Last time I talked about that step of deciding whether you’ve got a viable project on your hands or just an idea that still needs some work before you can turn it into something. Once you’ve made it past that step, you’re really in danger of entering the Chapel Perilous of potential idea debt. In some ways, the best thing that can happen is for you to realize that you don’t actually want to do whatever you were thinking about doing. Maybe the idea isn’t as exciting now that you’ve started to think about the work required to bring it to life. Maybe you realize you just don’t have time. Whatever the reason, after some consideration, you decide that this isn’t something you’re going to pursue. You stick your Book of Lore in some “File 13” folder just in case you change your mind later, but basically you decide that the thing isn’t getting done. You put it away and go on with your life. Congratulations! You’ve just chosen to avoid idea debt.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m terrible at admitting that I’m not going to do something, so if you’re like me you probably go with option 2: put it off. Maybe you feel like you need more time to think about how to make the idea work. Maybe you have other projects that you need to finish and know starting a new one isn’t realistic. Maybe the immediate passion for the idea has passed but you’re pretty sure it will return again. In any case, you’ve got it in your head that you’ll finish this thing one of these days. Just not now. Sometimes this works out and after leaving the project on the shelf for a while you come back to it reinvigorated and create something you love. It’s happened to me, so I know it’s possible. More often, though, you’ve just taken out a huge idea debt that will periodically distract you from more productive work without ever quite reaching the critical mass necessary to finish the thing. The longer something stays in this “someday” stage, the more likely it is to turn into bad idea debt. I’ve got loads of idea debt in this category. Some it I’ve written off, but most of it I honestly believe I’ll actually get around to doing. Just not right now. Definitely later.
If you don’t scrap the idea or put it off, the idea actually turns into A Thing I’m Working On. Many people equate A Thing I’m Working On with good idea debt that will eventually turn into a finished thing that you can share with/sell to the masses, which I’ll call a Product. While all Products go through the A Thing I’m Working On stage, not all Things I’m Working On turn into Products. Once you’ve put a certain amount of work into something, you start falling victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and decide that you’ve put in too much work to just throw it all away. Because of that, Things I’m Working On can become much bigger idea debts than the stuff that you decided to put off for later.
One way to estimate whether you’re dealing with A Thing I’m Working On or a Potential Product is to honestly look at how much of the Grunt Work you’re doing. Creative stuff is fun and exciting, but for something to become a product, there’s a lot of dull, tedious work that has to be done. If your plan is “I’m going to write this and then get it published,” you haven’t done any Grunt Work yet. Even if your plan is to submit it to a publisher and let someone else take care of all the boring stuff, there’s still a lot of boring stuff you’re going to have to do first. If you haven’t read the submission guidelines and dug up contact information for at least a few publishers, planned out or written up whatever kind of summary or blurb or whatever those companies want to see on first contact (most publishers don’t want unsolicited manuscripts), lined up an editor or two so you can make sure your submission isn’t riddled with errors, made plans for playtesting (if you’re writing a game), and worked out at least a rough timeline for the project, there’s a much higher chance that you’re working on A Thing I’m Working On and not a Potential Product.
If you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s an even longer list of Grunt Work to do. In addition to editing and playtesting, you’re going to need art (unless you’re an artist) and probably someone to do the layout. If you’re going to do a print version, you’re going to have to make sure your formatting is something the printer can use, decide how many books to print, and figure out where you’re going to sell them (and possibly where you’re going to store them when they’re not selling). Even if you just plan to give the thing away on a website, you’re at the very least going to have to find someone to set up the site and spend more time than you want making design decisions and writing product descriptions, company bios, and other extremely not-fun-to-write nonsense that you’re going to need. And that’s before you even start to think about the endless marketing hell that you’ll have to endure if you want people to actually see the thing.
You don’t have to do all the Grunt Work right at the beginning, but if you don’t at least have a plan for it, you’re probably working on A Thing I’m Working On that won’t ever become an Actual Product. If this isn’t your first time around and you’ve already done a lot of the Grunt Work (as is the case with Hex), you’re at least less likely to give up once you start to realize the scope of unrelated nonsense you’re going to have to do to turn the Thing I’m Working On into a Product. But even that can be a double-edged sword: having a lot of the Grunt Work already done can give you false confidence. After all, if you’ve already done all the mind-numbing stuff, most of what’s left to be done is the fun, creative stuff! Unfortunately, the fun, creative stuff rarely stays fun the whole way through. We’ll talk about that next time.
So, you’ve woken up the day after having your initial idea and (1) you haven’t completely forgotten it and (2) you don’t think it sucks yet. Don’t worry, before it’s over you’ll think it sucks at least a few times. That’s part of the process. But for now, it seems like a pretty good idea. Time to get to work!
