When I started Dangercube I had a couple of design goals in mind. Weirdly enough, the initial impetus came from playing Camel Up! – I game I didn’t expect to like as much as I did – and then wanting to make a game about betting which was a little more involved. The sort of wasteland or high-tech arenas you see in a lot of R-Rated sci-fi seemed like a great sort of setting for this.
I’m also lucky enough to have a friend who is an exceptional graphic designer and character artist who likes post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk stuff. So, knowing he had a bit of a penchant for brutal Ameritrash games, I thought that with him in mind as a potential artist in future – I’d design a game with him in mind as the target audience. Side note: I’d highly recommend trying to design with a specific person in mind – especially if your tastes don’t always line up.
I’d watched some videos of Spartacus being played and read about some other gladiatorial combat games. I wanted to make something lighter and a bit less dice-rolly and simulationist, with the emphasis mainly on the hidden agendas of the players themselves.
After I’d tested out a few different mechanics, I ended up settling on a glossy cyberpunk (or more specifically “neon-punk”) setting for the game. While a post-apocalyptic wasteland arena would be identical to the Roman model in a lot of ways, a corporate-sponsored futuristic bloodsport hints toward elements like heavy body modification, with players acting more as corporate sponsors and, therefore, not necessarily “owning” any one fighter outright.
I’ve recently been working on an entry for a boardgame design contest! Woo! Maid in Sherwood is my entry into the Game Crafter Hidden Movement Game Design Contest which ran for 2 months (up until October 23rd 2017). If you haven’t heard of The Game Crafter before, it’s a sort of self-publishing/print-on-demand site for tabletop games.
This post is going to cover:
Brief summary of the game itself
Findings during the design/testing process
General takeaways regarding the contest itself
Maid in Sherwood is a game of hidden movement, special roles and trickery for 2-5 players.
One player will take on the role of the nerfarious Maid Marian, hiding and moving stealthily through Sherwood forest, attempting to outwit their pursuers and capture the wagons of wealthy merchants on their way to the City of Nottingham. The other player – or players – will take on the roles of numerous Guardsmen employed by the tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham to hunt down and eliminate Marian’s men. They must use foresight, teamwork and an arsenal of special skills to protect the merchants.
Overall my personal objectives for Maid in Sherwood were to:
First and foremost, to make a complete, playable game that people liked and which looked reasonably cool.
Make a hidden movement game in which no paper/pencil was needed to track hidden player position.
1: First Prototype
Here’s the first prototype. The path is deliberately 12 “moves” long, and the river is there as an optional element to maybe add a bit of complexity to the guard’s decisions later on (I initially told testers it was just for decoration).
My initial findings were that the outside of the board didn’t really get used much by either of my Robins, and that they also found it difficult to keep track of where they’d hidden their troops. I had to work out whether the “memory game” aspect of this role was just part of the gameplay, or an unnecessary annoyance. However, it did introduce a further element of potential bluffing around their reactions to seeing the bottoms of tokens they’d picked up. I also wondered if the samey, hexagonal geography of the forest itself might be part of the problem.
2: Introducing More Asymmetry, Getting Closer
The unique guard powers were present in the earlier iterations, and I was pretty pleased with the table-talk that these generated. The Guard players were allowed to determine their own turn order, and this alone seemed to make them feel like they were collectively owning their strategy, rather than – as in some co-op games – waiting for their set turn to come around and then being told what to do.
The Blue player was, at this point, the “Stablehand” – who could – like the Dispatcher in Pandemic – move other Player’s pawns about for them during their turn. I think I wanged this particular special ability in there purely because it was quickly recognisable to my player group. I don’t know why (I hate the Dispatcher – the Dispatcher should be banned!) Safe to say this special ability was later taken out and replaced with a “you get more actions but can’t capture” Guard (called the Squire).
3: Hexagons Begone!
By the time I got to redesigning the board I had well and truly run out of time to play-test and needed to make some reasonably drastic tweaks to get the game into the state I wanted before the deadline. The final iteration of the board included:
A much more organic asymmetrical play-space which is quicker to move across, and where either side has the advantage in different spots
3 possible paths for the 5 merchants to come down in any given game (marked as Lincoln, York and Derby in vaguely geographically-correct points of the map, and randomised by a D6)
No rivers, but “black paths” included to create a special shortcuts usable only by the black pawn – the Scout.
