Why Your Game Idea is Just About Worthless

Most game developers have a "yeah but" game. As in, "yeah we had this great idea but then this happened....". 

And what follows is a series of disasters that caused brilliant ideas to go horribly awry. The culprits can range from broken pipelines and processes to flakey technology and tools to sheer outright incompetence by staff or management.

In the game industry, you hear a lot of cocktail party pitches for new video games. "I have a great idea for a game - it'll be about fighting plaque inside somebody's mouth" slurs the Dentist as he half-spills his Gin Gimlet on my shoes. You can debate the brilliance of any given idea - but I would argue that it's pointless since the value of ideas is just barely North of worthless.

This flies in the face of how most people like to think. The Big Idea is a celebrated cult - come up with a big enough idea and it's a game changed. But the cold hard reality is that a fair idea implemented well is worth more than a brilliant that never gets realized.

Ed Catmull, one of the brilliant founders of Pixar, has this to say about ideas: "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works." Given the creative track record of Pixar, this is man whose opinion you probably want to respect.

Game designers tend to be full of ideas. It sort of comes with the job description. Many of them are even good ideas. The problem is that ideas aren't nearly as valuable as we want to think.

Let's be clear - great ideas are in fact great ideas. They are to be cherished and sought after. When they are discovered, they are to be nutured and cared for. But the problem is that an idea is gossamer. It has no reality until someone makes it so. The idea of an umbrella won't keep you dry in the rain. And that's where things get sticky. Your idea is only going to be as good as your ability to implement.

And implementation is where so many game developers fall down. Pre-production is often a never-ending fountain of ideas and brainstorming. Sure, it's great fun - but so many of those ideas then get chucked when reality starts to set in. When you realize that your engineers don't like working with your designers. When you discover your tools are completely broken for creating your content. When it dawns on you that your team thinks of management as the enemy. When you do the math on the amount of time the publisher is going to give you to develop - and the sums come up woefully short.

A great idea can change everything - if the idea gets implemented in a way that does justice to it. Now, there is a curious effect with truly great ideas. They have a tendency to be more robust and can be treated a bit more roughly. The truly awesome ones do often have a knack for surviving some of the most horrible mishandling. Dugan's Law of Great Ideas states that the greater the idea, the lower the standard of just sufficient implemenation is. But what a waste of a great idea to only just barely realize it.

You will never justice to the great when it is served by the mediocre. You will just squeak by. This means that creative managers should be focused on their process and team culture rather than just on chasing ideas. Find the truly motivated individuals and multi-talented players for your team. Give them autonomy and the room to explore (and make mistakes). Hold them accountable to standards of the highest quality. And then build an organization founded on trust and respect between departments. Put in place processes that get results - and practice, practice, practice.

Do that for a few projects and maybe a few years - and then your team might be ready to truly handle a great idea.

Image by Kyle May by Creative Commons License


  1. Yep. Ideas are only as good as your ability to implement them.

    A similar but opposite problem I've seen is the notion that you can ride the coat tails of someone elses idea or design. "Don't innovate, just copy game X and it'll be easy!"

    But, unless you have a team with experience in game X, you are essentially innovating anyway. You'll make all the development mistakes and fall into the same traps as the originators of the idea. Just because you've played God of War doesn't mean you know how to make it.

    Like you say it all boils down to your ability to execute. Have good processes and pipelines, strong management and an organized team and you're likely to succeed regardless of the quality of the idea, either your own or another's.

    Few and far between are ideas great enough to save a disorganized project.

  2. Yeah, the "we'll just copy X" is quite the phenomenon. I suppose it comes from developer fatigue - you just can't stand making yet another RTS, so now you're going to go and make an FPS. Never mind that nobody has any experience doing that.

    I think a company can branch out into new areas - but it has to do it very very carefully. Maybe make a few key hires to get the experience you need to help balance out the team.

    To my way of thinking, having a good team (at all the levels) is really the same thing as having the ability to execute.

    So I suppose its ironic that the first thing that cuts cut to eliminate expenses is...you guessed it...

  3. I'm thinking of all the people now suing Cameron over "Avatar" claiming that he "stole their ideas": there's a reason why you can't copyright ideas. (And that the ideas Cameron used in Avatar are part of countless sci-fi, fantasy and historical narratives also indicates how unoriginal these self-proclaimed originators are.)

    I think the "we'll just copy x" mindset has always been a fundamental part of the game industry - just look at all the copies and sequels that every successful game has had (e.g. Pac-Man: there's a whole wiki article just on Pac-Man clones, and they hardly covered all of them). Back when games were really simple, it wasn't too hard to make an accurate copy of a game; thus, traditionally, it was a sure-fire way to make (some) money without taking any creative risks. Don't have any ideas that you're sure will be hits? Do a wholesale copy of an existing success. From the money side, copying "x" is still encouraged as a strategy. (I've helped put together presentations for publishers to sell a project, and it was made clear that what the publisher wanted to see was how the game would be just like existing top-selling games...)
    Issues of implementation aside, I think one also sees so much (partial) copying is that when pressed for time, it can be really tempting to use an existing, proven, set of game design mechanics and then make minor deviations from it. If the production cycle is too short, developers don't have time to try out designs that don't work; they end up cribbing designs from other games. This of course creates its own problems: I've seen bad designers try to make games out of bits and pieces of designs that individually worked fine, but that simply didn't work together at all.