Luke, tell me more about your contest so I can learn stuff

edited April 2010 in Game Design Help
Let's save that other thread as a place for people to write extensively about how Luke's idea is a bad idea, so we can hang out in this thread.

I'm going to treat luke's idea as if it were sincere, but I want want some additional info and guidance. If we have 365 days, how would you break down the various parts of the contest? How much should you design before you start playtesting? How long should each bit take? Since I've only ever made one game, and it was six years ago, and the process was a shitstorm, I'd like some thoughts on organizing the process to do this very thing in 365 days.

Luke, you've designed like 78 games by now. I am among the least organized people on Earth. Tell me some of what you do? How long does it take you to put together a shitty alpha? How do you keep your friends after they muddle through it? How many times do you tell Thor to fuck off while he edits your game? I think this would be good stuff to know.
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Comments

  • edited April 2010
    A game like Mouse Guard should take you less than a year.

    That year is comprised of phases that overlap rather than discrete segments.

    .<-Design--------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: September to November
    ...<-Testing------------------------------------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: October to May
    ..<------Writing-------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: October to February
    .......<-----------------Editing-------------------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: January to May
    ............................................. <-Production---------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: February to May

    Those were 16 hour days, seven days a week across 8 months. You can reduce your daily committment some by starting your design process in August and finishing your production schedule in July.

    -L
  • edited April 2010
    Luke, I notice you write as you're playtesting. Do you write things in a particular order? For example, do you write all the background material first, leaving the mechanics until they're fully tested? Or do you just write everything, including the mechanics, even if they might change during playtesting?

    It's interesting to notice how much writing, editing and production overlap. Often, we think of those stages as running serially (e.g. finish the text before editing it), rather than in parallel.

    Graham
  • I tend to write what I absolutely need first, then fill in and expand on stuff as I go. Thus I don't write background material until the very last.
  • Luke, thanks for engaging in this conversation with us.

    Using Mouse Guard as an example, I can't help but point out that it's based on another game you wrote, and Burning Wheel lists a lot of people who helped in its development. If you hadn't written Burning Wheel or Burning Empires, and you had to write Mouse Guard alone without any help (other than asking questions on the net, like we do), could you complete it in one year? Would it be as good a game?

    Also, most of us cannot (or will not) put in 3800 hours of development in eight months. That's about twice the number of hours I work at my full time job in a year. While I admire your dedication, I can't match it. More realistically, if I were painfully dedicated to my project, I could carve off four hours on weeknights and 16 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. It'd take me 105 weeks -- two years -- to put in 3800 hours.

    Rereading the thread, I realize that you're just answering the "How do you do this?" question. And the answer is, "By working my fucking ass off, duh." Sorry I'm being such a whiny bitch about it. I'm just insanely jealous of your focus. You made a very brave choice a few years ago to go do this stuff full time, as your only source of income. I don't begrudge you the success you've earned as a result.

    Okay, next post will be less whiny.
  • Okay, let's say I will set aside 12-15 hours a week to dedicate to game design, including all of my playtesting. An hour or two every weeknight; a couple 6-8 hour development or playtesting sessions on weekends. What's the best way to finish a quality RPG in one year?

    I've done the 24-hour game thing. I know I can "finish" a game in a weekend of concentrated writing. Maybe that's a good start. Write a damned game over a weekend. Spend the next week poking at it a bit. The next weekend, play it. Repeat.
  • Interesting phase diagram. Specifically, I note that you stop writing before you stop testing. I'm guessing that the rewrites to things that didn't work in testing are considered part of the testing or editing phases?

    As this is a problem I have, big time, what parts of production are going on during the overlap with Testing and Writing?

    How much would these phases differ if you were building a system from scratch, rather than working from a baseline of an existing system, and modifying it to fit your needs?

    One major divergence from your process here and my assumptions on how it should be done is that I figured a last, total rewrite would be in order, once you were done with the system testing, to unify the prose and catch contradictions in the explanations that may have been missed as rulings and phrasings were modified during testing. This would be one of the last things done before beginning editing and layout.
  • Adam,
    It's also likely that your games won't be as large or as complex as Mouse Guard, so your commitment of a few hours a day should be plenty.