For this bit of design, I used an Diagramming/Flowchart app called Shapes, which is really useful if you want to connect a bunch of nodes by bendy lines and then move the nodes around and have the lines move with them.
4: In Which The Board Looks Sexy But I Leave Writing the Rules Til the Last Minute
A long night of coffee, Photoshop and public domain medieval maps later, and I ended up here with it:
I also made the decision to illustrate the player role cards using animals from (public domain) medieval heraldry. This just looked a little sleeker than any of my other attempts to hack together images of actual people:
Although I’d liked to have given this last iteration a few more tests before submitting, the final hurdle I really struggled with the rulebook – or a lack thereof. Throughout the design process I’d kept notes on how various parts of the game were meant to work, but I’d never really committed them to a single, ordered document for blind testing or anything like that. In future I’ll probably be more aware that this is something I avoid and try to pay more conscious attention to it.
A very enthusiastic, clever teenager I work with keeps telling me about these ideas he has for comics or games. I feel kinda mean doing it, but my response is always been the same; “How are you going to make this idea into a thing that I can consume?”. This is because I’ve been in his position. And now I’m a 28 year old dude with 2 kids still figuring out how to make my ideas into actual things.
Ideas are like seeds. No amount of talking is going to turn that seed into a tree. Maybe if you’re standing very close to the seed, so that your talking inadvertently provides it with an abundant source of CO2, and you’re simultaneously providing it with the right amount of water and the right type of soil. I don’t really know where this metaphor is going anymore.
It’s a harsh lesson, but anyone who wants to spend their adult life paying the bills while making entertaining or expressive work needs to learn it quick and fast. I’ve done a string of creative things in different media, some successful, some not so much. I’ve learnt the hard way that ideas alone have very little value. Think of the worst movie or TV show you’ve ever watched. It’s often the case that the central idea could’ve been something you enjoyed, had the execution been different.
Adjust Your Expectations
The trouble is – particularly for newer game designers who tend to think in terms of stories and settings rather than mechanics – the thing in our head is so often at odds with what we’re realistically able to achieve. Take that cool videogame idea in your head. If it’s mainly a narrative thing; could you make it into a Twine or Adventure Game Studio thing? If it’s mainly a mechanic thing, could you boil it down to a small arcade game first, or even something analogue using cards or dice?
Keep asking yourself these sort of questions and you’re already well on your way to Actually Finishing A Thing.
One friend of mine wrote a really great script for a sort of sci-fi comedy TV thing. It was a great script with humour and pathos, and I genuinely think I would have rated it highly even if this guy wasn’t a friend. After sending it off to THE TV PEOPLE and getting no reply, my friend had plans to cast the thing and shoot it himself. I keep trying to get him in the studio to make it into a Hitchhikers’ Guide radio-play/podcast, because that would be far easier to self-produce and it would take off easier in that format, with a potential conversion to TV later. Even with the script written, that idea is still very much a seed. It’s still just that.
So when I hear aspiring creatives talk about their ideas, I think about the unheeded advice I gave my friend: Don’t write a script for a relatively-high budget TV series that will never be made, make a script for a dramatized audio play and then make the thing. In order to do this, you have to adjust your expectations so that the thing you want to make is feasible. I’m sure you can already see parallels with the way that every aspiring developers wants to make a VERY BIG RPG (see here for my own VERY BIG RPG).
Do It Yourself
So you write down all your game ideas into a game design document and set about finding people to help you. The reality is that even if you’ve spent what seems like an eternity writing those ideas out, your programmer, artist, sound person etc. are all going to have to put in more work than you.
If they’re any good (i.e. they’re able to work to the standard of the Unrealistic Thing You Have in Your Head) then they’re unlikely to trust you enough to work for free. If they’re any good, they’re probably already regularly working freelance for people who finish projects. You’re an unknown quantity to them, and seeing as you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume that you’re not wealthy enough to pay a team of people to water and feed your idea seed for you. Where does this leave you?
Well first off, you can start practicing an additional creative role, like programming or graphics. Make something that looks like it has enough potential for other people to want to work on it with you. I personally have been modding games since I was a teenager, and did a little bit of BASIC as a younger kid – I can’t really code, but I can use Stencyl and similar programs, so I’ve opted for making my own 2D assets. This is a slow process! But I did do art and design up until university, and I do believe that anyone with a good enough eye can do visual art if they stick at it.
