The Challenges of Game Design (Part II)

adamDev Diaries

Hey All!

Coming back for the second installment of this journey? Glad to have you along for the ride! If you’d like to see the first post, I hear you, so check it out.

We were talking about the beginnings of a game’s design last time. So it’s great that you have an idea, you’ve let it percolate and bop around in your brain for a while, and you’re maybe past that pretotyping phase. Yes, I said pretotyping and that could be it’s own post all-together (tell me if you want to learn more about the phases before you even try some serious prototyping!).

But what if you need to dive into prototyping? We all know that getting an idea into the wild will teach you more than letting it simmer in your mind or even among friends. So what does it take to get a good prototype down?

At least from my point of view, a good prototype has to:
(a) try to capture the core experience of the game you want to make,
(b) offer the audience gameplay or a framework for gameplay that emphasizes the core mechanic(s)
(c) gives them something to talk about.

There’s an additional option (d), which is “to look as crappy as possible” but trust me, you’ll make that happen – if you’re doing prototyping right!

Capturing the core experience of a game can be hard. Usually that means you have distilled the game down to its core components and its core features. But you can’t do that unless you prototype, so am I just screwing with you right now? No. Heck no.

Remember the operative word in (a): try. Trying and attempting at a thing is testing a thing. And that means posing a question. So what you need to do is look at your game and say, “what do I think my game is about and why?” Write that magic down. And underline your answer about why, too. That will help you figure out if your audience really cares about the same things you do or the things you expect them to care about.

So really, it’s just make a decision. If you’re making a game about pirates, is the game really about stabbing each other in the back? If it is, make sure your prototype speaks to that feeling. Games are vehicles for feelings and experiences after all. An example might be as simple as calling a phase of action the “mutiny phase” or the “stabby phase” – seriously, that stuff works. Other ways to approach this might be to use a mechanic or a way of interacting. A good friend, Pete at Mind the Gap Studios, made a game about pancakes, so he has these components that are the size of pans and you literally flip the pancake-like components. That’s some good experience design!

Offering your audience that great gameplay is such a fantastic result in game design. You can get there by focusing on your core mechanic(s). Sometimes games have only one or very few core mechanic(s). Think about Chess; it’s super-ancient and it’s main mechanics are move + capture…and capturing is really just moving into a space (except for en passant movements of course).

How do you do this for your prototype? Well, the key here is to not spend too much time on it. You’re making this awesome pirate game, let’s say, and you’re trying to capture the stab-you-in-the-back theme. What if you make your players literally steal coins from each other’s piles of gold…but only when they aren’t looking? Then the game becomes about distraction, disorientation, and deception. That’s kinda stab-you-in-the-back; not perfect, but maybe worth a shot. So don’t sweat it. It’s an idea and it might work. Go with that first or second idea that you have and make something fast to put in from of people.

When emphasizing a core mechanic, it is really useful to have a couple aspects of your game experience reinforce the idea and the mechanic as much as possible. Make sure to have a name to the action of stealing a coin or two. Make it a challenge by saying that you can only steal 1 coin and allow pirates (see what I did there: don’t call them players anymore, call them pirates!) to form their gold piles how they want, so it might be really hard to only get 1 coin or allow of multiple piles so as to make it harder to get all of their coins over time. Make sure to use the term “steal” rather than “acquire” or “get” coins. Make conversation, which usually might be the way people distract others in order to steal coins, core to playing out the game; for example: make it so that players have to make a case about why they should be given coins from the other players; this will make it that players are always talking and there is always something to focus on (or distract from!).

Which is where we come to the third point (and technically the additional goal, too, haha). Give them something to talk about. Now, I did just mention conversation, which is certainly a form of “talk,” but what I mean by giving them something to talk about is to offer them some challenge, something memorable, or something that might be controversial. Remember: you are trying to get feedback and learn. That is the primary goal of all prototyping or any x-totyping. If your audience has nothing to say about your game, it either wasn’t fun enough or it wasn’t all that worth it for them to talk about. (Perhaps another post, and tell me if you’d like to read about asking great questions and having an arsenal of questions ready for when this happens, but have some questions ready for when testers clam up and not say anything)

Sometimes making an aspect or even a physical part of your prototype somewhat frustrating to use can be helpful. When people are challenged in some way, it breeds conversation and emotion. That emotion can lead to real feedback.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I am not saying sabotage your prototype or your game.

Making an aspect of your game frustrating or over-challenging will naturally happen. Unless this is your 100th game (and even then…) you’ll likely make something counter-intuitive and hard-to-understand for your players, ahem: pirates, because not everyone thinks the same way. Furthermore, you might make a mechanic a bit over-involved or just something with too many steps in it. What might really help in order to get people talking is to put in a restriction or some rule that limits your pirates ability to act when and how they want. Even something as simple as (and I’m sorry for saying something soooooo predictable) “when you talk with one another, use a pirate voice; a minimum of 3 AAAAARRRRRRRs in every sentence or you immediately pass your turn” would be a nice rule and limitation. That way you can ask people if they enjoyed getting into character and the immersion of the game.

Other ways you can do this is to over-do a particular aspect of your prototype. Get real coins or chocolate gold coins to use as your coin-components. Get hats (or make them out of paper) for everyone to wear. Make signs for each pile of cards, coins, or other components and theme the words on those signs (the “bounty of booty” for a shared pile of coins, the “AAAARRRRbitrator” for the person who makes the final decision or moderates debate per round, etc).

And while there are many other ways, I’ll throw one more out there. Use some other rules to emphasize the core mechanic(s) so that people are constantly thinking about that core mechanic. Say you make sure that a pirate has the option to accuse a person of stealing coins, and if the accusation gets such-and-such number of votes confirming that accusation, the accusing pirate gets some extra coins back, and that there is a specific moment each round where someone asks if someone would like to accuse someone else. Using rules and structure like this makes players continually think about the stealing mechanic and keep it on their mind and how to use it, or the rules emphasizing the focus on it, to their advantage.

OK, that’s all for now! What did you feel that you learned from all of this? Anything stand out to you? How might these tips affect your next prototype? I’d love to hear it, and feel free to share your ideas for games and prototypes on our Discord server!

This post is the second in an installment of Challenges of Game Design – check out the first part of this series.