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Games That Won't Suck

by
 

There's always one big hurdle in producing a book, and that's actually finishing the damn thing and making sure it's good. The differences between an idea, a good working concept, and a finished manuscript are bold. Having a killer idea is just the first step. To make that into a game, you'll have to go through the second process, Design, which requires effort as well as creativity. The process of Writing requires craft as well. And finally, good production is necessary to showcase your work.

Ideas

Ideas are, I must admit, the easy part.

"It's a cross between Shamanism, Enochian magic, and Cyberpunk."
"The setting is like Tolkien, only edgier."
"All the players are red clay bricks!"

Good ideas are harder to spot. Some are clearly garbage (red clay bricks?). Some are entirely dependent on how well they are executed ("like Tolkien, only edgier"). Others have a strong spark from the get-go ("a cross between..."). Naively, it's best to start with a strong idea (under the assumption that excellent writing will make it even better), than to take a lukewarm idea and hope that exciting writing will spice it up and help sell it.

Invention/Game Design

Having come up with a winner of an idea, then, you've really just started on the path of making a game. At this point, creativity-- the conceptualization and initial expression of an idea-- must now join up with craftsmanship. Which is, given the idea, to be able to expand and present it so that other people get the same enthusiasm that so inspired its writer.

The process of expanding this is called invention. You are inventing a game for others to play. So you have to come up with setting, rules, a flavor or stance you wish to present, and all the other bits that make it your way cool game. This process of inventing generally can be done as two steps, repeating until it comes out right.

First, you invent some of the game. Then, you playtest that version with a group of gamers. Based on their comments, you revise your invention, add new stuff, and playtest some more. Any good game should be playtested-- and any good game designer will actually listen to their playtesters.

Playtesting

Good Designer: "You thought combat was too complicated? Hmmm... let me see if I can simplify."
Bad Designer: "You thought combat was too complicated? What are you, stupid?"

(Alas, taken from a real-life playtest at a Con. The final release of the game was, surprise surprise, soundly thwacked for having a complicated combat system. Had the authors listened to their playtesters instead of insulting them, perhaps it would have ended up a more lucrative SF license than it did.)

Playtest it until your playtest group is happy with it. If possible, find a second (and third, and fourth, and ...) playtest group and run it some more. This is the process of forging the raw steel of your Idea into a real Invention, so that you may take the world by storm. At this point, you're not so much worried about the expression of the idea (how your notes are written, what your handouts to the players look like) so much as how well the actual play sessions go, and whether the players have a good time.

At the end, when most of the playtesters are happy, you will have a well-designed game. Your work as a Designer is now done, and it's time to either draft a Writer, or put on a writer's hat. You now have to turn your invention into a product for others.

Writing

This will require writing skill. Without some basic crafting, the best invention is nothing more than a one-line summary and a few rules, and the product will die an ignoble death. Worse, clever people will mine the detritus for that one noble idea amidst the dreck of the writing, and use it for their own work. And need we remind you that ideas aren't copyrightable?

So it falls upon the writer to actually sit down and write, and write well. This means, as a minimum, proper grammar and correct spelling. It also means using all those neat writer devices that used to be taught in schools, like using transition sentences between paragraphs and keeping to a theme.

By staying focused and writing a suitably coherent first draft, then, the Invention gives birth to The Manuscript. This manuscript is the means by which the idea is transferred into the minds of other people. It is the entire goal of doing your own game.

Of course, this assumes you can actually finish writing the piece. There are dozens of writers books on the sins of procrastination and how to get around writer's block and such, and from this we learn that there's no one way to get writers to actually write. Every writer has different tricks, different pacing, and so on. But for now, let's assume our idealistic writer is actually going to finish their manuscript.

Blind Testing

At last, a manuscript! You're done, right? Alas, not so. Too many games stop at this point, and suffer greatly. There's a crucial final cycle to go through before you truly release your game. Given the manuscript, the next step is... Playtesting!

