Everyone Thinks They’re a Game Designer
April 10, 2013
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The thing I’ve noticed about dedicated gamers is that they are among the harshest critics around. They’ll play a game once and declare it “broken.” They have hundreds of games on their shelf and it’s almost impossible to convince them that anything else should be on it. And yet they seem eager to “fire” one of them with the rare game that seems to one-up everything in its class. These folks are a tough, tough crowd. And yet they’re not near as tough as the casual gamers that can be frightened away at the first hint of complexity or tedium. But no matter how much or how little people from these two disparate groups play… they all have one thing in common: they will houserule at the drop of a hat.
As Lou Coatney observed, “the components and game system of boardgames can be completely seen and understood.” It’s so easy to just reach in there an alter a rule that rubs you the wrong way. Everybody does it. And I think that in the back of our minds, this makes us feel ourselves equal to the games’ designers. I mean… how hard can it be, really? And yet, I know lots of people that are voracious readers… but not one of them suddenly thinks that they’re a novelist just because they can correct a “then” when it should be a “than.”
I think, however, that the aspiring designer that attempts to go down this particular rabbit hole in earnest will soon find things are more complicated than they first appear. To design a board game is to compose a coherent system out of innocuous looking parts. As such, the thinking processes involved are more akin to those of mathematicians who deduce theorems from a small number of self-evident axioms. Complicating things further is the fact that the development process is fraught with all of the usual gremlins that make engineering projects take longer than expected. Even in my on mind, I reflexively imagine a beautiful waterfall process:
- Thumbnail Sketches and Specifications
- Create Prototype
- Develop Game
- Create Playtest Pack
- Refine Game Based on Playtester Comments
But the reality is, there are things that can happen at every step that can force you to back up and start again from an earlier point. You can conceivably uncover a reductio ad absurdam that forces you to throw everything out. And even if you get far along with a particular design, dealing with emerging game imbalances and dominant strategies is not necessarily a trivial thing. And how can you know if your fix doesn’t imbalance other aspects of the design?
While there’s not actually a chance of getting blown up at some point in all this, nevertheless… the game design process looks more like a Gamma World artifact chart than anything that the typical gamer imagines about it. To think that anyone could navigate through all of that and then have something that is more fun than anything else that people could possibly choose to do– well… that’s just mind blowing. Considering the number of ideas that start at step one and then get published, much less become even just a cult hit… it’s a wonder that anyone attempts to design a game at all.