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Subject: Why I envy and respect published game designers rss

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Leo Zappa
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Anyone who is a member of BGG is obviously a fan of boardgames. Beyond being fans, however, some, perhaps many, of us like to think about actually designing our own games. We often play games that are close to the 'perfect' game, but they always fall down in an area or two. We like to think that we could do it better. Sometimes, it's not so much the idea of doing something better, but perhaps combining features of several of our favorites to create something new. Yet others simply find inspiration from the games they see on the site and dream about creating their own game to stand amongst these published works.

And yet, almost none of us actually ever complete our pet designs, let alone playtest them, to say nothing of actually getting them published and seeing them produced. I myself currently have an even dozen designs residing on my computer hard drive. Nine of these are original designs, and the other three are alternative/variant/extensions of existing games. For some of these, the file consists of nothing more than a synopsis of the game concept with an outline of rules, while other entries have nearly complete rulesets and files of sample playing pieces. However, I've not gotten even one of these designs to the stage of producing a single playtest prototype.

Why is this? I think it comes down to the fact that given all of the other demands I have on my time, I have not made the proper commitment to doing the hard stuff. By the hard stuff, I mean the tedious work of laying out ALL of the playing pieces I need to playtest the game, working out the game board, printing out the pieces, and cutting everything out. One thing is pretty clear to me - formulating the idea of a new game is the easy part. Game ideas are not hard to come by. The hard part is sitting down and working out the mundane mechanics to bring the game concept to life. What I really think it takes to become that game designer we all think we can be, what I think separates the dreamers like me and the creators of our favorites games, is the concept of "stick-to-itiveness" - the tenacity to see the effort through from the heady initial concept, when the idea is fresh and exciting, to the bloody trenches of churning out chits, cards, markers, maps, and the like, and sitting down and putting this stuff together, and playing it over and over again until you are satisfied with the creation, even as your initial excitement about the design dissolves in the morass of production and playtest tedium and external distractions. You'd think the creative part would be the tough bit - that anyone could do the grunt work of producing a working copy of the game once the idea is settled, but I've found it to be just the opposite.

This is why I so envy and respect the people who create the games we enjoy. Except for a very select handful who find themselves in the envious positions of professional full-time game designers, most game designers are like you and me - they have day jobs to pay the bills, families to attend to, and all of the distractions that life throws at us. Yet, unlike the rest of us, they not only exhibit the creativity to invent these awesome games, they have that dogged perseverance, that stick-to-itiveness to see the project through to completion. My hat is off to you, you tenacious game designers!
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desertfox2004 wrote:
My hat is off to you, you tenacious game designers!


Sounds like one of those Bud Light radio commercials.
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Andy Linman
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Not only do I completely agree with your point, but I find it's true of pretty much any creative endeavor: musicians require hours and hours of practice; many people come up with a great idea for a book but don't have the persistance to sit down and actually do the work of writing the whole thing. I may fall into the latter category. Thanks for reminding me what I need to do.
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tickmanfan wrote:
desertfox2004 wrote:
My hat is off to you, you tenacious game designers!


Sounds like one of those Bud Light radio commercials.


Don't think the idea didn't cross my mind. My original final sentence was "Here's to you, Mr. won't-stop-until-the-playtest-kit-is-finished game designer guy!"
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Varus wrote:
Not only do I completely agree with your point, but I find it's true of pretty much any creative endeavor: musicians require hours and hours of practice; many people come up with a great idea for a book but don't have the persistance to sit down and actually do the work of writing the whole thing. I may fall into the latter category. Thanks for reminding me what I need to do.