    Wolfe,
    Correct, rewriting is part of the editing stage.

    You need to lay the game out in a semifinal form and test it. Once you test it, you'll realize that you've forgotten things (and need to write them) and that stuff is broken (and needs to be retested).

    As I said to Adam, it depends on the complexity of the system. My games are complex, most are not this complex, thus I feel that if I can do one of these monsters in eight months, you all can produce your ideas in 12. I don't mean to sound condescending. I think we all can recognize that my games are beasts.

    First step of editing is a near-total rewrite! After that, I rewrite it piecemeal based testing/editing.

    Fun Fact: I wrote and produced Mouse Guard while writing and producing the Magic Burner at the same time.
  • edited April 2010
    Luke--

    But your job is way more than game development, right? How do you handle fulfillment, accounting, marketing, subcontractor recruitment / management, print buying, etc? etc? Are those jobs included in the 16hr days, or are they over & above it? How do you deal when your writing is disrupted by some other business thing that absolutely demands your attention?

    This is the thing that daunts me. Creation of a complex, high-quality game is enough of an accomplishment, but managing the twenty other jobs that come with being a successful small-press publisher -- that seems like the batshit icing on the crazy cake.
  • Johnzo,

    My warehouse handles fulfillment. My friend's wife does my books. I handle contracting/buying. My assistant handles keeping us all together.

    But I'm not talking about any of that. I'm talking about pure design.
  • What about research?

    Using Mouse Guard as an example, isn't there also...

    > Reading comics.
    > Talking to creators to see what they want.
    > Talking to fans to see what they want.
    > Researching competition.
    > Researching existing game systems you can license?
    > Creating goals.

    Is this all part of design?
  • Research is usually in the design phase.

    Discussion with the creators is in the design phase.

    Never ever talk to fans to see what they want.

    Hunting for licenses happens during the downtime between games.

    Creating goals is something you should be doing every day and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

    -L
  • Posted By: Luke WheelA game like Mouse Guard should take you less than a year.

    That year is comprised of phases that overlap rather than discrete segments.

    .<-Design--------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: September to November
    ...<-Testing------------------------------------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: October to May
    ..<------Writing-------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: October to February
    .......<-----------------Editing-------------------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: January to May
    ............................................. <-Production---------------------------------------------------> For Mouse Guard: February to May

    Those were 16 hour days, seven days a week across 8 months. You can reduce your daily committment some by starting your design process in August and finishing your production schedule in July.

    -L
    Luke, would you like me to PERT that for you? My Masters should get some use.
  • edited April 2010
    Luke,

    I'm mostly curious as to how you organize your testing phase. Most my games are incomplete simply because I CAN NOT test them. I'm lucky if I can organize one play test for my games every six months or so. In fact, that's why I ultimately just put them up on a website for free in their unrefined format. I got tired of not being able to get organized feedback. So I tried to harness the internet. That isn't working very well either.

    Also, do you ever play any games other than the ones you're working on?

    Jesse
  • My own development cycle is pretty similar to what Luke does, he's spot on about the overlapping processes and how they inform each other.

    One thing about this annual development cycle is that it's going to work most reliably when the creative challenges involved with the game are essentially evolutionary rather than revolutionary: when you see some designer known for their idiosyncratic output delay a project for several years, it might not be because something else came up and they lost interest, but because their game design has backtracked; essentially, you can "fail" the progressive design process and find that the venue you've been developing does not lead to where you want to be going, which might segue into extensive soul-searching and the sort of stupid things artists do when they're frustrated. This can take time, and it'll take more time when you're trying to design towards an alien spec, one for which you don't have ready-made tools.

