PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Ed’s 10 lessons on game design for amateurs

Shortly after the recent NDU roundtable, the frighteningly efficient Ed McGrady sent around an email to several participants with his own thoughts on the dos and don’ts of good game design. They’re all extremely useful insights, so with his permission I’ve reposted them here.

These are based on dealing with tons of clients trying to tell me how to design games.  It never works.

1)  Playing Monopoly is easy, designing Monopoly is hard.  Thats why you don’t see lots of great games designed by amateurs.  You are an amateur, the odds are not in your favor.  So just because you can play a game does not mean that you can design one.  If this doesn’t stop you (it should), read on.
2)  Keep it simple.  If you have any hope as an amateur its doing a simple game.  Tic-tac-toe is a lot easier to pull off than Monopoly which is much easier to pull off than Word of Warcraft. And by pull off I mean design, execute, and control.  So don’t set out to design a board game, stick with simple story-line games where people talk to each other.  Stay away from electronic games, they are complex and end up being terrible money pits under the best of circumstances.   One key clue that you’ve strayed from a simple design is that you have to constantly explain it to people.  Think about the difference between War in the East (a four map, 4000 piece simulation of the German invasion of Russia) and Angry Birds.  WIE rules are about 50 pages (I think), Angry Birds:  Pull back the slingshot, stuff falls down.  Which is simpler?

3)  Keep it quick.  A common mistake is to let the game go on beyond its useful life.  Games have an expiration time, players get tired, players get bored.  Much better to leave them wanting more than wishing for less.

4)  Good designers think like cynics.  Great designers are cynics.  If you are not a cynic about human nature you are missing one of the key components to developing a good game design. People are selfish, deceitful, petty, mean spirited, and narcissistic.  You need to play off those traits in order to build an interesting game.  Set up players along naturally occurring social fault lines.  Design scenarios (stories) that accentuate people’s own self interest.  Then let them go fight it out.  Works every time.

5)  Story is everything in a good game.  So stick to stories that move you, that you know something about, and that you yourself can tell in an interesting and amusing way.  When you tell those stories, you’ll have the beginnings of a good game.  Just like writing stories:  design what you know.  (This is a big difference between amateurs and professionals, professionals can handle almost any topic and turn it into an interesting game, see #4 above).
6)  Games are shows.  Never forget that.  Games have a deadline:  you will walk into the room and everyone will expect to play in something that resembles a finished game.  You are the ringmaster.  You need to have your game ready to go when the players are ready.   (Again, professionals can pull a game out of their hat on short notice.  Do not try this).  Games also have a cast (the players).   You can cast players (if you know them) in order to make the game work.  Cast an inherently smart player in an important role, cast the lazy one in a small role.  (Again, professionals have ways of managing players).  Finally games have a script, its called the materials.  Make the materials pretty (or at least easy to read).   It looks more professional.

7)  Venue, materials, logistics:  they are very important to your success.  Someone should be in charge of the sandwiches and other important logistics.  It should not be you, you have enough to do just to design the game.  Getting players to come to the game is basic, keeping them happy requires more than just a game.

8)  Games are about the players.  Let me repeat, games are about the players.  Not you.  Not your pet theory about whatever your gaming.  The players make decisions.  Thus you should never, ever, drive the game yourself directly.  If a player can make the decision, then they should and not you.  If a player needs to talk to someone, they should be talking to another player in the game not you.  And please, never jerk the players around.  Think about any decision you make about the game as its being player:  will my decision significantly change the environment for the players in a way that will unnecessarily frustrate them?  If the answer is yes, do not do it.  Frustrated players will kill a game as fast as not having sandwiches.

9)  As an amateur you should be designing for yourself.  Not a client.  Designing for clients is like balancing two bowling balls on a stick.  You should only work with one stick and one bowling ball.

10)  It is easy to have a bad game.  Its is hard to have a good one.  Good games have clearly articulated objectives, an interesting story (scenario), and ways of operating (mechanics) that accentuate people’s nature social inclinations (good and bad).  Spend the most time getting your objectives down to where they could be understood by your grandmother.  Then spend some more time simplifying them.  Then make sure you have an interesting story.  Then choose the right players and set them free within the story to try and conquer the objectives.  Good luck with that.  You’ll need it.

Ed McGrady

Ed’s thoughts on the matter then sparked a round of emails among others. Hopefully some of the participants in the subsequent exchanges will cut-and-paste their comments here too, and share them with a broader audience.

2 responses to “Ed’s 10 lessons on game design for amateurs

  1. bboessen 29/05/2011 at 12:18 pm

    I’d like to read those responses, fwiw. I teach media, including games, at a liberal arts college, and I take issue with a couple of the rules here. But I imagine others in the group did/do as well, so I’d like to read what others had to say about the list.

  2. Rex Brynen 30/05/2011 at 2:48 am

    Hopefully we’ll have the follow-on thread posted in a few days–I’m just waiting on a few more approvals to do so from the contributors.

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