Not so fast, Sparky. You’ve still got some work to do before you can just dive in. No matter how high-concept and straightforward an idea seems, there’s still a lot of stuff you’ve got to work out before you can do anything useful. If you’ve decided to write a game* about Space Sharks, you’ve got to decide whether that means the PCs are Space Sharks or if the PCs are people who have to deal with Space Sharks. And if it’s the latter, what kind of people are they? Are they the inhabitants of a planet that’s being invaded by Space Sharks? Intergalactic merchants who must brave the Space Shark-infested trade routes? Space game wardens? All of these possibilities will require a slightly different approach when it comes to turning the thing into a workable game. If they’re playing Space Sharks, you’re going to have to figure out what Space Sharks spend their time doing, what Space Shark culture is like, and lots of other really detailed information about Space Sharks. If they’re being invaded, you’ve got to detail the planets. If they’re merchants, you’ve got to make up a whole bunch of planets and figure out how the relationships between them. And if they’re intergalactic game wardens, you’re going to need to create a whole ecosystem of space flora and space fauna, figure out how the Space Sharks fit into it, and then figure out what kind of adventure opportunities that creates for the Bureau of Space Fish and Space Wildlife.
While a few game designers get so wrapped up in their world that they create dioramas instead of game settings, most games answer the big question of “What do the characters do?” They fight the evil empire or pull of heists or try to save the Space Dolphins. Sometimes that’s enough, but unless you’re writing a kind of game everyone basically knows to play (dungeon crawl, monster hunting, space pirates), you’ve also got to ask yourself “How do they do it?” Hobomancer is a good example, and also probably the game that drove home this point to the Hex crew. Before we got around to actually trying to play the game, we’d spend months (or maybe even years) talking through the basic concept. We had a lot of the Songlines mythology figured out, we knew what kind of powers Hobomancers had and what kind of magic they used, and we knew what Hobomancers did: they protected the songlines to keep reality from falling apart. Then we sat down to make players and someone said, “so what happens in a Hobomancer game?” and we weren’t entirely sure until we talked it through and started figuring out how Hobmancers protected the songlines.
While most games have a wide range of stuff the characters can do, you’ve got to have a baseline of stuff that characters in the game are generally expected to do. It tells you what setting elements you’ll need to focus on, what kinds of characters will make sense, and what sorts of things you’ll need rules for. Without some kind of “default setting,” there’s the risk that potential players will see your game as a neat idea they’re not really sure what to do with. Some designers try to get around this with a kitchen sink approach that tries to be all things to all people, but without some kind of focus that’s often just as hard to figure out what to do with as a game that’s too broadly-defined.
Ok, that was a bigger RPG-specific tangent than I’d intended, but I think it’s an important one. Even though answering the question “what actually happens during the game” seems like an obvious step, it can be really easy to just sort of assume that the core idea answers the question when that’s not necessarily the case.
Anyway, as you start to nail down what the game’s about, you’ll start to figure out what you need to pull it off. That’s when you’ll start committing the great Idea Debt sin of creating Books of Lore. You’ll start making notes, putting together outlines, making lists of reference sources, and maybe even writing up some stuff. You’ve now go idea debt, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ve already made it farther than a lot of people who have ideas and then give up when they realize that bringing it to fruition will require actual work (even work as simple as opening a Google Doc and making some notes). Whether your Book of Lore turns into good idea debt or bad idea debt depends on what happens next. We’ll talk about that next week.
*A lot of this series of posts could apply to any creative thing you want to do, but I’m going to focus on games because that’s the thing I’m most familiar with.
You can see some of my Books of Lore by supporting me on Patreon.
Since I don’t have anything new to talk about on the Cinemechanix front right now (I’m in the process of implementing all the things I’ve already talked about), I’m going to spend at least a few posts musing about the “idea debt” concept I rationalized my way out of believing in a few posts ago. I ended by suggesting that maybe there was “good idea debt” and “bad idea debt,” which isn’t hard to translate into the idea of an “idea investment.” From there the trick is deciding which are good investments and which ones are shitty default swaps that threaten to collapse the world economy (or at least waste your time).
In order to talk about “idea investments” (possibly including examples of my own often-terribly misguided day-trading), I think I first need to go through a rundown of how an idea goes from an initial concept to an actual product (and therefore actual money). It’s kind of like that “How A Bill Becomes A Law” Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, but Bob Dorough won’t return my phone calls and all of my artists friends hung up on me when I offered to pay them in nickels and glory, so instead of a delightful cartoon and a catchy little song, we’re going to have to make due with the glorious magic of text.
