I met a lovely gentleman recently who shared his game with me at a demonstration. I won’t go into the specifics of the game itself, but it struck me as a game that had a great deal going on, but very little in the way of clarity. He was very proud of how far his design had grown in the years he worked on it, but it was easily apparent that it had run away from him. I learned a great deal from listening to him and watching his game being played. I thought I would share some of what I took away from my conversation with him as well as some signs that your designs are running away with the baton.
You’re trying to reinvent the wheel
The game that I was shown borrowed heavily from existing IP’s and came across as more of a method of improving upon areas where he felt the original games had failed. He believed that his methods fixed huge gaping holes in the original designs. More often than not, this perception simply stems from not exploring the alternatives within a genre.
Taking Dungeons and Dragons as an example, the idea is that you may dislike things in the rulebook that force you to make your own game. Yet, if you explore other games like World of Darkness, you may find that someone already solved the fault you found. Going ahead and making your own game that is legitimately a copy of another game that you were simply unaware of makes you look bad and proves that you haven’t done the research to see what you are dealing with.
Your design needs external input
The notion of taking critique for your own designs and receiving input from playtesters is paramount to the creative process. Unless your game lives in a vacuum of its own making, you need to pay attention to what others say about it. The runaway design is fraught with mechanics or themes that seem mostly contradictory to the idea of a polished, marketable game.
In playtesting, the art gives way to the science. You need to become a researcher, gathering data on player behavior, win rates, statistics and other concrete figures to help your game. See how players react in various circumstances. It is not uncommon to wear many hats in the process of making a game and often you must trade in your easel for a clipboard and vice versa.
A quick aside while on the topic of playtesting: if you do not know what a blind playtest is or insinuate that it would be unnecessary or unfair to the testers, stop everything and go conduct one now. You won’t be there to teach everyone you sell a copy to, but your rulebook will be. If it can clearly demonstrate the game and its systems to a new group without any input from you or veteran testers, you know your game has a somewhat decently written rulebook.
Your design should shine, not you
This may seem obvious to most designers, but I am amazed at how much ego is displayed in independent endeavors. In the first hour of my interaction, I was bombarded with more details about the designer than the game itself. I knew his credentials, qualifications, the reasons he was correct in his assertions, and why people should love what he’s doing. I really only learned the name and inspiration of the game itself. No mechanics, no major themes, no details of the flow of gameplay.
Taking the time and being able to explain the process that went into your design is great. It shows that you can think through what you had previously implemented, see its advantages, identify its faults, and fond adequate means of adjustment. You need to be able to avoid injecting yourself into the discussion or bragging about your accomplishments.
Understand what you’re making
As the conversation continued, I was introduced to the rest of the line that featured his extended world and the storylines portrayed within it. This world spanned not just the board game, but also novelizations, RPG systems, and a journal-like blogs with maps and lore spanning thousands of years for it all.
I admit, it is a noble goal to reach for Tolkien-level immersion within your setting. That said, the real tragedy of the product is that none of it felt complete without needing something else to reference. Your projects should be able to stand on your own. That is not to say that you should not have a novelization of your RPG system or build a system from your novel, but when it feels as though you develop everything at the same time with no distinguishable progress being made on any single product it tends to get messy.
Also keep your claims to things your game actually does. If your game features asynchronous turns where people act in unison, then make sure that’s what its actually doing. The game I watched claimed to have this as a feature where people didn’t have to worry about down time as other people acted, but what it felt like at the table was a truncated turn system. The turn would have the same phases, just instead of a person taking all of their actions at once, each player would conduct a phase before moving to the next. This is NOT simultaneous actions, this is still taking turns no matter how short they are.
That closes out part one of this experience. Part two is destined to be just as juicy. Until then.