“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.
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.”