Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Your Game Design: The Concept

I stopped maintaining this blog last May, primarily because I didn't think anyone was reading it. Doing something alone, while fun, is technically called "masterbation", so I didn't see the point of continually writing stuff that no one was reading. Because I have important things to do, like play Gears of War 3 and manage my alpaca farm. But then, something strange happened; a bunch of friends mentioned on Facebook that they wanted to read my thoughts on game design. Who knew? Apparently, I was once a noted and award-winning game designer. I'd forgotten.

So I'm going to start uploading articles on game design. Or, at least, my opinions on game design. I suspect a bunch of my real game designer friends will hop on here to tell me I'm full of it. Or maybe even be helpful, and discuss advances of which I am unaware. Today, our subject is: Concept.

I meet people all the time who want to design their own game. They apparently think it's all champagne and caviar and sitting around having fun. Well, it is that, but it's also a lot of work. And a lot of that work involves maths. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The most important decision you will make as a game designer is the concept, the thing the game will be about. This will inform every other decision you make in your design, from game-play to graphic design. It will also keep you focused on your design.

I can't tell you the number of designers who screw this up. You see them at GenCon all the time (at least, I used to when I went to GenCon). They're well-meaning and earnest, clutching their game in their hands, wanting you to read it. But they can't tell you what their game is about. Andrew Greenberg, formerly of White Wolf and Holistic Game Design (Hi, Andrew! You owe me a bottle of Jack...), taught me this. It's probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned. We would walk around the exhibition hall and stop by booths that interested us. Often, this involved hot girls (booth babes in game design terms) standing outside. "Tell us about your game," Andrew would ask.

If they couldn't tell us in two sentences what the game was about, we judged it a critical failure. What do you play, and what does your character do? Those are the only two questions that must be answered. What am I playing, and what am I doing? That's it.

Vampire: the Masquerade: You play a vampire engaged in a secret political war.
Legend of the Five Rings: You play a samurai fighting for your lord.
Call of Cthulhu: You play an investigator investigating the horrors of the Elder Gods.
All Flesh Must Be Eaten: You play average people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse.

But you'd get these people who not only couldn't answer these two basic questions, but also hadn't really considered them in the first place. I wish I could remember some of the pitches we'd heard, for illustrative purposes, but I can't.

Worse were the games (and settings) that were merely the designer's fixes to the supposed flaws in other games. We'd get this all the time. "It's like Vampire, but cooler." Uh, gee, thanks. But I can just play Vampire. If your game has to reference another game in order to sell, then we don't really need your game. We've got the original. I don't understand, for example, why Palladium put out their own zombie game. We have one. It's called All Flesh Must Be Eaten. If you have to say "it's AFMBE, but better" then you've basically admitted to creative bankruptcy. I can just play AFMBE.

"In my game, the elves come from the sea, and they're blue." (I actually coined the term "Blue Elf Game" after I'd heard this one.) Dude, I can play D&D and make the elves in my world blue, too. I don't need you. A lot of people in the Aisle of Misfit Games seem to think that whatever their favorite game is is somehow critically flawed, and is in need of "fixing." So you get someone who's basically done Shadowrun, but with hyper-realistic ballistic rules. So unless you also have this particular bug up your ass (the need for hyper-realistic rules for guns), you're not going to be interested in this game.

It's a shame that someone would spend their hard-earned money to publish a game (and believe me, this is expensive) that failed this most basic of tests. Who do you play, and what do you do? It's really that simple.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Ross!

    A solid concept is critical to a successful RPG, and there are far too many RPGs that simply don't have one.

    Looking forward to more!