Dev Blog 003: The Idea Test

Human brains are only really capable of focusing on one thing at a time.  And they can only keep a few more than that in awareness as they do.

So it's a bit silly to expect that you'll remember every angle you should be considering when making a critical decision.  Over time, you'll deal with the same concerns often enough that they'll come up a bit more instinctively, but as you're learning or practicing a new process, you really need to take advantage of writing things down so that you can have those constant reminders you need.  Trying to do otherwise will burn valuable mental energy, and you'll miss things in the process.

In fact, that's half the reason I'm doing these Dev Blogs in the first place.

So when it comes time to really putting a critical eye to your ideas, to identifying their closest comparisons, to assessing if you have the resources you need to make them, to deciding if they're marketable... it only makes sense that you should have a bit of a written test to put them through.  Or at least that's the conclusion I've come to.

So here we are at step 3.

  1. Decide on the goals of my project as a whole.
  2. Brainstorm more ideas than I need.
  3. Create a list of questions I will use to test the strength of my ideas.
  4. Use those questions to filter my ideas down to a top 3.
  5. Research similar games to see what I'm up against, and what to avoid.
  6. Choose the single idea I'm going to dedicate myself to.
  7. Build a prototype of a section of core gameplay.
  8. If solid, start the project.  If not, fall back to one of the other ideas.

When deciding what I wanted to include on my test, I started by focusing on "what can go wrong?"  I thought through the whole process, all of the major problems I've run into in the past, and all the problems I hear about other indie developers running into, and that informed many important questions.

Past that, I considered all of the things that are particularly important to me for MY projects.  Priorities for who I want to be as a developer that might be easy to lose sight of as I bury deep into a specific idea.  

So here's where I'm at for my first pass on this test...

  1. Can I pitch this idea to someone in 2 sentences and get them excited?
  2. Do I know how I would hook people with a trailer for this?
  3. Is there an audience out there for this?  Is it big enough?  Or am I trying to create one?
  4. What other games are similar to this?  How do I stand out by comparison?
  5. Do I know how to start building the core gameplay for this?
  6. Do I see potential to discover new gameplay as I go with this idea?
  7. Does this idea bring value to the player beyond just passing entertainment?
  8. Is this a game I'd need to maintain after shipping?  Can I do that?
  9. Do I have the right people on my team to build this?
  10. Do I have the right tools to build this?
  11. Do I have the time to build this and remain financially stable?
  12. What is the smallest possible version of this game that could be justifiably complete?

This is my first attempt at making this list, so I imagine I'll discover a few more questions as I go, and that I'll want to cut some of the less useful questions to help make things more concise/targeted.

You can see the main themes though.  Will it excite people?  Is this sellable?  Have I done my research?  Does it represent me well as a developer?  Will it be satisfying to build?  And some practical sanity checks on the things, people, and time I will be dependent on.

A couple callouts on 2 questions that are important to me that probably wouldn't be on everyone's list...

Do I see potential to discover new gameplay as I go with this idea?

This is a strangely subtle thing to judge, but has become fairly important to me.  Another way to phrase this question would be, "how thoroughly explored is this gameplay space?"

A narrative FPS idea would land on the not-great side of this question for me.  FPS games have fairly established, if solid, gameplay (I love FPS gameplay, don't get me wrong).  The best explorations of modifying that gameplay have tended to come in the form of mechanics like the gravity gun or portal gun from their respective games.  Many popular FPS games just fallback on cinematics and spectacle between the action, which is particularly uninteresting and unoriginal to me as there are often better mediums for telling linear cinematic stories.  Some games explore new puzzle mechanics and content types here and there, but overall its a pretty saturated space where you really have to reach to find original gameplay to explore.  Maybe you could force the matter by experimenting with really extreme and strange weapons?  Or look at bending the fundamental rules like Super Hot?  There are options certainly, but I think you'd have to be intentionally looking for them rather than be likely to stumble into them in the course of the core game construction.

By contrast, if I wanted to make an overhead space game where you gather salvage, form it into ship parts, and attach it onto your constantly building ship, I can pretty much guarantee that I'm going to stumble into numerous unexpected gameplay opportunities.  What are all the crazy things the ship parts could do?  What kind of zero-g space gameplay could I explore?  How would the constantly awkwardly growing ship interact with different environments?  How would you clash with other ships in this type of game?  It's somewhat unexplored territory, and I can be pretty confident that in just trying to pursue the core concept, I would almost certainly run into a variety of gameplay opportunities that I might be interested in along the way.

I like concepts that have opportunities for this kind of discovery for a lot of reasons.  They are more likely to be original and interesting.  They are more likely to find good memorable gameplay regardless of whether it was inherent in the initial concept or not.  They are more likely to be fun to build.  They are also more likely to inspire additional game ideas along the way.

Rami Ismail (a popular indie dev) put it well in describing game ideas like saplings.  They grow.  The point is not to try to rigidly guide them in a strait line towards what you thought they were supposed to be from the start.  The point is to let them twist and turn and branch, discovering the full personality of them as they are constructed.  Embracing the organic potential of the creative process makes for much greater games, and thus I like favoring ideas where I can see the potential for interesting growth along the way.

I want to make an oak, not bamboo.

Does this idea bring more value to the player than just passing entertainment?

This one is a little more obvious in its intent, but it will carry a very different meaning to different people.  My definition of 'value' in this case is pretty wide, because I think there are a lot of great things games can do.

Social value.  I'm well attuned to this having worked on a successful MMO for so long, but I think there's a lot to be said for games that bring people together and give them positive shared experiences.  Introducing people to each other from across vast distances and different cultures.  Allowing family that are separated by oceans to have a common passion.  Allowing the socially-challenged a chance to break through barriers and learn to interact.  The impact that good social experiences can have on someone's life can't be underestimated.

Challenge.  There are not a lot of places in our modern culture that teach people the satisfaction and immense value that comes from fighting through hardship, overcoming challenges, and coming out on the other side victorious.  It happens naturally a little when we're very young, and a bit when applying to a college or a job, but the lessons are often left lacking in many other spaces while we are otherwise educated.  I think games can do great things for building individuals who don't fear hardship and are better prepared to overcome it.

An important message.  I think the best messages aren't preachy, they just set a tone and let things sink in as they will.  If I made a dozen games and chose to lead them all with nuanced female protagonists, I think I'd be doing something very valuable for our biased and fearful culture, even if I didn't push much of any statement beyond that.

And there are many other types of value that can come from games too, especially in teaching and in effectively igniting imaginations.

I don't think it's particularly hard to bring value with a game honestly, it mostly just requires viewing games as something deeper and more meaningful than a way to pass the time.  And as a result, there are certain types of games that I will just never make, regardless of whether there's an audience for whether they're particularly lucrative.


So I've got a first draft on my idea test ready to go.  Next post, I'll use it to attack one of my brainstormed ideas and see how it's working out.

If you're curious why I chose one of the questions above, of if you have a recommendation for another question that might be useful, drop me a comment!  I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.



[My thoughts and opinions are my own.  They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]