Archive for Business of Design
(This was originally a response to a question on Quora.)
Because there are so many kinds of game designers, the answer to the question is the same as the answer to many questions about game design: it depends.
The difference in experience between being a game designer who is working full time for a video game studio, someone who is an indie video game designer, and someone who is a freelance tabletop game designer such as myself, is immense. (There are a few full-time tabletop designers working for publishers, as well.)
For example, almost all of the time I can design whatever kind of game I want to design, and either I find someone to publish it, or I self publish it (which I personally do not do, but most tabletop designers do these days), or it doesn’t get published. Someone who is working as a game designer full-time may be lucky enough to work on a game they want to do, but much more likely will be working on a game that someone else decided is the one the studio needs to do. Indie video game designers tend to fall more into the freelance category in this respect, they’re on their own.
Video game designers tend to work on one game at a time, the one they’re trying to prepare to be published, while experienced tabletop designers tend to work on a lot of games in a given segment of time. The difference comes from how long it takes to get a game to a decent prototype. There is no programming or art or sound required for a tabletop game, so you can get to a good prototype relatively quickly, compared with a videogame. And from the good prototype to the final takes far longer for a video game than for a tabletop - the publisher takes care of production for the tabletop. That is, if the designer has licensed to a publisher, rather than self publishes.
Tabletop designers often spend a great deal more time involved in playtesting, than video game designers do. Much of that is because video games are designed to be played right out of the box, whereas someone has to read the rules of the tabletop game. And of course you can make as many copies as you want of a digital game at no cost, to send to playtesters. So it’s relatively easy for a video game studio to send their game out for “blind” playtesting (testing where the players have no knowledge of the development of the game). Tabletop designers spend much more time overseeing face-to-face playtesting of their games than they do actually designing them.
Video games can also go into “Early Access” or some other kind of pre-release and even post-release testing that is not possible for tabletop games.
Employment conditions in video game studios vary immensely. What Chris Crawford said 15 years ago is still true today, there are so many people who want jobs in the video game industry that the employers have supply and demand on their side; in that situation, employees are often treated poorly.
My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/ https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar
The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).
Three different topics in one blog post.
"The game must be fun to play"
I've been looking at tabletop publisher submission guidelines and often see some form of this ridiculous statement: "Game must be fun to play"
Why is this ridiculous? Because how enjoyable a game is depends so much on the preferences of the target market that there's no such thing as a "fun game", period. I don't use the word fun at all, because I think fun comes from the people you play with, and the circumstances, and that's how people can have fun playing a dire game like Monopoly, or even a super-serious game like chess. Lots of people enjoy playing chess, but half of them wouldn't call it fun (yes, I've asked chess players).
Look at the movie reviews at Metacritic.com and you'll see how two people can have entirely opposite views of whether a movie is good. With more genres, more variety, games are even more subject to variable opinions.
So to say "fun game" is so personal that it's no guide to a designer who may want to submit a prototype.
Occasionally I'll write to the publisher who's done the "fun thing" and try to get them to explain what they like. Sometimes it's hard to pin them down, sometimes not. They all know (or think they know) what they think a fun game is, but do they consciously know?
I am rarely in a game shop, both because they're scarce and because I live "out in the country". I recently went to one for a game designers' guild meeting, and took time to look at what was on offer (other than comic books).
First, I saw lots of boxes, large and small, containing miniatures, including games using miniatures. Star Wars X-Wing, War Machine, War Hammer, and others. A 2 inch tank was discounted to $11.51! To me, never in sympathy with miniatures prices at the best of times, the prices were breathtaking. But that means big profits for the shop.
It also showed how much game shops are driven by hit games, hardly a surprise.
I also saw lots of CCGs and accessories, also providing great profit margins to the shop.
More than half the square footage of the shop was devoted to game playing space. I was told that on Wednesdays, boardgame night, the place was full, which would be 50 people I'd guess. The Thursday I was there, with no formal organization, there were 10 in the game area.
My experience is a little different in Gainesville, Fl, where there's one boardgame shop, and another I haven't visited that is comics and so forth (and Magic) and not much in the way of boardgames.
There are game events every evening (7 days a week) at this shop. But what dominates the shop's revenue is Magic: the Gathering, and many of the events are Magic tournaments or casual play.
Not surprising about Magic, it is much more than half the CCG category, and CCGs are much more than half the tabletop game category, in the US (by revenue). Magic is about a third of the whole.
Instant Gratification, Generational Differences
I can record a hockey or basketball game and watch it a day (or two) later; as long as I haven't heard the score, it's just as "real" as at the time it was actually played. Many people absolutely don't understand how I can do this. It's because I have an imagination, and because I'm not wedded to Instant Gratification. But also, I don't rely on social media for my enjoyment of the game; I have other things to do during a game, if I'm not going to just watch it.
I always hated ABC for those NASL soccer games interrupted by commercials. Not the interruption, but the fact that they didn't tape delay so that you saw the entire game. Instead they'd come back occasionally and say "while you were away a goal was scored" and show the replay. DUMB! I didn't care if it wasn't quite "live", I did care not to be told what happened "before" it happened!
