We all have our own unique neuroses, whether blatantly apparent, or unexploded madness. Mine have always been fairly self evident, such as my obsessive tendencies, and in my role of game designer, they even serve to assist me in some respects, although I have to remain ever vigilant that I remain in control of them, because given an opening they will start a coup to gain control of me.
In terms of my job, this isn’t a problem – what client is going to worry that their game designer or writer is working too much on their project, especially given that I am always working on a fixed fee basis, not by-the-hour? In terms of my life, however, I am eternally grateful for the support of my wife, who has acquired the dubious burden of ensuring that my obsessive tendencies do not swallow me whole.
One thing that has beset me my entire life is a swing between two extremes of demeanour. On the one hand, total arrogance – the inevitable belief that I am the greatest game designer that ever lived, that everything I do is marvellous beyond all measure, and that my brilliant research in game design is unsurpassed, and will probably make my name live beyond eternity. On the other hand, crisis of confidence – that I have no talent whatsoever, that nothing I have done is of any artistic or commercial merit, and that my research is merely the deranged outpourings of a diseased mind.
I try to steer my ship between the two shores.
In terms of game design, I generally deliver the goods. I am especially proficient at mechanical design, for which I have a natural aptitude, and it is perhaps a great shame that I have ended up in video games where mechanical design is less of a factor in a game’s success. If I’d been born twenty years earlier, I might have founded the UK version of Steve Jackson Games, and would have been perfectly happy making my board games. Sadly, I missed the boat.
Despite my game design competence, I still doubt my abilities more than is necessary. Anxiety from other areas of my life impresses a certain degree of universal doubt upon me… For instance, despite a postgraduate education, a genius IQ test score (the test that measures… your ability to complete IQ tests), a happy marriage to a beautiful wife, and a company of my own, I still have trouble doing things that most people take for granted – like falling asleep at night without some form of distraction, remembering faces, or (in one severe instance) crossing the street without being run over.
On the plus side, this mildly intrusive anxiety drives my obsessive attention to abstracted systems, which serves to benefit any game project for which I am involved in, especially during the tweaking stage. (My staff, however, may have a different story to tell of this…) I have become quite adept at juggling interconnections and mathematics in my head, such that I can usually intuit how to repair unbalanced mechanics. The trouble is, I don’t often know when to stop.
For instance, on Ghost Master, the mechanics were balanced to hold up over a much longer game, but the implementation of the levels took such manpower that we weren’t able to make the game that long. I was so focussed on getting the mechanics ‘right’ that I failed to spot the games’ biggest commercial problems – that the elimination of micromanagement hurt the Hardcore appeal, and consequently the fiero payoffs for the game (which lie in achieving the Triple Pumpkins) were out of reach of many of the games possible evangelists because I had removed the potential to apply logistical skills reliably. I did it intentionally too, because at the time the audience model I had didn’t see the importance of the logistical play style to the commercial success of games. I had become too obsessed with the mechanics.
How many people, for instance, care that the power set and the costs of upgrading the ghosts was balanced to within an inch of its life, when the publishers failed to market the game and the Hardcore failed to propagate the game by word of mouth. The 90% review in PC Gamer magazine (US) vindicates the game design, perhaps, but still, the game languishes in obscurity, another curious oddity in the history of games.
I have poor luck in this regard. Discworld Noir received average 90% reviews in Europe – but the publisher’s US parent company (GT Interactive) went bankrupt and we never got a US release. Still, I do run into Europeans who loved the game, which is nice. I fear it has aged badly, however, although the script still has a certain charm. It helped that I had a good editor…
However, one area that my skills with abstract systems and mechanics has served me well is in simple designs. One activity which I carry out relatively frequently is the “Three Hour Game” – in which a new table top game is created in three hours or less (sometimes with the help of other people to produce the components). It’s a great game design challenge, and I recommend it to anyone getting into the field.
When you first start making Three Hour Games, you inevitably borrow a lot of concepts, because you don’t have time to be wholly innovative. You tend to quickly give up on boards, because they are too slow to make, and can’t be changed very rapidly. It soon boils down to a core set of flexible components – I keep around more than a thousand blank Dutch ivory board cards, some large sheets of thin cardboard (in case a board is needed), a bag of dice (all different kinds – polyhedral, exponential, colour coded…) and an assortment of counters. Making Three Hour Games soon comes down to conceiving the verbs of the game, and then instantiating the nouns of the game into the components I listed above.
The oldest surviving Three Hour Game that is still played is Legends, which I believe was made five years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee, with my wife and the man who married us helping with the cards. It co-opts an auction mechanic I originally designed for a game called Star Fleet Officers, which won a game design competition (when I was in my early twenties) and was going to be made into a board game by Task Force Games. Then the UK branch of the company shut down. See what I mean about the poor luck? Still, the auction mechanic works great in Legends, and I’m happy that it has survived.
I have a vast library of board games I have made, but none that I have published because to do so requires funding, and the potential returns just don’t justify it. We got close with Discordia Incorporated (the game design Non-Profit Organisation that I ran for a while… we published three tabletop RPG systems)… Discordia was a bit like Cheap Ass Games – except they had the balls to see it through. Cheap Ass’ most famous game is probably Kill Doctor Lucky – Cluedo meets the Ladykillers (which reminds me, I really should get around to watching the Coen brother’s remake of that at some point… the original was on TV here just the other day, and remains a masterpiece).
Although it is not impossible that I will sell myself into corporate servitude at some future point (I cannot predict the effect raising a family will have on my future self), for the time being, I am not so interested in the chance to work on the expensive game projects. I’d rather work on games that are like the Three Hour Games – simple, focussed and fun.
We are looking at the moment at making what I have dubbed “Verb Games”. In a sense, this could be seen as a genre nucleated by Katamari Damacy (and originated, perhaps, with Pac-Man). These are games whose core formulation is expressed in simple verb and noun relationships. In the case of Katamari Damacy, the formulation was Roll -> Absorb -> Grow. Takahashi-san then made sure that the game didn’t drift away from that formulation by ensuring that they added no unnecessary nouns, such as power ups. My hope is that our “Verb Games” can capture some of the innovative style of Takahashi’s game, although we are going to be trying to do it on a very thin budget.
That’s the fun, though – smaller projects on cheaper budgets have more freedom to be creative, and I’m really enjoying seeing the ideas we are coming up for them. The neurosis is still there, though. On the one hand, what we are doing is sheer creative genius/insanity (delete as applicable) – but on the other, are we going to be able to persuade a publisher to sign up for that? I must continue to chart the course between the two shores… on paper, it looks profitable, thanks in part to our development team being based in India and so offering a substantial cost saving. All we need is a publisher willing to explore what could turn out to be a profitable new approach to the low market.
As Bruce Feirstein said, the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.
PS: I'm trying on new names for my blog. Let me know what you think.