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Great ideas for games: Put up or Shut up

December 14, 2007

Here’s a quote from a conversation I took part in:

Potential designer: “I have this great idea for a game.”

Industry designer: “Where is it?”

The point: if your idea is so good, why haven’t you made it or something resembling it. Even a non-digital prototype is better than non-digital, expressed idea.

Why? Because game designers know that this is an interactive medium, and the best descriptions can’t reliably express play. You could describe Forza and Big Rig as racing games, but dude, they’re not at all same game.

Make Something Already

In my somewhat odd spot — being still active in the game industry and an academic — I really look forward to breaks. It’s during that time that I consult full time, pursue something that interests me or work on game projects of my own. Theoretically, I could have all that time off, but I have yet to take it that way.

If you are not in the game industry and want to be, I have a question for you: are you working on a game right now? If the answer is “yes,” good for you. Get back to work. If it’s “no,” then keep reading.

Here’s what I’d like to propose: make a board game over the winter break. Seriously. If you really want to get into the industry as a game designer, you’ve got to show you actually design. That’s secondary to the fun you’ll have though. Making a game is incredibly fun. The mistakes are especially fun, unless you’re working on a $25M project, and then they’re rather terrifying.

Having worked with a lot of students, I see the stumbling blocks many people face when tasked with the possibility of creating a non-digital game. Oddly enough, I have known many more than one student who’s more comfortable making a level in Unreal than they are making a board game. Perhaps it is because board game design is unfamiliar.

It is also very exposed. It’s hard to hide bad design in a board game. Bad mechanics and lame gameplay show their faces in no time at all.

Where to Start

There are lots of places to start.

Pick a mechanic.

Go to Board Game Geek and get a mechanic and use it to make a game.

Some people honestly just don’t know where to start with a board game project. The good news is that you can’t possibly do it wrong. You might come out with a tragic board game your first time, but I guarantee you that you will a) learn about game design and b) have a very good time. If you design with someone else, you can add a 2x multiplier to the fun.

Make a game from a pile of parts.

I’ve also done this on more than one occasion. Take a whole bunch of pieces from other games, and make a game with them. This is probably a little more advanced that modifying a game or starting with a mechanic.

Take over territory.

Territorial acquisition is a very common gameplay paradigm. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What territory are you taking over?
  • How does one take over that territory?
  • How does one defend it?
  • Do you start with some territory (i.e. Risk)?

Fix a game that bores you to death.

Monopoly bores me. If something bores you, what would make it more fun? Integrate it. In fact, there’s a spectacular article on Yehuda’s site that offers 100+ ways to breathe new life into your old games.

There are a few good starting points from which to make a board game.

Make an Ugly, Quick Prototype

Use paper and sketch it out. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. In fact, for your prototypes, it shouldn’t be. If you focus on looks over play, you will either be a) reluctant to make changes that also affect the assets you’ve created or b) really disappointed when you have to trash all your work.

Remember that game design is an iterative process (meaning you make it, play it, fix it or refine it).

People get hung up on discussion over how something’s going to work, too. Unless you’re an experienced game designer, odds are that whatever you’re discussing isn’t your *biggest* problem, and a quick play session quickly reveals what it is.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2007 10:56 am

    “Here’s what I’d like to propose: make a board game over the winter break”

    What about a card game? 🙂

  2. December 14, 2007 1:19 pm

    How about when you have a great idea for a video game that requires you to actually make a prototype of the video game?

    Case in point, I have a game I’ve been wanting to make for over seven years for which the mechanics couldn’t possibly work in a board game. There is also the fact that this is an RPG, which makes the process mostly disgruntling.

    In this particular instance, I’ve made a very rough prototype of the progression of the story through a large part of the game. The issue is I really have no way of implementing the mechanics that would really make the game unique and fun.

