Idea Churn

Eddy Webb
Eddy Webb
Aug 23 · 3 min read

(Originally posted to my blog: October 21, 2010)

One of my design coworkers at CCP, who will remain nameless in order to preserve their dignity, told me a dirty little secret: video game designers really aren’t that clever. They told me that they just keep tossing out idea after idea and turning them over and over until something good comes out of it.

I then told them a dirty little secret about writers and other creative professionals: We do the exact same thing.

One of the best things I’ve learned about brainstorming and idea generation is that it’s always worthwhile to write down the first idea that comes into your head, but only so you are never tempted to use it. Anything you’re trying to think of an idea for something, the obvious idea is almost never the right answer. Even if you’re intentionally going for something iconic, it’s always better to put some form of twist on it. The line between iconic and cliche is incredibly fine.

I’ve come to think of it as idea churn. It’s technically a form of brainstorming, but it violates a key rule. When you’re brainstorming, you’re not supposed to judge anything that comes out of it — it’s only later when you’re harvesting the ideas that you make judgment calls on how valid the ideas are. The reason behind this is that it frees people up from thinking that ideas are good or bad, and any scrap of inspiration might lead to something cool later on.

In idea churn, though, you’re pre-judging some of the ideas. When you sit down, you’re accepting that the first handful idea are going to be shit, so you’re only writing them down so you can get them out of the way and dig deeper into the concept. It’s a way to allow yourself to go through the obvious and cliche ideas and recognize them as such before you dig deeper into the concept.

For example, let’s say I wanted to write a story about a vampire. If I were to sit down and do idea churn, the first few examples might be something like this:

  • Main character was made a vampire against their will
  • Main character is a mortal that looks like the vampire’s long lost love
  • Vampire lives in a lonely castle
  • Vampire comes from Eastern Europe

Many of those ideas are extremely overdone. However, by putting them into the first part of the churn, I can get them out of my head and start digging down into other, more interesting ideas.

Another side benefit of the churned idea list is that you can look at them and find ways to subvert the stereotypes. Looking at the list above again, maybe there’s an interesting idea in which the vampire comes from a different part of the world. Maybe the main character doesn’t resemble the vampire’s long lost love, but a hated enemy. Taking a portion of an old idea and twisting it is an easy and powerful way to come up with new and interesting ideas.

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