What I learned prototyping my first (real) game so far (Part 1 of 3)

I’ve made games in the past – for a long time, actually. Mostly stuff for friends and I to mess around with for fun, or that time I made a frog-themed game for my elementary school teacher. This time, I wanted to make my first serious attempt to make something real. If you would have told me it would have taken three years just to get through alpha testing when I started my board game, I would have skeptically laughed and asked “why so long?” I certainly have that answer now.

(“REAL?” Before I go any further, let me officially state that any game you design is “real,” and has value. Whether it’s just you having fun, developing your skills, or just sharing your creation with others, it’s all very real – it’s your life, shared with others and no one can or should take that away from you. When I say “real” for the intent of this post, what I mean is “professionally produced and willingly purchased by other humans.”)

Have a solid design targets, revisit occasionally.

When I started designing my game, I knew what I wanted it to be – everything. All the themes and all the gameplay mechanics – rpg elements, dice rolling, medium strategy, push your luck, adventuring, cooking, fantasy, monsters, card drafting, etc, etc, etc. What I didn’t realize then is that I was missing two very big design targets: audience. This started to become obvious to me in the form of complexity and play time. About a year into development, I started to realize this game was complex and very long – like 4 hours in, and the game is only half over. Now, having played miniature wargames before, 8-hour game is fine, but I also wanted (unspoken or expressed) to have a this particular game to that fit into a inside 2-hour time slot for so it could be played with my board game group comprised of 30-to-40 something adults, with children or other responsibilities. An 8-hour game isn’t something that most casual game players have on their agenda. After a handful of incomplete games, I realized that I needed to make some really clear choices about what the core of the game is going to be and how I was going to go about expressing it. Know what you want in your game to be, streamline to get the best experience you can, and remove everything else (save it for another game). My game is now consistently clocking in between 2 and 3 hours, so I had some choices to make. I decided to revisit my now-written-down target for a gameplay length target and adjusted it to “under 3 hours,” which I feel is a fair compromise that allows for the other main targets without sacrificing the heart and intended experience of the game. I’ve learned not to hold any one aspect of your game absolutely sacred, as the experience is a product of the whole, not any one element. Adherence to the design targets has afforded the game these benefits over the course of my playtesting in the last year:

  1. Play time is reduced to half, without sacrificing the theme and intended experience. Removed mechanics, components, or rules that slowed things down, especially if they did not enhance the intended experience.
  2. Reduced physical footprint of the game components by almost half by removing, reducing, consolidating components and design elements to match the removed elements above.
Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Design Theory, Designer Diary, Prototyping

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  1. Hi Matthew, what’s your best example of an element cut from your game that you initially considered sacred?

    I am also plodding through my first “real” game design and one of my goals is definitely for simplicity in rules and intuitive play. I’m making a 45-90 minute rpg-ish game featuring leveling up, set item collection and multiple skill trees; but there’s absolutely no combat system in my game! (Combat is not part of the core experience, so I replaced it with a simple action selection mechanic.)

    I spend a lot of time thinking about how to merge multiple “clunky” mechanics/components into one streamlined element. What separate elements have you managed to combine?