2005-11-15: With a little help from my friends..
So, this is partly a response to Meg's post about the suck of having an idea, and partly just some musings on design & feedback based on what I've experienced.
Like the proverbial iceberg, the designed game is just a tiny part of a much larger whole. It is the output of a long, complex process. And the author, who must take the praise & blame for what comes out, ain't really alone in the journey, though it may seem that way. Instead—at least in our little corner of the gaming culture—other people's input, encouragement & hiney whipping are pivotal in getting these games out on the floor.
There are the obvious other folks to which a great debt is owed: editors, artists, layout designers, etc. Few of us can be a one designer show. We can't all be Keith Senkowski. (go Keith!) But, long before all that, when the game is just an itty bitty gleam in somebody's post on indie-design, other folks can make all the difference.
I remember when I was floating the idea for Breaking the Ice. Chris Weeks, Ben Lehman, Jonathan Walton and others let me know they really liked the idea. Steve Dustin sent me a pm encouraging me to work on Rise Up back in 2003, and that still means something to me: it's an affirmation that, no, it's not just me who thinks something is cool, and that the idea is worth investing in. That's important, because you need that kind of belief to get you through the long journey into doubt that design can be.
Next stop from there was finding my place in the herd: Iron Game Chef-Simulationist (remember it used to be by gns? long ago & far away. : ) I've said this many times, but probably can't say it enough, doing this project broke me through psychological barriers that were keeping me from designing. It's like running a marathon with others, being part of the group helps you believe you can do it when alone you'd give up. Just having finished it (well, as finished as you get from a contest like that, which is to say, it's an idea, a sketch of game which can then be developed & fleshed out) made me look at myself & the endeavour a whole new way.
And another aspect of the contest was getting feedback from others. Mike Holmes, you are still my hero for giving feedback on all those games by yourself. (And props to Ron for th e Ronnies, too, *whistle*) This is huge, though and is part of the next long part of critical input: mentoring & feedback. I would love to hear from others who have finished games whether they had people who mentored them in the process, or had lots of feedback from friends & advisors. This is, in effect, what the Forge is all about. It is one big cauldron of feedback from the (well-moderated and well-informed) masses & is a great place to get insight from those who have journeyed on a bit before us on the trail. Talking with Vincent and Ben about my mechanics made BtI a better game, and helped me believe I could finish it. Also, both of them were key play testers for me, which brings me to the next bit...
Playtesting is the design gauntlet. There must be a phrase for this in engineering—trial and error, putting the rubber to the road. Having other human beings use the procedures you set up to create stories & play roles like you envisioned. Nothing could be more scary or more useful. And aside from the incredible practical use the feedback playtest gives you, it also is a tremendous encouraging shove, again, to finish it. When Tom Russell told me he wanted to play BtI with his gaming group in the Boston area, I was just floored. And those valiant early playtesters who get to hit the bugs which they relieve others from running into, purple heart for gaming to you all. : ) And always, always, it is such an honor & compliment to have other folks like what you've created. That never ends. And actual play write ups are the single best way to communicate what a game is about. Other people make this work.
So, mileage may vary for other folks on how it was & is for them, but looking back that's what I see. I hope that helps make it seem a little more doable, Meg.
2005-11-15 08:34:40 MDS
Well here I am trying to work on the game Jake and I are designing and this weekend tried to get a first draft of a playtest ruleset. Things are going well, except I can't think what to write in the Setting section even though he and I have discussed it several times. Then I lose everything. All gone. Back to square one. Oh well will teach me to save more often.
So far I have a very few people to thank, as does Jake of those who have encouraged us to make our game which has no assurance of being readable let alone playable. Thanks to those of you. As for Ben, I will find time I hope before x-mas to playtest your game. We (Charles and I) have had a couple of talks about it.
As for Breaking the Ice. Its a wonderful game and I'm glad you wrote it Emily. It possesses a certain Emilyness about it which is unmistakeable.
2005-11-15 14:11:43 Em
Oh no! Panty explosion is gone! Ack. Do you want me to send you the emails you sent to me way back? Don't give up. I know you have a public that's waiting for this game. : )
Bliss Stage is awesome. I got to playtest it recently. Hope you get to soon.
emilyness, hee. Thanks, Matt.
