Game Design Process (Part 1)
On the last Voice of the Revolution, I started a series of discussions on game design, and I thought it would be of interest to post slightly expanded essays on the topics I cover on the show here. The series will move chronologically through my own game design process from conception to final publication. This first piece discusses how you move from an idea to a game, and in later installments I’ll discuss playtesting, editing, art direction, layout, and lastly publishing and marketing your game.
We’ll start this first segment on game design. This is definitely the most idiosyncratic portion of the series. All designers have their own methods and processes of game design, and I am going to necessarily talk about mine. As I get more into the printing and production side what I’ll say is much more universal, but at this stage the design process is much more open to taste.
The first step in creating a game is to come up with a concept. This is the easiest part, and I would bet that 90% or more of gamers out there have a game concept they’ve thought of. Of course, many of these people do not have the inclination to actually write and produce a game, so this series is aimed at the portion who do.
We’ll use my own game, Mortal Coil, as an example here, since I have gone through the whole process for the game. The basic concept for Mortal Coil was a supernatural game where there were few or no limits on what players could do. The idea was for players to be able to mix angels, werewolves, vampires, sorcerers, fairies, and whatever other crazy ideas they had, and actually play these characters.
Like I said, the conception portion of a game is easy. I come up with interesting ideas all the time. The next step is to take that concept and actually build some game rules around it.
I am a subscriber to a theory of focused design. In a nutshell, that means that you need to decide early on what you want the experience of playing your game to be, and then make sure that the rules you create support that experience. Jared Sorensen and Luke Crane do some game design seminars in which they ask three questions: What is your game about, how is it about that, and how do the rules make it about that. These questions are an excellent starting point in design because they serve to really focus your attention on what it is you think is the core of your game.
Initial Rules Brainstorming
After these early steps, you get into the much, much harder part of game design: Crafting the rules that will form the core of your game. When I am working on a new game, I think about the various rules I will need a lot; when I’m driving to work, when I’m in the shower, really any time that I have a moment to myself, I will turn the rules over in my mind and try to come up with solutions to how things will work in the game. It takes me many, many of these puzzling out sessions before I have the basic structure worked out, and I can write an outline of the rules down.
I call these puzzling out sessions because with me, that’s what they really are. I am working over the rules in my mind and trying to see how they all fit together. With Mortal Coil, I mused for a long time about the problems I had with the occult genre. One of my main disappointments was that powers would sometimes fail, and I felt strongly that they should just work, rather than needing a successful skill roll or something to activate. This actually led me to the diceless design I ended up using in Mortal Coil. If you want to do something, you allocate tokens to it and it happens, unless someone else can stop you, of course.