Quite often, in gamedev as well as most other endeavours, you'll need an idea. Perhaps there's a problem to be solved, a story to be written or something you feel could be handled more elegantly. If this is the case, it's great if your unconsciousness hands you a nice idea. But much more often, you'll be applying your conscious mind to this. And my experience is that you can turn on idea generation quite easily. A lot of books have been written about this, and there are more than enough good ones to choose from. These are respectively the most practical and the funniest I've read:
First and foremost is restriction. For me, there is no better way to get the ideas going. By placing restrictions on what a valid idea is for the situation you're exploring, you basically turn it into a puzzle. And once it's a puzzle, I find that I keep poking at it until I see how things can fit together.
Case in point: last summer, I was designing up a small board game with and for my son, who was five years old at the time. Great fun. But you do need to get the idea juices flowing, since you're acting on the desire to create something and not starting from a particle of raw inspiration that hit. Designing something completely out of the blue isn't possible for me, so I had my son pick what the game was to be about. The answer: pirates! A few more questions revealed that the game should be about hunting treasure more than swashbuckling or firing cannons. This was enough to get started, and less than an hour later we were playing version 1.0 :).
So to sum up. Think of a game for my son: stumped. Think of a game for my son about pirates, focused on finding a treasure: now we're talking. As an aside: the reason I picked this example is that I built a digital version of this game a while back. I think I'll be writing a blog post about that in the near future, but here's a screen shot as a little teaser (beware, programmer art!).
As an example, I was looking for inspiration for challenge missions (more on those when we start posting about the next Powargrid update) and ended up using all kinds of inspiration to create concepts. Things that I turned into concepts: an earthquake, a waste incinerator, skiing, a Windows crash, a tank pit and taking the train to work.
Picking a theme for something you're developing works brilliantly, even if the end result doesn't show it explicitly. The main reason for sticking to a theme is that this makes whatever you're creating more consistent, logical and easier to follow. A good example of this is ballroom dance (which I've done quite a bit). I think it's most often impossible to read the story in a ballroom dance, but strangely enough dances do look better if a story is being told. The story / theme brings a focus that really improves the performance.
But on top of that I've found that a theme adds another set of restrictions to your thinking, thus further enhancing creativity. An example where this happened is the seventh mission in the Powargrid campaign, Piece of Paradise. Here, you fight against Zomg (of the evil religious greens) and Swap (of the yellow financial sector opportunists), who have formed an alliance. Combining their focusses quickly led me to televangelism as a theme. From there, it was a logical step to use Jesus He Knows Me from Genesis as inspiration:
"And I'm working on a thing called purgatory, where blobbie souls are cleansed of the good and altruistic thoughts they had in life. I know it's not in the book of Krak, but we can pretend it is and sell indulgences to blobbies, which pre-cleanse them. That'd bring in money like nothing else I can tell you!"
And there is a lot more in there. I'm really happy with how that mission turned out, and for a large part, that's due to picking a theme.
And that about wraps it up. To recap: adding restrictions = creativity on steroids. For me at least :).
I'll leave you with one more thought on how restrictions aid creativity. The thing is that restrictions most often aren't that restricting at all. Even after adding restrictions, the idea space you have to work with is still gargantuan. Going from 'design a game' to 'design a game about pirates' is a huge restriction in terms of the possible ideas that you can then no longer use. But there still are about a gazillion ways to design a pirate game. I visualise this as a way to stop mucking about in the local vicinity of the idea space, but to instead set out in a specific direction so you get to explore new terrain.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this two post foray into creativity. And if these posts were useful for you, I'd love to hear about it :).
- Willem -
PS; the Steam Summer Sale will still run for a few days (at the time of posting). Be sure to grab Powargrid at a discount if you haven't already!