An Open Letter to Game Designers

16 December 2015 | 33 Comments

Today I read two articles that really moved me.

The first is by Sam Coster, a St. Louis-based video game developer (Butterscotch Shenanigans). The Polygon article, “Making a Game While Recovering from Cancer,” is about what the title suggests: Sam actually suffered through multiple bouts of life-threatening cancer, and he designed his company’s newest game, Crashlands, while doing so.

The second is by tabletop game designer Ignacy Trzewiczek, and it’s called “I Challenge You! Honest Publisher Manifesto.” It’s about the 50+ game submissions Ignacy and his company, Portal Games, receive each year…and how the vast majority of them end up in the garbage bin.

The reason I’m writing about both of these articles is that they have a strong connection. The common thread between them is a shared appreciation for truly exceptional passion projects.

maxresdefault (1)When Sam was diagnosed with cancer, he and his brother had been working on an endless-runner game called Extreme Slothcycling. As Sam says, it was fun, but the cancer gave him clarity: “I didn’t want an endless runner to be the last thing I made before I died. I wanted to make something that mattered.”

Making decisions based on your imminent death may seem a bit morbid, but it was a powerful motivator for Sam. Not only did it help him figure out how he wanted to use his time as he fought cancer; it also provided an escape for him:

“Could we build a game that I could slip into during treatments, a game that would let me forget about being sick from chemo or nervous about upcoming test results? Could we build a world designed precisely to remove me from the painful reality of what I was about to go through?”

No matter what kind of content you’re creating–game, book, movie, etc–isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Provide ourselves and others a temporary escape into worlds we’ll never otherwise experience?

So Sam started working on a game called Crashlands. Over the next 2 years, as he fought and beat cancer twice, he worked feverishly on the game with his brothers, and it will release on January 21. Hopefully it won’t be the last game Sam makes, but if it is, he seems really happy to have made it.

I think this is a powerful message for creators like you and me. Why spend our time toiling over ideas that are merely satisfactory when we could focus on the one thing that truly excites us? The thing we’re truly passionate about?

***

That said, I think it’s important for creators to remember that we don’t exist in a vacuum. That is, our creations only matter if they’re not only special for us, but also special for other people–the people who consume them.

downloadIgnacy from Portal Games seems to agree with this sentiment. In his article, he talks about the number of game prototypes submitted to his company for publication each year. Here’s what he says about those prototypes:

“Prototypes that were functional, balanced and boring as hell, prototypes that introduced nothing to our hobby. They worked and that’s all I can say about them.”

He ends with a challenge to game designers: “Surprise me. Deliver something exceptional. I want your best. I want your prototype that make my skin tingle.”

I love it. I’ve experienced the same thing as a publisher. I’ve also experienced it as a gamer. Some publishers and designers who churn out games at an alarming rate. “Prolific” is not a word I associate positively with publishers or game designers.

I’m not saying those churned-out games are inherently “balanced and boring as hell,” as Ignacy says, but I know this: It doesn’t take long to make a simply functional game. But a huge amount of time is required to make a game that is brilliant, fun, unique, and innovative.

This brings us back to Sam. Sam was working on a functional game that was just fine. But in the face of cancer–the reality that it might be the last game he ever designed–he realized it wasn’t enough. He stopped churning out a decent game to make a game he believed would be truly great, a game he could put his heart into, a game he could be proud he left behind.

I think we can all learn something from that.

***

Before I end this entry, I’m going to completely contradict myself.

The idea that the next thing you create should be your greatest passion project is pretty daunting. It’s so daunting that you may not start working on it at all.

That’s where I think an important part of the creative process–if you’re brand new to it–is to simply make something, right now. Write that first blog entry. Film that first YouTube video. Record that first podcast. Create that first prototype.

box smaller filePlus, I think creators of all types learn so much by experimenting. For every 10 games I design (like, actually prototype and test), you’ll only ever see 1 of them. That’s the game I spend the vast majority of my time on. But I learn a lot from those other 9–they have a big impact on the 1.

The key is, though, that they’re not good enough or unique enough to publish. They’re functional, but they’re not fun. You deserve better than those games. I’d rather spend my time–for both my sake and yours–designing games of mine and developing/publishing games from other designers that I believe are truly exceptional.

Where does this leave you? Are you working on your true passion project, something innovative and exception?

33 Comments on “An Open Letter to Game Designers

  1. This is wonderful advice Jamey! We shopped our game around for a bit and had publishers that were interested, but wanted to change the things that we felt were at the heart of the project. We decided that we simply owed it to ourselves and our creation to at least TRY to self publish.

