I don't sit idly well. It drives my girlfriend positively batty and I'm sure my boss will soon fill my yearly review with comments to this regard. I stay busy, often for good, sometimes for ill.
I'm not letting myself touch Wozzle, at least not the version people are testing for us. It's a good build, it's testing very well, and it's important to us that people download it with confidence knowing we won't just yank it out from under them every 30 seconds with an update. That's fine with a digital game, but when people take the time to print, cut, and sleeve, we owe them a steady build.
But. The mind wanders. We really want Wozzle to be just awesome. We've chased after a few rabbits already. Some entirely fruitless, or mostly fruitless with one tiny benefit. This weekend has revealed yet another rabbit hole.
Naturally, we dove in head first.
Let's talk about why I chase them.
Note: Forgive the mix of singular (I, me) and plural (us, we) in this document. I'm semi-writing from my own perspective and that of me and my design partner, Joshua Buergel.
What would your favorite publisher do? Or, what would a great publisher do? I had a mental revelation yesterday. When it hit me, it made so much sense that it astounded me it hadn't guided my thinking prior to this. As I thought on it further, I realized it had influenced me in the past, but not to the same degree. The thought was simply, in regards to Wozzle, "How would Gamewright handle this?"
I think Gamewright is a pretty incredible publisher of games and I own a few of their products. My most recent addition from them, Cube Quest, has already been enjoyed 16 times in the 2 weeks that I've owned it. Their games are simple, playful, beautiful, and just fun to own.
I've done this with other games in the past. I designed Sol Rising to be something Colby Dauch and Jerry Hawthorne of Plaid Hat Games would enjoy. I have another in-progress prototype that is meant squarely for Portal Games. But, in those cases it was more a high level "who could I pitch this to?" type question.
With Wozzle, it led us to nitpick our rules. Gamewright only publishes a few games a year. They are aimed at a very wide market of parents, families, and children, which means they need to be colorful, clean, easy to learn, and well-refined.
When viewing Wozzle through the same lens, we started asking quite a few questions. Which of these rules add more complexity than they add fun? Which of these rules don't suit our target audience? Where can we condense and focus the fun?
An example of something we skimped out is the kicker. This is the concept in poker where you have two people tied with, say, a two pair. Neither of them has a higher pair, so you need a kicker. This could be the card in the Community, which means they split the pot, OR a card from somebody's hand. The problem is, this is a fairly unlikely occurrence. Furthermore, it's a really complicated thing to explain. Is it so bad in this rare occasion people just split the pot?
No, we determined. The ratio of fun to complexity wasn't where it needed to be.
In some cases, this process involves us doing a lot of extra work to go from an 85 to an 87 on a quiz, to use an American school system metaphor, but it is what a big, real publisher would do. Therefore, shouldn't we hold ourselves to that same standard? Another change is that I re-made all 30 cards to not change the mechanic, but the presentation. Why? We think it'll be more accessible. It was a pain, but it's what a AAA publisher would do.
In the software world, we often branch our builds. This is often for the purpose of a demo at a convention like E3 or Gamescom. We branch, isolate, and polish a build for the show. Meanwhile, the majority of the team continues to work on the actual, shipping software.
Another, more recent phenomenon is the notion of A/B testing. Pioneered (I think) by free to play game developers, different tuning variables, art, UI layout, or even mechanics will be shown between different sample groups, called cohorts. The purpose is to find out which solution works the best and propagate it to every build.
We've branched Wozzle before with minor changes and now we have not one, not two, but three rules documents that we're testing and pondering. Why? For the same reason our nefarious government overlords have R&D. We want to see if we can learn anything from our branched skunk works projects that can make the main line better. There's a pretty high chance that these branches will result in fruitless dead ends. But, by chasing these windmills we're able to determine that the mainline is in fact the superior solution OR, just maybe, find something even better.
I realize all of this sounds like the indecisive spinning of a mad man. But, we're not! If anything, I think this is some of the most sophisticated, mature development I've ever put into a personal project. I've personally taken inspiration from other sources around me lately.
At work, we had a few key features "locked down." We thought they were done. Then, someone asked if they should really be locked down. We all grumbled, sighed, and then thought about it. Like the multiple stages of grief, we soon found ourselves at acceptance. No, it wasn't as good as it could be. Yes, it can be better. The result? We made it better.
In another case, I have a beloved elder project that I thought was pretty good. As it turns out, the foundation was pretty good. The core was good. But the details? Not incredible and not as good as they could be. I've had all of my beliefs and assertions challenged and it has led to a great leap forward.
There's acceptance of the known and the embrace of potential. Potential, though, like ideas, is everywhere and sometimes just hot air.
Calculated, thoughtful questioning may be the best thing for your design. If you make an B game, is that good enough? Can you make it a B+? Then an A-? The line for when to stop and when enough is enough is really fuzzy. I clearly haven't found it, or I simply haven't been able to identify it.
Who then, can show us the line?
Our players and loyal testers are potentially the greatest line identifiers. With each rabbit hole we've engaged a mixture of our most dedicated testers, team members, and peers. The response hasn't been universal yet and I never expect it will be.
Twice, today, we had our survey return with an answer of "No! Don't do that!" In a sense, it's an incredible compliment. What the hell are you doing? Don't touch it. I like what you've done. It's comforting to know both that people like what we already have enough to yell at us AND that we're humble enough to return from the depths of our rabbit hole, hats in hands, with nothing but shrugs and mud speckled grins.
The lesson I aim to share is this: when you think your rules are done, take another pass. When you think you have the best set of cards, identify your 3 weakest ones and try to replace them. If your mind conjures an alternate mechanic, branch and test. At least discuss it.
When you walk past the cute girl at the park, turn around. Introduce yourself. She may be involved with someone, or she may become the love of your life. That's a bit hyperbolic, I agree. But, look around. Yeah, that's right. I chose that name for a reason.