Mailbag: Macro to Micro Ideas

Close-up image of a car's gear shift

Today’s question, gathered from Twitter a little while back, is this:

How do you go from the macro to the micro, i.e. from a big, broad idea for a game to the concrete instantiation of it?

A long time ago I wrote Idea to Implementation, a discussion of how to get from implementation to completed project based on a lot of amateur experience but no experience working in a studio. If I were writing this advice now, it would have a lot more to say about studio-based practices: pre-production, the stage in which you try to eliminate unknowns about your project; vertical slices, in which you build a portion of your game at full quality. On our current project at Failbetter, Mask of the Rose, our producer Stuart Young recently wrote about what pre-production means on our project.

I mentioned “Idea to Implementation” to the questioner, who replied:

I was also thinking on a more micro level: tips for coming up with specific story beats, characters, choices, puzzles, items, descriptions. Maybe the answer is just “brainstorm a lot”, or else “collaborate with someone who’s good at brainstorming”.

For me, this is about three things:

  1. Verifying that big, broad idea
  2. Coming up with possible smaller elements, using brainstorming and research
  3. Assembling the ideas into a structure, verifying their quality, and identifying what’s missing

Verifying the idea

A productive systematic mechanic, for me, is one that

suggests multiple interesting permutations (e.g., different types of link in the Lavori universe, removal vs insertion tools in Monkey) that can be introduced gradually

can be implemented with general rules of the world model rather than a heap of special cases

has clear and readily expressible failure outcomes: if the player tries to do something that might be in-bounds, but isn’t, can we easily and consistently articulate why?

Making of Counterfeit Monkey: Puzzles and Toys

Before going from macro to micro, I need to verify the macro idea and make sure it’s not sending me off in the wrong direction.

Do I understand the game idea well enough to write design goals for it?

If I’m working with a team, is the team on board with those design goals? Having shared design goals is extremely useful to resolve creative tensions on a team, and it’s a good idea even when working alone.

Do I have my mechanic in mind, at least roughly? Do I know how this piece works systemically, at a high level?

Do I understand what the story is about? This may morph with writing — it usually does — but do I have high level theme and premise?

Have I verified any core assumptions embedded in those design goals + high level system and theme ideas?

For instance, if my design goal involves using a particular technology or puzzle mechanic, have I done enough tests to feel confident in its potential? Have I thought through criteria like these?:

Brainstorming for Components

Choosing provocative questions

Tap the next desk. Pencil that name in and then turn to the next player. “So, why is this Todd character so untrustworthy?” Skip between players, asking questions that tease out drama, insecurities, talents, and relationships. In addition to their name, ask two questions about each character, and ask them of different players. Take this opportunity to create conflicting accounts and conflicting interests.

Avery Alder, Guidance to the MC in creating non-player characters for Monsterhearts 2

A lot of guides to worldbuilding recommend asking yourself questions about a story world — about history, culture, economy, religion, linguistics, fashion, etiquette, cuisine, agriculture, architecture or pretty much any other aspect of a society that might yield to invention.

Guides to character-building, similarly, will sometimes give you a sheet to fill out about each character, enumerating everything from hair colour to education level to OCEAN personality profile.

Sometimes such question lists spark my imagination, but often they feel like busy-work to fill out, or miss the points that would bring the project to life for me. I don’t just want to know a character’s favourite food; I want to know what childhood favourite they feel nostalgic for, but can no longer eat.

So instead of using a standard template, I start with the core of the project — the mechanic that’s driving the game, the theme that’s animating the story — and come up with a new, bespoke set of questions that’s designed to surface emotions, attitudes, and conflicts. Then I ask and answer those questions, character by character or piece by piece in the story.

The aim here is a lot like the motivation in putting together character-defining questions for a tabletop RPG, with similar parameters for what makes a question effective.

The only rules are:

* One Relationship between each pair of neighboring players at the table.
* One Detail attached to each Relationship.
* At least one Need, one Location, and one Object.
* The last remaining die is wild, and can be any number.