    So while the prospect of Kickstarting and Self publishing something is quite daunting, (although your blog and book are helping) I AM working on a true passion project and couldn’t be happier.

  2. Well said. I’ve finally given myself permission to develop my passion project, and I think it’s important to note that while designing a game for the community to enjoy, it’s also important to be true to your own vision, and do the work necessary to share insights or experiences that are uniquely yours. Then, invite people to immerse themselves into that world and learn from each other in doing so. Story is central. And that not only makes games approachable, but also memorable.

  3. I think the key is to make something that YOU would enjoy. And dont think about publishing. The question is not “Would it work” but “Would I buy this thing myself? And play it?” That are the key issues.
    I think one misconception of out hobby is that amateur designers dont publish, because the games are badly designed. That is not true, at least not for most of them. The truth is that most of them work fine. But they are nothing out of the ordinary (granted, there are designs that gets published that are bland and Im always a bit miffed when I came across a totally mediocre game, but the aboslute majority of working, mediocre games is NOT getting published)

  4. I had a conversation on Reddit recently with an aspiring designer who finds advice like Ignacy’s — “I want your prototype that make my skin tingle” — to be too discouraging. He said, “It seems like the general mood is ‘Don’t bother designing, creating, or pitching a game, cause there’s no way it’s going to get published.'” I understand where he’s coming from, but …

    The right answer is of course what you say here: “Make something, right now.” I sent him a link to a 2-minute speech by Ira Glass on creativity, which includes this quote:

    > “Everybody I know who does interesting creative work went through a phase of years where … what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. … It didn’t have this special thing they wanted it to have. … The most important thing you can do … is do a huge volume of work.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbC4gqZGPSY

    This quote has really meant a lot to me over the years, and I keep coming back to it. Making games, like most creative work, requires a skill that typically comes from experience and practice.

  5. Sorry, my comments aren’t currently embedding while WordPress updates, so I’ll reply to various comments here.

    Chris: I’m glad you touched upon happiness in your comment. I didn’t specifically use that word, but I should have–I think it’s really important to the act of creation.

    Marc: You used a word I really like as well (in fact, it’s in our mission statement): “memorable”. It applies to games of all shapes, sizes, and depths. Some games are memorable, and some simply aren’t. I’d rather make and publish those that have the potential of being memorable.

    Peer: I agree. I think that’s the true challenge of self-publishing, because anyone now has the ability to self-publish, so it takes a lot of self-monitoring (and involving other people who can be blunt with us) to make sure we’re not just publishing the mundane.

    Randy: Very well said. That’s a big part of the reason why I included the “contradictory” stuff at the end. I believe in the power of constant creation, though I hope to spend the bulk of my time on games that I think are truly special. Though, honestly, most of my games start out that way (in my head), and it’s only after spending time with them and testing them that I realize that most of them aren’t! It’s then that I cut them loose, learn from them, and refocus on something I think it more special. :)

  6. Jamey,

    As always, I appreciate the short-focused blog entries, especially as they end with a question which initiates a dialogue…not a statement that ends the conversation.

    I, for one, am truly fortunate and blessed to be working as a Developer with three very different designers working diligently on three different games. Like the “9 out of 10” games that we’ll never see from Stonemaier or the comment about most of the prototypes ending-up in the trash bin, one of the great things about providing a service as developer is that I can choose among the offerings and only work on those I feel passionate about.

    I’ve worked closely with Compass Games for a few years now, and have had to turn away some “functional” games, but am now working with a seasoned published designer on a sweeping WWII game for the Pacific Theater of Operations. It’s simply awesome…thus, I bring to it my passion with every aspect of play-testing, rules reviewing, and planning. Also, I have two new Designers, Kris Kycia and Mike Strickland, to whom I’m committed to assist them in making an outstanding game…one a fast, card-driven spaceship game in which governments have collapsed and corporations now control access and a 4X game with a clever and much needed focus on the true economic side of decision making, again set in space.

    Whether it’s geek-mails from folks at BGG, contributors at the Board Game design Forum, or the great team at Decision Games, for whom I’ve play-tested games for nearly six years, it’s wonderful to have the ability to stand back, reflect on the myriad offerings, and choose to apply your passion where it can do the most good.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  7. @Joe, Great thoughts! I feel the same way about working as a publisher/developer, looking at designers’ 1-out-of-10 games that have something special and finding the ones I’m passionate about to work with those designers to make those games the best they can be. Thanks for sharing that.

