Gravity Ghost

Sustainable Inspiration

Maintaining your creative gusto throughout a project is nearly impossible. When you're feeling creatively depleted, it's tempting to either soldier on and hate every second, or give up completely.

But I think there's another option: actively filling up your inspiration stores. These are a few ways I know of to give yourself a creativity burst and get mentally 'un-stuck'.

1) Screensavers save

I've been saving cool images on my hard drive for years, but they mostly end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. Then I learned of a better alternative in a GDC talk by Hanford Lemoore. His idea: set that folder of cool images to be your screen saver.

I've adopted this idea and I think it's great. It brings up all sorts of neat things I had nearly forgotten - derelict buildings, nice illustrations, funny cat pictures, etc. And something about how the images are shuffled randomly, playing only for a few seconds, makes you process them in a different way.

The difference in emotional tone between a picture of ancient pottery and a cartoon about Kermit the Frog really jolts your creative side. You only have a second to think, 'Oh, that's neat' before something else takes its place.

"We're context-free!"

What I didn't expect was how immediately relevant some of the pictures were to my game. It wasn't long before I started to see solutions to my game design problems. E.g.: When I wasn't sure how to fill out the vertical space in a certain level, I came upon picture after picture of waterfalls and bridges.

It would be easy to create a shared folder (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) and have several friends save images to it. I imagine it'd be like a shared iTunes library of visual inspiration. If anyone decides to try this, let me know.

2) Buckets, not lists

I found so many images in my collection that were directly relevant to my game that I started putting them in one folder. But when that started to get chaotic, I thought of a bit of design advice given to me by Robin Hunicke: "Buckets, not lists." That is, it's better to group things into broad categories than simply add them to a pile.

I applied the buckets rule to my pile of Gravity Ghost inspiration images. I look at these all the time, and add to them almost daily. Here, friends, are my buckets:

I use these folders mostly as stored inspiration for art style and mood for different sections of the game. This is from the folder marked "Spring":

And this one is from the cryptically titled "Terrariums+Geometry"...

A few inspirational quotes have snuck in too.

Preach on, Jake.

There are a few websites designed to let you save images you like (E.g. Pinterest, like this random person's folder for "Design"). It's very different from something like tumblr, which only lets you aggregate things in one place. If you don't mind keeping your images online, these sites can help you keep large quantities of inspiration manageable.

3) Cast your net wider

You'll notice that none of the images above are related to video games, and I don't think that's an accident. Video games have a well-established set of aesthetic themes, and I'm trying to stay away from them. Not because those choices are bad, but because I want to create something unique.

Little Big Planet used the rendering power of the PS3 not to create realistic-looking humans, but to make the game look like it was entirely handmade. I'm a sucker for original art styles.

The inspirational quotes folder strikes again!

I understand there are important business decisions that go into determining the look and feel of a game. But if you're here, you've probably got a bit of an indie bent, and I encourage you to cast your net wider. And not just for art - for settings, for protagonists, for game mechanics, and anything else you think games now are missing.

We've got enough games based on other games. Look to your hobbies, your travel photos, your favorite childhood books, etc. and see what comes back. I bet your creativity will surprise you.

4) Step away from the computer

Recently I started to feel like none of my work was getting done fast enough. I knew that wasn't accurate, but I realized one of the culprits was probably the handful of constantly-updating websites I like to visit.

So, I took a two-week Twitter and Facebook vacation. Already I appreciate the larger attention span I have for my design, art, and coding problems. It's amazing how much you can actually get done in an hour if you set aside everything else.

It's largely overlooked that there's a deep pleasure to really getting your head into a problem, and the even greater payoff when you think of a solution. But it takes time to get into this state, and involves barricading yourself against interruptions.

For a bit of celebrity endorsement of that idea, here's John Cleese talking about creating 'oases of space and time' in which to work on your problems.

A 10 minute internet video? I believe in you.

5) Explain your problem to people who aren't into games

Nothing will toss you into a social black hole as much as talking to people who don't have anything to do with video games. You'll find half of your normal subjects of conversation cut off (and maybe even a chunk of your vocabulary). But before you swear off the idea, hear me out.

Last year I saw a talk by the creators of the Zooniverse project. It was a crowdsourcing site to classify galaxies photographed by the Hubble. They thought they might find a few volunteers, but they underestimated the internet's desire to contribute to science. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of galaxies was sorted in two weeks. Talk about inspiration.

Weather balloon and weather balloon.

After the talk, I went to dinner with the astronomers and a few people from our educational games group. I ended up seated across from an astronomer who hadn't played a video game since the original Super Mario Bros. (he didn't remember which one). When he found out I was a video game designer, he said, "Okay, explain video games to me. I know there's something to them because I can't get my kids to stop playing them."

I tried giving a few examples from different genres, but he hadn't heard of any of the games I mentioned. So I came up with an explanation based on Mario:

- There's nothing that says jumping on turtles and colliding with walls should be any fun, yet we know how popular Mario is.

- The answer is good game design.

- A game design is made up of nouns and verbs. Mario's main verbs are running and jumping. If we replaced all the art, it'd still be a game about running and jumping.

- It's the game designer's job to make sure those verbs are absolutely as enjoyable as possible.

- None of the verbs matter without nouns to act on.

