Polish

Welcome to the final part of a 6 part series on Collectible Game Design.  If you are just joining us, here are the other parts:

Part 1: Overview

Part 2: Engine Design

Part 3: Engine Development

Part 4: Component Design

Part 5: Component Development

If you’ve come with us this far, you’ve got a pretty awesome game.  You’ve crafted your vision, defined your parameters, brainstormed countless ideas, prototyped and iterated on them repeatedly.  With each phase of design, your cycles got tighter and tighter, focusing on more minutiae until the entire system hummed.  Now is the time to put the final touches on your game and make it ready for sale.

THEME

basic-product-mockup

This week, our new game You Gotta Be Kitten Me is hitting stores.    The core game mechanics are pretty simple- Players bid on the number of a given symbol or color they think are in everyone’s hands.  Each player must in turn raise the bid or challenge the previous bidder.  If you lose a challenge, you lose a card for the next hand.  The last player with cards left wins.

The game took about 18 months to develop, but the game mechanics were complete within the first 6 months of development.  What took so long was figuring out that final polish – the theme and look for the game.   The game is light, social and quick to play, making it appropriate for families. It also has strategic bluffing and hand-reading elements that appeal to more traditional gamers.  We wanted a theme that could help us reach both audiences.  We went through many iterations before settling on the final design.

Here are some never before seen behind-the-scenes looks at the themes we developed along the way

8-bit-card-mockup-3-a-d bowler-red-2 wild_ideas_1 yeti-card-mockup-3-a-d

The above themes in order: “8-bit Crook”, “Schrodinger’s Hats”, “Liar’s Cards”, “Are We There Yeti?”

As you can see, each has a very different look and feel, potentially appealing to different audiences.  We even took the Shrodinger’s Hat prototype to a convention to get direct feedback from customers before finally deciding on You Gotta Be Kitten Me.  Designing a theme is just like designing a game.  You need to go through the Core Design Loop to brainstorm ideas, prototype, and test them until you find the right one.

ART, NAMES, STORY

Once you’ve decided on a theme, the next step is to commission the art and flesh out each component into a full character in whatever world you’ve created.   This is where the 6 cost creature with 6 attack and 4 health becomes a “Craw Wurm” and where abstract numbers and effects become dragons, spaceships, and kittens.

Much like when building structure during your initial design process, when building a collectible game, try to connect and build structure in your characters, art and background story.

This helps your world come alive and gives players things to discover as they dig deeper into your universe.  Some tips include:

  • Have a bigger story in mind.  Put your characters into context and set expectations that can payoff later.
  • Have key characters recur to reinforce their importance (e.g. in art pieces, names, etc.)
  • Create cycles with names and art that parallel mechanics (e.g. The Apprentice cycle in Ascension are all 1 cost heroes that show a novice training in their respective faction)
  • Seed evocative references in your names and story text.  The players may not know what these mean, but they will be intrigued to learn more. (e.g. Oros, Deepwood’s Chosen; Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury, etc.)

When building my games, I try to have at least 3 years of story sketched out before the first release. This helps as I design future releases and keeps the world coherent.  Even if you never deliver on the complete story, the structure is valuable to guide your decisions.

GRAPHIC DESIGN AND LAYOUT

Spend time iterating on the specific layout of information for each of your components.  Many designs end up cluttered and confusing.  Here are a few tips to help focus your graphic design process:

1. Priority rank each piece of information in order (e.g. Card cost, attack, health, textbox, name).  Make sure that your design emphasizes the right information

2. Avoid clutter as much as possible. Avoid adding extra flourishes, symbols, and components that don’t serve a purpose to the player. Less is more.

3. Draw the eye to the most important information. Good layout should naturally make the player want to do what they are supposed to do.  

TEMPLATING AND COMPREHENSIVE RULES

For me, building out story, characters, and art is a really fun process.  It reminds me of my old days of playing Dungeons and Dragons.  Creating worlds, characters, and epic plots are some of the things I love most about my job.

The last piece of polish, however, is a bit more of a grind.  When first working on a game, I will use a lot of shorthand for what a card does.  Everyone in my playgroup knows what I mean and if they don’t I can always clarify.

In the real world, players won’t have your same background assumptions and you won’t be in the room to answer their questions.   This is why it is important to have a clear consistent template for your text backed up by comprehensive rules that help avoid confusion.

COMPREHENSIVE RULES

Comprehensive rules are read by only a small part of your player base, but they provide the foundation for resolving disputes and making sure the whole game “works” even after hundreds or thousands of cards or components get created.  This article doesn’t have time to go too in depth on comprehensive rules writing (let me know if you want to see an article on that). For now, think of comprehensive rules as the underlying code upon which your game “program” runs.   

TEMPLATING

The beauty of a collectible game is that each card and component is able to change the rules and thus create an ever-changing play experience.  But, when each card can change the rules, it is more important than ever to be clear and precise when describing each card’s effect.  Being precise with your templating helps players access your game and understand what is going on.

For physical games, precision of language is about answering four basic questions:

Target: Who does the effect apply to?

Timing: When does the effect happen?

Script: What does the effect do?

Source: Who/what is the originator of the effect and what traits does he/it have?

Answering these questions thoroughly can lead to some long and cumbersome text boxes and you will often have to make difficult trade-offs when deciding how to template your effects and rules.  Here are some considerations to keep in mind

Concision vs. Clarity- Answering the above questions in detail and with precision can be cumbersome.  Consider the following example of two templates of the same effect:

TEMPLATE 1- Deal 3, Draw 3

TEMPLATE 2- First, this card deals 3 damage to target creature or player of your choice.  Then, you draw 3 cards from your deck.

The second text is 5 times as long, but more clear.  Which template is better?  That depends a lot on your audience and the nature of your game.  How relevant is each piece of information? How likely are your players to infer information you don’t want to spell out?  Can you imagine game scenarios where this template would be confusing?

Wrestling with these questions has lead to many heated debates around the office because, as silly as the distinction may seem, your early decisions in templating will have long-reaching effects on the types of cards you can create and how your audience relates to them.  If you choose to never identify Source, for example, it will be harder to create future mechanics that reference it.

Keywords and Text Compression– A common tactic in collectible games that introduce a mechanic used multiple times is to compress the rules text into a keyword.  Keywords are special game jargon that stand in place of a bunch of regular text.  The best keywords compress a lot of text into a word that is evocative of the effect.

A great example of this is the keyword “Flying” in Magic: the Gathering.  Here are the comprehensive rules for Flying:

702.9. Flying

  • 702.9a Flying is an evasion ability.
  • 702.9b A creature with flying can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach. A creature with flying can block a creature with or without flying. (See rule 509, “Declare Blockers Step,” and rule 702.17, “Reach.”)
  • 702.9c Multiple instances of flying on the same creature are redundant.

