Earlier this month, I embarked on a two-part odyssey chronicling the misadventures of my design team as we built an analog game for class. You can read part one here, but the tl;dr version goes like this:
We spent two weeks of a three-week project developing a game that we were too stubborn to admit broken. It was broken because we split the focus of our team, ignored crucial states of play, and waited too long to prototype. At the end of the second week we scrapped our previous board game model, and decided to do a pen and paper RPG. It was an odd choice considering the time frame, but there was logic behind it.
When working in the AAA industry, we had been told ad nauseum that they wouldn’t give be giving us the opportunity to bring our “visions” to life on a daily basis. With that knowledge in mind, we thought that maybe it was best to get our rocks off in school – after all, how often would we get the opportunity to make the games that we wanted to make without going indie? Not that going indie is a bad thing, mind you…
Lesson #5: Follow your heart. Make the games you want to make while you still can, but remember that those games still have to be games that players want to play!
Initially, the other designer and I wanted to make a tabletop RPG, but passed over it in favor of a board game. We felt that it was better to limit our scope and get something simple out there that worked really well. However, we both wanted to make an RPG so bad, that the initial board game got hit by a hard dose of feature creep. RPG elements were snuck in daily, and soon it was a massive, bloated whale of a project that we just couldn’t keep up with. Maybe it was subconscious, but we never really loved the game we were making. In the end, that ended up biting us in the ass really badly. When it came time to scrap the initial game, there wasn’t a choice. We were going to make an RPG, because darn it – that’s what we wanted to make all along.
So we sprung to action.
Lesson #6: Don’t have time for a full product? Make it modular!
The first task was (again), limiting scope. We didn’t have time to make something terribly in-depth, so we went for a style that new players could cut their teeth on.
The logic was relatively sound. Say you have a friend that is intimidated by the dense and massive RPG’s out there, but you have inkling that they may enjoy it. You could set this game up, and run a two month long campaign to whet their appetite.
Conversely, if you were experienced RPers looking for a new world to conquer, the game would give you enough flexibility to add as much complexity as you wanted. What resulted was basically two different “modes”. The first followed the instructions to the letter for new players, and the second served as a framework for an experienced GM to work off of.
Furthermore, as we only had seven days to make this product work, we decided to give the game a low level cap with the intent of adding expansions on a quarterly scale. Each new expansion would explore a new and exciting world, as the lore revolved around traveling through different dimensions. The sky was the limit, and we really felt that it would work out well. If executed properly, the game would give mini-campaigns four times a year for players to diddle with when they needed a change of pace, because let’s face it – nobody was quitting D&D for another RPG any time soon.
Modularity became the mantra. Make classes that can stand alone, but also be vital group assets. Give each class a toolkit that is powerful, but amazing when combined with the rest of the party. We made the experience 90% combat, 10% RP, because we felt that combat would be the intoxicating nectar that would leave our players craving for more. It wasn’t like you couldn’t RP more if you didn’t want to – but the important part was that you could sit down, pull out your character mat, and just do it. We wanted adrenaline to be a factor in the game, and making the players just a little too powerful was a great way to do that.
Lesson #7: Be agile…in your development….
Iteration became key. Every day we would make the entire game from start to finish from the previous model. We were prototyping combat immediately, and continued to prototype very often. Major slips weren’t getting past us – and we were hoping that the minor issues would be countered by engaging gameplay. We only had seven days, so we had to make our peace over the fact that we knew it couldn’t be perfect, and our grade would likely take a hit regardless. We stopped focusing on our grades, and worried more about delivering an excellent, workable concept that could be expanded on with a more generous time frame.
It was rapid trial and error – every day. This brings me to a saying from one of my favorite professors.
Lesson #8: If you’re going to fail, fail fast! – Keyvan Acosta
Through flexibility and rapid prototyping, we were able to knock down every major problem as it came. Failure came and went – an everyday product of creating a game. We chose to fail fast – the faster we failed the quicker we learned. The difficult part, of course, was actively choosing to not ignore the hard problems in favor of saving them for later. Seven long days of balancing, rebalancing, tweaking, iterating, and iterating some more and we were finally done. We zipped our game up, submitted it to our teacher, and waited.
Lesson #9: You can’t win ‘em all.
Although later our teacher would tell us that our game was conceptually the best and most engaging submission, our final project netted an 84.
There just wasn’t enough time in the week, and the biggest problem was that the game manual just had too many holes. We all knew how to play the game, but we crunched too hardcore to get all the information in the manual.
Some teams did much better, some teams did worse, but they didn’t get the experience that we got. We made two games, experienced an insane crunch time, and stoically marched toward a deadline knowing that we would be lucky to pass. We did all this, because we love games. We love making games, and we love to learn.
So, game design students. What’s the moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to experiment and fail. If you end up with a lesser grade for it, then fine – but most of the time the gamble will pay off, and you will have been better for it. After all, we ended up with an education the class never could have given us intentionally. And I’ll take a B for that any day of the week.