After reading Damion Schubert’s excellent article on pooling ideas in May 2008's Game Developer magazine, something came immediately on our mind: the
problem, with designers, is not exactly the will to get ideas from everyone but
how they gather it, filter it and analyze it to model the game experience.
Here is the very first thing any Junior Designer should learn when he starts working or during his education: “a designer is not hired to be a source of ideas, and everyone can have ideas”. Sometimes those ideas can be even cleverer than the designers’. As designers, what we learn with experience is to spot those ideas, develop them and integrate them into a coherent design. The designer in his ivory tower making his game and a 500 pages game design document is a past and deprecated way to work which needs to be changed in our always fluctuating industry.
To sum up, a designer is not hired to be a source of ideas, in fact, everyone has ideas. And it is a healthy process to contribute to the game an entire team is building.
The exact amount of designers applying this motto is yet to estimate, but, to us, the main issue is more something like: how exactly are we getting everyone’s ideas?
Democracy in the creation process is a very seducing idea. Programmers have ideas to enhance the gameplay, creating some very nice effects. Artists see very nice sceneries, nice accessories for the main character all with very fluid and complex animations. It is indeed a very strong team building tool and it keeps everyone interested in the project. However it can be difficult to do it well: pooling ideas might be inefficient, time consuming and can even give people the feeling that they’re not actually heard or listened to.
It can also give the feeling that the management doesn’t know what to do or where to go. Of course this is false.
Here are some advices to help you doing that a better way and smoothly incorporate the process in the company’s culture.
Today, we’d like to propose you a bunch of simple ideas and tips we empirically gathered in our small structure. It is of course easier to talk about “team-wide pooling” when your team isn’t in the hundreds. However, some of these tips could be quickly applied as a start for your creative-antitrust policy.
The first thing to do in order to be successful at having your team be creative in your project is to explain them exactly what the game is. Quite simple isn’t it? It’s not…
You need to explain them what is important in your game, what the core mechanics are, what is just eyecandy, what the goals of the game are and what kind of experience you want to create with it. You need also to detail the boundaries, the limits (age, platform, rating, style etc…).
Everybody gets more creative under well defined constraints. And to be creative in a constructive way, your team must know what the game is about before feeling confident about giving out any idea.
Printing large posters of the game’s design guidelines and/or the game’s pitch is a common and useful way of having people remember everyday towards which goal they are working together.
The issue explained in Damion’s article is that Junior Designers hold their ideas too much, they want them to be perfect before presenting them to their leads or to the team. This, of course, may lead to a waste of time (especially if the idea wasn’t what was needed for the game).Any designer should be able to present his ideas even if they are in a very rough shape and the designer doesn’t have to be ashamed to do so.
If a game designer (who should be aware that ideas belong to everyone) ignores this fundamental rule, then don’t expect a programmer or an artist to be able to let go with his ideas in public, or even think that his ideas are worth something at all. Of course they’re wrong. Every idea, even a stupid one, can create an illuminating idea inside another person’s brain.
When asking anyone for his ideas, there’s a chance that his first reaction will be: “What’s the point? The lead designer/creative director/designers/CEO will take all the credits for my ideas!” or “Aren’t designers there to have ideas? I’m no designer”, “Hey! That’s the designer’s job no?”.
It is then very important to integrate into your company’s culture that designers aren’t there for having ideas. Instead they are there for making ideas successful game mechanics combined with other ideas inside a predefined canvas or framework (editorial note). As a manager, it is also very important to educate both designers and the team about that fact and about letting everyone express himself freely in the appropriate context.
Having this done doesn’t mean that people will get involved. They’re many reasons for this to happen: lack of motivation on the project, project’s theme doesn’t fit personal tastes, global direction or management issues or project initial creation methods and ideas amongst many others. It is a very difficult and long process to achieve but it’s definitely not impossible!
It’s true that looking for employees’ ideas acts as a morale booster. However, it can’t be considered as an efficient team building method, you won’t get much from your team if the overall morale is low or if they’ve been used to not being considered as meaningful contributors.
In any case, if you haven’t tried to get ideas from anyone else before, be prepared for a slow start and empty mailing lists or idea-boxes.