    What the above means is that when we're talking about the largely noncommercial, artistic indie scene, whether you'll need six months or three years for making your game might have more to do with what you're doing than how you're doing it. There are ways of speeding up the experimental design process as well, but they're not even necessarily compatible with the best practices of evolutionary design; when you encounter a guy who's ordered art for his game before figuring out that he doesn't even want to make the game he purchased art for, that's an example of a design process gone awry because the designer over-estimated the conservativeness of his design; he found out later that he actually was not ready for the development phase yet.
  • I'm mostly curious as to how you organize your testing phase. Most my games are incomplete simply because I CAN NOT test them. I'm lucky if I can organize one play test for my games every six months or so. In fact, that's why I ultimately just put them up on a website for free in their unrefined format. I got tired of not being able to get organized feedback. So I tried to harness the internet. That isn't working very well either.

    How many of other peoples' games do you playtest? I don't do much. It's boring and painful and makes me fight with my friends.

    You need people who are invested in the success of the project to help you. You need to go to conventions and play with people and get them excited about what you're trying to do. You need to get real critique — neither blowing smoke up your ass, nor playing the game to destroy it, but earnest and thoughtful critique.

    I've got a forum that can do that, but it assumes that you've already playtested and refined at least once, and can lay out your text in a way that's attractive enough that your audience can read it.

    Where do you live? Is there an indie/playtest-friendly con near you? If so, make that your home. Get to know the con organizers and let them help you.

  • Posted By: JesseI'm mostly curious as to how you organize your testing phase. Most my games are incomplete simply because I CAN NOT test them. I'm lucky if I can organize one play test for my games every six months or so. In fact, that's why I ultimately just put them up on a website for free in their unrefined format. I got tired of not being able to get organized feedback. So I tried to harness the internet. That isn't working very well either.
    I'm not Luke, but am an aspiring designer who doesn't have a ready supply of eager testers. I'm trying to encourage people to use Skype to playtest my game with me, and have offered to participate in playtests of other people's games over Skype (see my thread on Praxis) for mutual benefit. My theory is that taking the geographic limitations out of finding willing testers should make it easier. It hasn't completely worked out that way yet, but I haven't given up hope.
  • Luke, you mentioned working on MG and the Magic Burner at the same time, is that more or less your standard work style (2+ games at once)?

    I'm assuming you have more ideas than you care to develop. What's you process for choosing what games get the full development cycle? Once you start something on this scale, do you generally always see it through or do some projects get cut a ways in?
  • Jesse,
    My group tests my games. If they want to play, then they test. There's no getting around it. I broke them into the cycle years ago and now they're eager testers!

    Aside from my home group, conventions are the best place to test, I think. Just set up events and run your game. Don't even have to tell people it's a playtest.

    I strongly urge against skype playtesting.
  • Sage,

    One thing that my plan doesn't show is that there are periods of downtime during the whole cycle -- editors and playtesters take time to deliver results. Sometimes during those lulls, I'll start or continue another project to stay warm.

    During the Monster Burner I did the NPA.

    During BWR I did UASS and Jihad.

    During BE I did Dictionary of MU with Judd.

    During MG I did Magic Burner (and tried to start a third project that is still on hold).

    During BSS I took it easy and playtested a project that was eventually shelved.

    This year I'm back to double duty FreeMarket plus an as yet announced game.

    It's just my method. I find that once I focus intensely on an idea, I'm inspired for other work. I try to harness that inspiration and use it, rather than let it go to waste.

    -L
  • You know, people are asking me in whispers, so I'm going to repeat myself out loud.

    Here's the deal from where I sit about playtesting.

    It's really, really hard to get players to commit to playtesting. They're signing up for something that will constantly promise fun, only to snatch it away because of something that is either a favorite clever idea of yours, or because there's something really lacking and you have no idea how to fix it.

    So, if you get outside feedback, then awesome. You can use it with the rest of your feedback to figure out where your text falls down. But since most of the time, you'll be present, here's what I do, combined with what I've seen other people do effectively.

