Feel the 'Spiel

Protospiel is a yearly event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a gathering for game designers to play each others' prototypes, gather feedback, socialize, and meet with publishers. It is an event I very much wish to attend. When I put out feelers asking for a guest writer to cover Protospiel, Darrell Hardy matched me with Chris Oltyan. Chris agreed and here we are! 

In many ways, this is a post about the differences between video game development (a career) and board game development (a passion). As a 7 year veteran of the game industry, much of Chris' commentary makes sense to me. One of the primary reasons I design board games in the first place is to give me a "release valve," i.e. a way for me to be creative entirely on my terms. I included a few notes in the post, so forgive me for that.

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

I am a 12 year veteran of the video game industry, but recently I decided I needed a change. I love video games, but the time was right for me to leave the industry (at least for now) to spend some time with my kids. This is not a quality of life article, but others in the industry can feel free to read the subtext in that statement. I served as producer and designer on approximately 25 shipped products. In my copious free time, I started a paper prototype for a mechanic for an MMO I wanted to make. After seeing my pretend budget for my pretend game, I decided to press forward and make it as a board game instead of waiting for someone to send me $35 million. By the way, if you are interested in handing me $35 million, please make the check payable to Chris Oltyan and comment below to coordinate the deposit into my account.

Over the past 4 years I’ve spent time here and there polishing my boardgame.  This is a zombie themed boardgame, but I started it way before it was cool to do it on Kickstarter. After leaving my job, which had a pretty restrictive employment agreement, I picked up the discarded pieces and began to actually assemble the game. I used Protospiel as a motivator to finish it.

Editor's Note: Often times in creative industries, employees are forced to sign agreements that prohibit them from developing things outside of work, OR maintaining ownership of these things. For example, I must get permission for every game I hope to publish, including Poor Abby and Empire Reborn. Some companies are more restrictive than others. 

I was conducting about one playtest each week 1 month leading into Protospiel and have probably tested earlier versions 20-30 times. I tested primarily with video game developers (programmers, artists, and designers), as well as a few folks who have worked in the board game industry. I thought I had a pretty well balanced game and I was hoping to get feedback on whether or not my particular flavor of zombies was a worthwhile addition to the genre.

So what is Protospiel about?

Protospiel was an amazingly informative and helpful venue compared to the video game conferences I've attended. Conferences I'd been to previously would involve conversations between designers like:

"What are you working on? Can't say? Well, neither can I. So, how's the weather?"

Protospiel was a welcome and open setting where people showed work in a variety of stages and worried more about whether or not their mechanics were achieving their goals rather than who might steal their idea. In fairness to video game designers, this isn't a choice they make as individuals, but often is a result of corporate policies, non-disclosure agreements, and a general paranoia that seems to permeate game studios. Sure, there may be some discussion around game theories, but show and tell is often not legally possible.

Protospiel had a great crew present of designers, publishers, and testers. Unlike feedback from video gamers (i.e. "Dude, you need to add [awesome feature in person's head that costs 1 million dollars to implement that 3 people including person you're talking to will actually care about] to this game!") Protospiel was more like "Have you considered [elegant mechanic from game I either designed or played] to solve this problem here?" This is a bit of an gross generalization, but it just felt like everyone cared about games a ton and had useful, practical experience in making games that they were happy to share.

Editor's Note: One of the problems of the video game industry is that costs have skyrocketed. This is one of the reasons so many developers have shifted to lower cost platforms, like the iPhone, web browsers, or Facebook. Many people outside of the development team don't realize that a "simple" feature could cost months of development and millions of dollars.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a board game designer is often responsible for every aspect of his prototype. He knows all the problems with the design intimately, from the implementation of mechanics to UI and information display. Board game designers are generally not part of a team, they ARE the team, and that concentration of experience really helps to understand what does and doesn't work in board games.

Was it Worth Going?

My ticket to protospiel was $45 and my hotel was $65 a night (compared to $1600 + $200 a night for GDC). I was able to playtest my game 2-3 times a day with different people and received good feedback on my game's mechanics every time. All the designers and publishers I tested with were able to point me to examples of work they thought I could reference and helped me pinpoint issues with the game. I will be spending the next year getting ready to show the fruits of that labor, and that’s okay. People at Protospiel understand that boardgames are a labor of love for those who design it and are close enough to the ground where they get to indulge in the privilege of waiting for a game to be “right” before shipping it.

Editor's Note: One of the primary sources of frustration for developers in the digital industry are having to ship a game before it's ready in order to meet a deadline. Nothing is worse than spending 4 years on a game and shipping it in a bad state when it needed just 6 more months.

This was such a great opportunity I asked if I could run my own satellite 'spiel. The organization is not even a company, just a bunch of passionate designers who felt that up and coming creators could really use the benefit of other experienced designers.  David Whitcher, the organizer of the event, said that it took several years before a consistent crew of people were bringing in games that were almost publish ready.  Let me just repeat that: Several Years.

To me, Protospiel helped me remember that making games can be about the game itself, and not the market budget, upcoming conference, or arbitrary ship date.  Protospiel demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if you have an idea for a game and are willing to put in the effort, you can make something amazing and fun. For that alone it’s well worth the price of admission.

Those are my thoughts on the conference.  I’ll also be pulling together my notes on the games that I played and talk about how the feedback process worked for a follow-up post.

Comments

Nice to see you had a great time a Protospiel! Was yours the game with the modeled brains? I think I saw that out a few times. How many other games were you able to playtest?

Understandable. Being that I'm pretty non-plussed with the options of he/she (though I prefer "she" to "he" to combat the general historical trends towards the male pronoun as the default), I tend towards they as it really does let everyone be included (including those who don't feel attached to binary gender roles).

That said, "they" has been a preference of mine before I got political about gender issues, so... ;)

Ultimately, I think I read somewhere else, that what matters is consistency.

Beyond the language usage, it was nice to read the protospiel report. I like the idea of mini-cons or whatever. I know of 2 board game design meetups in our area (one of which I attended and look forward to going to more), but a regional or statewide thing would be a great idea. Kind of like Burning Man has regional "burns". Maybe this is something the community can move forward with eventually.

Ha, fair enough. I should state then that this is a preference of mine. Furthermore, I've received rules feedback from publishers to use the he/she instead of their/they.

Wikipedia has this to say:

"Generic they

Generic he has been a preference in usage, not a binding grammatical "rule", as Thackeray's use of both forms demonstrates. "The alternative to the masculine generic with the longest and most distinguished history in English is the third-person plural pronoun. Recognized writers have used they, them, themselves, and their to refer to singular nouns such as one, a person, an individual, and each since the 1300s."[28]"

For what it's worth, I changed it to "he" as the "their" and "theys" weren't correct. You'll notice in many board game rules that designers use "he" or "she" almost at random. For example, in Farmageddon I used feminine, but in Empire Reborn I use masculine. It's not commentary on gender or those playing, really, it's just that for grammatical and clarity purposes you should pick one and stick to it.

I wouldn't worry too much :)

On re-reading, I noticed that I only included "he" as a pronoun for this article. While not strictly intentional, it's worth noting that I didn't see any female designers with a prototype at the conference. Having no statistical data on the board game industry, its hard to say if this is typical, but a negative of the conference was the fact that it was so one sided. Board game designers were making games, by in large, for themselves. There were some notable exceptions, but I'll cover that in the next part to this.