    I’ve been thinking about what Ian Schreiber said on his blog about how he judges games when he’s asked to do so for a contest. One of the things he mentions is “find the fun in the first 30 seconds.” So the way I see it is my prototype is utterly useless if it’s all talk. People want to play the game, not watch it.

    So what do I do? Making a demo of the battlesystem seems like what should be in order, but I don’t even know where to begin.

  3. December 14, 2007 1:36 pm

    You could always test various aspects of the game separately. From there, try to find ways to integrate one system into another in the form of a non-digital game.

    It’s not as easy as it sounds, I admit, but it is a starting point 🙂

  4. December 14, 2007 1:51 pm

    Taco – Good call. I was actually thinking of putting the following example into the main body of the article –

    100 Cards – Take two packages of 50 index cards. Give each player 20 hit points. Now, figure out some actions that take those points away, a means to target another player or multiple players, and a means to defend against said actions. That will be enough to create a completely unbalanced game, probably. 🙂 From that basis, though you’ll have a prototype that you can polish.

    AOrtiz – It’s an RPG? Make a pencil and paper prototype a la D&D, or use something elementary like RPG maker or Game Maker to put a prototype together. The game doesn’t have to be beautiful to be fun.

  5. December 14, 2007 3:45 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. Pen and paper RPGs are known for being whatever you want them to be (any rulebook worth its weight says to disregard any rules you don’t care for when playing). Figure out how your systems will play, nail down what’s fun about the game, and at that point, start looking for a way to put it in digital form. If that doesn’t work and the game relies on tech too heavily, it’s probably not going to make a fun game anyway (I’m sorry to say that, but it holds true).

  6. December 14, 2007 3:48 pm

    I especially love this line:

    “If you are not in the game industry and want to be, I have a question for you: are you working on a game right now? If the answer is “yes,” good for you. Get back to work. If it’s “no,” then keep reading.”

    It sums up most of my frustration with the games industry today. People talk a lot with nothing to show. Armchair game designers, you could say. Make something already!

  7. December 14, 2007 5:01 pm

    Thinking of game mechanics and rules that might make fun games is good, and this post pulled the trigger that made my brain start spinning.

    While I was thinking about rules and game mechanics, I found myself asking, “will this be fun?” (emphasize “fun”) I guess this question is an obvious question we should always ask ourselves while designing games, but is fun mechanics the best mechanics to use? There can be more than one mechanic that might work, but what are other aspects of mechanic one should think about?

  8. December 14, 2007 5:05 pm

    I’m not sure if my question came out understandably. Darn wordpress for not having edit feature!

    In addition to above question, can a designer intentionally insert a mechanic that’s not necessarily fun (but maybe irritating) to make a game better?

  9. ThomasJLKastner permalink
    December 14, 2007 6:02 pm

    I think you can put a irritating mechanic in a game without it ruining the game.

    For example in a card game thats 2-6 players you could add a mechanic to cause a player to irritate other players. This would probably make them more likely to want to play against the person causing the irritation.

  10. December 14, 2007 7:26 pm

    @Taco: Board and card games are often lumped into the same group, and not accidentally; the design skills are largely the same (and many board games contain cards, so it’s not even much of a distinction). Brenda’s point (or MY point, if I’m putting words in her mouth) is to design something without using the computer as a crutch (or an excuse). Dice games fall into this category too.

    @aortiz: There are all sorts of things you can to do prototype the various systems in a CRPG without a computer. Consider the three main components — the epic storyline, the level design and the combat system. For the storyline, write a story! (You’re allowed an exception to the “no computers” rule in this case if you want to use Microsoft Word.) For the level design, create some dungeon layouts in your favorite tabletop RPG system (Dungeons & Dragons or what have you) and run an adventure using them. For the combat system, you can easily prototype it as a card/board game; in fact, I have a prototype I’ve been working on and off for almost 15 years now that’s based heavily on combat in the early Final Fantasy games (the premise: “let’s make it multiplayer competitive”).

