We’ve all been there. You’re reading an article and suddenly, the best idea for a game (story, song, insert creative endeavor here) you have ever had ignites itself into a burning desire in your mind. This creative masterpiece is screaming to be let out and be shared with the world. You jot down some ideas on the nearest page, notebook, napkin, or text message so you don’t forget it. This is it! You just know that this is “The One”. Since we’ve all had them, and only a handful have been really made into the masterpiece, how do we actually finish that project? I’m going to guide you through a series of steps and structure to keep you excited about your magnificent magnum opus so you can actually turn it into the finished product to share with the world.
Start with the End in Mind
Now that you are thoroughly inspired, panting heavily over a dinner napkin, and the other patrons of the restaurant think you are having wild visions into a coffee stain, let's focus a little bit. You have a great idea of the character, the conflict, a setting, or some aspect of the project. We need to figure out how to get to the end of the project. We can take a hint from our engineer friends and figure out, what is the final product and how can we reverse engineer it? How does the conflict resolve? What does the awe-inspiring setting you just dreamed up actually have an end? How does this character end up that you just dreamed of? By figuring out the end of the project and then defining where we start, we have laid out the trajectory of our story. Then, our job is to just continue creating ways to fill in the gap. It is VERY easy to continue writing and creating when you know where you’re going. This point can NOT be overstated! Every time you sit down to work on the project, you will be excited to create the next branch of the story and continue telling the world about your masterwork idea. Now that we have some sort of a rough trail of where we need to go, let’s focus on drawing the map to get there.
Turns out these guys and gals reverse engineer because it works!
Support Your Theme
As we begin filling in the epic crevasse that is your storyline, we need to continue creating more focus and direction, so it becomes easier and easier to create. Also, a huge part of the audience walking away with a great impression of the final work, we want them to walk away with a feeling. To “hit um in the feelz”, we have to have something believe in. Themes are hiding somewhere in almost every project, and are absolutely present in every masterpiece. These can be as simple as “Good vs Evil”, or “love always triumphs”, or they can be more complex or more specific as well. Think about, what is the message or feeling that I want my audience to walk away with? What is so great about the original idea I came up with, and how can I support that aspect of the idea? Write it down. We are going to use this as our compass as we create. The more we support this idea, both subtly and loudly, the more believable the work of art becomes. The conflicts we create, situations we put characters in, and even the characters that we decide to create will all end up supporting this idea in some way or another. Speaking of, let’s talk about characters next.
Oh - That's how it works!
As much as we love all of the other parts of the creative process, most of the time, the characters are one of the main reasons the player continues on. World building takes time. Plot lines take time. Characters develop in lines of dialogue. They are the quickest to anchor us to the game so we keep playing. The characters humanize the game and make it hit close to home. There are some great things to consider about creating better characters, so we are only going to scratch the surface for your Main Character. Another great article to reference for character building can be found here. We are going to want to pick a static character or a dynamic character for the main protagonist. There are all variations, but here are some main differences in usage. Many times, static characters already hold the ideals, beliefs, and characteristics of a hero. In this case, we use conflicts, scenarios, and interactions to tie these characteristics, beliefs and ideals back to support our theme. By not changing much, many times static characters also become an extension of the player, so it is used very frequently in the gaming world. Dynamic characters are ones that show and experience growth and change throughout the story. These types of characters are great to help support the main theme, because you can start them with no opinion or awareness of the theme, and through your story crafting, they are “forced” onto the side of your message or theme. These types of characters work great for non-conventional themes because as the character is “convinced”, so is our player.
World Building, Setting, and Color Schemes
Settings, and worlds can play a huge part of the flavor of the project. Walking away from a space blaster game will leave you with a different impression than a modern warplane, which is different than even a WWII era flyer. The music and color schemes for your artwork really evoke different emotions here, so don’t be afraid to try different palettes and genres. Is your theme serious? Do neon, fruity colors suit that type of project? Not for the entirety, but they can be sprinkled in, if done correctly. Ensure you keep it believable, which means smooth transitions and plenty of backstory of “how” and “why” before you blast out a hot pink forest in your otherwise natural RPG project.
That looks AMAZING! But, how did it get that way?
Gameplay to Support
Gameplay is the last part to decide on, because many times, your gameplay decision IS your theme. For some game types, these two are interchangeable, if not replacements for each other. So, if you are creating a platformer, maybe you have a theme you want to get across. More likely, you want to have the audience walk away with the fact your platformer brought awesome gameplay to the table that you had never seen. This would replace your theme, and all of the mentioned tips would instead be used to support the gameplay instead. You still need a story, you still need characters, and you still need a world. The theme for Mario is far different than the theme for Dragon Age. One is narrative focused, and the other is gameplay focused. For the best projects, there is an area of overlap. Great platformers, FPS, and RPGs all use gameplay to support the story, and vice versa. FPS about teamwork? Team perks. Platformer about exploration? X-ray vision tool, flight and digging possibilities. RPG about diverse characters? 30 team members and tactical battle system to use them all. This is where design meets narrative, and is a huge part of the player experience.
Routines for Success
Lastly, the best way to finish a project, is to be consistent in creating daily. None of these other ideas work, unless you do! Set up a routine so that you can put time aside daily to work on this awesome project. One hour every morning before you start the rest of your morning routine or every night before bed, you can’t finish your day until you write one page of storyboarding. Whatever you can fit into your schedule, make it happen. Give yourself permission to create a great project. No amount of just daydreaming will bring it to life, you have to get to work! Please, find a way to work on it daily, or even weekly. Bring it to life! I am looking forward to playing it.