On brainstorming

Hi there! This blog is no longer maintained. All posts here have been migrated to my main blog, sarriest.wordpress.com.

One of the first steps in starting a project is brainstorming. Making a game is no different. I would argue that it’s one of the most crucial steps as well, and yet… I don’t really like it. And then today (1/20/16), I had the chance to observe a brainstorming method which I’m actually excited to try out.

That particular method made me reflect on myself and wonder why it resonated with me so much. What was it that made me dislike brainstorming in general, what other methods have I tried, and why didn’t I like them? What do people say are the important things to do during brainstorming, and do I really agree with them? Here are some of my thoughts.

“Write every idea down, because you want quantity, not quality. Besides, there are no bad ideas.” Quantity is definitely important at this point in time. I can’t say I totally agree with this though, especially when somebody comes up with a really great sounding yet completely unfeasible idea. Don’t get me wrong – most of the time I like the idea, but seriously, having sky diving as an activity when you’re brainstorming for camp games? (In case you’re wondering, this is a real example) Did you even consider the existing constraints we have? Why put an idea on the list when you know it has to be removed? Please stop wasting everybody’s time.

On the topic of time, a lot of the brainstorming sessions I take part in drag on for way too long. Longer brainstorming sessions don’t mean better ideas! I find that the best ideas usually come up early on, and these ideas get better when you slap a tight time limit onto the session – say, half an hour. People, like myself, get saturated after a while, and ideas start getting more and more ridiculous. This kind of ties back to the quantity not quality argument. You want your brainstorming session to be productive, and 1 not-bad-can-be-further-explored idea > 10 crappy ideas.

So how can we minimize those crappy ideas? By keeping your constraints in mind while brainstorming. This sounds almost too simple to be true, but damn it, why do so few people actually remember we have constraints? Take the sky diving for a camp game incident, for example. We had the clear constraints of the games having to take place in school, and an almost negligible budget to work with. Do you really have to throw out that idea? Or maybe a hypothetical example closer to home – what if, during a game mechanics brainstorming session for BVW1, a team mate said, “Let’s do an FPS game! Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Well yeah, except for the fact that no shooting games is an explicit constraint.

Some people might now say, but the FPS idea he had might have useful ideas for story/mechanics! I… actually agree about this. BUT. How about we distill it down to said useful ideas, and record those instead? I feel that if you’re gonna be writing ideas down, you should get to the point and write only the relevant parts down. Future you will thank present you when it’s time to narrow down those ideas.

There’s also the other point of writing your ideas down. They say the person with the pen has the most power, because he can edit your ideas or even not write them down at all. It’s true. And the problem here is that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with speaking up and saying, hey, I think you may have misunderstood my idea. I’ve seen this happen quite a number of times, and would gladly speak up for the person, except that I only find out about this after the session when said person complains to me. Kinda frustrating.

Ok, this post is starting to turn into a rant, so I’m gonna switch course. Here’s what I personally find helpful in a list, because I like lists.

  1. Define the constraints first. It makes life so much easier when you don’t have to think of everything under the sun.
  2. Write your ideas down. I think most people already do this anyway.
  3. Brainstorm individually for a short period, then get together to present your ideas, starting from the quietest person. Many a times, it’s the quiet people who have the most brilliant ideas.
  4. Take a break, walk around, especially if I’m brainstorming alone. This does wonders to clear my brain.
  5. Set a time limit and adhere to it! The sense of urgency does wonders and has the added benefit of not wasting everybody’s time.

And now I’m going to end this post by sharing the method which I saw today and am excited to try out. It happened during a class I TA for. The class was asked to come up with 10 suggestions for each of 4 categories: genres, antagonists, protagonists, and actions. A 10-sided die was then rolled for each category, and the results fitted into the sentence, “A <genre> game where a <protagonist><action> [from/to/some preposition] a <antagonist>.” Each group had a unique sentence, and then had 10 minutes to come up with a game idea.

Brainstorming for games. Look at all those awesome suggestions the students came up with!
Brainstorming for games. Look at all those awesome suggestions the students came up with!

As you can probably guess, this resulted in some really hilarious and creative ideas, especially for those groups who got the wilder suggestions (like Octo-dad) or suggestions which didn’t match (turtles purchasing Nazis, anybody?). My favorite was the group with the prompt “An RPG where a white guy with brown hair insults other players”. Their game idea? A Trump Simulator, in which the currency was tears LOL. How awesome is that?

Feel free to use the suggestions we came up with. If you want to come up with your own lists, go ahead! It would be fun to try crowdsourcing it, because people love giving crazy ideas. I might try posting this on Facebook and seeing what absurd things my friends come up with. Alternatively, just Google “video game generator”.

1 BVW = Building Virtual Worlds, the course which my school, the Entertainment Technology Center, is known for. In a team of 4-5 programmers, artists and sound designers, we have to build a world (usually a game) from scratch within 1-3 weeks, immediately after which we switch teams and repeat. There are only 2 rules: no shooting games, and no pornography.


4 thoughts on “On brainstorming

  1. Wow! It turned into quite a rant there for a bit. I guess, the silver lining is that having such experiences prepares us for the future and you seem to have a much better idea now of what works and what doesn’t!

    I really like the idea from your class! It reminds me of the elemental tetrad (story, mechanic, aesthetic, tech) that we use to generate ideas. We have definitely learnt several ways to generate a lot of ideas. Now it’s a matter of using them effectively!

    Also, if anyone is looking for crazy ideas, follow @petermolydeux on twitter. You can thank me later!


  2. I completely agree with your take on the “no bad ideas”. It’s true that sometimes the bad ideas help to find the good ones, but other times the bad ideas are just irrelevant, and once you get too many of those it’s probably time to stop. There are people who will avidly extoll the virtues of brainstorming (and there are many) but like everything else there is a limit to how much is really valuable. No matter what, there’s always some point where the ideas generated are no longer useful, when everyone is tired of brainstorming and either completely lackluster or completely inane. It does quite take a lot of inanity for a session to become 100% useless, but unless there is some way to keep everyone on track, as you said, it’s also very possible.


  3. I have experienced many of the points mentioned in the post. And I agree with most of them. A well thought out write-up.
    I would say having a few design pillars to guide our thought process is something me and my team found valuable. I couldn’t agree more on this statement – Longer brainstorming sessions don’t mean better ideas. I believe that having sometime on your own preparing for the session beforehand helps immensely. I actually wrote this before reading your list – If you research and study what you want to put forward the chances are that you will have a more constructive idea, rather than abruptly jumping into it.
    The power of the person holding a pen is REAL, this many a times goes unnoticed and ends up hurting people on your team. Understanding the team and knowing who has a hard time speaking up is important. Hence I feel completely writing down ideas before the scrutiny is important. Once the writing part is done the team can focus on axing the bad ones.
    The idea from your class is interesting; I would love to try it out sometime. Sounds like a lot of fun 


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