The first rule ensures you have a circle of interrelated characters. The second rule ensures that everybody has a connection to something cool and colorful (chances are you’ll do this anyway). The third rule en- sures that you have something to motivate misbehavior, and interest- ing things to misbehave with and around.

Jason Morningstar, Fiasco rules

Fundamentally, you want to create characters, story beats, and setting elements in relationship to the premise or idea you’ve started with.

Say I know the inciting incident of the story is a huge, life-altering disaster. I might then ask questions like

  • What does this character miss most about the time before, and what would he give to get it back?
  • Whom does this character blame for the disaster, and how do they act out that blame?
  • What lie does this character tell herself about what would have been if the disaster hadn’t interrupted her life?
  • What is the safest place in this character’s life now, and what is threatening that safety?

These questions not only relate the characters to the inciting incident; they also impart momentum to the story, because they’re questions about an unstable status quo. Lies and secrets beg to be uncovered. Longing, anger, and fear drive action.

Once you have a few characters, you can start to build relationships as well:

  • Whom does this character trust the most, and why is she unwise to do so?

Once I’ve answered a question or two per character, I look at the structure I had so far and ask: who’s missing? What attitudes and voices aren’t represented yet? What relationships are absent? Which characters are relating too little to others?

You can also use provocative questions to come up other story elements, like events or setting details:

  • What demographic of people has suddenly profited from the disaster, and how are they using their newfound power?
  • What event gave people a brief, false hope that disaster might be averted?

Choosing structural questions

With a lot of these questions, you only need to answer a few per character to give that character a shape and potential trajectory.

There are some questions that are mandatory, though — ones you have to answer for every character or every story beat or every item in the game. Those are the load-bearing questions that line up your story with your mechanics.

I’ve written about how this worked for Savoir-Faire and Counterfeit Monkey and also for Mask of the Rose.

Telling stories to find your mechanics

“Lay some eggs” is a loaded sentence… How does this happen? Is there a whole sort of mating procedure? And then pillbugs go off and lay their eggs somewhere?…

Pillbugs don’t do that at all! Pillbugs have a brood pouch they store their eggs in!…

It’s darling, right? So we put it in. We put it in. We gotta put that in the game. You need to have some flavour or character to the game. So we’ve got brood pouch mechanics…

Tarn Adams on thinking towards Dwarf Fortress mechanics

Sometimes, rather than brainstorming fictional elements, we’re brainstorming about elements of a mechanical system: are we going to simulate liquid and fire here, or just smoke? Which emotions are we modeling for NPCs? Etc. Stone Librande’s One Page Design talk discusses (among many other things) how to plan a matrix of related structural elements.

Another approach here is to start from moments and player stories that you want to generate via your system — Tarn Adams talked through a detailed example of this process at Progression Mechanics.

Using procedural creative tools

There are some procedural creation tools that help generate plausible contributions to a project. One of my favourites here is Vulgar, a language generator that provides an astonishing amount of linguistic specificity, letting you pick preferred phonemes and grammatical features — or leave those elements up to chance.

Screenshot of the procedural grammar tool Tracery being used to fill in a "once upon aa time" story prompt.
Filling in elements in a standard Pixar-style plot structure

Sometimes I’ve rolled a procedural brainstorming kit of my own, using Tracery or another expansion grammar tool.

I find this method most useful when the setting or the mechanic provide a lot of possible ideas, but my own thinking has gotten stuck on a few standard tropes — introducing some randomness and remixing the ideas can help jar me out of it again.

Usually the generator produces a lot of terrible ideas along with the interesting ones, but that’s fine: I only need a few sparks that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own for the generator to be worth it.

Research

To keep my supply of ideas topped up, I alternate brainstorming and research. Occasionally the research is targeted at answering a specific question — but often it’s a matter of setting aside my brainstorming or writing for a while and immersing myself in relevant books, articles, or other sources, and just seeing what comes out of it.

