Design Trek III: The Search for Inspiration

(No, this isn’t the 3rd in a series, that was a bad reference to Star Trek)

At the end of last week I wrapped up my work on a contract I’d been working on since last fall. My part of the project has been passed on to the next team of developers who will wrap up the final features. It feels great to be able to get back to work on my own projects, and I look forward to seeing the game launch when it’s done.

As I am returning to working on my own games, I thought a post about the time between projects would be in order. I often get asked by players where I find the inspiration for my games. I’m sure we all have different answers for this, but I thought I’d try to explain mine.

Where an idea comes from is difficult to answer. Inspiration comes in many forms for me, and I’m never quite sure where I’m going to find it. Sometimes it comes from playing another video game, sometimes a movie, sometimes discussing politics with friends.

One of the things that I think is most misunderstood about inspiration is the idea that you don’t need to work at it, that it will just come to you in a flash. I don’t believe this ever to be the case. Inspiration takes work, it takes dedication, and it takes patience. You need to work at being inspired. You need to work at your ideas. An artist might do dozens of sketches, then several small paintings working on an idea before finding the direction they want to take the final work. We too must actively look for ideas, experiment and refine them. That flash of inspiration only comes after you’ve done the research, the work, and given it all time to let your brain process the ideas.

Well that’s great, you say, but where do I begin? If it takes all this work, where does the work start? These are some of the activities I’ll do when I’m actively looking for inspiration:

  • read a book about a new subject
  • watch a film
  • go for a walk in nature
  • go for a walk in the city
  • play a video game
  • play a board game
  • go to a museum
  • go to an art gallery
  • write something
  • draw
  • build something with my hands
  • go out for a good meal
  • cook something new
  • go out with friends and/or family
  • walk to the river and listen the sounds of the water
  • start writing ideas down

You might have your own list that’s totally different. However, I believe that one of the most important items on that list is the last one: write down your ideas. The act of forcing yourself to think about a problem will lead to inspiration. It is not easy, it may even be actively difficult, but working through it will lead you in new directions and to new solutions. The more ideas you write down, the more ideas you will have. The less you work at actively thinking of new ideas, the fewer ideas you will have. This is why inspiration takes work.

But perhaps most importantly, you need to be constantly open to new ideas. You need to be aware of when an good idea is speaking to you, and know to follow it. That means resisting the urge to make assumptions and snap judgements about an idea. It means talking with people who disagree with you. It means debating without shutting out. It means empathy. Because finding a new idea often means looking at a problem from another point of view; understanding someone else’s feelings; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

As game designers, we need to be engaged in the world around us. Games are about interactivity, emotion, and narrative. The world is full of all these things, we just have look for it, and work at it seeing it.