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Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m not a published game designer. The following tips on working toward publication are based on my experiences thus far (having a thoroughly tested prototype ~6 months away from a crowdfund launch). You should definitely read other designers’ and publishers’ perspectives besides mine, because you’re bound to glean another juicy tidbit that I haven’t mentioned here. That said, I do have a little over two years worth of trial and error to share. Hopefully some of it can be useful to you!
But most importantly, this post isn’t intended to give you any guarantees or diminish your efforts if you’re going about things differently. Everybody has their own path to take.
So, whether you’re an aspiring game designer with an idea rattling around in your head, you’re a prolific gamer who suddenly caught the design bug, or you’re somewhere else in between, these are my top five recommendations on how to start designing a game!
1. Make a prototype today.
The instant you move an idea from your head space to the table space it changes. If you haven’t made a prototype, you’ll be astonished at how quickly a mechanic you perceived to behave one way will behave in reality. It sounds so obvious, yet many designers continue to carry their games around in their imaginations instead of in a shoe box or Ziploc bag, nurturing the prospect of a game that doesn’t really exist.
For some, it’s the fear of committing to an idea and feeling beholden to it. Or maybe it’s time. These types of excuses are only slowing you down, because chances are if you’re stuck on an awesome idea, somebody else out there has or will come up with it, too. Do you want them to seize on it first? Whose name do you want to be credited on the box when the game launches? If the answer is yours, then it’s time to get to work.
2. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
I’ve made a dozen or so prototypes for just as many games, but you’d never know it unless you broke into my home office. Why? Because other than Rise of the Gods, they’re just amalgamations of index cards, dice, poker chips, string, buttons, printer-paper game boards—you name it, I’ve probably used it in a prototype. And that’s the beauty of prototyping: it’s incredibly cheap, fast, and easy! In fact, you can probably make a working prototype with just the material at home in under an hour. And if you don’t have all the materials, for only a few bucks you can find what you need at office supply and craft stores.
Even then, if your final game calls for purple-and-pink polka-dot raccoons, just use tokens from another game in the meantime. Or heck, the pennies in your car’s cup holder. (Did I mention buttons?) The point of a first (and second and third) prototype isn’t to replicate the end product yet, it’s to create the other imperfect, broken, and tedious versions before then. Focus on unloading your ideas as quickly as possible for now and worry about fixing them later.
If it helps, think of prototyping like writing a book. You’ll surely have it edited and cleaned up before publication, so until that happens, this is all just a rough draft.
3. Join a playtest club.
After you’ve run through the game yourself, and then with your mom and dad and siblings and best friends, broaden your scope to a local playtesting club. Preferably, one where you’ll get feedback from both other designers and the gaming public.
I know, I know. Bringing your baby out into the world is alarming. Terrifying. I still get nervous and I’ve been playtesting mine (and now transitioning into demoing) for over a year with strangers. Eep!
But guess what? You’re not the authority on your genre. Your game must be put into the hands of other, more discerning designers who can pick it up, turn it over, and shake it until all the loose ends fall out. Many, many times. Otherwise, one day you’re going to see your game from an unflattering angle and feel like you’ve wasted the last weeks or months (for me it was about six months) playing in your circle of close friends who were too kind to mention the problem—or who just didn’t know any better. I call these blind spots. Ask people to help you identify them as early as possible.
If you don’t know where to find a playtest club or group, type the phrase into Google with your nearest metropolitan area and click all the links on the first page. Meetup contains quite a few clubs, but you can also find them on Facebook, message board websites, or clustering about any nearby game conventions. I found my local group, PlaytestNW, after attending a few panels on tabletop game design and prototyping at PAX West.
4. Discover your purpose.
Don’t worry, this part isn’t a meditation on your purpose in life. (Although . . .)
Rather, you should try to decide what you’re hoping to do with your game. Do you want to sell it to a publisher? Do you want to publish it? Do you just want to make something cool you can play at home? (And if so, bravo for going the distance.) While your purpose can certainly change (mine did), the sooner you know what to look for the sooner you can decide which direction is best for you.
Here’s a simple sketch of three different routes you may end up taking (but they’re by no means the only). Please note that they, like the majority of this post, assume publication is your objective.
If you prefer to generate ideas, refine them into something nearly complete, but don’t want to fuss with any of the complicated aspects of manufacturing your game, filling the artwork, and putting up the money to produce it en masse, then congratulations, you’re a game designer looking for a publisher!
I know quite a few and they’re often moving onto a new idea before their last has even made it out of the factories. However, you have to be comfortable with pitching your idea to publishers, which means you’re probably going to get plenty of rejections. Take them in stride. You also need to be patient. Even after acceptance by a publisher, seeing your game on the table can take up to a year or longer, but you’ll probably still be expected to appear at conventions and demo the game regularly. Remember: you’re working on their time now.