Andy - I agree that this point goes to any creative process. I know in my case, I am an amateur musician (keyboard, guitar), and I spend most of my time noodling around with quasi-original pieces that are really just bits and pieces of other songs that I've picked up. I rarely bother to learn entire songs all the way though. On those occasions when I do learn a song from beginning to end, I can almost guarantee I will never play it again. Perhaps for me, at least with music, learning a song is like solving a puzzle - most of the time, I don't have the patience to solve the puzzle, and in those cases when I do solve it, it immediately becomes boring to me and I lose interest in it. With boardgame design, I think sometimes that when I get the idea far enough along that I can "see" the end result in my mind, I somehow lose interest in going any further. The people I admire are the ones who get to that point, and then push on through to create something special.
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I'm an "ideas man", so I can definitely relate to what you're saying. I'll start to develop a game idea, only to suddenly think up a whole new concept and start running with that. I wish I had the time and disciple to follow a few of these ideas all the way to completion. Perhaps I will eventually...

My other problem is a complete lack of computer graphics design abilities. I've had a few projects hit a dead end because I simply couldn't produce a bunch of components quickly. I wish I had the time and discipline to learn a computer graphics program!

If I could make a living designing games, playing music, and writing novels, thus giving full reign to my creative pursuits, I would perhaps be the happiest man in the world. But the job that actually does allow me to earn a living gets in the way of all the fun stuff. soblue
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Kurt Keckley
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All true.

There is a great risk with making a prototype copy. What if, after all the hours it took to make a playable version, the game sucks. What sounds good on paper is not always fun when played.

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p38_Lightning wrote:
All true.

There is a great risk with making a prototype copy. What if, after all the hours it took to make a playable version, the game sucks. What sounds good on paper is not always fun when played.

So make sure that you enjoy the process, whatever the result. If after all the hours to make the game, that game sucks, you at least had the fun of spending those hours on creating the playtest version.

And BTW, if your first version sucks, why stop there? Find out why it sucks and build around it.
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squash wrote:
If I could make a living designing games, playing music, and writing novels, thus giving full reign to my creative pursuits, I would perhaps be the happiest man in the world.

Game design, as anything, is 10% inspiration and 90% transpiration. It's not all about the ideas; it's about turning those ideas into something tangible, something that works. Your creative pursuits are just the start; the rest is the nitty-gritty, sweat-producing hard work. The only difference between game design and real work is that with game design, you are working toward some final product that you want to create. Oh, and that it pays way less

(BTW, don't take my 'Game Designer' label too serious; it's based on one series of freely downloadable fan support to a role playing game)
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Excellent post. I think there are a lot of us in that zone too, that for one reason or another can't devote the time or effort to fully realizing our visions. I find it fascinating reading the stories of the process of game design and the time and effort they all go through.

For me, a huge portion of my lack of time/effort was buying a home that needed a LOT of work. 1000+ hours and almost five years later I do have a nice home, but something had to give and my gaming/game dreaming/game designing time was it. Can't exactly lay out a bunch of prototype game stuff on the dining room table when I literally have a bathroom wall ripped out and a bunch of wires hanging from a ceiling - the wife gives me the evil eye when I try to get away with that Now that I'm in the home stretch of repair stuff and can measure time remaining on repairs and improvements in weeks and not months/years, it'll be interesting to see if I can turn into a "follow through" guy.


p38_Lightning wrote:
All true.
There is a great risk with making a prototype copy. What if, after all the hours it took to make a playable version, the game sucks. What sounds good on paper is not always fun when played.


Better than the risk of sending a game into production for sale that has obvious flaws (i.e. sucks). I think if you ask ANY designer that has had a game(s) that were not well received because the appropriate amount of time was not spent on prototype design and playtesting, they would have much rather have wasted time and effort and money on a few prototypes and not on a 100 or 1000 or more "suck level" production games with their name on it. There are hundreds of examples of that scenario on BGG - the world needs less landfill games.
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midnightmadness wrote:
I think if you ask ANY designer that has had a game(s) that were not well received because the appropriate amount of time was not spent on prototype design and playtesting, they would have much rather have wasted time and effort and money on a few prototypes and not on a 100 or 1000 or more "suck level" production games with their name on it. There are hundreds of examples of that scenario on BGG - the world needs less landfill games.


