Chasing Inspiration

This post is a bit of a case of "thinking out loud." It's not overly personal and shouldn't be awkward, I just wanted to arrange some thoughts that are relevant to design and my processes.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I think every designer has inherent strengths, portions of the design process with which they have a certain affinity or strength. Alas, the universe more often than not seeks balance and with one's strength comes a weakness.

My strength is in the execution. Play testing, streamlining clunky systems, writing clear rules, and adding balance where little existed. I work with data (like feedback or observations) well and can take a strong idea and make it better.

I suffer, however, with the inspiration side of things. I'm often thinking of polish before a concept is even solidified and as a result many of my ideas tend to be too conservative or too evolutionary instead of revolutionary. This is largely a result of my professional training (I'm a producer, i.e. design editor) and personality (I'm obsessed with simplicity).

I've designed a few games now and many of them were not good enough to pitch to a publisher or even post on a print on demand site. Many of my ideas fail conceptually in that they aren't exciting or bold enough or they are too close mechanically to existing games.

A pattern seems to be emerging: When I approach a project with the thinking of "I'd like to design a game using this mechanic," it ultimately leads to failure. Frontier Scoundrels began as "I want to make a game that uses a dice mechanic." Poor Abby Farnsworth feels like it's floundering and there I began the game from the basis of "I want to make a game that uses a deckbuilding mechanic."

Like the aristocracy of old breeding, this is a shallow pool from which to draw (that's a gene pool joke). For one, I'm immediately limiting my creative canvas. I'm setting boundaries at the onset of the creative process when really I should be coming up with crazy things. Furthermore, I'm setting myself up against some of the biggest names in board gaming at the moment. Doesn't it seem a tinge foolish to point my spear at Dominion and Thunderstone and Eminent Domain and Ascension followed by a hearty "charge!"

Farmageddon is my most successful design to date. At the onset of the design my only goal was to create a simple game that played quickly and was easily understood. I didn't specify mechanics or components. Really, the only thing I established was an overall vibe and a farming setting. Farming, by the way, is a setting that is FULL of mechanics inspirations, but we can discuss that in another post.

Similar to identifying your strengths as a designer, I think it's important to identify the sources from which you draw the best inspiration.

The richest source of inspiration for me is history. It is, for me, the greatest story with the best characters. Characters from history like Theodore Roosevelt and Wellington. Or even the nameless characters, like the soldiers or spies or farmers caught up in epic events. History also provides settings that are rich and full of interesting conflict, like the dust bowl era, or the age of discovery, or the space race.

When I ignore that which excites and interests my mind the most (history), I'm eliminating a creative tool from my arsenal. Find what excites you, whether that's the theater, comic books, cooking, or fashion.

Finally, it's important to set yourself in a situation that makes you most likely to receive this inspiration. For me, the best time for this is when I take my dog on a walk. Or, when I'm sitting at a table that does not have a computer, iPhone, or iPad and is instead full of paper, pencils and stuff. Things for me to fiddle with and think upon.

I recently created a second desk in my office that has no digital devices. Just sketch pads, white boards, and writing implements. Distraction is good, but 90% distraction/10% creative thought isn't.

It is perhaps a bit meta (correct usage?) that I'm iterating and designing my design process. Hopefully the result is something more outstanding or the fabled lightning in a bottle.


I always find it interesting to see what makes other designers (or writers, or musicians, or {fill in the blank with another creative thingy}) tick. And this clearly written piece you've given us of your inner workings, Grant, helps me to understand some of the messages we've exchanged when discussing projects "in the queue".

Also interesting that I come from a slightly different angle altogether ... I usually have a hard time answering that traditional question of "did this design first start with the theme or the mechanics", so I almost immediately start melding those things together. My initial spark-nuggets usually consist of "a game about X that has you doing Y where you need to be able to do Z to make things work well" ... for me theme, mechanics, and the tools and problems you provide to the player are all part of a full picture.

I aim more for what player experience I would like to provide -- light family game with easy-to-learn mechanics, or deeper gamers-game ... something more tactical vs. more long-term planning and strategy ... direct conflict vs. build-your-own-thing, etc. More along the lines of how you started with Farmageddon. And then I break things down into problems the player needs to solve and the tools provided to the player to work with ... leaving some room for the player to figure out different ways to use the tools (and the other players, usually) to solve the problems and accomplish the overall goal.

Theme can be the driver in some cases ... in others it's more of a framework to make everything work together. Sometimes it is my inspiration and other times it's simply convenient to help players figure out "how to be".

I do like what you've described as your second working table ... I may have to do something like that too!

I think we design in a very similar fashion. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

It is very interesting to learn how other designers approach the creative process! Most of my game ideas originate with some novel new mechanic I've cooked up that excites me. But early on I think about what kind of thematic situation the mechanic might reasonably model or represent. Sometimes this leads to a richer set of related mechanics emerging, and sometimes not. Either way though, most of the time the natural elaboration of the concept stalls and I file it away into a bank of on-hold ideas for future reference.

