An early game idea

“I designed a game last week…”

Ever hear an amateur designer say something like that? It seems like I’ve heard it a lot lately.

Ever hear a professional designer say something like that? Me neither. Do you know why?

Because OF COURSE you didn’t design a game last week!

It takes longer than a week to conceive a game idea, organize thoughts on it into rules, build a prototype, test that prototype, consider feedback, update the prototype, test it again, evaluate the game experience, update the prototype, etc, etc, etc… it almost takes a week just to talk about it!

People who say things like that are conflating “designing a game” with “conceiving a game.” If you tell me you had a game idea last week, fine. If you tell me you started designing a game last week, we’re good. If you tell me you wrote a preliminary rule set for a game last week, I’m with you. But when you talk about designing a game (in the past tense), it becomes much too easy to confuse “I started designing a game” with “I finished designing a game,”

and anyone who knows anything about designing things will tell you that those two are very, very different.

Perhaps this is a semantics issue. Perhaps the common definition of “designing a game” is in fact “conceiving a game idea,” and I’m the only one who uses that terminology for a finished design. But I worry things go deeper than that. I worry that the designer community is popularizing the idea that design is just invention, and invention is the important thing…

Allow me to clarify:

Invention is an important part of design.

All good games require a spark of invention before they can come to life. Where this becomes a problem is when designers invent, but don’t go through the effort to develop their games to completion.

I’ve heard some designers suggest that development is the publisher’s job. If a publisher is interested in signing a game idea and then developing it into a finished game themselves, then that’s fine — more power to them. I listened to a podcast recently where the designer of Trove explained that a publisher liked the idea of the game so much that after signing, they developed it to the point that the designer didn’t know what to expect when he sat down to play the final version. I myself have taken on projects for TMG that were unfinished designs, and spent months developing them. I can’t speak for other publishers (or other developers), but in my case, most of those projects were ones I came across and invited – not games that were pitched to me as submissions.

Coming up with good ideas is easy. Every designer I know has notebooks full of ideas that could make great games.

The hard work of game design is in implementing that idea – bringing it from a concept to a fully fleshed out game.

An early game idea

This process can be fun and rewarding, and like any process it lends itself to being done in stages, sometimes by different people. But it’s important that games go through each of those stages! Nowadays it’s easier than ever to skip what I feel is the most important part of game design – the development which brings the game from invention to a finished product. As designers, we must be vigilant and not let this trend continue! We need to encourage our fellow designers to put the work in to complete their designs, or to collaborate with someone who will.

With the advent of crowdfunding, it’s easier than ever for designers to get their game published. If unsuccessful finding a publisher, a designer can take it upon themselves to self-publish with the help of Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Indeed, we’ve seen this happen, and it can be great! But you don’t need to look far to find threads of people bemoaning their Kickstarter purchases because they found that the game was underdeveloped.

Don’t let this happen to you!

As a representative of a publisher, I hear many pitches from designers hoping to sign their games and see them in print. The games pitched to me run the gamut from just a theme and a main mechanism, to fully thought out works of art. Unfortunately, I have started to see a trend toward the former – designers pitching their game ideas, intending that the publisher will finish the game for them. I’ve heard designers say they feel like development work is getting outsourced to the designer… To me that sounds completely backwards. Publishers aren’t outsourcing development to the designers – it’s the designer’s job to pitch a finished game! From my observation, it looks more like designers are outsourcing development to publishers.

I’ll end with the advice I always give designers:
“Don’t pitch a game to a publisher until you envision it on the store shelf as-is (design-wise), and are happy with that. Then also don’t be surprised or upset if a publisher wants to do some development changes.”

An early game idea

Seth Jaffee

Seth is a designer, developer, and player of strategic board and card games. He is Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games. You can find Seth at many game conventions, from Protospiel in Ann Arbor, to BGGcon in Dallas, to Strategicon in L.A. to name a few. Find him and play a game!

