Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Game Ideas

Blatantly inspired by Josh Olson’s excellent I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script, which is worth your time. I am not as foul-mouthed or incisive as he is, unfortunately.

I meet you at a party. Or a wedding. Or a bar. Doesn’t matter. Maybe we have mutual friends, or just struck up conversation over some humorous occurrence that we both witnessed. We’ll talk movies, football, the weather, and music. Eventually, you ask what I do for a living.

“I’m a game developer.”

“Oh, let me tell you — I have the best idea for a game.”

It’s at this point that our interaction has become terribly unpleasant for me. Let’s go through the possible outcomes here.

Your idea is bad

In all honesty, this is the most likely status of your idea. This is nothing personal; the vast overwhelming majority of ideas are bad. I know you’re convinced that your combination of Prince of Persia with Call of Duty is obviously and undeniably awesome, but there’s a reason new genres come along so rarely. And that really sweet character you have in your head, the one who’s the ninja with a heart-of-gold but a dark past out to rescue his pet elephant? That’s not a game, and neither is your pre-apocalyptic caveman story. Your vague notion about color matching (but on Facebook, you know, like Farmville!) is even less a game than the previous ideas.

And now I have to respond. I try not to be an asshole, so here’s what you’ll see. The eye contact that I was previously maintaining will be broken as I stare at a point just beyond your left shoulder. My eyes widen, my lips purse, and I’ll start nodding a lot. This is as close as I’ll come to telling you that this idea is terrible. Eventually I’ll emit a few chuckles and try to change the subject.

Thanks for adding a big dose of awkward to my night, and making me a lot less likely to accept your Facebook request.

Your idea is good

Congratulations, you have an awesome idea! Nobody has ever topped Derek Sivers’s explanation of why ideas by themselves are worthless, so go read his post and come back.

But now you’ve left me to explain that to you. And how vanishingly few games are made by a single person, especially if that person has no programming experience (which you invariably don’t have). If I was an amateur developer, you might be lucky enough to have a partner in your hobby, but no, I will not leave my steady job with its world-class co-workers and 401(k) to help you make this game.

I’ll recommend a lot of resources for learning to make games, and you’ll either be discouraged by how little those first projects resemble what you have in your mind, or you won’t even look at those resources and continue to try and attract some people by posting on game dev forums about how you “just need a few programmers and maybe an artist” to get it off the ground. The role of the “idea person” is a sexy one, and you’re convinced that could be you. My warning of how that’s not really a role in any creative industry go unheeded and you chalk me up as a jerk trying to destroy your dreams.

Man, it would have been way easier to just tell you your idea sucked. But then I would be lying!

Even if your idea is so good that I want to help you, what now? I am not an executive at my company, and thus can’t do anything to bring you in there. Even if the few people I know who fund game development are interested in a pure idea (which strains the definition of “long shot”), I’ve never worked with you and thus am not willing to stake my reputation on vouching for you to those people. So now I’m an asshole for killing your dream, and I feel guilty for not being able to help you.

Once again, this is at minimum a pretty awkward blip in the graph of my evening.

Your idea is really good

Then there’s the final and most awkward possibility. Your idea is so good that I already had it myself. Or my company’s had it. Maybe I’m scheduled to work on it next week. Maybe I just finished it today. Either way I can’t tell you about it, but I’m going to immediately want you to stop talking, like 5 seconds ago.

Because intellectual property laws in this country are nuts and plenty of lawyers are willing to take the case of anyone claiming they have a suit against a deep-pocketed company, I have to consider the possibility that you might sue me or my company for stealing your idea.

I know, I know. You wouldn’t do that! You’re cool! That’s great, but remember, we just met, and I don’t know that you’re cool. I’ve been sued before (non-IP related matter) and it’s not fun, even with good lawyers and someone else footing the bill. Don’t make me call up those memories.

