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.

How We Met

by Mike
Wed, August 26, 2009 -- 19:29 UTC

At some point in their history, companies of any sort seem to depend on a significant amount of time spent sitting down and discussing Matters Of Importance. Final Form is no different: we have meetings every day. However, in the early days of furtive after-work gatherings and secret wikis, they were more than just a way to share information and make decisions.  Meetings were hugely motivational to us, and played a pivotal role in keeping the whole enterprise moving on the steep up-slopes of our first few years. Today’s post is going to ramble a bit about how we got those conversations to happen, make the occasional jest, omit plenty of crucial details, and hint at some lessons learned without actually making them explicit. Now: come away with me!

Final Form took shape the way most collaborative endeavors do: in fits and starts. We all shared a desire to make games together, but the details of how and when that would happen were hand-wavey to say the least. At the beginning, we’d make time for occasional bursts of productivity, and have ad-hoc group discussions whenever the stars aligned, but it wasn’t until somewhere around the summer of ’07 that we committed to meeting on a weekly basis. That decision was an encouraging indicator of how serious we actually were about the whole enterprise, but it was also a logistical challenge that taught us quite a bit about how we’d function as a company.

We did several experiments with our schedules, particularly with our willingness to physically transport ourselves any more than 10 feet from bed on a weekend morning. As it turned out, our ability to lurch into action after a Friday-night bender greatly exceeded our expectations, and meetings on Saturday mornings became the routine. These were held in person at first (at one of our houses) and then, during the one-year rolling transition from California to Pennsylvania, via some combination of in-person (for whoever had that option) and a rotating cast of tools including Skype, GChat, a wiki site, Google Docs, a dev blog, iPhone 3-way calling, and cellphones set to “speakerphone” mode. Under duress, we would chain these techniques into multi-hit combos like “cellphone set to speakerphone mode and then held up to a built-in laptop microphone that’s transmitting via Skype,” and other fun mash-ups with myriad (and hilarious) side-effects*.  Most meetings were between one and two hours long. Ideally, these meetings were followed by a sandwichcraft master-class demo at Gregoire.

The meeting finish line.

The meeting finish line.

We learned some valuable stuff by doing this.

The obvious:

    Spock collaborating hella efficiently.

    Spock collaborating hella efficiently

  • When it comes to a multidisciplinary discussion of the intricacies of videogame development, face-to-face conversation is intuitively easier, higher-bandwidth, and (by virtue of that bandwidth) tends to be higher efficiency than basically any other mode of communication that isn’t a Vulcan mind-meld.
  • When you only touch base once a week, Efficiency = Good. Two hours can become six in the blink of an eye when you have a week of solo time to cover per person.
  • Our commitment to the whole idea was tested by the intrusion of our real jobs and lives into what was essentially a glorified side project. When crunch time for work snatched one of us away like a thief in the night, the other two had to keep meeting and sustain momentum while that person was grappling with the forces of evil. Once that person emerged, often a month or two later, having the other two standing right there to say “we’re still here, here’s what’s been going on” went a long, long way towards convincing each other that we were all in it to win it. Tim often used to say that he hoped for a company where every single person was crazy enough to finish the project alone if wild circumstances robbed them of their compatriots. Overcoming these challenges didn’t just keep the ball rolling: it also showed us we were the right kind of crazy.
  • Google Docs is pretty neato! It provided us with a very good method for collaborating and sharing significant quantities of information, all while remaining more or less in sync over large (3000+ mile) distances.
  • Gregoire makes a rude sandwich. Possibly the rudest.

The not-so-obvious:

  • As neato as it is, Google Docs has some pretty for-real limitations that caused headaches for us when the difference between Almost Real-Time and Actually Real-Time began to matter. As Tim pithily tweeted last week, “GDocs is beautiful tease who offers you the things you’ve been dreaming of, but she will let you down once things get serious.” We suspect/hope that within the next year or two, Google Wave will be perched atop a throne fashioned from the skulls of 1st- and 2nd-gen web 2.0 apps, and that the befouled remains of the entire Google Docs suite will be providing little more than lumbar support to the tool they tried and failed to be.
  • If your roommates use bittorrent on a communal network connection (to share recipes, say), they probably A) generally start it running late at night and B) aren’t awake early enough on Saturday to respond when you wonder aloud why someone is attempting to download the EGI (Entire Goddamn Internet). If this happens to you, kiss your Skype session goodbye.
  • Being forced to communicate through something sub-optimal (from an efficiency standpoint) exerted a lot of pressure on us to increase our efficiency in the areas we could control. We started coming to meetings with more material in a presentable form, often sending the materials out via email hours or even days before the meeting itself. Regimented meeting durations, with each minute of each section budgeted and accounted for, became the norm. We took notes while other people were talking, to make sure we didn’t squander time interrupting a coherent thought out of fear that we’d forget what we wanted to say. We established rotating jobs like Stenographer and Timer, to smooth out transitions between meeting sections and keep people accountable for how long they talked. We started reviewing minutes, to remind ourselves of what we’d already spent time discussing. Finally, we postmortemed every meeting in order to revise and optimize our meeting process (more on that in our inevitable Postmortems Are Civilization post). This was particularly important in a dynamic environment where the location, participants, and available communication tools were changing meeting-to-meeting: one process couldn’t fit all. We got very good at the agile application of traditional meeting techniques, simply as a result of being forced through the crucible of serious inconvenience.

For the results-oriented among you, we’re sadly not quite ready to throw down some definitive takeaways from the story so far. The transition into daily in-person meetings is still underway, you see, and who knows where those new data points will lead us? We’ll probably get into it in some eventual Part 2. In the meantime, we welcome you to vigorously defend Google Docs’ honor (or bemoan the time you’ve wasted in meetings) in the comments.

* The on-board microphone on the Axiotron Modbook is situated flush against the cooling fan for the whole computer, which results in your friends on the other end occasionally interrupting the conversation to politely ask if you’re calling from the interior of a jet engine, or perhaps a combine harvester.