On the eve of my Kickstarter for Supertall (live now), I’ve been sitting here working with Buttonshy trying to find the perfect tagline for the campaign. It was very similar to some of the work I had been doing making game summary sheets (i.e. sell sheets) in the last few weeks. The goal of a tag line is to give you a quick impression of the game. People will decide to investigate further based purely on that 10 second reading, so it’s important to make a good impression. With a summary sheet, you have a little more room, because the person is already looking over the whole sheet. But you really want to keep words to a minimum and show the game rather than spend a paragraph explaining it. I thought it might be interesting and helpful to talk briefly about the process we went through in developing that tag line and how it relates to getting the most out of every word.
You might start with something like “Supertall is a 2-3 player game where you use different types of plans to building skyscrapers”. Simply saying a player count and some mechanics is a good start, but doesn’t do much to relate the experience of playing. Plus in this case, the price point ($10) is a big selling point. Lets try again. “Supertall is a 2-3 player game about building skyscrapers from a mix of plans. Only $10 for a fast and highly interactive tower building game.”
We’re headed in the right direction. First, we simplified language, instead of saying “where you use”, we made the information about plans a clause on building skyscrapers. We added the price and description “fast and highly interactive” and call it a tower building game. The second sentence is sort of awkward and we’d rather leave the reader with $10 as a point of interest. We’re also still wasting words at the beginning, by saying “Supertall is a game where…” We don’t need to clarify that we’re talking about Supertall.
In its place, we want a word that will excite players right off the bat. Tell players what they are doing in the game. “Build skyscrapers” is Ok, but build is a little boring. “Plan skyscrapers” is even worse. But “Design” is a more interesting behavior, because it’s active instead of passive, and suggests a level of skill is involved. Also, we aren’t just building skyscrapers, lets add some wording to show that these are special. “Design the next world-class skyscraper. A fast and highly interactive tower building game for 2-3 players. Only $10!”
OK, now we’re getting closer. The first part is active and interesting. The second part is descriptive, but is still a bit clunky. And rather than say that it’s fast and interactive, lets tell players why. Plus we’re just calling players “players”. So that gets us to the final iteration. “Design world-class skyscrapers. 2-3 architects compete and collaborate in this fast and highly interactive game for only $10.” Most of the words are now descriptive of the theme and player actions. “design” “world-class” “architects”. “Compete and collaborate” tells you it’s competitive but still strategic. The whole thing flows much better.
When you describe your game, value the reader’s time. Make the most out of your space. Get rid of all the extra connector words and be as direct as possible whether you’re describing the mechanics, theme, or experience. Don’t just say “this is what happens”. Take all the potential in the game and make it kinetic. Describe what is happening, as if players are active right now. Because you’re not just trying to get players interested to hear about the game, you’re trying to get the players interested in playing the game.
As usual, there’s not a road map, but this hopefully gives you some strategies to apply when you’re working on writing your game up, whether it’s for marketing, making a sell sheet, planning your pitch, or even explaining the rules. Try to get to the experience as quickly as possible.
Unpub 8 is just a week away, so I guess I better figure out what I’m taking. I have a table for Friday night and Saturday morning. Since there is a completely new schedule this year, I’m interested to see how the time slots compare. I’m guessing Friday tests will be more designer heavy while Saturday will be more casual, so I’m trying to plan for that in the designs I’m taking with me. Read the rest of this entry »
In college, I entered an essay contest trying to win some scholarship money. But by coincidence, I happened to know one of the judges, who was a professor at my school. I remember having a conversation with her, after the judging but before the announcement. Knowing that the judging was anonymous, I made a passing joke, “Oh, did you read my essay?” Without missing a beat she responded seriously, “Oh, which one was it?”
I replied “oh, it was the good one” to a still stony demeanor. It would be easy to misinterpret this this as a failed joke and let it go, but I continued that I had written it months before and didn’t remember the details, which was true. But this speaks to a larger point. If I can’t remember my own essay, and I can’t give a description of it that would make it easily identifiable, how is it ever going to stand out to a judge? Those words, “which one was it?” have really stuck with me.
Of course this is directly applicable to submitting games to design awards and competitions. But it applies to any kind of submission to a publisher and, by extension, to creating a game that will be successful and popular when it reaches the market. The things that help it stand out to a potential publisher are the same things that publisher will rely on when marketing the game. With thousands of games released a year, and an even larger number competing for limited publishing slots, you need to be able to point to something in the game that makes it memorable and unique.
This is probably considered conventional wisdom among game designers. But it’s far from automatic, and it takes a lot of effort to see your game with outside eyes. A great way to get around this is to think about how you’d identify your game without a title or art. Commonly used categories, themes, and mechanics are a great way of putting someone in the right reference frame. But these things can’t–by definition–uniquely identify your game. I recently set aside a pirate game with simultaneous card play, where you’re trying to take gold from ships and hire better crew. The mechanics weren’t working as well as I wanted, but that’s something that I could continue to fix. The larger problem is that it just wasn’t doing anything to have an identity. That description could fit a number of different games.
So this is something I am still working on with my designs, especially when I have so many designs in progress at once. I’m trying to filter out the games that don’t have an identifying feature, and focus on the designs that do. And it’s slowly making me a better designer because I’m starting to consider that aspect throughout the design stage. It also makes me a happier designer because the same factors that make a game stand out make a game fun to work on. There’s some new problem, some new topic to cover, some new way of doing things that is enjoyable to figure out.
It’s not easy to get someone to remember your game. With so many games coming out, just being “the good one” or “the fun one” doesn’t tell you anything about what game it was 2 days later, let alone weeks or months. And it’s not something you can rely on adding at a later stage. Titles and box art are also easy to forget when so many games look and sound the same. Step back and think about what made the last game you played memorable.Then picture yourself talking to a judge from a contest, or following up with a publisher after a month, or even in a game store trying to tell someone about your new game. If you can’t identify your game from the 30 second interaction, it’s probably not ready. Having a unique identity is what will keep it in players minds, the next time they ask “Do you remember that fun game we played?” the answer is yours.
I’ve been working on a game over the past few months, with my friend—and designer of Rocky Road a la Mode—Joshua J Mills, called American Steel. I haven’t written much about it because It’s been coming together quickly, and wasn’t really stable for long enough to write meaningfully about it. That and I hadn’t played it myself until recently. But I am absolutely thrilled to announce that this past weekend, American Steel won the Ion Award at SaltCon.
I recently attended all 3 days of the inaugural PAX Unplugged in my home town of Philadelphia. It was great showing off my home city to people (especially Reading Terminal Market). It was also way bigger than I expected, and there were people I never even ran into all weekend. Possibly because I spent a lot of my time Friday and Saturday in the Unpub/Alpha Build room, working on prototypes. It was a good weekend for prototypes, if not for the players. Read the rest of this entry »