Monday, August 07, 2017

Nuggets of game design advice from designer Matthew Dunstan (Relic Runners, Elysium, Pioneer Days, Professor Evil and The Citadel of Time)

A while ago on Twitter, people were posting in a format such as "for every like this tweet receives, I'll post a nugget of wisdom." As a result, a few threads of potentially useful information appeared, but as is the nature of Twitter, those threads were relatively easy to read in passing, but difficult to reference, copy,/paste, or be otherwise useful in the long term. As such, they're probably effectively lost to the annals of history, only to be stumbled upon via random google search every now and again.

One of my friends, renowned game designer Matthew Dunstan, did one of these threads, stating:

I left it open in a tab, but hadn't gotten around to reading it until now, and I realized that the a tweetstorm may not be the best format for reliable access to good advice, so I took a few minutes to copy, paste, and clean up the list. I'm presenting it here (with permission, of course). And I took the liberty of correcting some of Matthews British misspellings..:

Nuggets of game design advice from designer Matthew Dunstan

1. Where possible, start your design with pen and paper - it's much easier and quicker to get started, and forces you to simplify.

2. Ideas may be cheap, but that doesn't mean you have to be wasteful. Give your ideas enough time and effort to find their best form.

3. There are no excuses for not trying a new prototype as soon as possible - most games can be played solo perfectly well. Don't put it off!

4. Find information about new games deeply and often, especially games you don't think you'll like. The best inspiration can come that way.

5. It can be very easy to get caught up with a cool new mechanic or system and forget why the players should care or notice each other.

6. Try to have each decision point in your game have several different consequences - the game will be just as strategic but quicker.

7. When starting out in game design, be very careful of starting too many projects without actually finishing one, even if it feels easier.

8. If you have rounds or upkeep in your game, ask yourself whether you need them. Can you fold these parts into the regular player actions?

9. Having actions in a game which are the inverse of each other (and mixing this ratio) mean players can be in control of the game flow.

10. Game design isn't a solitary pursuit. Even at the start, cultivating communities that you can be a part of and contribute to is vital.

11. Follow @CardboardEdison - they do a great job hunting down game design content so you don't have to!

12. When you start on a new game, you really want to do it. Don't give up when it becomes something more like work, both stages are needed.

13. Game design is like any other skill: to improve you need to practice often. Even if the game doesn't work, you'll get better.

14. For me, the best way of pitching games is at conventions; it also allows you to get to know editors which can lead to opportunities.

15. Write down feedback from playtesters as soon as you get it. You will forget it otherwise, and it shows your testers respect.

16. Good games are easy to design, but the best games require struggle and doubt in their inception.

17. Never underestimate the joy that players get from the physicality of board games, and try and find ways to make the most of it.

18. If you have to design a game with abilities or special effects, first design 1/4 of what you need, make 4 copies of each, and test.

19. If you want to get published, recognize that there is a lot of work beyond a contract. Development, editing and promotion are important.

20. Entering design competitions are a great motivation to finish games, and provide useful feedback (sometimes) - use them!

21. Design progress = # iterations/ time.

22. Watch @britishgaming Game Makers Toolkit on YouTube. While based on video games, very thought provoking for tabletop design as well.

23. Find software that has Data Merge, and read @DanielSolis articles on how to use it. Big time saver for iterating on card games.

24. Have a prototype on you at all times. You never know when you'll have a playtest opportunity (eg. At the film festival this week).

25. Wherever possible, insist on an advance payment in contracts, even if it's small.

26. Constraints-based design is a great way to turn ideas into a first prototype. How can I turn theme X if I only had Y cards?

27. Avoid requiring players to make decisions that effect future turns, but giving them no way of knowing what is a good choice now.

28. Any change to a design that simultaneously solves multiple problems is probably the right change to make.

29. Keeping up with trends can be useful; both by knowing what has already been done and what publishers might be looking for.

30. Try co-designing a game at least once. At worst it's a learning experience. At best you'll make better games, and new friendships!

31. Try to find out what situation or activity best stimulates the game design part of your brain (mine is going for a walk).

32. Whenever you sit down to design, no matter how much time you have, set a goal. It makes the process much less daunting.

33. Be aware of absolute versus relative values. Having a range of 1-4 (points, resources) can be very different to a range of 2-5.

34. In open systems, giving players some direction early is important. Starting quests, special powers etc are only some ways of doing this.

35. The best special player powers are ones that make the player feel powerful, but not restricted to only one strategy.

36. Adjusting the level of randomness is a good way to make a cooperative game more resilient to alpha players.

37. Try to give every game an arc. Even if it's a short game, try and make the start, middle and beginning feel different to play.

38. Some of the best games keep players involved even when it's not their turn, e.g. Catan. Keep your players engaged as much as possible.

39. Collaborating is much like theater sports - designs progress more quickly if you always say yes to different ideas and viewpoints.

40. Once in a while, try designing a game in an unfamiliar genre. It's good exercise for your design brain.

41. Where possible, encourage the publishers of your games to include characters of diverse backgrounds and gender.

42. Don't put off updating your design - the longer you wait the more chance you will miss the opportunity to playtest the changes.

43. Be professional at all times, with publishers, developers, designers and players. You never know where an opportunity might come from.

44. Elegance in game design often comes from simple systems with interesting and deep interactions between players. Interaction is key.

45. Early in a design, don't be afraid to make large changes. Exploring more of the design space makes it possible to find the right fit.

46. If you are going to pitch to publishers, know their games, and know how your games could fit their line. Respect their time.

47. Don't spend too much time turning an idea over in your head. It will all change once you play it, and you won't know how beforehand.

48. Even if you're not led by theme in a new design, finding a good theme early ensures a close match between experience and setting.

49. Don't settle for a mechanic or part of your game that is 'good enough'. It will be found out sooner or later.

50. Down time is as important as active  time. Sometimes when you step away from a problem the answer comes when you least expect it.

51. Use the 2:3 rule - whenever  you design a game where you upgrade actions, the upgrade should double its cost and triple its effect.

52. Think about how your game can have memorable moments for a player, things they will remember many weeks and many games later.

53. For majority games, use prime numbers for the number of different majorities, it means that players will be forced to compete.

54. Having a mix of short and longer term goals keeps players having to weigh tactical vs strategic considerations.

55. Beyond making a game with multiple paths to victory, try to make the experience of these paths feel different, not just the label.

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