That is a mouthful!  For most players, however, they will simply intuit what flying means- creatures with flying can fly over creatures without flying.  That one word compresses a lot of text in a way that doesn’t confuse the player.  Try whenever possible to use keywords that evoke the feeling of the effects you are trying to describe.

Physical vs. Digital Game-  Because digital games enforce the rules for you, the importance of consistency and clarity in templating is reduced (though not eliminated).  In digital games, it is generally preferable to use less precise but more readable language.  Players will learn the ins and outs of the game by playing.

Ship it!

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One of the biggest challenges with any game design process is deciding when your game is “done.”  There is always more time that can be spent refining, polishing, and improving your design.  It is worth spending time to make your game as good as it can be, but be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  A good, completed game is infinitely better than a theoretical “perfect” game that never gets published.

The most powerful way to ensure your game gets completed is to set a deadline.  When you have a boss or a design contract, this is often done for you.  If you are working on your own, set one for yourself.  Work towards that date as though you were delivering it to a client or your boss and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can get things done.  If you have a game you are working on, post a note in the comments with your committed date to get it ready!  I’ll follow up with anyone who commits and offer some support.  Good luck and have fun!

Component Development

Welcome to Part 5 of a 6 part series on how to design collectible games. You can find the other parts here:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Engine Design
Part 3: Engine Development
Part 4: Component Design

Component Development is where the rubber hits the road. Each piece must fit together in a way that doesn’t tip the scales too far one way or another.
During component development, attention shifts from the big picture to the small details. One additional point of power or recruit cost matters now. Leading up to this phase, those issues could (and should) be overlooked in favor of focus on the bigger vision of the design. Now, its time to get into the weeds.

Design vs Development

 

My first job in the gaming industry was as a game developer for the Vs. System trading card game.  I was recruited because of my success on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, during which my primary focus was to find degenerate strategies and exploit them. This skill set is incredibly valuable, but is very different from the skills of a designer.  Let’s define the skills of both roles:

A great designer understands the player’s emotional experience and can create rules and components that evoke desired emotions and experiences.

A great developer understands the strategic implications of different rules and components and is able to balance them to support the design’s emotional intent.

Both roles must support each other to create a great game.

If the designer doesn’t create fun and powerful emotional experiences, the best development cannot make a good game.

If the developer completely misses the mark, then the vision of the designer will be eclipsed by degenerate strategies.

We’ve talked a lot about the great elements of design, so today we will break down how to think about developing your game.

4 Key Strategies for Game Development

1. Balance

Fundamentally, development is about balance. A balanced game is one such that no single strategy is so dominant that another strategy cannot defeat it.

balancing

Balance Does Not Mean Equal!

Your goal in development is not to make all components, cards, or strategies equally strong, only to make sure that no one is completely dominant.  Part of the fun of playing collectible games is finding the more powerful strategies and components- if none are more powerful, you rob the player of the joy of discovery.  Don’t try to make everything equal, just make sure the most powerful thing isn’t so powerful that the joy of discovery is lost once that thing is found.

Use Development Knobs to find Balance

Your core engine will dictate how easy it is to balance your game.  Do your creatures all have one power number or two? Are there different types of costs or only one? I call these development “knobs” because each one can be turned like knobs on a tuning board to help you find a balance point. In general, the more knobs you have, the easier it is to balance your game.  

You can see more about how game engine level systems can help development in my article on Depth.

2. Support Different Player Archetypes

When creating initial components, it helps to group them into general player strategy archetypes. The basic archetypes are:

Defensive– The player tries to survive long enough to set up an insurmountable late game advantage
Offensive– The player tries to win quickly, before other players can execute their strategy
Stealth– the player tries to obfuscate their position and uses misinformation to gain an edge
Combo– the player tries to combine two or more resources in a way that disproportionately gives them an edge

These are VERY loose definitions and most player strategies will involve a combination of all the above, but it can be helpful to simplify for purposes of your initial creation process. When developing collectible components, try to make sure each player archetype has some powerful ways to support their preferred strategy.   

3. Establish Silver Bullets

One key tool to help ensure diversity of strategies in your game is to include Silver Bullets. Silver bullets are components that aren’t necessarily good on their own, but are devastatingly effective against some strategies.

A classic example from Magic are the circles of protection.

mtgcom_daily_mr97_pic1_en

Each circle could stop all damage from a single color. If your opponent didn’t play that color, it was useless. If they played ONLY that color, that one card could win you the game.

If one strategy becomes too dominant, then players can use silver bullets to defeat it. This isn’t a panacea to solve all development mistakes, but it can help prevent the worst case scenario of one strategy being unbeatable.  Be careful not to make your silver bullet components too powerful lest they themselves become the dominant strategy.

4. Emphasize the Fun

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The unfortunate truth about component development is that you will never get it 100% right.  I’ve worked with some of the most brilliant game developers in the world and spent months developing a single game release. Even with all those resources, we still made mistakes.

Huge companies that spend millions of dollars and years developing their games still make development mistakes. I can guarantee that you too will make development mistakes. The question is how do you handle it when you do?

The first rule is, when in doubt, push the fun. Pay attention to which play patterns are most enjoyable and which ones make players want to quit. Its OK if giant dragons win a lot of games, but not OK if counterspells prevent one player from ever playing a card.

The second rule is to be humble. Be prepared to admit mistakes and keep an eye out for what is changing. Collectible games are living organisms that change both in response to new content and player behavior trends.

Collectible games are so compelling because the players get to craft their own game experience from the tools you give them. Learn from your players and be ready to adapt to the game you all have created together.  Tune in next time where we take all the hard work and iterations of design and prepare it for its final step- polish.

Component Design

Welcome to Part 4 in a 6 part series on the phases of collectible game design. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3

Today we are going to dig into Component Design. During component design, you will be filling in the pieces that finally make the game playable.  Returning to our analogy of building a house, component design is when the house finally begins to look like a home, with rooms, walls and furniture.

Successful component design is all about creating structure so that everything has a proper place. If your game is successful, you will be creating hundreds or thousands of collectible components. The only hope for you to wrap your head around that many items is to create a solid structure.

There is a pervasive myth that creativity is about being free from constraint. The opposite is true- creativity can only thrive in a world with solid structure upon which the creative impulse can be unleashed. The key to component design is defining and enforcing categories that provide structure to your designs.

