March 28, 2015 Gaming Community: Game Design 101
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Aerjen Tamminga

The goal of this article is to give you a quick overview of the challenges you’ll encounter when going from an initial idea to a published game. Obviously a 1500 – 2000 word article is too short to go in depth, but I will be linking to a plethora of resources where you can find everything you need. The article is written from a tabletop game designer’s perspective, but most of this advice transfers to digital games or paper prototyping for digital games as well.

Before moving on to the real article, let me indulge in a small rant… Here’s the best advice I got for you: “STOP READING AND GET TO WORK!!!” The biggest hurdle I see many new designers run into is that they take a lot of time thinking about their game. Please listen and just start prototyping asap. You don’t need to know all the mechanics, how the theme fits the game or even how to balance it. All you need is a pen and some index cards to get started. Play the crummy prototype and iterate. Oh, your prototype isn’t crappy? Well, then you’ve been doing it wrong! Try spending even less time on your prototype the next time you make it.

Happy Designing!

You’re still here?

Okay, I guess you’re taking a break from game design and are interested in looking over some of the resources I mentioned. Let’s start at the beginning then, shall we?

Brainstorming ideas

When it comes to brainstorming ideas for a game there are many viable paths to follow, but here are a couple of suggestions you can think about. First of all, if you already have an idea you’d like to work on: great! Just make sure you’re not making a CCG or have a “new take on an old classic.” If you’re curious about what I mean by the latter take a look at some of the failed Kickstarter campaigns that sport a new variant of Chess, Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit: Getting Fired in the US, California Vacation Game, Fratopoly, Cairo, or Medieval Battle Chess. You can search for more of these using keywords on Kicktraq.

If you’ve got the feeling that there are some other Kickstarter Strategy Epic Fails in the above examples, you’re absolutely correct. Other than creating a game design that won’t sell, these people have not done their homework on how Kickstarter works. Still, studying failed campaigns will help you learn on what to be aware of yourself. More on this in the section on self publishing.

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source: http://www.tiltfactor.org/growagame/

If you have a hard time coming up with ideas, I recommend playing around with the free Grow a Game app from Tiltfactor, do some exercises from the book Challenges for Game Designers or, more challenging, try and chart what’s missing in game design. Which mechanics, themes or aesthetics are not fully explored? A good place to do your prior art search is BoardGameGeek a comprehensive database of board and card games. Be sure to also browse/create Geeklists and check out the forums. BoardGameGeek is also your go to when checking whether the name for your game is already taken.

If you’re just setting out, you might want give yourself a design challenge and steer away from your regular sci-fi, fantasy, railroad, worker placement or Lovecraftian horror. Setting restrictions when designing games can help you a lot with your focus and this particular constraint might help you to be original.

From idea to prototype

Prototyping is to game design as breathing is to life. A prototype is a rough first version of your game and as soon as your idea is born you should start making one. I like to think of prototyping in terms of three stages of complexity or focus:

Stage 1: Minimum viable prototyping. Grab some sharpies and index cards, throw together a bunch of things, play and figure out what you do or don’t like. Rinse and repeat. In this stage I like to focus on mechanics first and “spark” second.

The biggest pitfall for designers is to wait too long before starting to prototype. It can feel unintuitive to start designing if there are still large gaps in your idea or mechanics. After getting into the habit of starting earlier than you think you should, you’ll start to notice the benefits yourself.

One best practice I learned while attending the MIT course on game design (check out their Open Course Materials) is to write out every step of the game on a separate index card. This way it’s easy to switch around the order of a turn, switch out rules and keep track of what’s working best. Try to stay away from fine tuning in the initial stages and make rough adjustments (e.g. multiply resources x2) to figure out how they affect your game system. When you feel you have something that’s working reasonably well (not perfect) go and take it to the streets! If after some serious playtesting you find yourself with a game that seems pretty interesting and has some spark to it, you might be ready for stage 2.

Stage 2: Lo-fi prototyping where the focus is on usability. Here’s where I start adding some simple graphics to my cards/board. Great sources for these are http://game-icons.net/, http://thenounproject.com/ and http://all-silhouettes.com/. What I look for is anything that helps players (users) intuitively understand what’s going on in the game. If you’re interested in understanding more about design, I can recommend reading the book The Design of Everyday Things. If you’re wondering about what software to use, I prefer using Adobe Illustrator but basically any vector based program works well. Inkscape is a free open source alternative. When working from pen/ink sketches you might prefer something like Photoshop or its free open source alternative Gimp.