- What the nouns are is not as important as the way the verbs affect them (e.g. turtles being 'stompable').

At this point, the astronomer said, "Ah, so Mario doesn't have to be going through pipes..." and I said, "Right, they could be ladders, or slides, or elevators." "And it wouldn't change the game design." "Precisely."

Maybe not the most elegant of explanations, but I was satisfied with that breakthrough. I then talked a bit about how a game designer would adjust actual numbers for things like jump velocity (trying to think of things an astronomer would care about).

I also talked about how a game designer would create levels that asked more and more of the players' running and jumping skills, and I think he got the point. I suggested that maybe his kids enjoyed their games because they offered an optimal level of challenge as their skills increased. He nodded and said he would ask them, and I could tell he was really thinking.

That conversation crystallized a few things in my mind about what exactly my job is. All the artistic flourish in the world won't matter if the game's main verbs aren't fun from moment-to-moment. Keeping that in mind is a good way to focus on what's important about the game, and where to best expend my energy.

I'll give another quick example. One of my best friends is a massage therapist. The last time she came to visit I started to complain about problems with our asset server, then realized I had to first explain what that was. While explaining that, I realized there were important things to work on that didn't require the asset server to be fixed. Boom, productivity boost.

6) The world is your Wikipedia

The last suggestion I wanted to make is a bit more subtle. I believe that the more research you do about the subject of your game, the better the final product will be. Everything you can teach yourself will deepen your pool of potential inspiration. Think of it as going on an 'information raid', pulling in large chunks of knowledge in a limited time.

Age of Accuracy II

In the strategy game X-COM, there is an energy source called Elerium-115 that is only found in the alien enemy's ships. It's incredibly valuable, but it's so fragile that setting off explosives too close to an alien power source will destroy it. Retrieving even a small quantity of this resource involves careful deliberation in a way that makes the game more interesting.

Elerium-115 isn't just an invented sci-fi resource. It's based on a real element of atomic number 115 ("Ununpentium"). In reality they haven't been able to make an isotope of Ununpentium with a half-life longer than a few milliseconds, making it pretty useless as an energy source.

Still, certain 'UFO experts' have been claiming it as a possible energy source for alien spacecraft since at least the 1980s. The idea is compelling enough that Ununpentium has shown up as an energy source not just in X-COM, but in Dark Reign, the Call of Duty series, and Tomb Raider III.

Is it possible that the X-COM designers would have had the idea to make an energy source rare, valuable, and fragile without knowing about Ununpentium? Of course. But by relating their alien technology to physical elements, I think they created a much richer narrative device, and lent some legitimacy to this alien technology.

I think this goes beyond appealing to the hard sci-fi crowd. This bit of extra research on the part of the designers probably gave them gameplay ideas.

I think that no matter what kind of game you're making, there's always something you can do to enrich your knowledge of the subject. Will Wright made Sim Ant by trying to simulate the behavior of real ants as closely as possible, and that insight fed directly into the creation of the Sims. Did you know each object in a Sim's house gives off 'pheromones'?

I consider seeking out inspiration to be a part of my creative process. I have a few sites I like to visit for this, but I'm always looking for more. So: what are your sources of inspiration? Now taking suggestions.

Comments (7) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Great Article! I’ll try a few of these out I think.

    I’m a filmmaker/artist, here are some things I do for inspiration:

    Listening to Music that generates strong imagery, like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and a lot of east coast, 90′s Hip-Hop. I also enjoy wondering what music my characters would like and build playlists they’d have.

    Going for a walk, I find not being sat in front of a computer and being in motion helps for ideas to form. You might also come across unique things.

    Studying philosophy questions, analogies and metaphors and thinking how can I illustrate them in different ways.

    Looking at art that’s out of my comfort zone, from galleries of games I’ve never played to the graffiti of foreign countries.

    If all else fails I’ll eat a lot of cheese and go to bed.

  2. Great advice in this, thanks very much :D
    Always knew there was a reason I kept all those images on my computer!

  3. You forgot, E-115 also appeared in Avatar (“Ununpentium” would sound just like “unobtainium” when pronounced. Clever, huh?).

  4. Thanks for these! I already do most of these but hadn’t put a lot of thought into why.

    My favorite for random inspiration?
    Others – sites like, or quite often: take an image that you feel inspires you for your game – do a google image search on it and see what else you find.

    Lastly a favorite technique: Take a basis for the game idea (the primary emotions, high concept or theme or main mechanic) and imagine transposing that to a non-game medium (i.e. if I had to express what I wanted to with this game as a short documentary, how would I do it?). It’s a bit like explaining things to non-game-people in that it requires some healthy reductivism.

  5. Go to Flickr and type in anything related to your game and see what comes up. Pretty neat sometimes.

  6. Great article. Lately I’ve found myself googling words and phrases I associate with my current game. Straightforward associations sometimes provide fodder for my own buckets of visual inspiration thanks to the Images tab; more oblique associations occasionally lead to connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise.

  7. I’m a bit surprised music didn’t get a mention! My comfy pair of headphones have broken many a creative block. Other than that, if I feel my gears are spinning a bit too quickly I try to hit the wilderness. A night camping leaves me better grounded and able to think clearly.

    Mad props for the Adventure Time reference XD

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