Categories

 

At the highest level, you need to break down your components into categories. Examples of categories are:

  • Colors in Magic: The Gathering
  • Classes in World of Warcraft
  • Roles in League of Legends

Defining Categories

 

Categories are defined by story as well as mechanical function. The easiest way to define these is to answer questions about the extremes.

Mechanically

  1. What is this category best at?
  2. What is this category worst at?

Thematically

  1. What is this category care about or want the most?
  2. What does this category hate or fear the most?

By answering these questions, you will begin to get a feel for what belongs in a category and what doesn’t. You will inevitably flesh out more details over time, but the big picture questions above are enough to get started.

Magic Lead Designer Mark Rosewater has written extensively on the topic of Magic’s “color pie” which illustrates the enormous amount of thinking that goes into breaking down Magic’s categories. I highly recommend reading through this entire series.

Enforcing Categories

 

Enforcement

In addition to breaking down your factions, you need to decide how strict you will be in enforcing their separation. By forcing players to make tradeoff choices between categories, you create valuable strategic tension and enable a greater variety of viable strategic choices. The main question to answer here is how much freedom will you give your players to customize?

No Enforcement

 

If you do not enforce categories in your game, then the category is primarily a thematic guide and not a game mechanic. This makes things easy on the player, but doesn’t do much work to differentiate your game experience and will make it very difficult to incentivize different strategies. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh suffer from this problem. Cards from any faction may be played together and there is no rules-based reason to play cards within the same category.

To make games like this work, you will need to put a lot of explicit synergies into your components (e.g. +3 Attack if you play another green card this turn). This approach can be great for very simple or non-collectible games, but I don’t recommend it for any advanced collectible game.

Soft Enforcement

 

Players can use whichever combination of categories they want, but the game rules pressure you to stay within a limited number of categories. Magic is a great example of this. You can play as many colors as you like in your deck, but the more you diversify, the more you run the risk of not having the right resource at the right time.

This system is a big part of why my college notebook is filled with Magic decks scribbled in the margins. Soft enforcement has the advantage of giving the player lots of freedom to customize their experience and thus lots of variety in play. This limitless possibility is very exciting for an advanced player. The downsides of soft enforcement are that it is the most difficult to balance properly and the open-ended nature of customization may be intimidating for some players.

Strict Enforcement

 

Players can only play with one faction at a time. Hearthstone is an example of this type of restriction- you pick a class and can only select cards from that class and a generic pool. Strict enforcement is the easiest for a player to understand and the easiest for a designer to balance. On the flipside, the lack of freedom in customization leads to a less robust overall experience.

Hybrid Enforcement

 

Players are given a limited ability to combine factions. Solforge is an example of hybrid enforcement. Players are allowed to select any two factions they want, but can never combine three or more. Hybrid systems come in many forms, but they all try to find the balance between freedom to customize and complexity.

Sub-Categories

 

Sub-categories (aka subtypes, themes) give you more ways to divide your collectible components. Think of your categories as Russian Nesting Dolls of structure. Each layer can contain within it increasingly refined levels of detail. Once you have defined the top level, repeat the same process to create some subthemes within each faction.

In Solforge, Nekrium is the faction of death and destruction, but each “tribe” of creatures has its own particular focus. Abominations generally sacrifice themselves and others for beneficial effect, while Zombies continue to return from the dead. In Magic’s green color, which is about growth and nature, Elves tend to provide additional mana while Beasts tend to be larger creatures intended for attacking.

Cycles

 

A cycle is a single theme or pattern that repeats itself across multiple categories. You can also have cycles within a faction to highlight a key feature (e.g. Have a small, medium, and large version of a core faction effect). Cycles are one of the best ways to establish your themes and communicate them to players.

One of the most famous trading card game cycles is from Magic’s very first set. The cycle was all 1 cost instants that provided 3 of something.

boons

From looking at the above cards alone, you can instantly learn a lot about what defines each faction. Cycles are powerful because by keeping so many elements the same, you draw a player’s attention to the differences. This reinforces the structure you have built. In addition, when a player sees 2 or 3 pieces of this cycle, they will want to look for the final pieces. This helps drive excitement as players speculate about what the final piece of the puzzle will look like.

When in doubt, add more cycles and structure. It is hard to over do it.

Breaking Structure

 

Game design is an art form, and like all rules in art, the structural rules above are meant to be broken. You will regularly encounter specific designs or sub-themes that break from your initial direction, but you shouldn’t break rules until you’ve spent time working within them.

Breaking structure should be done with purpose to draw particular attention to a feature. For example, in Magic, the color green doesn’t typically have any flying creatures. When a green flying dragon is introduced, however, it highlights how rare and special that creature is. Judicious use of broken structures is a powerful tool, but only if you spend effort building up those structures in the first place.

Filling in the Skeleton

 

3D-Printed-Skeleton-Spider-Dress-0

Once you’ve built out your structure, you now have a basic map of what your completed set of components should look like. It is at this point that I will typically break out a spreadsheet and start filling it in with designs. Create a skeleton outline with the number of components you want in each faction. Then block off time and start filling in the gaps. Now that you know the structure, your creative mind will instinctively start to fill in designs and the process for creating your first set of components should flow smoothly. If you get stuck, fall back on creating more cycles or try adding a new sub-category to help move you forward.

Once your components are designed, it is time to get to the development process, which we will cover in Part 5.

6 Steps to Overcome Writer’s Block and Beat Resistance

This post has been modified and updated on Steemit!

 

I’ve been working for several weeks on the next piece to the series on Collectible Game Design.  When I say “working,” what I usually mean is, staring for a minute at the article, worrying about how long it will take me to write, then deciding to do something else.

I think about all the more pressing things I have to do, then check my email, then go down whatever other rabbit hole gets my attention. I find this habit incredibly frustrating, and I know I’m not alone. What is going on here? How can we overcome it and accomplish our creative goals?

What is “Writer’s Block”?

Writers-Block-Girl-Scaled

I don’t like the term writers block. Writer’s block implies that there is some external force to ourselves that stops us- we are literally “blocked” from fulfilling our creative vision. All we are facing is a set of feelings and sensations, dubbed by Robert Perseig as Resistance. I feel resistance to sitting in front of the page and doing the work to write. Resistance shows up whenever you try something new and uncomfortable. Resistance is the animal part of your brain that wants everything to be safe, comfortable, and predictable. Resistance is the enemy to creation and to realizing your dreams, whatever they may be. Resistance is the real power behind “writer’s block.” 

How do we Overcome Resistance?

resistance-identifier

1. Pay Attention

 

Notice how resistance feels when it arises.  What sensations do you feel?

