Coming up with an idea for a game can be hard, especially if you’re in a group and have a short time limit. The beginning of a jam can be hours of headaches, flip-flopping, and fuzzy ideas that no one can agree on. I’m going to outline a few practices that work for me when I need to push myself to come up a game pitch.
The Mind Map
Mind maps are a simple tool for quickly seeing what ideas you have if you go down different paths. You put a constraint in the middle (like a theme or game genre) and just keep branching out with ideas that relate to it, and ideas that relate to those ideas, etc. Here’s an image of a tiny one I made using Coggle as an example based on the theme “heartbeat.” We did a mind map for this very theme for a past Global Game Jam and it was an awesome way for everyone to just get their ideas out there. Our map was huge! After you fill it out pretty far, stop the process and look over what you have. Somewhere in your mind map is a winning idea.
Pulling Out Verbs
If you have your general idea but are struggling to think of actual mechanics a player could do, start listing out different verbs and actions that are associated with your theme.
For a shooter, verbs you could think of are: gather, shoot, reload, run, drag, cover, aim, guide, dodge, sneak, crawl, launch. Try to think of mechanics that other games use or that you envision the character doing and use that as a starting point. This activity is very much like a word association exercise and mind map put together.
If you wanted to make a game that’s themed around something not typically ‘gamey’, such as operating an ice cream truck, pull out verbs from the real life activity. You would have: drive, speed, plan route, make treat, serve, play music, collect money, spend money, schedule, etc. This is your starting point and can help inspire you to think of the mechanics your game should have.
Storyboarding isn’t just for communicating ideas anymore! It’s for coming up with them too. Sometimes you can trigger a lightbulb moment by trying to draw what the game could look like even if you still don’t know what it is. By seeing shapes on the paper and forcing yourself to visualize, you can look at the design you have so far from a different perspective.
I usually make doodles from different perspectives and imagine how a game like that would work. Maybe I’m making a game about managing an ant colony, so I draw a top down view of some colonies and some trees and a house. If this were an actual game, what would the player be doing? Or maybe I draw a side-view from underground and there are some stats in the HUD showing me information about the ants in the colony. How would this game work? These little doodles I just made are already making me think of what an awesome ant game could be.
Look to Existing Games
It’s rare for someone to design new game mechanics that nobody’s ever done before. Even crazy, unique games fit into a category of some sort and have similar features to other games their playerbase enjoys. What games already inspire you? Does anyone have game in mind that they already love? You can take an existing idea and twist it / add to it to turn in something new.
You can leave this as a last resort if you’re not comfortable ‘cheating’ like that, but it’s a viable strategy. Many people have designed games that are improvements on the genre / gameplay of ones that already exist. Just look at bullet hell games, for example. There are so many with such similar mechanics, and yet they’re each their own experience.
The “But Wait, There’s More!” Technique
This one is my own invention. I’ve literally said this phrase to myself when I come up with an idea that’s somewhat bland and need instant inspiration. Sometimes the first version of your gameplay appears boring or too simple. It doesn’t make anyone go “Yes, THAT is a great idea!” You can force a eureka moment to happen by pretending you’re pitching the game to someone, and when reaching the end you suddenly say “But wait, there’s more!” It works, and if it doesn’t, you’ve wasted only five seconds of your life.
Here are some other helpful phrases to have people / yourself fill in (on paper or mentally) to add some pizazz to a blah idea:
“How about instead of (current theme), you were actually trying to (hot new theme.)”
“Here’s the kicker: the player can also (crazy mechanic.)”
“If (target player) were here right now, they’d be wondering why the game doesn’t let you (verb.)”
“It’s like (common game here) except you can (verb.)”
This technique helped me transform a yawn-worthy pitch about adjectives and simple comparisons into an interesting one about monsters fighting over a meal. It helped me come up with the ridiculous and engrossing mechanics of Motion Force, which was initially just a “move your ship around and collect the things” idea with less zazz. Billy Mays would be proud.
Just Pick One Already!
People get lost inside their own heads during brainstorms and are usually trying to come up with a great game off the bat. Nobody wants to move forward on an idea until someone pitches the perfect game. That’s not how it works though. The game becomes great as you nurture it and feed it by developing its design. It often starts as an ugly duckling. If you’ve been jamming on ideas for a long time and not gotten anywhere, you need to just pick an idea that you think COULD be turned into a cool game and go with that one. Until you constrain yourself in this way, you’ll be endlessly tossing out ideas without making any forward progress.
A Final Note...
The cornerstone of advancing a design is having constraints. Constraints foster creativity. If someone limits you to making a puzzle game where you manipulate 3D spheres and it has to have a time limit, the gears in your head are already turning and coming up with ideas on how to make that work. The person whose only constraint is “puzzle game” has a longer way to go before they narrow an idea down into something they can work with. You have to learn how to use design tools, such as the ones above, to create constraints for yourself and focus your ideas into a pitch you can actually start to work on.