Ever wonder what sparked the ideas behind your favourite RPGs? So did we! So, we asked 50 game designers two key questions to uncover the inspirations that lead to their games. We analyzed all the answers, and turned them into a talk for Big Bad Con Online 2023. In the talk, we unpacked the results, and identified the trends and the outliers. In doing so, we explore what lies behind the first spark of inspiration, and discover what drove these designers to make that spark into a fully fledged game.
Watch the video of the panel, or read a written version below.
Hayley: Hello all and thank you for joining Vee and I today for this presentation, ‘Where 50 Game Designers Got Their Ideas’ for Big Bad Con Online 2023. Today, we’ll be talking about the ideas and inspiration behind your favorite games, and what we can learn from these designers to help you get ideas and move forward with your own games.
We’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are presenting from, the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation, and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
Vee: So welcome, and hello! I’m Vee Hendro, this is Hayley Gordon, and we make games – games like Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG, Fight with Spirit: a sports drama RPG, and many others. As game-makers and roleplayers, whenever we read or play a new game, we are always super curious about how that thing came to be. So for this talk, we asked 50 published game creators these two questions:
Question 1: Looking back, where do you think you got the very first, tiny spark of the idea for your game? Was it a particular moment? A mechanic you were interested in tinkering with? A dream you had? Tell us about it.
Question 2: What caused you to make the choice to pursue that idea further and make it into a roleplaying game? Why that particular idea and not another one?
We’re really excited to share the results of this survey with you today. There’s some awesome takeaways that we hope will help you with your game-making practice.
Here’s the plan for the talk today: we’re going to start off today by talking a little more about inspiration. Then we’ll jump into our analysis of the responses, divided by question. Finally, we’ll wrap up and hopefully have a little time at the end for questions.
Before we jump into it, I’d like to thank all the game-makers who took the time and effort to participate. Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. We have slides throughout the presentation featuring all of their awesome games. We may be going through them a little fast since there’s so many – you can pause the stream or rewatch this talk afterwards to check them all out.
What is inspiration?
Hayley: Academics Thrash and Elliot created a tripartite conceptualization of inspiration which breaks it down into three steps. The steps they identified are evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation. Explained simply, they broke down inspiration into 1. taking note of something, 2. contemplating its possibilities, and then 3. deciding to do something with those possibilities.
And this lines up really well with the responses we received from designers. So for example when making Masks of the Mummy Kings, Nathan D. Paoletta took note of Swords Without Master, thought about the possibilities of that mechanical framework, and then decided to do something with it – namely, use it to make a game about delving into long-lost tombs. Similarly, Kienna Shaw took note of the show Good Omens and the way it presented the evolution of relationships, and used this idea as the basis for Heaven Nor Hell, about the relationship between immortal beings.
From this perspective, inspiration has two vital parts: being inspired by, and being inspired to. Inspired by links strongly with our first question: “what inspired this game?” Inspired to links with the second question: “what caused you to pursue those particular ideas?” The divisions aren’t always clear cut, and it may take multiple inspired bys to reach an inspired to, but this combination of input and then action is universal.
So you can think about the rest of our talk is really being divided into those two sections: inspired by and inspired to. Both are necessary to create something new.
Vee: So let’s look at ideas. Where are game designers inspired by? Where do they get their ideas from? Unsurprisingly, we are inspired by many things.
Let me explain this slide a bit.
When we went through our survey, we found that responders fell into some general categories of what they were inspired by: Fictional media, other games (of all kinds), something they were passionate or obsessed about, personal experiences, and mechanical ideas.
38% mentioned only one of these categories in their response, but we can see that 48% mentioned two sources, while 24% mentioned three sources.
I think what this tells us is that mostly, we look for ideas in many places, and oftentimes it’s the combination of various ideas from various parts of our lives that can form the best inspirations for the games we make. So as we move forward, we’ll talk about each of these categories and specific examples to illustrate them, but while we do that, keep in mind that the games we mention are also likely to have other sources of inspiration behind them!
So, what inspired these 50 games?
