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Ustwo’s Rules For Pulling Great Ideas Out Of Thin Air

Ustwo shares its approach to inventing new games in minutes.

Ustwo’s Rules For Pulling Great Ideas Out Of Thin Air

Ustwo has designed everything from the epically beautiful game Monument Valley to UX for self-driving cars. With any one of those challenges, finding a good starting point is hard. Doubly so if what you’re trying to invent a new game, which by definition should be fun, unexpected, and unmoored by your everyday experience. How do they do it?

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At this week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, four designers from Ustwo’s New York team offered a taste of how the studio approaches brainstorming. They treated about 40 attendees to a workshop modeled after one they just used to create an augmented reality game for an unnamed “children’s entertainment company.” Simple as the process was, it nonetheless offered a useful glimpse at how Ustwo generates useful ideas, quickly.

It all starts with a five-minute stretching session, where attendees split into groups and share their favorite foods from where they grew up. Then the session begins.

[Photo: courtesy the author]
The starting point of nearly any game is a familiar emotion or experience. To tap into those, Ustwo asked the groups of attendees to pick randomly drawn cards from four bags, labeled “childhood games,” “genre,” “toy category,” and “tech trend.” For example, one team might pick a group of cards that say “water fight,” “puzzle,” and “building and construction.” The groups then share any memories of having fun around the topics listed on the cards they’ve drawn–say, memories of chasing each other through the grass with water guns, or laying on the floor while scrounging errant puzzle pieces from under the couch. The point is to access the flavor and color of a real-life game. The next step is to add up all those random words and memories into a one-sentence game concept. Ustwo called that the “concept equation”: one childhood game + one genre + one toy category or tech trend = concept. In the example above, that might be a physics-based puzzle game where players race to dump ooze on each other.

The second part of the exercise is to take that concept, write it down, then go around the group, adding to it. The only rule is “yes, and.” Each person has to add something, without questioning or blocking what came before. So if one person says, “What about robots speaking Spanish,” the next person might say, “Yes, and the robots are digging up the remains of an ancient civilization,” and the next person might say, “And there are other robots trying to stop them.” People write all their sticky notes in a spiral that builds upon itself. Finally, the group finishes and picks a few stickies that seemed most fun, voting on them with stickers. The last task is to sketch a poster of the concept, listing out the features, a tagline, and a quote from an imaginary kid who played it.

Ustwo really does use that process: When they ran that same exercise with their kids’ network client, they came up with 26 ideas, which were refined and iterated upon until they created the final game. It’s but one technique in their arsenal for ideation, but Ustwo believes that for any brainstorming session to work, it has to adhere to a basic structure and a few different rules:

1. Having a starting point (e.g., an initial concept to work from)
2. Level the playing field (by mixing personalities so that no one dominates)
3. Building toward a goal (i.e., a “yes and” phase where ideas are generated collaboratively)
4. Don’t be precious (i.e., not censoring ideas)
5. Sketch it (creating an artifact that summarizes the idea, which might then be used in future sessions)

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Easy to list and not hard to follow. But for Ustwo, the results speak for themselves.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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