(I fell into this trap myself once — as a grad student excitedly having lunch with some Imagineers, I was talking up the cool robotic puppeteering interface I was working on when the lead got very quiet and said, “Be very careful what you say to me.” Later I would see the interface they use for their “living characters initiative” and well, remember the bit about ideas versus execution. They can execute like mad.)

And now I’ve had to extricate myself from the conversation, and do the IP calculus of whether I need to talk to our legal people on Monday to make sure we’re protected.

To sum up

I will not listen to your game idea.

OK, actually I will. But our interaction is now ruined, and I will want another drink, most likely.

Don’t drive me to drink, please.

If you have an awesome idea, quit talking about it to strangers at parties and go start making it. Learn to program, learn to animate, learn to write. And then go make your game. And let me know about it!

Because while I will not listen to your game idea, I absolutely would love to play your game.

11 archived comments Why no more comments?
  1. ashley cheng wrote:

    Plus it’s hard to talk to the ladies when there’s a dude pitching his game idea to you.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 9:08AM
  2. Brandonshire wrote:

    Well said, and as you pointed out with the script-related link at the start, this applies to a lot of industries and ideas. Especially in any sort of creative industry.

    It’s almost certainly no less boring to hear someone talk about, but to some degree I’m glad that the closest I usually come to coming up with new “game ideas” is in the realm of settings, or adventures, or even rules subsystems and such, for table-top RPGs. If I ever decide I really like an idea it’s something I can actually try to develop myself and don’t have to find “just a few programmers and maybe an artist.” So at least I’m not asking random people at parties to help me out, instead I’m just boring them with bad ideas that no one else cares about!

    Note: In reality I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this to someone I didn’t already know pretty well, and (I hope) not so much in totally inappropriate situations like at parties.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 10:55AM
  3. Fraser MacInnes wrote:

    Ok, first off I just want to say, I’m totally with you on this. Telling people you work in the games industry does invariably prompt some sort of half-baked idea from the other person, followed by awkwardness by you. Either that or the other person says “wow, I’ll bet you just get to sit around playing games all day”. Both very annoying and tedious.

    Having said that, one thing that has consistently irked me about the games industry (I’m a game designer for Gameforge by the way – I’m working on MMOs) is that it often confuses game designers with game developers.

    To me the distinction is, game designers don’t NEED to know how to code. Sure it doesn’t hurt if they can at least script (Lua, Python or whatever), or even understand the advantages of using programming language X instead programming language Y. But the idea that a game designer needs to be an expert in C++, Maya, 3DS Max etc. and other high-end languages and tools, isn’t strictly fair. I know a lot of people who conducted interviews for major software houses, where the interviewees were required to be proficient at coding in C++, despite the fact that the game designer job they were applying for didn’t require any coding at all. It can all get a bit exclusionary.

    To my mind, the key tools of a good game designer are Word, Excel, Whiteboards, intermediate Photoshop, Mind Mapping tools, Google Sketch-up and maybe a bit of low level scripting as mentioned earlier. That and a good quality filter (ideas are cheap, everyone has them – try to have 100 a day and be prepared to bin 99 of them is my rule).

    It’s horses for courses of course, but I do feel that so long as the ideas person is willing to accept that being an ideas person i.e. game designer, could be as much about coming up with an amazing concept for an in-game shop interface (and being able to document it clearly using the aforementioned tools, so a developers/artist can make it happen), as opposed to realizing their own extravagantly conceived pet projects, then they don’t have to be these one man game making machines the industry (particularly in the UK) so often demands.

    I could go on and on, so I’ll stop. Great article, not trying to stamp on it, just want to keep the flame alive for would be designers out there who are consistently being scared off by towering CV requirements.

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 11:15AM
  4. Daniel wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more its not the idea that counts but the execution of the idea!

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 4:06PM
  5. Chucho wrote:

    What you wrote:
    “Oh, let me tell you – I have the best idea for a game.”