Part 1: Inspired by
1. Fictional media
Unsurprisingly, this was a super popular source of inspiration. 34% of surveyed designers drew from fictional media. 53% from books, 41% from screen media, and 6% from music. I was surprised books were in the majority and beat out screen media! But we do love books in the tabletop rpg hobby for sure.
There were a couple of different ways that I think fictional media is used as inspiration.
Sometimes designers wanted to replicate the kinds of stories they saw in other media, like Flabbergasted being inspired by the TV show Jeeves & Wooster. Or our own Good Society which really tries to replicate the storytelling in Jane Austen novels.
Other times, thinking about books or movies lead us to think about things that spark a related idea. For example, designer Leo Cheung of Parselings had just read a couple of fantasy novel books, and was discussing these with his wife in a cinema while waiting for the movie to start.
Another example is The Slow Knife, by Jack Harrison which is a revenge-focused game centered on the villains and their inevitable downfall. I don’t think you’d be surprised that this game was inspired by a re-reading of The Count of Monte Cristo!
Something to think about here is that for these last two examples, it wasn’t just reading a book that helped the designers develop their idea, but they also engaged with it. Either by discussing it deeply, or reading the novel a second time and pulling out observations from it.
You can make this sort of engagement a kind of habit. This is a wonderful quote from Rae Nedjadi, about Apocalypse Keys, “In this case I was reading the Hellboy comic, and like my brain usually does, I started to break down what the narrative would look like as a ttrpg unfolding at a table between players. This happens when I watch movies, read books, and so on.” I do think that for a lot of us this kind of thing is instinctual, but doing this kind of analysis of other fictional media is such a good thought-exercise for ttrpg game designers, and making a strong habit of doing it all the time is going to help you develop your skills as well as potentially a way to inspire your next game.
2. Other games
Hayley: More than 36% of designers were inspired by other games. Most of these were other RPGs, but video and board games also provided a source of inspiration. Of those who drew on other games, exactly half were inspired by their theme or play experience, and half were inspired by a particular mechanic or kind of mechanic.
For several designers, existing RPGs provided the mechanic that matched with a theme they had in mind (such as in the case of Rest in Pieces), or the experience of the mechanic caused them to imagine a theme that fits with them, like a Complicated Profession. Alex Roberts created Star Crossed after being inspired by the RPG Dread, saying of this experience: “it used the tower to generate the perfect atmosphere for the horror genre, but I thought: the scariest thing in the world is having a crush on someone, right?”
Designers could also be inspired by the theme of the game, such the battlestar galactica boardgame which inspired Last Fleet. They can even by inspired a game that was almost what they imagined, but didn’t quite hit the spot, which is how Dragons & Travellers Tales got its beginnings.
3. Mechanical ideas
20% of game designers already had a mechanical idea rolling around in their head that they longed to get to the table, they just needed a theme to go with it. In a lot of cases, these mechanical ideas were loosely or indirectly inspired by other games.
Firelights began with the idea of challenge cards that could form a map for later exploration. Anamnesis started from the idea of blank character sheets – a concept that never made it into the final game, but still provided that first spark.
Often designers had been ruminating on a mechanical idea for a while before it made its way into game form – longer, it seemed, than ideas inspired by media or a particular narrative theme. Caro Ascercion said of the game Exquisite Biome “the idea of cycling cards always stuck with me, tucked away in a back pocket.”
4. Passion and Obsession
This was the biggest category, and probably one of the ones that resonates with me the most! Passion and obsession. For 40% of designers, part of their inspiration for their game was a particular passion or obsession, something they just couldn’t stop thinking about.
Firstly, designers who really wanted to make a certain type of game, and were waiting for the key ingredients for everything to fall into place. This category represented 20% of all designers. Sebastian Yue wanted to make a game about the events that followed a cataclysmic event and that became Lake of Secrets.
Sen-Foong Lim, working with Banana Chan wanted to make a game “about Chinese people, by Chinese people, that’s for anyone who wants to engage with the culture in a fun and positive way“ – and that became Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall
The other part of this category is obsession and rumination, sticky ideas that we come back to over and over and over again until eventually they shape themselves towards being a game. In fact, 10% of designers even mentioned obsession or being obsessed with something directly in their response – and from our reading of the responses, it was clear that many more than that were turning ideas over and over in their head until they found an outlet. For example, Joaquin Kyle “Makapatag” Saavedra was “obsessed with the cultures of Precolonial Philippines and Southeast Asia in general.” and this led to Gubat Banwa. Hannah Shaffer said of Public Guest 5, which was inspired by a dream “We both thought it was so specific and surreal, and we couldn’t stop imagining that world.”
