Inspiration & Motivation: Finding the Spark

Working creatively, it's inevitable that you will reach those points where you just aren't feeling it.  In other types of work, you can typically just power through it, falling back on the process, zoning out, and just pushing on.  With creative work, that's often not an option - your brain needs to be engaged to find strong and original ideas, and to develop the complex plans necessary to see those ideas through.  And yet even though this is a problem we all face on a regular basis, it's pretty hard to get a handle on how to overcome it.  I have a few strategies I use personally that I'd like to share in hopes they might be of use to someone.

I find inspiration and motivation to be tightly intertwined, but breaking down the problems that often occur in this space, I think they tend manifest themselves in one of two ways:

  • Trying to find that initial spark of inspiration that you confidently want to chase for a new idea or project.
  • Feeling like you're in a slog or a stall mid-project, with plenty to do but declining motivation and mood whenever you're doing it.

This first post will be focused on finding that initial spark of inspiration for something new.  I will follow it shortly with a second post on how I typically pull myself out of a rut of low motivation.

To talk about this effectively, I think it's important to understand some of the limitations of our brains that we're all stuck with, whether we like them or not.  If you don't recognize these limitations, then you'll waste a lot of time and energy fighting against yourself to no avail.

Firstly, the part of our brain that conjures and examines creative ideas isn't capable of engaging with more than a few things at a time.  While you are capable of storing a lot more than that in long-term memory to try to access later, fresh and abstract ideas you can really only hold in small amounts and for a limited time, expending a lot of mental energy as you do.  This puts severe limitations on our ability to brainstorm internally, as much as it is often very tempting to do so.

Secondly, the process our brain goes through to try to find information and access memories is prone to a sort of habitual pathfinding.  That is to say, if you're trying to think of a solution to a problem in the same way, your brain will repeatedly come up with the same solutions even if you've already decided they aren't what you're looking for.  It's very necessary to find ways to look at the problem from different angles if you want your brain to come up with new solutions.

I think we've all come up with a great idea in the shower or on the drive to work.  I think that has a way of tempting us to look to those environments as a place where we can search for new ideas.  The problem there is that the reason we have great ideas in those places is specifically because we weren't searching for them, and thus weren't stuck following the same thoughts over and over.  They are places where our minds are often free to wander as we do very trained and habitual activities.  As soon as you try to turn those spaces into a place where you brainstorm and actively seek out ideas, it stops working.  It's a bit silly and counter-intuitive that way.

If you want to learn more about the science and theories behind the limitations I mentioned above, there's a pretty good book called Your Brain at Work by David Rock that is worth a read.

With those limitations in mind, here's how I personally try to maneuver past these hold-ups whenever I bump into them. 

Finding the Spark

Finding that perfect spark of inspiration is quite often a strangely on/off thing.  Sometimes it's incredibly easy and is in place before anything else is.  Other times it's elusive and will leave you feeling lost and listless at the start of a thing for an incredibly long time.

One thing that helps is recognizing that this 'spark' is typically more than just a flick of an idea.  If we're talking about what really inspires us, we're really talking about having a vision of something great in your head, and a vision is more complex and requires more forethought than the term 'spark' initially suggests.  Quite often when it seems like that inspiration came easy, it's actually because we've been flirting with aspects of an idea for a long time, rounding it out and turning it into a grander vision along the way, so it's already somewhat ready when the opportunity comes up to act on it.

Coming up with a vision for something great can be done in many different ways, but if it's not already waiting for me, what I tend to do is follow through a series of steps that are likely to help me stumble into it and flesh it out.  It's often not necessary that I go through this whole process--sometimes even on the first few steps I've already figured out the direction I want to take--but this is all about keeping some forward momentum when the idea isn't finding you easily.

Here's how I approach it:

  1. First, I always try to define the 'box' I'm designing within.  Everything we create has limitations we have to work with, and often those limitations help spur creative thought in a particular direction.  If I'm designing a system that is intended to work within an ecosystem of other systems, then it's valuable to know what types of fun and feel are already fulfilled, and what other types are lacking that I might be able to act on.   If I'm designing a new game, then the size of my team and the resources available to me tell me a lot about how big and complex (or not) that game should be.  Knowing the size of your box helps prevent the intimidating problem of trying to think of an idea that could be literally anything.
     
