Exercising the creativity muscles

13 Feb
February 13, 2013


Secretly, though some people have told me that I am, I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly creative. Frequently, when I’ve sat down and thought “ok brain, give me an idea”, nothing comes. My brain looks back at me, blankly.

And I’ve never really felt like those ideas that I do generate are particularly original. Most creative work I have done is simply an iteration on another’s ideas, some mashup of the books, movies and games that I’ve enjoyed. The characters and mannerisms I write, simply voices from the past that I channel from memory.

So it was comforting to finally realize that that is what creativity actually is. As captured in this excellent, free series on the creative process and the follies of modern copyright law, everything is a remix. (well worth the watch, that one)


So I got over that fear. But I’ve also, for the last 6 months or so now, been keeping “idea journals”. Started with one for future game ideas, then later added another for story ideas I’d like to write. Either for my future games or for the writing projects I want to start tackling on the side.( For a start, I’m planning to write a novel this year. For fun and to learn about the process of fiction writing. It’s a challenge I’ve set myself, rather like my 365 days of art in 2011.)

I went and counted them yesterday. I’m currently sitting at 48 game ideas and 62 story seeds! Some better than others, certainly, but it’s quite a change. And comforting! New ideas seem to be coming more often, with practice. It’s definitely a muscle that you can exercise. And while I’m still not particularly good at generating new ideas on the spot, there are mental frameworks and tricks that, with practice, seem to make it easier.

And when that fails, I can always turn to my docs.

I’ve also taken to trying to consciously creating space for my subconscious to churn. Something I noticed, the ideas tend to come when I step back from consuming media etc. Many of them come at night, after I’ve crawled into bed, before drifting off. Or lying in the bath, or when I go for a long walk to stretch my legs.

It’s like your mind operates in different modes. I can be in input mode, taking in and consuming media, in output mode, creating things and implementing ideas, or finally in a more neutral mode between the two, a mode conducive to ruminating, to digesting ideas and letting new ones take shape in the back of your mind. You need the all three modes, of course. The input mode gives you new fuel in the form of exposure to new ideas to build on and recombine. And you need to switch to output mode to actually go about the business of building your ideas. But I’ve realized that, with all the distractions of modern life and our always-online gadgets, the time I spend in that third mode has shrunk and become insufficient. I have to consciously make time for it.

One day, maybe I’ll be able to own a specific “Ruminatin’ Room”. Furnished in mahogany and deep, rich reds, walls lined with stuffed bookshelves. Thick padded armchairs pushed close to a cosy fireplace. Tall glass windows along the north wall, rain drumming against them endlessly. The perfect place to wander the paths of the imagination.

One day.

5 replies
  1. C. says:

    Good ideas are cheap…

  2. gareth says:

    Yep. But it’s still nice to be having lots of them. 😉

  3. Diego Doumecq says:

    Hahaha, I seem to be walking the same path. For the past … 5 years I’ve been documenting my game design ideas. I started with this gigantic conceptual thoughts on a game’s philosophy, then turned those into actual mechanics and discovered that you have to write absolutely everything on paper because there’s never room for assumptions. Any rule, even if it’s only implied, can change the feel of a game instantly.
    Basically, I’ve learned that I need to start smaller … and then learned that, no, that’s not small enough.
    I’ve gone from designing tactical RPGs, to platformers and then to basic 2 player games.
    In fact the last idea I documented was based off a TCG (thanks to you) then added a hex grid, added some RTS influences and then … removed the TCG aspect xD
    Is it original? Well, it depends on your definition. Is it a remix? Fuck yes!

  4. gareth says:

    “Basically, I’ve learned that I need to start smaller … and then learned that, no, that’s not small enough.”

    Amen. People don’t know this, but I cut Scars of War’s scope by 50% *twice* when I was developing it, and it was still too big for one person.

    People ask when I will go back to developing SoW. Honestly, by the time I go back I will probably have learned so much that I’d want to redo the design anyway, and I certainly won’t take on anything that large without a team. It’s too much for one person. I spent 5 years trying to build a sort of mix between VtmB and BG2 by myself. Noble, but naive.

    I’d rather make 10 good 1-year games with smaller scope than 1 10-year game. You learn more from finishing anyway, and your process gets much more refined. If I had to start System Crash over again, man, the things I would do differently, better.

    Some things you can’t theorycraft, you need to do it, make the mistakes, learn the hard lessons, come out the other side and apply them to the next project.

    Board games have also taught me that you can get rich gameplay out of a tight, streamlined (most hardcore gamers will spit at that word, I’d probably use the word ‘elegant’ instead) design. I felt a little bit depressed when I gave up SoW, like would I *ever* be able to make something that meets my aspirations, without a huge team and a multi-million dollar budget? Maybe I should just accept that it’s out of reach, and move on?

    But no, there’s plenty of cool stuff you can do, even with a tightly constrained scope.

  5. Daniel says:

    Gareth, I used to think like you did, trying to come up with something original for my novellas. And it reminds me of that old passage: There’s nothing new under the sun. So yes my and your ideas don’t have to be original, just…creative and well executed. Cheers.


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