For instance, when I was researching for Counterfeit Monkey, I wanted more specific details about Alex’s research, so I read books about constructed languages.

I wasn’t sure exactly which details I was looking for, but I recognised them when I found them: conlangs that seemed to have an especially utopian story behind them; conlangs based on unusual motives; conlangs with strange and notable features, that might prove evocative to mention.

I read with a notebook open so I can note down anything good, and I continue with a given source until I either have enough cool details or I decide that this source isn’t going to offer what I need.

Observation

Getting some hands-on experience with a setting or process is great if you have the opportunity to arrange it. (An afternoon touring a marble sculpture workshop heavily informed Galatea – even though I didn’t tour it for that purpose.)

When I’m consciously doing an activity as research, I go in with a few questions in mind, but don’t limit myself to just those observations.

I try to take extensive notes either during or shortly after the event (depending on whether it’s the kind of experience that allows for notetaking) — and ideally before I go to sleep that night, because so much detail is lost overnight.

If this feels too dry, it can be interesting write about the experience either in the voice of a character, or as though you were writing a letter to a character; sometimes this helps with identifying aspects of the experience that would be particularly meaningful or emotionally charged from that character’s point of view.

Writers’ Research Sources and Consultation Processes

There are some resources designed specifically for writers. Stephen Gillett’s world-building book on planetary systems is my go-to example here: it describes different kinds of worlds that could exist, along with loads of details about what life there might be like.

Cover art for The Urban Setting Thesaurus
The Setting Thesaurus series offers prompts tied to types of place

There are many other books like this, especially focused on popular genres such as historical romance and mystery writing. Googling “writer’s guide to [topic]” will frequently turn up something, whether the topic is poisons or horses.

Writing the Other offers books, resources, and classes to help writers who want to do a good job of representing groups to which they don’t themselves belong.

Another very valuable route into specialist expertise — especially if you’re at a studio or otherwise have some resources to put into the problem — is to hire a consulting expert to share their knowledge in a way that’s relevant to the game you’re writing. Armed with a preview of your game content and some specific questions that you want to answer, a consultant can often identify problems in your content in progress but also supply a wide range of interesting elements you might not have uncovered on your own.

Specialist Resources

For anything with present-day setting, I like searching out specialist catalogs, trade and hobbyist magazines, and course descriptions. I start by googling “[whatever industry] supply” or “[whatever skill] classes”, then home in on the items that are most worrying or striking.

This curiosity-first search usually yields environmental detail that I might not notice when interacting with a setting myself.

Reading or Listening for Reference

There’s another kind of research less about finding facts or ideas and more about capturing a prose style or a character voice, using reference materials. This is the writer’s equivalent of an artist sketching from photographs or live models. Hannah Nicklin’s dialogue workshop offers excellent guidance here.

I try to do my reference reading or listening immediately before a writing session in order to capture cadence and vocabulary.

If I really want to internalise a particular style, I might copy it by hand or type out a portion of the text. That’s a high-effort approach, but it’s a great exercise if you find you’re otherwise struggling to emulate your model.

Structure: Plots and Puzzle Graphs

The brainstorm-and-research process can apply to any kind of story component, from object descriptions to character desires.

Once you have a good supply of elements to work with, it’s time to develop the structure of the work — the plot of your story, the puzzle graph of your adventure game, the skill chain for your player to work through, the geography of your game and specific levels.

In TV writing contexts, and increasingly in game studios with writers’ rooms, plot development can be referred to as breaking the story; alternatively, just as outlining, though “outline” often implies something a little less precisely specified. You could take a similar group approach to thinking through other kinds of structure, too: choosing the right blocker to place between a person and their goal, for instance.

Very frequently, this process will turn up a structural need for things that we haven’t already thought of during freeform brainstorming — essentially providing some new prompts:

Other resources

Here are a few more specific articles about generating micro ideas for a project:

And both of these books have helpful things to say about building conflict engines through your brainstorming:

2 thoughts on “Mailbag: Macro to Micro Ideas”

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