Wednesday, August 26

Games Designer's Block

It's just as well that I mostly publish other peoples' games designs because since I've started working on Reiver Games full time I've struggled to make progress on my own designs. I've had a few ideas for games, usually theme first, and then I've struggled to get anywhere thinking up mechanisms that mesh with the theme and yet sound even vaguely interesting.

Fortunately, I've received a lot of submissions, so my lack of inspiration isn't getting in the way too much.

When I receive a submission I have three possible outcomes in mind:

  • If I really like it then I want to publish it. This is the ideal outcome, I'd love to be in the position where I know what the next ten games I'm going to publish are.
  • If I'm not wowed by the game, then I want to reject it. I get lots of submissions that work fine, but I'm just not feeling the love for them. It's hard to give the designer a good reason why I turned these down, but at the end of the day I only want to publish games that I think are awesome. If I think it's pretty good, that's sadly not good enough.
  • The third outcome, is a trickier call. When I receive a submission that I think has the potential to be an excellent game but needs a lot of work in my view, then I offer to co-design it with the designer. This is what I did with Carpe Astra and Ted Cheatham.

The third option is not optimal for the same reason that I find it easier to publish someone else's game - a lack of perspective.

When you're designing a game it's hard to draw a line under it. You make a first version. It's awful. You tweak it. The second version is better. You tweak it again. That version is worse! You tweak it again. This process continues for months or years and you lose all perspective. It becomes your baby. You're desperate for it to succeed and as the game approaches complete it gets harder and harder to tell if your fine tweaks are making things better or worse. When is good enough? When is awesome? When do you stop fiddling with it?

When I receive a submission I miss out on all this, I get a game - I try the game. Either I love it and want to publish it or I don't. There's no attachment - it's just another prototype, probably from someone I've never met or never even heard of. I can be completely objective. Is it worth me risking thousands of pounds of my own money to playtest, manufacture and sell this game? Will it make me any money or will I be left holding lots of stock and a sizable debt?

Despite the disadvantages I still sometimes consider this. Only if I get a game that I think could become one I think is awesome, but that needs a whole bunch of work to get there. Is it a bad game as it stands? Not necessarily. It could have an awesome theme, or a brilliant mechanism, but it's just not a game that excites me or that I think would sell well as it stands.

In these circumstances I'm willing to work with the designer to make significant changes. I make the changes I think of and send it back to the designer for comments and more suggestions. The designer makes a bunch of changes of their own and sends them to me. I try them out, and so on. This process carries on until we're both happy with it.

Last week I received a prototype that sounded interesting. It was a sci-fi themed game and I got to try it out last Friday. As it stood I found the game too long and lacking interesting choices in a couple of areas. But I could see the potential and I had a bunch of ideas about how to move it towards the sort of game I want to publish. I approached the designer about co-designing and he's up for it.

I woke up at 4am this morning, my head buzzing with ideas about the game. I couldn't get back to sleep and at 6:30am I finally got up and went and started making a prototype with the ideas I'd been thinking about. I've just tried it out and it doesn't work. But I'm still excited about it, and I've a few ideas that might improve things. I'd like to get some changes that at least sort of work before sending them to the designer - I don't want to look like a total chump!


Steve said...

Hmmm... sounds to me like there are only really two choices (from a hard-nosed business perspective):
* It's awesome - publish it
* Don't publish it

That second option is an extremely wide range - but the cost of a single failure (I believe) far exceeds the benefit of a single success.
Why put lots of time into a game that *might* be great when you can concentrate on publishing games you already know *will* be? Send a few notes and thoughts back to the designer and invite them to re-submit, but don't spend lots of time on it...
Think of it like interviewing: a wrong "yes" is MUCH worse than a wrong "no"

On the other hand - :-) - if you have the time to spare and you're excited about it, and you can think of it as a fun side-line that doesn't distract from the day job, then go for it!

On the OTHER other hand, Carpe Astra was done that way and that's fantastic, so what the hell do I know? :-)

Mal said...

I'm guessing Jack doesn't yet receive enough "It's awesome - publish it" submissions yet to allow him to turn down that many games.

Is that fair?

Steve said...

Depends how many games he can afford/wants to have in the pipeline at once...
It only takes *one* awesome submission to make an awesome game :-)

As a habitual buyer of Border Reivers' games, I'm not sure I can afford for Jack to start putting out 6 games a year though ;-)

Seth Jaffee said...

I'm completely new to this, but as a developer for a new company I found exactly the same thing - only from a slightly different perspective.

Tasty Minstrel Games is a publisher, and to an extent it's up to me to decide if a submission is one we should publish. Since I'm the developer and not the actual publisher, the decision between "Publish" and "don't publish" is a little murkier, because the third option "Does this have potential to be awesome, and do I want to try and work on it with the designer to make it awesome?" is more in my job description than it is in Jack's.

I need to be especially careful not to get too eager about a game that seems neat, because I wouldn't want to get TMG to commit to publishing something and then not be able to make it work. So far I think I have avoided that, but I nearly trapped myself at least once already.

In the end I broke it down into 4 categories, the same three that Jack mentions above, and 1 more: "The game interests us, and here are a bunch of comments that we think might help develop it, but we're not going to publish as-is nor work on it with you. If you change the game significantly and improve it, then we'd be happy to look at it again."

Of course there's also always the danger of overcommitting. If I see 4 designs that are "almost awesome" and we commit to publishing them all, and then I have to work on all 4 with the designers, I may find myself spread too thin!

So to recap, I feel for you Jackson, and I'm finding the exact same thing! But it's really fun anyway. :)

Jack said...

Hiya all,

In essence, Steve is right: there are only two options, but as Seth points out, there are different levels on the No:

No: I'm not interested.
No: But I'll take another look if you act on this feedback
No: It's not ready, but I like the concept and I'm willing to work with you to improve it.

As Mal noted, at the moment I get very few Yesses, just It's Alive! and Sumeria so far out of over 150 submissions. And I've got time to spare - I'm not working flat out, so I can afford a few co-design efforts to soak up some of my spare time and hopefully generate more yesses in the end.