Deciding What to Work On

With New Bedford development approaching completion and getting ready for launch on Kickstarter November 2nd, it’s time for me to seriously look forward at what I want to work on next. And I really don’t know what to do.

Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t have anything to work on. I have plenty of ideas. I’ve got one file full of themes I’d like to work on, and another full of mechanic concepts. I have several games partially prototyped, and more with rule books that are half-complete. So my problem isn’t that I don’t have anything to work on. And at the same time, I don’t feel like I have too much to work on, either. These ideas aren’t struggling for attention or inspiration. My problem is that I don’t know how to choose the game I want to make.

I’ve talked to several people about how to choose a game to work on. Josh Tempkin recommended working on whatever was working. That is, stick with whatever you’re making progress on. Even though it sounds obvious, it’s very good advice about reinforcing the motivation you have. Dr. Wictz suggested that I need to choose a controlling idea to work on. That’s a good way to frame the problem, but it isn’t by itself a way to choose the experience I want to create.

I’ll compare board game design to another art form, the novel. Some writers want to create the Great American Novel. Others just love to write, and enjoy writing as much as possible. Yet others write because they can, and it’s a way to make a living. For some people, those things sometimes go together. You write as much as possible until you are good enough to write the Great American Novel, and then it becomes a way of making a living. But I don’t expect to have time to make 3 or 4 games every year. So do I spend my time slowly honing my craft, or do I make sure that I’m only working on the greatest game ever made?

Let me take a step back for a moment. My experience with designing a game has been very lucky. I’ve made (so I’m told) a great game on my first try, and I was incredibly fortunate to get interest from a publisher so quickly. So in some ways, I haven’t really experienced the struggle involved in designing a game. So now I’m left with the question of how to do it again. Part of the answer is to go back through my process of designing New Bedford, and see what made it work – not the design, but the actual process. And the process started with a goal of designing something I wanted to play. I had specific elements from other games that I wanted to experience, but then I waited until I found a theme that I wanted to experience that also made the other elements work.

Part of my motivation is being faced with the possibility of hitting my sophomore slump, a case of sequelitis, on the verge of being a one-hit wonder, where I struggle to followup my first success with another good game. All around me are game designers that I know personally and deeply respect who are producing excellent successful games. So I feel like I’m under pressure to make a great second game, but really, the only pressure is that which I put on myself. Fortunately, I can draw on everything I’ve learned about game design to help guide my path.

The first thing I need to decide is what kind of game I want to make for myself. One of the ways I can do that is to find an experience I’m missing in other games. But I’ve been finding so many amazing games lately that there isn’t something I’m obviously missing. If I’m focusing on one thing, I think it’s finding a small game that gives a deep experience. I think next year will see a lot of small deep games, as an extension of the micro game trend.

The next step is to revisit all of the games I have in progress, and all of the ideas I’ve got waiting, and see what inspires me. Just having a good idea isn’t enough; I need to find the ideas that inspire me to make them a reality. At the same time, I need to set aside ones that I am working on just because I think I could make them better. And particularly with respect to UNPUB, I don’t just want to have games people want to try, I want to have games that people are excited to come back to again and again.

I also want a game that will be attractive to a publisher. I don’t make games just because I want to sell them, and I’m not trying to make my living at it. But I do want to share the games I make with other people, and I don’t have the time to do all the work involved with that, so if I’m going to accomplish that goal, I need a publisher. So I can look at the publishers whose games I like (Like Dice Hate Me, and Eagle/Gryphon, for example) and figure out what kinds of designs they like to work with. Getting published is a sort of validation, too. I prove to myself that I really know what I’m doing, and it’s nice to get rewarded for that.

It’s tough to spend a month showing off a game I’m really excited about, and realize I don’t know what I’m going to do next. So this is a chance for me to refocus. I don’t yet have a standout game like I had before UNPUB 4 last year. But I have some ideas that I like and feel like they have potential. It’s time to find the game that I want to make.

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