In my search for interesting ways to encourage inspiration to strike, I’ve recently read How to Get Ideas by Jack Foster. Though it was written in 1996 (revised in 2007), it’s a largely timeless book, other than this one section: 

“If you have not yet learned how to use search engines like Google or Yahoo or Ask, learn. Go to one of them, type in the subject you’re working on, hit “Search,” and you’re on your way.”

Overlooking this, there’s some useful advice and perennial ideas that have great value. Here are my top three take-aways.

1. Don’t try to come up with a solution to a problem. Come up with 20.

In the book Foster tells the story of a friend of his:

“I used to teach a three-day seminar on advertising in Chicago. One of the assignments I gave each student was to create, overnight, an outdoor board for a Swiss Army knife. Most of the students would come in the next morning with the required billboard, but several of them would say that they worked for hours and couldn’t come up with anything. This happened three years in a row.

“The fourth year I tried something different. Instead of asking for just one billboard, I asked each student to create at least ten billboards for a Swiss Army knife. And instead of giving them all night, I told them they had to do it during their lunch hour. 

“After lunch everybody had at least ten ideas. Many had more. One student had 25. I came to realise that when faced with a problem most people look for the one right solution because that’s the way they were brought up. All through school they had to answer multiple-choice and true-or-false questions, questions that only had one right answer. And so they assume that all questions and problems are like that. And when they can’t find a solution that looks perfect they give up. 

“But most problems aren’t like exam questions in school. Most problems have many solutions. And as soon as I forced my students to realise that, they found those solutions.”

With game design, as with advertising, there’s multiple solutions. If we spend too long looking for the perfect solution, we’ll miss other possibilities. I’m not saying that each idea you have will be brilliant. I’m sure many of the lunchtime Swiss Army billboards weren’t. But by aiming to have lots of ideas, your thinking becomes freer. Each individual idea is less important, less significant. So if it fails, it doesn’t matter, you have a bunch more ideas. Moreover, when we get used to thinking this way, we’re more likely to come up with some ideas that turn out to be brilliant. 

Not every idea will be brilliant, so give yourself better odds and come up with more ideas!

2. Brilliant creatives differ vastly, but they are all curious.

Foster talks about the diversity of the creative people he worked with. Then looks for the similarities between them:

“…They all had two characteristics in common. First, they were courageous… Second, they were all extremely curious.”

I’ve often heard people give advice to game designers who are looking to come up with innovative ideas. Sometimes the advice is to play lots of different kinds of games and learn from them. But sometimes the advice is to look for inspiration outside the world of games. Go for walks, visit exhibitions, read books on palaeontology, listen to music, take a dishwasher apart and put it back together, listen to a lecture about something you know nothing about, do some maths… The list is endless. 

Of course, both of these viewpoints has merit. It’s hard to design a good game if you don’t have a good frame of reference. The world is littered with people who think they’ve invented the next Monopoly… because that’s the only thing they’ve played. So, it’s important to learn about game design, structure and mechanics. But – if your only frame of reference is games, you’re probably going to find yourself trying to reinvent the wheel. 

However, when you nurture your natural curiosity in other things, when you look for game inspiration in the world around you, you may be surprised how innovative your ideas become.

3. When you’re stuck on an idea… forget about it and work on something else.

Foster acknowledges the fact that it’s easy to get stuck when working on a problem. Sometimes inspiration doesn’t strike. His advice? “Forget about it and work on something else.” He specifically advises against mental relaxation (which he says is overrated, potentially even “counterproductive, for it stops momentum”). No, he’s very clear – stop thinking about the thing that’s giving you trouble, and work on something else. 

The plague in Pepys’ London

“But what if you don’t have another project to work on? Then get one. The secret is to switch gears; to let your unconscious work on the problem that’s giving you trouble, while your conscious mind works on something else; to “sleep on” one problem while you start working on another.”

I think we’ve probably all got examples of when this has worked for us. When you stop actively thinking about something and an idea seemingly magically pops into your head. 

In fact, I’d suggest that there’s something you can do to make it more likely that these ideas will just pop up when you least expect them. If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for a certain project, stop trying. Then spend some time researching around the topic, without any active thought towards solving the problem you have. For example, if you’re designing a game centred around Samuel Pepys and you are missing a crucial idea, spend some time just reading his diaries. Listen to audiobooks about his life. Watch films set in the same historical period and location. Immerse yourself in the world of the problem, without trying to solve it. Then go and do something else. 

If you’ve got some great advice for others about getting ideas, please do share it in the comments below.