Our latest game, Dragon Dodge, has been in the works for about 2 months now. As we progress through the development we’ll be documenting the evolution of the game and our knowledge of game design. Our goal is to present this series in a way that is not specific to Dragon Doge but instead focuses on how we are approaching this as amateur game designers and what we would do differently next time. There are, no doubt, many different ways to design a game. We’re not claiming our approach is the best, it just happened to work for us this time.
In this first post we’ll focus on the early design of the game and initial playtesting. This is more or less what we’ve done so far:
Step 1: Come up with lots of ideas, then discard most of them
Sometimes an idea for a game pops into your head and you feel like it can lead to a fun, innovative game. Maybe it’s a theme, a novel mechanic, or a particular type of game. When this happens to us, our approach has been to start brainstorming lots of different ways in which the game could work. It helps to write them down on a whiteboard or shared document that everyone involved can access.
By the time we fill up the whiteboard, we have most likely realized that the initial idea is not going to work the way we had envisioned. We take a moment to consider everything we’ve been discussing and try to pick one or two characteristics of the game that we really want to keep, and go from there.
In the case of Dragon Dodge, we had actually started out trying to create a game about Schrodinger’s cat. This led us to the idea of Schrodinger moving around his house, which would be represented by a set of tiles with different properties. After going back and forth on this for a while we ended up with the idea of tiles that the players can rotate and move in order to get from one point to another. We really liked this mechanic, but couldn’t make it work with the idea of Schrodinger’s cat without complicating the rules too much, which is not what we wanted for this game.
So, we dropped that theme and started thinking of it as an abstract game (we later ended up picking a wizard theme). We were OK with changing the theme because what we were really going after was a game with simple rules, and Dragon Dodge still has that.
Step 2: Make the first prototype
Once you have some clear ideas of how the game will work, you can make your first prototype. This has proven to be an important step for us to test out ideas and start coming up with more concrete rules. At this point you may find that there will be a lot of changes to your initial design, so we recommend using cheap materials and re-purposing old prototypes.
When you start playtesting, keep in mind that you can stop the game at any time if it’s not working. Oftentimes you can think of a rule change that you can try right away. Be sure to keep notes on the rules you are using, after hours of playtesting it’s easy to forget what worked and what didn’t.
Step 3: Revisit steps 1 and 2
After you’ve had a chance to play your game you need to decide what you like and what you don’t like about it. If the game doesn’t play the way you had hoped, this may be a good time to go back to step 1 for a moment: Pick one aspect of the game that you don’t want to lose and go from there. Some of the ideas that you had discarded earlier may work well now.
If you're feeling good about the direction the game is going, you may even consider creating some simple graphics on the computer, something that you can easily and quickly modify as the game evolves.
With Dragon Dodge we felt like we were pretty lucky at this point. We didn’t need to change too much to get to the point where we though the game was headed the right way. Jeff made a quick prototype in Illustrator for the tiles and cards.
After a fair amount of playtesting between the two of us we felt we had a promising game and it was time to find a theme. We wanted something that could replace the numbers 1-4 on the tiles, so our approach what to come up with themes that involve 4 different things or varieties of something. We finally settled on a Wizard theme with the 4 basic spells: earth, water, fire and wind.
Step 4: Write down the rules
Once you have something that kind of works, we would recommend writing down the rules. You don’t need any fancy art or graphics at this point, but it’s probably good to try to be as clear as possible. This can help you think about the game in a different way. You may notice some problems or inconsistencies for the first time, or simply realize there were scenarios you hadn’t even considered yet. It also sets you up for the next step: playtesting with other people.
With Dragon Dodge we really wanted to make a game with simple rules. If we found ourselves having trouble explaining the mechanics in a simple way or adding rules for very specific situations, we knew we needed to go back and rethink.
Once you have a prototype with rules, you may be anxious to know what others will think of your game. In our next post we will discuss our first experiences playtesting with friends and as well as public events.
If you have any comments or questions, please let us know below.