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  • The Idea is Not the Game

    [09.23.08]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  "Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as invention, you know. It's only magnifying what already exists."

    Allie Fox (played by Harrison Ford),
    The Mosquito Coast


    How important are ideas?

    Most novice game designers think that their main task is to come up with a great new idea. They think a great new idea will necessarily become a great game. Also, to them an idea must be new to be great.

    Folks like this are forever asking in online forums for help turning their idea into a game; and they almost never find a collaborator, because ideas alone are nearly worthless.

    As Allie Fox says, the reality is that there is hardly ever a new idea -- "nothing new under the sun." Rather, there are new ways to use old ideas.

    Furthermore, for every person who gets an idea, there are usually dozens or hundreds of others with the same idea.

    Think about novels. Almost all novels are variations of ideas used in books or plays published in the past. It's how the writer presents the ideas that counts, plus a dollop of luck. There is nothing notably new in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but it has sold more than 60 million copies (according to Wikipedia as of May 2006). The same can be said about movies: Hardly anything is new.

    How often do we get an extraordinary and new idea in games? In non-video gaming, we have Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, and Waterloo (all three by Avalon Hill), TSR's Dungeons & Dragons, Wizard of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering. A game as successful as Trivial Pursuit or Settlers of Catan is a simple variation on games that came before.

    In video games, there have been many technical advances, but few really new games. The Sims comes to mind, but it was preceded by a game called Little Computer People, which Mobygames calls "the mother of The Sims"; have you ever heard of it? A new idea does not guarantee a highly successful product, and highly successful games usually have no new ideas.

    It doesn't make sense to try to come up with "a great idea." Your chances of coming up with one are worse than one in a million. And if you did, would you recognize it as a great idea?

    A Thousand Eggs, A Hundred Caterpillars, A Handful of Butterflies
    Because ideas on their own count for so little, publishers want games, not ideas. Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen. Everyone in the game industry has ideas. Recognize that your great idea is probably not that great, not that original, and not that interesting to others. Virtually everyone thinks his or her game idea is extraordinarily good, and everyone is wrong almost all the time.

    This is hard for beginners to accept, partly because it's easy to come up with a few ideas, so it's nice to think that you only need to come up with one great one to make a lot of money.

    However, a lot of work goes into making a successful game, beginning with generating hundreds of ideas. The more ideas you have, the more likely you'll have a few really good ones that can become really good games.

    There's a "pyramid" of game design that goes like this:

    Lots of people get ideas.
    Fewer of those ideas successfully go from general idea to a specific game idea.
    Even fewer produce a prototype.
    Even fewer yet produce a decently playable prototype.
    Very few produce a completely designed game.
    And very, very few produce a really good complete game.


    Everything I'll be saying as we go along applies equally to video games and non-electronic games.

    For more about the worth of ideas alone, see Tom Sloper's advice.

    How Many Ideas?
    "Every contrivance of man, every tool, every instrument, every utensil, every article designed for use, of each and every kind, evolved from a very simple beginning."

    Robert Collier

    If you have no ideas, you'll never have a game. How many ideas do you need? The more the better. Most of them will never become games, let alone good games. It's another sub-pyramid as shown in the accompanying illustration (which ought to be much wider than it is tall, but is a conventional pyramid for the sake of clarity).

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