  • Chest tightening
  • Stomach sinking
  • Eyes darting
  • Fingers twitching
  • Palms sweating

We all have felt variations of this. The feelings are unpleasant and we seek to escape them.

It is why we spend hours on Facebook, YouTube, or the Huffington Post. We seek the easy and immediate relief that comes from these short term distractions.

2. Sit with the Feeling

 

Once you identify the feeling of resistance, pause. Don’t do anything, just sit with the sensation. Take a few deep breaths and just notice and identify the individual sensations as they arise. Don’t run from discomfort.

Now return to your task at hand. It helps me to set a visible timer nearby with a pre-set limit during which I won’t stray from my allotted task. If you feel blocked, start the timer at only 5 min. Such a small time is easy to commit to, and often once you start writing it is easier to continue than stop. Momentum is a powerful force.

Eventually expand your timer to 20 minutes or an hour. When you notice yourself drifting off to distraction, look at the timer then come back to your work.  Once the timer is up, give yourself permission to wander off for a while, then set another timer and come back to your work.

3. Have Creative Rituals

 

Do similar things to prime your brain to create. Set aside a special place, tool, and time for creative work. Make these as appealing as possible to draw your attention. A comfortable chair, clear desk, and nice pens can all impact your psyche when it comes to creative work. I find I am much more creative when I have a nice notebook and a bunch of colored pens to doodle and brainstorm with. Find tools you love to make the work more appealing.  If you are like me, trips to Staples start to feel like trips to the toy store when you were a kid.

4. Change Something

 

Sometimes disrupting the very rituals you’ve built up is the key to creative breakthroughs. Go for a walk outside. Find a new coffee shop and work there. Change tools (e.g. write with a pen instead of typing or vice versa). Create wacky new restrictions to prime your problem solving mind (e.g. every paragraph must begin with the letter e, your game characters all have no arms, etc.). Forcing the mind to make new connections can help break out of a rut.

5. Remove Distractions

 

Try to block out the many things that pull your attention.  The harder it is to get pulled by distraction, the easier it will be to catch yourself before you get lost.

  • Find a quiet place.
  • Put on headphones with music that inspires you (here is my work playlist).
  • Put your cellphone in airplane mode.
  • Disconnect from the internet (or use a service like rescuetime.com or freedom.to to block distracting websites).

6. Give Yourself Permission to Fail

 

Shitty first drafts. Crappy prototypes. Ugly Sketches. Quick and Dirty Code. These are the things that legends are made of. Get something done, and be proud that it sucks. Revising and refining is a lot easier once you get a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. Trying to make your first draft perfect is the best way to make sure that there will be no final draft.

The Struggle is Real

struggle

We all face Resistance every day. Anytime you want to devote effort to bettering yourself or creating something, Resistance will be there. Don’t underestimate the power of resistance and don’t beat yourself up during days you lose the battle. But don’t give up either! Each day is a new chance to beat resistance and create something. I don’t know how I will fare against resistance tomorrow, but for today, I’ll call this article a win.

Core Engine Development

 

This is Part 3 in a series on the phases of collectible game design. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

If the core engine design is laying the foundation of your game “house,” core engine development is the framing upon which everything else will hang.  At the end of this phase, your collectible game should basically “work” with a limited set of components.  The game should be fun and meet your design parameters, though it will not be balanced or polished.

Here are some key areas of focus during Core Engine Development.

1. Define Fundamental Components

 

Build the Basics

frame_lg

 

Your goal in this phase is not to design all the components of your game!  You will, however, need to have at least some of your components in place to properly develop the engine.

In a fighting game, have at least 3-4 characters with relatively defined traits. In a trading card game, have 2-3 pre-built decks to test with. The key is a small number of permutations that highlight a few of the strategies available in your game.

You do not need to worry about the strategies being fully fleshed out or balanced. You can include a few things that push the boundaries of the engine (i.e. very wacky effects and extremes of power level), but for the most part you just want nuts and bolts effects at this stage. Too many wacky components can make it harder to see what is going on at the fundamental engine level.

 

Outline Collection Requirements

 

When determining components for a collectible game, you need to decide how many a player needs to play. Do you need 3 miniatures, 60 cards, or one Champion?  Think about what the player experience will be like when they have a small collection vs. a large collection. Is it still fun to play when you don’t have a lot of options? Is it still exciting to collect after you already have a few?  You can drive this excitement by ensuring your engine supports a variety of strategies and synergies between different subsets of the total available collection.

 

Target Collection Variation in Game

 

In addition to determining how many components a player needs to play the game, you should also think about how many components show up in a given game.

If you always have all your components available each game (e.g. A miniatures game where all the figures start on the board), then games will tend to play out more similarly during repeat play.1 If you have too few components show up in a game (e.g. Drawing only 7 cards from a 60 card deck) then players may not feel enough agency in their customization.2  There is no objectively right or wrong answer here. Play around with these numbers to find the balance between variance and predictability appropriate for your game and audience.

2. Define Game Rules

By the time you leave this phase, you should be able to write up the rules for your game (though they may still change).  How do units move? At what rate do players draw cards? What are the rules for line of site and stun effects? How can players transfer one game resource into another? Try out a variety of answers to these questions in this phase as you iterate. By iterating on a variety of possible complete rule sets, you can see how your fundamental components interact with those rules to make a game that is fun and not completely broken.

 

Write Things Down!

writing-pencil

I cannot stress enough the importance of writing things down during this phase. Writing things down has a few advantages. Most importantly, it prevents you from forgetting the work you’ve done.

Written rules also make collaboration with other designers and playtesters much easier. The sooner you can get people testing your game from written rules, the better your rules will be at the end of the process.

Old written down rules are also a great tool for writing design articles and talking about your process after the game releases. Writing down rules early makes everything better in the long run. If you take one lesson from this article, make it this one.

 

Use Rejected Rules to Aid Design Later

 

Almost every rejected rule during your iteration process can assist you in your design down the road. Collectible game design is all about using your components to break the engine rules. In Solforge, for example, creatures originally only attacked during a player’s turn. For a variety of reasons, the game ended up working better when creatures attacked on both players’ turns. However, we designed multiple cards that don’t attack during the opponents turn, because we knew the advantages of that system from earlier testing.

3. Create Proper Incentives

incentive

Fundamentally, what does the player want to do when playing your game? What behaviors does the core play loop encourage? If players are systemically avoiding interacting with each other in a board game, your core loop may have a problem. Game incentives should generally reward people for doing things that are natural and fun, with more layers of options being revealed over time. Watch player behavior and see how your core game loop pushes them to behave.

 

Make Player Instincts Correct

 

Try and make a player’s natural instincts be (most of the time) the correct thing to do. If players of your game are constantly taking a certain course of action, embrace it.

