This week I’m going to talk about the best piece of game-design advice I know how to give: knowing what you want to do.
This doesn’t just boil down to “I want to make a game.” This is about knowing what you want to accomplish with your game: what form do you want it to have, what experience do you want to generate, what do you want to do that’s uniquely different from what others have already done in the same space? That’s going to help you define your elevator pitch and it’s going to help keep you from spinning your wheels on an interminably long development cycle as you build and rebuild your game.
I know. We’ve built and rebuilt first Infinite Earths, now Forthright Open Roleplay more than once.
Back in late 2011, we started designing something that would retain that core d20 feel without all the complexities and annoyances of Pathfinder, which had reached a point for us where it was too crunchy and unwieldy to bother playing. What we began to do is apply various “helper technologies” to that pre-existing game: new ways to structure classes, new techniques for building encounters and stories, etc. We mixed this in with our own gaming philosophy and started developing what was effectively a GM advice book with some new tools – not a new gaming system.
But we weren’t really savvy enough to realize it at the time.
Queue two years of playtesting with what was effectively “yet another d20 heartbreaker” and, by early 2013, we decided to part ways with d20 altogether and build our own rules structures. This led to Beta 2, which we’re very proud of, but which is also entirely too similar to 5th Edition D&D. And the thing is, we’ve got some good technology – the team sheet, the way we’ve broken down roles and our techniques for developing new content are really solid. But there’s still no compelling reason to pick up our product versus raiding our product and using it with others.
That’s, I think, a large part of the challenge of building a generic/universal system. But I think a larger part of the issue was that we were fairly unfocused in what we’ve wanted throughout our development cycle.
Here’s what we boiled down to: “we want to build a simpler system than Pathfinder but still with tactical combat, and we want to avoid using narrative tokens while giving players the freedom to describe their actions and only rolling dice to determine the result independent of the description.”
And that’s not really a game. That’s a bunch of technologies strung together. It’s playable, and it’s fun, but nothing about the game’s structure itself is compelling. Nothing really ties it all together.
In part as we were building it, we were anticipating that people would want to raid the design and bring elements of it into their own games with other systems. That was actually part of the plan. But now we’re looking at it and thinking, “if that’s the plan, why don’t we just build out these technologies and release them as house rules supplements, like we did with Wear & Tear?”
A large part of the intent of this designer’s blog is to chronicle the creative process and our evolution as game designers. To share the lessons that we’ve learned and gain insights as we reflect on how we’ve succeeded and how we’ve failed. And this is a thing we have failed at: we did not know what we wanted to do for ourselves, because what we were building was simply an evolution of something else.
And if that’s what you want to do (for instance, hacking Fate or Apocalypse World, as has become the new norm in the same way hacking OGL content was the norm in the early-mid ’00s), then go for it! Do it! Nothing wrong with having a clear development goal and going for it!
But don’t meander. Know your goal, know what you’re trying to do, and build toward that goal. Finish your game.
Best advice I can give.
As always, alternate opinions welcome in the comments below. Thanks for reading!