Game Jam Success 3: Generating Ideas and Design

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The time is here – the game jam has begun. Where do you start? What do you do?

If this is your first jam, you may start with feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you were excited before, but now this is real.

You might love the theme. More likely, you hate it. Ideas may flood to your head, or you may suffer a complete blank. The limitation might feel like a massive hurdle.

Regardless, you must now dive in. The first step, as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it, is this: “Don’t panic.”

A reminder and disclaimer: These methods are my own, and not the “scientifically proven correct” for mastering a game jam. They’re based on personal experience and tinged with personal bias. Do whatever works for you, but see what you can take from these suggestions.

Brainstorming and Ideation

(1) Understand the theme and/or limitation from all possible angles.

Themes are often short and open to broad interpretation. Drop the theme into Wikipedia and see what you find. Usually, you’ll get a disambiguation page, from which you can explore multiple articles related to the theme.

Ludum Dare 42 had the theme “running out of space.” This has a specific meaning as a common phrase, but we can also break down the words. “Running” could be taken literally, and “space” could mean outer space. Alternatively, you could think of “running” like a running faucet.

A theme may seem specific at first, but by twisting and prodding it, you can create a unique interpretation.

Keep track of interpretations as you go. Whiteboards (whether physical or digital) are amazing tools for creating ideas. Alternatively, you can also sketch out notes in a notebook or word processor. Whatever tool you use, we’ll call it your “idea board.”

(2) Brainstorm ideas without editing yourself (or teammates).

Brainstorming is a way to create initial ideas. Keep everything that pops into your head and avoid editing yourself, no matter how ridiculous, zany, impossible, or over-scoped they sound. Ignore limitations in resources, skills, or experience. Think about those later.

Consider games you love and pull ideas from them. Be shameless, but also twist and combine mechanics to make your own. Sprinkle in the theme to find the best of all worlds.

Maybe it’s the run ‘n’ gun of Contra but with artwork and music emulating the roaring 20’s. Oh wait, that’s Cuphead.

Maybe it’s Ninja Gaiden but instead of special powers, the player gets an extra jump by hitting anything with their sword. Oh wait, that’s The Messenger.

Maybe it’s the tough-as-nails platforming of Super Meat Boy but the player can cling to walls, which feels like climbing a mountain. Oh wait, that’s Celeste.

Take ideas from outside video games, as well. Mechanics from board games and card games often translate well, as do ideas from sports. Straight conversions from these can be popular, but the slightest twist can add extra flavor, such as in NFL Blitz and NHL Hitz.

Many great games come from work inspiration. Harvest Moon came from farming, Pipe Dream from plumbing, Kirby’s Dream Land from vacuuming, and Papers, Please from the bureaucracy at international checkpoints. Farming, plumbing, vacuuming, and checking documents may seem boring, but with some extra game elements, they can be great fun.

Do you have a passion outside video games? Use your knowledge from that passion to create something distinctly you.

Discuss your ideas with the community around the jam in a forum or chat. Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. Even if you and another individual or team develop from the same basic idea, the resulting game will be very different. Look at how similar games like Contra and Mega Man are to each other in core concept, but how radically the final games differ.

(3) Be honest about the remaining ideas. Throw out anything you wouldn’t want to play.

Now that your idea board is chock-full of game concepts ranging from utterly hopeless to brilliant revelation, you need to narrow down. This can feel overwhelming (see a pattern here?) if you have a ton of ideas, but we can break it down into small steps.

Before doing anything, back up your work. Save an extra copy of the document, copy it down somewhere else, or take pictures of the whiteboard with your phone. I often do this last one because my tiny whiteboards require multiple runs, anyway.

Eliminate all the ideas you don’t like, for whatever reason. Maybe the idea feels massively out of scope (beyond what you could accomplish in the jam), or sounds like no fun, or is half-baked and you can’t see where it’s going.

Don’t put too much effort into this step. Use intuition. Remember, all the ideas are safe in your backup. You can resurrect them in the next jam or game project.

When you’re at least okay with possibly doing any of the remaining ideas, move on to the next step. You want to aim for about four or five ideas, and definitely not more than ten.

If you eliminated all your original ideas, maybe you were a bit too harsh. Revert to the backup and take a different approach: pick out the “best” ideas relative to the others. Even if you don’t think they’re “good,” the next step should help find a juicy core on which you can build.

(4) Develop the remaining ideas to absolute minimum core mechanics.

Rephrase each idea as core mechanics. Core mechanics are the driving actions of the game, the activities in which the players engage to play the game. These are always verbs.

In Super Mario Bros., the core mechanic is jumping. In Mega Man, the core mechanics are jumping and shooting. In Final Fantasy, the core mechanic is using menus.

Core mechanics say nothing about a goal (how to “win” the game) or conflict (how to “lose” the game), although these are important pieces to consider while searching for the idea’s core. They’re also not the only mechanics in the game. The games we mentioned also involve collecting items, battling enemies, and traveling to a specific destination.

Core mechanics also say nothing about theme. By boiling an idea down to core mechanics, the connection to the jam’s theme will probably vanish, unless the theme is related to mechanics.

Once you have the core of your ideas, consider which kinds of activities you’d like the most. The jam will go smoothly if you make a game you want to play. If the same core mechanic appears multiple times, congratulations! You have a preference for a specific mechanic and that’s what you should focus on for the jam.

Pick a single idea from your list and move on to the next step.

(5) Form an idea fitting your resources and the scope of the jam.

Now we finally consider logistics. For each idea, work in thematic elements and additional mechanics from the original brainstorming. If you had the same core multiple times, you can combine multiple ideas.

For each idea, determine if it fits your scope by asking the following:

  • How many assets will you need to create? Consider visuals, music, sound, code, writing, level design, and so on.
  • Do you have the skills to create everything the idea needs to be created? If not, can you learn those skills within the jam’s time frame?

Remember to always plan for less than you think you can do. If you have extra time in the jam, you can always add more to the game, but you can’t add more time to the jam. And it never hurts to have time for testing and polish.

Write out your final themed idea in your idea board with as much or as little detail as you like.

Next Steps

You are now free to design your game. There are almost as many ways to form a game design as there are game designers, so we won’t cover that step in any detail, for now. Perhaps future blog posts will explore some methods.

Here are a few possible methods:

  • Full game design document. Typically, shorter is better. If it’s just for you, fill it with all the slang, abbreviations, and shortcuts you like – whatever gets the idea across to future-you. Here’s a template and another and another.
  • Boards, checklists, etc. on websites like Trello or Freedcamp. These are oriented more toward project planning and progress than toward the design itself, but they can be used for both.
  • Mind maps using software like FreeMind or websites like MindMeister. My initial ideation often involves FreeMind. It’s a great way to branch ideas in an organized fashion.
  • Random stuff on a whiteboard. This is my typical approach to game jams, although I often supplement it with post-it notes and notebooks.

Each of these tools can be useful in its own context, and often the best approach is to combine multiple methods. If you’re new to game dev and don’t know what to use, try different methods for different jams and see what works for you.

In our next article, we’ll consider techniques for rapid development. Our goal is iterate on the initial idea and design as much as possible during the jam, to create the best game prototype possible.