Part of this, again, comes down to readjusting expectations. So you can draw buildings but not characters? Great; make a game with buildings and no characters! (This is exactly what I’ve been doing with Beatopia). After a few hours messing about in Illustrator or Inkscape you can draw characters but they are kind of childlike and derpy? Great! Make a game that makes good use of that! Maybe you want to practice drawing static, un-animated characters? Then spend a little time working in a game genre that will allow you to practice that (a visual novel, for example).
Adjust your visual expectations! Think of all the web series that are quite loved but use quite simple drawing styles but are very loved (The Meatly, Cyanide and Happiness etc.). I hope Ben Ward and Dan Mashall won’t mind me using them as an example; but their adventure games Ben There, Dan That! And Time Gentleman, Please! are really good examples of this. The developers did what they could do at the time, and now one of them (Marshall) has gone on to make The Swindle and other games while outsourcing the artwork/animation jobs. Your art can be simple, just set yourself some basic rules (consistent approach to palette, line thicknesses, stuff like that) and roll with them.
Although it hasn’t always seemed that way, the choices for me over last couple of years have been simple;
readjust my expectations to something I can make and finish myself
pay awesome artists and programmers with my non-existent family fortune
never make games at all and just cry in the dark instead
One of those things is impossible and one is kinda sad. So I scale down my projects until they’re things where I can realistically do all or most of the work myself. If you’re constantly buzzing with ideas, then paring that list down to the viable ones can actually be quite liberating, allowing you to focus on brushing up whatever skills you need. And all those people who are better than you are coding or art or narrative design are never going to come and work for you until you’ve proven that you are a person who finishes stuff. I’m still getting there.
So when I say to adjust your expectations, the same goes for mechanical features too. If you’re new to game-making and coding then you will probably have similar experiences to me. Standard game systems; things like dialogue boxes and inventory systems that we take for granted in software like RPG Maker – these are a pain in the butt to put together. Does your game really need a massive inventory system where you can slide things around? Have you ever tried to build one of those from scratch?
And finally, the most important question you should ask yourself: are there ways in which your game might actually be a better,tighter experienceif you don’t include this or that complicated (but taken-for-granted in AAA) feature? Maybe the game would be more strategically interesting if your characters only have 3 inventory slots. Maybe your game will be emotive and immersive if you chop out those 10 screens of expository text [that you didn’t even write very well anyway]. Remember earlier when I asked if your game would work as a card game or a Twine project? Keep asking yourself how you can chop that Ridiculously Ambitious Idea down into Something You Might Eventually Finish. And in doing so you can reflect on whether the feature bloat we see as ‘standard’ in some genres of game is actually good design in the first place.
So, what is your ‘minimum viable product’?
I’ve been talking to a successful graphics guy I know about making some sort of visual novel in the near future. Something where I can concentrate primarily on narrative/world design type stuff and he can really flex his muscles at making static monster and character portraits. He’s an artist but he’s also a business-dude, so his approach is very pragmatic and informed by lots of TED talks by wealthy successful types; what is your minimum viable product. Those of us who are more artsy don’t like thinking of what we do as product (and that’s perhaps why he’s making a living solely off of design right now, and I’m not).
To understand minimum viable product in relation to games or similar work, you need to imagine what you’re trying to make, and pare it down to the version of that thing that will get the most buzz with the least effort. It’s less risk – it’s putting less eggs in a single basket. But mainly because it’s a way of getting as many of those cool ideas to fruition. If your game is narrative heavy, can you release it episodically, giving people the first part of an overarching story while only having to produce the content for a quarter of the whole game? If your game is more of a mechanical, arcadey affair, can you work toward an early version with less levels just to build some buzz?
Throughout this post I’ve been emphasising just getting something finished. Make a thing and put it on The Internet! Getting feedback and validation from players you’ve never met is so important to growing and keeping yourself going. But also, if you can start to get a trickle of money coming in from itch.io or an appstore or similar, then you’re on your way to becoming a professional.
Unfortunately we live in a world where the worth of what someone does is judged by whether and how much they get paid. “Oh, Jennifer’s wedding band is getting so many bookings she is only working at the office part-time now!” said the person who thought Jennifer could never have a career in music.
Those around you – your immediate emotional support network who may know or care little about games – will often need to see those first steps being taken, in order to take you seriously and to be able to fully get behind what you do and let you get on with it. That’s not people being mean, it’s just realistic in a world where everyone has a ‘good idea for a game’ but isn’t willing to put in the grind to make it.
But I’m only an expert in how to fail!
So feel free to share any further tips or opinions you have in the comments.