Stage 3: Hi-fi prototyping where the focus is on aesthetics. When you’ve got your base iconography down and have a very polished game design you might be ready for the final stage. You really don’t want to rush into this, because getting great art either costs time or money and often both. If you’re not an artist yourself you can find good ones in a variety of places. For example, the Game Makers Guild has a list of tabletop artists.

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source: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1143256637/pleasant-dreams-a-card-game-of-nightmares

There’s a lot of debate on how good your art needs to be when pitching to publishers or to go to Kickstarter. I like mine to be pretty advanced, but that’s a personal preference. The rule of thumb for Kickstarter is that you at least need a couple pieces of great art to showcase your product.

There are probably as many different ways to approach prototyping as there are game designers and whatever works for you is fine. The reason I like the above form is that it is pretty time and resource efficient.

Playtesting

Have you seen the wealth of Kickstarter campaigns that get $0 in funding? There are many reasons for failed Kickstarters, but lack of playtesting is definitely an important reason. Playtesting comes in many forms and shapes, but basically it’s nothing more than sitting down and playing your game. This can help you to figure out what works and what doesn’t, if there’s a “spark” and if it works for your target market.

The first place to start is to do some solo playtesting. Run through the steps of your game and see what happens. Does everything work, do you have enough cards for a game, does the game end? Questions like these should get partially answered by doing some dry runs. Some elements, like real-time game mechanics, are harder to test but you can often approximate this by either randomizing play or creating an AI for the different players. What can help is writing down a strategy per player on an index card and play accordingly.

Usually I caution against playtesting with friends and family, because it’s harder for them to give you the critical feedback you need. Another risk for playtesting with family is that they’re not necessarily gamers. Having someone that only knows Parcheesi, Game of Live and Monopoly praise your game is something wholly different than having a professional reviewer do so. On the other hand, if you enjoy playing games with them don’t let that stop you. Just know that you probably need to look in a different direction to get the best feedback.

You might be wondering where you find these magical creatures that I lovingly call playtesters. Scattered around the globe there are a multitude of meetups for game designers (often found on www.Meetup.com), gaming groups, game stores, game design forums, etc…

When running playtests, I divide them into three different ones: regular, intensive and blind. The regular ones are just that. A session where people play the game and provide feedback. In intensives, I invite a group of players to play the game several hours in a row. This allows for rapid tweaking, but more importantly the players will start learning the strategy behind the game and become better at breaking it or finding exploits. Blind playtesting is where you have players try to learn the game by reading the rules themselves. It’s absolutely critical for you to refrain from talking while this happens. You don’t ship with every game 😉

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Getting the most out of a playtest is a form of art on it’s own and it would take up too much space to really dig into this right now. The most important thing is to make sure that once the game starts that you are asking questions rather than explaining things. Is a player doing something that doesn’t make sense? Ask the player why. Are players constantly breaking rules? Try to figure out why and see if it makes the game better.

If you want to read up more, I recommend searching for how to work with playtest scripts, feedback forms and how to focus a playtest on a specific issue. Chapter 9 through 11 from the book Game Design Workshop is a nice place to start with this.

Pitching to publishers

The role of the publisher within the gaming industry has changed over the last couple of years and it’s hard to give a description that’s set in stone. The services of a publisher can range from editing your rules, providing graphics, tweaking or overhauling your game design to marketing and distribution. Depending on the publisher you’ll be allowed more or less input, you will keep or forego IP and contract agreements deserve a very long post on their own. If you decide you want to find a publisher there are a couple of things you can do to prepare for it.

Make a good sell sheet. Thinking about how to write a sell sheet will help you with your overall pitch. Andrew Federspiel wrote a great article on how to do so or actually, just read James Mathe’s Publisher Do’s and Don’ts. He’s got a section on writing sell sheets. If you’re looking for some inspiration on why people buy certain products, I can recommend Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the subject.

