How Coming Up With a Game Idea is Like Being In Love

Landscape image of two lovers hand in hand over a sci fi horizon with lovehearts

Are you trying to come up with a great idea for your next game? I find the whole process is just like being in love. 

From courting your idea to your happily ever after, there are a surprising number of relationship similarities. I was reflecting on this after releasing Trigaea and throwing around some new concepts (Don’t worry, I’m still working on additional content!)

Here’s how I think coming up with game ideas and romance are very similar.

The Longing

It always starts with the longing.

You’re a creative sort, and you’re on the lookout for “the one”. You know you’ll come across them one day. Your parents or friends might have told you as much. Naturally, you’ll spend some time fantasizing about it.

“We’ll have a bunch of little sequels together,” you think. (Of course, you’ve yet to even write your first sentence or line of code yet.)

But before things go any further, just like with a relationship, you need to ask yourself a very important question: Do I actually want this?

This might sound strange, but I feel a lot of creative folks get stuck because they feel they “should” make something rather than they “want” to make something.

The easiest way to do it is to say to yourself out loud the following two sentences:

  • “I want to make a game.”
  • “I should make a game.”

Deep inside your chest, which one felt more true? This question works for games, books, or any other creative work.

If you feel the second one was more correct, then you may be starting from the wrong place - a sense of external pressure. And just like being in a relationship, you should never be in one because you feel it’s expected of you. 

If you push ahead anyway, this is a surefire recipe for disaster. This is because you’ll feel like you “should” make the thing, but you don’t “want” to. This friction leads to procrastination. 

It also leaves you feeling uninspired. Translation: The dreaded writer’s block.

Before you even come up with an idea for a game or a book, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons - yourself. You don’t need to make something to be worth something.

The Courting

Courtly romance scene with a woman playing a lute to woo a knight. It says "Me as a game developer" over the woman, and "Cool new idea i'm flirting with" over the man

When you’re coming up with a great idea for a game, you’ve got to flirt a little first. You can’t just commit to the first thing that comes along. Otherwise, who knows what you’ll get stuck with! 

You need to daydream about what it’s going to be like to see that idea all the way down the aisle. 

Can you see it being something more than a short project, or do you feel you can go the distance? Does your heart skip a beat with excitement just thinking about it? 

Does it feel like you’ll be able to spin off other smaller stories from the strength of the concept - characters, subplots, and interesting mechanics? Or does this seem hard to think about?

You can’t just be ‘in like’ with your idea. You can’t settle. Otherwise, the cracks in your relationship will begin to show up over time. 

What was once a plot point you felt was underwhelming at the start will become someone’s grating snore. It’ll be all you can do to not suffocate your game with a pillow a year into your relationship - hell, if you’re bug fixing, you’ll already be at that point!

There are two sides to every relationship. Can you see the other party (your audience) getting excited about it? And do you think you’ll have fun with this idea, even a year or two from now when things are less fresh?

To be utterly cliché, when you meet “the one”, you’ll know. Don’t settle for anything less!

Slap a Ring on It

When you find a great idea, you should think about the rings as soon as possible. In this case, the gameplay loop and the narrative arc. 

Most good games are actually made of two great ideas (sounds daunting, right?). Both of these need to be figured out before you go forward.

The Gameplay Loop

To get technical, all games are made of compulsion loops. These loops are made up of anticipation, action and reward. There are lots of articles on it, so I won’t get into too much detail, but you need to figure out what your core loop looks like.

A circle with anticipation, challenge and reward as circles. This creates dopamine

This is the gameplay part of the equation. It doesn’t matter if you have a good story if you haven’t figured out this part! 

In Trigaea, the loop is made up of exploring (anticipation), gathering chips (action), and using those chips to unlock plot points or upgrades (reward). They’re small enough to stop it from getting grindy and make sure players keep getting a dopamine rush from the progressing plot.

Before I even started writing the code for the game, I opened a word doc and made sure I was thinking of the ring in advance! 

The Narrative Arc

Again, this is a well-trodden topic. Make sure your arcs are solid. What is the journey going to look like for you and your idea? What trials and tribulations do you foresee before the end? 

Narrative arc starting with set up, inciting incident, rising action, climax, success or failure, falling action, then resolution. The climax is at the highest point of the arc in the middle.

A lot of folks think of the beginning and the end, but this results in there being no tension - the dreaded sagging middle. This is true for games as well. 

Write out the high-level arc in dot point form, and fill out the details later. I found this works wonders and gives you a roadmap to follow when moving forward.

Don’t Cheat On Your Idea

You shouldn’t see multiple game ideas. However, for a creative, temptation is omnipresent. 

It can be enticing when a fresh new game idea pops up, and the honeymoon period with your current project has long since passed. But no, stay true to your existing commitment!

Unfortunately, most people give in to vice. Divorce rates are exceptionally high between aspiring game makers and their ideas. They tell themselves that it’s okay to flirt a little, maybe spend time with both game ideas. They’ll claim to be polyamorous, the exception to the rule. That they need to do multiple projects to keep things fresh.

Sometimes, this is true. But what it almost always winds up with is a sitcom-like scenario where would-be game makers are rushing from one table to the next, getting nothing done.

Unless you’ve got a proven track record of delivering on multiple projects simultaneously, I’d keep it monogamous. Daydreaming a little is fine - open a document, write your idea down, and return to it when your current project is over. 

The Hard Yards

A good marriage takes work. The same is true with any long-running game project. When the initial excitement and ease of the honeymoon period are gone, you need to work yourself into a good framework.

More than anything, discipline is what makes a good game maker or writer. Mostly because they’re the ones who finish, and get better with each success or failure. Everyone else has tapped out!

The Joy of Making Something

I feel that when you’re in the business of making things, whether you’re working on games or books, you’re in love all the time. You’re swooning over your idea - the characters, the plot, the gameplay - and making it into something real. It’s an awesome thing to do.

However, I find the most rewarding thing is handing that something over to someone else so they can be in love with it. 

It may be time for your romance with the idea to end, but for someone else, it’s just beginning.

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