Life in general isn't a matter of what's new, it's a matter of what's new to you at the time. Yes, the hockey game is "old news" to some, but to me it's new at the time.
The game Stratego is new to someone first playing it even though it's been around for more than 70 years, and its nearly-identical predecessor (L' Attaque) has been around for more than a hundred.
The whole notion of “innovative mechanic” or “innovative game” is so wrapped up with what players have known before, as to be mostly-useless.
Below is the text of the slides. There's more to this in the video, of course.
Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
I work with publishers who usually publish games that are models of something, that clearly represent something, not abstracts
Abstract games are hard to sell – because there’s no story attached
Publishers vary as much as designers do
Following is for an email pitch, but most applies to an in-person or over-the-phone pitch
But isn’t a game the mechanics?
Technically, quite a bit; practically, NO!
Mechanics are a means to an end, not the end itself
Games are about an impression the game makes on the players
That depends on many things
mechanics are secondary
(for example) Depends on the level of player interactivity and whether or not it has always-correct solutions (a puzzle)
What’s important is what the player actually does
Talk about that, not about mechanics
Except insofar as mechanics are relevant to player action
But keep in mind, players rarely think of themselves as “doing worker placement” or “building a deck”
They think in terms of winning, and of the context of the game
Publishers also want to know the components so that they can make a ballpark estimate of cost
How many cards, how many dice, what kind of pieces and how many
Especially if the pitch comes from an unknown designer, there's a significant chance that the game will be too expensive to produce for what it does/is
A big selling-point of games (to publishers) is inexpensive components (16 or 20 cards only, for example).
What makes the game Unusual?
It’s the Kiss of Death to say, for example, “it’s a deck-building game”.
There are hundreds of deck-building games. What sets yours apart? Why would anyone bother with it?
The publisher wants to know what makes your game unusual, not what makes it ordinary!
Don’t say “it’s a worker placement game.”
OMG, another one?!
Your definition when you pitch
If your definition as a game designer of your game is that it's a worker placement game (say), you've already failed.
There are hundreds of such. And the mechanic you use is irrelevant to what the game actually does
You may be proud of how you’ve made certain mechanics fit together
But that isn’t what the game is about, not to a player or publisher
So don’t talk about mechanics, unless you have a unique, surefire mechanic (both of which are very unlikely, understand)
Next slide is a list of items I include in a one-page pitch sheet (not the cover letter)
The only thing that approaches mechanics is “Game Type”, where I might say “Sweep of history game” – but that isn’t mechanics, is it?
(Sequence of play could be called a mechanic, too)
Keep in mind, these categories are for a one page pitch sheet, not for the cover letter
In the cover letter I establish my credentials and my interest in this particular publishing company
Which is harder to do if you don’t have a track record yet
Number of Players:
What does the game represent?:
How to Win:
Who does the player represent?:
What does the player do?:
Sequence of Play:
Attractions for Buyers:
Suitability for Expansion:
Talk about how your game affects players, what the components are, why you’ve designed it as you have (where you might mention mechanics).
I intend to be at GenCon and WBC (from Wed afternoon).
I'm giving our talks at GenCon (one per day), one at WBC (Thursday afternoon)
Below is the text of the slides. There's more to the presentation, of course, than the slide text.
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
I am not a lawyer
But I’ve listened to lawyers discuss game IP quite a few times
And I’ve read a lot
While this isn’t legal advice (and wouldn’t be even if I was a lawyer), I think it’s a good brief summary
If you want legal advice, talk to a lawyer (who’s experienced with game IP!)
Protects a specific expression of an idea
Usually a product
But there are also “design patents” and “method patents” these days, to help the PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) make more money, I think
Must be novel and non-obvious
Limited duration (20 years (or less) in USA, down from 26)
Apply only in one country!
Copyright is respected in most countries through Berne Convention
Patent and trademark apply (and must be applied for) country by country
“One important concept that is lost on a lot of lay people is that when you sue to enforce a patent (and I am an IP trial lawyer who defends big companies daily), you are allowed to argue that a patent is obvious by combining two or more other things. . . sort of like combining chocolate with peanut butter.” - Steve Facie
The Patent and Trademark Office has allowed many such obvious patents, but the courts are much more strict
Such as the patent on providing an 800 number for people to call when they’re uncertain about the rules for a game
But even Hasbro didn’t spend the money to challenge it in court
Patent Office is a Big Mess
US Patent and Trademark Office is thoroughly screwed up because it self-funds
The more patents it issues, the more $$$ it makes
Not surprisingly, the PTO “regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” (Steve Facie, IP lawyer who participates in patent trials)
This is where “patent trolls” come from: buying up ridiculous patents that have nonetheless been issued by the PTO, the trolls try to scare companies into paying royalties on this trash
Expensive to file ($3-10K according to lawyers)
Plus $565, $1425, $2365 for maintenance fees paid at 3 1/2, 7 1/2, and 11 1/2 years after your patent is granted. These fees maintain your legal protection
Worse, far more expensive than this to defend in court
And about 2/3 of patents are invalidated when they get to court
Successful games are very rarely patented
Games you never heard of, and never will, make up virtually all of the patents
Which anyone can look up online
Cost versus your Revenue
Why spend more money than you’re likely to make on the game?
