Brainstorming in Public

by Patrick Curry


Game Developer Conference 2008

In 2008 I presented a talk at GDC titled "Brainstorming in Public: 52 Game Ideas in 52 Weeks". The talk wasn't so much about the weekly 52 game ideas generated over the course of 2006, but instead about what I learned from the experience, how I refined my creative process, and why I believe brainstorming in public is a good idea. GDC Vault has made the audio recording available on their website:


All right, everyone. Welcome to the hour long brainstorming session. I'm Patrick Curry from Midway Games, Chicago. I'm very pleased to be sharing the stage with my esteemed colleagues from Sony Europe. Each of us will speak for about fifteen minutes, and then we'll do a joint Q&A at the end, so hold your questions.

I'm going to talk about brainstorming, but a different kind of brainstorming: brainstorming in public. Usually when you think about brainstorming, you think about gentlemen in white lab coats in deep underground facilities, coming up with the next great thing, the next big idea. Frankly, I think that's bullshit, and I'm here to talk about why if you brainstorm in public, you'll not only come up with better ideas, but more ideas.

This is a concept or technique I stumbled into, or rather hit face first like a concrete wall, when in 2006, I resolved at New Year's that I was going to become a better game designer. And I decided that I was going to do that by coming up with more game ideas than I had ever come up with before. Not only that, but I was going to post each one to my website for the whole world to see. Now my intention wasn't so much for the whole world to see these game ideas, as it was my friends. I had tried this kind of thing before and I decided that this time, I needed the support of my friends, so I sent an email to everyone saying, "Hey, I'm going to come up with a game idea every week and you're going to keep me honest and keep me to it."

Somehow, through some absolute miracle or strange twist of fate, I managed to do it. There's 52 game ideas on my website now, You can go check them out if you like, but I'm not here to talk about the game ideas themselves, I'm here to talk about how I did this and the lessons learned from the complete insanity.

After about the first or second week, when I was completely out of ideas, I had to start finding ways to come up with new ideas and start coming up with them really, really quickly, because believe it or not, not every idea I ever came up with was good. After tallying all of my notes, I had over 250 ideas from 2006, but only 52 of them I actually deemed good enough to put in public and put my name on.

It was really important that I be focused with this, so I set some ground rules publicly that I said okay, all of these ideas are going to be new. They can't be old ideas. They can't be ideas that I've heard from someone else, they have to be original. They have to be good, which was very a difficult bar to hold myself to. And they couldn't be from work, because frankly, I was completely paranoid that my employers were going to find out about this project and shut me down, so I couldn't do any ideas that had anything to do with shooters; I was working on Stranglehold at the time, but not only that, they couldn't be anything like any idea that Midway had in production at the time, so that really pushed me into some strange new places.

I had to focus. The first technique is I had to really focus in on what I wanted the ideas to be, so that as I was processing five, ten ideas a week, I could quickly say this is an idea that I want or not. So when you do your brainstorming, I encourage you to decide ahead of time what you're looking for. You don't need to know what the answer is, but you need to know what your question is, what you're striving for, so really focus in on what you want so that as you're swimming through this idea soup, this idea fog, you know: "Oh, I like this, I don't want that. That's someone else's, let me spend some more time and process this idea."

Now, I put the rules up publicly, but the thing I didn't post publicly is I had "seed ideas." I knew that I wanted to create totally new ideas, so I brainstormed a list of about almost 50 seeds, and these were ideas that were just one sentence, like a game for grandma, a game for my sister, a game with just one button, a game for the DS, a game for the Wii. I used these seeds and I constantly came back to these seeds to grow and foster new ideas that were getting very, very focused.

Next up is mandatory brainstorming, and this is where the public part really came in the most, because by putting this on my website, I knew I was setting myself up, that if I failed, if I didn't post all 52 ideas, that I'd be embarrassed. Frankly, I don't like being embarrassed. I don't think anybody does, so I made it where I absolutely had to post these ideas. I called myself out, I challenged myself, and I said "I'm going to do this."

