Kicking Creativity Into Gear: Settling on an Idea

When I was a teenager and aspiring filmmaker, I quickly learned that if I ever wanted to film the screenplays I was writing in my spare time, I needed to work within the creative constraints imposed by my limited resources.  I couldn’t film car chases, or gun fights, or include stunning aerial shots of urban environments, or even the suburban enclave to which I was confined.  While at first these limitations were frustrating, I came to believe that some degree of limitation forces creativity to thrive, leading to a better final product than offering unlimited resources to a creator.

Now as an adult and aspiring game developer, I don’t need to worry about procuring period costumes for a medieval epic, but a whole new batch of limitations guide my decisions about which projects are worth my limited time as a developer.  I’ve sketched out a number of ideas over time, looking for something which strikes a good balance between feasibility, novelty, creativity, and commercial viability.

Of those four facets, I care the least about commercial viability.  I’d rather make something interesting, which never sells, rather than something unoriginal which sells like gangbusters.  This is helped immensely by the fact that I’m currently a student, not a professional whose financial future rests on the commercial success of the games I work on.  I also figure that, in the worst case scenario, whatever I create will be a useful portfolio piece when I try to market myself to software companies of any stripe.

I probably care the most about novelty.  I want to create something that doesn’t exist in the world, because I want to create games that I’ll want to play.  My target audience is me, because I know exactly what I like, and what I don’t.  I don’t have any interest in creating a game that already exists, because if the game exists, I’d rather be playing it, rather than painstakingly recreating it.  Game development is fun, but it’s not that fun.

But enough about the nebulous factors that influence my creative choices—your mileage will vary dramatically, depending on your own priorities—let’s get to the practical considerations that constrain my choices.  First, and most obvious, I’m just one person.  I also have no budget.  This means I can’t do things like hire artists, or musicians, or anyone to help with production.  Some of you might say, “But couldn’t you offer someone a share of profits, or exposure for their work?”  In short, no.  This project is so far removed from profit, that an offer of profit sharing is indistinguishable from asking someone to work for free (aka. “working for exposure”).  So at the start of the day, and the end, I’m just a single person trying to make a game.

This is obviously a constraint in and of itself, but also means that I need to consider my specific skill set, since it will determine all the work that I can accomplish.  I’d put my relevant abilities at roughly 60% programmer, 20% game designer, 10% writer, 9% graphic designer, and 1% artist.  This is an incredibly rough heuristic, and probably wildly inaccurate, but it’s the best guess I’ve got at my own abilities.

So based on those abilities, any game I develop on my own should be systems heavy—focused on designed mechanics and their implementation in code—with less of an emphasis on writing, and minimal requirements for fancy visuals.  I have exactly zero background in 3D art, so while I could comfortably code a 3D game, I shouldn’t develop one on my own, since I have no idea if I would be able to create adequate 3D assets.

You’ll also note that my abilities don’t include music.  For that, I’ll have to rely on the public domain, meaning any game that can reasonably use music published before 1923 will have access to a significantly larger body of work, compared to a game that would rely on works released to the public domain (or on a commercial-friendly Creative Commons license).  If you don’t intend to release a game in the United States, the year where works enter the public domain might be more recent than 1923.  Of course, you’d be cutting yourself out of the single largest game consumer market, so…

The public domain, and Creative Commons, also provides a significant resource for game art, so even someone with zero art skill could scavenge all their art assets online.  However, more so than with music, this does present a challenge in creating a coherent visual style (I’m sure a musician would tell you that creating a coherent, freely sourced audio style is just as challenging, I’m probably just revealing the depths of my ignorance here).  Regardless, the 1923 rule of thumb holds true for visual art as well.

As a corollary to the code-focus mentioned above, I also decided I should focus on procedural generation, rather than bespoke content.  While procedural generation isn’t easy, a good systems focused game with randomization can theoretically offer infinite playtime, with finite content creation.  The same can never be said of a linear, narrative focused game.  This isn’t meant to devalue linear, narrative focused games as experiences, and if your own abilities lend themselves to the creation of that type of game, go for it!  But in my case, I can punch above my weight as a lone developer if I focus my efforts on systems based games.

That being said, my time is a finite resource, and as much as I enjoy a game of staggering complexity like Dwarf Fortress, I’m not ready to commit to a single project as my life’s work.  I also enjoy the challenge of finding heuristics with which complex interactions can be simplified.  This ended up cutting short several ideas which required a multitude of interconnected systems, all operating at the same time, in order to satisfactorily simulate the game world.

After dabbling in 3D development of bespoke content for a game jam, I quickly recognized that my abilities would create a lackluster experience of insufficient length to be worth playing (or purchasing).  Eventually the constraints mentioned above kept leading me back to the idea I finally settled on—a 2D, document focused, procedurally generated detective game, utilizing music and art that would fit with a 1930’s timeline (when it would be conceivable that art and music from the 1910s and 1920s would still be in circulation, much as people still enjoy the creative work of the 1990s and 2000s today).  This still has challenges, especially in the random generation of interesting crimes, which a player can solve.  But these challenges are fascinating ones, which I look forward to tackling, even if they ultimately result in failure.  They’re also challenges which I’ve evaluated as easier than many of my other ideas, which often quickly grew to Dwarf Fortress levels of complexity.  And succeed or fail, my work on these algorithms should, at the very least, look good on a resume, or as part of a portfolio.

So there you have it—a somewhat rambling look at the thoughts, considerations, and creative constraints that led me to grab onto this particular game idea, and hold onto it for at least a couple weeks of exploratory development.  And with that, it’s time to move past this self-reflection on my thought process (or, dare I say, procrastination and navel-gazing), and get down to the dirty business of making this idea a reality.

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