Very few games (tabletop or video) are patented
The most well-known patent is on Magic: the Gathering, not just on “tapping”
“look and feel” come into it
It has now expired
You can see the latest patents online – virtually all are utterly foolish, such as a new way of betting on BlackJack!
And it’s not likely to “Stick”
. . . If challenged in court
“. . . roughly TWO THIRDS of all patents asserted in litigation are invalidated (i.e., forever killed) either at trial or on appeal. In other words, the Patent and Trademark Office regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” IP Lawyer Steve Facie
Patent versus Copyright
Copyright protects the look and artistic presentation, including the actual wording, of a work
Copyright violation is to some extent a criminal matter, patents are purely a civil matter (government does not enforce, no law is broken)
Copyright is supported in most countries via the Berne convention; patents must be filed in every country where you want protection
I read much more often of copyright lawsuits than of patent suits
Wizards of the Coast takes on Cryptozoic Entertainment in CCG online lawsuit
Keep in mind, this is based on copyright, the patent has expired
Crytozoic issued a CCG that is just too much like MtG
Triple Town video game suit also based on copyright, not patent
Copyright (and trademark) are your friends. Find a game designer who has obtained a patent, and almost always, you’ll find one of those “suckers born every minute.”
Two recently published classes, one of them free:
"Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
This is $15 on Udemy, with this coupon it's $12:
I've just opened a brief (hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences"
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this coupon:
The surprisingly large attendance at my talk about “How to Write Clear Rules” at GenCon made me focus on the fact that there is nothing in print about writing game rules, other than the occasional blog post, and a chapter in the “Kobold Guide to Boardgame Design” by Mike Selinker that is primarily an exhortation to use simple, clear language in your rules. (Mike also recapitulated that chapter in a well-attended talk at GenCon.)
I have less than 20 participants so far in my online audiovisual class “How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)” on Udemy.com and Courses.Pulsiphergames.com. Like everything else in the digital age the course suffers from anonymity, more commonly called in games “discoverability” - if people don’t know it exists they can’t “consume” it. Of course it also suffers from being very specific, appealing primarily to aspiring tabletop game designers.
I’ve heard of other instructors at Udemy turning their courses into short electronic books. Because I’ve recorded more than 50 fairly short “lectures” for this class I actually have a large body of words that I could turn into a short book. I can run each screencast through CyberLink PowerDirector a second time and save it as a WAV file that can then be transcribed by the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium software that I write with.
The voice recognition is definitely not perfect, a time-consuming obstacle to the project. Perhaps a greater one is that I speak my screencasts on-the-fly, that is I don’t work from a full script but only from notes that are the slides in the screen cast. Consequently I speak in a fairly casual rather than formal manner, the same manner I would use in my 17,000 hours of experience in the classroom where I tried to talk with the students rather than at them (small classes thank heaven). That style, when transformed to the written word, is wordy and informal. Consequently a great deal of editing is required to turn a transcription into satisfactory writing, both because of Dragon’s errors and because of the difference in style and delivery.
Nonetheless I have begun to do this, and of course all writers and game designers know that it’s easy to start a project but difficult to finish it. At this point I don’t really know how long it’s going to be - it will include some long rulesets of published games as examples - but I estimate somewhere around 50,000 words. The typical novel is 100,000 words and 50,000 is generally regarded as the minimum size, so this will be shorter than a normal book. (My McFarland book “Game Design” is just over 100,000 words, intentionally - I didn’t want to write a massive book that might put people off.) So this will be a thin paper book if it’s ever available in paper. My primary goal is to sell it as an e-book whether through Amazon or through a place like RPG now I don’t yet know.
$4 off "How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)" ($23)
You can see some sample screencasts without registering, and there's a 30 day money back guarantee.
Generic plastic/wood game pieces you can buy for prototypes
(or for full production?)
Many game designers need 3D pieces to use in their prototypes, and some game publishers may want to make games with 3D pieces yet are not prepared to create custom components. I don’t know whether EAI makes their own stuff, but one way or another, if the pieces can be bought by individuals at these prices, they must be available for much less at very large order prices.
I get most pieces from EAIEducation.com. They are a school supplies seller. I’m looking at their latest “Spring 2014 Math” catalog (they also sell online, of course). I use quotation marks around the names EAI uses. I have listed their largest quantities, many are available at smaller quantities though higher cost per item.
“Stacking counters”. p. 15. These are excellent, and I’ve already seen them being used in published games. 2,500 in a tub (10 colors, .75" ) $49.95. So 2 cents each.
Plastic 1 “centimeter cubes”. p.22. (10 colors). 5,000 for $79.95. So 1.6 cents each. (Cost more in a tub.)
They also have “interlocking centimeter cubes”, same page, more expensive.
You can also order single-color sets of blue, yellow, orange plastic cubes on p. 34, 1,000 for $19.79.
1 inch square “plastic color tiles” p. 21 (large enough to write numbers on) in four colors.
