As an artist, I’m always trying to steal from talented people.
I used to go to the same places for inspiration — startup founders, writers, and artists. But I’ve realized there are other, hidden corners of the world filled with creative people that I can learn from.
Recently, I’ve been looking at the gaming industry. To make an indie game, it can take 3–4 years and tens of thousands of dollars. If you’re new and without funding, that means lots of canned beans and credit card debt.
To survive, successful game designers must have good ideas. Not just one or two, either. They have be brilliant on demand.
Worth stealing from? I think so.
I recently found an article by Nick Bentley, an award-winning game designer. He has a creativity technique called the 100:10:1 Method. It helped him make some of his most successful games.
Let’s thieve him naked and apply his ideas to our creative processes.
1. Quickly Think of 100 Ideas
I quickly write 100 short game concepts in a notebook. In less than a week. Even in one day. I don’t give much thought to quality; I include whatever comes to mind, even if it’s dumb ... I keep spitting out ideas especially after I feel “spent”.
Okay, all I have to do is come up with a lot of ideas.
Why is this important? Why don’t I just take one and run with it?
To find a good idea, have a lot of ideas, and go past obvious ones by forcing ideas after you feel “all out”. It takes practice because we’re used to stopping when we feel our ideas are exhausted. But it’s a time-honored and well-tested way to break free from habitual thought patterns. When I do it right I get into an almost-stoned state where my thoughts scramble and bend in odd and original ways. I goose this effect by combining the technique with other formal techniques for disrupting normal thought-patterns…
The key takeaways here are:
- Do it fast. Aim to get your ideas down in as little as a day.
- Ignore quality. Everyone thought the iPod was dumb when it came out. Some of our best ideas sound crazy in the beginning.
- Exhausted? Keep going. Weird, creative magic happens when our brain gets tired.
- Compare and contrast. You get a better idea of how good an idea is when it’s next to 99 other ideas.
If I really want to steal Nick’s techniques, I can’t just read about them. I have to apply…
Let me try listing 100 writing ideas:
Whew. It took less than an hour to get everything down, but the last 30 or so were rough… I had pace around the house for several minutes of in my underwear before my brain started working again.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ll run out of things to write. But knowing that I can sit down and do this — pump out 100 ideas in less than an hour — is reassuring.
I’m not out of the game yet.
2. Pick the Best 10/100
I pick 10 of the 100 concepts and try to turn them into actual games. Just crude working versions. I work on all in parallel.
Hmm… Why am I choosing ten ideas here? Why not just pick one and be done?
Nick gives three reasons:
- It prevents attachment. “When I focus on one game, I can get attached to it, which makes it easy to delude myself about how good it is. When working on 10 games, I have no darlings.”
- You get stuck less. “When I get stuck on a problem in one design (I always do), I work on another. Later, I return to the problem with new perspective and can often solve it. Going back and forth between 10 games, I always have at least one on which I can make progress.”
- It protects against failure. Short ideas often end up being quite terrible once explored further. Nick mentions that we “have to develop [ideas] to judge them.” When I write, I sometimes won’t know an article is a flop until I’ve already written 1000+ words.
Okay, so it’s best not to choose one.
But how do I choose my ten? Do I pull them out of a hat?
To filter out the best ideas, Nick asks himself following questions:
- Am I interested? It’s hard to stay motivated or making something good if you aren’t interested in it. This is always the first (and most important) filter.
- Will my users want it? Nick wants people to play his games. You have to be interested in what you make, but so does your reader.
- How long will it take to make? Sadly, creators don’t have infinite time or infinite resources. We have to eat. Not everyone can spend the 16 years that Tolkien did.
Using these filters on my article ideas, it’s easy to eliminate some of the topics on my list. №86, “scientism”, is out — too highbrow. №93, Pareto learning, is out too — making the visuals will take too much time.
I want topics that (1) I can write effortlessly about, (2) have interesting backstories, and (3) fit the audience on Medium.
Going down the list, I ended up with these:
When I went back and reviewed these ideas, I could feel the pieces connecting in my mind — narrative, value to the reader, structure, etc. I looked at them and thought: Oh, I can write about this right now.
Pretty cool stuff.
3. Complete the Best Idea
I pick the most promising game of the 10 I’ve developed and playtest+polish it till I’m sure I can’t improve it. Then I make a list of its weaknesses and improve it more. Then I’m done.
Nothing special about this last step. This is where most people start. But by doing the first two steps — getting creative and then filtering twice for bad ideas — we’ve optimized our chances for success.
All that’s left is to refine.
Okay, time for some read-ception.
When this article was almost finished, I went back and applied this step. I noted all the weaknesses of the introduction with annotations:
Then, I went back and edited. If you read this far, it must’ve gone pretty well :)
There’s nothing special about the 100:10:1 Method. It works because it’s built on the principles of creativity. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a video game, designing a startup or just baking a new kind of pie — the same key principles apply everywhere.
To teach yourself these key principles, Nick recommends Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking and Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques.
“Both are among a tiny handful of books which have noticeably changed my life for the better.”
Now get out of here and get creative.