The Art of Co-Design - Post written by Michael Cofer
I think collaboration in board game design is inevitable. If you playtest your game and genuinely care about the feedback you get, you are already designing collaboratively.
I honestly think that – apart from a few pragmatic considerations – the traits that make you a successful collaborator are necessary for all designers. So, before diving into those pragmatics, let’s talk about the traits that make collaboration work.
I’m gonna start with this one. It’s tricky. Humility isn’t forfeiting your ideas whenever they are challenged. Humility isn’t maintaining a low opinion of your skills, your work, or yourself.
But it is the belief that other’s ideas are worth as much consideration as your own. It’s being able to separate your self from your work. When something isn’t working, it isn’t a reflection on you as a person. When people don’t like parts of your game (or the whole thing!) that doesn’t mean you aren’t good.
I’m saying this even though you probably already know this is true. But when you find yourself either a) wounded by criticism or b) disregarding a criticism as invalid you are probably doing so to defend your pride. Take a step back, breathe, and put the criticism in perspective. Mine it for value.
Your design partner is going to need you to be able to mercilessly slay the ideas you put forth that don’t work. They also depend on you to be able to help them do the same. Which brings us to…
When more than one person tries to solve a problem, they will often come up with different approaches. That’s great, because it gives you a wider range of things to try, evaluate, and choose. With Gadgeteers, each “edition” we pushed during preproduction usually had 2 or 3 variations to test.
That said, sometimes the solutions you come up with are wildly different. If that’s the case, chances are you are tackling different problems, even if you don’t realize it. This can be a major frustration if you don’t identify it. Now, don’t miss this next bit…
When you identify that you’re solving different problems, don’t spend much energy trying to decide which problem is the right one. If it isn’t obvious which problem is the right one to address, then probably you should be looking at both. You might try to apply each solution independently to see if it fixes both, but in the end both perceived problems will need to be addressed.
It’s important to recognize your strengths, to spend your time and energy where they give the best returns, and to share the other responsibilities with those better suited to handle them.
In the case of Gadgeteers, Dan and I brainstormed together a lot. We shared the conceptual design tasks pretty evenly. But when it came time to get it in front of playtesters, recording their feedback, and distilling it into actionable items, Dan took the lead at that. He’s better at it, more resourced, and I think it’s fair to say that that part of the process energizes him.
Conversely, when it came to making printables, spreadsheets, and some of the “under the hood” work, I took the lead.
Again, this is an area where separating the game from your ego is essential. You aren’t in competition with your collaborators. Celebrate their strengths – both with them personally and with others. Raise their profile in the community and it will reflect well on both of you.
A Few Pragmatics
Firstly, build rapport. This will make everything you do so much easier and more efficient.
Find the communication media that work well for the both of you. Early in the process, Dan and I talked a lot in The Game Crafter’s chat room. These days we do much more by Facebook messenger and over the phone. Email is good for things that need documentation (like to-do lists, iterations of the rules, etc.), but is a bit sluggish for a lot of the general communication we need.
Google Docs. I can’t tell you how much it helps to have a space where you can work in realtime, mark up with notes non-destructively, and share with folks outside the design team. Google docs is free, has lots of tools including in-window chat.
Skype. No kidding. Dan and I have played prototypes over Skype. Granted, if you are making a dexterity game, this might not work. But if your game lends itself – even if inconvenient – Skype plays are quite helpful. Tabletop Simulator/Tabletopia/etc. can be helpful too, but that requires setting up the game in that format, and it is one more step removed from the intended final product.
Your Mileage May Vary
Having a good partner can help you stay fired-up, can give wonderful insights you may never have on your own, and can free you to do the parts of the process that you excel at.
That said, you should be discerning with whom you partner; game design is a labor of love and can take a lot out of you.
I’ve been very fortunate in the co-design situations I’ve been in. I knew the designers beforehand. They are all very talented, professional, and decent people. I don’t know if my experiences are typical, but I feel very grateful for them and can easily envision doing more co-designs.
Here is a designer diary for Gadgeteers. This game was co-designed by myself and Michael Cofer. Michael will be doing the majority of the writing of these posts and I will be posting them here. Enjoy!
12 Aug 2016
- [+] Dice rolls