4mm thick, 2,000 in a tub $64.50. I use these a lot for prototypes instead of cardboard counters.
2mm thin slightly translucent, 400 for $10.95
They also list transparent, 48 for $3.95. I haven’t tried these.
You can also get 4mm foam versions(“quietshape color tiles”), haven’t tried them.
“Two-color counters” p. 77 (red on one side, yellow on the other), 3/4" 1,000 in a jar for $22.25. I use them for sites that must be explored, writing on the yellow side, sitting red side up.
You can also get 1" magnetic ones, and transparent ones (single color, I think).
“Double-sided black and red counters”, 1", p. 121, 200 for $5.95.
“Black and red counters”, 3/4", not double-sided, two separate colors. 480 for $8.95.
‘Plastic, 1", four color transparent counters’ packed in a sturdy plastic container. 5,000 for $73.95 (missed it in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/531176/Transparent_Count... online)
“Game pawns”. P. 15. 300 in a jar for $8.95 (colors may vary, 5 shown). These are classic fat-bottom skinny-top game pawns. So 3 cents each.
“Blank playing cards”, decks of 54, $1.55 each of 36 decks for $39.95. P. 77 2.25" by 3.5"
Also transparent and colossal and normal cards available.
‘1" wood color cubes’510 in a tub, $45.95 p. 3
“Hardwood cubes in six colors” 2 cm, (blue, green, orange, white, yellow and red). Packed in a tub. 510 for $43.95 or 102 for $8.95. Also missed in the catalog, http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/530639/Wooden_Cubes_2cm_...
Another way to provide 3D pieces is to use wooden blocks with stickers. You can buy blocks individually from Columbia Games. A more economical source is GMT, who often sell big bags of blocks very reasonably priced at conventions (such as PrezCon, WBC). The blocks above can be used the same way typical wargame blocks are used, though they’re twice as thick as wargame blocks.
They have spinners, sand timers, plastic coins, dice (polyhedra), blank dice (http://www.eaieducation.com/search.aspx?Keyword=blank+dice&c...) and so forth as well.
EAI doesn’t sell chips. I get small ones from Rolco games, who make their plastic stuff themselves but sell direct to the public. http://www.rolcogames.com/category/pokerbingo+chips/7
Rolco even sells blank game boards and boxes: http://www.rolcogames.com/category/board+game+accessories/12.
You can also get bulk rocket ships, tanks, and lots of other small pieces.
You get bulk pricing on orders of 5,000 or more.
Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) also says for Europeans, “make sure to also check plastic for games ( http://www.p4g.co.uk/us/us_prod_directory.asp ) and spielmaterial ( http://www.spielematerial.de/en/ )
Using their bits for prototype design has the added advantage that they are mostly the same bits that manufacturers use for finished products “
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames?
Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .
“I didn't realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so.... (But no wonder I couldn't find players for wargames all those years...!)?”
- Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14
(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )
I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk (by a publisher of hex-and-counter wargames, no less) where the future of wargames lies. The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group. Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside. And it gets smaller over time.
So what is the future of hobby wargaming? Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing. What can replace it?
Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Video games are easy to play, with the tremendous advantage that you don’t need to read the any rules, and video games are also becoming quite cheap with vast numbers of free to play and $.99 games available. Most video games that appear to be about war are actually closer to sporting events, as top RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game players must execute 200 actions-per-minute to succeed. But the capability to make two-player games primarily requiring thinking to succeed is there, and there are turn-based video games involving war (most notably, Civilization).
Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games. These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce). I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.
Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”
The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction. Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.
Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much. In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L. In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway (assuming there are no draws), so you can lose and not feel “failure” - you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”. You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you. At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK - the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)
These games should not have player elimination, something that can unnecessarily bring out those feelings of failure. Practically speaking, too, a game without player elimination is likely to be shorter than one with elimination.
Video games achieve this through single player games/campaigns that are often puzzles that you will sooner or later solve if you’re persistent. With save games and respawning there is no way to Lose.
SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo. People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames. I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days. Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.
So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.
Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational. For example, a game about the Italian city states in the era of the Crusades can allow players to prosper if they can peacefully take advantage of the trade from the Far East and develop influence in foreign places, but can provide the ability to go to war. If a player can stay out of a debilitating war, or win a war very quickly, he or she will have a good chance to win the game. (I speak of this as though hypothetically, but my prototype Seas of Gold does just this.)
Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!” (I have to interject here, those who have decided that “Euro” only means certain heavy-strategy games that they like are going to disagree with me, because I use the older, broader meaning of Euro.)
To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop - if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen. (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two-player game.)
Grand Strategic Wargames
I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of. Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. There are lots of tactical games involving fighting, but they are individual skirmish games like Heroscape and many RPGs, not “nuts and bolts” games. Another aspect of grand strategic games is that ultimate success usually depends on building up your economy, as it does in almost any war. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.
Visual and Tactile Appeal
It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger. Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half-inch counters. Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work - I have in mind the FFG Britannia pieces. 3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not. (I was told that Command & Colors was getting no traction for GMT, before publication, until they introduced the use of blocks as 3D pieces (not for “fog of war”). Then it took off, and has proved to be very popular.)
Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal. Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces. (NO lookup tables, either.) 3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.
Stacks of counters are also a bad idea, though less so if only the owning player is allowed to look in the stack. A good decision I made decades ago in Dragon Rage (which is a hex-and-counter wargame) was to prohibit stacking. With the larger pieces in the 2011 edition, I’ve avoided the old problems of stacks of half inch counters.
Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.
Fewer Significant Decisions
The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like many difficult/significant choices. They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. (I’m sorry if that’s not entirely clear but my spiel about gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games is something like 10,000 words. This will have to do.)
This trend is already enormously clear in video games. Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earn their rewards by making good decisions.
Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”. I know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times, but nowadays you’re going to find few newly published games that anyone will ever play 500 times, especially not one as long as Britannia.
I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced. I’m put in mind of a young lady who used to attend our university game club. At age 18 she was exceptionally intelligent and focused, and when she played games she really put her brain to work (more than most), but because she was playing games to relax she did not want to play anything like a standard wargame where you have bunches of pieces to move in each of your turns. That was far too many decisions to make. She liked tactical video games, where you have just a few characters to control. That’s the kind of person who can be attracted to strategic multiplayer games that involve war, but only if they are designed to be broadly appealing.
Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!
Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago. RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then. Wargames by their nature tend to be about nations and large units, though there are many games with individuals as the primary units (squad level games). The word “story” is in “history”, but the history of warfare tends to be impersonal. The kinds of personal stories people like aren’t about the Military, by and large. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out, as the grand strategic games I recommend are not well-suited for the “you are there” mentality (think History of the World or Diplomacy).
People Games, not Math Games
What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. Britannia has some detail in it but it’s essentially a simple game to play, and the really good players are playing the other players, not the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.) That’s the kind of game we need, though Britannia is not the best example because it’s much too long for most players. One of the new versions of Britannia I’ve created can be played in 90-120 minutes and has been played in 84, even though the players were not hurrying. Yet it is still clearly Britannia.
Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance). Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent. Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.
On the other hand, you can’t remove a fairly high degree of interaction from a wargame and still have a wargame, instead you have something that begins to approach a puzzle or multiplayer solitaire. I don’t see this as a route wargames can take because then you have a major disadvantage of a wargame - the tearing down - without the compensating advantages of high interactivity.
Where there’s a place for two player wargames is on tablets and PCs, so that those who like this kind of ultimately confrontational math-like game can find opponents, and can play in short sessions even if the game itself is quite long in aggregate. For examples, see http://www.shenandoah-studio.com.
Shorter and Simpler
Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especially video games). Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players. But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.
Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.
I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. The kind of model that Phil Sabin calls a simulation - though I wouldn’t - that helps one understand history will still be around. If you’ve read Sabin’s book Lost Battles you’ll know that his simulation to help understand what really happened to during ancient battles is pretty simple, not at all the kind of highly detailed simulation we used to get from SPI.
On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.
Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets.
Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.
When I started this I intended to write something fairly brief, but many of the trends in games in general have come into the question of the future of wargames. I’ll stop here before it grows any further!
I will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC. Exact time or day as yet unknown. The topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).
I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com . They are still on Udemy.com at higher prices. They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”. I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”. Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
Thu Mar 13, 2014 12:48 pm
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
This is my guide to game design, but I do not design puzzles. When you design a puzzle you may want to make it more complex, so that it will take longer to solve.
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” - George Orwell, 1984.
George Orwell is talking about writing, but for game design this amounts to the same advice as in the first quotes, keep everything as simple as possible. Stephen King puts it another way: “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
“You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” - Jack London, Call of the Wild
Many beginners think that ideas will just come to them, that success will just come to them. No, it's more like how Jack London describes writing.
"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell.
I suppose it depends partly on personality, but I'd argue that if a game designer is absolutely certain that he is right no matter what other people tell him, he's almost certainly wrong. If you’re full of doubts about your game, but playtesters from the right representative group like it, then you're in pretty good shape.
"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."
- Japanese Proverb
Too many beginning designers wait for things to happen, they daydream. You have to DO something, not just dream about doing it. Much like Jack London’s admonition above.
"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." - John Quincy Adams
Especially applicable in the Age of Instant Gratification.
"The greatest motivational act one person can do for another is to listen." - Roy E. Moody
If you're the designer in a team of game developers, take this to heart. Everyone wants to feel that they contribute to the game, as well as to the software. They want to know their ideas are seriously considered.
“Complicated programs are far easier to write than straightforward programs.” - John Page.
The same is true for games: but it's usually the straightforward ones that are really good.
"My thing is that most scripts aren't bad scripts, they're just not finished yet." - Michael Arndt (scriptwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story III, etc., and initially for StarWars VII).
The same can be said for a great many published games nowadays.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, I like a challenge.' I don't like challenges. Life is tough enough without any challenges." - Jackie Gleason (a very successful actor and comedian, among other things, you might recall)
People don't want their entertainment to be frustrating these days.
"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." - Terry Pratchett (Diskworld)
Don’t worry too much about all the details, get a prototype together to play as soon as you can - it’s a first draft, not a final draft.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Senator Dan Moynihan
Reality is what counts, not what you think reality is.
