How I Find/Steal/Grind Out My Game Ideas

Ideas are cheap, but you still need them.

I get asked all the time, both by friends and people online, how do I come up with my ideas? How do I use my delicate brain goo to come up with enough stuff to fill dozens of games?

The answer is: I subscribe to a service in Omaha. Every month, I send them ten bucks, and they send me an envelope full of ideas.

(Of course, I stole this joke from the late, great Harlan Ellison.)

When I say this, they give me a funny look. Then they laugh. Then they say, "No. Really. Where do you get your ideas?"

(So thanks for nothing, Harlan.)

The Answer Is Boring

They just come to me. Sometimes I sit in a coffee shop and make up ideas as fast as I can, picking out the good ones. Other times, they come to me in the shower. Every game I've ever written was years of my life, all based on one sentence that just appeared in my head.

"What if an evil surface Empire threw all rebels into a giant underground prison?" I did that. "What if the ancient Celts rebelled against the Romans with the help of faeries?" I did that. "What if a cult of wizards made all sort of magic life forms, which then rebelled?" I did that. "What if a bunch of short people went on a long vacation to throw some jewelry into a hole?" I did that.

But ideas are easy. Almost everyone has ideas. Any pro will tell you, ideas are cheap. Execution is difficult.

Let's Get Executed

So this article is about the gritty part. This is about how I take a raw one-sentence idea and use it to build a fantasy world. Which I then use as the setting for a computer fantasy role-playing game. Which I then sell for money.

The way I start a game is: I make the barest outline of the plot. And then I spend months building the game world. Plot. Characters. Lands. Culture. Maps. I spend many hours filling many pieces of paper.

And when this is done, and only then, do I write one line of computer code.

Here's the thing: Ideas are cheap. Implementation is everything. So I'll show you what happens just AFTER the elevator pitch: The first steps to convert an idea into an actual product.

Designing Our New Game

Our next game will be called Queen's Wish 2: The Tormentor. It is the sequel to our surprisingly successful game Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. The plot breakdown, without giving too much, is as follows:

"You are the bored prince of a mighty Empire. One of your client states has been neglected for many years and is on the edge of rebellion. You must go there, investigate the problems, and decide how to fix them and what the fate of this land will be."

This is going to be a very plot-heavy game with lots of lore, characters, plotlines, and choices to make. Which means I need to do a lot of world-building.

Let's say that the game takes place in a land called Rokaj, The Ro for short. What do I need to dream up?

My Pyramid of World-Building

Yeah, "Pyramid of World-Building" is a dumb term. Sorry. But the process is sort of like building a pyramid. The general ideas are at the top. The countless specific details that make up the game are the base. To start actually making this game, I need to make up all of these things, from big-picture down to nitty-gritty:

1. The Story. What is the rough storyline taking place in the game? How does it start? What are the chapters/story beats? How can it end? (There are many possible endings.) What is the tone? (Funny? Horror? Political?) How does this fit in with the overall story arc of the trilogy. This is the vaguest "What is this thing about?" question.

2. The Nation. Split the job into smaller pieces. I have a vague nimbus of a story. I need a land where such a story can take place. What is its name? (The Ro. Yay! Progress!) What, vaguely, is its culture like? What is its history? Do they invade people? Do they do science? Are they nice or mean? How does this land generally feel about things?

3. The Provinces. Split the job into even smaller pieces. When I know the nature of the entire environment of the game, I can break the Ro into provinces to fit the story. Each chapter has a land to take place in. But what are these provinces called? What makes them distinct from each other? How are they run? What monsters live there? How do they act? How will they feel about the player? What does the map roughly look like? Most importantly, what is the major problem in this province that the player can fix? (Or make worse.)

4. Inside the Provinces. Split the job into yet smaller pieces. I have chopped The Ro up into manageable pieces. But they are still big pieces, and I need to chop them up bite-size. What are the social and physical units that make up each province? How many cities? What are those like? What are the organizations, cults, religions, criminal bands, governors, Empire outposts, etc?

5. The Individual Locations. Split the job into the SMALLEST pieces. These are the actual locations where the game will take place. Where are the dungeons, and what is in them? Who are the characters in the cities, and what do they want? How many rooms are there? How big are the rooms? How are they furnished? How many copper pieces are in the pot in the corner?