  8. Joe: Thanks for sharing your perspective as a developer. It’s neat that you only choose projects that you feel passionate about (and that you have the flexibility to do so). And I really like your last line: “choose to apply your passion where it can do the most good.” That’s a fantastic message.

  9. Great article. Along a similar line with your final comment is something that Daniel Solis said when he was on the Game Designers of North Carolina podcast. At least I think that’s where he said it. It boils down to this. “To make your first game, find the game you want to make absolutely amazing, and make a different game first.”

    By this he means that new designers are going to stumble and that the important thing is to make a game and learn from it. It is easier to learn by fire if you are making a game that isn’t going to be your baby since it is harder to criticize that game in order to refine it.

    I thought it was great advice.

  10. Graham: I agree–that’s great advice for the game design process. I think the key is to not submit that different game for publication; that is, acknowledge that it’s a game (or games) intended to make you a better designer. I’m sure there are rare cases where that game turns out to be great, but I suspect that all too often, the self-satisfaction of actually designing a game from start to finish–even if it isn’t awesome–is enough for designers to submit that game for publication (or self-publish it) anyway.

  11. Thanks Jamey, I really needed to read this right now.

    One of the great Rugby League coaches here in Australia, Wayne Bennett, said in his biography, “Don’t die with the song still inside of you.”

    I have been working on a secret passion of mine for the last 20 years; a tabletop skirmish game design that of course I think is “exceptional”. It has taken a lot of courage to finally bite the bullet and make some prototypes to take it to the market.

    With all the great advice I have been getting from your website I gain confidence in giving it everything I’ve got. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Stuart

  12. I’d like to offer another counter-example: One of my favorite novels of all time, was written as a complete slog, by the author. He was dispirited. He trashed the first draft. He was turning out one more book, by the numbers, to pay the bills.

    His publisher got the finished version, and told him, “This is the book people are going to be asking you about for the rest of your life. He didn’t believe his publisher. The publisher was right.

    The book is “The Last Unicorn”, by Peter S. Beagle. I don’t know what Beagle was going through at the time, but I’ve heard him talk about how he was just “going to work” every day, to finish the book, and it just seemed like a rote project to him.

    I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s a truly magical book.

    So that’s one more vote for “Just start. Just finish. Put in the work.”
    If you want to do something well, hone your craft.
    If you want to hone your craft, keep starting, and keep finishing.

  13. The combination of the two ideas is actually quite common in art.

    Create! Create! Create! and let others help you decide what is resonating.

    That typed: Easier said than done:)

  14. One thing that I think needs mentioning is that passion projects are the opposite of commercial operations.

    Maybe you’ve been very lucky, Jamey, to have a series of projects you’re genuinely passionate about in a short space of time – but what will you do if the next one takes three years to present itself? Do you lower your standards and publish the best thing that’s in front of you, to keep your publishing machinery active, or publish nothing until something truly good enough shows up?

    Developing my game has taken 4 years and 8 iterations, and the only way that could be possible is as a passion project – it was a hobby, something I spent time and money on without any expectation of ever seeing a return. Even if it meets with commercial success – still a big if – I can’t expect to make a living in board games, because the next game might take even longer. I could rush it, to pay my bills, but then I’d be making more of the junk we all don’t need.

    So I think the plea to game designers – follow your passion, don’t make more soulless games – needs to come with a caveat: don’t expect to make an income from it.

  15. Joel: That’s a really great question, and before I try to answer it, I agree that making a living from designing and publishing board games isn’t easy. I feel very lucky and fortunate to be able to work full time at Stonemaier, but that wasn’t possible even just 2 years ago.

    As for your great question, let’s take the most dire of situations: All of our reprinted games completely stop selling, I run out of ideas or my games take a long time to develop, and I can’t discover any great games (in my opinion) from other designers. What would I do? Honestly, I think I’d find another job. I would rather do that than publish something I know is subpar. It just seems like such a violation of trust to our fans.

  16. Great thoughts and also great contributions in these comments!
    I sometimes have the opportunity to teach game design and I tell people that ideas are not valuable, they are not even worthless, they are just costs. You will never end up in a situation where you are out of good ideas. What matters, and what makes an idea valuable is the talent, time and effort you put into the realization of it. That is what we need to do.
    Time and effort is straight forward. Talent is something we develop over time.
    To make many prototypes and to be very selective, in several steps, on which to continue with all the way is, (in addition to the wise things pointed out in the post and comments), also a great way of improving and developing your own game design talent that is needed to make a game great.
    Games are emergent to their nature and need to be tested early in order for us to se the potentials and the gems. So take the time, make the effort, use your talent and follow your passion, *during* in the entire game design process, and let it guide your decisions.

