Brainstorming the Next GOTY

I’m in that little creative space between the end of one project and the start of another, where all I’ve got to go on are ideas. School has occupied a lot of my time for the last few months, but summer is coming up and I want to find something to fill the void. Making the next GOTY sounds like a good way to do it.

Come on. Who are we kidding.

Okay, so I don’t plan to sweep the awards and cart them home in a wheelbarrow next year, nor do I plan to tell you how to do it, either. When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and saw a Success for Dummies book? (Actually, there is one…but I’d advise you not to buy it). What I can tell you about is what other people have done, and why what they do works.

Think Outside the Donut

For starters, if you’re planning to make a GOTY you’re going to need to think “original”. This is pretty much a given, considering that rehashes and copycats are a dime a dozen and worth less than that. I don’t have to be a big-name video game critic to tell you that the latest Call of Duty fresh off the production line isn’t likely to win awards (Treyarch, if you’re listening, feel free to prove me wrong). Now “original” doesn’t necessarily mean completely radical; BioShock: Infinite is already a strong contender for 2013 GOTY and it is an incremental installment at best.

The problem, of course, is how to come up with such an “original” idea. As a freelancer I’ve seen many indie developers strive to reach this very end, only to fall back into the trenches of “okay, it’s gonna be an FPS, the marines are landing on an alien planet and before you know it…” It’s disheartening after a while, more so when I’m powerless to help. I was never good at coming up with ideas, anyway.

Simple is Better

Thankfully, there’s Google. And what Google and a bunch of research has taught me is that ideas must start simple. You can use the cliche analogy of an idea as a tiny seed growing into a giant oak if you want. And by simple, I mean something you can tweet about. Less than 140 characters. No 20-page design documents, no whiteboard filled with doodles. Simple is something you can tell a guy in the elevator before he gets off on the second floor.

Jenova Chen, perhaps better known as that guy who made 2012 GOTY Journey, once wrote a brilliant Master’s thesis on his creative process. He has centered game development around the idea of Flow, a concept first pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-high, chick-sent-me-high), which basically states that a game should match its difficulty level to a player’s abilities to maintain maximum interest. Chen has certainly been successful at this, seeing as how I couldn’t stop playing Journey once I started. I hope to talk more about Flow later, but for now you should read the thesis. It isn’t boring like a lot of other academic work, trust me.

But thatgamecompany is known for even simpler ideas. What they do is base entire games around emotions. Think: “I wanna make a game that makes people feel peaceful”. That’s certainly something you can convey over the water cooler during 30-second breaks. Where to go from there? Well…what makes people feel peaceful? Water maybe? What are peaceful colors? Blue? How about nice peaceful ambient bell sounds? Mmm…no timer, no rush, no feeling of failure. After a bit more work you’d have Flow, Jenova Chen’s first well-known game.

I wanna make a game that makes people feel companionship. Wait, is companionship even an emotion…? Ahh, let’s roll with it. How do you make two people become companions? Get them together, make them work together…well first they have to be alone. And they have to want companionship. How about…a desert? A big open desert? And…suddenly they meet someone and —

You get the idea.

Sounds easy here because I reverse-engineered it knowing what the end result was. But it’s not easy. I’m not saying any of it is. Hopefully, though, forcing yourself to think simple and think small will help you focus your ideas into something that will blossom. All it takes is time.

Another Example: Education

Miegakure is a 4-dimensional game. Yeah, that’s right. A game in four dimensions. I don’t remember when I first heard of it; it’s been out there a while now and I believe it’s still in development. But what you see in the video above are two seasoned game developers with a very important message.

They, too, like to start with simple ideas. But they take an entirely new direction: education. Basically, you take one “little nugget of truth” you want to “teach” to the player. In the case of Portal, that might be how gravity works. Then you “package” the nugget up. When the player plays the game, they uncover the nugget of truth and “learn” it, usually without even realizing it. And in so doing, their connection to your game becomes that much stronger.

I use Portal in this case because I experienced this very thing with it. I didn’t take my first physics class until a year after playing the game, and while I was learning about kinematics I had a eureka moment where I like, “hey wait a minute, I learned all of this in Portal already!” Perhaps some of you can relate.

This way of brainstorming ideas is especially strong because it also be applied to very small portions of your game (for example, individual levels or even components within those levels…you can see a few later on in the video, but I won’t get into them here). It is also much easier to build off of. Unlike an emotion, which is abstract and often difficult to translate to concrete things like characters and assets, a “lesson” has a concrete fixture in our world — whether it be gravity or math or how to play an ocarina.

What Now?

If you read this expecting a recipe for making good games, or maybe even a list of good game ideas I’ve come up with, I apologize. Unfortunately, brainstorming is sometimes the hardest part of the process and everyone does it differently.

As for me, I’ve used exactly what I’ve written about here to come up with a little nugget I think is worth wrapping up, watering, tending, and growing. Only time will tell whether it’ll grow into a big GOTY oak…well, that and actually making my ideas reality 😛

As always, happy gaming.

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