Note that only the last bit of part five is the stuff I deal with in the day to day business of writing the actual game. When I say a box has a rusty dagger in it, there was a long, LONG journey I had to take to get there. Who owns the box? Why do they have a dagger? Were they your friend, or did they try to kill you? And why?

These are all the questions I have to answer to make my stories. I think it's clear why this process takes months.

So How Do I Answer the Questions?

Now we get into the very personal parts of my creative process. This is how I do it. You'll need to do it differently. All artists have their own processes.

The first step, of course, is to spend a lifetime of reading, fiction and non-fiction. Of cramming my head with art, ancient and new. Of studying current events and politics.

In other words, I have tried to understand, as much as possible, how humans work. How do they act, what do they want, and how do they get it? The best way to make a story that works is to make a story that feels true.

(This may seem like a weird tangent, but I'm actually answering the "Where do my ideas come from?" question here. So it's worthwhile.)

When I sort through ideas, I look for two things: They have to feel true. And they have to be interesting. I don't worry about what Twitter will think of my games. I don't waste time worrying about if this is a topic I am allowed to write about. Interesting and true. That is what I want.

So, I suppose, when you want to know where the actual ideas come from, it's there. You can train your brain to be attuned to how people function. Then your brain can generate believable and interesting human behavior for your characters.

However, you must fertilize your garden with a lot of different food. If you get stuck, try reading Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. Or The Oresteia.

So that is the high level answer to the question: I get plot points by thinking about them, and I consume a lot of sources to inspire me. Pretty obvious stuff, I know. The tip of the pyramid. But how does it actually happen?

I Work Around the Flaws of My Brain

There's a problem, alas. I am coming up with all of these ideas with my brain. My aging, fallible, finite, increasingly smooth brain. You can't force ideas to come out of a brain. You can encourage them, but the Muses work on their own schedule.

Me? I can only make two or three ideas a day. That is all the juice my creativity gland can squirt out. That is why the design process is dragged out over so many months. I collect my daily ideas while taking a shower or walking the dog or getting coffee. Then I write them down. Then I stop forcing it.

When really big ideas, like major storylines, come to me, I don't write them down. I just let them sit in my brain for a week or two. Only then, if I haven't forgotten them and time hasn't made them look stupid, do I record them.

Once they are on paper, though, I am making them. Could I come up with a better idea next week? Maybe. But at some point, I have to make a decision. If I keep second guessing myself and putting off decisions, I won't ever finish the game.

What Order Do I Fill the Holes In?

When answering all the questions on the layers of my pyramid, there is one vital question: What order do I do them in? Do I finish the top level, then finish the next level, and so on?

No. This part is key. The ideas come on their own schedule, but they also follow their own paths.

For example, in Queen's Wish 2, I had to make up five provinces. The first two were pretty easy. But I couldn't come up with a cool hook for a third province. No ideas were coming.

This happens constantly. When it does, I switch levels on my pyramid. An idea in any level can then inspire ideas on the other levels, above and below.

Concrete example: When I couldn't come up with an interesting culture for a third province, I switched all the way to the bottom layer. I thought, what would be a cool thing to have in this game? What might be fun to play?

Then an idea drifted into my mind. Judgmental ghosts. A few dungeons where there are spirits who pass judgments on things, and you can prove your worth to them or just trash them and take their loot.

Then I thought, well, what sort of a culture would have that? Would it be led in part by angry ghosts? That seed grew into a fully developed design for the third province.

If I ever get a decent idea, I don't care where it came from or what it is for. I'm swamped enough designing these games as it is. If something seems useful, I can't afford to throw it away.

Then I Just Worry Away At It

Every day, I try to get my 2-3 ideas. I start this process long before the previous game is done. If I have a slow day, I don't force it. I hope to do better tomorrow.

Again, this is just my process. Artistic processes are very individual, and yours will be different.

There you are! Many, many words for a very simple question. Building detailed, interesting fantasy worlds is hard, but it's worth the effort. It doesn't take a lot of time, it's a lot of fun, and it leads to a richer, more interesting game.

I don't want to name names, but I've played a lot of AAA games lately that didn't do this work. Their worlds were vaguely defined, and their endings often didn't make sense.

This seems like a real waste. Making a coherent world and story really isn't hard. It doesn't take long. And it can get people into your game far more. The Last of Us isn't a classic because of its gameplay (which is fine, but standard), but because of its characters and story.

If you don't go that little extra to have a good story, I think you are leaving money on the table. I don't care if you use my process for making worlds. But you should have some process. It makes money.


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