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  1. Fielmann on November 16, 2015

    I feel that I mostly disagree with this article. A game doesn’t need to have a certain quality to be called a game which means that there is nothing wrong with the sentence “I designed a game last week”. Chances are, of course, that the game is bad but it’s a game nevertheless.

    Whether such bad games should be pitched is something that the market ought to sort out. If publishers find it practicable to sign them and develop them further then all is good, if not then there’s still no harm done.

    As for underdeveloped games getting published through crowdfunding – it’s surely a problem but I feel it’s a somewhat unrelated topic. The designers that think that development should be done by publishers cannot logically be the ones that at the same time attempt to crowdfund half-baked games. Quality assurance in crowdfunding is a question of where the responsibility lies from the ethical and legal viewpoints and so it doesn’t really have much to do with game design or even game industry processes in the narrower sense.

    • Pat Marino on November 16, 2015

      I actually agree with Seth, and can understand how someone in his position, which involves reviewing and developing games, can be frustrated by this. If someone states that they designed a game last week, it implies that they are done with the process. This suggests to me that the designer is not tuned-in to the full reality of the amount of work it takes to get a game to publication. As far as casual conversation goes this may not be a problem, but when folks start pitching those games to publishers or putting them on kickstarter I would argue that it has an impact on THE DESIGNER.
      I suggest this because this is a small industry, and the way you approach design and pitching designs has an impact on whether or not publishers will want work with you. I think the point is that designers who say they finished a game design in a week, might feel it is truly finished, which tells a publisher they may not be open to playtester and publisher feedback, or might not be prepared to invest the time and energy needed to make great games.
      On the other hand, stating that you “made a first prototype” or “started designing a new game” indicates to designers and publishers that you understand the scope of the design process and are prepared to invest the time to playtest, adjust, and playtest again before going to publication. In other words, it signals to others that you might be easier to work with, which is an important thing to understand for anyone who is interested in designing games for the long haul.
      Along the theme for advice for designers – I would also add that expecting a significant amount of development from a publisher may be a mistake. Most publishers are small and I expect much of their staff time is devoted to production, distribution, promotion etc. My experience has been that publishers want a game that is solid – the mechanics work, the game is fun, play-testers are interested in owning a copy and playing again etc. Sure they are going to run some playtests of their own and offer suggestions, but they also should not be expected to uncover and fix broken mechanics. With that all said, that is just based on my experience, which has involved working with a few small publishers on development of my designs, all of which took months if not years of design, testing and development before I pitched them. To be fair I don’t have anything published just yet (getting close!) and I suppose it is possible that there are designers who can create incredible games in a short amount of time – I just don’t happen to be one of them.

  2. Brad Brooks on November 16, 2015

    My read of Seth’s point isn’t that he’s objecting to the person calling it a “game” but that they haven’t fulfilled the requirements of designing, therefore they have not yet designed a game.

  3. Dennis Hoyle on November 16, 2015

    Seth: Thanks for the post! I agree and I think it is simply part of being good at your craft to complete a finished work. There are all manner of lessons to learn from having to get your game from good to great. This reminds me of the adages of my high school art instructors who would always ask, “is it finished”? They knew something about this last and greatest step in the process and always pushed us to complete what we started. I think this is true of game design too.

  4. Brad Sims on November 16, 2015

    “I had an idea for a game last week.” = me every week. Or “I’m working on a game.” I’ve got a few games that I’m working on in various stages of doneness – from rough prototypes to a game that’s got everything but polished, printable instructions. And I STILL never say “I designed a game.”

  5. Philip duBarry on November 16, 2015

    Great article! I have certainly been guilty of this before–both saying the words and misjudging the amount of work still needed. Part of maturing as a game designer is constantly raising the bar for how polished a game needs to be before you pitch it.

