The 54 Card Guild: #4
Firstly, I'm sorry this post is a week late, and it barely made it at that. I've been swamped at work and have found myself making no progress on my designs and the blog has fallen lowest in the queue. The good news is, Hocus is making excellent progress in manufacturing and I noted in Guide #1 that some posts might not be weekly. Way to cover your butt, Grant.
In a weird way, Guide #4 is a great stopping point. I urge you to go back and take a look at Guides 1-3 and examine your work so far. We've brainstormed and catalogued a series of ideas, created multiple outlines and initial content for each, and even conducted a few solo tests. Maybe if you're ahead of things (good!), you've shown the game to others and played it once or twice.
What if you made a turd? What if, at this point, it's clear the game is a failure? Or, worse, you don't know? That's the topic of Guide #4: Failure. How to recognize it and what to do about it.
As a culture (American), we are generally terrible at recognizing failure. We generally believe that hard work and a can-do attitude will lead to success, but the truth is that success in a creative space is elusive. I like to think I take a pragmatic look at things, but hilariously when I started board game design I thought I'd have one game signed by a publisher every year. Well, it's around year five and I've just barely signed 3 contracts, only 1 of which has appeared on the market. That doesn't mean I'm a hack, but it is a good reminder of reality.
Designer Dave Chalker (Get Bit!, Heat, Criminals, many RPG contributions) has mentioned a Rule of 10. The general idea is that:
- 1 in 10 ideas lead to prototypes
- 1 in 10 prototypes lead to a game worth developing
- 1 in 10 developed games leads to a contract
Don't get too hung up on the numbers, but do consider that funnel. Most of what you make will be a failure, and even when you make good things, they might not be good enough.
I have terrible prototypes, like Poor Abby Farnsworth, and Frontier Scoundrels, and Driving in the Rain, and Tell, and FLABS. I have mediocre prototypes like Flipped, or Blockade. I have good games like Sol Rising that are good, but not good enough. I learn from these experiences, they enrich my skill set and teach me new things, but they are failures.
Be willing to experiment and fail. Be willing to put your time into your good ideas and work on them tirelessly because they are precious. I'm taking my fourth major revision against Sol Rising because I love it and know what it can be. That game alone is almost a "Rule of 10."
How do you know if a game is a failure? There are a few questions to ask to evaluate it.
- Are you running into unsolvable problems? This could be a dominant first player problem, a runaway leader issue, a terrible AP issue, or sheer imbalance. I read a comedy writer say "write downhill" the other day, meaning don't fight an uphill battle for a joke. Good jokes will flow, naturally. If you cannot solve something, maybe it cannot or shouldn't be solved.
- Has forward progress halted? Have you tried three changes or solutions or modifications and the game is still busted, or blatantly not fun? If you're making progress, keep at it. But, if you're in a rut, maybe it's time to move on.
- Do you have any early fans? If I put forth a design that's really bad, my friends will tell me quickly. It's not hard to see they aren't interested. Even if something's broken, but it has a neat kernel, my friends will at least give it a nod. Listen to your early audience. Do they believe in the future?
- Does your game offer something unique? If you're just retreading old ground, considering starting something else. Why work so hard at developing an idea that's already been done well by someone else?
- Do you like it? Do you? Really? Do you see yourself loving the idea? If not, move on. You'll be partners for a long time. Love needs to be on the horizon.
- Does the game have a potential audience? Does it have a hook? If you can successfully identify who would love your game, then it's worth pursuing. We believed that "poker with spells" had a home. This drove us for the year it took to find our game. If your game isn't going to fill a slot or completely please an audience, you may be spending time on a dud.
- Do you want to still work on it? Do you have a burning desire to get back into that rules doc or spreadsheet and keep spinning?
You've asked these questions now and believe you might have a stinker on your hands. What next? Firstly, take a deep breath. It's totally fine. You don't suck. Feld has bad ideas. So does Vlaada. Well, maybe not Vlaada...
Secondly, set the idea aside. You might be missing something and need a fresh perspective. Go read a book on the topic, or seek inspiration from another avenue. Give it a few weeks, or a month. Just think about it. If you still like it, but cannot crack that nut, then just think on it. I do this often. Gaia took about 4 months before it became a physical card game.
Thirdly, return to your outlines. Why are you making the game? What is interesting about it? Why should it exist? You may find you strayed from the path and can return to those core ideas with a new execution. In fact, if you still love that core idea, that's what you should do. I used goals constantly to evaluate York and what it did and didn't need. I always came back to the core ideas of it being an aggressive, battle heavy game for 2-4 players that played in an hour. I didn't want camping or defensive strategies to be viable. That helped me over and over again.
Finally, remember that you should only be working on stuff that thrills you. That you love. There's almost no money in this hobby, so don't run headlong into a wall for something that makes you miserable. When you're failing, simply make the decision to re-align towards success.
Design downhill. Design such that you're always smiling. Find a great idea, and work it until it succeeds, or becomes a bad idea.
Fail fast, fail often, fail happily, and use it to strengthen your craft.
Assignment: Evaluate your current idea. Is it a failure? Is it the game you should be making? Is there another game you'd rather make? This isn't an invitation to get distracted, or stop making progress. It's an invitation to fail and be fine with that.