"The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." - Carl Sagan
Just because you want it or like it, doesn’t mean it will happen.
"If you want to write better songs, write more songs. If you write 20 songs, ten of them will be better than the other ten." Martin Atkins (of Public Image Limited, Killing Joke, et al)
Not, *listen* to more songs (“play more games”), *write* more songs. Design more games. There’s no substitute.
"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." - Henry Ford (cars)
Even less on what you intend(ed) to do. Important especially for younger people who, these days, tend to confuse intention with action. Intention alone counts for very little.
"The way to succeed is to double your failure rate." - Thomas Watson (founder of IBM)
In game design it’s often called “fail fast”: try what you think will work, figure out if it works, get rid of it if it doesn’t, and do this quickly so that you can move on to something else that might work.
"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." - General George S. Patton
There’s little place for perfectionism in game design. You’re never perfect, practically speaking, because even if you’re perfect for a moment, the tastes of your audience will change over time. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns applies: at some point, the time it takes to improve a game will not be worth the minuscule value of the improvement.
"If everybody's thinking the same thing, then nobody's thinking." - General George S. Patton
This especially applies to large teams of video game developers. Beware of “groupthink”. It’s a major reason why we see games released that are widely regarded as just awful. What was the team thinking?
"I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose." - Loki, in The Avengers movie
Sounds like one of those "artiste" game designers to me. You know, the guys who think they’re great artists, and that they’re gifting the world with their brilliance, and they’re sure they’re right . . . and so forth.
Maybe you can actually be that artiste someday, but not when you’re starting out. You have to earn it. Games are entertainment (even educational games, we hope). Don’t lose sight of that.
Here are a few more:
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit." - Plutarch
"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." - Douglas Adams
"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." - Mark Twain
"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." - John Wooden
"A goal is a dream with a deadline." - Napoleon Hill
" . . . Picasso told the story, which I can only paraphrase, that when art critics get together, they talk about light and color and form; when painters get together, they talk about where to buy cheap turpentine." - Peter Perla
Keep firmly grounded, don't get lost in "meaningfulness" of games.
“Beware of self-indulgence. The romance surrounding the writing profession carries several myths: that one must suffer in order to be creative; that one must be cantankerous and objectionable in order to be bright; that ego is paramount over skill; that one can rise to a level from which one can tell the reader to go to hell. These myths, if believed, can ruin you.
If you believe you can make a living as a writer, you already have enough ego.”
- David Brin (novelist)
The same applies to game designers.
"It is the motivation to pursue excellence, a work ethic that reflects the determination to solve problems, the attention to the smallest details, and the desire to be the very best that distinguishes students who make a difference in their given professions." - Candice Dowd Barnes and Janet Filer
Game designers as well.
Not long ago someone wrote to me out of the blue and offered to pay me to act as a consultant to evaluate his tabletop game. He’d read my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.” He had been working on his game - I assume a tabletop game in the circumstances - for 20 years, and evidently felt that my advice would be worthwhile. However, he was coming from somewhere else to Duke University for a visit, and that’s 70 miles from my location.
The game consultant or agent is in the same legal situation as a publisher, facing the possibility that someone will become litigious if the consultant/agent/publisher is associated with publication of a game that could in any way be misconstrued as similar to the game that was submitted to them. One reaction to that is a release agreement which the designer must sign before the consultant/agent/publisher will look at the game. This release agreement essentially says that even if the game is published later that is very close to the one that was submitted there is no legal liability.
That’s because even though (in United States law) game ideas cannot be copyrighted, there are many novice designers who will spend money anyway to start a lawsuit, even though they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding. And there are lawyers willing to take someone’s money to do something even though they know they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding. (All you need to do is look at the ridiculous “games” and game ideas that are patented (all available online) to recognize how many lawyers are willing to take advantage of “game designers”.) Defending against that lawsuit costs money.
But is evaluation practical otherwise?
It’s relatively easy to tell that a game isn’t very good. There are so many obvious ways to screw up that there are plenty of ways to identify huge flaws. But once something is judged better than the obviously poor, it becomes far more difficult to recognize what’s exceptionally good. You might think that publishers can do that, but if they could, they’d be making a lot more money than most of them make! No, no one can tell, really. (Heck, there’s enough disagreement even about games that have been in publication for quite a while.)
And if that’s true, a consultant or evaluator is of more limited use than you might have thought at first.
(I especially remember a teacher of game design - online - who said that student games would be graded on how much fun they were. Ridiculous! The teacher didn’t have the time or players to play all the games even once, quite apart from the great variation in what people think “fun” is (I won’t even use the word “fun” about a game, preferring “enjoyable”). And the teacher was not a lifelong game player, had only recently started playing games: she was a programmer.)
My general advice about game evaluators is the same advice most people give about job head-hunters. If a headhunter wants money up front, he’s probably not really legit, it’s more likely a scam. Good headhunters are paid by the hiring company when they find someone who fulfills the company’s needs. Similarly, a good agent (or evaluator, or marketer) will get his money as part of the successful licensing when your game is published.
