|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #129:
Play Your Games!
August 7, 2003 - This week I have a really simple piece of game design advice. So simple that I've already stated it in the title and could end the column right now. Let me reiterate it, for clarity: Play Your Games!
But, this column would come up just a wee bit short if I didn't add any discussion or explanation, so let me explore this suggestion a bit more...
When I propose that you should play your games, I'm not saying that you need to put it as much time as the average player. After all, for an intensive roleplaying game, like the ones at our site, that could mean 80-100 hours of time every month.
If you did play that much, you probably wouldn't have time or energy left to design, develop, or engineer.
But, I do think that you should play your games at least some. Perhaps just a couple of hours a week, perhaps an intense period every couple of months. Personally, for Galactic Emperor: Hegemony, the one game where I'm seriously involved in the design decisions, I play at least a couple of three-week games a year, to make sure I'm staying in touch. Something comparable would probably do the job fine for another game.
Let me offer two caveats before I move on:
First, if the idea of playing your game sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, then you're probably not in the right line of work. You should find someone who likes the game you're working on, and then go off and invent a new game that you actually enjoy. (And, don't feel too bad, this sort of thing happens. The games I liked 10 years ago aren't necessarily the same games I like now. This might be quickly magnified after you've put man-years into building a game.)
Second, you might claim that you can't play your game because it hasn't been released yet. Well, if you've got any type of working game systems, you should still be trying them out regularly, and there's no better way to do that than regular play sessions. Back in pre-Castle Marrach days we used to have a weekly session to try out the newest additions to the game, and as the game matured we opened those sessions up to larger groups of people.
As a sidebar here, let me say that this precept of needing to play is one of the many reasons that you should get your game out quickly. The more quickly you fully release a game, you more quickly you can play it, and thus take advantage of all the benefits derived from playing (more on that in a sec).
Before I totally leave the the top of how to play your game behind, I should comment that you really need to act like a player to derive the benefits of playing. Don't be a QA guy or a tester, but act like a player who's going in and enjoying himself. Just to reiterate: Play Your Game!
Advantages & Disadvantages
So, what are the reasons for this dogmatic axiom?
As a game designer, it's often easy to think in theoretical, analytical, abstract fashions. However, as military strategists tell us, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. Meaning, those beautiful abstractions sometimes blow up when they're introduced into actual play.
A bit more concretely, I think that playing your game offers you following advantages:
System Analysis: You see how game systems actually work in gameplay, which systems are fun, which are boring, which can be abused, and which are just never used.
Player Feedback: You hear from players how they feel about changes, what they like about the game, and what they don't. You get to see what their real joys and worries are.
UI Analysis: You get to viscerally experience how well or poorly your UI works. Are buttons intuitive? Can you remember how to get around? It all comes out when you're forced to play.
Of course to be fair I need to offer the warning that playing your game can be a dangerous thing. A few dangers:
Getting Too Involved: Make sure you don't get too close to your characters. If you do, you face the danger of beginning to design for yourself and your characters rather than for your players. You could avoid this by just changing out your characters a couple of times a year, which also gives the advantage of seeing the game from dramatically different points of view, but you may already be too attached to do so. If that's the case, just be careful and be aware of the dangers.
Being Secretive: Make sure your players know you're playing the game, and if you're comfortable reveal exactly who you're playing. Even if you're playing solely to get the game experience, there might be cries of "favoritism". The best way to avoid any appearance of unfairness is to be as transparent as possible.
For whatever reason, you might feel some reluctance to sit down and play. It could be lack of time, burn-out on the game, reduced interest, or whatever. I've already suggested this is a sub-par setup, but if it exists I can offer a few alternatives that might offer some of the same advantages.
Choose Dependable Liaisons: One possibility is to have liaisons who actually do play the game and can report back to you. These might be other game designers, developers, or engineers who just happen to be closer to the game than you are. If so, make sure to listen to them. Or, they could be players who you've selected to specifically give your ear to.
Listen to Your Players: Alternatively, you can start listening to your players in a much more general way. Post questions to them in your forums, post polls, and read unsolicited feedback carefully. Your players won't always understand the underpinnings of your game, but they will often have a better understanding of what's fun within, especially if they're playing & you're not.
That's it for this week: a short article for a simple piece of advice.
For nice week I'm hoping to publish a piece I'm already working on about the evolution of RPGs generally, above and beyond the electronic world, but it's already proven a pretty big topic, so we'll see...
In any case, I'll be here in 7.