Note: Even though this article was written from the perspective of game development, the main concepts of idea maturity and knowing when to cut ideas are applicable anywhere and everywhere. I originally published this article on simpleprogrammer.com.
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
For us indie developers, new ideas are like gold. We strive for them and cherish them. We feel like we’re on a roll with them and in a rut without them. We feel empowered when they’re abundant and powerless when they’re scarce, and there’s a good reason for this:
Behind every good game lies a good idea. Every game that exists has a central idea behind it, and everything else around it (including other ideas and mechanics in the game) just help communicate that idea as impressively as possible.
For Mario, it’s using jumping as a means of exploration and defense; for Darkest Dungeon, it’s allowing the player to see the darker sides of the lives of explorers. To some extent, an indie developer is only as good as the ideas they have (or use—ideas don’t always have to be original) and how they implement them.
But as anyone who works in any creative field undoubtedly knows, ideas never stay static. They come and go, transform, and mutate. They never just stay there—they’re too intangible.
This means they have to be handled in a specific manner. Due to their strange nature and utmost importance, we as artists have to understand how to make the most of the ideas we get. One of the most important things about treating an idea properly is letting that idea mature.
When dealing with ideas, it can be helpful to imagine them as living beings—beings that can grow and die.
So when an idea first comes into your head, it’s young and immature. To be more technical, it’s not developed. Idea maturity has to do with how to make your ideas develop into fully fleshed out ideas that are well-thought-out and can be used. This is important in game development, because well-thought-out ideas are the backbone of fantastic gameplay ideas, mechanics, and themes.
So what is the first step to mastering idea maturity?
Making Your Ideas Tangible
Remember how I said ideas are intangible? Well, that’s the first thing you have to tackle to get fully fleshed out ideas.
You have to write down your ideas!
The reason for this is simple—your brain easily forgets the new ideas it thinks of. New ideas are formed and stored in the brain’s very short-term memory, and are often forgotten in a few hours’/minutes’ time unless you use unnecessary effort to remember them. When they stay in your head, they tend to stay immature and don’t develop (I’ll talk more about this later in the post), which isn’t very good.
Another reason to write down your ideas is that good ideas don’t often come when you’re working on your games (or whatever you want to use that idea for). Of course, you can expect some to come in the form of those “Aha!” moments during development, but a lot of ideas will also come when you’re not behind the computer.
Often, you will come up with ideas when your brain is in what is called the diffuse mode—a mode the brain enters when it isn’t intensely focusing on anything. The brain is in the diffuse mode when you’re daydreaming or dozing off, exercising or showering, or even socializing. The brain is in the diffuse mode whenever it’s not too occupied and has some good legroom to think about other things in the subconscious background.
When your brain is able to enter the diffuse mode and lets the mind roam about, it takes the time to build connections between neurons that don’t usually communicate or associate themselves with each other—and that’s what generates new ideas.
But that also means unless those ideas are written down, they’ll be forgotten as the brain goes about building more new connections.
So, whenever a new idea for a game, update, mechanic, setting, character, concept, boss enemy, theme, or whatever else comes to mind, find a way to store it! Even if it’s a mechanic or concept you can’t add to your current game, but could be interesting in another. It doesn’t matter—as long as you like it, store it!
I recommend using some sort of cloud service for storing all these ideas—I use Trello. Whenever I don’t have my iPod around, I write the idea on a piece of paper and type it into Trello when I can. At the moment, I have more than a dozen game ideas there—all ready to be tapped when needed.
Letting Ideas Stew
In game development, both in indie and AAA development (professional game-studio game development), it’s common for an idea to change while it is being integrated into a game. It’s a natural thing—you start adding something into the game and halfway into the process, you realize you could change something or remove something to make it better. This sends you on some sort of zig-zag, back-and-forth pattern where you add and fix, and then realize that something could be better, and then you add that thing only to realize that what you just added should be changed or improved, or even removed.
These kinds of realizations can come just because you’re in the development flow, and that’s good and perfectly normal. They come about because the ideas that drive a game can evolve over time, transforming the game (slightly or majorly) in the process.
However, it can be harmful to your game’s progress if it becomes very frequent and it takes you way longer to implement an idea than you scheduled. If this happens, it could be a symptom of a developer using ideas that are too underdeveloped.
Earlier on, I mentioned that new ideas come about as immature and underdeveloped. At that early stage, it’s not very prudent to take the dive and start using such ideas right away. When you first get an idea, the brain usually isn’t really finished making the idea—it’s just started. It hasn’t finished materializing the underlying concept it wanted to bring about—the idea isn’t complete yet.
So, before implementing an idea, it can be helpful to let it stew for a little while—spend a few days letting the brain finish making its idea.