    @Peter: Mechanics aren’t “fun”, the play experience is fun. It’s like cooking — do black olives taste good in a meal? Depends; they’re great on pizza or baked into bread, but I wouldn’t recommend them in a chocolate cake. So the question of whether to use “fun mechanics” is a bit of a misdirection. If you mean, “do you ever want to make a game that is less fun that it could be, intentionally” then the answer is a resounding yes; it’s the same question as whether a painting should always be visually appealing. No, some paintings are absolutely repulsive (intentionally) because the artist is trying to say something through the medium. Designers can do this as well. A great example would be Persuasive Games’ “Disaffected!” which is absolutely brilliant in its ability to intentionally frustrate the player.

    @Brenda: In addition to Yehuda’s article, I’d add two more things to the reading list:
    1) Lewis Pulsipher’s blog ( ) contains a lot of useful tips for students who want to make offline games. Not surprising since he’s an accomplished boardgame designer.
    2) Reiner Knizia’s book “Dice Games Properly explained” will give you a whole new perspective on the use of dice, and of game design in general (the first half of the book includes dozens of games where the players don’t even make any decisions, yet many of them are quite compelling anyway!). You’ll also walk away with a working knowledge of probability, which is incredibly useful when you’re designing numerical systems that need to be balanced.

    Also, I’d add my favorite way to start designing a game (whether digital or physical): answer a single question, what is the object of the game? How do you win? Once you’ve got a goal, and you just have to figure out how to accomplish it, all sorts of mechanics just start suggesting themselves.

  11. December 15, 2007 1:59 am

    I talked to a friend about my issue before having read all your suggestions, and he gave me an incredibly simple answer I hadn’t thought of before that has to do with all of these ideas. He said, “Why don’t you finish that text RPG you were doing, and implement that battlesystem in a text based game?” I was about to reply, “Well, if I can’t do it in RPG Maker, I don’t see how I could do it in text,” when I realized that that wasn’t true. RPG Maker somewhat limits you in terms of battlesystem (and I have made the game in RPGMaker–it’s well over eight hours long and filled with my inane sense of humor–so that’s Brenda’s and Ian’s suggestions checkmarked). Now that I have the story more or less ironed out (and I’ve turned it over and over my head till boiling point) I can work on the numbers aspect, and build up the battlesystem entirely using an Excel spreadsheet and a Python Runtime engine.

    I was already working on building a text adventure game based off Python (inspired by a combination of listening to Brenda and reading XKCD) but now I think making it a text RPG with the intent of building up my battlesystem is not only a great idea, it’s a productive one.

    Thank you all for your input–it’s all combined to get me excited about this idea and enthusiastic to start working on it immediately.

  12. December 15, 2007 9:15 am

    AOrtiz – Many RPGs I’ve worked on were running, in part, in Excel before they were running many other places. Excel is often my primary prototyping, tool. Ian and I worked with another guy, Jeb, who could make Excel do magic. I still go to him when I have really weird questions.

    On the thought of a text RPG, you made me think that this isn’t far from what the really early Wizardrys were. Many older gamer probably remember this: F, F, F, P, P, P. That was a typical combat command for your party. In Wizardry, you had parties of 6 characters, instead of just a single avatar.

  13. December 15, 2007 9:29 am

    One of my students, David McDonough, has started a blog in which he’s posting a new game design every week.

    This is a pretty hip way to get some practice in design, too, and set yourself to a regular design schedule.

  14. December 15, 2007 11:33 am

    @Brenda: I think that’s a wonderful idea. It also shows a lack of fear of people “stealing” your “precious ideas”. I’ve seen many many early designers (and I’m no exception) who think their “one great idea” is the do-all and end-all of designs.

