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Friday, August 14, 2015

Game Design in the Classroom - Part 4 - Developing and Publishing a Game

One of my old design notebooks and some prototypes
This is part 4 of a series. The previous articles are:

In this fourth part I will look at how to develop a promising game idea. I’ll also describe two relatively simple ways to make your games available to more people.

First, two notes:
  • The process below will probably not be a big part of most class projects. I offer it as recommended reading for the students who think they are on to a good idea. This falls in the “for further exploration” category.
  • The tips and questions that follow can apply to games of many types, but my experience is with non-digital games. They were most likely created in a classroom activity, possibly my one-hour game design challenge.

Developing your game idea

My goal here is to help you take your game that a few people (probably you and your friends) have fun with and turn it into something many people will have fun with. Every game is a special case, but here’s a very general series of steps I use and I recommend them to aspiring designers:

  1. Clarify your goals. 
  2. Play it more, with more people.
  3. Identify problems. Based on what you see and hear from the players, what is working and what isn’t? 
  4. Make changes to the game to resolve those problems. 
  5. Go back to step 2 until the game is working as you intend it to.

Steps 2 - 5 form what is often called an iterative process. It’s vitally important for people in many fields. Computer programmers, writers and designers of anything from cars to coffee cups work through it.

Try something, test it, tweak it, test it again and so on until it does what you want. (You might even recognize similarities to the Scientific Method, as scientists will form, test and revise hypotheses in their work.)

Let's look at these steps for development in more detail.

Clarify your goals
Be sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish with your game. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why are you making this particular game? Maybe it’s a personal challenge or maybe it’s for a particular group of people. Nail down your motivations.
  • Who do you expect will enjoy it? Describe these people. That determines your target audience.
  • What will make those people want to play your game?

Actually write those things down so you can return to them as you continue your work.

Play it more, with more people
At first you need to just be sure the game works at all. Try it with close friends.

Some of us even play our games by ourselves at first. Seriously, who wants to waste their friends’ time with a boring game? We will need their help in the future, so let’s not turn them off too quickly!

This process of playing the game while you’re developing it is called playtesting. It is very important and the people you choose to help you are important too. I could write a book about it, so this is just a brief glance at the process. Here are some important tips:

  • At first it helps to get opinions from people who play a lot of games, even if they’re not in your target audience. They might have to play just to help, not necessarily to have a fun, entertaining experience.
  • Tell your testers what your design goals are. If they’re not in the target audience, they should know that. They have to help you make your game, not necessarily the one they want to play.
  • Observe everyone when they play. Look for what’s making your game fun and what’s frustrating the players.
  • Ask as many questions of your playtesters as you can get away with. Two of my top suggestions are:
  • What were you thinking about or looking forward to as you were waiting for your turn?
  • Would you ever play again and if so, what would you do differently?
  • Remember to treat your playtesters with respect! They might not always be right, but if they played your game at all, you’ve given them the right to express themselves. Whatever their response is to your game, whether you agree with them or not, you can use the advice and the experience to help you become a better game designer.

Identify problems
If you clarified your design goals like I suggested, then you can define “problems” as anything keeping your game from meeting those goals. Make a list of what is working and what isn’t.

This can be the most frustrating part of game design. Ideas usually do not turn out like we expect and it can be hard to accept. Yes, even after months of work you might end up with so many problems that the best decision is to abandon the idea and work on another.

Be honest about the game at this point. Take a hard look at it and call it like you see it.

Also, give this some time. Usually problems look different when you wait a day or two after a playtest session.

And finally, don’t be afraid to change your design goals. You have to be careful with this because doing it too much will keep you from finishing anything. Still, there are times you’ll discover a promising idea that leads you somewhere you couldn’t have imagined at the start. Leave room for that possibility.

Change the game to resolve the problems
Discovering a great fix to a nagging problem with your game is one of the best rewards of the game design process.

It is also hard work and it takes time. Like I said about identifying problems, don’t rush. It is tempting to quickly tack on a new rule to fix a problem, but that’s a good way to end up with a design very few people care to learn. Rule sheets turn into mini-books and players often overlook special cases, resulting in mistakes and bad experiences.

Work hard to find simple solutions! 

Repeat playtesting and making changes until the game is done
As you keep testing it and tweaking it, think of this as bringing a fuzzy image into focus. It’s your rough idea becoming a finely tuned, working design.

Here are some things that generally happen in this process as you bring that dream to reality:

  • Ideally the changes you make will become less and less drastic. In my experience, at first I might make changes to the whole turn structure or I sometimes change the format entirely. My dice game might be reworked into a card game. Then near the end of the process I might just be changing a few numbers on cards.
  • The playtesters you use should change from a few friends to more people you don’t know. In later stages they should mostly be people from your target audience.
  • Your cards, board and other components (usually called a prototype) should improve in appearance and playability. At first the cards might be handwritten, but in later stages they should be made with a graphics program. Give more attention to using icons and making the language extremely clear. When a game is nearly complete you don’t want any part of the components to detract from the play experience.
  • The rules will progress from a list of things you just tell the players to a well written document that contains everything a player would need to know.

Besides just making the game “work”, you’re trying get to a point we call blind playtesting. Here the rules and prototype are so clear that players can figure out the game on their own. If they can’t, the game isn’t done yet.