    • Get a couple of friends to commit. They have to want to see you succeed.
    • Play a weekly game. If things aren't working, the people playing with you need to be able to help you figure out what's wrong. They can't just be willing friends, and they certainly can't blow smoke up your ass. They need to figure out clearly what they aren't enjoying, and then be willing for you to stick to your guns and realize that what they think they're not enjoying is not what they're not enjoying. And you need to be able to listen and figure out what's wrong.
    • Play that weekly game until it's just too frustrating, then quit. Go away for a couple of weeks and think about it. Your friends will probably not be that mad with you after a couple of weeks. Rewrite things.
    • Repeat. Note that we're talking about several months.
    • If you think everything went great on the first session, you're totally lying to yourself. Even the things that are working probably are going to interact badly with the things that aren't, once they're fixed.
    • A point will come where you're, like, "Hey! We just had a good time for three weeks in a row!" You're going to start feeling like this can work! Now you get to start playing with other people who lack the commitment your friends have!
    • Start going to cons. Dreamation has a playtest track, which, while flawed, seems to have worked really well for designers this last year. This is when you're going to start learning how to market your game, because you're going to need to get players. If players aren't coming, it's because you aren't marketing well, and that should tell you something.
    • Keep doing it! You'll figure out how to explain things, how to refine the processes, and then it will become second nature.
    • Now you can figure out how (and if) to make a product out of it! That's a matter of marketing, graphic design, community building, typesetting, printer wrangling and all that other practical-but-interesting stuff.
  • Thank you! This is a really great thread!
  • Test-Driven Development, baby! It's not just for software anymore.

    In English: test early, test often, get the feedback you need as you go along, not in one big chunk at the end. For games, this may require some unusually dedicated friends. I did this as much as I could on Dungeon Construction Kit, but there were at least 2 occasions when I wish I had made shorter feedback cycles.

    And Joshua's totally right that finding playtesters is a tough job.
  • Joshua, Luke,

    Friends/Local playtesting and Convention playtesting are all well and good, but do either of you do external playtesting, where you (or one of your friends) aren't directly involved in the playtesting session(s)?

    - Mendel
  • Mendel, as I say, it's hard. I still have a playtest draft of yours from years ago, but I don't have the commitment to play it. I don't get to play as much as I'd like, as it is, and there's stuff that I'm hopping up and down to play.

    I'm getting some outside playtesting for Human Contact from the Portland krewe, it looks like, but that's because I've already got a game that some of them (including the shop owner) like. Starting from scratch is really, really hard. Playtesting means committing to the development of a game that isn't your idea and you won't get meaningful credit for. It's a hard sell.

    I'd suggest that you and your group find another group to trade playtesting with, maybe? If that feels like an unreasonable commitment to you, it will to them, too.

    It's of course easiest to get playtesters when you've already published stuff that makes players feel like they've got a good chance of having fun. Vincent gets a fair amount of external playtesting from people enthusiastic for his already-published games. It's a bit like not being able to get a job because you don't have enough experience, and I understand that. That's why I recommend the con route so you're not relying on the commitment of half-interested strangers.

  • Hey Mendel,

    Yes. We begin external playtesting once the internal playtests have gotten to the point where they consistently deliver the play experience Luke is trying to achieve and Luke has rewritten the text so that it is (in theory) usable by others.

    Our external playtests aren't really about testing the game, they're about testing the text.
  • Mendel,

    This is the key problem, getting people you don't know to play your game. I've only recently (after coming up on 4 years of development, marketing, and publicly playtesting like crazy) gotten people I never met using playtest drafts of my game, and there have only been like 3 or 4 of those.

    I really think it's the kind of thing where you get people to try your first game that you couldn't get a lot of external playtest on, get them to like it, then you start to get a reputation as someone who makes good games.
  • Yup, takes years to build up the reputation and interest where you can consistently get people who you don't know directly (or even people that you do know, but don't live anywhere near) to try your game out. I've just started to reach that point now and it's SO much easier than when I first started out.
  • I do think finding playtesters is work, but also, I don't think it's impossible to do if no one knows who you are. Before I ever announced It's Complicated or posted my first post on Story Games or, well, basically did anything remotely involved with the indie community except have a blog two people occasionally commented on, I found playtesters. The fine folks on IRC playtested my game three or four nights a week, one-shots, for six months. I didn't really know most of the people who played in these playtests before I showed up with a game, either. This is what I think about playtesting:

    - If your pitch doesn't get people jazzed about playtesting your game, refine it. If it still doesn't get people jazzed, scrap it. My first game concept was something people constantly told me sounded fascinating and important. When I asked if it was something they'd play, they said no, but assured me "someone" would. I never found that elusive someone, so I scrapped it.