  17. This is a great post and the comments are equally inspiring because they come at the topic from both sides.

    I have a board game idea, and I fear that it will be one that I self-publish (if I ever finish it) because of the achievement of completing it (rather than because it’s awesome), so I apologise in advance for me causing a very slight increase in the number of mediocre games produced (don’t worry, it won’t be a large print run! Lol). That said, my game design is conceptual currently with some notes, so you have a while yet before you’ll have to be disappointed by my game. :-)

    My concern is that at some point I will have to trust others to test it, and my fear isn’t that they’ll be brutal and honest, but that they’ll steal any good ideas I have. How do you deal with that type of fear and insecurity? I know I’m saying on one hand that it will be rubbish, and on the other hand that I fear my ideas will be stolen, but surely even mediocre games can have outstanding mechanics that are worth filching, even if you leave the game’s soul behind?

    I also have concerns about how I have started this game design. I read somewhere that a lot of game designers are mathematicians rather than game players, and that they start with the mechanic and wrap a theme around it later on, which could be almost anything as the theme doesn’t determine the gameplay. Also the comment was made that game designers often aren’t game players and have no interest in playing games. Is this true? Do you like to play games yourself Jamey, that you haven’t had involvement in producing? I’ve started with a theme, and for the life of me I can’t settle on the mechanics to make it work – I get lots of ideas about it but then I worry that there will be too many different mechanics to make the game playable.

    Thanks for the blogs though Jamey, they help to re-ignite my passion in the project, even though I never seem to make the time to actually produce anything. Sometimes I think a project like mine is better being a passionate dream that never gets tried, rather than being a mediocre game that is started but fails, or even worse, being a “sub-par” game that gets produced and inflicted on others.

    One final question Jamey – roughly how many game designs of your own creation did you write-off between your last published game and Scythe? Was it 9 or a lower/higher number of discarded ideas?

    Thanks for the advice and inspiration, keep up the good work. Apologies for the long rambling comment!!

    I’m looking forward to receiving Scythe, it’s all feeling very real now. :-)

  18. Andrew: Thanks for your comment! I appreciate you sharing here, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

    1. As for your ideas being stolen, I can assure you this won’t happen. Game designers are far more interested in their own ideas than the ideas of others. Plus, a game idea is about .01% of the work involved in designing a game. Also, your idea probably already exists in some form or another.

    2. I’ve actually never heard that about game designers. I think most game designers love to play games. I have since I was very young, and I continue to play tons of games today. Sure, I always have my designer hat on, trying to learn from other games, but I also have a lot of fun with them. You can watch my thoughts about interesting game mechanisms on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zN2xsqYmf8

    3. Between the time I completed Tuscany and started working solely on Scythe, I had roughly 25-30 game ideas. About 20 or so of them entered an intense brainstorming stage, and I wrote the rules for about 10 of them. 5 or so made it to the prototype stage.

    Good luck! :)

  19. It was a good surprise to hear you mention Sam Coster. I’ve heard Butterscotch Shenanigans talk a couple times at Pixel Pop or some other STL game dev meetup. One of my takeaways from them and the STL community is ‘Follow the Fun’. It really helps iterative game design hone in on addictive/fun gameplay. And i think that message fits into what is talked about here.

  20. This is great stuff. Balance and functionality are assumed. Breaking the mold and inspiring aren’t.

    How can we tell if our game is more then balanced and boring to others? Is it reliable to post ideas online and see what the internet thinks? Relying on ourselves and those close to us for blunt feedback doesn’t seem wise.

  21. Great article. It’s refreshing to read something so positive. I often find “letters” to budding game designers drenched in negativity: It’s so hard. The industry is too small for you. You’ll never make a living from it etc etc.. And while the latter may be true, it just seems jaded to focus on these things rather than the passion, as you do. Thanks.

    1. Overcoming the negative outlooks others have, even designers I contacted, they all spout the same stuff: some of it is repeating what they heard, and some is not wanting competitors in the market; has been the toughest obstacle I’ve faced to date.

      The greatest feat has been, and in some aspects, continues to be, learning what I don’t know, that takes research time, energy and determination. This all are things that cannot be tought.

  22. Last year, 2018, I prototyped over 20 games and designed more than that, I’m still waiting on that 1 you speak of! I’m still trying to find that this is fun and not just nuanced, there is as much researching study and innovation that goes on as there is designing. Its been over a decade since I came up with the notion of designing a game of my own. I’m having a blast!

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