"But wait," you cry, "I already did that, in inventing the game!". 'Tis true, but that's not the same game as you hold in your hands right now. What you hold is more distilled, having gone through the filtering process of earlier play tests. Before you had an idea, and the workings of the idea. Now you have the expression of an idea, and this is something that is intended to communicate with others.

So you have to test it through blind playtesting. In a blind playtest, neither the GM nor the players have ever played the game before. You want their sole source of information to be the manuscript you hand them. No inside track with the GM, no knowing of the unspoken rules or experience with earlier runs. You want, basically, ignorance.

If your game is truly ready, the GM will be able to run an adventure using only the manuscript. The players, having never played before, will be able to understand what is happening and enjoy the experience. And your game will be great. And at the end of the run, you'll dutifully collect their feedback on the game. You want to know what they liked, what they disliked, and what they recommend as changes.

Now implement those changes-- because these players are just like the ones you hope to reach with your final book. If the GM or players got lost in some aspect of the rules, or misinterpreted the point of the setting, well, you'll be very glad you took the time to blind test this. You can now revise the rules and run another test.

You should keep doing tests until the majority of the players are happy for most of the time. This may sound simple, but it will take patience. Remember, in a blind test, you can't walk in and explain to them what really should happen-- you have to convey all of that in the manuscript you gave them. So use these tests to polish up that manuscript and improve the writeup of your game.

"House Rules"

A brief digression is in order, on the topic of "house rules". This is "the game that you and your friends play, that you've played for a real long time and so you want to publish it."

House rules, in general, are really only a quarter through the design chain. Although they may feel like a mature, tested product, they actually are simply at the invention stage. They still need to be playtested, for starters.

"But, we play with them all the time!", cry the gamers. After a certain point, though, you were not really playtesting those rules-- you're too close. You've grown as the rules have grown, adapted as they've changed. They're an excellent jump-start in design, but you really need to step back from them.

The reason is that a good playtest will find problems and raise questions. That's the job of playtesters. And the answer for house rules is inevitably "because that's the way we've always done it." House rules are highly resistant to further change, as they have a life of their own. There is too much emotional attachment between the rules and the group.

Done well, house rules are an excellent crucible for design-- but you have to be willing to deal with them dispassionately. They are simply one step towards designing a game, not the end product. So if you have a great set of house rules, let them free, let them fly. Please, in the name of all that is good in this life, don't just publish house rules because you've used them for a long time. Playtest them with a different group, and be open to changes. And from there, enter the Writing step, then the Blind Testing, before wrapping up with Production.

Production

At last, you now have a bonafide game. You have a clever idea, backed with good invention using playtesting to make sure it's right. You then wrote a brilliant manuscript, and tested that with several rounds of blind testing to make sure you got the point across. Now you're in the home stretch, and simply have to produce the book.

Production, at its most basic, simply means formatting the text so it's readable, getting it edited and proofed, tossing in some art to make it easier on the eyes, slapping a cover on it, and getting it to the readers. It can be delivered as a paper book, as an e-text, or any variety of methods.

Because production is largely a collection of design skills, we can only list the basic pieces-- each is worthy of a separate article, if not a separate book.

  1. Copy Editing: Having a second set of eyes go through the raw text to smooth the work out, correct errors, and make it more readable.
  2. Art Direction: Acquiring and suggesting placement for interior art for the book.
  3. Layout: Physically arranging the text and images for the book.
  4. Editing: Going through the layout to improve its flow and make it more readable, both in terms of text and in terms of placement.
  5. Proofreading: Going through the text to spot and correct gross errors.

At the end of this, you'll have a book, that's also a game. The process can take a while. 3 months for production of a game book is fairly common within the industry-- that is, 3 months from when a writer submits a final draft, to when the book ships to the printer. Meanwhile, a writer can easily take 3 months to produce an 60,000 word book. And a designer will need that much time in order to invent and playtest their ideas.

You can do it alone, or you can work as a team. As a team, you can each always be doing what you prefer. Alone, slow and steady can win the race. In either case, the goal is the same-- games that don't suck.

Good luck,
Sandy

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