    - Go wherever the playtesters are: cons, IRC, local gaming stores, game clubs, bribe friends with dinner, whatever it takes. Don't shy away from trying your game at a con because it's not made for one-shots. (Luke and Burning Wheel being the great example here.) If people play your game, chances are excellent that they're going to play it under less than ideal circumstances sometimes ANYWAY, so it behooves you to try playing it that way yourself: then, you can give advice to other people who want to play it but only have less-than-ideal circumstances in which to play it.

    - Really, really listen to advice from your playtesters. I know a lot of people say you shouldn't try to make everyone happy, and don't design by committee and blah blah blah. But playtesters can't feel like you're wasting their time. If you're having the big group talk you should have after every session about what worked and what didn't, and there's a general consensus that something isn't working, agree to change it for one session and see how it goes. I think one of the reasons my playtesters were so enthusiastic and willing to come back multiple times a week to try again is because they knew that, the next time we played, the rules would be altered to reflect their input. Now, the finished product, after all of those alterations, was 85% identical to my initial draft. Almost every change I made ended up reverted to the initial way we played. But in the process all of us learned a lot about what made the game work, and most importantly, they felt listened to. If you are receptive to critique, people will be more likely to take a chance on your game: they feel that if it's not fun now, their investment was worth it to make it fun in the future. If everyone tells you to change something and you won't even experiment with the change because it "ruins your vision," no one will want to playtest with you.

    - External playtesters, at least with IC, didn't require a name or reputation. It just took people who'd played in my IRC games getting excited about the text and bringing it to their local game groups. I feel like, if nothing else works, getting people excited enough about your game to play it when you're not around is key.

    - If you say "But there are no playtesters," re-read from the top.
  • Posted By: ElizabethExternal playtesters, at least with IC, didn't require a name or reputation. It just took people who'd played in my IRC games getting excited about the text and bringing it to their local game groups. I feel like, if nothing else works, getting people excited enough about your game to play it when you're not around is key.
    This is what made me playtest stuff like Dirty Secrets, Verge and Sons of Liberty.

    At some point I AM going to set up that professional playtest service I've been talking about for years.
  • Posted By: Elizabeth- If your pitch doesn't get people jazzed about playtesting your game, refine it. If it still doesn't get people jazzed, scrap it.
    This rings true to me, having just done a bunch of play-testing for Apocalypse World. We were drawn to the game because of the setting and the style, not the designer. Your game has to be really interesting to folks for them to walk willingly into the play-testing wood-chipper. (Of course, it helps to have lots of other folks also playtesting and talking about the game, which is where the designer reputation comes in).
    I think one of the reasons my playtesters were so enthusiastic and willing to come back multiple times a week to try again is because they knew that, the next time we played, the rules would be altered to reflect their input.
    Absolutely. It was really helpful for the morale of our group to see that the feedback we gave took root- Vincent (and others) acknowledged it, responded with questions and answers, and ultimately made some changes that reflected our experience. That made it worth doing the work to find the fun as well as the bugs.
  • If you are receptive to critique, people will be more likely to take a chance on your game: they feel that if it's not fun now, their investment was worth it to make it fun in the future. If everyone tells you to change something and you won't even experiment with the change because it "ruins your vision," no one will want to playtest with you.

    Well said. Listening to critique is very important. Even if you wind up rejecting it, you know you were right.

  • Ahem.

    Get your own thread(s).
  • Fair enough- the thread does have your name on it, after all.

    So to put the spotlight back where it belongs, does your "never talk to fans" thinking apply to playtesters? In other words, how do you gather useful data from outside playtesters? Is it better when they don't know they're testing?
  • Posted By: Steve Segedydoes your "never talk to fans" thinking apply to playtesters?
    I think it's pretty clear that he was talking about fans of the underlying media, not the folks who are fans of YOUR work helping out your game.