In my deckbuilding game, Ascension, most casual players immediately started buying heavy infantry cards in order to attack monsters. The original game engine made this almost a sure-fire losing strategy against a player who first bought cards to improve their deck.

After many playtest sessions, I rebalanced the engine to make an early monster attack strategy viable.  This took me a long time to figure out because my personal instinct was always to improve my deck first and then defeat monsters.   Keep an eye out for when your personal playstyle doesn’t match that of your average player.

 

Times 2 or Divided by 2

 

When in doubt, double it or cut it in half. Since developing a game engine requires you to set your number ranges, experiment in big chunks to learn more quickly. If a system is not working right, try doubling the numbers to push it more or cut numbers in half to reduce the importance.

These new numbers likely won’t be exactly right, but they will inform you if you are moving in the right direction far more quickly than making many subtle changes along the way (there is time for that later). Solforge creatures were originally on a much smaller scale than they are now, but we found that creatures all felt too similar.  We doubled the range of numbers for attack and defense (and quadrupled player health) and that gave us far more room to design cards that felt different from each other.    Experiment with radical shifts to help shake things up and break your preconceived notions of how the game “should” go.  

4. Find the Fun

player experience is the only metric that matters

It is easy to get lost in the minutiae of mechanics, but player experience is the only metric that matters.  Does the game evoke the feelings you are generally looking for? Is the game length approximately where you want it to be? Are you staying true to your initial vision or has your vision changed?

Ideally, when you leave this phase, the fundamentals of your game are relatively stable. If you aren’t happy with the feel of the game (knowing that things like balance and polish are still to come), now is the time to try and fix any issues that arise. You can shore up problems with good component design and development, but the engine level decisions will have long reaching impacts for the life of your game, so take the time to get this part right.

In my experience, it takes several months to get the Core Engine Design and Development for a collectible game to a place that you are ready to move. Rushing through this phase will only cost you more time and headaches down the road, so take the time and do it right. Once your game feels right, you are ready for the next step of component design.

The Fundamental Building Blocks of Games

Every game is built on the foundation of resources, victory conditions, and player interaction.  I discussed the principles behind these here, but today I want to go into some more specific examples and categories of each.   Mix and match these systems (or add your own) to create an endless variety of games.

 Resources

Types of Resources

Scaling

 

Scaling resources start off small at the beginning of the game and get more plentiful as the game progresses. These resources replenish every turn regardless of whether they are used or not.1 Examples of scaling resources include playing 1 land per turn in Magic, or gaining one energy per turn in Hearthstone.  Pretty much every RPG has a scaling resource represented in new and improved abilities gained while leveling up.

Scaling resources have the advantage of creating a sense of progression throughout the game. Small effects are relevant in the early game, with bigger effects showing up later. This sense of progress is psychologically rewarding and the tension of choosing to focus on late game vs. early game often creates a depth of strategy.

Fixed

 

Fixed resources don’t change throughout the game. If a fixed resource is not spent, it is lost and reset the following turn. Solforge allows players to play two cards per turn. Most miniatures games have figures in play who all get to move and act once each turn.

Fixed resources have the advantage of being simple and easy to understand. When using fixed resources, however, you need to find other ways to create a sense of progression.

Accumulating

 

Accumulating resources are those that store up from turn to turn if you don’t spend them. Any card game where you draw a fixed number of cards each turn has an accumulating resource. The accumulating elixir in Supercell’s Clash Royale and gold in World of Warcraft are other examples of accumulating resources.

Since accumulating resources are not lost if unspent, there is less pressure on each turn to spend them. Player decisions involving accumulating resources tend to be very complicated, as players must evaluate spending a resource not just in the context of this turn, but also for all possible future turns.

One way to combat the complexity of an accumulating resource is to put a restriction on how many resources can be kept from turn to turn (e.g. a maximum hand limit or mana limit).  The smaller the maximum relative to the resources accumulated each turn, the closer this gets to a fixed resource.

customerinteraction

Types of Interaction

Shared Resource

 

A shared resource is any limited resource that multiple players have access to.  In my deckbuilding game Ascension, most of the interaction takes place in the center row of cards.  Players try to get the best cards for themselves, while denying key cards to their opponents. In the real time strategy game Starcraft, key resources are located around the map that players battle to control.

I find it useful to further subdivide Shared Resources into “Hot” and “Cold” shared resources.

Hot shared resources are those that make it very clear when a player takes something from another player. This is prevalent in territory control games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Hot shared resources create more tension and excitement, but can also lead to anxiety and hostility when players visibly lose out on a resource they really wanted.

Cold Shared resources are more subtle. Players drafting cards from hidden packs and then passing them to other players are still taking resources from each other, but the hidden nature of the selection removes some of the tension and emotional charge from the decision.  Even as small a distinction as shifting from taking spaces on a map to taking from a shared pool of cards can have a dramatic impact on the feeling of the game, even if the abstract mechanics are the same.

Direct Attack

 

Direct attacking games are those where players attempt to attack or destroy opposing players’ resources. Examples of this are attacking a player’s life total in magic, attacking creatures directly in Hearthstone, or capturing pieces in a game of chess.

Direct attacking makes a game feel very interactive. The biggest challenge to look out for is a runaway leader advantage if the resource being attacked is critical to playing the game. Attacking a player’s life total in magic doesn’t have this problem (typically) because life total is not used to play the game. Attacking another player’s creatures or cards in hand, however, does tend to create this kind of negative tension.

Deduction

 

Deduction games require you to assess the other players for some key piece of information.  Examples of this include Apples to Apples, Poker, and Pictionary.

Deduction games interact on a psychological level, where getting to know the other players is key to playing well.  They have the advantage of triggering our need to understand other people (who are incredibly complex) and thus can create deep gameplay without a lot of complex rules.  The key to setting up good deduction interactions is to structure the game so each player reveals bits and pieces of information over time, thus forcing the other players to “fill in the gaps” and get to the information they want.

victory

Types of Victory Conditions

Player Elimination

 

The most obvious of victory conditions is the simple removal of all other players from the game. This is simple and easy to understand and a solid choice for any two player game. In multiplayer games, however, be careful of eliminating players too early as forcing people to sit around and watch other’s play can be a drag. Games like Magic the Gathering and Warhammer utilize this type of victory condition.

Time Limit

 

The game lasts a certain amount of time based on either an explicit timer or an implicit depleting resource. At the end of the allotted time, whoever has done the best according to some key metric is then declared the winner. Games like Bejeweled, Ascension and Ra utilize this type of victory condition.  Time limit games are often at their best when you get a sense that time is running short, but you don’t exactly know when the game will end.

