Advice for Aspiring Game Designers and Publishers

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Most podcasts/interviews always ask me what advice I would give to aspiring game designers.  I generally say something along the lines of, “Just start creating the game, playtest and iterate, iterate, iterate on it.”  Great game designers find the failures in their designs, not the successes.  You can’t find those failures, if you’re not watching people play your game.  I see many aspiring game designers online, missing this key point to the process.  They’ll post something about how their game is really innovative and ask how they can protect it.  They’ll ask about NDAs for playtesters or perhaps talk about trademarking slogans or game names. That’s all a waste of time. If you want to design games, just design games.

Let’s say you have a great idea for a game: innovative mechanics, great theme, and all your friends who’ve played it, loved it.  You think you’re sitting on a gold mine, but you really aren’t even out of the gate yet. 

Let’s start with the game mechanics themselves.  A lot of new designers get caught up in protecting their mechanics.  You can’t copyright game mechanics. Getting hung up on being secretive and protective about them is a waste of time. Don’t be sad though, this is a good thing.  Imagine how crappy board games would be if Milton Bradley copyrighted rolling a die.  The reality is that you may think your mechanics are innovative, but so does every designer out there.  When you eventually publish your game, I guarantee reviewers will compare it to other game mechanics already on the market.

For me, theme is a very big piece of what makes a good game great.  There are still unique themes to be found, but many games (if you take them to a publisher) will be re-skinned to a theme of the company’s choosing for marketing purposes.  Again, don’t get caught up with protecting yourself.  A great idea is nothing without great execution.

A good example of the points above is Gloomhaven.  Why is it the highest rated game on BGG? Is it a unique theme? No, it’s a fantasy dungeon crawler like so many other games. Is it because of game mechanics that have never been done before? No, it’s deckbuilding, hand management and card play. Gloomhaven is innovative because it replaced the standard dice rolling in dungeon crawlers with its card mechanics.  Gloomhaven is great because Isaac spent a ton of time developing the game: iterating on his ideas and playtesting it with people.

The first thing an aspiring game designer needs to do is decide whether they want to just design games or become a publisher (i.e. start your own business).  If you’re only interested in designing games and/or have no cash/capital, you should pursue a publisher for your game.  Go to conventions like Protospiel, Metatopia and Unpub, playtest your game to make it better at local meetups, and setup meetings with publishers. If you stick with it and believe in your design, you should be able to find a publisher that shares your passion.

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

– Bill Gates

If you have the capital to start your own business and kickstart the game yourself, prepare for a much longer and harder road.  If you’re going this route, you have to do all the design work plus pay for all the art/graphic design, learn or pay for marketing/advertising, produce prototypes, reach out to press for reviews, etc. etc.  Basically, you’re going to have to wear a lot more hats and if it’s your first Kickstarter I wouldn’t go in with the expectation of making money.  A better goal is to break even.

If you’re really interested in going the Kickstarter route, it’s essential to educate yourself on the business of Kickstarter through Jamey Steigmaiers’s Kickstarter Lessons and James Mathe’s blog.  There is plenty of advice out there and some great facebook groups where you can ask questions. I still believe all the Kickstarter and business stuff comes after having developed a great game, so know where you are.  The reality of game design is you want to fail and iterate faster. The best way to do that is playtest the game with as many people as possible.  Don’t waste your time with NDAs.

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