Debugging My Creative Process

I Admit it…I Have Been Stuck

It’s about time that I admit something: When it comes to game design, I’ve been stuck for a while now.

I should clarify what I mean by “stuck.” I have been working on a concept for a yet-to-be-announced video game. I wasn’t struggling to put in the hours, and I had no shortage of ideas. I had a lot of ideas, and good ones, but no structure to hang them on. When I would sit down to work, I would try to find a unifying concept. Instead I just ended up generating more ideas, or more accurately idea fragments. The more I worked on it, the the more bloated and nebulous it became.

This scares me. A lot!

This game idea has been with me for years. This is my fourth or fifth attempt to make it happen, and I don’t want to lose it again. I think about it constantly. I get the urge to play it and then remember that it doesn’t exist yet. I even dream about it, but it feels like it’s always just beyond my reach.

The temptation is to blame the idea itself. (“If only I had a better idea, then everything would automatically fall into place, right?”) I seriously considered scrapping the whole thing and starting with a blank page…again.

As it turned out, my idea wasn’t broken; my creative process was. When your process is broken, a shiny new project idea won’t save you.

The Imagineering Process

If you listen to our podcast, Live from Barsaive, you may recall our interview with Lou Prosperi. We discussed not only Lou’s work as the line developer of the first edition of the Earthdawn tabletop roleplaying game, but also his book, “The Imagineering Pyramid.”

Book cover for "The Imagineering Pyramid," by Lou Prosperi

Book cover for "The Imagineering Process," by Lou Prosperi

“The Imagineering Pyramid” is the first book in Lou’s “Imagineering Toolbox” series. These books explain the techniques that Disney’s Imagineers use to create theme park attractions, and then show how to apply those same approaches to any type of creative project.

The first book goes into a lot of detail about specific techniques that you can apply to a creative project, for example storyboards, theming, transitions, etc. The second book, “The Imagineering Process”, lays out a process for the development of the project from initial concept to final release (and beyond).

To sum it up, I’d say that the first book gives you the tools; the second book gives you a system for putting those tools to work.

The book obviously goes into far more detail than I can in a blog post, but here is a basic overview of The Imagineering Process:

Prologue
Define your overall objective, including what you can do, can’t do, and must do when developing and building your project.
Blue Sky
Create a vision with enough detail to be able to explain, present, and sell it to others.
Concept Development
Develop and flesh-out your vision with enough additional detail to explain what needs to be designed and built.
Design
Develop the plans and documents that describe and explain how your vision will be brought to life.
Construction
Build the actual project, based on the design developed in the previous stages.
Models
Test and validate the design at each stage to help solve and/or prevent problems that may arise during the design and construction process.
Epilogue
Present the project to the audience, allow them to experience it, and evaluate its success and effectiveness over time.

How I Got Stuck (and Unstuck)

The biggest problem with my creative process was that I took it on blind faith that if I generated enough ideas, at some point it would all start to gel somehow. I thought that over time, my vague ideas would automatically become more concrete, but that never quite happened.

I also failed to make a conscious decision about how general or specific my focus should be. For example, one day I would be thinking about high-level questions, like “What should this experience feel like for the player?” The next day I would be prototyping an art style or writing proof-of-concept code for a technical idea. In that flurry of activity, I was not thinking clearly about what I was trying to accomplish or at what level of detail I should be working.

By contrast, each stage of The Imagineering Process has a specific goal. This may be a set of questions to answer about your project, or it may be that you need to generate a series of documents that describes the work to be done in the next stage. The output of each stage becomes the input of the next. As this continues, your project goes from general to specific, or to put it another way, from idea to reality.

Don’t worry, this process still leaves plenty of room for the “messy” experimentation that makes creative projects so much fun. The difference is that you now have a system that keeps your project trending in a good direction, and your best ideas tend to rise to the top.

It’s also important to realize that The Imagineering Process is not a rigid one-size-fits-all approach to be imposed onto your project. It’s a flexible, scalable system, and it can be used in an iterative fashion if you choose. If you’re concerned about any of these things, Lou clears all of this up in Part 3 of the book.

Conclusion

“The Imagineering Process” is one of those books that has permanently changed my thinking. I’ll admit that I’m still at the beginning of this journey, but I am already seeing the great benefits of using this approach. I’m still early enough in the process that my game concept is still very pliable, but I have a direction, and it’s starting to come together in a cohesive way.

If you are new to “The Imagineering Toolbox” series, you may want to read “The Imagineering Pyramid” first. On the other hand, both books stand on their own well enough that you could probably read them in either order.

In the coming months, I’m looking forward to continuing work on this game project that has always felt frustratingly out of reach. I will be writing more posts about it as I go along, and I have a feeling that the subject of Imagineering is bound to come up again.