Low Fat Design Diet

Design peer John DuBois supplied me with a prompt for this post, and what a great prompt!

Prompt

I love this idea and it's been something I've thought about a great deal lately with many of my projects. Antoine de Saint-Exupery noted that "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

This is a commonly uttered phrase for any form of design. Elegance and simplicity is prized by creators and consumers alike. Delivering a highly focused, high quality game experience should be one of your goals for every product, but how far is too far? When do you have the correct feature set? When do you have the right amount of fat? Because if you're asking me, your game needs a little fat.

Perhaps I just think that way because I've lived my entire life as a "heavy set fellow," as my grandfather would say.

In purely scientific fashion, I propose you must view your design through the following lenses to gauge whether your game has the right amount of fat, or as our dear  de Saint-Exupery noted, requires a little more taking away.

After I write about the tools to use, I'll provide some anecdotal stories that are a bit more fuzzy.

Does your game typically finish in an ideal length of time? This one is fairly standard. Games typically fall within a few categories of time, and note that time is the duration of the experience (setup, play, etc.)

You should know, roughly, where your game lies on this spectrum based on the type of game it is. There are countless games by which you can compare your experience. If your deckbuilder takes 90 minutes, typically, you might have an issue (but of course, Core Worlds is the exception).

If your micro-game takes 45 minutes, it's probably too long. If you observe your game is too long, that's a good indicator that you may need to trim the fat, reduce complexity, and examine the design. Game length is a tool to notify you that you have a problem, but it can't necessarily tell you what precisely to fix.

Does your game fit within an ideal price point when compared to similar products? This one may be more difficult for folks who have never grabbed a quote from a manufacturer, but if you use your good judgement and skills of consumer observation, you'll be fine. Basically, find a game that has a comparable "heft" to your game. By heft, I mean the experience, general components. Does your game match within about 10% of the price?

For example, if I'm making a light drafting game meant for a 20 minute play period, if I have 300 cards and a bunch of chips, the game is probably too hefty. Why? Because Fairy Tale offers that light drafting game for about $20 and just a few cards.

Granted, yes, it's a mistake to go up against some of the really big publishers that print a thousands of units. Clearly they'll have lower prices. But, like the above, this is a tool to use. If your component (and therefore cost) is significantly greater than similar games, you need to trim and revise.

As a personal example, Blockade, now Sol Rising, used to require a lot of wooden blocks. The game would have cost a pretty penny. Think Pitch Car expensive. I knew I didn't want it to be that expensive, so I completely overhauled the game.

Does your game include options, actions, or components rarely used by your testers? This is a good thing to look for in your design. When you're play testing, do you notice players rarely use a certain card, a certain action, or a certain space in a worker placement? If so, perhaps the game doesn't need it.Perhaps you can enhance another feature, or condense two of them, to create a single, stronger feature.

Always watch your players to see what they use. This may also be a good way to tune and balance your game in general. But, if 25% of your features aren't in use, that may be a good reason to cut 25% of your features.

Does your game innovate or twist common expectations in more than 2 ways? This may shock you, but if you innovate too much, your game may be really difficult to play. People may fail to see the fun in the game you've created. Typically, you want to do 1 or 2 unique things, then rely on standards to fill in the rest.

Here's an example. Let's say you make a drafting game, but you twist the standard of how drafting games work. For example, in Fairy Tale you pick 1 and pass the rest. Then, let's say you make it so Victory Points are a bad thing, instead of a good thing. Finally, let's say your game features a rondel that goes counter-clockwise and instead of using the space you land on, you use the spaces you skip. All of these things might work individually, or one or two of them, but if you change the standards too many times, players are just going to be confused.

Don't overly stir the pot.

Only you can judge the scale and breadth of your innovation, but you need to reign yourself in such that people can actually appreciate the few great things you did and not be overwhelmed with new, unconventional ideas.

If you use card text, does it fit on the card in a reasonable font size? I use action cards, or text-based actions, in all of my games. It's just something I love to do and when I make games that don't use it I find them soulless and stale. That's something I need to improve, but it's where my skills lie.

Please note: I'm not saying games without card text are soulless. I'm saying my designs that fit that description, to date, have been soulless.

When I've really begun to polish and refine the game, be it Sol Rising, York, or Wozzle, I have found that by setting an inflexible font size (12 pt or larger), and an inflexible box for text, I suddenly write MUCH better text. My cards become simpler, more elegant, and more accessible. I begin to remove unnecessary terms or phrases.

This has a massive overall effect on the game. This is an easy one to implement. Set a rigid canvas for your text and force yourself to fit within it. You'll be so glad you did.

Can the game be setup and taught in a reasonable length of time comparable with similar games? Hopefully by now you're detecting a theme. Your design is going to be released among thousands of other games, a slightly smaller number of which are directly comparable to your game. Publisher and customers will make these mental assessments, whether they know it or not, so it's best if you get in front of it and do early analysis.

