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Fear of the Game

July 7, 2008

I remember the first time that I actually made a non-digital prototype in front of my students and then let them play it. For some reason, it was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience for me. By nature, I’m what could be described as a closed designer. I tend to talk with one or two people during the process of the design, and I’ll playtest with those people until the game is ready for prime time (any by that, I mean functional and playable but not at all done).

In this case, though, I designed it right there on the spot and put it into playtest. I don’t know what they were expecting, and I don’t think they did either. It was a pretty solid turn-based strategy game with some whacked points as can be expected with any first prototype. The design was to prove a point: that you can make a game about anything. I polished it up and dumped it shortly after class because I have other more interesting stuff that I’m working on.

That initial fear I had – about designing in front of someone else – is not uncommon. Being a game designer or an artist in any medium means exposing yourself to the world and letting them give you their feedback, the good, the bad, the ugly.

I’ve recently received a couple emails from people who want to design more than anything, but have this invisible wall between them and their first game. For some, it’s a question of where to start (design a basic race-to-the-end game; it’s the easiest). Others start game after game and never finish. I wonder if some are afraid to design a full game for fear that it will not be good and the results of their greatest passion will unmask them as something less than they hope to be. I don’t mean this in any negative way, either. These people may be seriously good designers. However, by not actually completing something, they avoid critique.

Critique is fun, particularly when your game isn’t released internationally. I’ve made some amusingly bad games and bad design decisions that I can still laugh about years later (mind you, they were fixed before they shipped, so it’s easier to laugh than cry). Game design is sometime the art of being the least wrong, the least imperfect. Even Miyamoto, Meier and Wright get valid critiques. It is these things that we totally screw up that make us better designers, that allow us to learn and that let us welcome the iterative process.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. David Chaves permalink
    July 7, 2008 7:47 pm

    Thank you very much for this post Brenda.
    I am a game design student and a games tester in London. And I too fear showing my prototypes to other people. I fear that they suck so badly that I start to think I will never be a game designer.
    This post made me realize that, yes, I will suck badly until I get it good enough, and that is just the way things are.
    Thank you for the inspiring blog.

  2. July 8, 2008 7:51 am

    I felt this acutely when I started designing games for my blog. I felt that each one had to be a watershed work of vision. Boy, did I get over that quickly! Now I am able to relax, to enjoy the exercise and concentrate on tackling one challenge at a time. I have to say, the feeling of liberation and creative enthusiasm you get when you let go of the conviction that a poor game = catastrophe is incredible.

  3. July 8, 2008 5:01 pm

    I designed and completed a game, and it was terrible.

    So now I’ve got all these other ideas I half make, but don’t ever seem to care to finish or polish because I keep feeling it’s going to go the exact same way as the first one. Some of them are actually a bit interesting to work on.

    I did realize though, that I like making simple interactive programs that do silly things with graphics, like spinning with the mouse or moving and making trails and such, though. That leads me to believe that I might feel more at home working on graphics programing than designing, but I’ve not done much looking into that area.

    I feel a bit nervous, though. I’ve been spending the last few years repeating that I wanted to be a game developer, but I’m not that sure that there is a place for me in it.

  4. July 8, 2008 7:11 pm

    I think you feel this on an extra level when you’re teaching a game design class. There’s the fear from the designer… but there’s also the fear that, in releasing a prototype that isn’t perfect, you lose respect as a designer in the minds of your students. After all, if The Prof’s game sucks, what can we possibly learn in this class?

    Which isn’t strictly true, of course. As you say, even the greatest designers alive have produced their share of craptastic games (and commercial ones, at that). But your students may not have figured this out yet, so I think it’s a valid fear of losing respect… only to gain it back three years after they graduate, when it’s too late.

  5. July 9, 2008 1:52 pm

    I think this is a beautiful article.

  6. July 9, 2008 8:18 pm

    @travis – Maybe start smaller. I’ve designed bad systems that I really couldn’t design my way out of. I didn’t have the skills at the time. There are still some genres I have to work quite hard at, and I try to improve my skills there. I’m planning to post the easiest game design exercise ever. Give it a shot.

  7. July 9, 2008 10:03 pm

    @Carlis – It might not be your inability to make games, but rather your need for a deeper understanding of game design basics. Once you start to get a collection of this stuff in your head, it just keeps coming together in a variety of ways.

  8. July 16, 2008 8:08 pm

    I think part of it is the reluctance to show any creative effort to others for fear of being criticized. I’m always a bit nervous when showing my short stories to others, for example, even to a friendly audience like my better half.

    Part of it is because you invest a lot of yourself in a creative endeavor, and it’s hard to separate criticism of the creative expression from criticism of yourself. That’s one of the biggest things a game designer has to do as a professional. Especially when budget and schedule limitations make you take a long, hard look at the design and determine what can’t fit in this time around.

    And, as Ian points out, you have the problem of authority figures, too. A professor in front of a class or a “big name” in front of a group of peers has to worry about losing face. As someone who has worked on a PvP-focused online game for years, people expect me to know all there is to know about PvP. Of course, some people take extra delight in showing me up, too.

    Unfortunately, the only way this gets easier is to have nothing invested in the creative work, a game in this case. That generally makes for terrible creative work that fails to reach people on the necessary levels.

    My thoughts,

  9. July 21, 2008 3:32 pm

    Showing creative work is usually hard. But game design is not quite a creative work. At least not in the sense allegorised in your post.
    Because games are complex patterns it will be extremely hard to cover all angles alone. I wouldn’t, and I don’t think you would, recommend that as a strategy for anyone in design.
    But games as products are more about their perceived use and function then their design. No matter what your intentions they are made to be sold to people. So no matter what stage of design you are in more voices can only give you more input into your thought process.
    Now everyone thinks they are the master thinkers, as game designers we need to realize this and kill that darling in ourselves. We’re trying to accidentally stumble upon the grand process while making consistent design. This will not happen without random input.

    Btw, another great post.

  10. Olick permalink
    August 25, 2008 11:34 am

    I didn’t believe you. I thought: “Surely if I have something simple, and present it with/to my close friends I can do this in a timely fashion.”

    But now its been weeks since I’ve had the, admittedly basic, mechanics and peices ready and each time I visit with friends, I make an excuse to myself.

    I believe you now. And I’m gonna to steel my nerves this week.

  11. Evan permalink
    March 13, 2012 9:03 pm

    I enjoyed this article, and I’m in one of those places you describe. But I guess I’m a little more “top-down,” and while I don’t mind being exposed to critique (I think), it’s more like I want to have more of the project figured out before I go and make it. That may be laziness or just another bad habit, though. I like your article about making a race-to-the-end game, especially since I hate race-to-the-end games, and I hate dice, but your point is more than valid. Just gotta go and do it: make a funky, probably ugly game for the sake of getting started. Even the world’s greatest prodigies don’t start by creating their opus. They start with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

    So here I go . . . Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Start to Finish!

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