I say" thing, because I know the mistakes that are often made. I often read it as "ok, 99 out of 100 ideas are crap, so don't try that 1% because you're most likely to fail", but such generalizations are way to bad sounding.



And as a small developer, I don't like to think that I should face the giants in their field, their rules and with their weapons.

Christopher Plummer
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I truly don't understand how designers could be considered the "idea" guys.



The "idea" guys are the ones that create the box that we're all playing in/working within, which is usually why they are also the "deep pockets" guys. Designers are the ones that take the "idea" flesh it out and make sure the programmers have the right plans to build it.



There is definitely a recursive process that is happening in the background, where everyone becomes the "idea" guys; maybe that's what is being referred to. This happens when the fleshed out portions that have fallen short are discovered and fleshed out further down the line by other members of the team.

Christopher Plummer
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@ Christian



I'm saying that if we're not calling everyone on the team an "idea" person then the only people that deserve that title are the ones that sell an idea of a game to financiers so that it can have a team of people actually make it a game.



Game development is a collaborative process. In my experience, a game doesn't get made because of a design doc or a high level pitch brought by designers. It gets made because the prototype sold it, which involves everyone; or it has someone at the top that commands a lot of respect for their ideas persuade others to give them money.

Christopher Totten
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I really enjoyed this article. Like many designers, I've got my own "dream project" that I'd love to work on someday but may/may not ever happen. It IS however, a useful dummy project to present to students to have them learn to work out design issues.



The response I often get when they learn that the idea has been mulling around in my brain for a while is often, "WHAT?! Why would you let us work on this? I don't want to change it!" I immediately tell them that while I came up with a concept, I would rather present it to a team and work with them to filter it into something workable.



Likewise, I'm a fan of saying that lots of people want to talk/dream about making a game, but it's a different story when it comes to doing the legwork. I am currently working on an independent project where we had to let the majority of the team go. It became apparent once production started that we were the only ones wanting to begin producing working elements of a game. These are challenges game designers/developers have to handle throughout development.



A game idea is only an idea until you sit down and start producing things for it. Game designers work with a team, listen to the input of team members, consult team members on their areas of expertise, and make decisions on which ideas work and which don't. In many ways the game designer is a moderator as much as he/she is a creator.

Roger Klado
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It's important to sell the the benifits of following through with a proof of concept, treatment or even a completed idea brought to conclusion.

There is nothing, NOTHING, better then prooving you were right. A big fat elephant in the room obviously shining the complete truth of it right.

The upside is having a great idea that is executed is usually always appreciated.

You can have a fan club of any good idea when the "work" is there to be seen.



What is especially true is that most good ideas are not original. In which case pulling out a magic trick by proving an otherwise great idea that was thought to be unsolvable/unworkable into actual existance by sweat and suffering earns you easy kudos as you have an audience for the idea to begin with.

Roger Klado
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On the other hand...

If brilliant/original Ideas were so cheap, why is there so little evidence of as much actually produced?

You could also say...

We already got call of duty we don't need yer ideas kid. jes yer talent! Sign here in blood please.

Pippin Barr
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Ideas are cheap, it's true, but that's not the same thing as "all individual ideas are bad". Clearly, like any other situation, there's room for multiple models of game design and creation, from the lone lunatic in their bedroom to giant collaborative teams.



Both approaches yield a ton of crap, and then the occasional interesting, brilliant piece of work.

Jan Kubiczek
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im struggling to understand what this is about. shall we not have ideas anymore, because well come up with s o m e t h i n g when the time is right? shall we become ***holes and only care about money so we can built anything that comes to mind? really, this opinion is not working for me. really great ideas will get executed no matter what. i think a great ideas is actually all that really matters.

Anthony Boterf
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Honestly, ideas are how the great titles of our past came to be. Somewhere, someone had the ultimate over-arching idea for . Whether these people were already working in the industry, or were flush with cash(and could afford to make a team to build it), or were simply eloquent enough with a pitch to get the funding to start the project; all of these are viable ways that ideas have already come to life.



To say that ideas are worthless, is to give me the standard auto-email response most studios send to the authors of unsolicited game ideas: "That's just not how it is done in this industry". I for one, am calling BS.... true, a large percentage of these submissions are no more than fan-fiction; however, to summarily dismiss ALL ideas simply because they are mostly crap, is to miss that one groundbreaking idea that can, once put into production, totally turn the gaming world on its head.



It has been done before... the greatest game companies, are the ones who listened.

Craig Page
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Well... maybe your ideas are worthless, but mine are going to change everything!!! ;)

Daniel Talis
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Yeah, my ideas are priceless. Basically they are what I base my existence on but as the Author says they need to be manifest in some way.


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