Basic Introduction to Game Design

Conceptualization and Idea Generation

Cite this article as: Lennart Nacke. (October 20, 2014). Conceptualization and Idea Generation. The Acagamic. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from

Welcome to week six in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. In this post, we will discuss the conceptualization process in game design. This text follows closely from our textbook (Game Design Workshop, Chapter 6). After having discussed game systems, and the roles that skill, probability, and chance play in games, we are shifting our focus to the idea of concept generation. We need not define the act of gathering together game concepts as a fixed process. In fact, often, it is not. However, there are some methods and techniques that will help you become more structured in creating your game ideas.

Where do you get your game concepts from?

Similar to most creative processes, your game ideas can be inspired by anything and anyone around you. Ideas are everywhere. Being curious helps; so does writing things down. It is a good practice to carry a small notebook with you to jot down game design ideas (rough ones) as they come to you. You can always elaborate on them later, but you will be prone to forget if you do not record them. To help codify a more formal game conceptualization process, our textbook discusses five stages of creativity:

  1. Preparation. You study a topic or set of problems deeply and gain deep understanding  of your chosen area of interest.
  2. Incubation. You keep the subject matter in your mind for a while, but are not consciously working toward any particular idea.
  3. Insight. Your aha-moment, when your idea starts making sense and works itself into a concept.
  4. Evaluation. You evaluate your idea in terms of value of pursuit, that is to say, on the basis of originality, feasibility, and any potential market value.
  5. Elaboration. You formulate your idea completely and turn it into a solid concept. This is the hardest part of ideation.

The stages of this process are not always linear, and can be revisited in iterative cycles. The speed at which an idea turns into a concept depends on the person and any applicable environmental factors, such as the availability of informational resources or helpful colleagues. Also keep in mind that many game designers are inspired by other media as well as their environment. The things around you can trigger several iterations of the creative process to occur every day, and it is up to you to turn those ideas into realities.


A major component of idea generation and game conceptualization is the process of brainstorming. There are some rules that should be applied to the brainstorming process in order to maximize its efficacy:

  • Have a challenge ready. Having a design challenge ready will trigger your creativity. Think of something like designing a game that helps you to connect with loved ones that live far away. Any constraints you can conceive will work well in creating a suitable design challenge.
  • Focus on quantity. You will need lots of ideas in the brainstorming process, because you will need to be able to evaluate them later. The more ideas you capture, the more likely you are to find a good one. Do not critically reflect on ideas during brainstorming, just collect them and move on.
  • Don’t criticize. If you edit or censor your ideas based on their quality, you are missing out on potentially valuable starting points, and slowing down the idea generation process. Also, people that are criticized are less likely to contribute to the process of finding ideas, so make sure to encourage participation of teammates by avoiding negative criticism.
  • Appreciate the uncommon. Even if you think an idea does not work or would consider it unusual, it is often those “strange” ideas that generate great value. They might also serve as stepping stones to even better ideas.
  • Combine and improve. Building upon one another’s ideas is natural and normal during brainstorming, and helps you to generate more ideas, so appreciate the process of mixing and remixing various concepts.
  • Try different methods. While brainstorming can be very effective, you can add different methods into a brainstorming session and possibly become even more creative. See below for some examples of other ideation methods that can be combined with brainstorming.
  • Playful environment. A playful environment will help your ideas to move more quickly, and facilitate inspiration.
  • Put them on the wall. Visualizing your ideas on a wall or a large space that is visible to all participants helps to get everyone “on the same page” and thinking actively.
  • Don’t go for too long. Brainstorming can be physically exhausting, so make sure to give yourself a break during long sessions.

Other Ideation Methods

Brainstorming is not the only creative method in our arsenal. As mentioned above, it makes sense to vary your creative methods from time to time, so you can incorporate some of the following methods into your idea generation process:

  • Make a list. Start listing anything you know about a certain area of interest. Create more than one list, using multiple variations of your core topic. Writing your ideas down helps you generate new ones.
  • Use a deck of index cards. Work with a deck of index cards and write your ideas on them. Make sure to only write down one idea per card. Shuffle the cards, form two decks, and uncover a pair of cards. See how those two ideas work together. You can also do this with more decks, opening up even more combinatorial possibilities.
  • Mind mapping. There are lots of tools available these days that help you create your ideas in form of a mind map (e.g., MindmeisterFreemind). Mind maps are visual representations of the connections between your ideas. These maps branch from one or more core ideas into ideas that are connected to the core concepts. Often, you will use the core concept of your game as the central idea and proceed to outwardly map actions and feelings related to the core concept.
  • Stream of consciousness. You basically start writing down everything that comes to your mind for a couple of minutes (do not worry about writing it properly, just write everything very quickly). Then stop, and read it over. Now you can edit and amend your thoughts.
  • Think aloud. Record yourself while saying whatever comes to your mind. Do this for a couple of minutes, then listen to your recording and transcribe it.
  • Cut-ups. You cut out words from newspapers, magazines, or other reading material, regarding anything that you think is interesting. You scramble your pile of cut-ups and then try to form a game concept based on this collection.
  • Chance collision. Inspired by surrealism, you can generate new ideas by using chance and not paying attention to any particular connection between concepts. Our textbook describes an exercise called “Exquisite Corpse” that uses this technique. This is a game played with words. You write down an article and an adjective on a piece of paper, fold it to conceal what you have written, and pass this on to your neighbour. Now, on the folded paper, they write a noun, fold it again, and pass it on. Then a verb is written, next another article and adjective, and finally, a noun. Now, you read what you have written and try to use this phrase as an idea for a game.
  • Research. Instead of random idea generation, you can also delve into a subject thoroughly and try to understand it. If you are making a game about ice skating, you should go and try ice skating to better understand the experience. For example, the developers of Far Cry 2 went on a trip to Africa to get a feeling for the environment they were trying to create for their game.

Edit and Refine

After you have successfully collected lots of ideas, you should try to edit them, amend them, and transform them into something actionable. This is the evaluation process. Our textbook recommends evaluating an idea based on these concepts:

  • Technical feasibility. You have to check whether your idea works on the platform that you are planning to use and with the technology that you have.
  • Market opportunity. Will people actually care about your idea? Is there a market for it? You should think about why people would buy a game based on your idea.
  • Artistic consideration. Maybe the idea that you have generated does not work well with your team. Maybe it does not fit well with your artistic goals.
  • Business or cost restrictions. Often you have to work within time and budget constraints given in your company, and some ideas may not be realistically feasible given these limitations.

Turning your ideas into a game

Once you have refined your ideas, you need start thinking about how they would work in a game. What would players do in your game? For what goals would they strive? What prevents players from reaching those goals? You want to focus primarily on the formal elements of games that we discussed earlier when starting to sketch out a game based on your ideas.

Further Reading

Am I missing something? Write a comment to this post at the very bottom of the page.

  1. Speaking on “Practical Creativity.” Raph Koster (2014).
  2. Everything is a remix. Kirby Ferguson (2012). Watch the videos.
  3. Experimental Gameplay Project.
  4. How to create ideas for a computer game. Graham Horton.

Further Viewing


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