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.