Monday, September 10, 2012

Game Design Philosophy

-Erik McGrath

Whether it's board games or card games, recreational or educational, all games need to be designed and developed. Every game ever made began as an idea, some born through flashes of insight and others through dedicated effort. And whether or not the creators of those games actually stopped to think about what they were doing and why, they all had a philosophy about game design.

This post is about mine.

All my game ideas have come to me more or less randomly. I don't think about what I want to try and make and then set about making it, I just work on what I have already going on and then something will spark an idea. In that first moment of inspiration I will quickly stop what I am doing and write down everything that comes to me and spend no more than a few minutes actually seeing to it before I return to what I was doing.

Later on, sometimes that day but usually the next one, I will read through the notes I took during my fevered vision and rewrite them in a way that makes some sense. From those, I flesh out the high concept of the game and what it will need to be physically played. Once that's done, I take the concept to the rest of the Inspired team and pitch them the idea. If everyone likes it and wants to do it then I start working on how we can implement it. If we can't reach a consensus then it gets shelved until someone, not always me, thinks of a better way to approach the idea.

Then comes the part where most games stall; development.

All the first stage stuff is theoretical. There is very little meat on the bones at that point. Typically all I have is a name, a concept and an idea of the components. So I know if it should use cards or tokens or if it needs a board, but no real idea on what all those things will actually do in play. The games I have talked about on the blog have all made it past this stage. Battle Tank, Celestial Warriors, Drachenheim, and Chem 101 are all well on their way to finalization. All of them have playable prototyes, art and graphics, etc.

So for counterpoint here's an idea that has not made it through this stage even though I really like it.

Hunters and Hunted

Hunters and Hunted is a modular board game about a professional monster hunter who comes to a town plagued with all manner of dangerous creatures. People have been acting strange or vanishing in the night. Some suspect the old Count in his castle on the hill, others whisper of creatures from the nearby lakes and still more say it is the work of wolfmen who live among them. Sadly all of them are right, but none of them are willing to simply share all their secrets with some stranger who just happened to arrive at the right time with the right skills. The butcher thinks the stranger is a charlatan, preying on scared and superstitious people. The mayor just wants this all to go away.

And that's pretty much it. The iterations I've gone through are simply unplayable in their current state. It's got a modular board so that it's more variable and lends itself to replay. It has a cast of town notables and a hunter who are all represented as cards. Each of the monsters also has a presence in the town by either controlling or being one of those townsfolk. I've lost count of all the ways we've concocted victory conditions and of how to make the investigative portion of the game actually interesting.

For the games that do make it that far and pass muster, the next stage of development is playtesting. This is where we sit down and make sure the game both works as intended and is fun. In every case so far something has come up in this stage that sends everything back to development for an overhaul. Playtesting is the easiest stage to actually do but the hardest to get everyone together for. Part of that is time constraints but the other tough part is actually writing down the rules so that we are all using the same ones and not simply going off what is in someone's head. Its a sobering experience when you realize that you're going to have to spend a lot more time writing and praying the editor finally likes what you have.

Then, at last, comes finalization. This is the least "game design" part of the game since at this point the game is done but all the things that it needs to go and live in the outside world are still waiting to be started. The art needs to be done, the packaging needs to be figured out, we need a printing budget and a thousand other things that form the business side of the game. And unlike the game, none of these things can be redone once they are in place because then the budget will break wide open and we won't have the money to try again.

That was longer than I had originally intended but I hope it sheds some light on what we are trying to do here. To sum it up I think of my process like this:

  1. Insight
  2. Basic thoughts and overview
  3. Team reality check
  4. Concentrated development
  5. Playtesting
  6. Finalization
What's your approach to game design?