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Murder by death: How to kill bad ideas before they kill you

Posted by Michael Warshaw  June 24, 2013 10:58 AM

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By Tom Lin, co-founder and creative director of Demiurge Studios, Cambridge

If you've been working in the video game industry, chances are you've heard this before: "Hey! I've got a great idea for a game."

Ideas! You've got 'em. Your co-workers have 'em. Heck, even the guy at that party last weekend had 'em. The problem is, most of your ideas probably aren’t very good; at least, not yet. Actually, they may never be good. How do you know when to stop chasing a bad idea, and just kill the thing?

Here at Demiurge, we've had to learn the hard way how to put down ideas, and we’ve developed an approach to making that kill-or-keep decision.

From a full-blown game pitch to teeny opinions on how a character jumps, it’s natural to want to protect your idea. It came from your head, and it's a unique shard of your gaming intuition/experience. A precious, precious baby of an idea. Right?

No. An unproven idea is a murder suspect. Don't protect it. Put it on trial as soon as possible. The best ways to do so happen to also be some of the cheapest:

• Talk about it with other people.
• Organize your thoughts by writing ideas down, drawing out steps and requirements.
• If you can, get a rough version of an idea into playable form.

Your goal is to kill bad ideas as quickly as possible. Every day that one exists, it's wasting time and resources that should be going to more deserving notions.

A good rule of thumb: If an idea is easy to test in-game, implement and test it before you start talking about it. Often, all it takes is a moment holding a controller to realize, "This doesn't work. Keep looking," saving countless hours of debate.

It sounds so easy! Of course, it's not. At some point, an idea will appear that's controversial. The concept is awesome! The concept is lame. The rules make sense! The rules sound confusing. The change is fun! I liked it better the way it was before.

Balancing conflicting feedback takes real strength of will. Keep? Or Kill?
In such cases, we have a few proven strategies to get to a decision:

Procrastinate. Change can cause unhappiness, but if complaints stop after a day, it's safe to move on. If the whining continues, it's time to sharpen the knife.

Find people who have never seen your idea before, and get their opinion. The industry term for these folks is "tissue testers," because they can be used only once, like a Kleenex. Once they're used, they can no longer give raw feedback.

Bring in trusted advisors who have no stake in the project, and are willing to give blunt feedback. These "truth tellers" will give you informed opinions; take it or leave it.

Armed with these strategies, I hope you'll find your next round of idea-killing more manageable. Remember - the goal is not to protect your concepts. The goal is to get the best ideas possible into your games!

Tom Lin is a co-founder of the video game development company Demiurge Studios, where he also works as creative director. Tom has managed content development for every project through Demiurge's history, including work on Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tom holds a B.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon University.

The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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