Rather than sending those out into the blue, I do recommend getting to know people within the industry first. Go to conventions, set up meetings with publishers that are attending, help out in the community, etc… Immersing yourself in the game design community is one of the best things you can do to become a better game designer and to get the word about you and your games out.

Make a list of publishers accepting submissions to keep track of which publishers might be a good fit for your game. Here’s a list to start with: “Publishers accepting submissions.” I created this list and added about 40 game companies about a year ago. Feel free to send me an e-mail at aerjengames [at] gmail [dot] com if I need to update info, or add a company yourself using this nifty form 🙂

Not sure where to put this, but it’s a very important tidbit of info: PLEASE don’t go wasting your money on patents and don’t show your ignorance by trying to get a publisher to sign an NDA. Most members in virtually any tabletop game design community (worth your time) like The Board Game Designers Forum, BoardGameGeek Game Design Forums, Facebook Kickstarter Best Practices will tell you this.

By the way, take everything you read with a grain of salt. For example, many people write that you should never submit to multiple publishers at once. So far, I’ve submitted games to small and large publishers and everyone has always been fine with me doing that anyway. Naturally, I’m open about that and ask them in advance.

Self publishing

There are a couple of ways you can go about self publishing your games, all with their pros and cons. I recommend exploring multiple options to figure out what works best for you.

Print and Play: you can always upload a print and play to various sites like BoardGameGeek, DriveThruCards or your own game company site. There you can decide on whether to offer it for free, have a donate button or charge a small fee. I haven’t tried this out yet, but am considering it for one of my upcoming designs. Companies like Games by Playdate, and Troll in the Corner use this (as part of their business) model. The great thing is that you can use it as an open playtesting platform and garner some extra feedback. You can always choose to publish the game later anyway.

Print on Demand is where you have very small print runs of a game often even single units. Some sites that have that as a service are DriveThruCards, DriveThruRPG and The Gamecrafter. This is the business model that Daniel Solis uses. I recommend checking out his site, since he’s very transparent in his business model. He publishes his sales numbers every month.

Crowdfunding is a very popular method for self-publishing games at the moment. The two most notable platforms are Kickstarter and IndieGogo, but for some reason tabletop games don’t do well on the latter. Rather than write a lot on the topic, I want to recommend you read up on my three favorite sites: Jamey Stegmaier’s blog, James Mathe’s site and Richard Bliss’ podcast. To make sure you don’t get too overwhelmed with everything you can do, you might want to consider using project management software like Trello, Asana or Zoho.

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t always need to go big. Take for example Leviathan 3000 or Formula One Motor Racing by Simon Walden. Next to having a small funding goal there are other ways of lowering the challenge on your first game. You can offer only US shipping and use a Print on Demand service like The Gamecrafter.

Patreon is another interesting platform, rather than getting a lump sum of money like with crowdfunding you get a recurring fee for the things you make. If you expect to churn out games (like John Harper or Avery McDaldno) or game add-ons (e.g. The Fate Codex) on a regular basis, this might be the platform for you.

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source: http://www.patreon.com/mcdaldno

Finally you can always invest in your own game, but to be honest, I don’t know why you would want to do this with all the other options that are available.

On the whole, getting the games to a level where they’re publishable is not the hardest part. Getting people to find your game and buy them is or as Richard Bliss likes to say: “Crowfunding is not about the funding, but about the crowd.” Maybe I’ll write another article on that topic sometime down the road.

Final Words

Hey, congrats for reading this. The fact that you’re taking the time to read more about game design means that you’re already approaching this a lot more professionally than a lot of others out there. Let’s call it your first leg up on the competition. Remember the advice I gave you at the start of this article? Well, here’s one more piece: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just try out some things and have faith that you’ll have more than one awesome idea/design. Now get out there and start designing! Have some fun while you’re at it will ya?

Happy Designing!

– Aerjen

Aerjen Tamminga is a game designer who succesfully funded his first game Pleasant Dreams through Kickstarter. He’s now collaborating with Zapdot to create a digital adaptation based on Edgar Allan Poe’s work. While he was living in the US he was Chair of the Board for the Game Makers Guild and Director of the Boston Festival of Indie Games.

Check out his game Pleasant Dreams at www.pleasantdreamsgame.com.

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