5. Personal experience and personal connection
For more than 20% of designers, game ideas came from their personal experiences, or in a few cases a personal connection they felt to an idea or concept. Personal experience in some ways defies patterns or trends, because it’s just that – personal. It’s based on the circumstances of your life rather than existing fictional ideas, and for that reason, it can be really unique.
Some games were born from broad personal experiences, such as connection to culture. Some, like Pidj Sorensen’s Sun’s Ransom were born from really specific moments like the sweltering and oppressive heat of the Australian summer. In Sorensen’s words “It was 40 degrees, with no aircon, and I was on the couch with a foot in a bucket of water because I couldn’t sleep. In that frustrated partial wakefulness, I had this idea of vampires working to bring back the sun.”
The loneliness of the pandemic inspired multiple designers to weave their own counter narratives of hope, from A Monster Care Squad by Sandy Pug Games to A Mending by Shing Yin Khor who said “Being parted from so many dear friends led to a very natural narrative of traveling to see a friend, in a sense, the game was a love letter to all the people that I couldn’t physically be near anymore.”
6. Do it to do it
Hayley: There were some responses that flipped the script of inspiration entirely. 16% of designers simply began making – and worked out the content of what they were making as they went. As they created, something about their own ideas struck them, providing the seed of inspiration for a full game to come. The Score and Justicar by Nevyn Holmes both started from an external request or prompt. Court of Blades was originally written for a friend who dreamed of a game centered on intrigue and scheming, a quick version was finished in about a week to get it to the table on time. Logan: An Autobiographical Game started as a response to a twitter trend – writing 1 move, every day for a month.
Part 1 Learnings
What can we learn from the many ways the designers we surveyed drew their inspiration, from the sparks that brought their projects into being?
Firstly, stay curious and follow your sense of what is fascinating. Do chase rabbits down holes – you will only get stuck in them if there’s something there worth getting stuck on.
They say “write what you know”, but based on our survey it’s more like “write what you’re obsessed with”
- Our survey suggests that the closer the input is to the self, the more we are likely to have it top of mind to draw on, and make connections with. The closer an idea is to the self, the more our brain looks for connections in the world around us, and scan for other inputs so we can finally make it into a workable idea.
- For 20% of designers, personal experience was vital – but an input doesn’t have to be personal to the self to be close to the self
- Our experiences aren’t just limited to those that take place in the physical world. Every time we read, watch, or play something new we are adding to our catalog of experiences. As RPG creators in particular, we tend to indulge in a kind of play that interrogates the self and connects deeply to the emotions, creating human experiences all of its own.
- For that reason, our obsession with media, with a world or setting, with an emotion, these are all valuable starting points that can provide inspiration.
From a personal experience of a sweltering day, to a love of Jeeves and Wooster, there are no bad places to find inspiration, no activities that lack value if they are approached with an open mind.
Secondly, if you find something that you like, stew in it.
- Even if it’s not ready yet, if it’s only a tiny fraction of the thing, “tuck that in your back pocket” as Caro said and take it out and ruminate on it every so often. You might be surprised by the way it eventually turns into an idea.
- As humans, we are made to daydream – in fact, as author David Birss notes, neuroscientists have theorized that this is the brain’s default state. The state the brain is in when its’ not focused on a task. It’s building mental simulations based on past experiences, imagining the future or envisioning different perspectives and scenarios. These drifty, random thoughts are where creative thinking seems to happen.
- Being open to what the world and your own mind presents you is more important than engaging in the conscious activity of trying to find good ideas.
Part 2: Inspired to
Vee: So far we’ve talked a lot about the things that game designers are inspired by. But as I’m sure we’re all only too aware, most ideas never end up making it to a final product. So in our second question, we wanted to find out what made designers pursue their ideas to the end.