    What I read:
    “Oh, let me tell you – I want to steer this conversation back towards myself”

    Posted March 30, 2011 at 6:22PM
  6. Sketcz wrote:

    I’ll be honest, if you said you were a game developer to me, I’d probably counter with something like:
    “That’s nice. Have another drink, on me.”

    And then 10 minutes later I’d subtly reveal I’m actually a journalist, and attempt to pry juicy gossip out of you for my next news column.

    How about them shenanigans, eh? You’ll never feel safe in the pub again.

    Posted March 31, 2011 at 11:05AM
  7. Abused_Dog wrote:

    You, sir, are an arrogant, high-minded prick. Be thankful that someone is interested enough in your profession to want to discuss and indeed have ideas of their own about it.

    Posted April 1, 2011 at 5:34AM
  8. Kathryn wrote:

    This is true of the children’s writing industry as well… I’ve met many editors and writers who hate telling people what they do because they dread the inevitable “I have a great idea for a picture book!” that follows…

    The bizarre thing is that people seem to think that we who are out there executing books/games/screenplays/etc. are in need of more ideas. The truth is, I have hundreds more ideas than I could ever hope to execute, and the hard part is focusing on one and actually doing the work.

    Posted April 1, 2011 at 9:31AM
  9. Abused_Dog wrote:

    On reflection, I have to apologize to everyone – and the author in particular – for my post #7.

    Unfortunately I have a low tolerance-threshold for pompous condescension, but that is no excuse for vulgarity and rudeness on my part. I’m sorry.

    As I’ve already outstayed my welcome I’ll depart by noting how sad this item makes me feel. As an academic working in realms of thought often so rarefied as to have no practical utility whatsoever, it is depressing to be reminded that every idea and fantasy must be twisted towards utility and profit, or else be dismissed as worthless.


    Santa Claus

    Posted April 2, 2011 at 2:58PM
  10. sensibletron wrote:

    Sharing your ideas with another individual is a very personal act—you are revealing something about yourself that is not immediately visible on the surface.

    This is something I encounter a lot as a writing tutor—people are very insecure about their writing, and the act of showing your stuff to a stranger makes a person vulnerable. The way that I deal with and honor this is to be as professional and considerate as possible. As anyone who’s submitted to a peer review in a writing class can tell you, presenting your work to someone who’s not really trained to respond in a constructive way can be…wounding. Their criticisms feel careless.

    Perhaps part of what is happening is that people are presenting you with something they obviously value very highly at a very early stage in your relationship; they are basically over-sharing. As a reasonably sensitive person and a creative professional as well, part of you may recognize that they are offering you a gift of themselves to which you cannot give justice.

    I would be very uncomfortable if someone found out I did writing-related work at a party and tried to show me a poem.

    Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:10PM
  11. Kevin B wrote:

    I have to disagree with you here. We happen to work in an industry that some people find interesting, and I personally believe that you should be thankful that someone wants to share their ideas with you, even if they are bad ones. In doing so, they are in some sense seeking your validation — it’s an indirect form of being your fan. The fact that you find this kind of situation uncomfortable is unfortunate, but that’s your issue, not theirs. When you rant about it in the way you’ve done, it comes across as a bit arrogant, even if the root of the issue is anxiety on your part. In short, it comes across as if they are the ones inflicting this anxiety on you, when in reality, they are not — you are.

    I think you should perhaps find a better way of dealing with these conversations so that they cease being uncomfortable to you. If educating them is too uncomfortable to you, then perhaps try find a way where you can politely get out of these kinds of conversation. I doubt that you’re being rude to the people you talk to, but you might want to take into consideration the reasons that they want to talk about this with you in the first place.

    We choose what conversations we want to be in, and this post reflects social anxiety on your part. I would recommend trying to find ways to better deal with these situations, rather than complaining that someone is interested in what you do and therefore wants to tell you about their uneducated ideas. Just my $0.02.

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:14PM
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