5 Tips to Improve the Way You Brainstorm
If you’re a game designer, you’ve probably done your fair share of brainstorming. Level design ideas, content design ideas, or even full game concepts often find their beginnings in a brainstorming meeting. You get the design team in a room, give your team sugary, ultra-caffeinated drinks and don’t let them out until you’ve got a whiteboard full of kickass ideas, some of which eventually find their way into the game.
If I’m being honest, I can also say that at one point or another, I’ve sat through a brainstorming meeting that seemed pointless, didn’t yield anything usable, and/or strayed wildly off track. Something that was supposed to encourage creativity had instead become a waste of time.
Let’s rewind a few years back… To 2012, when I was the design director at Playfish, and The Sims Social was one of the most popular games on Facebook. At that time, we were grinding out content packs at the steady, unrelenting pace of once a week.
And to keep up with that schedule, we brainstormed once a week, which turned out to be… A lot. It wasn’t that the designers weren’t motivated; in truth, the designers at Playfish were some of the most dedicated and creative I had ever worked with. But I kept feeling that we could be getting more out of the hour we were spending.
So, like I usually do, I read some, and thought some. I analyzed our current approach. The following week, i decided to make a few key changes to our meetings that led to some really positive results.
So: here they are! Five simple things that you can do to improve brainstorming meetings for your team.
1. Invite non-designers to participate.
Brainstorm meetings are often the very first step in the long process of creating game content. The discussion is usually very high level, where you’re simply collecting ideas rather than evaluating them — an open space where anything goes. This makes it really easy for anyone on the team to join in, regardless of their role.
Giving everyone a chance to participate is also a great way to gain the support of your team and build confidence in you as a leader. So invite the artists, coders, audio crew or even QA — good ideas can come from anyone. Most people enjoy being creative (even if it’s just for an hour) and jump at the chance to contribute something that ends up in the final game.
Even better, inviting outsiders into the design process can be beneficial for the designers! The design team is the closest to the game, and can sometimes lose their ability to challenge the constraints they live with, day to day. This can overflow into brainstorming; meaning that the amount of left field, crazy, outside-the-box ideas tend to decrease over time — unless you do something about it. Bringing in non-designers is a great way to keep things exciting in your brainstorming sessions.
This needs to be done in a somewhat thoughtful way, however. Inviting your whole team into the meeting can be counter productive; too large of a group and things get out of hand, fast. A very large group means people talking on top of one another, side conversations, a general lack of focus. Even the best leader is going to be challenged here (I’ve led some absolutely bonkers brainstorming meetings by inviting the entire art team in at once. It can be incredibly fun, but yeah, not the most productive meetings I’ve ever seen).
So what I’ve found to work is to periodically send out an email to your team with a simple request:
“Are you interested in being a part of our brainstorming process? If so, reply to this email with a simple ‘Yes’ to be added to the list.”
Or post it on your team wiki. However you think will be most effective for your team to let you know they want to join.
Keep this list somewhere, and keep it current. Then, every time you schedule a brainstorm session, add a few people on the list to your meeting. Work your way through that list, giving everyone a turn.
I’m not specifying the “right” number of people to invite here because it really has more to do with the size of your design team, and how big of a meeting you feel you’re able to handle. For us, with 6-8 designers, I often invited 3-4 others in addition to that group and found that worked really well for us.
Varying up the brainstorming group from week to week can really impact the range of ideas that are produced, in a positive way. The key here is to ensure that you have your core participants that are there every week (the design team) that help keep the structure of the meeting constant, but you’ll have fresh, interesting ideas added to the mix from the newcomers. Everyone wins, yay!
2. Write the subject or problem to be solved on a whiteboard or somewhere prominent in the room.
I know what you’re thinking here: “Brilliant! I never would have thought of that!” Yeah, yeah, ok. Stay with me, because here’s the important bit. Underneath your main topic, add 3-6 sub-points that help define that main topic, or in some way help give context to what you’re brainstorming.
For example, when we brainstormed for The Sims Social, we had several categories of content we had to come up with for each release, like quests, objects for Sims to interact with, and furniture styles. So I’d write the theme up at the top of the board, and then separate the space by defining the different types of content we needed to brainstorm beneath that.
Theme: Alice in Wonderland
Objects | Quests | Decorative Items | (etc etc, whatever else we needed to come up with)
This also works if you’re brainstorming for a particular game area or level. You can set the stage for the level with what you know already:
Level: Pirate Ship
Restrictions: The entire experience must take place on the ship
Level | Enemies | Boss | Etc
Adding details underneath the main topic gives participants a starting point for their thinking and allows them to attack the problem in a more specific and relevant way. Often, giving people the space to “imagine anything” has the opposite effect, yielding fewer ideas, simply because they don’t know where to begin. So add some guidelines or qualifiers to help your participants out, and you’ll get more, and better suggestions.
3. Use the first five minutes of your meeting to allow people to brainstorm individually.
The goal here is to allow each person time to come up with their own ideas, before they can be influenced by others in the meeting. Why is this important? Because it’s been proven that brainstorming meetings are ineffective in encouraging a large range of ideas. This occurs because people are, understandably, influenced by the ideas of others. Additional ideas tend to converge rather than become more unique and varied during the course of a meeting.
Back when I was at Playfish, I knew that all we had to do was add some individual brainstorming time, but figured that simply asking people to spend the time brainstorming on their own probably wouldn’t work. So instead, I changed the structure of our brainstorm meetings so that each one started with a 5-minute individual brainstorm.
Here’s what I did:
- Prep the meeting room: Have paper/sticky notes and pens waiting on the table before the meeting starts.
- As people enter the room, remind them that the first five minutes of the meeting is to be used to brainstorm individually on the topic (which you’ve already written on the whiteboard). Tell each person to grab a pen and a sticky note and start writing down ideas.
