Last summer I had the opportunity to work as the developer for SeaFall, a Legacy game from Rob Daviau and Plaid Hat Games that’s set in a fictional world in the dawn of the Age of Sail. It’s Rob’s third published Legacy game (Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1), and the first that was created from scratch, without incorporating an existing game.
I learned a lot working daily with Rob, and he pushed me to be a better designer and developer every day. Here are some things I learned while working with one of my heroes.
1) PLAYER EXPERIENCE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
When I first started making games, I was completely convinced that they came from one of three places – theme, mechanics, or components. That’s where you’d start, right? The first time somebody told me, “It’s about the player experience” I shrugged it off like the new-age nonsense it was. Predictably, my first games were boring or hard to understand.
As it turns out, the nonsense isn’t nonsense. It’s the most important thing in a game. SeaFall is a long, intricate campaign that tells a story in no specific order, a story players both weave and have woven for them. The experience of being a part of the overall narrative is the most important part of the game.
Rob has said before that a legacy game only means that the game tells a story that players take a part in. That story has to be reinforced in every way possible – through the game mechanics, of course, and in what players do for themselves and to each other, how they gain information and use it, where they go and what they do. It all ties together to support this beautiful dive into a thematic, interesting world.
2) “GOOD ENOUGH” ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH
Every single game I’ve worked on has had a piece of it that fit pretty well, but didn’t exactly work the way I wanted or didn’t completely reinforce the theme of the game. As a developer, my job is to find those things and weed them out, to show them to the designer and ask, “Why is this here? And how could we do it better?”
I watched Rob pour hours into systems that already worked well, and pick through hundreds of playtest notes and questions to hone in on seemingly small issues. As it turned out, some of these issues gave us perspective into whole systems of SeaFall that were antiquated and could be updated, or removed altogether.
I told Rob that I thought SeaFall was a publishable, very good game the first time I played it, and we spent six more months on it after that. Before this experience, I never would have put that much extra work into a game I thought was already good enough. Lesson learned: ‘Good enough’ isn’t enough.
3) SOLVE THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS FIRST
Those long lists of notes and questions are called “punch lists” and they were the highlight of my morning for months. It’s tempting to start with the small things you know you can fix – “should I roll two dice, or three?” – but often that’s wasted work. Rob taught me pretty quickly that you should identify the one or two biggest problems you’re currently faced with, and solve them first.
SeaFall is a big game, and if we’d spent the time to solve every little problem first there would have been a lot of wasted time. As it was, we were able to revise and update quickly and efficiently, and push through sets of problems efficiently.
4) EVERY RULE HAS A COST
I might be wrong about this, but I think every rule in a game has a cost. That cost is expressed in accessibility, in teaching time, in how often players will put a game on a table. People like to express mastery over things they understand, like to play games that make them feel smart and capable and confident. The fewer rules there are to understand, the more those rules flow naturally from the theme of the game, and the easier it is for players to develop the heuristics necessary to play well. Players that play a game well will play that game more often.
If a rule doesn’t make sense, or you can’t explain it easily, find a way to cut it. It’s that simple. Eric Lang has said in numerous places that inexperienced designers often want to fix problems by adding complexity. Rob showed me in SeaFall the virtue of addition by subtraction – masterful design work done by removing unneeded thing to introduce clarity and draw the focus to the best parts of the game.
I think about this every single day that I work on games now – what can I remove from this, what can I combine, what can I simplify, that will make it easier to get this to the table and bring the fun to light?
5) THE LAST THING YOU ADD IS OFTEN THE BEST
In the late stages of development, Rob and I finally felt comfortable with where SeaFall was, and were very nearly ready to turn it over to Plaid Hat to print. As it turned out, there was still room for improvement, and it took playing the game with people with zero previous context to see this new, exciting design space.
Two days later Rob showed me an entire set of new additions that absolutely upgraded the game. At that point I was already in love with what he had created, but even so the new additions fit perfectly and seemed to reinforce the SeaFall theme even more than what we had. I was surprised Rob was willing to do that much destruction and creation when we were that close to the finish line, and yet here he was creating new systems that, in retrospect, are among the very coolest things that happen in SeaFall.
That’s a lesson that will stick with me always – even when you think you’re done, challenge that assumption, take the game to new places with open eyes and an open mind, and be willing to be humble about the thing you’ve created and still willing to improve it. That final push on SeaFall was one of the the most impressive creative things I’ve ever witnessed.
SeaFall is available for pre-order from Plaid Hat Games right now, and is set to be released later this year.