Generating ideas on a project can often be a haphazard process, and I’m always looking for ways to improve and focus this activity. I’m a big proponent of drawing on expertise and inspiration from a wide variety of sources and building a shared vision of the game from an early stage amongst the team. I think bringing everyone on the team into that process early, allowing them to contribute, and allowing them to see the process by which ideas live or die, contributes to a healthier, more productive, less frustrated and more passionate team chemistry that goes a long way towards helping to create great games.

You can’t bottle lightning, but you can introduce focus that can actually inspire and draw out ideas from your team. Rather than viewing idea generation as a purely inspirational activity, where you are at the mercy of the muse, it’s maybe helpful to think about it from the point of view of professional athletes or musicians, who must deliver at their highest level night after night – regardless of their level of inspiration.

Creativity is not a tap

You can’t turn on and off creative juices like a tap – you have to create an environment that supports it, and maintain that on an ongoing basis. You have to challenge yourself and your team members to always be thinking creatively. Viewing “being creative” less as an inspirational activity and more of a performance activity can be powerful. It can take the focus off feeling like you have to produce grand ideas, and bring it back to simply applying expertise and experience in an insightful way.

Both athletes and musicians practice relentlessly, and as game developers, where part of the job itself is to creatively problem solve, we should also be practicing, and keeping ourselves in top form, and considering the “craft” aspect of game development. It seems to run counter to many popular notions, but being creative is something you can get better at. But it’s not something you will get better at without actively practicing and the proper framework in place to help focus and draw out that creativity.

If you keep your creativity well-practiced, when it comes time to generate ideas, you won’t be rusty, but ready for any challenge that comes along.

Good ideas can come from anywhere

One fear when running creative sessions is that opening them up to a wider group will result in a loss of focus, and so there is an impulse to select a smaller group that will be easier to keep on track. However, don’t let your fear of losing focus cause you to miss out on being able to draw on the expertise and passion of a wider group of people. You don’t necessarily have to engage everyone at the same time if you need to keep a handle on the process, you can easily set up a number of smaller sessions that might actually allow some of the quieter folks to speak more freely.

Designers don’t have a monopoly on good ideas–sometimes your programmer in the back corner of the office might have a perspective that is unique and refreshing. So by limiting your sessions to a particular set of team members, you might be missing out on some great ideas and insight.

Define your arena first

I think many might not agree, but in my experience, blank-slate or blue-sky sessions tend not to be very productive. Part of the problem is that you instantly decrease the signal/noise ratio and without anything to focus or drive people’s creativity, you have a greater random element, and a greater chance of the session simply devolving into noise. Faced with a blank sheet, or not having been ‘warmed up’ – people will often default to their well-worn and ‘go-to’ ideas. Without a solidly designed focus, those default ideas are often the ones that will come out, rather than great focused ideas and solutions.

So, before you start your sessions to generate ideas, define the arena – it doesn’t have to be highly specific, but it should be clear and concise. You need to provide a goal and focused parameters in order to get high-quality results. This applies at any stage, and can be used iteratively to build upon itself over the course of multiple sessions.

Setting constraints does not inherently limit what you can generate – it doesn’t prevent you from ‘pushing the envelope’ – but in fact encourages it, and focuses people’s creative energy. Rather than setting them aside, realistic restrictions should be put on the table to shape the thinking from the earliest possible stage: budget, time, even available skill set.

For instance, you’ll notice I referenced the budget in there. I don’t know about you, but most of us work on teams that have budgets – and starting off with “the sky’s the limit” on a project that has to be delivered within a strict and limited budget is simply a recipe for wasting time and creating frustration for the team when everyone’s ideas get suggested and then cut for being out of scope. Bringing the budget forward at the beginning encourages people to contemplate their ideas in that context, rather than have them suggest something only to have it dismissed as ‘out of scope’.

Rather than using the budget constraint to axe ideas, use it to shape them. So, instead of viewing the budget as a restriction, or a negative impact on the “creative possibilities” of the game, try to frame it simply as a constraint that can be used to generate ideas and inspire creative solutions. When viewed in a positive light, scope can be a powerful idea-generating mechanism. It can inspire visual direction that might be stylistically interesting, and cheap to produce! It can help trim away the fat from a feature list – forcing you to focus only on what is absolutely important.

Working with constraints also teaches a kind of mental discipline on the team, where ideas have to be thought through and considered within a broader context. It’s not enough to just throw something out there and hope it sticks – it has to fit within the defined context.

Cool doesn’t cut it

Once everyone understands the design pillars, and the goals of the session, you’ve got to check the egos at the door. You have to be ruthless about rejecting ideas that do not fit with the goals and pillars. It is not enough for something simply to be ‘cool’ — and let’s remember that what is “cool” is actually a very subjective thing indeed! A room full of people may have very different ideas about what is cool–and who would be to say who’s right and who’s wrong? Design ideas have to fit within the arena that has been defined. People need to justify their ideas, explain why it should be part of the game – why it should exist at all. Anything that is truly good and would be a good fit for the game can be justified and contextualized within the discussion – if it can’t, it probably doesn’t fit.

The danger with just including everything that sounds ‘cool’ is that you can end up shoehorning things in that really don’t fit with the design pillars just because you think it’s cool. Let the game be your guide: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. A little bit of restraint goes a long way when creating focused experiences.

Don’t rush it

Finally, try not to get ahead of yourself. A lot of times when things get going, people get excited and start fleshing out details way beyond the stage of the discussion. While it’s great to see people passionate about the subject, using the goals for your session, you can effectively steer the discussion back to the task at hand. After you’ve come up with say, game mechanic A, and people are excited about it – they’ll undoubtedly start talking about how it could be implemented, and used, and visualized, which is great – but, if it’s not the goal of the session to draw out those specifics, you should try to move on to mechanics B,C,D,E etc. and accomplish your session goals, rather than lingering on details that are premature.

It can be extremely challenging to draw out ideas and maintain focus during sessions where the goal is to generate fresh and exciting ideas – but by setting goals, having clear parameters, and making sure that your ideas meet those goals, you can be successful. Being a highly performing, creative team is not something that only happens in short sessions at the start of a project – it’s an ongoing challenge and mindset that requires dedication and focus, but that can draw the best out of everyone and put it into your game!