Why you should turn an idea into reality quickly
It can take years to go from concept to a final video game.
And yet, at the start everyone has an idea in their head what that game looks like. The concept is clear. Mostly.
The path that takes a game from concept to execution is a long and arduous one — and very similar for any idea. In any industry, when someone comes to you with a new idea and wants to create something from scratch, then everyone has the same set of problems.
The first problem is how to communicate your vision.
How do you take an idea to your manager and talk about it in a way that the manager will understand, appreciate and dream alongside you?
How do game ideas become reality?
The first reality is that for most games, the original idea didn’t come from one person. Of course, there are some game properties that started from the vision of one genius and became gaming heritage. But there are many more games that begin as a version of an existing idea, for example Call of Duty WWII. And many games that begin as a discussion between some very creative individuals.
But every game, no matter how it began, requires those that have the initial idea to communicate it. Even if it’s just to say, let’s do Call of Duty and set it in the Second World War.
This particular language problem has been solved to an extent in Hollywood by the elevator pitch. As any writer will tell you, trying to distill anything into a short sentence or paragraph is a lot harder than writing 1000 words about something. But the elevator pitch has developed into a formula for doing just that. And the games industry has something similar — with different terminology but the same purpose: to communicate simply and clearly what the game will be.
Whatever technique you use, it is important to bear in mind how it works — and most importantly how your words affect the person you are talking to.
Communication is all about the words you choose, and the affect they have on the person you are talking to. Neuroscience is beginning to narrow down how this works and when it comes to a concept, the most important factor involved in communicating it is imagination.
Many scientists believe that imagination works through a process called Mental Synthesis. This is when different concepts stored in the posterior cortex are gathered together by the prefrontal cortex to form images that don’t really exist. For example, if you need to imagine a game involving an elephant balancing a hat on its head you don’t need to have seen exactly that. You can combine your memory of elephants and hats together.
So when you pitch any idea, every word that you use causes the person listening to fire up requests along neural fibres that gather up the necessary images and combine them, ready to picture the game.
But there are two very important stumbling blocks to your idea being appreciated, loved and ultimately successful. The images that are pulled together by the person listening are from their posterior cortex and are absolutely not the same images you have in your head.
They may never have even seen an elephant in real life — relying on the images stored in their brain when they watched a documentary about elephants. Of course you might get lucky and talk to someone that has seen an elephant balancing a hat for real (at a circus for example). But that leads us to the second stumbling block to your idea: every image you conjure up comes with baggage.
Part of the reason that your idea might be shot down is that the person listening might associate the word ‘stupid’ with an elephant balancing a hat. Not because the game concept is bad, but because they think all elephants are stupid.
In fact, we have very little idea of our own associations with an image, never mind what the person listening might have. Try listing as many associations as you can think of with the word ‘elephant’ and depending on your dedication and various measures of creativity you may very well fill reams of paper. And be surprised at the results.
‘Neurons that fire together wire together’ has become a commonly used phrase in neuroscience for a reason. Our brains tend to cluster all kinds of associated images, sounds, smells and other memory concepts together.
So when you are describing your idea to someone, their brain is lighting up like a christmas tree and all kinds of images and associations are popping into their head (even if they are not consciously attempting to retrieve them). Not to mention the distractions that are plaguing them at the time — after all if they’re hungry then your elephant idea might be associated with a burger. Until they’ve had lunch that is.
This is why working together on a creative idea requires a lot of communication. Because when you say ‘elephant’ and the person listening is thinking ‘burger’ it may well be worth asking them how they see your idea now. And after lunch.
In fact, checking each others vision is important throughout the development of an idea simply because associations change. Images change. And once the initial idea is agreed, it becomes a memory in everyone’s head that is also subject to change. New associations arrive that attach themselves to the original images and new opinions on what works and what doesn’t constantly updates a person’s perspective on an idea.
Writing a design document is often a good idea for this very reason. At least the words on a page will stay the same (as long as no-one edits them). Even if the associations everyone has for those words change as time goes by.
And when the original design needs to be adapted, it is key that everyone involved understands and checks their concepts with each other so that the new words on the page reflect everyone’s understanding.
Communication, more communication and yet more communication is required.
Which is why games often adopt an agile development process.
Concepts are fluid — not just because the bedrock of an idea might change, but because the perception of the words involved changes. And the best way to check that the concept works is to create reality as quickly as possible.
Then you can check whether an elephant balancing a hat really works as a game.
Simon P P Williams is COO of Mitenkai — Find Your Way