Firstly, you need to write your rules. You need to be thoughtful about how your game will be taught without you in the room to do so.

Secondly, you need to begin experimenting with methods of teaching. This takes a few iterations, but you'll learn the order of operations when taught orally, as well as how best to explain the sticking points.

Once you've completed steps 1 and 2, you need to begin asking yourself the tough question of whether your game is reasonable to teach compared to other games in its weight class. If your micro game takes more than 2 minutes to teach, you're in trouble. You need to simplify, starting with rules exceptions and unnecessary content.

Does the game match the catalog of the publisher you're courting? If you pay attention and are honest, this is a very easy way to determine the appropriate level of fat your game entails. Many publishers have a fairly consistent catalog of games by which you can judge how appropriate your game's heft is. You should always lean towards their recent releases and best sellers, as those are clear indicators of their habits.

Some examples:

  • Tasty Minstrel Games lately is very interested in light, micro style games. But, their soul has always been medium to heavy Euros. If you follow Seth Jaffee, their lead developer, it won't take long to figure out their tastes. They probably don't want your tactics design.
  • Plaid Hat Games likes trashy, highly interactive games. Length isn't really an issue, but they want richly thematic experiences and tend to favor games with cards. They don't want your euro city builder.
  • Indie Boards and Cards tends to enjoy games that support high player numbers, are very simple to teach, and predominantly feature a strong social element.
  • Academy Games is seeking themes rooted in historical premises. They enjoy variance, simple, elegant designs, and deep strategy. Their games tend to fit in that 1-3 hour mark and support more than 2 players.

I picked just a few, but hopefully you get the point. I've begun to loosely identify 1-3 publishers at the beginning of a design and I use that as a rough benchmark by which to scope, polish, and develop the game. If you're seeking a publisher for your design, one of the best tools is simply their catalog. Use it to scope your game!

Some Anecdotal Notes

As I developed Battle for York, I worked fervently to trim trim trim. I tried to make the game as tight as possible with as little fat as possible. This worked to get it to a steady foundation, but in this game, the game needed more fat. It is possible to trim the spark out of an experience, and sometimes you need to add a bit of Spackle back to your sculpture, de Saint-Exupery be damned.

How do you know when you need to add some chub? Well, use the tools I just listed above. If you find you're coming in under your throw weight in complexity, or your game is a bit light compared to your ideal publisher's catalog, feel free to return to some of the ideas you trimmed. Now that you have a tight foundation, you may find they actually DO have a home.

Doing this is tough and it comes with experience. I needed help to identify it with York, but as a result I more accurately hit the mark with Sol Rising. More details on these later.

What do you think? Was this useful for identifying how to trim? Leave it in the comments below!

Comments

Great stuff, as always! I'm doing some development work on a game right now, and I'm asking questions like the following to help identify the fat to trim and the chub to add. (The game feels like it wants a little of both.)

* What is the most fun moment people had in the game? (When can players not help but smile to themselves?) Do those happen enough? Can we make more of them?

* What is the most frustrating moment people had in the game? (When do players sigh?) Do we want to eliminate those? Can we give players some power in those moments? Or are those really fun tense moments, not frustrating ones?

* What behavior bogs the pace of the game down? Can we force players to change behavior (e.g., limit hand size) or motivate them differently (e.g., rewards for acting earlier, penalty for cards in hand, etc.)?

Focusing on how the game feels (the pacing and those specific moments) can help you focus in on what changes to make -- usually things to take away but sometimes things to add.

Thank you for the contribution. I agree with all of these. For the first, we've tried about 4 or 5 solutions for many of our toughest issues in Hocus Poker and it really helps make the game better. You will often find a middle ground solution between the current and a theory.

Developing with purpose is SO important. Really, you must add features for a reason, change them for a reason, and remove them for a reason. This is why goals are important. Know the experience you are trying to craft. Always be prepared to answer the "why."

Now that more of my thoughts around design are from a publishers perspective I find myself seeing the terms "trimming" and "developing" as synonymous. That isn't perfectly accurate as sometimes things will be added in the development process, but for the most part it is trimming and streamlining.

The points I will make to add to your write up are these...
1. Even when you think you have the best solution it is worthwhile to challenge that notion by trying a few alternatives.
2. Trim with purpose (the theme of your entire article) not arbitrarily. If you cannot define why you are trimming something, reexamine it.
3. Don't be afraid to roll back. If you trim something out and it actually hurt more than it helped, put it back!
4 Streamlining and trimming content are not the same thing. Know the difference.

Hopefully that adds to your message. And I will say this, the more I experience evaluating games for publication, the greater the value I put on submissions that take these measures ahead of time. Designers, said plainly another way... Following the advice in this article will increase your chances of getting published!