Game Design September: Forward Toward the Concrete

Published by: Amelia Rengo

Are you a game designer? (Hint: anyone can be one!) We're spending September talking about game design for aspiring and experienced creators alike. (Read the first post in the series here.) This is the first post in that series, with  insights from Jeff Tidball, a veteran game designer and producer, as well as Atlas Games' COO. Have a question for Jeff? Give us a mention on Twitter @AtlasGames. Today's topic: keeping momentum once you've begun!

Taking an idea from a cool idea to an actual system that can form the basis of a game. —Eleanor (@Magpie_Elle)

This is a great question because the route from here (“I have a cool idea!”) to there (“Here is a concrete system!”) is almost entirely a silent, internal, one-person process, and you rarely get to see anyone else actually do it. The best illustration we ever get of a similar process in popular narratives is a musical montage of our protagonist chewing on a pencil, brooding, and drawing diagrams on a chalkboard all Beautiful Mind–style.

(Why do I say it’s a one-person process? Because although a group can collaborate on brainstorming cool ideas, or work together to suggest possible refinements to one or many concrete system concepts, at some point, someone is going to have to decide on the way forward and guide a group’s thought agenda. Teams are great for generating many ideas; democracy is a terrible method for creative decision-making.)

So what does it look like, the process of moving from the conceptual and ephemeral to the definite and testable? And how do you do it?

For me, it starts with many pages of stream-of-consciousness notes that dump the idea(s) from my mind onto paper. These are not fully formed sentences or paragraphs. They’re lists, fragment, and sketches. I described this a little bit in the previous post in this series, “Getting Started.”

The next step is to use the raw material of your notes to answer “Where do I put my hands?” and all of the questions in its constellation.

Let me explain. In grad school, I took a course called ”Directing for Screenwriters” from the highly accomplished, veteran actress and director Nina Foch. My fellow students and I attempted repeatedly, over the course of a semester, to give coherent acting instruction as a director would. As baby filmmakers, we’d give idiotic instructions like, “You’ve got to convince her that you really love her,” or “You need to express your independence in this scene.” She would usually make a pained face, try to imagine how she might do that in a scene, and respond with, “I don’t know where to put my hands.”

People who are acting are doing physical things; cameras record only the physical actions they take. There’s subtlety, interpretation, art, and magic to acting — I’m not trying to diminish the craft at all. But at the end of the day, it’s a person doing acts, and a camera recording them. Where do you put your hands to “express your independence?” If you can’t reduce the story to physical actions that can be filmed, you’re nowhere.

Back to game-making. To move from ideas to systems, interrogate your notes with questions that are similar to the actress's “Where do I put my hands?,” such as “What physical component could express this concept?,” “What is the first thing a player does on their turn?,” “How many cards is that going to take?,” and “How do we know when the game is over?” Answer those questions, then ask more, in a cycle, until you have a concrete system (or more than one) that you can test.

Knowing exactly which questions to ask, knowing which answers are likely to fail before spending the effort to test them, and having a sense of what kinds of answers will give rise to the most interesting play experiences is the fruit of experience. Following the questions back to where you started, getting really frustrated, and developing prototypes that go nowhere is part of the process. (So expect that to happen, both at first and as a veteran designer. It is what it is.)

So, to summarize: Interrogate your brainstormed notes, looking for the physical actions that players will take. Once you have those actual systems, you’re testing and revising rather than instantiating the formless. And the good news there is that revising is way easier than starting!

At what point does artwork/ theme factor in? Scythe was inspired by art, and licensed games usually start from the theme of the IP, but where do these factor in for other games? —Keenan (@KeenanLonell)

If you’re developing a game on spec (as opposed to crafting a licensed game on assignment), then for me, the answer is: You add your game’s theme whenever you come up with an awesome idea that compels you to use it. I don’t know a lot about the genesis of Scythe, but it sounds like the awesome idea occurred in advance of much of anything else about the game. That’s great.

But if you have an idea for something mechanical, it’s ok to leave that gameplay divorced from theme or narrative until an awesome thematic or narrative idea occurs to you. That is: You can (and often should) develop gameplay and theme separately.

Now, in the ideal case, theme serves play and play serves theme. But since any given prototype is 100% likely to be revised endlessly, there will always be time down the road to add (or replace!) a theme, or to replace (or remove!) mechanics, and to use those revision stages to iteratively tie mechanics and narrative more closely together.

I believe this to be complicated but 75% true: Theme is what gets a player to try a game, mechanics are what convince them to stay and play again. So for a new game to be a commercial success, an excellent theme is pretty important, because attracting players is key. Because of theme’s importance, you might as well hold out until you have a truly great idea, especially since you can work on other parts of the design in the meantime.

(You asked about artwork, too. Worry about artwork waaay down the road, after multiple prototype iterations have proven that both the mechanics and the theme work. Unless you’re an artist yourself — in which case ignore this advice — the expense of commissioning art means that you should hire illustrators as an early production step, rather than as any design step.)

Thanks to Eleanor and Keenan for their questions! We'll be answering more in the next few days. In the meantime, if you're looking for more on game design, The White Box features twenty-seven essays on topics ranging from box design to accessibility in gaming, plus game components to help bring your game into the physical world.


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