    'River Tam totally deserves an 18 Dexterity!" "Simon Tam's Medicine score is too high, as we see in Episode 12 when he blah blah blah..."

    That sort of thing.

    -Andy
  • Andy's on the right track, but I am talking about your fans -- fans of your games -- as well.

    "I love these rules, but I hate these rules and I wish you'd make rules for this other thing" is just poison.

    Fans want one thing: your vision. They signed on to learn more about why and how you do things. If they wanted the ideas that they thought of, they wouldn't need you. As soon as you start listening to fans, you're no longer designing from your vision.

    And in case it wasn't clear, a good design has vision, whether it is meant as art or a product.
  • Posted By: Luke WheelMy group tests my games. If they want to play, then they test. There's no getting around it. I broke them into the cycle years ago and now they're eager testers!
    True story: VIncent's sitting down to run Apocalypse World at Gamestorm. He says, "I'm really not sure how to pitch this game yet." I ask, "well, how did you pitch it to your own group?" and he replies, "I told them, 'you have to play my game!'"
  • edited April 2010
    That's not true. I think the pitch was just showing us the splat books and talking about awesome 80's apocalypse games, and then him being like "I dunno if it's fun yet. Do you want to try it anyway?" And us being like YES!

    The great thing about the beginning AW playtests is that it was really Vincent's enthusiasm for his own game that made me excited to play it. He clearly loved the material, was excited about it, and proud of it. He was worried about the fun quotient, but I think he knew he was onto something.

    It was that initial enthusiasm that gave me (at least) the buy-in, and by the end we were goading him on while he was the one... unenthusiastic... about finishing the text.
  • And just to bring it back to Luke: how often do you solicit feedback from the people you're playtesting with? Every session? Once a month? Never?
  • Fuck feedback. Much more important to watch them play. Watch what they do. Listen to them -- to their actions, their questions, their interactions. Make notes, mental or otherwise.

    At the end of the session, maybe I'll ask a few questions. But largely they're for show. I don't really care if you had fun or not. And I certainly don't care about your opinion on the design.

    For independent testing, I have a series of questions that I pass to each group. The questions focus on mechanical interactions and use of the rule books.
  • Dude! Could I take a look at the questions you ask independent testers? I don't even know where to begin and the one independent tester I've had told me, "It was fun." The end.
  • Why don't you join the playtest for my next project and you can see how it works?
  • Posted By: Luke WheelWhy don't you join the playtest for my next project and you can see how it works?
    Luke,

    Why wouldn't you want to share those questions, publicly?
    It seems like EXACTLY the kind of concrete thing that would assist other designers in the ways that you state you want to assist them.

    You are asking people to step up to the plate, and work on developing and polishing and making solid games. And a big part of that is how you orchestrate playtesting and subsequent revision. And Bret's asking for a specific nugget of wisdom that you have, one of those things you say you're trying to help people to reach. Why get coy now?*


    *And if the answer is "because coming up with your own questions is 90% of the struggle", then say that shit, so that we know it.
  • My playtesting requirements are different than yours. The process is much more important than the specifics. Thus I'd much rather show than tell.

    And honestly, if you're not nodding along to post #42, then my boring ass playtest questions aren't going to help you.

    -L
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: joepubAnd Bret's asking for a specific nugget of wisdom that you have, one of those things you say you're trying to help people to reach. Why get coy now?*
    It's cool. His answer was way better than what I specifically asked for.
  • Posted By: Luke WheelMy playtesting requirements are different than yours. The process is much more important than the specifics.
    Okay, cool.
    That's useful for me to hear, somehow.
  • I like Luke's playtest questions because they're multiple choice.

    example:

    What was the game you just playtested? a) Mouse Guard b) Moose Guard c) Stavropoulos d) Manhattan Mayhem
  • See, I hate Luke's playtest questions for just that reason.
    They don't let me declare that I was playing Mouse Mayhem, or Manhattan Guard, or Moosropoulos.
  • Just wait 'til you reach the phase 2 questionnaire. I'll never be entirely sure what they did with my urine and blood samples, but if it leads to making a better game...
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