Before you can turn an idea into a product, you have to have an idea. This may sound obvious, but I’ve met a surprising number of people who don’t understand how crucial this step is. “I want to design a game/write a novel/create art/start a band,” they’ll say. “Oh really,” I’ll ask, hoping that feigning interest in their (almost certainly) dumbass idea will make them more likely to buy some games. Sometimes they’ll tell me their idea, which is usually “like D&D, only BETTER!” Other times, though, they’ll stare at me like a Kardashian trying to solve a calculus problem and say something like “hmmm, I don’t really know, but I’d really like to [do whatever]” Then they’ll start drooling on themselves or telling me about their RIFTS character and I’ll question my life choices.
Anyway, the point is that you can’t make an idea investment without first having an idea. It doesn’t have to be a good idea, or an original idea or even a non-moronic idea (see last week’s blog), just an idea. The first step is having the idea. Sometimes an idea comes from wanting to create your own version of the things you like (QAGS), sometimes it comes from a random thing that catches your attention (Sharktoberfest), and sometimes it just pops into your head for no easily-explainable reason (American Artifacts). A lot of my favorite Hex products came about because we were sitting around talking about something completely unrelated to gaming and someone said “hey, we should turn that into a game!”
Now, if you just have an idea and immediately try to turn it into something you can sell to people, you’re probably in for a bad time. Not all ideas are workable. The first test is whether it leads to other ideas. If you think (or someone says) “this should be a game” and are immediately compelled to start thinking or talking through the idea, you may have a worthwhile idea on your hands. If you immediately get distracted by other things, it’s probably not very compelling and chances are that you’ll forget all about it before you get started.
Of course, just because you start thinking or talking about an idea doesn’t mean it’s one worth pursuing. People think and talk about and even do stupid shit all the time. If they didn’t we never would have gotten “Ate My Balls” pages or the Hamster Dance in the early days of the internet. That’s why just spending time thinking about your idea when it first comes to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. If you start working on it at this stage, you might end up with “Ted Raimi Ate My Balls.” That’s not something the world needs (or is it?)
That leads to the second test: time. If you wake up the next morning and don’t remember the idea or find yourself asking “what the hell was I thinking?,” the ide probably isn’t worth pursuing. If it still sounds like a good idea in the cold, hard, sober light of day and you’re still interested, you can move on to the next step, which we’ll discuss next week.
You can support my dumbass ideas by supporting me on Patreon!
When Snakes on a Plane came out, Samuel L. Jackson told a story on the talk show circuit about how Snakes on a Plane was just the working title of the movie and it was supposed to be renamed something like “Terror at 10,000 Feet.” In Jackson’s version, he’s the one that convinced the producers to keep the name after he explained that anyone who wasn’t ready to buy a ticket the second they heard “Snakes on a Plane” was not part of the target audience for the movie. Calling something else would just lose potential fans and alienate people who were not going to like the movie no matter what is was called. He probably threw a “motherfucker” in there somewhere, but that’s the gist.
Jackson was partially right. The “just what it says on the poster” advertising definitely sold a lot of tickets to Snakes on a Plane. Unfortunately, once you get past the snakes and the plane, the movie is a pretty straightforward action/horror flick with some comedy thrown in. It’s fun to watch, but doesn’t really deliver the kind of deeply dumb awesomeness that I was hoping for from a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson called Snakes on a Plane. They didn’t quite want to admit that the entire appeal of the movie was in the title and tried to dress it up like something more --I don’t know, maybe “respectable” or “grown up?”--than it had any right to be.
Hollywood’s always making bad decisions like that because the whole system hates creativity, but the problem isn’t restricted to Hollywood. Americans in general just aren’t really comfortable with absurdity or even anything “too weird.” We always have to try to explain it or dress it up with logic or science or something that makes it seem “realistic.” Because a walking corpse that wants to drink your blood because of some kind of plague is somehow not as silly as a walking corpse that wants to drink your blood just because. Grant Morrison summed it up nicely in Supergods:
“Adults...struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it's not real.”
For some things, we can accept that it’s not real. We can watch Scooby Doo our whole lives without ever once wondering why the dog talks, because it’s a cartoon. We can watch Sharknado and enjoy the hell out of it because it’s a dumb Scify movie starring Tara Reid and the guy from Beverly Hills 90210. We don’t care that these things are stupid for some reason, maybe because we don’t expect them to be “serious” (whatever that means). If Sharknado had starred Jason Statham or Bradley Cooper and gotten a theatrical release, it probably would have been panned as one of the worst movies ever made (and probably would have been called something much less satisfying than Sharknado) because most people wouldn’t have accepted it for the dumb fun it was. That (and a horribly misleading marketing campaign) is why Hudson Hawk is considered one of the worst movies of all times when it’s not a bad movie, just a movie that isn’t ashamed of its goofiness. Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello are singing cat burglars who get blackmailed into stealing pieces of Da Vinci’s gold machine! What’s not to love?