    @Peter: I have a direct example of a game that intentionally has annoying features, but makes the game more fun overall. Travian is a (relatively) simple browser-based MMO-type game. In it, you control a village of people, with aspirations to branch out and turn your small village into a great empire. Unfortunately, everybody else has these same ideas. It’s not uncommon to see one player rise above the rest and become an order of magnitude more powerful, and wipe out everybody in their neighborhood. Less powerful players are often unable to stop the onslaught, even working together. These attacks can be personal, impersonal, or anywhere in between; and they can have a reason like “I want to build a village in your village’s space” or just “I got bored looking at you”. Imagine being on the receiving end of something like that: pretty disheartening. However, it’s simply understood that it’s a part of the game and everybody either puts up with it or leaves.

    Travian has many, many players in many, many countries.

  15. December 15, 2007 12:52 pm

    @ai864: You seem to have understood what I was trying to say even when I didn’t put it down correctly. However, using the anology of “repulsive aesthetics is to painting as irritating gameplay is to games,” I don’t feel like players today do appreciate that kind of experience, yet. Maybe I am missing something, such as the persuasive games you mentioned. Although I’ve known of their existance, I haven’t really looked into it yet, which I am going to now.

    But then I am wondering, why is there a seperate game category called “persuasive” games? Can we not tell messages in games created for general audience? Movies do that all the time, delivering creators’ messages(such as “God has plan for all of us” in I Am Legend) into movies that are mostly entertainment..than persuasive.

  16. December 15, 2007 5:48 pm

    This post hits it home for me. 🙂 I keep getting game ideas, but not really getting anywhere with them. New Year’s resolution? 😀

    Stuff like this post keeps me on track. Thanks Brenda!

  17. December 15, 2007 8:24 pm

    Nic – that would be an excellent resolution. The strong desire to make a game can be a great motivation in learning a new tech, even. In attempting to learn C++, it’s what I want to do that’s teaching me the most.

  18. December 17, 2007 12:14 am

    Peter: Yes, we can embed messages in entertainment games. Ultima IV, V and VI contained a message that was perhaps one step short of founding a new religion (and this was over 20 years ago, mind you). Hideo Kojima is rather well-known for his heavy-handed messages in the Metal Gear Solid series.

    Persuasive Games isn’t technically a category of games, it’s the name of a company (although here I use it as a category to describe games of the style that the company creates — games that are created for the SOLE purpose of carrying a message, even at the expense of gameplay when necessary).

    Does that make more sense?

  19. December 20, 2007 4:26 pm

    This is good advice.

  20. David permalink
    December 24, 2007 1:25 am

    I did it! I took your advice, and made a boardgame over the Christmas break. It’s an idea I’ve had kicking around in my head since August, but it took your suggestion to spur me to action. I want to be a game designer, and you’re right… I need to make games now, not in some distant future.

    Yesterday I put together a very rough and ugly prototype, with some artistic help from my girlfriend and her sister. We got through one playthrough, which inspired some tweaks to the rules. Tonight we just finished our second playthrough, along with their father. He’s not much of a gamer, and usually hesitant to try unfamiliar games, but even he enjoyed himself.

    I have to say, this is even more fun than playing someone else’s game. Now I know for sure this is what I want to do with my life. Thanks, Brenda. Hmm… There’s still plenty of holiday time left to make another one… Maybe two! The fun never ends!

  21. December 24, 2007 9:19 am

    David –

    Congratulations! That’s wonderful. Making a game is an amazing process. It’s even more fun when it results in a dynamic that you hadn’t seen coming.

    And, yes, I agree that making a game you designed is often more fun than playing a commercial game. In some respects, the game itself is the metagame to the actual game happening – the process of game design.

    Congrats again. Your post made my day.

  22. December 24, 2007 7:48 pm

    David – I’d also like to congratulate you. You’ve made it past the point that most aspiring designers never cross. Keep on designing, and do yourself a favor that you’ll appreciate in the future: keep a running list of games you’ve finished. Anything you’ve made that is playable (even as a very rough prototype) should end up on the list, and when you’re applying for jobs or building your resume, you’ll find things you’ve done that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.


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