  2. Consider existing things that fit within that 'box' that you appreciate.  If you're designing a progression system, think about progression systems from other games you've played (no matter how different the game was), and figure out what you liked about them.  If you're designing a small indie game, think about indie games you've loved and break down why you loved them.

    Identifying things that work and why they work can help you figure out east from west when you're figuring out a general direction for your own design.  The goal here isn't to copy--that often won't leave you feeling inspired at all--the goal is to give yourself a framework for understanding what you like about those types of games/systems and also making yourself think about why.  That should help lead you to original ideas that can tap into similar appeal.
     
  3. Brainstorm externally, and don't stop when you find an idea you like.  Trying to come up with new ideas entirely internally rarely works unless we already knew what we wanted to do in the first place.  When you're struggling with something, you need to get your ideas out of your head, be it onto paper, into a word doc or e-mail draft, into a conversation with your friend or coworker... the format doesn't really matter.  What matters is that your brain needs to feel like the idea is considered and referenced somewhere so it can let it go and consider new things.  And at the same time, writing things down or hearing them out loud often helps inspire other ideas.

    It's also important to remember that your job when brainstorming isn't to spot the great idea as soon as it pops out - it actually sabotages the process to be dreaming things up and trying to judge them at the same time.  Your job is to come up with as many ideas of as big a variety as you can, letting the bad ideas and the weird ideas inspire even more ideas.  Only once you're done brainstorming should you go through a separate process to look at those ideas and then judge them, eliminating the ones that aren't viable and bubbling the best to the top.
     
  4. Look at things from new perspectives.  We tend to get into the habit of looking for ideas and solutions in the same places every time, and thus we always find the same ideas and the same solutions.  To get past this, it helps to force ourselves to approach things from very different angles, even ones that don't seem like they could possibly produce good results at first.

    Say you're trying to dream up new monsters for your game, and normally you do this by thinking of new archetypes you want to fill - a swarm monster, a big brute monsters, a flying monster, a ranged monster.  As soon as you feel the slow-down in new ideas, you can instead starting trying to think of monsters you would find in specific environments (caves, snowstorms, rivers, etc.), or you could look through strange insects or sea creatures online and think about how you might make them even more fantastic, or you could go to deviantart and look at the work from many other creative people to see what it inspires, or you could think about different ways monsters might get food, and the appendages/tools they'd need to do so.  Even if these other angles don't prioritize what you consider most important about these monsters, you'll often quickly find that some of the ideas you come up with wrap back around to fitting those new archetypes and gameplay niches you were looking for in the first place, but in ways you would never have found without thinking about it from these different angles.
     
  5. Be prepared to let things grow and change.  Be prepared to just take a risk.  Typically, if I go through this whole process and do a good job at over-brainstorming and approaching things from many perspectives, I almost always find some things that I want to flesh out and that start to really excite me.  In rare cases, I will only find ideas that I like, but that don't quite satisfy everything I was hoping for,  In those situations, it often helps me to remember that nearly nothing you create will (or should) turn out exactly as you planned it at the start.  The creative process is organic.  Good creations change as they are built, molding to the lessons you learn as you create them, and they do this even more dramatically in collaborate environments where the power of multiple creative brains are all adding their own ideas to the mix.

    With that in mind, sometimes you have to give yourself permission to act on an idea that seems interesting but that you don't completely understand or have confidence in yet.  Take it and just explore it anyway.  Let it grow freely and change dramatically if needed.  Even if an idea isn't perfect, working on it will teach you valuable things and will eventually lead you towards what you were looking for.  Even if an idea fails, that provides useful information and growth too.  If you can't find that inspiring vision, find the closest thing you can to it and go on a creative adventure - those are often the places where we learn the most.

 

That's how I personally seek out new ideas and inspiration.  It mostly just comes down to getting all of my ideas out of my head so that my brain can be free to explore, and then taking it down as many different roads as possible in hopes of finding something interesting along the way.  Anything more structured than that and I don't find nearly as interesting results, and anything more chaotic than that and finding results at all gets unreliable.

This is a problem that everyone working in a creative space has faced though I'm sure, and I'm very interested in hearing how others have tackled it.  If you're reading this and you have different strategies for seeking out new ideas and forming a vision you can be excited about, I'd love to hear about them.

Part 2 on getting past lulls in motivation soon!

-Craig