Theory: Build a Knowledge Base

This article is interesting, for two reasons. First, it has some Kickstarter-related advice that might be of interest. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it has this to say about good design:

Pro Tip: Play a f*** ton of games before you try to design one.”

While I wouldn’t put it in those terms, I think the message is spot-on. Having a broad familiarity with games helps one avoid reinventing the wheel, and all the struggles along that path.

We’ve been down this road before

A lot of people have made a lot of games. That means that someone has probably at least attempted something similar to what you’re looking to do. In some cases, they discovered something your game would greatly benefit from knowing.

The current mousetrap

In some cases this might be a mechanical innovation that you could put to use. Magic: the Gathering, for example, left-right-left pattern of drafting to a huge new audience.*

(For those unfamiliar with Magic drafts, each player opens a pack, chooses a card from it for her deck, and then passes the remaining cards to the left. Everyone keeps choosing one card and passing until all the cards from all the opened packs are gone. Everyone then opens another pack, but passes to the right for this second round. Finally players go through a third round, passing to the left once again.)

The left-right-left approach makes card picking decisions much trickier than they would be in a left-left-left draft. For example, in a Magic draft a player might intentionally pass cards of a color he doesn’t want to play to the player on his left in round one. Hopefully the player to the left will focus on that color–and will therefore pass cards in some other, more desirable color to the right in round two. Since the left-right-left pattern makes “signaling” in this fashion important, and since signaling makes weighing one’s pick choices quite a bit more interesting, the left-right-left system has been widely adopted (see, e.g., 7 Wonders). If you’re making a card-drafting game, it’s far better to know about that pattern–whether you adopt it or react to it–than to spend hours upon hours figuring it out from scratch, just so you can get to the design stage that someone who’s drafted Magic cards would’ve reached immediately.

The dark paths

It might also be that your idea has been tried before . . . and didn’t work out quite as planned. Learning from past mistakes can save a lot of time and heartache.

One sees this at play every time someone says they want to create a new CCG. Immediately someone points to the endless ranks of failed trading card games. Each of them sought to recapture Magic‘s lightning in a bottle, but were brought low by some combination of complex packaging requirements, enormous distribution costs, overwhelming design challenges, and an inability to develop a player base large enough to generate useful network effects. Better to redirect the design early to a model that’s going to be more workable.

There are warnings to be found in the digital realm as well. Online multiplayer, for example, is exceptionally hard to implement. AAA studios have made it seem like a de rigeur inclusion–but of course, they have AAA resources. Smaller studios and independent designers have run into trouble after promising it, and might want to focus on single-player games while they build up money and expertise. Playing games with shaky online play, or where the “multiplayer” button has been greyed out since release, or even very successful games that have struggled with rocky launches (which is to say, just about every multiplayer game, even those with the backing of huge enterprises) might help developers realize that they should think carefully about whether and when they’ll commit to online play.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Playing lots of games doesn’t mean that one has to go back over old ground endlessly. Nor does it mean the accepted ways of doing things become constraints. Rather, knowing what’s out there makes innovation easier, by enabling one to know which design approaches are actually innovative–and which are well-trod paths, or worse, are rife with land mines. Don’t use play-for-research as a substitute for progress on your own work, but recognize the importance of that research, and make time for it.


*I’m not sure if the pattern originated there, but it may well have.

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