What to do when you lack ideas?

This is a sort of counterpoint to the other ideas-thread. My problem is the opposite, as I find it very difficult to come up with ideas. Working to implement them is fun (I know that from my previous game), but the earlier part is where I get stuck.

I have the basic setting for the game I’m currently working on. I know how it starts, very vaguely how it ends and I have a few things I want to put into it, but I’m having trouble getting the ideas that would make it something.

Last time I solved the problem by basically letting the story be about a journey. I simply put puzzles in that prevented the characters from getting to the next location on the way to their goal. I don’t want to do that this time. This time, it’s more about the characters and having them (and the player) figuring out what’s going on and how to fix it.

When I’m stuck, world-building is usually my go-to.

(Is there some taboo about talking about game specifics? People never do, so please let me know if I’m violating the Unwritten Code.)

One of my shelved ideas was essentially a post-apocalyptic mystery. That was it. All I had, except for some specific imagery involving visiting a house and having it be all overgrown and creepy. I knew I wanted a sense of isolation, that travel was tremendously dangerous. That was it.

You could kind of start anywhere with that - what’s creepy about the house, or what the main character would be like, or a scene I wanted to have. I could have started with game mechanics - anything special or unique. Instead, I thought about what would cause isolation, not just for the main character, but the world. I wanted a place without a sense of “safe”, so nothing like a space station where the main character just needed to get to Earth and it would be all okay. Supernatural creatures could do it. Hordes of vampires or zombies. Constant dragon attacks. Or it could be something more mundane - radiation outside, or disease. I liked the disease idea, since I’ve got a pretty solid biology background, and went with fungus because you can see it, and fungal diseases can be seriously creepy. I thought about thrush, and posited a fungus like that, only faster and meaner. An open wound would be completely colonized with fuzzy white stuff within hours. Breathing the spores would cause quick death.

It would make sense for a population to stay contained and sterile.

From there, it gets easier. Where would people live? Would some places be safer than others? Would dry, hot Arizona be a haven for the wealthy, while Latin America was taken over? What kind of government would pop up? Who would grow food? Who would do the investigating of crimes - it would have to be someone outside the community, but someone who’s taking tremendous risks by traveling outside. What sort of things would become taboo (eating mushrooms, say)?

Once you have a world, then it makes it easier to move the character through it, and it may shape the story. Once I had a sense of the world, I knew I wanted the opening scene to emphasize the dangers of the outside vs. the sterility and perceived safety of the inside, so it was a scene where the character entered an outpost. This was an automated but complicated process involving bleach, verifying identity, destruction of contaminated items, etc. From there, it was a matter of building a realization that the inside, while apparently safe, was just as dangerous as the outside, which became easier as I understood what was scary in that place and what wasn’t.

If world-building isn’t a part of your WIP, you could do the same sort of thing with plot or character or mood. That is: what’s compelling about your idea? What would accent those parts, or contrast against them? How do you want the player to experience the story?

With IF, sometimes I work backwards. I try to think of puzzle ideas I want in the game, and try to incorporate a reasonable reason for them there. That gives you a lot more story than you would think.

For a screenplay, I knew the jist of what the movie would be about, and I had some ideas for action scenes, then there’s just thinking of a logical way to string them together.

It sounds cheap I guess, but it works. So if I want a puzzle involving tying a string around a mouse and having the mouse pull the string through a hole…

Why? I must need to thread something through a hole. What, for what purpose? Why can’t I accomplish this some other way? Why is it important to do this? What scenario would give me a mouse. To what other purpose can the mouse be put? Once this is done, what will open up for me? Where did the mouse come from? Where did the string come from?

It works out pretty well for me.

I wouldn’t say that I start with puzzles, but I do often start with puzzle interactions – the question of what the player is doing (versus what he’s not doing) at the crucial point.

Then I think about how the player learned that action; what earlier scenes contained the clues that led up to it. And what later scenes benefit from that experience. Hopefully that gives me a whole cluster of scenes and actions.

This process leads to puzzle design in one direction, and – as tggdan3 says – to story design in the other direction.

Maybe this technique will help. I’ve used it with some success over the years. The first time I used it was when I was writing my first novel. There was some money in a vault, and I had a character who was a thief, but I had no idea how he was going to get anywhere near, let alone into, a guarded vault, since the vault was on a military base.