And that raises a huge design question. When is a game done? 

Ask many designers and you’ll get many answers. Some say it’s when the game is worth what you’re going to sell it for. Others say it’s done when people want to play again right away.

Ultimately I would say it’s done when the game reaches your design goals. You decide. (But just remember anyone else in the target audience will get the final say by playing or not playing what you made!)

One of my games published through The Game Crafter

Taking it to the world

Once you’ve completed a game, you probably want to get it out to your target audience. This involves publishing and promotion. All the options to consider here could turn into my second book!

I’m going to offer only two suggestions for getting games to the masses. Neither of these will make you rich, but they will certainly get you important experience and increase your opportunities.

Both options would be considered self-publishing. It means you're doing it rather than getting someone else (probably a publishing company) to do it for you.

Self-publishing will require you to take on many jobs such as graphic design, writer, PR manager and webmaster. In other words, you’ll learn a lot more than just how to design a game.

Besides these general directions, I’ll also list some resources at the end if you want to do more research.

Print and Play
With this publishing method you’d make a PDF of your rules and components. You’d post it on your own blog or website or maybe you’d upload it to a game site like There, people could download it and decide if they wanted to print it to make their own copy.

You can see some examples of popular print-and-play (PnP) games at this link.

But just making an attractive game and an attractive website or blog to post it on will not get your game played. Plan to promote it.

Look for other people who might play the game and write reviews or comments about it online. Most games take some effort to learn and even to play. In the case of print and play, players also have to through the process of actually making or finding all the components. If a reputable gamer with a following gives your game a positive review it’s more likely others will take the time to do all that.

One last tip--When you ask people to review your game, don’t just send them your link and expect to see a review. Contact them and if they agree to take a look, make a copy for them yourself. Mail it to them and give it some time.
Don’t be a pest, but if you don’t hear anything from them in a couple weeks, it’s fine to politely ask if they have any feedback or plans to post something online.

And the second option for publishing is...

Print On Demand services
Years ago it cost so much to set up the printing for a game that it wasn’t worth it to churn out just a few copies. Designers had to pay for at least 1,000 or more copies if they wanted to see a quality, physical version of it or play it with their families. Taking the step to print a game that way was a huge financial risk. Hopeful designers got a big bill to for the job and many ended up with stacks of unsold games in their garages.

Now there are companies that will print just a single copy of your game and it won’t break the bank. So imagine buying a nice copy of your design for yourself and a few for family and friends. If you think others might pay for it, you can even post a link to the print service from your blog or website. People (probably aunts, uncles and maybe your neighbor) could pay for the game that way and you might even make a little money from it.

This process of printing games only as often as they’re ordered is called print on demand and it offers some great benefits. Just be aware that when you order small numbers of games, each one will still be relatively expensive.

My recommended service for publishing this way is The Game Crafter. I have used their services for several years now and their site and work have greatly improved over time.

It will take some work to turn your graphics into something that works at their site. For example, when I print my prototypes I usually have 9 - 12 cards on a single page of paper. To make my game at the Game Crafter, every one of the cards has to be on a separate high resolution graphic. Imagine how much work it takes to make individual graphics for a deck of 100 cards!

And as I said, it’s not exactly cheap. It will cost more than if you bought a game with the same number and type of components from a game store. And though the quality is good, it's not quite as good as a professionally published game.

I’m happy to pay the price to get an edition of the game myself or to give as gifts.

If you want to sell your for a profit to others, though, remember you have to put an even higher price on it than you paid. That likely will be more than most people will want to pay.

That is, unless you have a great game and you do some excellent promotion.

Just like the print and play process above, promotion is necessary. The Game Crafter even has a page of suggested reviewers you can contact. Here's an example of a review one of them wrote for me a few years ago.

If a reviewer agrees to look at your game, you’ll have to order one from the site and ship it to them. Yes, it's one more expense and there's no guarantee they'll even like the game.

Wrapping Up
I hope this short summary of game development and publishing makes it clear how much work goes into a good game. I also hope it helps you bring your game to others. Finding that something you made can bring joy to people is a satisfying reward worth the effort.

I compiled a short list of other resources for more information on these concepts.

  • How to Make Games - Playtesting -  I created this video a few years ago. You'll see similarities to what I wrote above.
  • Playtesting Forum on BGDF - You can learn from the discussion on this forum and possibly find some playtesters for your game too.
  • Interview with Scott Almes - Here's a great interview with practical advice from a very successful up and coming game designer.
  • Protospiel - Many years ago I helped start this gathering of game designers. It has grown to a larger network around the U.S., so see if anyone is meeting near you.
  • UnPub - This is another convention for game designers.
  • 10,000 Feet to Publishing a Game - Here's a hard look at what one successful publisher says it takes to make your game. He knows what he's talking about, but he's describing a very professional production.
  • An Overview of the Game Design Process - This is an older and more in depth article I wrote about taking a game from concept to reality. A lot has changed when it comes to game publishing since then, but the development ideas still apply.
  • Making What's It to Ya? - This is my story, starting with an idea to making a $10 printing investment to ending up in GAMES Magazine's Games 100 to seeing the game go around the world.

And as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, be sure to look at the other ones in the series:

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