Creativity isn't about being overrun with ideas, but rather having the right ones

Oscar Clark on understanding priorities

Creativity isn't about being overrun with ideas, but rather having the right ones

When you think about games and creativity, it's easy to make an assumption that what matters is most is the initial idea. This is rarely true.

Ideas are everywhere. Show me a designer and I'll show you someone who has a dozen amazing game ideas every day. If that's the case what is the source of a great game and how important is creativity to the creation of a game.

The initial spark can come from many sources but it's rare, perhaps except for the indie one-man band, for it to come from a single moment of inspiration.

Instead, problem solving is perhaps the quintessential driver for real creativity - understanding a problem and finding the best solution.

What's your problem?

The problems can be about finding the fun, making something simpler, perhaps getting past a material obstacle such as a technical limitation or even doing something we don't have the skill to solve yet.

Creativity is essential to problem solving, but this isn't something limited to a few gifted individuals. It's not magical or rare.

Instead, it requires work, research and experience, as well as the freedom to explore purposefully. Just as importantly, everyone involved has to have a common understanding of the problem they are trying to resolve.

We live in a new age of design where we have access to huge amounts of information about player's attitudes, needs and responses to our games.

But, to shamelessly paraphrase Edward de Bono - one of the best known advocates of Creative thinking - in his book Creative Ideas: 62 Exercises To Develop The Mind: "There is the belief that all you need to do is collect data and analyse it... ... it's not true".

Data is not the same as insight and few problems have one obviously dominant solution. That's when a creative approach comes into its own.

Creativity starts by understanding the constraints. What are we trying to achieve and what makes that important? What are the boundaries and where are we free to explore? How do we measure the success and suitability of the idea?

In this way we create a defined space for the idea and a chance to slice up the problem into a bite sized chunks.

Head full of fuzz

Goals are important to success, but that doesn't mean we have to define everything about the solution we need. We can use fuzzy goal ideas that give a direction to the thinking process without necessarily being entirely measurable.

Cambridge researcher Alan Blackwell and his colleagues called these Pole Star Visions. Indeed, his work proposed that it was essential for radical innovation, particularly with interdisciplinary teams, to have these kinds of flexible goal.

That reminds me think of how I learn to use a kind of high-level vision to drive long term planning for projects I worked on as this helps keep a sense of continuity as well as informing the prioritisation process.

I like to think of it like the location of Neverland in Peter Pan - "First star to the right and straight home till morning". Pole Star Visions help us deliver a sense of Vector (speed and direction) without having to close down what you practically need to deliver next.

Once we have set the scene and decided the amount of time we are prepared to set aside for our creative process we are free to explore, test and examine that space with the people around us, by doing research or even using formal exercises which help us adjust our perspective on the problem.

De Bono's Six Thinking Hats asks us to take turns with different objectives, from the Process to the Feelings, Benefits and Facts associated with the problem as well as taking both a Creative and Cautious approach to the problem.

Disney, and in particular Pixar, talk about the 'plussing' method to create constructive conflict encouraging criticism but requiring that to come with a new idea or proposal; a plus.

There are lots of other techniques (formal and informal) of course from identifying the 'odd-man-out' from a selection of ideas, looking for associations between different them to the use of randomisation to shake up our thinking.

All of these serve the same essential purpose; to create new ways to think around the problem.

A matter or priorities

Having the freedom to explore is essential, but at some point we have to start to head back towards our goals. We need to stop expanding the available pool of ideas as start to simplify them.

That's when the closing questions and the judgement and cynicism become really important and valuable.

At first the questioning of your ideas can help drive the process to new areas of thought; but in time we need to start thinking about actions which approaches give us the best resolution of our original goals.

This for me is where the real work of creation happens; when we prioritise.

Making a choice to simplify your ideas down to the most basic, straight forward and most essential elements is the quintessential skill of the creative person.

It's like a bad joke or a curse to be set against all creative people who are brimming over with a wellspring of ideas that at the end day, their real job is to cut away all of their best ideas and to break them down to that one; essential, simple idea that best fits the specific goal.

As William Faulkner once wrote "In writing, you must kill your darlings". This is the true measure of success for creativity.

It's not about how many ideas you have, but rather if you can work out the best idea to solve the problem.

An online and mobile expert since 1998, Oscar Clark is the evangelist for gameplay video sharing tool Everyplay from Applifier. Oscar is giving a Masterclass on Creativity in Games at Game Connection in Paris on 5 December 2013.