Goal Achieving

 

The game lasts until a player achieves some specific goal. This gives players a clear direction in the game, but can often constrain your design space down the road.  Citadels, Settlers of Catan, and most single player games use this type of victory conditions.  It is often useful to hide information about how close players are to achieving their goal until the very end.  This helps maintain tension and excitement even if one player is far ahead.

 

Hopefully the above items help better illustrate how you can answer questions during your game’s core engine design.  Games can use multiple systems from each of the above categories and there are endless permutations.  Have fun experimenting and laying the groundwork for your next design!

We’ll be back with the next phase of design- Core Engine Development!

The 3 Key Questions of Core Engine Design

We are back with a deep dive into Collectible Game Core Engine Design. For an overview of collectible game design, click here.

Core Engine Design is the starting point for building collectible games, and it can be intimidating to try and build a system with so many moving parts. Don’t let the open ended nature of this phase intimidate you! Your goal  is to answer a few key questions to help give shape to your game. You will have plenty of time later to work out details and refine your concept. Stay focused on these big picture questions to get your core engine running.

 

1. What is the Core Play Loop?

game loop

 

A core play loop is the basic pattern of play at the heart of your game. The core game loop should almost always be describable in a sentence or two. In Go, the core game loop is placing stones one at a time and trying to capture territory. In Call of Duty, the core game loop is Getting Weapons/Ammo, looking for enemies, and killing enemies before they kill you.

You will need to have other elements defined to properly test the core game loop (e.g. how does a player move, what are the damage ranges of various weapons, how high can my character jump, etc.) but these elements should be loosely defined and flexible. The goal is for all the peripheral rules and elements to be only “good enough” to test the core loop. You will have time to improve all the peripherals later.

There will be many broken things about your game in this phase. Strategies are not balanced, pieces are ugly, and many fundamental elements are still in motion. A designer has to see through all of that and see if there is a diamond of fun in the rough prototype. Training your instincts to find the fun and ignore the rough patches in early testing is critical.

While working on our digital collectible game Solforge, we had to do all of our initial prototyping on paper while still trying to design a game that worked best in digital. This required a lot of ugly “hacks” to make the game work. A single playtest game could take well over an hour! After that, we would usually change many things which could take several more hours to update and set up. After going through several failed systems including some that included terrain, fog of war, NPC monsters, and more, we settled on the basic core loop of cards that level up as you play them.

When you have a basic core play loop that is fun, you are ready to move on to the next phase.

2. What is the Fundamental Tension of the Game?

tension

Your job as a game designer is to frustrate your players. Every game gives players a goal and then puts roadblocks in their way. Your goal in chess, for example, is to capture the opponent’s king, but the game wouldn’t be any fun if you could just reach across the table and grab it! 1

The design of good games puts restrictions on how you are allowed to act to make the goal challenging to reach. The “fun” of play is the process of navigating through obstacles to move towards your objective. You need to be conscious of what the tensions are, as this is what your game is really “about.”

In the tile-laying game Carcassone, players alternate placing tiles and “Meeples” to claim territory and score points for finishing roads, castles, and other structures. The tension of the game comes from having access to only one tile each turn. Finding the right tile to finish your structures while tactically using tile placement to protect yourself or make things more difficult for your opponents is the heart of the game.

In Solforge, the fundamental tension is around the core leveling system. Since each card levels when you play it, you need to consider both the current effect and the future impact of the leveled card. Players must decide whether to play cards that are good right now but don’t level as well vs. cards that are weaker now but are strong in the late game. This decision then in turn informs the opponent’s decision about which cards to play.

Almost all games have multiple layers of tension, not just one. For example, Carcassone has a limited number of Meeples you can use to claim territory, so deciding when to use and when to hold back Meeples is a key tension. Solforge also has lane based combat, creating a tension of whether to place your creatures defensively to stop opposing creatures or offensively in empty lanes.

It is valuable to identify all the tensions in your game, but it is most important to identify the fundamental tension. Whenever making decisions about your game, always ask “Does this reinforce or weaken the fundamental tension of this game?” If a new mechanic, component, a feature removes focus from the fundamental tension of the game, you should think twice about adding it.

There are many hard to answer questions throughout the process of game design. Identifying the fundamental tension early in the process will help guide you in answering those questions.

3. What are the Resources, Victory Conditions, and Axes of Interaction?

game resources
Every game design has to answer the following questions

  • What resources does the player have access to? (e.g. cards, gold, action points, one play per turn)
  • How does the player win the game? (e.g. eliminate other players, score X points, score the most points when time runs out)
  • How does the player interact with other players and the environment? (e.g. vying to control the same territory, Attacking a fundamental resource, racing on the same track)

Your core design isn’t finished until each of these questions has an answer. At this stage, the goal is to focus on how your game rules manage these systems- not how your individual components handle it. For example, having cards in your card game that specifically reference new victory conditions (e.g. you win the game if your opponent gets 10 or more poison counters) player interactions (e.g. Destroy an enemy tower) or new resources (e.g. Gain an insight token whenever you acquire this card) doesn’t count.

In collectible games, you can always add new rules with new components. You can’t, however, rely on those components to provide the gameplay you want because you can’t always guarantee what components will be present in each game.

There are countless possible variations of resources, victory conditions, and axes of interaction.  To help make things more concrete, in the next article I’ll go through a few basic examples and talk about the implications of each.

 

Putting it all Together

 

Core Engine Design is when you first take your inspiration and turn it into something that can actually be prototyped.  Finding answers to the inevitable questions that come up during design isn’t going to be easy, but  you can’t get the right answers until you ask the right questions. Use the questions above to help focus and bring your vision to life.

Want to know more about the building blocks of a game engine?  Click here.

The 5 Phases of Collectible Game Design

 

For anyone who wants to design a collectible game, this is the series for you. Whether you want to make a collectible card game, miniatures game, or if you just want to add collectible components into your designs, these principles are here to guide you.

What is A Collectible Game? 

I define a collectible game by the following criteria

  • The game is not contained in one purchase
  • Items in the game have scarcity 1
  • Contents of the game are not fixed 2

Each collectible game must support countless individual items and thus is best thought of as a platform upon which you will make many other games.

In the coming weeks, we are going to dig deep into the mechanics and process for building a collectible game from start to finish. For those of you who are more into my philosophical posts and aren’t into game design, you might want to skip this one. For everyone else, let’s get to work!

 

Process Overview

building-your-house
Building a game is a lot like building a house. You need to build things in the proper order and with the proper emphasis in order to make a game that will stand the test of time. Many designers I speak to spend a lot of time worrying about the paint color while the foundation is still unsound. Don’t fall into this trap!

