THE ULTIMATE IDEA
NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.
THE ULTIMATE IDEA
I said in Lesson 1 that nobody will buy your idea. I said in Lesson 11 that nobody will buy your idea unless you're an industry pro with a development team at your beck and call. And in Lesson 21 I gave details about the submission process, should you choose to ignore everything I said in Lessons 1 and 11. But what if you have a
idea? What if your idea is just so mind-bogglingly good that a game exec would be insane (if not just plain stupid) NOT to throw you a million bucks for it?
I got a call from a guy, once*, who was trying to talk me into working with him on his idea. He wasn't willing to pay me anything, of course. He was totally convinced that his idea was one of those killer ideas. I said I was sorry, but I would have to be compensated in real time - that I couldn't work for only a hope of being compensated in the future. He begged me to take a chance: "you haven't even heard the idea yet! Do you not believe that some ideas are just so good that they're worth the risk?"
I shut him up real fast with my reply: "No. I don't."
I was just trying to get rid of the guy. He wasn't an industry pro, and the chances that his idea would take the market by storm if I'd just help him gratis are slim to zero.
But... as I've often said, "Anything is possible." It's even possible that somebody (even an industry outsider) will come up with an "ultimate" game idea. It's that slim possibility that causes many game companies to accept game submissions from industry outsiders. Maybe... just maybe... somebody might come up with an idea that's so good that the game company will risk hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) to implement it into a finished product.
There are two principles I don't think I've effectively communicated in Lessons 1, 11, and 21 that apply to this hypothetical "ultimate idea" scenario. First, there's the problem that it's difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to know for sure that a given idea is "ultimate." Secondly (and more importantly), an idea alone is not enough. No matter how good it is.
RECOGNIZING THE ULTIMATE IDEA
I imagine that if you had the ultimate idea, and if you pitched it to a game company, that many of them would not see it as "the ultimate idea." Let me try to draw two parallels, with two famous hit games of the past. Maybe three (I mean, how many stupid tricks have I listed so far in "Ten Stupid Wannabe Tricks"?)... Pac-Man and Tetris. And maybe Q*bert.
Imagine (pretend) that Pac-Man never existed, that Toru Iwatani had never created it. Imagine that we are still in the early 1980s when the game market was in its infancy, and the audience had not yet acquired sophisticated taste in games. And imagine that it cost as much to make that game as it does to make a typical game of today. With me so far?
Okay. Now imagine that you have the ultimate idea - you envision this awesome fun game played in a maze. The main character of the game is a yellow 2D sphere with a pie-slice mouth and a single eye, and he goes chomp, chomp, eating up the dots in a maze - with special goodies (cherries, bananas, etc.) along the way. And he's chased by ghosts! Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and, Clyde. I think. Okay, so maybe I'm not sure of the ghosts' names. So shoot me. (By the way, the Japanese names for the ghosts differed - but I forget their names too. So cut off my head with a samurai sword.)
Now you take this ultimate idea, which you call "Puck Man" because the yellow sphere kind of reminds you of a hockey puck (or you just like the sound of the word "puck" because you're creatively silly that way)... and you pitch it to the game companies.
How many companies do you think are going to get excited by this ultimate idea? How many companies' submission managers do you think will go "WOW! My socks got knocked off. Where are my socks? And where's my checkbook? I gotta sign this guy right now!" [Note: I hope you answered that hypothetical question realistically, thinking to yourself, "not many - um, okay, not any." If not, you've wasted your time reading this, and you can stop reading now, because I'm not going to be able to get through to you.]
How on earth could you ever take the idea of Pac-Man and pitch it so that anybody would be able to see that it is, in fact, an ultimate idea? You couldn't! Or if you could, you're a better pitchman than me (which isn't saying a lot).
The game Tetris was designed by Alexei Pajitnov in 1980s Russia, when Russia was still a communist country. A state organization had to be formed to handle his invention, since private citizens didn't have commercial rights the way folks do these days in capitalist societies. You don't need to know any of that stuff I just wrote, so don't read it (especially if I got any of it wrong - I just typed it from memory without looking up details on the web, which I should have, but it's the last day of September and I need to get this column written. Oh, and you should ignore that last sentence too.).
Tetris was pitched (as a completed game) to a great number of game companies in the U.S. and Europe, and was rejected by all of them. Until, finally, Spectrum Holobyte decided to take it. And the rest, they say, is history. Which just shows to go ya two things (or maybe three or four once I'm done):
1. All those game companies that turned down Tetris were missing a bet. But they didn't know. They couldn't see that Tetris was an ultimate idea. After it took off, they kicked themselves, of course - but they couldn't have known beforehand. How could they? It's impossible to predict hits. If it was easy to predict hits, it would happen a lot more often!
