Creative Block

After failing to meet my deadline for #iDevBlogADay on my second week, I was put to the end of the waiting list. Just over three months later and my turn is back up! I’ve taken the Sunday slot, which has a history of not lasting very long, so we’ll see how many weeks I can keep this up…

For my (triumphant?) return I’ve decided to not write a technical post. I was going through a list of technical things I could write about, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I decided I’d rather write about game design today, and perhaps more generally, about the creative process in general. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the problem of creative block.

What I’m talking about is getting stuck on a creative problem; being paralyzed by creative decisions. It happens to everyone. And if it hasn’t happened to you, then, well, I envy you. The block can happen in a number of ways: you have too many ideas and can’t decide which one to look at first; you have lots of ideas, but now they all seem terrible; you have no ideas at all; you have a few ideas, but they all seem equally interesting; and on and on.

For me, I run into these problems most commonly at the start of a new game. I’ve just wrapped up a previous game where I’ve spent the last month or two dealing with the tiniest minutia of polish and wrap-up and marketing. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do “big picture” thinking and come up with a new concept. It’s usually at this point that I’m also in my post-release “blues” period, coming back down to reality from a post-release high (perhaps I’ll devote next week’s post to this alone). I start going through my various notebooks and sketches looking at all the ideas I’ve written down and looking for those few that scream out for more exploration. It’s at this point where I’m most likely to become stuck.

“What if all the ideas I have written down are terrible?” “What if none of these are doable?” “What I spent several months building this game and no one buys it?” “What if…” “What if…” It’s easy to get sucked into a place where you can’t make a decision and spend all day reading twitter and other iDevBlogADay posts in an effort to avoid actually doing something. [wink]

Of course, this sort of paralysis can come at other points in the project too: you’ve got a working prototype but you’re uncertain how to take the next step into starting to turn it into a game; you can’t decide whether your game data structure would be better represented as a graph or as a b-tree; you can’t decide whether the game should feature zombies or pirates or both; you can’t decide whether your pause button should be green or red; and on and on. So off to twitter and your favourite RSS reader you go to avoid the problem.

Now I should probably state that I don’t have a solution. Oops, maybe I should have said that before you started reading this far. But honestly, if I did, I’d be on the motivational speaking circuit instead of making indie games. However, I have a few tricks that I try, and usually one or two of them will help me push through a rough spot and let me get on with it:

1) Make a Decision and Go

This is probably the hardest of the things I’m about to say, but this is probably one of the most useful. Flip a coin, write the options down on paper and draw one out of a hat, or just pick whatever seems most reasonable, then start working on it. Often after a few hours of working on anything it’ll get you out of your own head and the ideas will start flowing again in some kind of helpful way. The process of building something instead of thinking about it may also expose problems you hadn’t thought about, or even better, solutions you hadn’t thought about.

Got too many game ideas you like? Pick one, build an eight hour prototype, and see how it feels. If you don’t like it, try another one. Repeat as necessary. Don’t know if your pause button should be red or green? Try both and see how they feel in the game. Can’t decide on a data structure? Pick one and start coding. Five minutes in you may realize that the one you’ve chosen won’t support the API you need and you can start over. But at least you’ve moved on.

2) Use Tools

In 1975 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a deck of cards to help get through creative block called The Oblique Strategies. The idea is that each card has a bit of text on it to help you think about a problem in a new way. When you’re stuck on something, you draw a card at random from the deck and it might say something like “Only one element of each kind.” The idea is to force your brain to think about the problem in a new way.

There are Oblique Strategies iOS apps available in the app store if you search for them. I’m not sure which ones have the actual rights to use the text and which are in violation of copyright, so I’m not linking to any of them.

3) Think About Something New

If I’m stuck on a game idea and I’m just not sure if I can make it work, sometimes it helps me to think about a different game for a few minutes. It’s a similar strategy to using the Oblique Strategies. Except in this case, I have a little script I go to that generates a random game idea. I’m making this script available on the site now. You can find it in the right-hand sidebar under the Pages header, called “Game Idea Generator“. Go play with it for a couple of minutes and come back…I’ll wait here.

Back? Good. Moving on.

4) Talk it Out

Still stuck? Talk it out with a friend. Even someone who knows nothing about what you’re trying to do. In fact, sometimes that helps. They might be able to offer suggestions you wouldn’t think about. Even just saying the problem aloud to yourself can sometimes help (though can also lead people to believe you may not be right in the head). Talk to a friend, your husband or wife, your cat or dog, or post a question on twitter or your blog and see what people say.

5) Take a Break; Do Something Inspiring

If all of the above don’t work, maybe it’s time to take a break. I like to try to find something to do that will inspire me in new ways: play a video game, watch a film, read a book, do some sketching, go to a life drawing class, listen to music, go to an art gallery, go for a walk in a forest, go for a bike ride, talk to someone you love, grab a coffee with a friend. The important thing is not to dwell on the fact that you’re stuck. Get your mind onto something else. Have fun. Be inspired in new ways and the block will become unstuck. Just remember: you do need to come back to the problem at some point. Don’t let taking a break become taking ten breaks.


Making games is hard work. We all know that. But we also know it’s the best job in the world. We make games because we love what we do. But we often don’t talk to each other about the hard parts, about the frustrations of getting creatively blocked, the financial challenges, and the emotional ups and downs. Maybe it’s time we started doing that a little bit more so we can help each other out.