Democratic Game Design

edited May 2011 in Story Games
After reading Matt Snyder's post about his latest thoughts on the "Indigo" project, I have to agree that for his particular game design goals, he's making the right decision to make it a solo project rather than an open-group one. I think he has gained a pretty clear vision of what he wants from this game and really he's the only one who can work out the questions and problems involved in that -- others can provide as much input as he might ask for, but it's really his car to drive any direction he wants. I can't wait to see the results!

That said, however, I'm curious to hear what others think about the possibility of a democratically designed game. What if, instead of having a leader figure who took in input and then made his or her own decisions, you had a moderator sort of figure who tried to synthesize what different people were saying, find the common points, and help guide the group to a unified way of thinking about the game. I'm not sure votes would necessarily be needed, but I suppose if there were a clear disagreement about the game, then a vote could be called to resolve it, or else the group could split, to go ahead and take the game in those two different directions. Here are some questions:
  • Would the end result be hopelessly fragmented?
  • Or would it be an awesome sandbox of different but related tools that lots of people could both enjoy playing with and tinkering with as well?
  • Would the need for consensus stifle innovation?
  • Would players be interested in such a game, or would it seem kind of gimmicky?


  • I can talk about a specific instance of it. Gary Sarli got the e20 project going on Kickstarter. If you donated a certain amount ($100), you got influence on the development of the game. At some point the discussion came up of how many classes to use. Not everyone agreed on it, so it was put to a vote. Unfortunately, the two options were 3 or 6 (no options for 1, 9, or more). Most people voted for 6, so that became fixed in stone, something that wasn't changeable, because it had been voted on by certain members who had funded the project.

    In my opinion, that was a pretty bad result. 6 classes, if that's all you're ever going to have, isn't good. True20 made a good call with 3, since it forces all the classes to be flexible. 9 would probably be better too, as the classes could be split up 3 by 3. Instead, the classes, d20 Modern style got associated with the 6 ability scores. I'm not banging my head against the wall too much over that, since I didn't donate anything to it, but I did do a facepalm.

    Another thing, this was just due to influence, and I suppose could come in a non-democratic fashion as well, Gary wanted to have damage be fixed and based on the attack roll. Something like weapon damage + difference of attack roll and AC. I think it's a pretty good idea, it streamlines combat a bit, and actually solves the gripe a lot of people have about armour making you harder to hit instead of reducing damage. In this case, it's still abstracted and quite simple, but clearly does reduce damage (so does being able to dodge and not take it to a vital, and that makes sense too). Most members didn't like that, complained bitterly about it (I think just because they were attached to rolling for damage), so the idea got canned.

    There is of course the potential of having some good ideas introduced by having more minds involved, but there's also disagreements. Disagreements lead to massive walls of text that nobody wants to read, so good ideas get buried (that's happened on the e20 forums as well).

    I think it might be interesting to do a community project, but there would have to be some good ground rules laid out ahead of time, because if you go the voting route, or just the vocal majority route, you can get forced down a certain path simply to stick with what 'has been agreed upon'.

    I think the sandbox of different but related tools is probably the best you could hope for, and might actually work out. Nobody would use all the rules, all the time, depending on the situation, different rules would be used, so you'd get a mix and match system, to your taste. But again, it would have to be planned well, and the democratic process clearly laid out.
  • Design by committee... sounds like "Too many cooks spoil the soup."

    I've been reading up on design mistakes and one that is frequently cited is asking too many people's oppinion. You can't please everyone with everything and loosing a coherent message and point of view would make for a very scattered message.

    I'm pretty certain that no design is not improved by getting feedback from others but there always has to be one person who is responsible for the end decision or nothing will get done. It comes back to accountability and learning from YOUR mistakes. It is a lot harder to learn if you haven't put yourself out there on the line.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Chris Engle
  • edited May 2011
    Zak over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars has a crowd sourced RPG called Gigacrawler.

  • You could also play Universalis over multiple sessions.
  • My sense of it is...

    1 is not the best number of designers for a game. That may seem counterintuitive from an indie games perspective, but when I think about all the really successful designer pairings of the past few years (Wicked Dead, BWHQ, Luke + Jared, Bully Pulpit, Dungeon World, Two Scooters, Evil Hat (including Daniel + Chad + Ryan), even Vincent and the "designer commune" that exists in Western Mass), it seems clear that design works best when you have other people invested in the process that can really help you move forward and support you when you're not sure where to go next and help maintain excitement. Really, the kerfuffle that Ben stirred up about editing a few months back is really, at least in my mind, about creating a productive creative partnership for your game project.