2. The pitching process is hell. You have this great game and you show it to dozens of companies and nobody wants it. You have to persevere. Keep pitching. Eventually somebody will see the value and take a chance.
(There, I kept it to two things - by squeezing extra points into the two.)
I met a guy who'd worked with the team that made Q*bert. The story of how the game got made is a classic case of... oh, wait. It's a classic case of some guys developing a great idea as they went along, and making the game "on the sly" and springing it on the boss as a fait accomplit. It's not really an example of what I'm talking about in this Lesson. So... never mind!
AN IDEA ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
I don't care how good your idea is. Making games is about much more than the idea itself. It's also about vision, commitment, ability, hard work, and talent.
Who Are You? - You have a great idea. But who you are determines your qualifications for knowing that it's really a great idea. And who you are determines the impression you'll make on the submissions manager you pitch your idea to. And who you are determines your ability to act on your idea (you can't just sell the idea and then walk away while others do the work - you have to be involved).
The point of all the above is this:
A Vision - A game is more than a story idea, more than an imaginary world populated by interesting characters you unleash to do unexpected interactions together, more than a fun mental exercise. A game is also a product that will emerge from a lengthy development project. If your vision doesn't acknowledge and encompass the process by which the game will be made and sold and supported, then your vision is incomplete. And its value is lessened considerably. Your idea must be informed by a working understanding of how the game industry functions in the real world.
Commitment - Nobody will pay you money for your paper presentation, then expect you to go lie on a beach while others do the work. Your participation doesn't end with your writing it down and pitching it. Even after it's been greenlit, there will still be a lot to do. You have to be committed to the vision for the long run. It often happens that "the morning after," when the bright light of day opens our eyes, we have a different perspective on the events of the previous day(s). People may lose sight of the initial excitement about the idea. World events or marketing events may occur that change things. If you stay involved, you are able to continue to infect the others with your ongoing enthusiasm for the project.
Hard Work - As a game industry professional, you already know how much work goes into making a game. If you're not a game industry professional, you must not be reading this, because I should have already alienated you in Lesson 1. Or Lesson 11. Or Lesson 21. If you're not a game industry professional, then WHY NOT? If you have a passion for designing games, then come on in! Despite what you may have heard, the water's fine.
Talent - You can't just have a good idea, enthusiasm, and a good work ethic. You also have to be good at what you do, in order to make a successful game. (I only wrote this paragraph because I'd listed "talent" above. If you didn't need this paragraph, then pretend I didn't write it.)
An idea alone is not enough. Even if it's the ultimate idea.
Being a game industry pro is not enough.
Commitment alone is not enough.
Hard work alone won't hack it.
Being talented isn't enough, either.
YOU NEED ALL OF THESE ELEMENTS, to turn your idea into a finished product.
Oh. And money too. I wrote an article on game finances in April 2001 (while I was in Tokyo for the Tokyo Game Show) about Financial Aspects of Game Development.
Let me just say this last thing about "ultimate" game ideas. I get people all the time wanting me to evaluate their ideas. And I couldn't care less about what their game ideas are. All game ideas are "ultimate." And all game ideas suck. Because the game idea alone is nothing without your passion and your hard work and perseverence and your realistic plan to carry it through.
"I can't tell you if your business is good. I can't tell you if your idea is good. If you feel passionate about it, do it and don't be afraid to fail. In fact, failure should motivate you - it does that for me."
- Ben Kaufman, who inc.com dubbed America's #1 coolest young "30 under 30" entrepreneur for 2007.
Think you have an Ultimate Idea? Well, how can you tell?
Take ... The 10-Minute Game Sales Potential Test
How can you tell if a game has the potential to become a huge hit based only on its design? Marketing executives at major publishers have sophisticated tools to evaluate that kind of things, but you donít need all that complexity to find the potential of your idea. With just a few questions, you can evaluate the marketability of your game.
The test is at
http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20070212/garneau_01.shtml. Good luck!
*Actually, this hasn't happened just once. It's happened to me at least three times, just in the past year. Having a website like this brings calls in. And sometimes it takes a few conversations before I figure out what the caller really has in mind. And it usually isn't "I want to pay Tom to help me." Go figure. But I digress. Um, I guess I'm done now.
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© 2003 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.