Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Design As Disease

Maybe it’s because my first game was about medicine or that my dad’s a doctor. Or, most likely, it’s that everyone’s talking about Pandemic: Legacy. (Damn you, April.) But I was thinking recently about how designing a game follows the same course as an illness – and I’m all about over-extending my metaphors. So let’s do this thang.

Stage 1 – The Germ of an Idea
The Symptoms: This germ can come from anywhere. Maybe you’re at a game day and someone says, “I’m working on a game about building fences,” and you suddenly catch an idea. Or you’re flipping through your notebook and you notice something that came to you in a dream that you feverishly wrote down - and then promptly forgot when you drifted back off to sleep. Or maybe you’re driving with a friend and they tell you about an idea they want to work on.


Unlike getting sneezed on, though, with design, this process is awesome. But like getting sneezed on, you can’t really control whether or not an idea grabs you. There’s part of getting drawn into a design idea that’s a nearly-physical reaction. That spike of adrenaline at a really exciting idea. The elevation in someone’s voice when they talk about that new thing they just thought of. That’s where it starts.

And in some ways, you can’t control it. I wasn’t going to enter the Greater Than Games Meta-Game contest. I really wasn’t. And then I did one solo and co-designed another one. I just caught the bug…

The Treatment: Nurture the idea – unless you’re in the middle of working on something else that needs your full attention. Unlike a cold, it’s great to catch this kind of bug.

Stage 2 – The Next Big Thing!!!
The Symptoms: When the illness really gets you, even if it’s just a cough, it feels like nothing has ever been this bad - or will ever be this bad again. A couple months ago, I said to my wife, “Yeah, I had mono, but I actually think this cold is worse.” And, somehow, stupidly, I meant it.

This is especially true for the first time you get really sick in a new way – or the first time you design a game. Every designer who has done multiple games has told me that they had the same first-game experience: the first one is the one that you’re most attached to, the one that is going to be the biggest. It almost never is.

But in this stage, we can really lose perspective. I think part of that is because of the potential of the game at that point. In your head, as Jeff King of All Us Geeks is fond of saying, it’s all fireworks and explosions before you play your prototype for the first time.

Aesop Rock's "The Next Big Thing"

The Treatment: In the video above, Aesop Rock is right – even if he’s hard to understand him. The risk of this stage is that you’ll keep starting something new rather than polishing and publishing your older stuff. Those designs that haven’t been fleshed out yet seem like they’re going to be so good – the "greatest thing ever thung".

Still, any creative endeavor is tough, so this stage is absolutely vital to being able to continue with it. We need to think that the thing we’re working on is the greatest thing ever thung. Otherwise, we’d just shrug, quit, and go back to re-watching Jessica Jones.

Ten, I didn't know I could hate you...

The Symptoms: When I’ve been sick for long enough (the second morning I wake up sick, to be exact), I start thinking, “Well, I’m just going to be sick forever. This is the new normal. Time to adjust to watching Nexflix and eating only rice and vegetable broth.” And after I’ve been poking at a game design for a few months, I start thinking, “Well, this is never going to be fixed. I’m not a real game designer. I should just rewatch something on Netflix.”

What’s happening here is that you’ve become so attuned to everything that’s wrong either with your body or with your game that every little thing takes on a much, much greater import than it actually has. That little ache in your back is a sign that you’ll be sick forever. That one mechanic that feels a little bit off is going to be the thing that makes your game totally unplayable forever.

Because of that, this is where the allure of The Next Big Thing!!! is particularly problematic. That new idea is exciting and world changing and already perfect! This old idea is dumb and old and unfixable. But, of course, if you abandon the project, you’ll just hit the UUUUUGGGHHH stage on the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that…

No! This one will be different!!
The Treatment: Have a good playtesting group with people whose opinions you respect. When I was working on a silly little trick-taking game that has definitely hit this stage, I played it with Jay Treat, Chris Zinsli, and JR Honeycutt. (Thanks, Metatopia!!) The game ended, I said, “Well, that sucked a lot,” and the three of them disagreed. They’d played an earlier version, and all agreed that it was still moving in the right direction.

