This is sort of a followup to my post last week about how to decide what to work on. Grant Rodiek’s just wrote about researching a theme, and it starts off by telling you to pick a good one (which, in turn points back to his earlier post about what makes a good theme). I wrote last week about the importance of working on something that inspires you. But there’s more to the process than choosing the ideas you want to work on.
I have several friends who are not boardgamers. These are smart fun people who enjoy games, but they really own a standard deck of cards. The concept of a “card game” without spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds, was a foreign concept. Even my wife, who enjoys mid-weight and heavier games says that sometimes her eyes start to glaze over when a game is introduced as an epic battle between dwarves and something-or-other. Frankly, I tend to have the same reaction. Along with some of the discussions I was having at Congress of Gamers, this led me to think about how you choose a theme.
As a designer, you get to pick what experience you want the player to have. Sometimes, this is in the form of a neat mechanic you want a player to use. Sometimes, it’s a neat theme. Often, it’s something that interests you. This is one reason that there are so many games that rely on typical gamer tropes: fantasy, zombies, trading in the Mediterranean, etc. There are aspects of these experiences you want to recreate because you enjoy them.
I started making New Bedford in part because I had recently read Moby Dick, and then saw a PBS documentary about the history of whaling. Personally, I find it a fascinating subject. But whaling is also a touchy subject, and a portion of the people who hear about New Bedford will stay away from the game because of it. Even so, the story of the role whaling played in the development of US history is an important one worth learning about, and a game is one way to make it more appealing. On the other hand, a game that it is a historical look at American industry is only going to appeal to a somewhat small group. New Bedford, however, has the connection to a revered piece of literature. Even so, it’s not a pure adaptation, so it’s not going to tap into it the same way that Moby Dick, the Card Game was able to take advantage of. (And anyway, it’s not effective marketing to tell people, “You should be interested in New Bedford because it’s actually a better game, even though it’s less of an adaptation.”)
We can go even further by considering the fact that experiences that appeal to gamers don’t always appeal to people outside the hobby. That’s a shame, because there are a lot of people out there who would really enjoy the hobby, if they felt like they related to it more. In fact, that’s one of the ways in which designers create “gateway” games that serious gamers enjoy, too, by presenting a more accessible theme. That’s one reason that I really enjoy games from Dice Hate Me; the themes are so instantly relatable.
Recognizing and utilizing these different points of view is an important part of choosing an experience. It’s part of knowing who the audience is for your game. Not only do you as a designer need to be deeply invested in presenting the theme, you need to make sure your players will be invested in it, too. You can start this process by using an established popular theme, or you can also do this with any theme you can think of. But you can’t just rely on other people being interested in the same themes. You’re not going to have immediate success as a designer by creating an experience that only appeals to a small group that shares your interest in an obscure topic.
The secret is that every theme has elements in it that appeal to different people. It’s your job as a designer to find these elements. One of the best ways to get people interested in your game is by honing in on the things you find interesting about the subject. Break the experience down into small parts, and find the parts you get excited about. Is a zombie game great because of the zombies, or is it the fear and paranoia and mood the theme creates? Do you simply like boats, or is it a sense of adventure, or the complexity of sailing, or is it the social interaction of trading and competing with other players? Do you just like medieval towns, or do you like the act of construction, growth, or the small stories of the residents. Each of these elements gives a different way to hook players.
Whether you are dealing with a “popular” theme or something wildly original, focusing on all of the details will help you identify what experiences people will enjoy about a game. Then take those experiences, grow them and refine them. This applies equally well when presenting your own game or when introducing people to a new game. Don’t just make your games for people who “get it”. Find what makes you love the subject, and make that your game. You will be happier with the process, and both you and your players will be happier with your result.