Game Design Q&A

Some questions I get from time to time about game design. (To be updated opportunistically.)

Note: I mostly deal with the world of board game design (as opposed to RPGs, LARPs, video games, ARGs, etc), so these answers come from that point of view.

Q: What do I need to do to become a game designer?

If you’ve designed a game, or in the middle of designing a game, you’re a game designer.

You might or might not aspire to tack additional modifiers onto that label – to be a published game designer, or a commercially successful game designer, or a (skilled / well-regarded / versatile / green-haired / prolific / etc) game designer, but those are all their own things. You don’t need to be any of them to be a game designer.

Q: I’m a first-time / aspiring designer. Do you have any advice?

In Episode 22 of the Nerdlab podcast Marvin (the host) posed this question to a whole bunch of established designers. (Including me, though I fail at restraining myself to a single answer.) The result is well worth a listen.
 
It’s good to know why you want to design a game. Different goals will result in different decisions and considerations: “I want to have fun with my friends”, “”I want to make a hobby game that anyone can buy and enjoy”, “I want to create art or make a statement”, “I want to help people learn something or draw attention to a little-known setting/event”, “I want to be able to walk into a store and point at something I made”, etc.

Q: Can games be art?

Sure. Like all artistic mediums, they’re better at some things and worse at others.
 

Q: Do you have any helpful sites you can point me at?

At some point I want to make some longer more categorized lists, but until that day:

  • I mentioned Nerdlab ep 22 above – “what’s the one thing you’d tell someone just starting their journey as a game designer?”
  • Andy Looney’s 11 principles of game design – written over 20 years ago, they still hold up pretty well! Andy’s taste in games diverges substantially from what I tend to want to play, but his design advice is really solid.
  • Get better feedback by not asking for “feedback” – written about the corporate world, but applicable to board games.
  • If you are specifically looking to design games that will be picked up by a publisher and published – which is far from a given, many people design for fun or for friends & family – this article on questions to answer with a gaming pitch is good – and as the article says, they’re questions best answered near the start of designing something.
  • Some short, pithy rephrasings of game design conventional wisdom.
  • All game designers should know how to avoid cultural appropriation; here’s a Twitter thread on how.
  • A game where losing is fun will be overall more enjoyable – lots of players aren’t going to win. (This article only covers a few of the ways to help that happen.)
  • If you’re not already familiar with game-icons.net, it’s a really useful site for grabbing quick prototype. (Though at least one designer I know uses screencaps from an MMORPG they play.)
  • If you’re interested in learning more about getting into the industry, the now-defunct podcast Breaking Into Board Games covered a huge amount of ground; their back episodes could prove really helpful. (Note: the last 15ish minutes of each episode is a game of “2 truths and a lie” with their guest; while this can be entertaining it usually doesn’t include any information about the board game industry so can be skipped if you’re trying to focus on industry-relevant info.)
  • Last but most definitely not least, two huge lists of resources from the Board Game Design Lab and James Mathe (who has sadly passed away), as well as a pointer to Cardboard Edison, which is a fantastic site.

Q: What’s your design process?

It varies, but often looks something like:
  1. Think about what I want the game to be like – what’s the heart of what I think is neat about the idea? The design process might eventually lead me away from that – eg, for Spirit Island, the initial mechanical hook was that it was programmed actions like in RoboRally, and that fell by the wayside – but it might not (like Spirit Island’s theme and ‘complex co-op’ nature), and it’s good to identify what the core compelling bit of your design is so you have a center to design around.
    • But maybe I just have a soup of related ideas, that’s OK too – I can try a few tests to find what I think the core compelling bits are. (And once I start testing with others, find out what they really like about the game: it might be different from me, and that can be instructive.)
  2. Brainstorm initial mechanics + theme + what playing should feel like.
  3. Try it. If the idea’s really speculative, I might do pen-and-paper prototyping and/or just test the part of the system I’m unsure will work; if I’m pretty sure I’ll do multiple iterations I’ll make computer files, but I try to spend as little effort as is reasonably possible – the more iterations the game gets the better it will be, and my #1 constraint is “time to work on games”, so anything which makes it slower/harder to change is bad.a
  4. Tweak it based on testing with myself, try it again, repeat until I feel like it’s in a place where it’s not so broken that playtesters will helpb.
  5. Playtest with folks (friends or designers) who don’t mind something that’s far from a finished game. Change based on testing, repeat until I feel like it’s in a place where I can show it to strangers. There’s a very real danger here of friends being more enthusiastic about the game than strangers would be, simply because the experience of testing with friends carries
    enough fun that even if the game isn’t very good the overall experience is great, but that experience isn’t rooted in the game proper, it’s rooted in the social situation.
  6. Playtest it with folks I don’t know, and/or have folks I don’t know playtest it while I’m not present (this will stress-test your rules document, among other things) – a technique I have yet to use but which apparently works well for Matt Leacock is to ask 3rd-party testers to set up a video recording of their play that you can review afterwards; it’s apparently super-instructive.
Any step can drop back to a previous step if merited; it’s not one-way. And especially in the early stages, it often jumps around a lot.

