Last week I was looking at game blogging and how its skill set intersected with game design. I realized that even if you play games all the time, kibitz about them, tinker with them, and develop stuff for them… there are still entire swaths of the early stages of game design that you’re liable to know nothing about. It’s actually kind of exciting to think that there is such a vast unknown so nearby. While I could always just, you know, buy Lewis Pulsipher’s book on this sort of thing, I decided to just sally forth and see what I could figure out on my own first.
The first thing I did was get a new composition notebook. Nothing fancy, of course. I sketched out my idea for a game– just a picture of it in process, really. This made me realize just how little of an idea I had. It was nothing more than two different games put together. The fact that it was an obvious hybrid was not the worst thing, either. The idea was just too broad… a scatter-shot “something over in this direction might be cool” sort of thing. Looking at again for a few minutes on another day, I tried get a little more focus to it. By narrowing it, my hope was that (once a working prototype was on the table) the game would eventually work once the stuff written on the cards was tinkered with enough. (That’s sort of how I imagine The Stars Are Right got made; the designer knew he needed a star field, a way to manipulate it, and then stuff happening as a consequence to that. The real core of the design was all worked into the cards.)
I still wasn’t quite satisfied with my game’s premise, though. I wanted just a little more form to it beyond what I had. I felt… that the opening needed to have certain elements that would fade in importance over the course of the middle game. And then… in the end game… a different mechanic would take over. Understanding how to manage that transition would (theoretically) be a key component of the game’s tactics. Another thing I wanted to nail down was whether or not to have options for direct conflict between players. But I really didn’t want the game to hinge on players saving back their mean cards to crush the first player to get close to winning. (I had a flash of insight on these points while I was driving somewhere, and I had to quick write it all down while I was at a red light.)
So far I had a mere thirty minutes of development time sunk in to my game design project– all of it spread around on different days when I couldn’t do anything else anyway. Looking over my notes again, it was clear that my idea was still too derivative to be worth developing into a working prototype. Oh, I was sure I could end up with a working game out of it. I just didn’t think it would be worth the effort. What I disliked most about it was that there was nothing new in it. I stewed about this for a while and then opened up my notebook with the intent of doing something about it. I considered patterning the design after another game, but then it would be derivative in different way. I wondered about that, trying to think of a third way. Then it hit me: something that was different that I hadn’t really seen in these sorts of games. I made a new sketch and then assembled some of my earlier concepts into a new “thumbnail sketch.” I wrote and then rewrote a sequence of play. I chose my game components based on what would be visually pleasing and easy to keep up with at the same time. Finally, I thought of a way to handle direct conflict that would be more interesting, say, than the robber piece in Catan.
All of this seemed to happen very quickly and in one pass. Someone looking on would have thought that the idea was made up on the spot from whole cloth, but the time I’d invested in my first idea was not wasted at all. When I dedicated my attention to a new frame, I seemed to have an instinct for how everything I’d already considered could fit. And of course, while assembling the parts, I made a point to make sure I’d addressed up front all the things that had stymied me in the earlier iteration. Spending time developing a mediocre idea uncovers its flaws well enough that you’ll know just what to do when a better idea comes along: you can actually prepare for serendipity.