Before we get to the responses themselves, I want to talk about inspiration and perspiration. Many of you will have heard this famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. This quote is frequently cited to mean that having a good idea is only the smallest fraction of the process of creating something – making the thing is the hard part.
And that’s true, but it overlooks one of the key functions of inspiration – the inspiration to do something, the kind of inspiration that turns ideas into obsessions. As game designers most often the main person keeping us accountable is ourselves – and the strength of our inspiration needs to carry us emotionally through the inertia of starting the project and into its future. That is to say, the more inspiration we have, the more perspiration we are capable of. So in that sense, inspiration deserves more than 1% of the credit!
In our survey of designers we found four main motivations that helped these creators take the spark of an idea and turn it into a burning fire.
1. Obsession, and excitement are key!
Obsession and excitement were important elements in helping designers generate their ideas at the first stage, but they were even more important in turning the ideas into games. 52% of creators harnessed these forces to help them move forward through a project.
As Kathryn and Hakan said of their game Xenolanguage “We felt like our excitement and conviction would carry through the ups and downs of what it takes to make games.”
While Jason Moringstar said creating roleplaying games, “is how I express myself and many of my games emerge from captivating ideas or concerns I have.”
The most common form of excitement and obsession was the love or resonance of a theme or mechanic. Gubat Banwa creator Joaquin Kyle “Makapatag” Saavedra called this “an intoxicating passion.” Designers allowed themselves to follow their flights of fancy and indulge in order to feed the fire of their ideas. Rae Nedjadi said “I had a lot of fun rewatching the Hellboy films and rereading the comics, nurturing that tiny spark and seeing it grow into a flame of inspiration!”
In the survey results, we found that one way to maximize excitement and obsession is through connection with other people. 32% of creators mentioned this kind of connection as something that buoyed them through the process.
- The fun and promise of early playtests fueled 12% of games, including Arc by Momatoes and Quietus by Oli Jeffery
- Collaborating with or connecting with the wider RPG community fueled 8%
- Even just the dream of other people playing your game and finding it valuable or fun, and fueled 10% of designers, including Thousand Year Old Vampire creator Tim Hutchins and Lucian Khan of Visgoths and Mallgoths. Plant Girl Game designer Dominique Dickey was “curious what players would do” with the conflict options in their game, while Colostle creator Nich Angell said they could “imagine other people telling their own stories within that world.”
2. Personal experience and self-reflection
Personal experience recurred again in question 2, appearing for 26% of designers, showing that the same ingredients that lead to that initial spark can often help nurture it into a flame. These included Make Our Own Heaven by Ray Cox, and How to Say Goodbye by Aaron Lim.
When it came to the inspiration to, the relationship between the game and the self was more in focus. For many people, making games is an exercise of self-reflection even if the game has nothing to do with their personal experience on the surface.
Kira Magrann’s Something is Wrong Here started as an obsession with twin peaks and David Lynch, however when working on the game, in Kira’s own words “I peeled back the layers and found that the idea of doppelgängers and identity within his work really pokes at some of my own core issues with the constant evolution of my trans identity, grappling with interpersonal relationships and how they often mirror our relationship with ourselves, and the real time horror of currently living in the US.”
Playing RPGs is an activity that often results in reflection on the self, so it’s not surprising to see that appearing in the act of designing. Much like the initial spark, closeness to the self can help a lot with nurturing a game project.
3. Passion to bring the game into the world
Hayley: Earlier in this section we mentioned obsession and passion about the game’s concept. This category of inspiration to is a little different – it’s about the passion to bring this particular game to the world. It’s not just about creating the game and stewing over it’s ideas and concepts, but rather about releasing the game, the purpose of the game in the wider world, and how it fits in within the landscape of existing RPGs.
This desire fueled 32% of designers in total, in the following ways.
- 18% – desire to showcase theme or idea
12% – desire to release type of game or experience that doesn’t exist yet
- 2% – vision for product or release
The desire to showcase a theme or idea is about expressing something important to the designer. It could be communicating about an important subject matter, such as Tomorrow on Revelation III which raises questions about labor and society and After the War which is about people coming together to form a healthier community.