Not only that, I work best under deadlines. Left to my own devices, I'll noodle, I'll draw, or I'll spend way too much time on a single idea. By saying hey, every week, roughly every Sunday night, there's going to be a new idea on my website, I made it where I absolutely had to do it. If I hadn't had the public involved, if I hadn't had people reading my website, commenting on it, sending me emails, the mandatory part would have been out the window and I probably would have stopped at about the third month when it got really, really difficult to do. So I think that's a place where you can foster the public to really force yourself to do something, because it then became constant brainstorming.

When I was trying to come up with one idea every week that was good enough and new enough to put on my website, I couldn't just come up with game ideas when I was in a good mood or when I felt like it. I had to do brainstorming when I was angry. I had to do brainstorming when I was sad and when there's tragedy in my life, and that took me to new and emotional places and new game ideas that I probably wouldn't have come up with if I was just like: "Yay, everything's great! Let's come up with a game idea!" No, there were really, really bad days in 2006, and that made for frankly interesting new game ideas.

Also, I became an idea sponge. Every aspect of my life, everything I did, whether it was attending a funeral or riding a bus, that became source material, because I needed those ideas so desperately (so I didn't become embarrassed), that I was just sucking them in and constantly processing these game ideas.

That leads me to the third technique, which is no camping. Everyone in this room, you have ideas, and not just for games, for stories or characters or worlds or just a new gun in a game. I like to get an idea, and I like to treat it like my "precious" and I like to hide and not tell anyone about it, and pet it and grow it. Frankly, sit on it like an egg and have it be a big secret. I don't think that makes for good ideas.

I have a couple ideas like that, that are interesting, but I came up with them two, three years ago and now someone else has already done them; they're outdated. I think that the really new good ideas are further out there. They're not the ideas I have today. I have to get to them. I can't camp, and I have to go process them. So like I said, I think there's this idea fog that you have to crawl through. I think that lots of ideas are up front, blocking your view, and there's some very distant, really great ideas, and you have to get those bad ideas out of the way. You have to process the obvious ideas that everyone comes up with.

First couple of months on my website, pretty obvious. After that, some combination ideas; ideas that were kinda obvious, but with a twist on them. But after I processed through them and crawled through them and wrote them up and let myself stop thinking about them, it freed up my brain cycles that were stuck on one idea, I could get to those really new good ideas that were way out there, deep, deep in the idea fog. I couldn't have done it if I was camping.

After those really good ideas, you get to the bottom of the barrel, and just like I think that coming up with game ideas when you're unhappy or when you're sad, or when you just don't feel like it, is productive. It's also productive to have to spend ideas on games that you don't necessarily like, games that you don't necessarily think are the best thing, and if you're a professional game designer, chances are you've had to do that once in your career, so it's good practice.

The fourth technique was that I couldn't have a bubble. Now, obviously, I'm posting these game ideas in public which meant that there was virtually no bubble, and one week of ideation wasn't a lot of time for me to grow ideas. But I had to really reach out. While I said that this was not a work project and I avoided talking to people at work about it or writing down notes and ideas at work about the ideas, I had to really reach out and break out of my bubble, my little secret brainstorming lair and talk to friends, talk to family members, talk to game designers at other studios that I trusted, and just see if they liked the ideas I was coming up with. If I couldn't get a reaction out of them, if they couldn't say, "Hey, that sounds cool," or "Oh yeah, what about this?", then it wasn't a good idea.

If I told three friends that: "Oh, I'm thinking about writing up this idea and it's about ..." What's one of the failed ones? Oh, body building. I really wanted to write up a body building idea, for some reason. No one was interested, so I just had to ditch it, so I really had to break out of my bubble and get this feedback from people before the ideas were out on the website. Then the super valuable feedback came once it was out in the public and people came out of the woodwork, and who knew so many people wanted to play a game where you were a werewolf eating French villagers? I was quite surprised, but turned out to be one of the most popular ideas.

