Game design and development: part of a LinkedIn discussion

This post is an edited version of part of a discussion on the game design and development process that occurred on one of the LinkedIn board game groups.  I think someone in the discussion was going to pull it all together and do a useful PDF of ‘how to do it’!  This was my attempt to distill some of the process out from my experience over the last 25 years or so of my own, and Surprised Stare Games, board and card game design and development.

First be clear about your objectives as a game designer.  Is it your intention to design a game for sale, or for your own personal enjoyment.  If the latter, then it’s much easier on the stress levels.  If the former, then before you start, immerse yourself in what’s already been published.  The Board Game Geek website is a good place to start.  Will your game add anything to the field?  If not, then, even if it works as a game, it may not sell.  Bear in mind that at the Essen Spiel 2009 some 690 new board and card games were launched – if you don’t know about the Spiel fair, you should find out as a matter of urgency at http://www.merz-verlag.com/spiel/.

Decide on your market segment (there are many) and likely geographical areas of sale.  There are 3 major segments (well, simplistically speaking, I’m not a marketing specialist!): toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family, specialist games aimed at hobby gamers.  Naturally, these segments have multitudinous sub-segments.

The first two segments – toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family – are worth billions of dollars (or pounds) per annum and are dominated by large international corporations (Hasbro and Mattel, for example).  To break into these markets you’d probably need a very good agent or high quality corporate contacts.  Unless you’re wildly lucky or exceptionally talented, an independent game designer is extremely likely to experience very high levels of disappointment operating in these segments.  In-house designers and ‘known’ independents tend to be used, or those with a good track record of successful invention.

The third segment is much smaller.  While there are some large companies (Kosmos, Ravensburger – they’re mainstream too – Days of Wonder, Games Workshop, Zoch – they do children’s games too) there are many more small publishers (such as our company, Surprised Stare Games).  Even breaking into this smaller world is difficult for an independent, because there are so many aspiring (and talented) game designers out there, including very well known ones like Reiner Knizia, and in the UK, Martin Wallace and Richard Breese.

So having started with all the discouraging stuff (you need to know that!), in terms of the game design process, there are some guidelines (NOT hard and fast ‘best practice’) that we’ve found very useful.

1  Have a good idea that no-one else has had.  This can either be in terms of a central game mechanic, a game system or even a theme.

2  Check carefully that your good idea really is a new one.  It’s actually fairly easy to design something that you *think* no-one’s done before, only to find that you’ve actually designed ‘High Society’ or ‘Modern Art’.

3  The design process: this tends to be individualistic.  You need to flesh out the game mechanics so that the game works, it has internal consistency, and is an enjoyable game (in your view).  Some designers do this in a formal way, writing a design brief and meeting design objectives; personally I’ve found this approach can help, but it’s best not to be rigid about it.  Design contains a lot of inspiration and hope, then a lot of iterative work to find out if the inspiration and hope can be actualised.  Sometimes a design might pop into my head pretty much fully formed; other times it will be hard graft.  Sometimes the idea starts with abstract mechanics, sometimes with theme.  At some point during this process you should have a prototype and some rules – then you may ditch the whole thing, or take it on to the next stage.

4  The game development process: don’t miss out this stage.  When *you* think the game is finished, I can pretty much guarantee it isn’t, if you haven’t gone through this process.  Inflict your game on as many different friends as you can.  At this stage, it’s usually helpful to run the sessions yourself, because you need to know about and record all the rough edges and comments.  Keep your expectations low at this point!  Preferably use a high proportion of people who you trust and who know about development.

This is the period when you find out about and modify the ‘playability’ of the game.  You or your favourite game developer friend need to concentrate on the experience of the gamers.  You must be prepared to sacrifice parts of your design in order to get to the point where gamers will play it, so being a purist is not a good idea.  Do not expect the development process to be quick – it can take a couple of years or more to ‘finish’ a game (the average lifecycle from idea to finished unpublished game is 2 to 4 years).

For some games, the design can be handed over to a developer, and you can stop at the end of the design process.  If you’re working with a company, they may insist on this if they like the design – this independent game development process carried out in-house by a publisher may take months or years, and the game may end up with a different theme.  You shouldn’t care too much – after all, you’re being paid!

Game development should involve huge amounts of play testing involving as many different groups as possible.  Keep good version control, or you’ll go mad.  Identify and use gamers who will give you high quality, critical feedback.  Use gamers who always try to break the game (and if they do, then take that very seriously).  Use ‘serious’ gamers who play at a high level.  Use casual social gamers who play for fun.  If possible, use groups in different countries.  When you’re sick of play testing and don’t want to see your game ever again, take a short break, then keep going – you haven’t finished.

The game development process is only finished when the development team (which might be just you, but should include other trusted people too) is happy that the product is as good as it can be.

5  Sale.  Try to get a slot at a games publishing company – I’ll not go into details of this step.  Most games fall at this hurdle.  Alternatively publish the game yourself.

6  Production.  Make sure the production team thinks the game will sell, at an acceptable price, for an acceptable profit level.  Don’t be too disappointed if it fails at this point; a lot do, but reaching this stage is very positive and I would say that most games that reach production will reach the shelves.  There’s a lot more detail that can be offered on this stage, but ‘real work’ beckons!

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