How To Keep An Ideas List
Updated: Jan 21
I have a bit of a process (not much) with my game development. It works roughly like this, I have one game that’s in main development, that’s the one that I’ll be Kickstarting next. Behind that I have three or four games that are prototypes that I like the idea of being the game after that. The step back from there is a shelf of ten or twelve prototypes, which come from a folder of fleshed out ideas, which in turn come from a list of short ideas. These days I then have folders of expansion ideas and future development for the games that have gone through Kickstarter or publication. In this blog I want to talk about that ideas list, though I’ll touch on other parts of the process.
There are lots of ways of keeping an ideas list, but I think that a well maintained one is an absolute necessity for a game designer. Personally, I keep my ideas list as a single piece of A4 paper. I keep a notebook in which bits of ideas get scribbled down, half parts of mechanics, phrases and thoughts. Some people keep useful ideas in a notebook, but I find I don’t have the discipline for that, my notebook is for the idea that I have to write down right then or it will melt away. Sometimes its for a chance to develop an idea when I’m at a loose end waiting for something or on a train etc, but generally the things scribbled in there are not for long term storage. Often, they’re in a form that will make little or no sense two or three days after. If the idea is a mechanic without a home, I’ll later write it up into a paragraph or two of as much detail as I possibly can, given that it’s a loose part, and it gets kept in a loose-leaf folder. Sometimes those mechanics will get slotted into something, sometimes they’ll get developed into a full game, sometimes they’ll get culled out as not really leading anywhere. If the idea is a germ of a game idea, it goes on the idea list.
The main reason that I use a single piece of A4 is that its limited. I know some designers keep a word document or other digital list of ideas, again the discipline needed to do that usefully is well beyond me. I say that because the idea list is really only useful if its manageable, ideas are pretty cheap, but really good ideas that you can hang a game on are valuable and I don’t want those ideas buried in a twenty-page document. It also forces me to take the list through regular culls, if it threatens to spill off that page it gets thinned down, ideas that don’t make the cut get picked off and the remaining ideas are all the stronger for it.
On my piece of A4 paper are ideas for games, a single line each. The game needs to fit onto one line, and I need to know what the game will be (roughly) from that one line. I think this is an important rule to take into account, if you can’t explain the idea of the game even to your future self in one line then its ungainly and inelegant. Eventually your game might need to be described in terms of four different intersecting mechanics, player count and a crossing double theme, but at this point there should be one clear sharp and exciting thing that it says to you which makes you want to make the thing and that you should be able to get onto a single line. Originally, for example, the entry on the list for Moonflight read simply as "deck wrecker". Working out how to do that took months of pondering and fiddling, but that simple idea was enough to remind and respark the central idea of the game.
One thing to try to do is to not look at your idea list too often, once every couple of months unless you have to add a line to it should be more than enough. This is different from works in progress and notes that you need to at least touch on mentally every day or they’re not really works in progress. Items on an ideas list are way more useful if you let them mature and then come back to them once you’ve forgotten about them. When you first have an idea, your over excitement can lead you to think you’ve got the full idea in mind and it will fall out easily, it never does. By writing it down and walking away from it you can return to it like an idea being presented to a stranger. If it bores you then, or if you can’t remember what was so valuable about it, or even what the hell you meant, then off the list it goes and good riddance. If you come back to it usually your mind will have been working in the background and you might be able to pull it into form for a prototype right there are then. If not, leave it to rest.
A final note, never forget the value of culling your ideas, you have a limited span of mental space and its best to have room for all of your ideas to be turning over somewhere, and you can only do that with regular thinning out of the weak. This should be done from the ideas list, wherever you keep it, up wards. Break back down a prototype that’s going nowhere, scrap an idea part that’s not finding its home, often by freeing the idea again it will come back to its true home, if it never comes back it wasn’t meant to be. Equally, whenever you pick an idea off from a level, make sure you allow something else to fill its gap. I think that each person has a different capacity for how many games they can hold on each level of their personal development path and that number increases with experience, but you will be best served by each step having its full capacity filled, so when you free up a space give something else the chance to fill it. Keep the path from idea to development well served and you’ll always have too many projects to ever finish them all.