Basically, we have a lot of trouble accepting that something can be both absurd and worthwhile. Because some random firing of neurons tells people that something is no longer just “dumb fun” and is now SOMETHING SERIOUS and they lose all ability to appreciate dumb shit just because it’s entertaining. Suddenly the dumb shit has to grow up (unless they can label it “satire” or “parody” and pretend it has an ulterior motive) or rationalized until the fun is sucked out of it. I’ve written before about how we had to deal with this problem constantly with QAGS. Since the rulebook has jokes, it’s a “silly game” and we still run into people who are surprised when they find out that you can run a “serious” game using a rulebook that’s fun to read.
In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. explains to Ben Stiller that “you never go full retard.” I disagree. Maybe it’s the result of too much Discordianism and Dr. Demento, but the switch in my brain that’s supposed to tell me when absurdity is no longer acceptable doesn’t work right, so I think that sometimes the best thing you can do is go full retard. Willingness to commit to a stupid idea without shame leads to things like the muppet episode of Angel and The Dumb Jousting Movie With The Kid From The Patriot and Machete 2. Of course, since it’s not very polite to talk about going full retard, I like to think of it as “embracing the stupid.” That’s why I write games about sharks and fratboys and Eris building a whole word because she wants some cheese. As a great man (Weird Al Yankovic) once said:
I also do stupid things on Patreon.
I first read about the concept of “idea debt” in a blog post by Jessica Abel that Leighton sent me some indeterminate amount of time ago. Basically, an idea debt is that project you want to do but you’re not working on. Abel’s advice is to throw away that idea debt because all the time you spend thinking about it is robbing you of time that could be spent on the projects that will actually get done. I want to agree with the premise of the post, but there’s a lot of idea debt I can’t throw away.
Part of the problem is that I don’t see most of my idea debt as the kind of debt Jessica is talking about. She’s seems to be talking mostly about ideas that are never going to happen. I know a lot of people with that kind of idea debt, and Leighton and I have published something like 50 game books over the years while they’ve been making vague references to “working on my book/screenplay/Jello sculpture of Millard Fillmore.” Sure I’ve got some ideas for big projects that will never happen (Hobomancer HBO series), but I don’t spend much time thinking of them. The Hex crew and I may occasionally spend more time than is healthy discussing our impossible and completely theoretical ideas at a con or something, but it’s during the non-working or boring dealer’s room hours where if we weren’t trying to come up with a name for the W. Earl Brown stinkomancer character (because the W. Earl Brown was born to play a hobomancer), we’d be complaining about Zak Snyder movies or geeking out over movies that Zak Snyder didn’t make or talking about something equally non-productive. It’s more “idea fuck, marry, kill” than idea debt.
The things that are never going to happen don't interfere with my actual projects, since I know they’re never going to happen so I don’t spend much time thinking about them except when me and Leighton and Carter and Josh and Ian and Jeff and whoever else happens to be there are shooting crazy ideas at one another in a con booth or hotel room because we don’t have anything better to do. Occasionally we stumble upon a viable idea; it’s how we came up with Hobomancer, Laser Ponies, and probably some other products I’m forgetting. We come up with a lot of dumb shit that’s never going to happen, but we also sometimes come up with some GREAT dumb shit that we actually publish.
My problem is distinguishing between idea debt and what might be called “idea inventory.” Once an idea still seems like a good one after a night’s sleep (the first viability test for any idea), I have a tendency to start what Jessica calls a “book of lore,” or in my case a Google doc of lore. Usually these start out as a bunch of brainstorming ideas and get added to for a few weeks while the idea is still fresh. After that, a few things can happen. Sometimes the idea hits critical mass and turns into a product. Sometimes it just sits there collecting dust once the initial magic is gone. A few inspire random, short spurts of creativity every now and then and then either turn into products or go back to collecting dust. While the last category seems like idea debt, I have a hard time thinking of it that way because it’s not like I’m obsessing over them when I should be working on something else. I occasionally have new ideas, add them to the “book of lore,” and go back to whatever I was doing. They're not an excuse I use to pretend I'm working on something real when I'm really not. Also, for the most part the ones that I keep coming back to eventually turn into things that people can give me money for, which wouldn’t happen if I wrote them off just because I’m not ready to finish them as soon as I think of them. Qerth, Rasslin’, and several other things (including my current project, Cinemecanix, which started life as QAGS 3rd Edition idea debt) were idea debt for years before they became actual products. Maybe there’s good idea debt and bad idea debt, just like with financial debt. I don’t know, I’ve never formally studied idea economics.
You can invest in my idea debt at Patreon!