Of all the many tools at my disposal as a game designer one of the most important is my own subconscious.
Over the years I’ve learned to listen to it more and more, and it almost never steers me wrong. On the other hand, ignoring it has often proved to be a bad plan, and I’ve learned the hard way that having a “niggle” about something not being quite right is my backbrain’s way of telling me that something needs more work.
The way I see it, I’ve been reading, writing and playing games for decades, and even if I don’t consciously recall every detail it’s all in there somewhere. Whilst my conscious brain may struggle to find something or make a connection, my subconscious is happy to plod away for as long as it takes to find the link. When it does so then it’ll let me know. Unfortunately its voice is very quiet and hard to discern among the daily clamour. You have to learn to listen. This is where (apparent) idleness comes in.
In common with many writers, I think that my most creative time is when I’m not actually writing. It’s the random thought when you’re in the shower, trying to get to sleep, making a cup of tea or whatever. In other words, when your conscious brain is in neutral and the subconscious can dump something in your forebrain’s in-tray without interference. A flash of inspiration, if you will.
Intuition is another word for the back-brain’s voice – a feeling, a sense that something is either right or wrong. The why of it is usually the conscious rationalising things after the event because it likes tidy solutions. However, I’m increasingly inclined to just believe my game design intuition because it is generally right. If something I’m working on is right then it feels right. If it’s wrong then it doesn’t sit comfortably in my head and I know that I’ll eventually get the reason why or the solution from my back-brain – if I listen.
The way it works is simple. I’ll be beavering away writing something or testing out some new rule and I’ll get a sense of whether it’s done or not. Even when something works mechanically and might seem on the face of it like a neat idea it sometimes just doesn’t click into place properly. As I’ve said before, rules are seldom bad in an abstract sense, just out of place. The trick I’ve found is to frame the problem clearly in my mind and then just let it percolate for a bit. Do something else, preferably unrelated, and don’t worry about it.
Of course, there are alternatives. I can sit and work through a checklist of mechanical options and will get something that works. Writing rules that function to some degree is easy. Getting things to work smoothly and elegantly with a host of interesting emergent tactical options is much, much harder when working down a checklist.
Now I appreciate that this may sound rather like New Age nonsense. However, I’m not suggesting anything magical here – quite the contrary. I’m talking merely about how my brain stores and recovers over 3 decade’s of gaming experience and how to best work with that system (which I can’t change) rather than ignoring it. It seems to me that “doing nothing” ie not actively writing or sitting designing is a vital part of the process as it allows the other half of my brain to join in and be heard. Just as two heads are better than one, so two halves of my brain are better than one 🙂