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Ideas are worth more than you think

This article discusses why and how we have come to the situation that more and more games are looking similar to each other. Also, the article discusses why we have come to undervalue ideas so much over execution and what can we do about it.

This article was originally published on my blog at June 16th, 2016.

Image courtesy of Gratisography 

Okay. Okay. OKAY! I get that you don't have time to spend on generating ideas. You have to keep focus on making games because in the end, games are all that matter. Right? After all, how many times you have been told that "ideas are worth nothing, execution is worth everything"?

I get it, I've been there too. And I've heard that same clause a hundred times. A couple of years ago, I was heading the development of mobile games in my previous company. I was so obsessed with the execution and making a "top grossing game" that there was hardly any space in generating original ideas. Every deliverable had strict deadline and Kanban board was so much full of backlog items that the team had real challenges in keeping up with a schedule we had promised to our publisher and platform holders.

In addition, we were obsessed with tracking our competitors' (e.g. Clash of Clans and others, above top 100 grossing titles) games and their features. There was hardly any room for generating features that were NOT in those other games too. We used tools like App Annie and Gamerefinery to statistically validate that we were making games that would fit into the "magic formula" dictated by the top grossing games at that time. We did it for our investors and for the owners but also for us because we really thought that it was the right kind of process to make hit games.

It was until I had left the company that I realized how unfulfilling the whole process was. And how ashamed I felt because I was the one leading the process. I mean, it was like we wanted to people to produce nuts and bolts in the factory pipeline. And the people who were working at us reminded actually artists like van Gogh, Gauguin, Coppola etc. who were trying to make Starry Nights, The Godfather or the likes. The whole process was totally nuts!

And as you can see from the App Store with dozens of Clash of Clans clones, very similar game icons and other phenomena, it is evident that we were not the only ones who were adopting this kind of process in the industry. Why so many App Store game icons look the same? Because we are too obsessed with learning best practices than coming up with our own ideas.

Gallery of yelling heads. We are in this situation because we are too obsessed with following "best practices" than coming up with our own ideas.

Creating ideas is hard

So why we do this? I think it's partly because coming up with ideas is hard. It's much more easy to see what the top-performers have done and do something similar. Also, it's probably due to undervaluation of ideas because it's said to us over and over again that "ideas don't matter, execution does".

That's why we tend to go to App Annie to look for similar games to get some inspiration and to produce similar features that are already in the existing games. Or when we Google best ways to perfect the game icon. That's why the end result is a pile of yelling heads with similar gameplay icons topped with different visuals.

What I want to show you that ideas DO MATTER. They don't matter to VCs if you are trying to get a funding based on your idea. Nor do they matter to potential recruiter if you try to convince her to employ you because "you have so great ideas". You have to understand that the people who say these things, come from a different perspective than you who are making games.

Ideas matter.. to YOU

But ideas do matter when you are working your ass off in your company. Ideas start to show their power when you are short on time, money, resources - everything. Ideas matter when someone equipped with the right mindset comes up with 10 great ideas for how you can get the next outsourcing gig, a month before you should pay to your employees. Ideas matter when someone comes up with a great, implementable idea for the next product for your two-man studio with low amount of resources. Ideas matter when someone came up with great, low-cost marketing ideas, day after day, to boost the launch of your product. Ideas matter to programmers who come up with clever ways to make the code more reusable.

Ideas mattered when Chris Benjaminsen - a developer of HexFRVR - who came up with awesome little game idea and generated ideas to maximize its distribution. Or when Rober Topala released his famous game Geometry Dash.

The truth is that ideas matter in every stage of game development. They matter during the early phase of concept development and they matter during the polishing stage. And beyond. You have to have an idea what kind of particle effects to use with that specific animation event. Or how you can optimize those particle effects in your game to make it run smoother on end devices. Once you have the idea, the rest is implementation and testing does the idea work. The rest is pure, hard, work.

The Ugly Truth is that ideas don't just show up out of the blue. In order to come up with one great idea, there's typically twenty not-so-good ideas. Every great artist had dozens if not hundreds of horrible ideas before they came up with one exceptional idea for another Clash of Clans, The Starry Night or The Birds. But creating ideas is hard. Creating ideas is literally creating something out of nothing. And since we are lazy, comfort-seeking human beings, we usually want to avoid hard things.

Opening the can of ideas requires muscle!! Opening the can of ideas requires muscle!! 

In order to maximize your creative output, you have to have a system in place so that it's more convenient for you to take the time to come up with ideas. Every day. And all that it requires is 10 minutes. 10 minutes a day to become an idea machine.

Think it like a gym program. It's 10x harder to motivate yourself to go to a gym if you don't have a program. When you have a program, you don't have to think about what moves to do at that given time. Or how much weight to lift at any given time. Or how many reps you have to make. You have all that planned in advance. You just do it, execute it like a robot. Like a machine.

Generating ideas is just like building up a muscle from another perspective too. First it's really hard to get that first set - heck, even the first rep done. But after a while it gets easier and easier. Soon you'll notice that you actually like it and don't wanna miss the sessions. Generating ideas is like that. At first, it's really, really hard. But day after day it gets a little easier. Once you notice the benefits of generating ideas, you are hooked. The benefits of keeping up in the schedule of coming up with ideas is that you are going to come up with better ideas. And not just better ideas to your game, but to everything - closing deals, creating better organization culture, motivatin employees - everything.

So I want to challenge everyone and ask that should we perhaps invest those 10 minutes a day into actually generating ideas? 10 minutes away from going to the usual route of creating yelling face icon for your game. 10 minutes a day from implementing that traditional energy mechanic into your free-to-play game. 10 minutes away from looking that top 20 grossing list of games and trying to do something that everyone else is doing.

What do you think? Are ideas undervalued in these times over execution? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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