It’s also important to have a functioning, well-tested, and almost finished (heavy emphasis on well-tested) game to hand over for review to a potential publisher. They don’t want your Sunday afternoon eureka moment in a binder, they want moving parts, scripted scenes, or whatever else it takes to play and immerse themselves in your game.
The solo designer mentality is perfect for individuals who enjoy creating ideas but who are at peace with letting somebody else execute them and turn them into a reality. Even if that means aspects of the game will change when it’s published, including but not limited to the name, theme, and mechanics. This route assumes the least personal risk for the individual, but also confers the least agency with regards to the outcome.
If you prefer to see an idea through to the end and steer every single step of production along the way, including the design, testing, financing, manufacturing, shipping, customs, taxes, payroll, work stoppages, losses, running a website . . . then congratulations, you’re a self-publisher!
This is the category I fall into. Originally, I saw myself solely as a designer, but the more work I put into the project (and money), the more I became invested in its endgame and the more I wanted to have control. That’s really at the crux of any self-publisher: control. For better or worse, the decisions you make will determine your success. It’s mostly all in your hands.
Depending on how determined you are, this route can also demand an exorbitant amount of time. Your game has the potential to become your life: it’s all you’ll talk about, all you’ll fret about, and all your spare time will be devoted to it. Anything short of that and it just tacks on extra days/weeks/etc to seeing the final product finished. Self-publishing is certainly the most daunting of these three routes, and it’s the one I would caution people against the most.
The self-publisher mentality is perfect for individuals who enjoy starting and ending the same project, while managing every step of the way. And it doesn’t end with the game on the table, either. Afterward, you’re responsible for your brand and growing your business. This route assumes the most personal risk for the individual and it confers the most agency with regards to the outcome.
If you prefer a little of column A and a little of column B, and want to be a part of an effort greater than yourself but don’t want to shoulder the entire load, then congratulations, you’re a collaborative designer!
While this version of the designer probably operates on the widest spectrum, the key element to the collaborator is that this individual has a hefty stake in the success of the project but is still working within a team environment. Maybe you’re part of a 50/50 partnership with another designer, where you’re the ideas and they’re the execution. Or maybe you’re also creating illustrations and/or graphic designs while the rest of the team focuses on other production aspects.
Ultimately, this role is distinguished by the teamwork required to see a game through. Certainly, a self-publisher still relies on others to contribute to their game (such as artists, manufacturers, freight forwarders, etc, and don’t forget playtesters!). However, the burden of completion is on that individual, whereas a collaborative designer often shares it equally among peers.
Also unlike self-publishers, collaborators are not always publishing in-house. Similar to a solo designer, many design teams hand off their projects to a larger organization for completion and distribution of the final product.
The collaborative designer mentality is perfect for individuals who want a relatively large part to play in the process, but who’re uncomfortable going it solo. The collaborator is happiest when they inhabit their niche, such as focusing on playtesting or production while others worry about the rest. This route assumes a middle-ground of risk and agency.
5. Set goals and be accountable to them.
Regardless of what path you end up taking, set some short and long-term goals to help you arrive there. If you’re unsure which route to head just yet, focus on the short term with the long term simply being “the game.” Towards the end, deadlines will roll in like Seattle rain clouds, but in the early stages, it’s on you to create your goals and set your own deadlines.
For example, my first major goal was to host an introductory playtesting party with friends. I had started work on Rise of the Gods in earnest that September, so the deadline was marked for the end of October and I needed to have a bunch of card prototypes and some play mats ready. (I ordered prints from a local FedEx office for about 240 cards and cut out every one by hand with their guillotine paper cutter and scissors.)
Later when I started bringing the game to stores, I would use the dates that coincided with my playtesting club’s Meetup events and tell myself I had to have a new round of nicely printed prototypes ready by then to keep the game fresh and the ideas churning.
Sure, I wasn’t under any real threat of, say, humiliation if I showed up with last month’s components. But I held myself accountable by reminding myself that the opportunity cost mattered. The value of not doing the work now was drastically short of the value of having an improved game to put on display. One that repeat playtesters could see developing each time and that newcomers could discover and be more willing to jump into a game on the spot.
Like I said at the top, I’m not published yet. My advice can only be taken so far. But I have met a fair number of published designers (some self-published, too), and I have seen the work it took to get them there. From where I know I am on that road, I can gauge how much work is left. The difference between where I started in late 2017 to today is all the experience equity I’ve gained, which I gladly share with you as knowledge. Do with it what you will. I just ask that you pass it on when you’re ready.
So, are you a designer? How far along are you? Do you have your own top five recommendations for new designers you’d like to share? Did any of my points not make your list, and if so, what did I miss? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for reading, and until next time!