Some thoughts on game development

Transcript of the podcast published on April 5th, 2011.

It seems game designing is all the rage at the moment. I get many emails from avid listeners who are in the process of designing games inspired by something we said on the Dice Tower. There are currently hundreds of small game companies who – with the power of state of the art Desktop Publishing – publish their own games. At the Westpark Gamers Aaron Haag as well as me are involved in the design of new games, and we often host test sessions for other designers who test their new material. If one goes to a convention chances are high that you will bump into someone who is currently working on a new game. Rare success stories of freelance designers like Martin Wallace and Reiner Knizia attract thousands of new designers who want to follow in their footsteps. It seems every gamer one meets nowadays is also a game designer. Hey, half of the guys working on this show are game designers, including Tom Vasel himself!

But what sets apart good games from just games? It’s a difficult question to answer, as it is rare that a game captures that elusive lightning in a bottle: being balanced, accessible as well as unique and innovative at the same time. Granted: not all games try to invent the wheel anew, in fact only very few do, and perhaps that’s not even a bad thing, as some ideas set into motion a huge host of variants and spinoffs that can actually be equally interesting.

But one thing is never a rarity: and that’s the ideas for games. I am sure every single listener of our show has once thought: Hey, that would be SUCH a great game idea, and some of them might even have started working on such a game. But anybody who ever dabbled in game design knows one thing for sure: It is hard, hard work. And it is not always fun work. Once you’re up to your umpteenth prototype, where you had to graphically redesign everything again from the scratch to incorporate your new ideas, and while playing it you feel that it still doesn’t work yet, despair can set in. Also playtesters can be harsh. Your family or your spouse might love your game and think you’re a genius, but the average gaming geek will have a totally different opinion, if he thinks something doesn’t work. And to be a good game designer you actually HAVE to listen to your playtesters, even if they are very critical, because the things they don’t understand will be something that average people without strong gaming expertise will have even less understanding of.

So while designing a game one has to be prepared to start again and again from the basics. Your ideas might already be great, your concepts unique, but they just don’t gel yet, they just don’t go together to create an engaging game.

This is where the mysterious “game development” sets in, which I think is the most important part of game design in a way, next to the idea itself. Game developing is not necessarily testing – that can be done by anybody, especially if it is about blind testing rules and such. No, game development is about finding the hidden strengths – and weaknesses – of a game and bringing them to the fore or removing them. People rarely take notice of the guys listed under “game developers” in a rulebook, but hey, these guys are more important than you think! In fact most successful publishers have a great development team.

I have already told the story about “Puerto Rico” having originally been an SF game – this would have meant it had not sold as well in the German market and probably not become the international success. This was a development decision, and this also meant changing the effects of buildings in the game to fit the new theme.

“Carcassonne” in its original form had no limits on meeple placement. One just placed the meeples wherever they wanted to score, even in an already occupied city. One can imagine that this makes a HUGE difference in the whole gaming experience of Carcassonne, and this decision came out of the development process.
I think one can compare game design to the musical genre of opera, which is always a team effort. One needs not only composers but also librettists, directors, stage designers…. Game design should not be a lonely job, it is a mutual effort.

So next time you pick up a game you like check out the guys who developed it as well as the original designers. They might be the very reason you actually like the game!