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Finding a Fresh Perspective

Graham McAllister ruminates on why truly new ideas are so hard to come by

What sort of game should you make next? A tough question. An easy approach might be to make a clone of a game which is doing well on one of the app stores, after all, it would seem the market likes those sorts of games. However, making a game similar to one, or many, already existing and successful games brings problems. For example, why should someone stop playing the popular game that their friends are probably playing to try yours? Oh I see, it's similar to the popular game but with a twist. I agree, this can indeed work, but you'd better make sure you understand what's great about the popular game and also how your 'twist' makes it even better for the player.

Looking at the games spread throughout the app store charts, it seems very few developers have managed to achieve this. They've somehow identified what features are in the game, but what's not been well understood is the nuanced delivery of the features. This surface-level copying of features leads to games which look like market leaders, but don't feel like them. If a clone is to stand above the rest, then it's the polish that may help achieve that.

"perhaps a more interesting question than what should your next game be, is what could your next game be"

What if the cloning approach isn't for you, what if you want to make something more, original? Just as making a clone has a solid business case, so too does being original. Trying to choose from many games in a genre can be a difficult task, but if yours is a one-of-a-kind game, well, that's much easier. Being original is seen as one of the ways of addressing the discoverability problem, to make a game which there's nothing else like, a must-play game which delivers a new experience.

If this is the road you want to take, then perhaps a more interesting question than 'what should your next game be', is 'what could your next game be'?

Being Original

There are many approaches to generating original ideas, but core to many of them is the principle of generating many ideas. One of the most common hindrances people have with generating many ideas, is that they quickly exhaust the options which they already know about, i.e. the obvious, then hit a wall. One way to overcome this barrier and to keep generating more ideas, is to use an external stimulus which connects previously unrelated items, leading to the formation of a new idea. Let's look at a few examples.

In his TED talk, toy designer Shimpei Takahashi presents how he plays a game called Shiritori to come up with ideas for toys which have never been seen before. The game is simple, he writes down a word, then either he, or a colleague has to come up with another word which starts with the last letter of the previous word. Sometimes the two words give rise to a new idea for a toy, sometimes they don't, but the approach does keep a constant flow of ideas coming which can then be rated for potential.

At IDEO, a company that is famed for its innovation and world-leading designs, they use the Tech Box to help with the brainstorming of new ideas. The Tech Box contains around 200 items - batteries, switches, materials etc., each different, but carefully curated. The items are simply meant to be played with and their properties explored, if more details are needed then an iMac on top of the box gives a breakdown of what the object is, what it's made of, and what products it has helped bring into existence. Although the items are physical, IDEO describe it as really a mental toolbox, it's a box of potentially really useful ideas.

But coming up with ideas is only part of the problem, how do we know which ones are worth pursuing?

Designing Success

Of all the factors contributing to why studios don't attempt to make more original games, one that keeps getting raised is that it's perceived as being risky. Bear in mind that for studios pursuing the original game goal, the game also needs to be successful, where success means both creatively and financially. So even if you do manage to come up with an original game idea, will players like it? And just as importantly, will enough players like it?

"even if you do manage to come up with an original game idea, will players like it? And just as importantly, will enough players like it"

And just as there are processes for managing (and de-risking) software development, so too are there counterpart processes for managing design ideas. At Google, they use a design process which goes from idea generation to validation in five days, other companies may spend months achieving this. They can do this quickly as the process, known as the Design Sprint, bypasses the slower stages of building and launching the software, and instead goes from generating ideas, to then getting feedback on the ideas. Bear in mind this is only the ideation stage, eventually any ideas good enough to enter production will be validated using the traditional methods of user testing with a playable build.

The Design Sprint itself has five stages, one per day, and has been used to validate business ideas, new features for existing apps, marketing strategies, and of course novel software ideas. One of the most important aspects of the process is to deliberately slow down your design thinking. When presented with a problem it may sometimes appear obvious what the solution is, but by following the process and allowing your team to generate more ideas, you may just lead to an alternative solution that is vastly superior. And of course, your best ideas will be put to the test on day five when real users are brought in to give feedback on your early prototype. Game studios may be doing some of these steps in an ad-hoc way, but only when used in combination and in the right way does the Design Sprint prove effective.

From Ideas to Prototypes to Awards

The result of all this is a game idea which has emerged, and has support, from your team. Not only that, but you'll have received feedback from real potential players on the game concept and mockup. So now where?

Well, this could be the ideal phase before an internal game jam, your strongest idea has made it this far, you should have confidence to take it to the next level of prototype. This seven day cycle - five for the design sprint and two for the game jam, allows teams to get feedback twice - once on the game idea, and once again on the playable prototype. Depending on the results, the team should be able to make a decision whether to iterate again on the idea based on the feedback, or to take the game further into production. The game jam approach alone has been successful in generating original game ideas for many developers. One such studio is Bossa Studios, whose award-winning games Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread both emerged from game jams.

"Even the largest of studios are looking towards using these approaches in the hope of allowing smaller creative game ideas to emerge alongside their more traditional long-term projects"

Even the largest of studios are looking towards using these approaches in the hope of allowing smaller creative game ideas to emerge alongside their more traditional long-term projects. For example, Ubisoft Montreal allows anyone in the studio, from programmers to accountants, to pitch an idea for a game. They call it the Fun House, and the idea seems very similar to Google's Design Sprint process, it's a five step process which helps the team get their idea onto paper and communicate it to others. These approaches not only lead to original game ideas, but also help foster a creative environment, allowing team members who may feel stale on long-term projects to move onto comparatively quick projects.

The idea stage of game development can sometimes be unstructured, yet approaches such as Google's Design Sprint or IDEO's Tech Box have repeatedly proven to deliver original, and successful projects. It's also worth saying that originality doesn't have to mean a completely new game genre, these approaches could be used to design a twist to an already popular genre. Whether it's coming up with the new or simply improving the old, what could structuring your idea generation phase lead to?

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Latest comments (3)

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
To find new ideas is not rocket science.

It's called the project-based business model. It's what the arts industries have used since the Renaissance. It's designed to find the outliers - the best ideas and talent - and move it to the front of the line. For example, book publishers: they comb through the many submissions (the "slush pile") to find the gems.

The game industry - from the smallest indies to the largest multinational mobile developers - is set up with a factory-based business model. The ideas or designs are mere vehicles. It's a system that rewards those who do well in "fitting in".
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
For some reason something someone told me once has always stuck in my mind:

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If you've got a really good idea, you'll have to ram it down people's throats."
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
You know how I disagree with you constantly pushing this line about project based model Tim, but ignoring that I will say that good ideas are ten a penny. The real skill comes in the development of said good idea.

You don't need someone else to tell you what is good at what isn't, you just need the guts to pick yourself.
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