So I pulled out a blank piece of paper and wrote at the top, “Ten ways for Pye to break into the vault.” And then I started listing possibilities. Somewhere around number 7 or 8, I came up with something that I was able to use.

The essence of this technique is, you’re not allowed to censor yourself. ANY idea that pops into your head, no matter how stupid or outlandish, you have to write it down. What this does is, it unblocks your unconscious. What usually happens (in my experience, anyway), when we’re having trouble coming up with ideas is that every time an idea pops into our head, we say, “Nah, not good enough.” After this happens a few times, the unconscious shrugs and says, “Okay, if you’re not interested in anything I have to say, I think I’ll take a nap now.”

That’s the mental plumbing clog, right there. The human mind is naturally creative and playful. We just have to rediscover our sense of playfulness and fun.

…and now that I’ve reminded myself of this technique, I’m going to use it on an especially thorny puzzle design concept in the game I’m planning!


Right now, my process for designing puzzles is to let the story lead me to them. In my sword-and-sandal Conan-meets-Gor game, I began with the mental picture of the big burly warrior with a loincloth and a greatsword. (Yes, never mind that he should have armor on. Work with me.) He’s the player’s character; what is he like? What kind of problems will he encounter? What obstacles will he face, and how can I imagine he would solve it?

It occurred to me that this character would be very direct. He is not the kind of person who tries to solve the Gordian knot; instead, he chops it in half. He wouldn’t unlock a door if he could break it down. He wouldn’t bother grubbing in the dirt for a coin, to buy the Maguffin he needs, if he could just kill the merchant and steal it (or threaten to). In fact, he probably wouldn’t need the Maguffin either. Immediately it occurred to me that this is not a character who needs a large inventory of little items. He needs a small inventory of multi-purpose items.

Aha! I said. I’ll make that the central theme of the game: designing puzzles that don’t require items (or as few as possible).

So I made a list of the kinds of puzzles I would be left with. Under “Puzzles That Prevent Movement” I said, “Okay, assuming you never need any actual key to get through any door, what other ways could a door become open? You could break it down. You could burn it. You could sneak in while somebody else has opened it … or maybe someone could open it for you. Ah, but why do they open it for you? Because they like you. Or because you have something they want … no, that requires an item, forget that. So you do something to make the door ward like you. That fits right into the style of the game: ‘Verily, brothers, I vouch that this is Grignr, the mighty warrior. It is he who slew the bandit king that captured my sister,’ or whatever. Perfect!” The puzzle becomes clearer in my mind as I follow my logical conclusions.

Thanks! I see several things posted here that may be useful. And it’s good to know that I’m not the only one getting stuck like this. Lately, I’ve been feeling as imaginative as a refrigerator, staring at my design document without writing anything in it.

My current technique hasn’t been posted yet, so here goes. I bought a deck of storytelling game cards (Once Upon A Time, by Atlas Games). I was initially planning to shuffle them by hand, but then I was able to get hold of a list of all the cards, so went for a more programm-y approach. I randomly reorder the cards, using a Mac Unix command, and look at the first page or so of results. If it sparks off some ideas for me I take a copy of the first page of results, otherwise I abandon it and rerun. That way I can come up with quite a lot of core ideas for games, and see which I want to explore.

Mind you it hasn’t resulted in a completed game yet. But it has got me started, which given how severe my lack of ideas can be is quite something :laughing:

Agreed, especially with the direct quote from the subconscious.

Another thing I try is called “mind-mapping”. Write and circle a word in the center of the page, then write what word(s) the original brings up, connecting them with lines. Repeat, with whatever word or words that spark the brain. After five minutes, you’ll have a snarled little web of associated ideas. After twenty minutes, you might learn something about yourself.

It’s important to write quickly and without thinking, racing by your inner critic before he knows what’s what.

Something I find useful at a slightly later stage of the process: if something feels not quite right about the design and I just can’t think of a fix for it, I first write down exactly what the problem is as though I were trying to explain it to someone else.

That usually forces me to think about the problem specifically enough that solutions become easier to find.

Oh yeah: acquire a rubber duck. Best tool ever.

Real people can also be used for this purpose. :sunglasses: This is one of my favorite techniques. I occasionally use it online in a forum such as this, but I prefer to do it in person.