Mining For Gold: Brainstorming and Game Development

Written by Thomas Cox and Matthew Malecha from Trailhead Games

Creating a great game involves four phases:

  • Brainstorming
  • Development
  • Holepatching
  • Edgecrafting

This post is focused on Brainstorming and Development, as we cover the other topics in separate blog posts.

Get those minds open, there’s some information we’re ready to shove in...

Phase 1 - Brainstorming

This is the process of coming up with ideas that might one day turn into a game (if they’re lucky). There are a variety of ways to approach brainstorming. Generally, successful brainstorming is based around the belief that there are no bad ideas, and that each idea provides a new possibility to be incorporated. Often times more ideas yields more balanced, creative, well-thought games.

The brainstorming process:

When you’re brainstorming for games and activities, you might ask your staff these kinds of questions...

  • What kind of game do we want to create? How long will it go for? Where will we play it? How many people will be playing?
  • How could we make our inside joke about ________ into a game?
  • What resources do we have a lot of?
  • What do you think being a pirate/lion/wizard/racecar driver (etc) is like?
  • What have been the best games we’ve had at camp?
  • How can we make _____ appeal to boys and girls? Older and younger?
  • What kind of game do we need?
  • How can we get all our campers working together?
  • What would a cool game mechanic be?

And you might ask your campers these kinds of questions…

  • What’s your favorite movie? Book? TV show? Fantasy novel?
  • If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?
  • If you could live in any time period, which would you live in and why?
  • What’s your favorite activity at camp? Why? What else could we do with that?

The brainstorming process is the first step to creating a great game, and will yield (given enough time and commitment) some ideas and a vision for how the game might look. For example, you might emerge from the brainstorming phase with something like:

“I’ve got an idea for a game where the campers are colonists trying to colonise Mars before their oxygen runs out.”

From this basic premise, we can start to think about putting some meat onto the skeleton by developing the game.

Phase 2 - Game development

The next step is game development, which involves:

  • Thinking through the rules
  • Putting together primitive game documents and instructions
  • Compiling lists of materials needed
  • Working out how many staff are needed to run the game
  • Clarifying the objectives
  • Tweak the rules to get the right balance of challenge vs reward
  • Elaborating the story and work out how you’re going to present it to the players
  • Establish a vision and feel of the world you’ll be playing in
  • ...and loads more

Game development turns the idea into a game. By developing an idea into a game people will be able to start imagining playing it. This is the phase where you create the bulk of your documents and instructions to enable the game to come to life.

The time for thinking about logistics and mechanics begins during this phase, and once you’re in the development phase it’s ok to say that some ideas don’t fit the vision. This is the time to begin selectively pursuing ideas and imagining how each one fits into the overall vision of the game. Envision the crew as a funnel: with more and more ideas/questions, the game becomes a clearer and clearer vision.

Questions to ask yourself during the game development phase include:

  • What comes to mind when you think of __(theme)_ ? Which of those can be made into game dynamics and how?
  • For this idea to work what do I need?
  • What characters, dynamics, and settings makes sense to reflects the story of the game?
  • How does the layout of the gameworld influence the objectives or challenges?
  • What will be the hooks in this game that grab the players? How can I highlight those aspects?
  • Is it runable on the scale we want? What would we need to make it so?
  • How is the complexity? What information will players need in order to understand and enjoy this game? What information would someone need in order to run this game as it is envisioned?
  • Is the payoff satisfactory for the amount of effort players will need to put in?
  • Why would this game succeed at our camp? Why may it fail?

Throughout the game development phase there are going to be many problems that need to be addressed, which will be dealt with as they arise. Approaches for dealing with these problems are addressed in our post Troubleshooting From The Hip, about holepatching and edgecrafting. You may need to preemptively address issues and flaws within your game mechanics during the game development phase as you begin to understand how the game will work.

Brainstorming and Game Development in practice - an examination of Into The Deep.

Into the Deep from Trailhead Games

To best illustrate how we’ve made brainstorming and development work for us, I’d like to walk you through those phases in relation to our game, Into The Deep.

PHASE 1 - Brainstorming

Into The Deep started with these simple ideas:

  • I want to create a game that includes the Kraken and a Giant Squid (my favourite animals/mythical creatures)
  • I want to create a game with different boundaries than our regular Capture The Flag boundaries
  • I am excited to create a hybrid game with a large runaround component
  • How can I get harpoons involved?

I took my fascination with deep sea underwater monster creatures and thought they might make good fodder for a game. I also wondered how I could pair this with my desire to create a game with unconventional boundaries.

PHASE 2 - Development

I developed Into The Deep through this kind of thinking:

  • Why would players come into contact with Giant Squids and Krakens? They’d need to go underwater in some fashion --> Why would they go underwater? Maybe to collect treasure --> Who else is interested in treasure? Pirates. Maybe pirates could be the villains, or the players could learn to become pirates!
  • If it’s a game based on the ocean what would the game world look like? The sea is not square, so maybe circular boundaries would work, surrounding an island that the players start on. When you go into the water it gets deeper and deeper so maybe we could have shallow water and deeper water sections. Obviously the deeper water is going to be more dangerous. If it’s more dangerous it also needs to be more worthwhile. The deeper water needs to contain more gold.
  • People can stand and swim safely in shallow water but it is tough for humans to survive in deep water. Unless they have diving equipment. Maybe players can level up to divers or acquire diving gear in some way to simulate in the game what happens in real life?
  • How can I make the deeper water creatures more dangerous? Perhaps they can be harder to tag, or more dangerous when they tag a player --> in order to do this I will need a lifebelt system rather than a tag system, since I can’t scale a tag system. What if shallow creatures have to pull a life tag but deep sea creatures only need to tag? --> what would happen if a person was bitten by a shark (they’d likely need to go hospital). Maybe the “jail” can be a hospital instead where players go to recover after being tagged/losing all their lives
  • OK this game is starting to sound really fun to me, but what about younger kids who might get scared or not want to run around? There’s got to be another way of earning treasure/gold for your team... maybe there’s people on the Island that can give quests or rewards to players who do things for them.
  • What information do I need to write down and communicate in order to ensure that the vision and nuances of this reasonably complicated game are understood by everybody involved?

It was through a concentrated exploration of questions like the above that I was able to find the gold in Into The Deep (pun intended).

Overall, curiosity and exploration will get you a long way in game development, as you will be forced to generate satisfactory answers to continuous questions such as:

  • Why?
  • How will this work?
  • How can I make that work?

Keep asking yourself those questions and you’ll create a great game...eventually.

Remember that the goal is to create a playable version of your game idea that others can understand well enough for feedback and more development. Once you start playing your game, rule changes and improvements will become clear, and the players will be able to give you feedback about what needs to change (and how!).