But every once in a while, the combination of a mechanic and theme yield a steady stream of progressively better ideas. In the best cases, the theme provides valuable constraints on my creative process as well as inspiration. When too many ideas spring up around a particular mechanic, theme comes to the rescue and helps cut through the host of ideas to isolate those that best reinforce the theme. This helps me avoid spinning my wheels with an overwhelming number of competing ideas flying through my head with no focus.

Another guide for me is thinking about the actual play experience I want players to have. Sometimes a game takes on a life of its own heading down some path of natural progression that makes sense and may lead to a good game, but isn't the kind of game I want to make or play. It can be hard for me to realize when this is happening and it is especially hard to correct, but I've learned this is really important to keep me excited about a game. And ultimately I think this impulse to focus on creating an interesting new play experience is the aspect of my games that will shine the most.

Lastly, once a specific marriage of mechanics and theme are humming along really well, I almost always find myself remembering mechanics I've devised in the past that would make a great fit for this evolving new game concept. All my best game projects come together this way, leveraging lots of good ideas I've had over a long span of time. They weren't originally related, but they get melded together to make a far more compelling game system than I have ever come up with in one go.

Anyway, thanks both for sharing your design methodologies! And Grant, your intro has me pondering what my weaknesses as a designer are. We tend to focus more on our strengths, but we stand to learn and improve more by focusing on our weaknesses. Which you've got me thinking about now, because I've got some!

I began noting my weaknesses as a result of yearly corporate reviews (for promotions, raises, etc.). Surprise surprise, the things that hold me back as an employee are often the same as the things that hold me back as a designer.

It's really important to focus on what you do best while mitigating your weak spots.

Thanks for adding to the conversation.

I have approached designs from many different angles. A theme I wanted to tackle. A mechanic that seemed interesting. Even a random joke on Twitter. No matter the source of the inspiration, what I have learned is that I cannot FORCE the process. I cannot sit myself down and force myself to create something around an idea. Every time I have tried to do this I have failed. I find myself much more productive when I just let that idea sit and juggle it around in my head for a while. If it sticks, and I can't stop thinking about it, those are the projects that I see through. Those are the projects that shine for me. They become totally engrossing and difficult to let go of. Every game I have tried to wrap around a specific idea has ended in failure. Often this even means that the end result is completely removed from the initial inspiration. I have even abandoned mechanics that were the original inspiration!

I share your opinion about history. I was thinking about how fiction often pales in comparison to real life events while listening to Bill Bryson's 'At Home: A Short History Of Private Life,' during my drive into work.

I don't design games in my spare time (I'm more of a writer) but I love learning about the creative process and how people generate their best ideas no matter what they're pursuit. Betty Edward's book 'Drawing on the Artist Within' is a good guide at tapping into your creative side.

Great post, thanks for sharing.

P.S. If you're looking for a good Teddy Roosevelt book, check out 'River of Doubt, by Candice Millard.

I meant 'their pursuit' not 'they're pursuit.'

I think the point you made about strengths and weaknesses and honest assessment is a really great one for designers to keep in mind. I've read lots of designer diaries and blog posts and have been really surprised to see how many people design games with a mechanic or theme in mind as they primary thing that defines the game. I think part of my surprise is just because it is so different than the way I think, and part of it is because of something really inspiring I read in The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell (my absolute favorite book on the subject) In the book he provides a number of different lenses through which you can view your design, and it can be an amazing resource during the design process of any game. The first lens he covers is one he calls "the Lens of the Essential Experience" and for me that has really been my go-to set of questions.... "what experience do I want the players to have, what is essential to that experience, and how can my game capture that essence?". I think that some of the best designed games are ones in which that essential experience is well captured and in which that experience is resonant. I don't usually think of a game like Dominion in terms of "hey, it would be cool experience to spend some time shuffling cards and occasionally add a new card to that pile so I can be more effective at getting more cards for the pile and when I'm done I'll count them all up", nor do I take the approach of "Oh cool, I'm going to build the best kingdom ever because my kingdom will have nobles and mines and villages and feasts and festivals and most of all great sprawling provinces." I think of a game as an experience, and to me playing Dominion isn't about the mechanic that made it seem so revolutionary, nor is it about the flavor text, its about making iterative choices and getting to see how those choices play out over the course of the game. In my opinion, Dominion delivers the essential experience of building something dynamic and fluid from simple choices and getting to see how it works, and that's a pretty resonant experience. I think sometimes great games hit on this essential experience idea on accident, but it can be designed for intentionally. It's not about mechanic OR theme for me, (but if I had to pick one I think it's easier to hit the mark with thematic top down design, where you decide on a theme and do everything you can to reinforce that theme) its about creating a worthwhile and interesting experience for the players, and mechanics and themes are tools to accomplish that. My shift in where and how I looked for inspiration in games really helped me to finally create the game I've always really wanted to make, instead of working on prototype after prototype trying to make certain themes or mechanics come to life when they lacked a clear vision of what kind of experience I wanted to create for the players.