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"We had no idea it was going to be this big" is something you often hear from developers behind massive hits. Hits -- excluding sequels -- often come from nowhere. They're completely unpredictable and utterly surprising.
Take, for instance, SimCity, The Sims, Pokémon, Tetris, Grand Theft Auto, and Counter-Strike. The probable causes of these hits are brilliant developers, hard work, timing and some luck. Unfortunately, I wouldn't know, really; therefore, this article is not about those games -- as much as it is about the process of actively trying to conceive the next big thing.
While I haven't yet been a part of fully launching a huge new IP, this article builds upon the seven months I worked at the IP development team at EA DICE where we came reasonably close to doing just that.
This article is about how to deliver under creative pressure, finding inspiration and developing it to attractive IPs and communicating them to executives - over and over again.
While at the IP team I developed 31 IPs over a period of seven months.
This article is going to be a lot about movies. Why? IPs don't really have a platform -- by their nature, they're an "immaterial" property. Anything is fair game as inspiration for an IP, and since being inspired by other games is standard, I won't talk as much about that.
Let me begin by saying that creativity doesn't necessarily need to be channeled, but I found it necessary to continuously come up with new stuff. When you are operating under immense pressure to produce huge quantities of original creative material, you need to channel your efforts in order to reach both quantity and quality. If you are like most people, you get inspired, sometimes from big things and sometimes from the small things. The question becomes, how do you proceed once you get inspired?
Your brain constantly bombards you with pieces of inspiration, and capturing one or two of these pieces of inspiration every day will leave you with a huge quantity of ideas at the end of the week. By having several core ideas, you and your colleagues can make a more informed decision at the end of the week on which idea has the most merit. When this is decided you can start investing a little more time into these core ideas and see where it will take you.
Making games is very little about you and very much about millions of other people. This is crucial to keep in mind when you start prodding at your core idea. The refinement of a game idea is a process in which you are required to find its place in popular culture, time, and trends. This might sound harsh -- but this is the reality of professional IP development for mainstream gaming. We are in the forefront of culture, media, and social life. We call for the attention of hundreds of millions of people; the stakes are high.
A high quality pitch should ideally be a really interesting core idea, anchored in popular culture and trends, with clear and convincing references.
One important tool to improve quality is to verify that a reference you are alluding to actually has the qualities you are claiming. A problem I faced when I did my first couple of pitches was making references to other media and IPs which I had too little knowledge about. I could be arguing a certain trend is hot -- "just look at this movie" -- and someone in the audience would enlighten me that movie didn't perform as well as anticipated. If you've built your pitch on a particular reference and that turns out to be weak, your pitch is pretty dead.
Why am I talking so much about references anyway? However you came up with your IP, you will at some point need to convince people it is great and the chances are that, whether you want to or not, you will have to give them references to comprehend a game that does not yet exist. Therefore you might as well be prepared, and pick references with care.
As I got more experienced I started to prepare by indexing my references in using a system similar to index cards. Structuring your references and inspirations helps a great deal when it comes to building a strong case.
The card above displays the most successful movies of all time, after adjusting for inflation. That is just one general technique to keep in mind; you can choose to assemble indexes of references in any way you wish. The point is to choose only the most relevant references for your IP. If you aren't primarily aiming for a blockbuster reference, you would need to index your references in a different way.