    However, the right number of designers for a project is probably not more than a few or (at most) a handful. Even then, the vision of the project runs the risk of getting watered down or otherwise lost along the way. 2 seems to be the right number for lots of folks. Or 2 core designers with some extra assistance from a number of others.

    Honestly, I've been kind of jealous of a number of those creative partnerships because, while I have a lot of great designer friends (both local and not) that I can draw on for help, I've never really been able to build the kind of sustained collaborative relationship that some folks seem to have. I've made some gestures at partnerships with other designers, but it's never seemed to work out, not because of controversy but just because the energy of the original conversations always seems to trail off after a while, and not be sustainable. Honestly, I think some of my games would have likely been finished or at least seen additional drafts if that kind of support and collaborative environment was in place and I keep hoping and looking for opportunities to build a relationship like that with other designers, even if its just for a project here and there.

    Still, crowd-sourcing for help is another issue entirely and one that can be either helpful or harmful, depending on the stage of the process and how you use it. Personally, I feel like getting any kind of feedback (even from a close partner) before you have a semi-working first draft may not actually be helpful. There's a lot of good in being able to get your original ideas down before opening your creative process up to outside influence, just to make sure your vision doesn't get lost.
  • Design by committee is terrible. Making design decisions by majority vote seems destined to create an end product that dissatisfies everybody.

    People work collaboratively all the time. Video games, films, etc., are frequently made by groups of creative people. It usually requires a leader who can articulate a creative vision, collaborators who can buy into that creative vision, a leader who trusts their collaborators to do a good job in their areas of expertise and responsibility, a leader who values the input of others without being a pushover, and collaborators who can contribute ideas but still get along when things don't go exactly their way. RPGs should be perfectly amenable to that, although there doesn't seem to be much need to have a team if you're aiming for the common "small game with a deeply personal artistic statement" indie approach.

    Matt's process with Indigo was pretty bad. I got the impression that he had no interest in collaborating with the people he invited to collaborate with him, so he was essentially trying to do a slow-motion one person design with an audience.
  • I used to be a super-big fan of collaboration - when I was in the trenches it was because I wanted a voice; when I was in a director position it was because I wanted everyone else to have a voice; and there's some evidence that it works: Valve's "cabal" process
    I was also interested in wisdom-of-crowds approaches (Speaking of multiple-classes, a wisdom-of-crowds approach to that would have been to have everyone write down a number in secret and then just average the results.)
    So when I was directing the Spider-Man 3 game, I let some decisions get made that I didn't like, and was probably just too soft in general. And started feeling like it wasn't going to be a good game anymore. (I was right about that...) And quit.

    And since then, I've talked to some guys from Valve, and - this is telling - noticed in *Raising The Bar* that Gabe Newell said the hero's name would be Gordon Freeman and "that was that." So I realized, make-no-mistake, Gabe Newell really is in charge over there, even if they do list the credits alphabetically.

    And my latest feeling with wisdom-of-crowds is that although they'll produce a better result than average guy off the street, they won't produce a better result than someone who is really good at it. (I can't beat the S&P; the S&P can't beat Warren Buffet - a crowdsourced RPG will probably be better than most of the RPG's I've made; but it won't be better than most of the RPG's that Vincent Baker has made.)
  • edited May 2011
    Democratic design can work if you:

    - have a reasonably unbiased moderator
    - have extremely clear, detailed, small, and achievable goals
    - don't treat opinion as fact
    - keep opinions anonymous so that status doesn't shape other people's opinions
    - have ways to test if opinions do or don't accomplish your goals
    - incentivize those involved so that they prioritize the project in their daily or weekly schedule
    - don't allow vocal minorities to preoccupy more time than is warranted
    - don't allow the power of the majority to silence minorities
    - be clear who is responsible for what
    - set clear and achievable next actions
    - set deadlines
    - set a weekly review time
    - have clear ways to remove and add people
    - have checks and balances to ensure the above is working properly
    - make the above transparent immediately upon request but don't bog people down with too much information if it becomes a distraction
    - eliminate distractions that veer you away from your goals
  • Game design (and most likely all other sorts of design) by completely democratic committee simply doesn't work. You can have a design group, but there still needs to be a "game daddy" (as we've called the team leader) to make the final calls, set a direction, whatever, that everyone defers to when disagreements take place. Whether the game daddy is ordained as such in a highly structured group, or is loosely assigned to that position as the fallback "what does HE think" guy, is going to be totally decided by who is working with who and how they set up their structure.

    Regardless, every game or project I've worked on has needed someone with whom "the buck stops here," even if it's loosely defined. I tried being a part of a "many equal cooks" game project once, and that kind of thing dissolved very quickly, given that EVERYONE had such various different takes on what they wanted to do, it was pretty clear that no one was going to be happy. In fact, really, the only thing that got resolved was the name.
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