 

a The one big exception is if I have cards/other components with so much information that it gets in the way of testing because players have to spend too much mental effort on understanding them, in which case some layout + presentation work is merited.
 
b A metaphor I sometimes use is “the game is a wheel”, carved out of stone or wood. It starts out immensely lumpy – it may even be a triangle or square, so not roll at all – and as I design I whack off the bits that keep it from rolling to make it smoother and smoother. But even once it starts rolling, it’s lumpy as heck, and the resulting game will not feel like a finished polished experience, that takes time. Part of skill at game design is learning to recognize when a bump is a huge thing that needs addressing on a fundamental level in order to get the game rolling better, or if it’s more of a small detail that can wait to be smoothed out until later. Back in the late 90s I spent ~2 years playtesting a game which I could never get to work quite right, which in hindsight was because its core mechanic was an everyone-pays blind-bid auction, which brought certain dynamics strongly enough that peripheral changes couldn’t change them, just paper over them to varying degrees of semi-success.

Q: What do you do if what playtesters like most about a design isn’t compatible with the heart of the game you want you make?

It really depends.
 
Playtesters are the authority on when they’re having a good time, but a single table of playtesters isn’t going to be – cannot possibly be – representative of all gamers everywhere. If I’m only getting this sort of feedback from a single group (or a single tester), I’ll keep it in mind – it still might prove super-useful – but won’t take it as gospel for all players everywhere.
 
On the other hand, if there’s a consistent trend across playtesters that what I consider the heart of the design is interfering with the experience of the game, something has to give. I might shift the game’s center – save my current notion of “what is the heart of this game?” for some future design and focus this one on that new center-point which players love. Or I might do a really deep redesign, trying to preserve its existing center-point by reworking everything else. It’ll depend on which avenue I feel is most promising, the details of the design, and why I chose the center-point I did (eg, if the center-point is a matter of social justice, abandoning that to chase after a fun mechanic might not sit well).
 
On the third hand, constraints can inspire creativity. Finding a path that satisfies both what testers find most fun and what I consider the heart of the design can be tricky, but also really rewarding, and it may lead interesting and novel places.

Q: Do you ever play your prototype so much that you think it isn’t good enough, when it may be doing well and it’s just that you’ve overplayed it?

Absolutely, and I know it’s true of many other designers, too.

I sometimes think of it as “getting lost inside the mech” – I’ve just spent days inside the shoulder joint of this giant mech I’m building, and the gears are still seizing up, I’m sweaty and frustrated and covered in grease, and when I haul myself out of the joint and look at the whole mech, all I see is that shoulder joint and the compromises I made to get the legs working right and its top speed isn’t what I’d hoped… and I’ve completely lost sight of the fact that most people seeing it for the first time go WHOA! GIANT ROBOT! AWESOME! and focus on all the appealing things about it, not that shoulder joint.

Here’s some things that have helped me with this:

  • “Being aware of it” is the super-important first step!
  • In the early days of a prototype, while it’s still new-ish to you (or, if it’s already later, remembering back to those days), note what *you* find really appealing / shiny about the design. Refer back to those notes to remind you of what it felt like when you were first approaching the concept.
  • Playtesters are invaluable not just for telling you what’s wrong (which lets you improve the game), but also for telling you what’s great/appealing (which both gives guidance on what’s working well, and keeps your morale up so you don’t abandon the project). Make sure to note what folks really like as well as what needs work!
  • Related to this: find (and appreciate!) playtesters you trust, who will tell you when something isn’t fun or isn’t working, and will also tell you when they like something.
  • It’s totally okay to shelve a design for a while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes, renewed enthusiasm, and increased skill; I do this all the time. Sometimes for a month or two, sometimes for a year or more.
  • Distinguishing between “game isn’t good enough” and “I’m tired of working on it” is a skill that can be improved with practice!
  • For that matter, so is “continuing to work on a game even though you’re tired of it”, which is critical if pursuing game design as a career. (Less so as an avocation or hobby.)
  • Play enough other games that you have a good sense of what feels polished / interesting / engaging enough to be appealing. And/or: find playtesters who have that sense of the market as a whole, and can lend you their perspective.
I’m sure there are others, too! Find out what works for you – since this is a matter of personal perception and motivation, what’s going to help most will probably vary from person to person.

Q: What do you think about self-publishing?

I think it’s great for some people, and it offers a level of control that you don’t get as a designer working with a separate publisher, but it also involves a huge amount of work that I mostly don’t want to do, and takes up time I could be spending on designing more games. I won’t say I’d never do it, but there’s a reason I’ve never done it yet.
 
If you’re thinking about going the self-publishing route, I strongly recommend you do a lot of research on all the different hats / jobs doing so entails – everything from the graphic design & layout, to getting printing quotes, to publicity & advertising, to running a crowdfunding campaign, to printing and shipping, to warehousing and fulfillment, to customer service over lost orders or broken/missing bits, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’ve missed – and for every one of those things, either be somewhere between “willing” and “enthusiastic” to do it, or to find a good, reputable person/company who you can pay to do it within the budget of the project. (Oh yeah, “make a budget in money and time” is another important skill.) Jamey Stegmaier has published a ridiculous number of topical blog posts on the matter; I can’t personally vouch for their accuracy but I know a lot of people go by them.