Then the fifth technique I used was just "no negativity." When you're trying to come up with ideas this fast and this many of them, you just can't say "no." So while I wanted feedback from friends and from the public about if they liked an idea, or if they didn't like an idea, I didn't talk to my friends who were negative and who shot down every other idea just because that's their nature. They're not mean guys, but that's just their attitude, so they were just out of the loop, and I just focused on positivity and production and frankly getting through as many as these ideas as quickly as I could.

What happened? ... Before I go to the next slide. Well, I got all the ideas and frankly I feel like I got better ideas than I ever had before. Out of the 52 ideas that are out there publicly, I think there are five of them that are real gems that I really like, that I'd be happy to go make tomorrow. Probably be wiling to make almost any of them, but that's another story, and I got a huge community reaction. I know what people liked, I know what people reading the website, what they responded to. There's one game idea in particular, that Slashdot really liked, and that ended up being a really big popular one, so I feel like I definitely got more out of the experience than the rest of the world did.

People always ask me, "Hey, aren't you worried about people stealing these ideas, or taking them?", and I'm not. I think game designers tend to be ... What's the word for it? Arrogant. And we like to have our own ideas, so when you see ideas that someone else has, you tend to move away from them a little bit, like opposite magnets. They push each other apart, so I think that I definitely got more value out of it than anyone else, but maybe if my ideas have inspired other ideas or pushed other people to come up with new ideas in public or in a new way, then that's awesome. So I definitely encourage you all to do your brainstorming for whatever it is, in public.

Now I'm going to go out on a big limb, and I think there's actually a business case for brainstorming in public, for taking your rawest, most fragile, baby ideas and just saying, "Hey, world, here they are. What's up?" There's three big reasons why I think this is true. The first is that you get to mark your turf. Like I was saying, people like to have their own ideas. People like to be clever and come up with things, so by putting out your ideas for things that maybe you're not necessarily doing today, but you might do, or you could be doing soon, you've already claimed that space, so let me use one of my favorite studios as an example.

Imagine if Blizzard Entertainment posted one new game idea that they might make ... Maybe, maybe not ... once a month. The entire game industry would take notice, but then they'd probably also be absolutely terrified of those ideas, and they would try to stay away from them. All of a sudden, Blizzard has cornered a new piece of the market without really lifting a finger.

Secondly, you get to hide in plain sight. One of those ideas that Blizzard has posted, hypothetically, could be the next big thing. It could be the next World of Warcraft, but us, their competition, wouldn't necessarily know that. We'd be left scratching our heads and thinking about, "Hey what are these guys doing? Are they doing something like us? I don't know, let's stay away from all that." By hiding in plain sight, Blizzard gets all of the benefits, or you could get all of the benefits if you do this, of community feedback and involvement and investment. Besides just seeing how many comments are on my website for each of these ideas, I know which one gets the most Google hits. I know which games people are looking for to play that don't exist yet, because they land on my website instead of on a flash website or Amazon or

It's a good investment. On my werewolf idea, which is called Loup-Garou, here is a huge thread of people posting their own ideas for a werewolf game and frankly, arguing about who's stealing ideas from who in their version of the werewolf game that I posted on my website. So if I ever did make that game, I have an immediate community of people who are deeply invested and wanting to see this game, wanting to play the game, so if it ever ended up on shelves, they would go buy it and tell their friends to buy it, because they had a hand in creating it, at least that's their perspective.

I think it's probably time for me to pass the microphone to Sony, but I'd like to remind you that all of my game ideas are still up on the website. I hope to keep them there forever, at least until I get a book out with them. This talk will be posted online probably in an extended form. There's a million other things I could talk about, about the entire experience and frankly, the insanity that was 2006. Shoot me an email or come talk afterwards if I don't get your questions in.

But most importantly, come up with new ideas, because we desperately, desperately need new game ideas in the industry, and I encourage you to come up with even better ideas and more of them, if you do so, in public. Thank you very much.

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