Branching and Experimentation in Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m curious how many designers are aware of sunk costs, or are willing to build things, admit failure, and completely try anew? There is an urge to preserve an idea and tinker with it until something emerges, but often times if there’s no spark, there won’t ever be one. Designs, like dating, should be given a few tests and then discarded. It’s not me, it’s you and your fiddly rule set.

I’m not advocating you completely discard an idea, though I’ve done that quite a bit and I think it’s healthy. What I want to discuss is the notion of branching to take a cool idea, revise it, and approach it from a new angle.

Branching is when you put a fork in your design, you zig (instead of zag), and pair a new layer with your original kernel. This kernel can be a thematic one, like “I want to be a pirate on a ship,” or a mechanism, like “I want to assign workers, but each can be promoted to have a higher output,” or a combination of that, or you might be trying to improve upon a previous design you’ve played. There are countless origins and far worse sentences I can offer. Don’t tempt me.

The choice to branch or toss really comes down to the quality of work you have at this moment. Ask yourself, and do so sincerely, “Is this game worth saving? Is there something here?”

I would say yes if you can match a few of the following:

  • The idea is unique. There is nothing like it.
  • There is an obvious, great moment. Not the game necessarily, but there is something very cool you’ve witnessed.
  • People get it. They aren’t fighting the game’s mechanisms, but they get the conceit.
  • You’ve thought of 1 or 2 brilliant thematic abstractions.
  • It matches a market/business opportunity beautifully. This one is tough to know as a new designer without great reach. It’d would have been tough for Love Letter to catch on without AEG’s muscle.

If you don’t match any of those, you probably want to toss the game. Just move on. Return to it in the future, or just do something else. But, if your game has a spark, but isn’t quite worth developing, consider branching it.

When branching a good idea marred by bad friends, your game is like a snail seeking a new home: highly averse to salt and in need of better surroundings. A recent design of mine needed a branch. I’d tested it 3 times. Each test I’d changed a few things, but the core remained quite steady for 3 plays. I liked the game. People were getting it. It had a neat hook. But, the parts weren’t coming together, there wasn’t enough tension, and the decisions weren’t as meaningful as they needed to be. I also didn’t feel the level of interaction was up to snuff.

I re-examined my core hook, which is letting players dynamically create their action menu. After that? I’m throwing everything out. I’m distilling it to its essence and trying new layers. As it turns out, there are 2-3 ways for me to express my core desire, which is to give players a dynamic set of decisions. The one I had? Totally works. Is FINE. Not great, but I have the rules set aside to return to.

How do you know how to branch? If something wasn’t working with the first pass, how can you make productive steps forward to improve it on the new version? Firstly, you need to know your goals for the game. What is most important to you? If you know your goals, you can identify what serves that goal and what doesn’t from the current game.

Next, seek to identify not what worked, but what didn’t. If you cling too much to what worked (or what you think worked), you may have a difficult time making a new branch. For example, technically, my core mechanism in the first iteration of my game works. But, it might also be the root of the problem!

Therefore, examine what doesn’t work. For me, this included:

  • Low interaction.
  • A lack of arc. The game felt highly repetitive.
  • Low tension from decisions. Nothing was nail biting.

Begin examining how to address each of those problems in any way, ideally through the lens of what you already have, but being willing to set those things aside. This will help you identify the root causes of the issue and allow you to re-examine things through a new light. This is how you figure out the new direction to take.

This is a difficult topic about which to blog, because every game is unique and the circumstances in which you might use this process vary so wildly. I don’t want to beat this point into the ground. Therefore, let’s quickly review.

  1. Give your game 2-3 tries. Does it have a spark? Is it singing? Keep going. If not, it might be time to branch.
  2. How do you know whether to branch or discard? Well, ask yourself whether the game is worth fighting for.
  3. If you think it’s worth branching, re-evaluate your goals. What is sacred in this design?
  4. Once you know what’s sacred, take a magnifying glass to what’s currently broken. How are you currently not hitting your goals? What’s falling short?
  5. Reconsider your mechanisms and choices through the lenses of the shortcomings. Fix your shortcomings however possible, while being flexible to revise and toss things away.
  6. Test again.

I hope this was useful. Really, just leave knowing that it’s not a mistake to throw things away, try again, and branch. You should be experimenting as much as possible in your design until you find something that really, honestly, sincerely, awesomely works.

7 thoughts on “Branching and Experimentation in Design

  1. I’m a big fan of branching, but I think of it differently than you. I often do it when I see another avenue of development. When I reach a fork in the road, I take both paths with two different games, if the two roads diverge sharply.

    Knowing when to kill an idea is really hard. It’s easier if you have lots of ideas, but if you never put the effort in to make one really work, you’ll never end up with a finished game. The number one criteria for me is the uniqueness of the concept, followed by a guess of it’s marketability.

    • If I have something that’s really working, I’m often able to skip theory crafting. I want to finish what I start and if I have something really good, I don’t need to spin for the sake of it. Now, there’s always value and writing those ideas down for later!

      For me, things that keep a bad idea going are a.) how much I want to play the end product and b.) how unique it is. Often, I don’t craft unique mechanisms, but I do craft unique experiences. I like to make games I want to play but cannot currently buy.

  2. Great post, Mr. Rodiek! I feel like you hit the nail on the head with this one. Lately, I’ve been toying with a more complex design than my usual fair and I’ve had to do this several times. I start working a unique or really fun angle, and then hit a point where I realize that this is leading away from my specific design goals. So, I’ve restarted this game 3 times, now :-)

    Speaking of design goals, how early do you write yours? And how detailed do you get?

    • They are probably the first thing I do after I think of an idea. Usually it’s a.) a game I want to play that I can’t and b.) something unique (ish) to distinguish it. Here are examples for my successful/finished designs.

      Farmageddon: Make a better farming game than Farmville (not joking) with a finite time limit.
      York: War game, card driven, 2 or more players, hour play time, no elimination, players cannot turtle.
      Sol: Story driven tactical fleet game with persistent campaign.
      Hocus Poker: Poker plus spells. No elimination, short play time, fun without money.

    • Maybe? I don’t design huge, then chip away. That is true. But I also don’t design 1 simple mechanism and add stuff to it. I think I’m always trying to design the game at the size I think it should be. With Hocus, we didn’t spend a year removing or adding features. We spent the year swapping stuff out until the concoction finally worked. York has more or less stayed the same size for 3 years now. The core never really changed, I’ve just been addressing everything else. For Landfall, the impetus for this post, I’m outright swapping one design for another of about the size. Is there a third category which is “swapper?”

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