    That being said, I think there can also be a danger in over-developing a game. That is, you’ve spent so much time on a game, you are no longer looking at it objectively or willing to have it changed. Involving lots of different groups of playtesters can help this. One of the frustrations on the designer side is trying to match your game to a specific company’s needs while still wanting to show it to other publishers at a later date. Sometimes you almost need different versions (even themes) for different publishers. What I want to avoid is spending too much time on something that very few people think is marketable. This is where developing friendly relationships with publishers at conventions and on social media can really pay off. You can usually ask publishers what they are looking for and use that information to figure out where to focus your design effort. But then, yes, do some focus! Seth is right–raise the bar.

  6. Norv Brooks on November 16, 2015

    “Every designer I know has notebooks full of ideas that could make great games.” Then the question becomes which design idea excites me enough to go through the steps you’ve outlined to a finished project?

  7. Scot Eaton on November 21, 2015

    I actually once designed a game in 90 minutes, and that game is set to hit shelves early next year. Certainly, after the game was created, I put a lot of work into adding new cards to the game, putting prototypes together, creating two alternate modes of play, and all of that. But that is what I call “development”, not design. The 90-minute prototype was fully playable, and 100% of the cards in the original prototype are in the final game. Mechanically, there was 1 minor change made the next day, but the day 2 rules are the same ones you’ll find in the final product.

  8. Lewis Pulsipher on November 23, 2015

    I said in my “Game Design” book, “Until you have a game that has been played by other people, you are not a game designer. ” At that point, though, you haven’t designed that game, you’re only part way through. Until you have completed a game, you haven’t designed it, not really.

    I was once told of an historical game “designer” whose “design” was “a box of notes”. Someone else had to design the actual game. But that was in a specialized field (hard-core hex-and-counter wargames) where players are sometimes more interested in the research than in a good game.

    “Development” is the hard work of game design, and in the past publishers expected the designer to do that, once again excepting hard-core wargames where a “developer” was assigned. (Jim Dunnigan and SPI invented “developers” to cope with “designers” who did a lot of research but not much actual design.) I’ve seen some indications that this may be changing with some publishers because the publishers want to mess with and change the game – not necessarily for the better – perhaps because that’s what they really want to be doing, not publishing. I’ve even got an impression that some publishers don’t want a “finished” game because they WANT to mess with it. I used to wait until I thought a game was finished before pitching to anyone, but now I will “go” a bit earlier because publishers seem to want/expect to massage things.

    I’m still amazed to hear that any so-called designer wants to submit a half-(assed) game rather than a complete one.

    Kickstarter is certainly a culprit. Recently I encountered a “designer” whose game has successfully Kickstarted. But it’s not nearly done. He says he tries 6 or 7 different versions of the rules, and is changing things partly to satisfy his backers. And it was clear that he wasn’t designing a game, he was throwing things against the wall to see what stuck. That’s way too much like trial and error (guess and check), which is no way to design ANYthing. Yet the Kickstarters allow or even encourage this kind of thing to happen.

  9. Frpzzd on November 30, 2015

    I disagree – many games have been designed in a week. Perhaps what you mean is “I completed a game in one week”.

  10. B. Goodwin on December 1, 2015

    And you, Sir, have conflated “designing a game” with “developing a game.”
    Don’t be a diva. You know what “amateurs” mean when they say they designed a game last week. And you may be completely wrong. They may have designed a game; that doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD game…..

    • Frpzzd on December 8, 2015

      Are you responding to me or this article?

  11. JR on December 23, 2015

    I love that Seth is so willing to take a strong stance, and I’m glad this conversation is had publicly.

    Two of my published games were designed in a total of like 45 seconds. Another of my games has taken me two years, and I’m still working on it. I think the process of creation is different for everybody, and it’s probably unfair to ever assign definitions to these things. I’d say, if you’re a designer and you’re offended by Seth’s article, then consider his intent instead – he wants you to work harder to develop your game into a better version of itself before pitching it, so that you’ll have more success in selling your games, and in making better games.

    • Peter Vaughan on December 24, 2015

      I love this comment. Spoken with both experience in game design at each end of the spectrum and capturing Seth’s main point, which is that we want the games coming next to be the best they can be. Thank you JR!

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