Many “evaluators” offer to evaluate your game for a fee, and perhaps list it on some website that publishers will never look at. Once again, I don’t recommend any evaluator who wants money before you are paid by a publisher.
As for consultants, my response was:
I am not sure how much I talked about consultants in the book. My usual statement is something like "you won't make enough with a tabletop game (barring fantastic luck) to make consultants, agents, or even lawyers worthwhile (unless you're completely 'at sea' about contracts and law)."
I also say that even publishers have trouble recognizing good games (just as book publishers have trouble recognizing good books, sometimes). So I cannot pretend to be able to tell you how good your game is. Moreover, it's difficult to evaluate some games without playing experience, which requires both time and players.
Furthermore, just as many publishers won't listen to any idea about a game without legal protection, I'd have to require you to sign an agreement that released me from any liability should I later publish/have published a game with any similarity to yours. Not that I would, I have many dozens of games in various stages and rarely start a new one, but the legal protection has been shown to be necessary.
That's also why I have the following statement on my Website: "Disclaimer: occasionally people send me unsolicited ideas or concepts for games. Be aware that when you do this you acknowledge that I may use your ideas in any way I wish without legal obligation. (I'm unlikely to do this, but I may have the same idea already, and I have no desire to be sued by someone who doesn't realize that ideas are not protected by copyright law in any case.)"
So I generally don't act as a consultant for a variety of reasons.
Moreover, Duke is about two hours away from my home, a consultant has to charge for travel a well as "face time".
So I'm trying to talk you out of the idea in a variety of ways. It's more important to get a large variety of people to play the game, watch them, listen to them, than to talk to any "expert" about it.
Evidently I convinced him, as I did not hear from him again.
What about asking your friendly neighborhood game designer for advice about your game?
If a game is “out in the open”, e.g. at a game club, then you would hope that any observer who happened to see it would be unlikely to be sued. If the meeting is a game designers’ meeting intended to enable designers to get advice from other designers, one would hope that any suspicion of “stealing” ideas would be gone. Unfortunately, given the extremely litigious climate in the USA, and a court system where anyone willing to spend money can get a day in court even when their situation is hopeless, caution is necessary.
So why use an agent? To approach Hasbro or some German publishers you must go through an agent. The publishers use agents to winnow out all the obviously bad games that the publisher would otherwise have to deal with. (There are thousands of wannabe designers who think that if they slightly modify Monopoly or Blackjack or some other well-known game they’ve got a great idea. A glance at patented games will show you lots of worthless ideas people come up with that they think are so valuable they spend $3,000-$10,000 patenting the idea.) Last I knew there were about 300 designers who could approach Mike Gray of Hasbro directly, rather than through an agent - but you probably aren’t one of them. So an agent can be necessary in some circumstances, though not most.
Literary agents are much more common than game agents - most fiction writers have an agent. They function the same way in the book business as for games, saving the publisher from many books that otherwise hit the “slush pile”, manuscripts by unknown writers submitted to the publisher. (Publishers hire someone from outside the company to read the slush pile; in many cases, the reader can tell a book isn’t suitable after reading a page or two.) I may be out of date, but last I knew a literary agent tended to take 10% of what the author made. Game agents are likely to take much, much more.
When I lived in England, knowing little about the publishing situation there (this was long before the World Wide Web, in the late 70s), I did use an agent to place my first game with H. P. Gibsons, which was a major game publisher at the time. (They later were the original publisher of Britannia after Avalon Hill rejected it with “games of this era don’t sell”, but this was for Swords & Wizardry, a somewhat Stratego-like game.) That cost me 50% of the proceeds, but in the circumstances it was worth it. As it would be to get a game published by Hasbro.
So for most beginning designers, evaluators, consultants, and agents are to be avoided.
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Audio-visual course Get a Job in the Video Game Industry, $15 (or use this coupon URL for 20% off): https://www.udemy.com/get-a-job-in-the-video-game-industry/?... or use the coupon code: VideoGameJobs20%Off
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YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
Mon Nov 25, 2013 11:41 pm
“If you want to quit playing RPGs, start designing them.”
(quote from a GenCon 2012 panelist)
I sometimes see or hear game designers give the advice that is quoted in the title of this piece. I have to disagree. Game designers need to spend their time efficiently, just like anyone else. And playing games (other than their own for testing) is not very efficient, certainly not the most important thing game designers should be doing. Because playing games is *very* different from designing them.
The idea behind the advice is that game designers need to know lots of games. That’s a reasonable point of view. But playing a game is not necessarily the best way to learn about games:
• 1) Playing games is not, *for some people*, the most efficient way to learn about them.
• 2) When you reach a certain experience level, you’re not going to learn a lot playing games, *compared to the time it takes*.
• 3) For most people it’s too easy to play games and not do what you should really be doing, which is designing, testing, and completing games.
Let’s eliminate right now a supposed reason not to play games. Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) says "Every now and then I meet a game designer wannabee that proudly states he will not play other games or look at what's published, in order not to be influenced in his design." That's *nuts*. You need to know what is happening with other games more than you need to worry about being influenced by other games. I would never worry about being influenced by other designs because borrowing is endemic in game design, yet insofar as I make games as models rather than collections of mechanics I’m unlikely to borrow as much as mechanics-constructors might be. But that might not be true for someone with a lot less experience.
