Posted on Leave a comment

The Flipside of Ideas

An illustration of a glowing light bulb surrounded and almost obscured  by a whole bunch of inactive light bulbs.I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is to have diverse influences in your life when you’re attempting to do anything creative. Probably the biggest hindrance to living in such a remote little place as I am now, is that there’s not a lot of external stimuli. Online interaction today appears to herd all of us into our predefined groups as much as possible – suggestions of who to follow based on similarities to who you already follow, music recommendations based on the music you already own…

Still, there’s also the risk of over-saturation. Do you remember the weird plasticine modelling clay you used to play with as a kid? Beautiful, bright colours. But after a while, after smooshing them together and picking them apart tonnes of times, all the different colours started blending. And then, you got to the point where it was simply not possible to pick them apart again and you just mashed them all together. All those pretty colours mixed to become a blob of gross-looking, pasty, off-green sick.

And that’s what will happen if we all try to blend all the awesome things we can think of into one thing all the time. We’ll all simply come up with the same bowl of off-green sick.

A book, game, movie doesn’t need to be everything for everyone all the time. It never can be, and anything that tries to be that, is destined to become bloated and clumsy, and ultimately, a flop.

I actually don’t think I’ve really mentioned this yet, but the game I’m working on combines (predominantly) puzzle game ideas, with RPG elements and has the working title of “Alchemy Hex”. Thus I’m obviously targeting two main demographics: people who like puzzle games and people who like RPGs, with the hope that there’d be a crossover happening, getting mainly-RPG players interested in puzzle games, and vice-versa. In other words – this game will most likely not appeal to RTS players. It will most likely not appeal to FPS players. And that’s okay.

I think the trick is just to never lose sight of your idea in its purest form. That’s why I’m so keen on keeping notebooks and diagrams within easy reach. In the past few weeks, I’ve become so focused on the mechanics of the game and how it influences the level of difficulty, that I started becoming a little obsessed with difficulty levels. If you look at the little notebook icons I made, there’s even a sticker specifically for difficulty level (and in fact, I think it was probably that very aspect that inspired the idea for the notebook stickies in the first place). Then, last week, I looked at my original diagram, and gained a little perspective again: the RPG elements. That’s precisely why I wanted them in there, but I’d kinda lost sight of them. The game’s difficulty will be and should be determined by the skill and ability choices you make. There’s really almost no need for a difficulty level setting at all. It’s basically a moot point. And I’d been spending so much time on trying to figure it out (I think there’s some metaphorical life lesson hidden in there somewhere…).

Fortunately, I had the notes and diagrams to help me regain some focus again and point me back towards my original plan.

A photo of a cork pin-board with two mindmap diagrams as well as plastic bags containing alchemical symbols on hexagonal grids.
My pin-board with the original diagram(s) for my idea, as well as some material that’s been added since then. Of course, a lot of what’s on the diagram isn’t even relevant any longer, but it’s still a crucial document in my process.

Another problem with idea generation though, is when you get a whole bunch of ideas that you think are all really good, all at once. It can be difficult to filter them and keep the really useful ones. At the moment, since I’ve been working primarily with my hands, paper, scissors and glue, the idea of turning this game (which was from its inception intended to be a computer/mobile game) into a board game as well, has been milling around in my mind a lot. I never latched onto it though, since it was never the primary concern.

Besides, I couldn’t imagine how I would make a game intended for one player, into an enjoyable board game.

And then that single little thought triggered a whole avalanche of ideas… “Just make it a board game for two players then.” Which became, “Why don’t I add two-player support to the digital game?” That progressed into a whole brainstorming session of what would constitute a two-player version of the game. Then, multiplayer… It got to a point where I now actually have what I believe to be a legitimate idea for expanding the game into a multiplayer game. I was almost as excited by this as I was when I had the original idea for my game.

But. I’m already in way over my head as it is. Adding multiplayer support at this time will delay the project by months. It’s not so much that the game mechanics or anything would differ drastically, it’s just that on top of everything else, I’d then have to start worrying about network communications, synchronisation of game elements across devices… Will there be a lobby, will it be peer-to-peer or direct connection? Will it be real-time, turn-based, e-mail driven…? That’s all way too much for me to be worrying about now. So… looking back to my original diagrams and the work I’ve already done, I decided that I really want to do the multiplayer thing. But not now. Once the game as originally envisioned is released, and if it is successful enough to warrant expansion, I’ll look into the multiplayer aspect. And then, who knows, possibly the board game idea too.

What I’ve learned from all of this then, is to always stay open to new ideas, but not to lose focus of what it is that I actually set out to do. 😉

PS – Some other interesting things that have happened during the past two weeks, is that I’m now helping out at the local high school. It’s going to be kind of off-topic, but I’ll probably write about that next time.

Posted on Leave a comment

Forests vs Trees (also: Hot-Air Balloons)

Hexagon forest with one dead treeI wonder what the first guy to come up with the idea for a passenger-occupied hot-air balloon did when he finally sat down to start working on this bizarre idea of his. I wonder if there was a moment of thinking, “This is crazy. What was I thinking? It can never be done.” Actually, I’m pretty sure there might have been. Someone eventually did make one though, thus proving all those fears irrelevant.

I suppose it’s almost always scary to do something new – whether it is just new to you, or whether it is entirely unique to the world. That’s most likely because new things provide us with no internal frame of reference. There’s nothing we can compare it to in our past. And so it is with ideas. Even great ideas can suddenly seem impossible to execute when you start looking at the “how” of it.

But I think that’s precisely where we need to believe in a little “magic”; a little “suspension of reality” and just go with it. I’ve seen so many times how people kill great ideas prematurely because immediately after having the idea, and before giving it a chance to settle down and ruffle its feathers a little, people start questioning the “how”. And so often, because they can’t find an immediate answer to the “how”, the illusion gets shattered and all faith in that big idea is lost (it’s a bit like the Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow – worrying about who shot the arrow, what it’s made of, what kind of bow was used – before focusing on the fact that there’s a damn poisoned arrow stuck in your leg).

While doing a stint in design school, we were faced with some or other project one day and almost all my classmates (who had infinitely more experience with Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, etc. than I had) seemed to just calmly sit down and start working on their ideas. I must have looked somewhat panicky and the lecturer came up to me. I told him I didn’t have enough confidence with any of the software packages yet – I had no idea how I would execute this idea. Then, he gave me some of the best creative advice ever – really simple, but absolutely brimming with wisdom: “Worry about the idea, not the tools. The tools are merely there to help you execute the idea and it doesn’t matter what tools you use.” Basically – worrying about the how is entirely the wrong way around to start working on anything creative. It will most likely depress you if you start worrying about the how before worrying about the what. It will most likely kill the what. It will most likely get you right back to where you started from in the first place… Continue reading Forests vs Trees (also: Hot-Air Balloons)