Games could also be used as a vehicle to introduce people to a new kind of experience or concept. In the case of Gentleman Bandit, designer Allison Arth wanted to “open up the genre of poetry to folks who, maybe, had never written a poem, or who might be intimidated by writing poems.”
Occasionally, the passion to create a game connected with a frustration the designer had, either with the state of games, or the state of the world. An example of this is the game Wise Women. Aleksandra Brokman, created it to showcase Polish folklore, but also to reflect frustrations with political developments currently occurring in Poland.
For another 12% of designers, there was the desire to create a type of game or experience that didn’t exist in the world of RPGs yet. Thirsty Sword Lesbians designer April Kit Walsh couldn’t find a game to deliver the Sword Lesbian experience she dreamed of, so she made her own – and she still hasn’t gotten sick of playing it. Similarly, MacGuffin & Co. said their game Pitcrawler fillled a gap that they really wanted.
For some designers with multiple games, there was also a desire for a particular end product. Ross Cowman’s City of Winter contributed to his dream of 4 games in the Fall of Magic series, each focusing on a different season.
Looking at these designers shows us that it can be helpful to think about your why, and what you’d hope for from your game’s release into the wider world.
4. I can do that!
Unsurprisingly the fact that a project feels doable is going to mean it’s more likely to get done. What is more unexpected is that the mere fact that a project felt doable is a source of motivation to pursue it in the first place. For 22% of designers, the imagined ease of a project helped them to get started. Cat Ramen,saw that her project was realizable enough to take to a convention, while Sidney Icarus noted their game was “easy to prototype.”
In 12% of cases designers were bolstered by the idea of starting small, or starting simple – even when the final version of the game turned out to be a lot more complex than their initial concept. Longsword designer Viditya Voleti originally decided to make a game for his maps that he thought would keep things simple. However, in Viditya’s words “then the gears started turning…one idea led to another and the game grew.”
The approachability of an idea and the designer’s ability to visualize a path forward is a useful source of forward energy. Imagining the smallest possible version of your game can be a great trick to motivate you towards creating even if that isn’t the final design.
Conclusion & Questions
Vee: So that’s where 50 game designers got their ideas, and how they harnessed that inspiration to create a full game. There’s a lot to learn from their experiences and approaches.
Along with all the insights we’ve talked about today, the responses also reveal that there is no one right way to create. Everyone has a different process, and even a designer’s different projects may be inspired in different ways. Hold on to the things that resonate with you and keep them close, because these will form the most fertile ground for your next game. As Zedeck Siew said of the inspiration for Lorn Song of the Bachelor “I guess I made something about it because it felt like home?”
We’ll take questions now until the end of the hour – six minutes of questions! If you have questions about anything we’ve covered today, whether specifically on the designer responses, or more generally about inspiration and creativity, please drop it in the chat.
Q: How do you cultivate your inspirational sparks? What do you recommend designers do to carry that inspired game all the way to completion?
Hayley: I think the big things that stick out from our talk today is to cultivate the obsession cultivate the passion, immerse yourself in it. I mean of course sometimes you need breaks from projects but most of the time uh we saw that like even if you’re not directly engaging with the project engaging with the aspects or the things that get you excited – like maybe if you’re excited by a particular piece of media and you find yourself losing passion for a project you need to go back and touch again on that spark, that thing that really keeps you motivated. I think that’s a big part of it as well as imagining and connecting with other people and imagining that reality of your game touching on people’s hands.
Vee: Break it up into smaller doable chunks, imagine its impact on the world and the messages you want to connect it to, and getting people to be hyped about it through the early playtests – what’s fun about that idea for you and the people around you.
Q: Do you think the area of inspiration whether it comes from Media or life experience of a game influences the standard or level of finish you hold yourself to?
Vee: Aaron Lim mentioned that, and I’m paraphrasing here, the game was messy and awkward, and he loved that messy awkwardness. I think sometimes designers might feel…
Hayley: The game might take a particular format, have a particular feel about it because it has been inspired by a particular thing I think more than a level of finnish or a standard. It’s more like the way in which it carries that idea or spark into fruition might be different and what you want out of that might be different depending on what originally sparked the idea for the game in the first place.