- Enforce a strict ‘No talking’ rule during this time.
As with any new process, this is going to be more work in the beginning, because people need time to learn the routine. When I introduced this idea to my brainstorming group, I first explained what we were going to be doing (come up with ideas on your own first), as well as why we were doing it (it’s been shown that people come up with more ideas when asked to work alone). Luckily, my team at Playfish was totally on board to try this out (so thankful they were willing to humor me 😉 ), and after a couple of meetings, they had the routine down.
As a bonus, individual brainstorming is a really effective way to kick off a meeting; you’re putting your team into a situation where the meeting topic is ALL they have to think about, in a quiet place sans the typical distractions of IMs, direct reports asking questions, or spammy Outlook notifications. They are in the room, with a solitary task, and they can focus all of their attention on it. Once the discussion begins, you reap the benefits of that focused mindset.
We found that spending the first five minutes this way was always worthwhile. It took us only one meeting to see the beneficial difference this time made – the range and the quality of ideas increased exponentially. Try it!
4. Everyone that attends the meeting is required to participate.
I require participation in brainstorming meetings because they are safe; largely free from any criticism, and a fear of criticism is one of the biggest reasons that people are less likely to speak up in a meeting. So let everyone know ahead of time that they should be prepared to share their ideas, and then calm any anxiety by by reminding your group that just about anything goes, and there’s definitely no “right” answer when brainstorming.
Requiring everyone to contribute also addresses a problem I used to run into a lot while running meetings: If your group is on the larger side, you’ll soon find that you have 2-3 people that dominate the discussion, while others add absolutely nothing to the meeting because they never speak.
The solution to this is to structure at least the first 10 minutes of the discussion time so that everyone is required to contribute an idea. And this is actually really easy to do.
Assuming you spent the first five minutes of your meeting brainstorming individually, each person in the room now has a list of super awesome ideas sitting in front of them. Pick someone to start, and then work your way around the room in order, giving each person a turn to suggest one idea from what they’ve written down. That’s it — one idea — easy.
During the first rotation, I am fairly strict about this: one idea and then it’s the next person’s turn. But once we make it all around the room, it pretty much becomes a free for all. It’s up to you, though, as the meeting leader, to keep it going or open it up. I usually do whatever I think will keep everyone engaged as well as making sure that my softer-spoken colleagues get a chance to share.
Requiring all attendees to participate provides the following additional benefits:
- It discourages lurkers from attending your meetings (people that waste time by attending meetings but never participating). Brainstorming meetings are for brainstorming. If someone doesn’t want to help out with that task, then that person should be somewhere else, doing something else.
- It supports the team value that good ideas can come from anyone on the team, and it’s everyone’s job to speak up. (Read: increases team investment in the quality of the end product.
- It prevents the more outspoken members of the group from completely controlling the meeting (although you’ll have to work a bit to ensure this).
5. Be an active and engaging group leader.
This is by far, the most challenging item on this list, because it’s hardly a single line item… Being a great leader is actually a lot of smaller tasks rolled into one. I could probably have written an entire post on this, and maybe I will one day, but for now, this is what you get: number 5, a short list of tips on how to keep your brainstorm meetings on the rails by leading well:
- Never sit. You’re leading the meeting, and when you’re standing up at the front of the room, you’re a visual reminder of that.
- Record all the incoming ideas yourself. This seems like an easy job to delegate, but if you aren’t the one at the whiteboard, you’re actually relinquishing some of the control over the meeting. Hang onto that marker, at least for a while. (Eventually, I had all of the designers leading their own brainstorms, but when you’re first getting into a routine, you need to be the constant.)
- Monitor the pacing of the conversation. You’re responsible for facilitating the discussion and getting those creative juices flowing. If people are having a hard time getting started, throw a couple ideas out yourself, or ask someone you know usually has great ideas to start.
When someone comes up with an idea that’s particularly compelling, ask questions to encourage the group to discuss it further.
“How do you see that working?” “What would you expect to happen when…?”
If you’re asked a direct question, turn it around and ask the asker that question instead.
Question: “Are there any skills that players should use in this level?”
Answer: “Do you have any ideas about that?”
(Note that you only want to do this if the question you’ve been asked pertains to the topic at hand. If you do this with every design question you get asked, you may find yourself deep down a rabbit hole, where the discussion is nowhere near the place you started.)
- Police the group as little as possible. Easier said than done, I know. So when is it necessary? Well, here are the times where I usually stop the conversation:
- When designers are getting too far into debating the merits of a particular idea: “There will be time to discuss the details outside the meeting. For now let’s keep moving.” Don’t be afraid to stop the conversation if it’s not a good use of the time.
- Someone suggests a compelling idea that doesn’t fit at all within the context of the meeting: “Giraffes on roller skates sounds epic, so I’ll write that down for us to discuss later. Now let’s get back to city-building mechanics.”
- Someone suggests something that is wildly off-brand. This may or may not be an issue for your particular game, but it did come up every so often on The Sims, a popular IP that has very specific guidelines as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. So… “A gangster week that includes Sims shooting at one another with guns? Yeah, sorry guys, that isn’t going to fly. Let’s come up with something else.”
In all of these situations, you should first gauge the impact your interruption is going to have on the meeting. If you determine it’s necessary, then stop the conversation from going too far, but evaluate each instance on its own because sometimes it’s that crazy, in between, seemingly irrelevant conversation that results in something magical.
Running brainstorm meetings is hard work! But I also find it incredibly rewarding. There are those moments when a group really gets into the flow, bouncing off of each other’s ideas, coming up with innovative content, and having fun while doing it. I can honestly say that our brainstorming meetings at Playfish were some of my favorite moments working on The Sims Social.
If this list was helpful to you, let me know!