I am a designer at Insomniac Games. I have worked on the following games: Chains of Olympus; Ghost of Sparta; Mortal Kombat 9; Darksiders 2
Posts by Mike Birkhead
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Game Design /

Ideas are worthless. The only currency that holds any weight is the ability and drive to execute. That awesome game idea you have, the one that's going to "change everything", the one that you're going to sell for a million dollars, the one that no one has come up with yet... frankly, no one gives a shit. Harsh, but then, the truth is not pleasant; it is just that, the truth.

The Truth

There still exists, despite major strides, a minority of people that hold to this image of what designer do that could not be more antithetical to our true purpose. One of a lone idea-guru, high on his mountain, dispensing with equal measure silken tongue and crack of the whip. Oh, if only someone would hear your idea they'd see they cannot live without your brilliance.

You must understand why this is never, ever, going to happen. The job of a designer is not to sit around all day, locked in a room, only emerging to grace others with her brilliance. A designer's job is to listen, collate and analyze the ideas of the entire team, so that she can skillfully weed out the fun, practical and relevant ideas for the game you are making.

There lies your first mistake. A designer gets ideas from people constantly, and if they aren't, the smart designer seeks them by actively mining her team. She hears, considers, and rejects ideas constantly; not to mention the ideas she internally rejects, which go unheard. You see, there is nothing to learn; no skill that suddenly makes your ideas better than anyone else's. In fact, it is more correct to say that instead of being a conduit of great ideas, the designer is the game's greatest critic. You fulfill this role through two skills that you DO learn on the job: Critique Analysis and Adaptability.

Critique Analysis

A designer that locks himself away has made two mistakes. One, as I've already stated, is that he misses out on great ideas from all around him. Second, and more important, is that designers require honest and consistent peer review.

Designers, when first starting out, always make this mistake - I was no exception. They hold onto their ideas until they are seemingly perfect; like Gollum they hold their precious close, and woe onto he who criticizes it. I call this Ugly Baby Syndrome, for just as no one likes to be told their baby is ugly, so does the designer who coddles his idea hate to be criticized.

Don't Be This Guy

Let's say, for argument's sake, that you have a great idea. Try a little experiment. Find one person and explain your idea to them - out loud. I guarantee that hearing your idea, as you describe it, forces you to reconsider some part. Now, try it with a second person, a third, ten people. Not only will you be working on your ability to communicate, which is dreadfully important, but you will also be learning the valuable skill of taking feedback.

Fact: someone is going to hate your idea. Maybe not all of them, but someone will complain about something

Enter the first great skill. Watching and listening for what, exactly, someone hates about your idea, which may or may not necessarily be what they saythey hate. Additionally, be ready to hear, "I dunno, I just don't like it", a lot. Sometimes that's ok. It's true that you cannot please everyone, but you must always be aware of a common thread of failure. Say you have a boss fight that nine out of ten people dislike. Some say he attacks too fast, some say he hits too hard, maybe some even say he's too easy. Which one, if any, of those complaints are valid? Time to execute. Your job is to weed through all that detritus, decipher the truth, and make the correct changes.

Which brings us to a great truth that you discover. No matter how great the idea sounds in your head, once it gets into the game it never quite turns out as well as you thought. As long as you vigorously quest for the best out of your designs, it will constantly be evolving, and you will have to adapt.


The game is a living, breathing entity. One day you come into work to discover that the creature you were expecting, the one that had that big reveal in your level, that one that you designed an entire encounter around... cut. Months later you learn that, no surprise, the game is behind schedule, and we aren't going to have time to finish at least a third of your level... cut.

Here is your job now: take a level, missing its central creature, missing over a third of its playable space, and make it work. This is not a unique story. It happens a million times a day to every game ever created. Great designers don't waste the breath it takes to complain, or waste the braincells it takes to wonder why, because they are already busy solving the problem. They are executing. Sometimes you execute well, and no one is the wiser; sometimes you don't, and your level feels off.

Again, this is why ideas begin to lose their power. Every day you see great ideas cut and recut, designed and redesigned, so many times over the course of the project that they truly never resemble how they did at the start. But all of it is done in the holy quest of making the best damn game you can, in the time you can. If you truly care about the quality, and if you have the drive to execute, then you never stop redesigning your ideas.

My good friend and I jokingly made it into a game. We call it our One Thing. The goal is to come up with one thing, one idea, and have it go from inception to the game shipping without getting changed. Between us we have yet to win the game. Not once. Does this mean we have flawed ideas? Maybe. But then, that's been the whole point, hasn't it. No idea is perfect.


If you have been paying attention, you will notice a giant hole in my thesis. If ideas are worthless, then why do we seek them out from everyone? No doubt you are currently thinking, "hey, I am everyone." They key is that we seek them from people who already contribute. Artists, animators, programmers, producers, and other designers. Not one of those people is purely an "idea person", and while yes these people exist, I hope that is not your aspiration.

Having brilliant ideas is definitely a boon -- it's more than a boon, it's a requirement. The best designers I've ever worked with have stupid awesome ideas that leave me agape at how they fit the core; they are funny; they never accept anything other than the best, either from themselves or others; but most importantly their creativity is buttressed by other skills. You must be able to execute on your creativity, or your imagination which looks to such great heights, will be nothing more to you than an anchor.