Speaking of idea-boxes, what should exactly be the medium to use to communicate with your team? There are many options at disposal and creativity is often rewarding. A new way, or a fun way to get ideas is often a good start, and will bring you feedback quickly.
For example, we once organized an image-based brainstorm. During one week, people could print and pin images on the following subject: “What do evoke the words Cheetah, Monkey, Bear and Raven?”.
the pie chart at the end of the week
This is a typical subject to start with: you do not need any experience or particular skill to answer to this question and to participate.
The final result? A circle, divided in quarters, had been put on a wall in the designers’ room, and we were surprised by the number of answers we received, even from people who actually never came to the designers’ office before! Not everyone participated but there were enough participants to get significant results.
Of course, this is a one shot event: asking people to print images each week on a different subject would work two weeks, and then you’d run out of motivation and the Amazonian forest would also run out of trees.
On the long run, here are more basic tools you can use to get your team’s ideas.
Pretty obvious, isn’t it? But, fellow designers think about how many times someone came to your office to tell you his wishes? Wishes which were not about “more blood” or “more guns”?
“The designer’s office is always open” often results in the same persons coming again and again: other people have a job to do, are too shy to talk or to come to your office and sometimes the laziest ones just don’t want to make the extra fifteen meters to come to your office! So writing this on your door is a good intention but, I’m sorry to tell you, very inefficient.
As a designer, it is your job to get out of your office and talk to people. Take a pen, paper, or nothing at all, and talk to everyone. What they think about the game? How can we improve it? How to make it funnier, if possible?
Forum / Board
A forum seems to be a nice place to get ideas, discuss about them, and give some feedback. It has the advantage to be asynchronous and people can watch topics whenever they want. However, our experience shows that it isn’t as efficient as it could be. At least it gets inefficient quickly without solid rules.
A forum is a very common tool nowadays. It has the sheer advantage of requiring nothing more than a browser, which everyone is the first thing they open at 9:00 am. However, it will be open and read between the latest game industry news and art/design/programming forums, which means one thing: it will be considered part of The Actual Internet.
Web-users have bad habits they’ll import on your internal forum: trolling, senseless arguing, Godwin point (in the videogame industry, the Godwin point appears to be “Cool”) and if you make the mistake of using a forum that shows post counts, post count races… Internet users also have the tendency to cross read messages without reading everything which may create tons of useless misunderstandings.
In the end, you’ll have a dead forum, with corpses of design feedbacks, with no-one there except managers and designers. A no man’s land.
Of course, it is a bit exaggerated. Well managed and with enforced rules, an online board can still be an efficient way of gathering ideas and feedback. Coupled with company’s news, current project’s news and art department posting regular updates about what they are doing is a great way to create a positive loop and strengthen an internal community.
However, if you seek this solution only for design and ideas gathering sake, we think that the time consumed by everyone on such a tool is not worth the return.
With the experience, we advise you to use your forum as an announcement board. Why not combine the advantages of other idea-gathering tools with the visibility and flexibility of a forum? For example you can create polls after you analyzed a few good ideas which are worth putting in the game to see which one is the most appreciated.
If you want ideas to be collective and anonymous, then you have to something that really forces them to be?
The anonymous idea box
The box is the easiest way to respect the following motto: “anonymous, collective and easy to talk to”.
You can create both a paper based system or an
electronic one (based on emails for example). You can promote both systems by
making a little game: when the box reaches a certain number of ideas or papers
everybody gets pizza. This is just an example but it can be a very motivating
tool to get your box full of ideas.
Of course, it will be soon an empty box if ideas put in it are considered as lost papers. A clear and well known feedback process is very important. You need to come back and show to your team what you did of the ideas. One simple way to do it is to write an email with the numbers of ideas gathered in a kind of mass email to the company. It is important to keep track and inform people about what is done with the ideas, are they integrated into the design? If yes, how?
Another important point with the idea box is the respect of the “ideas belong to everyone” rule. Never consider an idea as yours, never present it like that or you’ll lose rapidly the trust you earned in the team with this system. Remember an idea belongs to everybody and a game is the creation of a team of talented people, not a sole person. So good that person can be.
