How many of you aspiring game developers hate creating characters, either playable or not? I myself was guilty of jotting down only two to three bullet points for a characters blurb. My problem is that every time I revisited that character’s blurb, I changed altered it, or scrapped it entirely. This failure to critically focus on certain aspects of a project resulted in slow progress and loads of extra work. But there is hope!

There Is Inspiration Everywhere, If You’re Looking!

Thankfully, I had an epiphany while teaching overseas that has opened my eyes to a great method for game development. For two years I have been teaching Oral English in China while doing freelance work in my spare time. I made a class on descriptions because the most common phrase among my students is blank is so beautiful’. Doesn’t matter if they are talking about a car, a woman, a mountain, or a city, to them, it was ‘beautiful’. They weren’t thinking critically about their descriptions! After the lesson, I realized that I could apply it to other things—like coding, game design, and story-boarding.

Who Are You? What Where How When?

We know the ‘Five Ws’ or the Five Ws and One H, what questions are, and how to use one. The concept is simple; answer any question, now make a ‘What?’ or ‘Why?’ question about your answer, then answer that question with a ‘How?’ question. Be your own interviewer; don’t just ask basic follow-up questions, ask the hard hitting ones. If done correctly, you can keep falling through the rabbit hole of questions and when you’re spit out the other side you will know everything about each detail. I personally like to ask both ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ because they tend to give very different answers. Asking ‘How?’ will give you a stronger answer with a little more depth.

Here is a quick example of how these questions get different answers; think about the question ‘What is your favorite color?’ then ask ‘Why is that your favorite color?’. The simple act of wording a question differently can give a very different answer. Now, this method would then require you to ask a follow-up ‘How?’ question about your answer. If you said your favorite color is red the follow-up could be ‘How intense is your favorite color?’. With this question, we get a better understanding of if this person likes a dark red, a light red, or somewhere in the middle. Take it slow and simple at first like a character or story plot as these are the easiest examples. You also don’t need to ask all the questions right away. Ask a couple, get a direction and then go. If you need to, revisit this idea later with the new information you have and apply the questions to areas you need help with.

Project Unknown (Source:, free to use images)

Project Unknown (Source:, free to use images)

Getting Down and Dirty

‘Who is the hero of this game?’ The question that usually becomes more complex as the game develops, but this process is handy at any step of development. We have our initial question, so first we need to answer it. ‘A space cowboy’  will be our initial answer.

The What?

Now, we need to ask the follow-up ‘What?’ question. This is going to help point to something direct and tends to work best when describing something or clarifying something. Here are a few we could ask about the answer we originally gave:

  • What does the space cowboy look like? (Design)
  • What does the space cowboy use to breathe in space? (Story or possible mechanic)
  • What are the space cowboy’s abilities? (Basic mechanics for the player)
  • What are the space cowboy’s goals? (Story)

These questions, as you can see, fall into one or a couple different areas of the game designing process, albeit design, story or programming. All of these questions also target something specific, and that is the goal of asking ‘What?’.

The Why?

The alternative to asking ‘What?’ is asking ‘Why?’. Asking a question this way can give you more insight into your newly hatched game idea. It can sometimes be wise to ask for a reason instead of clarifying something. Here are a couple questions we can ask of our space cowboy game:

  • Why is the space cowboy here? (Story)
  • Why are the aliens here? (Story)
  • Why is the spaceman also a cowboy? (Design)
  • Why do we need more than one alien? (Design)

Here we have something interesting happen. Asking ‘Why?’ tends to lean more towards the story or design of the game, or show why the game devs made certain choices. Given the proper question, this could also open into coding and ‘Why does this mechanic work, but this other one doesn’t?’.

The How?

The next part of this technique is asking a ‘How?’ question. Doing this can help if all you can think of to ‘What?’ or ‘Why?’ is something vague or a single word answer. Here, I will show my answer and then under ask my new question:

  • ”Why is the space cowboy here?” He is lost in space.
    • How did this space cowboy get lost in space? (Story)
  • “What does the space cowboy use to breathe in space?” He collects air tanks.
    • How does collecting an air tank affect game play? (Design and mechanics)

You can see that even with a vague answer, asking this follow-up question forces me to do a little more thinking. It gives me more detail and more of a foundation to work from as well. This way of questioning can also help coders: ‘How can I simplify this script?’ (if only it were that simple for coding!).

So Many Questions

When should you release your game? Why is that game successful? Where should I send my portfolio? All of these questions can be answered through this method, if you can find the right follow-up questions. As mentioned above, starting off by questioning design or story elements is a great way to practice. Creating something is great, but without direction you will be stuck idling. By doing things this way you can get your concepts and ideas into focus and then move with confidence toward your goal.