I break collectible game design into five distinct stages.

1. Engine Design
2. Engine Development
3. Component Design
4. Component Development
5. Polish

Before we get too deep into analyzing each of these phases, there are two rules to keep in mind.

1. Design Phases are Fluid

There is usually not a hard line between when you work on one phase vs. another. You can’t, for example, properly test a game engine without at least some defined components. Similarly, you will often discover engine improvements while working on component development. Each phase shifts the emphasis of your testing, not the essential nature of the process.

2. The Core Design Loop is Still King

The Core Design Loop is at the foundation of all good design.3 Each of the five phases above represents a different focus as you go through the Core Design Loop. You should expect to complete at least one loop during each phase (and most likely far more than one). As a reminder, the steps of the Core Design Loop are:

1. Find Inspiration
2. Set Parameters
3. Brainstorm
4. Prototype
5. Test
6. Iterate

Master the concept of the Core Design Loop before worrying about the collectible design phases.  

The 5 Phases Overview

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at an overview of each of the collectible design phases.  We will dig deeper into these phases in the future parts of this series.

Engine Design

The engine is the foundation of your game “house” At this phase, the main purpose is to take your core inspiration and find out how it will be expressed in your game.  I call this engine design because it is what makes the whole game run at a deep level.  This is the period where you take your big ideas and turn them into testable realities.  What is the main resource of the game?  What is the objective? Why is it going to be fun? Don’t get bogged down in minutiae during this phase.  Look past the superficial and focus on fundamentals.  The key questions to ask are:

  • What is the core play loop?
  • What is the fundamental tension of the game?
  • What are the resources, victory conditions, and methods of interaction with other players?

Engine Development

During engine development, you are finishing the basic framework for your game. This is where you shape your game design house with walls and a roof. At this point your core game loop should be clearly defined as additional rules are added, tweaked and removed to hit your objectives. Key questions at answer are

  • What is the average game length ?
  • How many collectible objects are required per player (both in collection and during a single game)?
  • What are the number ranges used in the game (max-min ranges for collectible objects, fixed numbers like victory points, health, etc.)?
  • What are the exchange rates between different game resources?

Component Design

Component Design is where you decide what goes into your house, picking out the furniture, curtains, and appliances.  The focus is on making sure the different pieces of each room fit your purposes and make sense together.  Here is where you begin to flesh out all of the elements of your game, be they cards, figures, loot drops, or anything else. When doing initial component design, it is important to build in systems that support the player in understanding the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of collectible items you will create over time.  These systems give players the ability to process all this information by “chunking” the objects into larger groups. To do this, you need to establish:

  • Categories / Factions
  • Themes
  • Cycles and Structures

Component Development 

Component Development is where your game design house becomes livable, placing all the furniture, tables, chairs, etc. exactly where you want them. This is where you focus on the strength of different strategies and ensure that players are incentivized to do the things you want them to do. Most designers place too much emphasis on this phase too early, but now is the time to

  • Balance the Available Strategies
  • Establish Silver Bullets
  • Emphasize the Fun Play Patterns

Polish

Polish is the final layer of paint and decoration to make your game design house beautiful and attractive. This is what separates professional games from amateur prototypes. As great as your game may be, if it doesn’t look good and make sense to the consumer, it will never succeed. This is where you can let your inner OCD run rampant. During this phase, the focus is on:

  • Comprehensive Rules
  • Templating
  • Art, Names, Story

I hope you found this basic overview helpful. Next week, I’ll dig in more detail to Phase 1: Core Engine Design.

Getting Started and Overcoming Obstacles

“Have you ever thought of something that seemed so great in your head, but you had no idea where to begin? How do you overcome obstacles when your idea doesn’t seem to work as well in reality as it did in your head?“

These are two great questions, posed by my good friend Donnie Noland.  They identify the two hardest parts of doing creative work

  1. Getting Started
  2. Facing Challenges

Getting started is challenging because

  • Our personal identity is tied up in our idea and putting that idea onto paper exposes it to criticism.
  • Our idea is still fuzzy and getting started requires us to answer the difficult questions of implementation.
  • It is difficult to commit time to something new and uncertain when we have so many other things on our plate.

Facing obstacles is challenging because

  • We begin to see how much harder executing this idea is going to be than we thought!
  • We aren’t as sure if we had a good idea to begin with.
  • We aren’t as sure we have the skills to execute on our idea.

All of these reasons are fundamentally tied to fear and uncertainty.

Pushing through this fear and bringing your ideas to life is never easy. Even those of us with years of experience and success still face these challenges everyday. Here are six tips that can help.

How to Get Started

 

A-journey-of-a-thousand-miles-must-begin-with-a-single-step.-

1. Start Small- Don’t try to implement your “Big Idea” all at once. Try to think of the smallest part of your idea and test that first. With my deckbuilding game Ascension, I first wanted to test the idea of a rotating set of available cards (as opposed to the fixed availability in a game like Dominion). To test this, my first step was to shuffle up a set of Dominion cards and play the game that way. I saw the potential in a randomized set of cards even as I noticed the many issues with this execution. Once I had the core idea tested, I could move on to the more work-intensive phase of developing my own set of cards and rules. Trying to tackle too much at once leads to a feeling of overwhelm. Big thinking starts small.

Perfection

2. Accept Imperfection- Don’t expect your first iteration to be good. It won’t be. Just do the minimum needed to test the smallest part of your idea. You can always come back and refine later. Lowering your standards for the initial design phase will allow you to move forward without risking your ego. Crappy first drafts are the hallmark of good writing, and crappy first prototypes are the hallmark of good game design. Done is better than perfect.

 

Deadlines

3. Set a Deadline- Deadlines are magical. They force you to focus on the essential and commit to getting things done. Think about how efficiently you work when you are about to leave for vacation. Your productivity sky-rockets because you know you have to get things done and are excited about the end result. It is easy to let a “side project” like designing a game constantly slip in favor of more pressing demands. Set a reasonable but aggressive deadline and stick to it. It can be very helpful to tell other people about your deadline to increase the pressure (e.g. set up a game night in two weeks with some friends to test your first prototype).

How to Overcome Obstacles

 

Obstacles

1. Fail better next time- Every obstacle and challenge is an opportunity to improve. Reframe failure as opportunity. If your initial idea didn’t work, was there something else about your initial prototype that was unexpectedly fun? Try designing your next prototype around that.  If you are blocked by some practical limitation, is there some way to get around it? If you want to prototype a digital game, is it possible to mod an existing game or make a physical prototype first? Design is an iterative learning experience, so don’t get discouraged from opportunities to learn. We’ve all been there.