Now let’s go through the three reasons I’ve stated above, in greater detail.
There are many ways to learn about new games, and playing games is not always the most efficient way. In fact it’s often quite inefficient. If you rely only on playing the game you need to play several times to really understand what’s going on. (This is why writers of formal detailed game reviews should have played the game several times.) Some people (myself included) can learn more efficiently by reading about games, reading game rules, watching people play games, and *talking with people who have played the game several times*. That is, not everyone has to actually play a game to understand it.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many people play a game once and thoroughly misunderstand it.
The oft-expressed presumption that the only way, and presumably the most effective way, to learn about a game is to play it, is simply ignorant or self-centered (take your pick). It depends on the person, on the situation, perhaps even on the game. There also tends to be a presumption in some people that if you don't play a lot of games, you're not learning anything about games, which is clearly NOT true.
I almost never play a published game (including mine), period. Also, by watching and talking with players I can learn about a game that I would obviously dislike strongly (and I am *very* picky). I cannot recall ever having the experience of playing a board game that I was pretty sure I would dislike, only to find out I liked it. Maybe that’s something that comes with age. A senior citizen (me) has a lot more experience playing games than a 25-year-old, and so may be able to understand a game better without playing it.
The more time I spend playing someone else's games, the less time I have to devote to my own (which must be played solo several times, if nothing else). I don't even play my own published games *as they were published*. On the other hand I've played Britannia in several versions more than twenty times solo this year, but that is in aid of making and testing rules for the new editions.
I don't mean to compare myself with him, obviously, but when some presumptuous dude decides that my views must be useless because I don't actually play a lot of different games, I point out that Reiner Knizia doesn't play other people's games. (If you're interested in tabletop games and don't know who Reiner (as he likes to be called) is, you need to read more and get out more.) I hasten to add that there are few other resemblances between me and Reiner.
Perhaps a comparison to another field will help. Many people like history but learn in different ways. I was educated as a professional historian, and if I want to learn history I’ll read a book (or, these days, something shorter depending on the level of detail I need). Some people learn history by watching the History Channel, which I very rarely watch. That’s partly just how habits have been established and partly because the History Channel can go overboard in dramatizing history to the point that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s “Hollywood history.” Some people like to learn history by playing historical games. Now I like to teach history through games, but I certainly don’t learn history that way, for me it’s not efficient. I can learn a lot more in less time by reading a book.
But I don’t tell everyone that if they don’t read history books they can’t know anything about history, no more than I would tell someone if they don’t play lots of games they can’t know anything about games. There are different ways to learn, of different efficiency for different people.
Let me repeat, I'm *not* saying you don't need to *know* a lot of games, I'm saying you don't necessarily need to *play* a lot of games. Because *one of the biggest barriers to productivity in the game industry is game playing.* If you want to be *productive* as a designer you can't play too many games, because you won't have time to do the design. (Caveat: if you're playing your own game prototypes then that's another thing entirely, because that ought to be productive.) Playing games is not very productive, or perhaps I should say, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns kicks in when you play other's games, and you need to work on your own games rather than play more of others. I have a friend who has designed quite a few published games, but he would have published a lot more if he didn't enjoy playing games so much.
To make a comparison with a related industry, I think you'd find that many full-time novelists don't have much time to read novels, because they're writing novels.
Also, when you get to a certain stage in understanding game design (or, for those novelists, fiction writing), when you play a game or read a novel you see how it's constructed, and it takes away some of the sense of wonder and the enjoyment that brings. Kind of like when Keira Knightly at age 12 or so played Queen Amidala's handmaid in The Phantom Menace: being part of the production took away her sense of wonder of Star Wars.
Just as a professional game designer shouldn't be designing games for himself – unless he *knows* he is typical of his target audience – he shouldn't be designing games that are just like some other game. The two sometimes go together, the designer likes a particular game so much that he tends to design games just like it. On the other hand, I have had several favorite games over the course of the past 40 years, the biggest one Dungeons & Dragons (first edition). I have never designed a role-playing game that would take the place of Dungeons & Dragons, instead I design additions and modifications to D&D. In other words, I haven't tried to design an RPG for me, I've modified my favorite game instead.
Yes, an awful lot of games submitted to game companies are very, very much like existing games, and those aren't likely to get very far, although there are exceptions (usually self-published). But in those cases the designer has consciously modeled his game on another one. It is also possible to design a game that turns out to be much like a game designed independently by someone else - this has even happened to Knizia - though it's not likely.
I'm not discouraging you from playing games, as long as you enjoy it, *unless* it is a detriment to, an excuse not to work on, designing your own games. (If you’re only designing one game, you’re far out of step with most professional designers, who work on many games each year.) If you like to play lots of published games, go ahead. But recognize that you're not using your time efficiently, and may be unconsciously avoiding what you ought to be doing, if you want to be a game designer. What you need to be doing is *designing and completing games*, not playing published games.