Learning New Ways to Fail

Finalists for the Buttonshy wallet game contest were announced a few weeks ago. My submission, Space Race: 1969 was not selected. The judges were crazy kind enough to assemble and deliver scores and feedback for the non-finalists.  It’s incredibly valuable just to get any feedback, and I’m going to learn a lot from this submission. The good news is that the feedback is basically what I expected. But the bad news is that the feedback is basically what I should have expected.

When the contest was announced, I had an 18 card game that I had been developing for about a year, targeting a wallet game. But the contest really spurred me on to create even more games, especially after seeing some other entries. I pride myself on being able to take larger ideas and squeeze them down into smaller spaces. So I went hunting for some themes I had wanted to dig in to. And so, a month before submissions were due, I had about five loose designs in addition to the first.

One had a major problem with reaching the victory condition, and ended up being too derivative. One actually had too little going on, and gameplay didn’t have enough depth. There’s another that really needs to include a few coins which I haven’t yet given up on. And another that was a little too complex, but might work if I can ever find the right theme for it. But these four ideas needed to be set aside because I couldn’t complete them in the time and physical constraints that the contest set. The fifth game, however, had a spark. But I’ll return to that shortly.

The game I initially intended to submit was Iceburgh. But just two weeks ahead of the deadline, after a few tests of my final version, I realized it had fallen apart. It still looked great on paper. It had a unique theme and core mechanic. The game played smoothly, but actually a little too smoothly. After a year of development, I had lost a lot of the fun from the original playtests. I had changed themes to make gameplay more thematic but some of the other theme aspects made no sense and felt rather disjointed. A lot of the tension I had originally created was just missing, and the result was unsatisfying. Fortunately, I took a step back and to see that that game wasn’t worth submitting.

Instead, I funneled my development energy into Space Race: 1969, after some trouble deciding what to call it. I tested four or five versions, from handwritten cards through 4 different iterations of graphics and abilities tweaks. It came together quickly. The faster your design comes together, the more important it is to slow down and look at your game critically. It’s really easy to get hooked on the theme and the mechanics when you’re in the middle of a design. But you’re not seeing the game how it actually is, especially when you’re in the “zone” and it feels like your design decisions are all moving the game the right way.

One problem is that I didn’t get a chance to pitch the game before making a video. I didn’t know how to bring out the best features of the game, because I didn’t know what they were yet. I didn’t know what experience I was trying to present because I hadn’t had enough experiences playing. But worst, I really just didn’t know what to say about the game. My pitch video starts with a strong introduction, but the part that briefly shows gameplay is severely lacking. It isn’t a good pitch, and it doesn’t do a good job of explaining the game or what makes it awesome.

It’s absolutely crucial to your design, at every stage, to slow down, take a step back, and look at your game with a critical eye. You need to find a way to take off the “designer goggles”. It’s very hard to do this yourself, so you need to go out and get outside feedback until you find someone who tells you why your game is bad. Once that happens, you can either decide they are right and fix what’s wrong, or decide they are wrong and figure out exactly what makes the game great. Either way, your game is better for it. I didn’t take enough time to do that on Space Race before submitting it.

A lot of the contest feedback ended up being along the same lines. The theme and the mechanics are ok, but don’t really stand out as unique. This is something I started to realize a few days after I had submitted the game. The initial concept actually limited me a lot. Any game that covers the Space race or early Cold War era is going to have to hit a lot of the same thematic notes (or else why choose that theme?). And so to really stand out, the game needs to be mechanically innovative. But there are at least two other games out there that cover similar ground in both theme and mechanics. And although my game takes a different approach, it is not a revolutionary one.

It reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry and George are pitching the show to NBC. At one point the executive asks “Why am I watching it?” and George answers “Because it’s on TV.” “Not Yet.”.

The part of the game I really needed to highlight was the advanced play. The basic play is definitely a little dry, but it establishes the core while the unique and asymmetric player powers in the advanced game do much more to enhance the theme. I could have and should have made that the primary focus of the pitch, with the basic play as a learning mode. But I may also just be missing the mark in trying to capture one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race.

The last piece of feedback is the one that really got to me, though. It said that they liked me as a designer, but this game was a miss. One of the things I never want to do as a designer is disappoint the player, so I feel like I’ve failed them as well as myself with this game. I didn’t really follow my own design philosophy or design advice when designing this game. I made it because I thought I could. And I’m learning that doing things just because I’m capable isn’t a good reason to.

I chose to go to the moon in Space Race. It was only a small step for me, but maybe the game didn’t have the right stuff. I went with the game that I thought was best, but “put your best foot forward” isn’t necessarily the right advice. Sometimes even the best foot is better off where it is. So next time, I’ll take some time to make sure that I’ve got my feet firmly planted before I make a giant leap. Learning is about seeing your mistakes, understanding them, and figurig out how to not make the same ones again. So as long as I can learn from these missteps, I’m still moving forward.

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