It is not so much time as ability. This aforementioned level of game is in fact cherished by thousands whose own critical faculties either don't exist or don't match what other games present. My question is where does the money come from for the printing of these "hundreds of examples"; or, on what sort of game, or quality of design, would you risk over 20,000 dollars? A game can certainly be too clever, if it becomes obvious that its devilish intricacy and worrying absence of woe means that the usual others will play it far better than the buyer eg. RA, Tigris, CC:A and so forth. Produce a very, very clever zombie game and see what happens.
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aforandy wrote:

It is not so much time as ability. This aforementioned level of game is in fact cherished by thousands whose own critical faculties either don't exist or don't match what game the presents. My question is where does the money come from for the printing of these "hundreds of examples"; or, on what sort of game, or quality of design, would you risk over 20,000 dollars? A game can certainly be too clever, if it becomes obvious that its devilish intricacy and worrying absence of woe means that the usual others will play it far better than the buyer eg. RA, Tigris, CC:A and so forth. Produce a very, very clever zombie game and see what happens.


You can prototype games using post in notes, paper, scissors, markers, etc. Some of the best games out there started exactly like this. In fact, if you're wasting time on perfect and detailed design and printing before you have a stable/playable game, you are going about it completely wrong.

That said, once you DO have a pretty solid mechanics and playable design down, eventually you DO have to bite the bullet to create some acceptable and playable prototypes for evaluation, if you want to get it made - again though, they don't have to be super detailed or anywhere near finished, but they do have to present the game in somewhat of a presentable and *complete* state. There are hundreds of pictures all over BGG of popular games in this level of playtest / prototype phase. If you're going to whine about time/money/effort spent on playable prototypes at *this* point, I suggest you 180 out of the notion of game design at all and work your way to the nearest food service or housekeeping industries career.

Again though, we're not talking print run, we're talking prototype designs and revisions of a few copies each. The "hundreds" / "thousands" / etc. examples come from the examples of games that likely did NOT tackle the prototype / playtest period properly and went to print with a "damn the torpedoes" attitude.

What sort of game, or quality of design, would you risk over 20,000 dollars without proper playtesting and prototyping? Off the top of my head, search BGG and the web for stories about 6 Billion, Airlines 2, Wadjet, etc. (that "etc." numbers in the thousands if you spend enough time on BGG) Games all not too well received that a LOT of money was spent/invested to get made and in large quantities. Ask them if they would have spent a little more time/effort/research to prevent the hit and loss they took... see what they say.
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I love this thread.

I have a notebook dedicated to writing out game design ideas and details. I also have a folder full of slips of paper from when I'm at work and I jot down ideas or sketch out a board or calculations for cramming my idea into a 54-card-deck.

I've made 6 or 7 finished prototypes and have learned a lot during that process. I've definitely learned what others have said... the designer comes up with the idea, but the playtesters make the game. Hell, one early design of mine flopped on the first play, but a playtester's suggestion turned a dud into something playable.

My biggest problem with game design, though, is figuring out if what I've come up with is fun or not. "Is this fun?" has stalled a whole lot of my ideas. I should try to ignore that question, though, because as I read the Geek more and more I see that different games appeal to different players, so as long as a game is 'good' it'll probably be considered 'fun' by someone.
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I have to say that I work differently from this when I tackle a game design. The theoretical part is minimal at first. I try to assemble some form of prototype or materials as early as possible in the design process. When I have nothing in my hands, not much comes into my head either. Usually it is just a very rough sketch that I have when I start touching materials, and often enough, these guide me along. This is before any actual playtesting, just fiddling around with paper, wood, plastic, leather, metal, whatever I can find. So I don't think that the creative process comes before the work part, but these are very much connected.
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I have game designs coming to me all the time. In fact, I even constructed a working prototype in under a week on a whim from one design!

But the problems I have are playtesting and where to go from there for publication. The idea is great on paper but I have two prototypes that have never been tested because I have nobody interested in playing with me. I have no idea if there are gaping loopholes in play to make the game unworkable. At least it looks pretty!

