Adam Saltsman wrote an article for Gamasutra about Brainstorming and the limits of Brainstorming. He talks about how brainstorming is not equivalent to game design. My only comment by the time I got to the end of the article was pretty much “yeah, duh”. But that isn’t the reaction of a lot of people and after reading their reactions I feel like I read a slightly different article than they did.
A lot of responses have been about defending brainstorming and I guess I didn’t feel like it was an assault on brainstorming but rather it questioned whether you could know if a game idea was any good before actually trying it out. Adam’s conclusion was “no” and I agree with that whole heartedly. I’d go further to say that you don’t really have a clue of what your idea really is. To show you what I mean let me tell you a story:
I suck at drawing but when I was six years old I hadn’t figured that out yet. I vivdly remember six year old me having a very odd drawing experience. One day I decided I was going to draw a dragon. This seemed like it was going to be easy. I knew what a dragon looked like. When I pictured a dragon in my minds eye it was all there. Pointy claws, jagged spikes along its back, long smoking snout, the whole thing. I knew exactly what a dragon looked like and drawing it was going to be a piece of cake.
Wrong! I couldn’t draw a dragon, I still can’t draw a dragon. I still think I know exactly what a dragon looks like but when I have to prove it I fail utterly. I think this has to do with how the brain stores information. We seem to be very metaphorical creatures and I think we store kind of a metaphor of a dragon. We store some important features that help us define what a dragon is but we don’t store 90% of the details. Only the really _draggony_ bits.
Game design is the same way but worse. Most game ideas you hear on the streets are of the “you’re a window-washer with a jetpack” variety. You can hear this statement and the finished game stretches out before you. You can almost play it. Except you can’t. That’s an illusion. Your brain is just taking what is special about two things, jetpacks, and window washing, and adding them together. There are a million design problems to solve before you have an actual finished game. I know it feels to you like you know exactly how that game is going to play and how fun it is or isn’t going to be but you _don’t_. You can make a bad guess, that’s as far as it goes. I know because I have those ideas professionally.
I spent two years prototyping games before I found Incredipede. I thought I understood all the nooks and crannies of those failed games before I ever started them. I thought I knew how fun they where going to be. I had no idea. Video Games are a very hard thing to imagine. They involve rule-sets interacting with eachother (often in real time) and we are not good at imagining how two or more rulesets will interact. It’s a very hard problem. Imagine playing several games of chess simultaneously with no boards. We _feel_ like we know something about our ideas but in fact it’s just a lie.
This is why the games industry has phrases like “ideas are worthless”. Not because your idea isn’t good but because your idea is a mere shadow of a finished game and no one can tell if that game will be fun or not. Not even you. That’s why Petri Purho‘s Rule-of-Ten resonates so much with me. Petri hypothesised that for every ten games you write one will be good. There’s no way to know which one. You just gotta sit down and pound ’em out ’till something works.
Is there a bright side to this seemingly depressing state of affairs? Well when a game works it _works_. You will morph and grow your game into something greater than you ever could have imagined. The game will get further and further from your original mechanics and closer and closer to that raw inspiring idea that was really at the heart of your excitement.
No one invents great video games sitting on the john. They invent them sitting at their keyboards pushing and pulling and playing.