There are two ways to do this:
Letting the relaxed brain do its work
One of the ways to let ideas develop is to go into that state of brain relaxation once again, but with a bit more purpose. For example: When I want to develop an idea, I first go over all its current details and aspects (it’s best to do this by reading what you’ve written down about it), and go for a walk. While I’m walking, I allow my mind to just roam free and think about whatever it wants to. Every once in awhile, I bring my attention back to the idea I want to develop and focus on it a little. I try to think about how it will be implemented, any problems that may arise, and so on. Then, afterward, I go back into diffuse mode.
You could do this with any relaxing activity, like exercising, staring at pictures, or perhaps reading (although I haven’t tried that, actually). I just wouldn’t recommend anything like watching television; I would think it’s more of a distraction for the brain than a time for it to do quality diffuse-brain work. It’s been observed by many psychologists, such as Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, that exercise works really well.
It’s amazing, but by doing this, you allow the brain to make the new connections with a sense of purpose. In the background, it will be processing your idea and improving it, correcting mistakes, and bringing problems and overlooked aspects of it to your attention.
It also helps to get your brain’s focused mode into the mix. Sit yourself down with a pen and paper, and actually plan out your idea—think about it on a deeper level than you did when you initially got it. Plan it out with details. Think about the idea’s use and why people would like it, and imagine cases where it could be used. When you do this, you’ll realize flaws and errors (as well as opportunities for improvement) that your brain overlooked when it first thought of the idea. The brain won’t think about all of these the moment the idea comes about—there are too many details to process all at once.
I’d also recommend the power of sleep! While working on developing an idea, the power of sleep can be really useful. Think about the idea right before you go to sleep for the night, and the brain will occupy itself with working on it during the night. You’ll wake up the next morning and the improved idea will surface in one way or another.
Also, learn how to harness to power of daydreaming. Great minds like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dalí used the power of daydreaming to generate new ideas. When you start to doze off and daydream, you enter this surreal state where your brain exhibits exceptional and unexpected creativity, and it is a great source of ideas to tap into.
Ideas can take a while to mature. But after a few days or weeks of thinking about the idea (especially in the diffuse mode—I’d recommend spending a bit more time in that mode than in the focused mode), you’ll come out with a more developed idea. Although it’d still go through changes, the iterations would be less frequent and changes would be less erratic. Consequently, the idea would take less time to be integrated into the game, and would be a better overall addition to the game.
Letting Ideas Go
A difficult part of game development is letting go of ideas. When we have ideas, we tend to treat them as our children, so it’s hard to just let them go when retrospection or testing reveals that they aren’t working for our game.
But it’s a necessary part of game development and artistic work in general—not all ideas make it through the mill. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every faulty idea should be completely thrown away and forgotten, but it does mean we have to know when we should cut ideas from our work.
So, when an idea has shown itself to be faulty, there are two things you can do:
You can try to be tough as nails and hammer at the idea until it works.
This, honestly, isn’t a bad approach, as long as you do it smartly. If an idea isn’t working, don’t just start bashing at it with the same way of thinking that created it. Try and go at it from different angles. Or figure out specifically what the problem is, and dissect the idea to tackle that specific problem. Ask for online help on places like Reddit.com and Discord, too—those websites are very helpful.
You can cut the idea out and save it for later.
John Ceraci of the Harvard Business Review once stated that it’s good to think of bad ideas as just good ideas done wrong.
So, if the idea isn’t working, leave it out of the game and save it where you store all your ideas, like Trello, for later. It could come in handy for another game.
It’s important to realize that it’s sometimes necessary to drop ideas for your current project, no matter how painful it is. It’s for the good of the project; keeping ideas that aren’t working is detrimental to it. I’m speaking from experience in other fields, not from just a game development perspective. For example, being a hobbyist poster maker, I’ve realized that it’s sometimes better to just scrap concepts and start over for the better of the artwork.
This concept applies to dropping entire game ideas, too. Some games need specific skills to complete, so if you really want to make a great game for your idea, but you don’t have the skills (such as artistic skills) or money to do it, consider waiting until you’re better equipped to do so. Tackle other more doable games in the meantime. Otherwise, you may end up communicating your idea poorly, and a game that could have been amazing could end up being average. I’ve had to do this for one of my own games because I didn’t have the money to get an artist to help me with it. But I still plan to complete that game one day.
Ideas are crucial for any game developer, so knowing how to manage them properly can be instrumental in creating better games. Here’s a round-up of everything I’ve talked about in this post:
- When dealing with ideas, realize that they aren’t static. They live, grow, change, and sometimes die.
- Writing down your ideas is essential!
- Good ideas don’t always come while you’re working.
- Developed ideas are always better than rushed ones. Try to develop your ideas before using them.
- It’s helpful to think of bad ideas as just good ideas done wrong.
- Learn when to let go of ideas—at least temporarily—that just aren’t working.
Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about the amazing brain and how to utilize it to its fullest, take this Coursera course. It’s a great course that reveals some of the brain’s mechanics, and it could really improve your everyday life.