Goals

 

2. Write down your goals and keep them visible- During the iteration process, things get frustrating. It can be easy to lose your way as you try and overcome unforeseen obstacles. It helps to set concrete goals and keep them in front of you to remind you what you are working towards. If you want a prototype playable for your friends in 60 days, keep a sign with the deadline on your desk or taped to your bathroom mirror. Break the goal down into mini-goals that you can accomplish each week or each day. If you find yourself stuck, break the tasks into ever smaller chunks until you find something you can start making progress on. Once you get moving, momentum can help you get past additional roadblocks.

Help

3. Ask for help- Successful people are not afraid to ask for help when they need it. Find people who have done the things you want to do and ask them for help. Most people in the gaming industry are very friendly and all too happy to help someone who is making progress and asks good questions. There are great resources on the web to ask questions about almost anything. If that doesn’t work, reaching out to friends or potential mentors in the industry is a great approach. When approaching a potential mentor, make it clear that you’ve done your homework. Don’t ask a question that a quick google search could solve. Try to be as specific as possible and of course be respectful.
I won’t lie to you.  Even with the above tips, getting started and overcoming obstacles is still going to be difficult. In fact, it is this very challenge that makes the project worth doing!  Completing a creative project brings with it its own rewards even if it isn’t the Next Big Thing (TM). You learn from everything you do and you get to express yourself (flaws and all) with each project you complete. Be bold, take risks and have fun! Succeed or fail, you will be in good company.

The Path to Mastery

Going through the core game design loop is an effective but challenging process. Each time through, you will expose your brilliant creation to the criticisms of others and find flaw after flaw that forces you to go back once again to refine your idea and sometimes to question the very brilliance of the idea itself. As you go through this cycle, it is easy to lose your way and get stuck or distracted by something that is less risky or difficult (e.g. watching television and eating ice cream). This article will help you break through those barriers and reframe the process as one of joyful discovery rather than one of inept failure. 1

Resistance

quotescover-JPG-21

 

There is a force that builds up and tries to stop you from achieving your creative goals. As you get closer to these goals, the force gets stronger, trying to protect your fragile ego from exposing itself through your creations to others. Steven Pressfield dubbed this term Resistance in his wonderful book The War of Art.

Resistance comes in many clever forms:

“What if they don’t like it?”
“Maybe I should spend more time researching before I show this to anyone.”
“I need more resources before I can begin”
“I have too many responsibilities to keep working on this”
“There is too much competition”
“I’ll never be good enough”

Resistance knows your weaknesses and will attack viciously. The only way to beat resistance is to become a professional. Being a professional is not about being paid for your work. Being a professional is about showing up for your work every day, no matter what. Keep pushing through the iterations and you will see your design get better and better. Make progress everyday, no matter how small. Pay attention to when resistance is building, as this is a sign you are on the right track. When you feel resistance pause, take a few deep breaths and get back to work.  Keep visible reminders of your goals to help inspire you when the going gets tough.

Take satisfaction each day that you beat resistance. Sometimes, resistance will beat you- don’t let one lost battle turn into a lost war.  Dust yourself off and try again.  One helpful tip is to keep a calendar somewhere visible and put an X on each day you work on your most important project. Try and get the biggest chain of Xs you can. If you break the chain, don’t worry- it’s a chance to start a new chain even longer than the last. The longest and strongest chain is built one link at a time. 2

Learning

quotescover-JPG-96

Learning a new skill has 5 steps

1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence
5. Mastery

Each step has its own rewards and challenges, and each step provides a new opportunity to overcome Resistance. Lets take a look at each:

Unconscious Incompetence

In the unconscious incompetence stage, we don’t know what we don’t know. This is the terrain of the amateur, the critic, the dilettante. The beauty of unconscious ignorance is you have no idea what you are getting into, so it is easy to delude oneself that the path ahead is easy. Unconscious ignorance is a powerful force that gets people to do amazing things.

When I began to work on our digital card game Solforge, I had NO IDEA how hard a project it was going to be. Building and managing (multiple) engineering teams, while still designing the game and managing (rightfully) impatient kickstarter backers cost infinitely more in time, money, and sanity than I envisioned when we started. If I knew what I didn’t know, its possible I never would have started on the project, and yet I am proud of the game we created and the lessons we have learned- culminating in a full game release coming Soon(TM)

Conscious Incompetence

The real challenge begins as the learning process moves forward into conscious incompetence. Now, you begin to realize how much you have to learn and how little you know. This is a big part of what makes learning difficult. The feeling of being incompetent (and then revealing that incompetence to others) is scary and unpleasant. This is where Resistance thrives. Stay focused on taking small steps forward everyday 3. It can be helpful here to publicly commit to your goals early in the process. This puts the fear of looking bad back on your side. The fact that we had funded a Solforge kickstarter meant we had to get the game out one way or another, even when we otherwise might have quit.

Conscious Competence

Conscious Competence is when you finally begin to get good at what you are doing, but it still takes a lot of conscious effort and thought. I wrote down the steps of the Core Design Loop for people to follow who don’t know how to design games. If you learn those steps and follow them, you will get to this stage as a game designer. Conscious Competence is rewarding as you begin to see yourself improve, but you will still struggle with how long everything takes. The temptation here is to skip steps to try and move faster, but it is only through repetition and feedback that you can move to the next stage.

Unconscious Competence

This is where the money is. Your skills are now so ingrained that you don’t have to think about them. Your intuition becomes more free and the process becomes fun. You may regularly enter “flow” states where you lose your sense of time and personal identity while working.  You have the ability to “get out of your own way.” There are still many things to learn, but there is more ease to the process and more progress each day.  You are on the path to Mastery.

Mastery

Mastery is a journey, not a destination.  As you reach Mastery, you  will gradually increase your ability to be creative and intuitive in your work. You will see new possibilities and be able to break the rules in a way that enriches your work rather than sabotages it. Resistance does not disappear at this stage. Mastery is an ongoing process during which you continually seek to improve and will still become frustrated at times. You can, however, take strength in occasionally pausing and looking back at how far you have come before once again taking a deep breath and forging ahead with new challenges and lessons.

Becoming great at anything requires hard work and iteration.  The iterative process of game design requires you to regularly show your very raw and flawed games to others, take criticism, and go back for more. If you are doing anything new and difficult, you will feel Resistance. You will want to stop. Trust the process and be grateful for the opportunity to learn. This is, after all, the heart of what makes gameplay engaging in the first place- the constant process of trying out new strategies and learning. Remember, designing games can be a wonderful game unto itself.