Make the Experience, Scrap the Rest

Although not conceived as such, I realized this blog post is more or less a continuation of a previous post, Foundationing. By that, I mean being able to do the thing I state at the end is much simpler if the core of your experience is solid.

Earlier today, I tweeted the following (re-arranged here to be read top down):

#1

#2

Experience First

I've always designed with my experience goals in mind first and foremost. All designers come at the point of creation somewhat differently, but you can more or less boil things down to one of the two primary approaches:

  • I have a cool mechanic and I want to make a game with it.
  • I really love this theme and want to make a game with it.

Experience first, to me at least, has some of the fluffiness of the thematic approach, with a few of the nuts and bolts of the mechanical. Let's use Blockade's experience for an example.

  • Players are put in the role of a sci-fi fleet commander.
  • 45 minutes or less. That reigns in complexity.
  • Lots of dice - This means dice based mechanics, but also the inclusion of luck that, for my tastes at least, needs to be balanced with non-luck decisions.
  • Can I do something neat with formations?
  • There is a balance between capital ships and fighters, both present.

That was the start of the game. To this day, it continues to be the heartbeat that drives my design and decision making. Hold onto this thought while I briefly segue.

Darlings

"Be willing to kill your darlings" is a common design saying that more or less means: be willing to let go of things in your design, no matter how much you love them, that detract from the quality of the game.

I've always boldly thumped my chest about being really good at this. Honestly, I am, but only for a part of it. There are a few kinds of darlings:

  • Scope Creep: Additional features that can be added or lopped off without compromising the game. Example: In York I always wanted to add naval elements or commander Units. I resisted and held them at bay.
  • Means to an End: You may have a really clever mechanic that does what you need it to do. It may not be perfect (few are from the start). But, you tweak, and twist, and massage, and tweak, and try to make it the thing you want it to be. This is where I fail.

This second bullet is a real bugger and it's something with which I've had a massive realization lately. Be it York or Blockade, I've desperately clung to some legitimately good ideas by refining them for months (and in the case of York, years), instead of returning to the experience and asking myself: Is this the best, most fun, simplest, and most unique way to do this?

Put another way: Sure, this is good. But is it good enough?

For Blockade, I have a few of these mechanical darlings that I'm killing in favor of ideas that are already better and simpler. For example:

  • My color-based d6 mechanic to convey weapon strength was neat, but it was obtuse for new people, increased the number of components needed, and required additional reference material to explain.
  • I was forcing a lot of awkward, fiddly behaviors into my formation mechanic. There's a much similar way to get to the same experience.
  • And others...

I always stated that really interesting battles were the focus of York, yet I never fundamentally revised the battle mechanic. I tweaked it, patched it, and added new layers, such as defensive abilities, factions, and unique content. But I never stepped back to ask: Is this the coolest, most fun, simplest battle mechanic for York?

It's a question I should have asked a long time ago.

The Crucial Bits

At the outset of your design, whether you want it to be about space-ships or have an innovative worker placement mechanic involving yo-yos, think of the experience you wish to deliver.

What is the vibe you wish your game to convey? What is the one thing you hope players will leave the table thinking after a play of <your game>? Who is the game intended to please? Your goals may vary, and there's definitely a bit more nuance involved, but these are some nice high level morsels to use as a launch point.

If you can answer these questions at the beginning and middle of the project, your end may result in something you actually want to play and, fingers crossed, somebody else wants to publish.

But, be willing to kill your darlings. This means cutting things your design doesn't need, but also, replacing a mechanic with another one that arrives at the same destination, but better.

If a mechanic just works, don't settle. Your mechanic should thrive and if a few tests don't show great promise, scrap it for something different. Most of your ideas are going to be Cs and Bs. If and when you hit the ceiling, be ready to acknowledge that and explore new ways to fill that hole.

Push yourself and your game. Be willing to experiment, especially when your experience is a special one.

Comments

Thanks for writing this post, Grant. Defining up front the parameters of the experience you're aiming to provide in your game seems wise. I should try that sometime!

My only good design so far (Lagoon) took a more exploratory path. I started with some thematic ideas that I kept experimenting with in a succession of disappointing designs with various mechanics. The theme implied a range of experiences that intrigued me, but I couldn't get things off the ground. Eventually, I separately hit upon some promising mechanics that offered thier own interesting choices and experiences. Marrying the theme to these new mechanics had a lucky synergy, but it wasn't top down. I was just combining interesting ingredients like when I'm cooking in the kitchen, trying to learn what new flavors I could build.The design process has since been more about developing the richer emergent experiences by referencing them back to the thematic template at times and referencing them to the dictates of the core mechanics at others. I feel like I'm evolving a system rather than designing it. I really like the experience Lagoon offers, but I didn't exactly set out to arrive there.

Not having a list of experience parameters to guide my design process has certainly made for some spinning of wheels, false starts and dead ends as I've had to keep asking again and again what direction I want the experience to go in. But taking a more exploratory and evolutionary approach to designing the experience has resulted in some cool things I would never have been clever enough to aim for on my own. But I would also like to do it your way sometime! I have come up with parameters for game experiences I'd love to realize, but historically I haven't succeeded in designing to those goals. Each approach offers different creative constraints, and I hope to try as many of them as I can.

The trap I see designers fall into most often, including myself, is to stop exploring new paths as soon as you find one with 'enough' promise. We plunge down that path, sometimes checking out branches off of it, but we'll never even know if there's a completely different path that's just better. Considering how often we find trash relative to treasure, it's HARD to say "This is a good thing, but can I find better?"

Perfectly stated. It's purely a gut check and something that comes with experience. It's really difficult to know when it's something you can fix or something you should set aside. For me, even recognizing now that "hey, this may not be the right path" has been a revelation for me. Identifying the good stuff will be, of course, a lifelong challenge.

There does seem to be a theme vs. mechanics false dichotomy. Starting with the experience that you are trying to shape for your players is a great foundation.

As Jay noted, we do have to avoid getting trapped in our ideas.

It is a pity that the theater world owns the term "playwright" as that may be more apt than game designer.