Where Do Game Ideas Come From?

by Noah Falstein, Game and VR Designer

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Noah Falstein has been developing games professionally since 1980 and is currently focusing on the fields of VR and neurogaming through his consulting company The Inspiracy. He was formerly chief game designer at Google and Executive Producer at Dreamworks Interactive. His many credits include Sinistar (1983), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992).

Game design is my favorite part of game development, and brainstorming is my favorite part of game design. Brainstorming meetings are capricious, at one moment puttering along like an old jalopy on a bumpy road, and at the next zooming like a Ferrari on a racetrack, with the ideas coming so fast there's no time to write them down. Ideas can come from anywhere—books, movies, television, and of course other games are frequent sources, but I've had ideas spawned from personal relationships, from dreams, from scientific principles, from art, from music theory, and from children's toys. Ultimately I think most good ideas come from the subconscious and involve combining dissimilar things in novel ways. When a design client of mine is stuck on a point, I often find it useful as an exercise to pick something apparently totally unrelated to the concept to spark new thought. For example, if a real time strategy game about rapidly evolving alien creatures needs a new creature type and attack, I might turn for inspiration to frothy romantic comedy films. There's a scene in When Harry Met Sallywhere Meg Ryan's character fakes an orgasm in a crowded diner. For the game, that might suggest a siren creature that generates a fake mating cry that causes all enemies of the opposite sex to drop what they're doing and head toward that creature for a few seconds. Ideas are everywhere.

One example of the evolution of one of my favorite ideas was in the original Secret of Monkey Island game from LucasArts. Ron Gilbert, the project leader, had worked with me previously on the game Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For that game we needed a boxing interface so Indy could box with an opponent, and I'd recently been playing Sid Meier's Pirates! which had a simple, fun sword fighting interface. By changing swords to fists, it worked great for us. The problem is, I neglected to tell Ron where the idea came from, so when Ron was talking to me aboutMonkey Islandhe casually remarked that he'd realized that the boxing interface would make a great sword fighting interface for his new game. I confessed to the history of the concept, and for a while we were stumped. Then I suggested that some of the best classic swordplay in movies involved more talking than fighting—thinking of old Errol Flynn movies or the then-recent film The Princess Bride. That seemed more appropriate anyway for the comic tone of his game. What if sword fighting in Monkey Island was about insult and rejoinder, not thrust and parry? And so out of movies, a classic game mechanism was born that proved to be one of the more popular parts of Monkey Island.

When I've told this story, some people have asked me if I felt embarrassed adapting an idea from Sid Meier. I might—if Sid hadn't admitted publicly that several of the concepts in his Pirates! game were based on what he'd seen in Dani Bunten's Seven Cities of Gold game, which Dani said was in turn based heavily on a board game. Sometimes I think no idea can ever be truly original.