And I have no idea what to do even if I had a game all playtested and debugged. I imagine I'd approach a company but I'd have the feeling I'd have to go through a lot of rejections afterward...
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This is a good discussion. I have similar problems, but also several suggestions. I have written 9 novels in the past 10 years, and countless short stories and novelas. I’ve submitted a few of the novels and short stories to contests, but mostly they just languish on my hard drive, likely never to see the light of day. They few people I’ve shown them to love them, but I am so pesimistic about the publishing process, that I haven’t taken the time to submit them only to receive rejection letters from publishers that never even glanced at my submission.

However, I think the tenacity I learned from spending upwards of 15 months on a 200k word story, has helped me when it comes to game design and prototyping. I have spent way too much time in Hobby Lobby and Michaels looking for wooden disks and cubes and cans of paint and foam backing. I’ve bought lots of punches and cutting equipment. I’ve even made several prototypes that I am very happy with. What I haven’t done is play tested them with anyone.

What I’ve found really helps me is a deadline. I designed an Empire Builder variant for my wife (Chicago Rails) and I wanted to give it to her for Christmas. Having that deadline in front of me forced me to complete that game, and it looks and plays really well. I need to find time to post it here in its completed form some time.

I have another prototype that I finished which is a CIV game to answer all my frustrations with every other CIV game I’ve played. I’ve play tested it and I know the mechanics and skeleton of the game works well, but it isn’t a solo game at all, and I need to play it with someone else. I know that if I tried to round up a few players to test it, and we set a date to play it, it would force me to put the finishing touches on it, and I would get some valuable feedback.

I don’t know if it is possible for this vast community to set up a “I’ll help you play test your game if you help me play test mine,” swap meet, since we are so spread out across the country (and world), but it is worth thinking about. What I’ve noticed when talking to other gamers about my struggles to play test my own designs, they almost all sound excited about the idea of playing a game that no one else has heard of that was designed by one of them. When I brought my Chicago Rails game to a local con, I know it drew a crowd.

So go to your local game store, ask if they have open gaming in the back room on the weekends. Attend a couple times, make friends, and ask them if they would be willing to play a prototype. Set a date, and then force yourself to finish the game.

Good luck.
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Replace amongst with among, mayhap?

On a more serious note, I usually start with designs. So, instead of making graphs, then randomly rafting some game theme on it (e.g. LOTR or so, whatever buzzes at the moment), I use graphics, designs, and layouts for a game with a certain theme. Then, figuring out the mechanics is the harder part for me. Then again, maybe that's just me, saddling the horses backwards.
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salish99 wrote:
Replace amongst with among, mayhap?

On a more serious note, I usually start with designs. So, instead of making graphs, then randomly rafting some game theme on it (e.g. LOTR or so, whatever buzzes at the moment), I use graphics, designs, and layouts for a game with a certain theme. Then, figuring out the mechanics is the harder part for me. Then again, maybe that's just me, saddling the horses backwards.


I always start with a theme. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I know my first path down any potential design is me thinking "I'd like to play a game about 'X'". Usually, I'm thinking about some subject dealing with war or combat, typically involving naval battles, robots, zombies, spacefleets - the usual stuff (for me, at least!). I'm often inspired by games I've played or seen involving these themes, but that don't exactly hit my personal sweetspot. I often think "this game about 'X' would be so much better if the players could do 'Y' and 'Z'". I then think about what mechanisms I would employ to make the game work as intended - how to model the hypothetical situation I've dreamed up. At that point, I start typing up my thoughts, and often layout some sample bits. I might go a bit further and begin to write up an outline of the rules and sequence of play.

It's at about this point that I hit that wall, where I'm faced with creating enough bits (crude as they may be - at least I'm not compelled to make finished quality bits for initial prototypes) to start solo playtesting. When I get to this point, I've already been daydreaming about the design for some time and some of the excitement begins to ebb, and the tedium of producing the first kit slows my progress to an inevitable halt. I really need to just pick one of these designs and blast through that barrier!
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Norsehound wrote:

But the problems I have are playtesting and where to go from there for publication. .


I am with you on this one. Finding willing play testers esp. outside of your immediate circle of friends is hard.

The pursuit of publication would seem even harder.So many game designers, so few companies.
 
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