Just like any other methods to get feedback and ideas, you must setup rules or you’ll get everything except valuable ideas or feedback. Rules can be displayed on directly on the box (rules, themes etc...) or via an auto-reply email (in case of electronic idea box).
Brainstorms are daily bread for designers. In every brainstorm, you should think to invite one or more person who has the technical or artistic expertise on what you will be brainstorming about.
However, there’s another way of including the team’s input in your brainstorms: do massive ones.
Invite everyone who wants to come, state the subject clearly, and be sure to be able to moderate the brainstorm, because it’s going to be a mess!
This is not exactly the best way to get ideas, of course. But it is a funny way, a motivating way, and a real mean to make speechless people talk. You will be surprised of how this shy programmer of whom you only ever heard “hello”, will be shouting “GUUUNS” in a room full of eccentric artists. This kind of meeting can also be used to cast a mass poll for YES / NO decisions (knowledge of the crowd). If there is a short balance between the available options it means that the question needs to be further investigated.
Of course, this isn’t a long-term tool either. You will find extremely difficult to keep track of every proposition, and the most bizarre thing happens: people who usually talk much won’t be the first contributors in this kind of meeting. And often, everyone will be wondering: “what’s the use?” afterwards.
It will definitely happen if you don’t manage to do the second part well: feedback.
Organizing large brainstorms can be associated with a poker game because there are too much parameters involved to control the full process of it. However you can determine the outcome of the game by studying the people who are invited and how they react when you’re inviting them, are they happy to participate? Are they willing to share ideas with you and with others? You also need to analyze in real-time what happens in the brainstorm and see which ideas are warmly welcomed and which ones are received coldly. This may look like a mind game but the truth is that it is a mind game.
EVALUATION AND FEEDBACK
The first rule of feedback is: you don’t do direct feedback! Someone’s idea has to be evaluated before you say anything about it. Even if the idea is awkward, or late, you should always use an “official ideas channel process”. Why? Because it means that the idea is worth something. It will not be discarded without thinking or subjectively and it will not bypass the process because it’s coming from the boss or one of the lead.
Ideas are kept safe somewhere. It is, of course, the most time-consuming step. In fact, this process is vital to create a working gathering process, every ideas needs to be treated equally. This also means that you have to find the right structure and communication channel to validate or discard ideas.
Using filters (such as time, budget, technology and skills constraints for example), ideas can be sorted and can be validated or discarded. Ideas can be validated through playtests, prototypes, a meeting with the management, or any tool you may use.
The next important step is to communicate the results, explaining why this idea has been discarded and why this one has been validated (doesn’t need to be long anyway). You can reduce the amount of work if the team members understand what you’re talking about and how the process is executed. This can be understood by everyone if the filters and validation process are clear (for example with a sticky post on the board).
Last but not least, to make a successful ideas gathering system, everybody in your team or company must learn the following rules (it has to be applied from the boss to the tester):
1°) An idea doesn’t mean its implementation. Having an idea actually represents 1% of the job.
2°) Everybody has ideas, good ones and bad ones. So don’t be too keen on criticizing it can happen to you.
3°) An idea isn’t personal. It is most of the time the result between events and other ideas. So it is not important if it is discarded.
4°) Discarding your idea doesn’t mean that we’re throwing it away.
5°) Discarding your idea doesn’t mean that you’re incompetent.
6°) Giving ideas may solve a locked situation, yours or the one of one of your colleagues. It can be your turn one day, it is then very important to participate.
7°) It is not a competition! It is rather a group effort to find solutions.
The conclusion will be short: make idea pooling fun and feedback serious. You have to motivate people so they talk to you. You have to talk to them and you have to make them feel that their opinion counts for something, be humble. This is the very first step to succeed here.
The second step is to effectively use the ideas provided, and this has been covered by Damion Shubert in his article: using anyone’s idea should be as natural as using your own beloved ideas.
Co-CEO & Creative Director of Fishing Cactus
Former lead designer at 10Tacle Studios Belgium
Game designer at Ubisoft
Former Game Designer at 10Tacle Studios Belgium