It just feels like it will just never go away and never get better. But it will. Just like you can see that your temperature is going down even if you still feel like death itself, playtesters you trust can help you know that the game is getting better.

Stage 4A – It Spreads & Mutates…
The Symptoms: Part of the way that a game improves is through this playtesting process and this repeated iteration. In this way, design is probably most closely related to disease: if it’s going to survive, it has to mutate. As Seth Jaffee pointed out, no game is done in a week – just as diseases keep adapting or they die out.

You need to iterate your designs in order to make it better. Some of the changes are going to be terrible. Not every adaptation is a good one – and that’s okay.

Yeah. Looking at you, Skin. Your mutation is dumb.

It’s also important at this stage to know when to let it go or to hold off on ideas until an expansion rather than continuing to tweak the base game. Ivan Turner, creator of ApocalypZe, is still mutating that game, but he’s a smart enough designer to know that these have to be expansions and that the base game is done. Otherwise, the risk is that you could revise forever and never put a great game out.

When you’re looking carefully at the mechanics, you start to see all the little ways to play with it, all of the basic assumptions about the game that you’ve taken for granted at first – and this can be a really great way to iterate. Just as you can see everything that’s minutely wrong with it thanks to UUUUUGGGHHH, you can see all its possibilities, too.

The Treatment: Unlike disease, where my goal is always to kill it before it changes too much and makes the antibodies or immunizations ineffective (#PandemicLegacy), when designing, this is perhaps the most important part of the process. You need to mutate the game until it’s the strongest it can be.

In this stage, too, you need to trust your playtesters is to believe them when they tell you the game is done. If you’ve heard that enough, it’s time to take it to a publisher – or self-publish.

...if you're into the whole self-publishing thing.

Stage 4B – ...or It Dies
The Symptoms: But sometimes, games aren’t going to be made good no matter how much they mutate. You might have to know when to let it die. Any disease that can’t mutate fast enough is headed for extinction, and any game that can’t improve with successive iterations is headed for the same. And that’s okay.

The Treatment: If it really hits this stage, just let it die. There’s nothing wrong with that; you’ll have another idea for a game, just as sure as you’ll get a cold this winter. Don’t be too fast to get to this stage, though. UUUUUGGGHHH can feel a lot like this – but it isn’t. Trust your playtesters, and if they agree that it’s not getting better and it might be time to kill it and move on to The Next Big Thing!!!

Stage 5A – Out in the World…
The Symptoms: Eventually, a disease moves to the larger world. And eventually, if it survives the mutation process, your game will do the same. An old boss of mine used to joke that you get rid of a cold by giving it to someone else. It’s sort of true for games. At a certain point, the best way to be done with it is to give it to someone else.

The Treatment: Let the game out. Let other people play it and enjoy it. That’s the goal, right? Then again, maybe you just want to make a lot of money.

If so, good choice of industry, Slick.

Stage 5B: ...and/or Over It
The Symptoms: If you get here, there aren’t symptoms anymore. You’re cured. You’re free. You can move on to the next thing with a clear mind – whether the game made it to the world or not.

But, some people don’t really get to this stage. Some people stay obsessed with the same game forever. This sort of continued obsession can be good – if it leads to interesting, transformative expansions. As I mentioned before, I think what Ivan’s done with ApocalypZe is a positive example of iterative design for expansions.

But, in some cases, it’s best to move on to the next idea, applying what you learned from this one and doing something new. If you feel like the game has run its course, that’s the best thing to do.

It’s also important to note while 4A and 4B are mutually exclusive, 5A and 5B aren’t. Your game could be out in the world and you could never want to look at it again or develop it further. I love me some UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, but it doesn’t interest me as a design to tweak anymore (though I do still enjoy playing it with fellow designers). Just because a game is published doesn’t mean a person wants to do expansions.

Insert obvious Munchkin joke here.

The Treatment: Get sick again.

Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic Doctor, UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're Fired. He has other designs in the works, too - because that's what designers do. When Doug's not designing, writing articles, sleeping, or playing Star Realms on his phone, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on Walden and Maus at the time of publication. You can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.