Brainstorming Part 1: The Basics

Mon, August 31, 2009 -- 17:33 UTC

This is the first post in a series on brainstorming — that is to say, meetings for idea generation. We use a lot of different techniques to generate ideas. Hopefully you’ll find some of them useful.

You need a lot of things to make a good game. You need decent art, sound, code, and levels. You need a comprehensible UI. More than any of these, however, you need a great central idea: a set of mechanics that’s fundamentally engaging and meshes well with its setting. Without that core, no amount of visual and interface polish can make your game fun.

A very pretty game with ultimately lackluster gameplay

A very pretty game with ultimately lackluster gameplay

Decent art, sound, code, and levels are pretty much a function of time as long as you’re working with good people. To get great UI you just have to put you game in front of as many potential users as you can, and be willing to take a hefty dose of criticism. Ideas take more than time and user testing. Inspiration is a strange and fickle thing. Great ideas often come from accidental realizations and chance perceptions, or misperceptions. Brainstorming is, at its heart, an attempt to harness this chaotic energy.

So, how do you brainstorm?

There are a lot of different things you can do to maximize the number and quality of ideas coming out of a brainstorm. By far the most important thing is to convince everyone in the meeting to turn off his or her critical mind. This sounds crazy, I know. After all, if no-one criticizes the ideas, then you just end up with a bunch of worthless ideas, right?

Yes, you will end up with a bunch of worthless ideas. The great majority of the ideas you come up with will be below your minimum quality threshold. The good ideas you have, however, will stand taller because they will be standing on top of a pile of the bad ones. Believe me, you will turn a critical eye to these ideas eventually, you will recognize them for the filth they are. Just not yet. I’ll talk about this more in a later article on the idea culling process.

More than anything else, brainstorming is a mindset. In order to get good ideas to come out, you have to get your brain into a place where it wants to generate as many ideas as possible. Good brainstorming practices are all about fostering this state of mind. The quickest way to stop a mind that is off in fairy land creating magical ideas is to bring it back to reality.

As an example,  let’s say that I suggest that we should make a game where a turd flies to the moon. This is, pretty much, a completely terrible idea. It is a product that will not sell and turds, on the whole, do not have a lot of exciting gameplay potential. Someone else in the meeting says as much to me and, for the next ten minutes, I’m sitting there thinking about how I came up with an idea that bad and what I can do to fix it. Everyone in the meeting is stuck sitting in silence, trying to come up with a decent idea and failing because there’s nothing to build off of.

Once we turn off criticism, however, the scenario plays out differently. I suggest the game with the flying turd and Mike, thinking of all the flies, thinks of a game where you’re a fly moving from rotting meat to rotting meat. Tim comes up with a game where you use honey and vinegar to attract fireflies into a lantern you use to light up a network of dark caves. Eventually, we have a game about riding to the moon on the back of a giant moth, who you control with a lantern full of fireflies. Which is crazy, but is also, let’s face it, kind of awesome.

Turd flying to the moon

This is not a good idea for a game

Crazy ideas, and bad ideas too, get you to places that you never would have gotten without them. Ideas are best grown from the seeds of other ideas; by not throwing anything away for the duration of the brainstorm, you’re pulling from a huge pool of ideas.

Turning off judgment also lets the idea generation gain its own kind of momentum. People love to have a challenge in front of them, especially one they think they can rise to. Once they get into that state, however, they hate to feel frustrated and too much of a sense of failure can pull them right out of it. By cutting the negative feedback out of your meeting you can foster this sense of flow.*

Bottom line: suspending judgment is the single most important part of the brainstorm. Invite people with good listening skills to your brainstorm. Before the meeting begins, talk about why it’s important to suspend judgment. During the meeting, designate someone to watch for judging behavior and call it out.  You’ll be generating awesome ideas in no time.

Next article in this series: The Warm Up!

*This principle, called flow theory, is also incredibly useful in game design. I’ll talk more about it in future posts. Meanwhile, check out Jenova Chen’s work on the subject.