Being Creative: Four Keys From a Great Game Designer

I loved playing computer games. In fact, that’s how I first learned to code: by making simple games. Though I no longer spend much time on games these days, I’m still interested in the field.

That’s why I was excited when I found the memoir of Sid Meier. You might never hear of him, but he is a legendary game designer! His most famous creation is the Civilization series which started back in 1991. Today, decades later, the series is still going strong.

Civilization is famous for its addictive quality. You can see it yourself on its Steam page: many reviewers there spent 1,000+ hours on the game! That’s a lot of playing time. Its addictiveness and the time it takes are the reasons why I only play Civilization Revolution these days. It’s a simplified version of the game that takes much less time to finish.

In my opinion, the memoir is a good source to learn about creativity. Sid Meier is definitely creative: besides Civilization, he developed many other games in different genres. Many of them contain original ideas.

So what is the key to his creativity? What can we learn from him about being creative?

Well, based on the memoir, I concluded that there are four keys:

  1. Have a diversity of interests.
  2. Take a distance every once in a while.
  3. Have a good partner to discuss with.
  4. Be self-sufficient.

Let’s dig into them one by one.

1. Have a Diversity of Interests

A proven way to get fresh ideas is to cross-pollinate ideas from different fields. That requires you to have a diversity of interests. Here is an excerpt from the book:

The drawback of being able to isolate the interesting part of any given thing is that you are constantly interested by every given thing. I routinely find myself stumbling into new hobbies almost by accident, and as with my work life, I seem incapable of doing anything halfheartedly.

With his breadth of interest, he could imagine something new. A good example is a game he developed called SimGolf:

SimGolf wouldn’t have been as good if I hadn’t maintained an interest in music—and wouldn’t have existed at all if I hadn’t maintained an interest in golf.

He combined ideas in music, golf, and computer gaming to develop SimGolf. Here is another excerpt from the memoir:

A designer who’s only interested in games will find it very hard to bring anything original to the table, and I’m sure this is true in other fields, too.

So, if you want to be creative, be curious and develop a portfolio of passions. It will become a breeding ground for your creative ideas.

2. Take a Distance Every Once in a While

While having a diversity of interests is good, it’s not enough. You could be so busy with your day-to-day routines that it’s difficult for you to imagine something new. That’s why you need to take a distance every once in a while.

In Meier’s case, his most creative ideas often came while he was on vacation. The change in context gave him the room to get fresh ideas. He always brought a computer during vacations (even before there were laptops!), so he often developed prototypes right away.

In your case, it might not be a vacation, but you still need to take a distance every once in a while. Give yourself the room to imagine something new.

3. Have a Good Partner to Discuss With

New ideas are often raw at the beginning. To refine the ideas until they are ready for prime time, you need to have a good partner to discuss with.

In Meier’s case, he discussed many of his ideas with Bruce Shelley, a fellow game designer. Shelley could bring a different perspective to the table because he has a different background. While Meier’s background is in coding, Shelley’s background is in board game design. Their skills complemented each other.

Similarly, you should find a partner(s) to discuss your idea with. Ideally, they should complement your skills.

4. Be Self-Sufficient

To bring a creative idea to fruition, there are two ways: either you develop it yourself or you convince others to develop it with you. The first option requires you to have the different skills needed to develop the idea. But even with the second option, you should still have the different skills needed to develop a prototype.

Why is that the case? Well, because having a working prototype is a much better way to convince others than mere words! It’s especially true in fields like gaming where it’s often difficult to get an idea across with just words. By playing a prototype, others can feel the fun themselves.

That’s why Sid Meier believes in being self-sufficient. He is primarily a programmer, but he also taught himself graphic designs. He has musical skills too. With these, he can develop a working prototype without depending on others.

If you want to be creative, learn to be self-sufficient. Don’t let your creativity be hindered by the availability of others. Teach yourself the different skills needed. You don’t need to be an expert in all of them, but get good enough in them.

***

These are four keys to being creative that I learned from the memoir. To recap, you need to have a diversity of interests, take a distance every once in a while, have a good partner to discuss with, and be self-sufficient. With these, your creativity will flow!

2 Comments

  1. Beautiful. The greatest corporations, came up through creative thoughts. Donald, a creative mind comes because an individual feels there is a need to improve on something or averting a catastrophic or something knew – in this case the COVID 19 vaccines that have been developed over time.

    >> Take a Distance Every Once in a While* You mentioned it right. Am so good at selling. And being so, an idea /voice came up in my mind as I was taking a walk one evening; Moses, why not start up a business and have it registered. And since every business survives because of revenue generated from sales, you can make it. It tell you, Donald, it came to chance, right away. Am a business owner that I even now employ other people. This was creativity, or being resourceful. I credit this to that time I was strolling alone in a quiet neighbourhood.

    • Donald Latumahina
      Donald Latumahina

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Moses! It reminds me of Steve Jobs whom I believe also liked to take a walk to think.

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