November 4, 2016

A lot of hard work and long hours went into the creation of my most recently released computer game, Sleuthhounds – The Halloween Deception (you should really pick it up if you haven’t already). This is especially true of the past month or so. So what’s a creative person to do when their current creation has just wrapped? Start brainstorming for the next one, of course.

The brainstorming phase of any creative project is the phase in which you have the most freedom. The whole point of this phase is not to limit yourself. Your goal is to generate as many ideas as possible for the project. No, they’re not all going to be good, some will be quite terrible in fact. And at the end of the day, they’re not all going to make it into the project. None of that matters. All that matters is getting the ideas together to form something special.

I like to think about generating ideas as starting with a vast sea of untapped potential. Empty but with a lot of hidden depths. Then ideas begin to sprout up like little islands dotting the surface. As more ideas come along, they start to connect to form larger land masses. Pretty soon you’ll have a solid batch of ideas that form the foundation for the project as a whole. You’ll also have a bunch of little floating idea islands that you didn’t quite find a way to include in the larger mass. That’s fine. Those ideas can go into the unused idea folder (quite different from the recycle bin). As the project develops, maybe you find a way to bring them in. Or maybe they stay in the idea folder for use on a future project.

Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. For storytelling projects an idea might be for a character, or a location, or just a line of dialog, or maybe even a full scene from the story. Add into that the interactive potential of a computer game where maybe you have a new mechanic you want to try, or the foundations for a puzzle to incorporate, or an animated sequence you want to see.

Generating ideas isn’t too useful unless you have a way to capture them. Different people keep track of their ideas in different ways and you’ll need to find what works for you. For me, in the early days of brainstorming I like to sit down at the computer and jot ideas into just a plain old, simple text file. Sitting at a desk gives the process enough formality to keep me focused. At the same time, being on the computer lets me turn up the music and allows me to go out browsing the internet for random stuff that may or may not trigger ideas.

Later in the process, as the ideas begin to firm up, I’ll use other tools to help organize the ideas (spreadsheets, design sketches on paper, index cards for being able to reorganize the overall structure, etc.). But in the beginning, I like to keep things simple and just type down whatever thoughts come to my mind. It’s always interesting to go back and revisit the early ideas of a completed project. Looking at The Halloween Deception, for example, I ended up using maybe 10% to 15% of all the ideas I started with. Put another way, for the actual game I did make there’s 7 to 10 variations on that game that I didn’t make. Good fodder for future creative projects.

I find it’s also good to have a way to track ideas while on the go. Obviously, I’m not going to lug my desktop computer around with me everywhere. For one thing, I don’t have that long an extension cord. But I do carry my cell phone with me and use its notepad app to track thoughts that occur to me. That said, an actual paper notepad works just as well and I used to carry one of those in my jacket pocket for many years.

When I’m on the hunt for ideas for a project I’ll take any ideas I can get. However, I’m always interested in looking for the special ideas. The ones that I know are going to push me farther than previous projects. It’s those ideas that help you grow creatively. It’s usually a good sign when you come up with an idea that you don’t know how you’re actually going to realize. When you get to implementing your ideas, if you can’t implement that one fully, you’ll still probably go farther creatively than on previous projects just from trying to realize that idea. Shoot for the moon and you’ll at least reach the sky.

Generating ideas is a very personal thing. You’re pulling ideas not so much out of thin air (although it often feels like that) as you are from the sum total of all your experiences in life. As such, everyone needs to find what works for them for generating and organizing ideas. Hopefully, my ramblings have given you some ideas of your own for how to do just that. And if not (or if so), be sure to give Sleuthhounds – The Halloween Deception a try. You never know. It might spark an idea or two for you.