Archive for category Game Design

Which one was it? Identify Your Game

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.



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The Value of a Bad Playtest

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 »

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Questions to Ask Before Making a Game

Deus Ex is right at the top of my greatest games of all time list. It’s a crowning achievement in game design that I still use as s point of reference for other games. A recent article on Gamasutra covers some remarks that the designer of Deus Ex, Warren Spector gave at GDC earlier this year, looking back at Deus Ex after 17 years.

The article includes a list of questions that he always asks before making a game. It really leapt out at me because I’ve been struggling to figure out what games I want to make recently, and these were some of the same questions I was asking myself about my games. So I wanted to look at the list of questions in detail to figure out whether I was making the games I really wanted to make.

First, there are 6 questions about the game you’re making.

  • What’s the core idea? Can you describe the core of the game in 2-3 sentences?

A straightforward, but deceptively difficult question to answer, because you need to narrow your focus to give the game shape. You can fill in details as you go, but it’s really important to have that structure to build the entire game around.

  • Why do this game?

“Because I can make it” isn’t good enough. I’ve made plenty of games because I was capable of it. Every single one was bad. “Because I can get it published” is almost the same thing, but even worse because it’s usually wrong, too. Find the reasons you’re excited to make the game, in order to be motivated to make it great. As a bonus, those will usually translate directly to the reasons someone is excited to play the game.

  • What are the development challenges?

This is probably less of an issue because boardgame design is so rarely held to a release schedule or budget, but it is still an important part of the development process. From the very start, you should figure out what is going to be hard. It could be on the design side, such as scaling, balance, or manufacturing, or it could be on the play side, such as down time, or ease of learning. Know these things early and you can design around them without getting stuck.

  • How well-suited to games is the idea?

This looks liks a sort of pointless question, because your idea for a game is sort of by definition suited to games. But the subtle issue it raises is whether it is something that ought to be represented in the form of a game. Boardgames, even more than video games, still carry the connotation of being an object of “play”, and not every subject matter can be carried as well. Some ideas would also benefit from elements that are infeasible in cardboard, leaving you stuck with a hobbled implementation or an overcomplex mess.

  • What’s the player fantasy? (If the fantasy and goals aren’t there, it’s probably a bad idea)

This is something I’m trying to consider more often, because it a applies at two different levels. On the first level, it asks about the role the player takes on internal to the game. That tells you something about what players will want to accomplish in the game. And on the second level, it asks about player goals. What do players want to get out of the experience of play? Spending half an hour chatting and laughing with friends can be that “fantasy” the player wants just as much as leading a civilization through history, running a 17th century farm, or defeating an army of monsters to claim some loot.

  • What does the player do? (What are the “verbs” of the game?)

I have always loved the idea of games as a collection of verbs. It can be very challenging to translate a lot of ideas about a player’s experience in the game to paper. But the verbs you choose give you a more direct route for defining that experience. They act as building blocks that give you a framework for how players interact with the game.

Then there are two more questions about the game as a product.

  • Has anyone done this before?

This requires both honesty and research. You can’t know about every single game ever created, but there are resources, especially BoardGameGeek, that make this easier. And it’s just generally a good idea to go out and play a variety of games that might do similar things, to learn about how they work and make your game better.  It’s tempting to think that your idea is original and to lie to yourself to preserve that feeling, especially if you’ve already put in a lot of work. But to do so is to waste time that you could be using to do something new.

  • What’s the one new thing? (“You can always find one thing that hasn’t been done before [in games], even if you’re making a My Little Pony game.”)

And it’s not enough to just not be duplicating something. Different is good. New is better. Seek out those new twists and original ideas that make your game stand out. Yes, it’s a marketing tool and a way to make sure it’s different, and a reason to make the game. But it’s also a part of what makes being a designer fun, creating something entirely new. It is the spark of life that keeps games moving forward.

And finally, there is an existential question.

  • Do you have something to say? (“In Deus Ex I wanted to explore all sorts of big issues,” said Spector. “And I wanted players to explore those things in ways that only games could do.”)

Of all of these questions, this is the hardest, because everything else is sort of tangled up in this one issue. At the risk of sounding cheesy, you bring a unique perspective to the world. Games are a way to share that perspective. It doesn’t always have to be some profound statement, or something you can make into a slogan. But remember that as a form of art, games inherently carry a message, so pay attention to what you want to say and what the game is actually saying. I know that my own games are better when I knowing what I want to say.

As I organize my designs, now, the answers to a lot of these questions are already part of the data I’m entering from the start. I think they really help define what you want from your design. I always want players to have meaningful choices in a game, and it’s probably no coincidence that that was one of the main goals for  Deus Ex. I played it at a very formative time in my life, and it has no doubt shaped my game design choices since then. I think it’s a real testament to Deus Ex that the design lessons remain so universally relevant.


Literary Game Design 2: Designing Conflict

Sometimes, you can be working on the same idea from two different angles, and it takes you a while to realize it. The previous article, Games as Stories, was one angle. I’m also starting a new game design, and was getting a bit overwhelmed with everything that I was trying to do at once. I started looking at some of the basic ways I was trying to make the game interesting. And I noticed the parallels between the classes of conflict and the ways to make decisions interesting. But I called them by slightly different names. Player versus player conflict is competition. Player versus randomness conflict is just another way of saying luck. Player versus rules sets boundaries. Internal conflict of player versus self is what I call struggle. Finally, player versus feedback is difficult to name, but I think challenge is a good term for it.

Some definitions of what makes a game focus on the idea that a game is characterized by creating artificial obstacles. These forms of conflict are the obstacles. Players get frustrated by obstacles that are too hard to pass and get annoyed by obstacles that have too little resistance. So by considering these forms of conflict individually, we can be better at deciding how to use them.
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Literary Game Design 1: Games as Stories

I’ve always wanted to talk about the relationship between games and literature, an idea that will probably make all but the geekiest of game design nerds roll their eyes. But for those of you who haven’t left yet, literature provides a great lens through which to examine game design. Each game played is like its own story, that the designer and players craft together. And if I learned anything from high school English class, there are five basic elements of any story: character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme. And if a game tells a story, these elements must be present as well.  But there are sometimes two different levels of story. The first is the story being told within the game. And the second is the story being told about the game. This second level is the one I’m interested in examining. Read the rest of this entry »


Lessons from Designing a Solo Variant

This article has been a long time coming. Way back before the first New Bedford Kickstarter in 2014, I was starting to wrap up the expansions for New Bedford (now collected in Rising Tides). I had noticed a real uptick in the number of “solo variants” for games I followed on BGG, so I started to think that people were going to want a solo variant for New Bedford. But it would be another year of work before I actually got a solo mode I was happy with. In the roughly two years since I started working on the solo mode, a lot of new resources have appeared to assist designers of solo games, and I think it’s helpful to talk about how the Lonely Ocean mode was developed with regard to some of these resources. Read the rest of this entry »


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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.

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