2005-11-15 17:09:43 ScottM
Actually, the process has worked the other way for me. I've enjoyed watching the design of many games and enjoyed playing some of the products. They tend to be fascinating; if I was playing more, I'd order even more.
I realized that I'm not really interested in the hard work of design. Much like my younger "I'd like to be a novelist" phase... really, given time and interest constraints I'd rather play your games and read other people's novels than write. Fortunately, there's a whole lot going on (in the blog/Forge scene) that makes the gaming better (and more varied) too.
Thanks for all the hard work.
2005-11-15 17:32:01 Em
That's neat. I hadn't thought of the process of design as a cool thing to watch. But it is—I love hearing about what other folks do & getting to help (or hinder : ) the process.
I realized that I'm not really interested in the hard work of design.
That's a good thing to realize. I feel like I'm at that point in my life where things are shaking down. I'm finding out what I really am into & can let go of the other things that I like but not quite enough to actually do.
Although there is a whole nother conversation here about what is complete, what is enough? (WRT design, that is) There is a wide range of outcomes that could all equal "I'm done with this game & am satisfied with what it has given me, and maybe other people". Publishing online, playing with your friends, on to printing out and up to international distribution etc.
And, Scott, thank you! You're very welcome. : )
2005-11-15 19:43:30 James
Death's Door had two critical instances of feedback for me, in the "makes it worth continuing" sense. When Myrna read it and said "I really want to play this!" and when Mike read it and said "Um... I don't think this is a game I want to play."
From a design POV, critical feedback came from (as always) Eric/Harlequin, and from my sister-in-law (an avid boardgamer and infrequent LARPer), who agreed (when called up out of the blue) to give it a read and said "It looks cool, but I don't get how to play."
The playtest cycle for DD should have been longer, but it also gave crucial feedback and resulted in some of the sidebars to fill holes.
I'm currently working on (crawling through) an essay which talks about all of this in more detail, breaking down the design process I went through, and I hope it becomes a useful contribution to the forge body of designers and would-be designers. It's a hard slog getting it out, though.
Also, in the realm of total asides: found my copy of BtI again, and am probably going to try the 'making new friends is hard' version with my 5 year old soon. Just need to find an evening when we're both not-tired and the younger kids are down early. I'll let you know how it works.
2005-11-15 20:18:07 Josh BishopRoby
I believe the engineering term for it is "Crash Testing". :)
2005-11-15 21:25:11 Matt Wilson
Totally! To everything you writed. Especially the encouragement of good feedback. Feedback rules.
Except it's still just as hard for me to get as much feedback and playtesting as I'd like, because now it seems as if everyone's designing a game of their own. That's kind of a cool reason, though.
2005-11-16 05:47:59 Ben Lehman
Emily is being really modest, here, by not mentioning that the whole talking-based conflict thing which everyone raves about in Polaris is, essentially, hers.
2005-11-17 20:57:53 Matt Snyder
What Matt Wilson said. Boy, I'm really feeling—and living—this post, Emily. I think many of us are. Thanks!
2005-11-23 18:37:47 Jason M
Feedback is so important and can really validate your work.
At the time Ron wrote an Actual Play post (an Actual Play post!) about the Roach, put it in Ken Hite's hands, and praised it, I had sort of consigned it to an ignoble, languishing fate. Just hearing about his session was enough to make me realize the design had potential and that it was possible for me to finish it.
One post completely turned around my perception of my own game, which is simultaneously very cool and very uncool. I need to work on that.
2005-11-23 18:58:02 Emily Care
I think you are not alone. I, at least, am right there with you.
BtI 100% got finished because of feedback I got, and I was thinking about some of the games that got finished this year: Mountain Witch, Polaris. It's my impression that these games got similar support & feedback at critical junctures. (And they kick ass, just like the Roach.)
My question would be whether our experiences are perhaps the rule rather than the exception?
2005-11-24 02:45:22 Ben Lehman
Polaris ran under my own steam for about a year, but then went *kerplat* Emily and Meg and Vincent really saved the game.