Wednesday, June 1, 2011

WHY Do I Design Games?

Why do I design games?  Just about everyone I know asks me this question eventually, and I probably respond with a different answer each time.  Oftentimes, it's even easier to explain which motivations I do not have, namely fame and fortune.

Recently, however, I took some time to reflect a bit more on this point.  So, for what it's worth in blogging currency (which, admittedly, is pretty cheap these days), following are the events and inspirations that led me to start designing boardgames, and reasons why I continue to do so...the "long answer" to the oft-asked question:

Can't Stop
When I was in grade school, one of my teachers gave me an assignment to write a short story.  After the assignment was finished, I simply could not stop myself from writing more.  It was as if my teacher had opened floodgates that let my creativity pour out, with no way to stop it.

Later, in high school, the same thing happened in 9th grade English class.  I was to write a book of poetry, which would include at least a dozen separate poems using various styles and subjects.  At first apprehensive, I found that after completing the assignment, I could not stop writing, and I continued to submit poetry to that teacher all through high school, even when I was no longer a student in her class.  Again, it was as if an internal "on" switch had been activated, with no apparent way to turn it "off". Poetry remains a creative outlet for me to this day.

When I studied architecture at the university--and later practiced it in Berlin--it was also difficult for me to shut out thoughts about my current designs.  Architects are known for being obsessive about their work, and are even famous for the "napkin sketches" they make while away from their drafting tables.  I was no different, bringing sketch books with me wherever I went.
Since I started designing games seriously about seven years ago, I have likewise been unable to shut out the ideas for mechanisms and themes that come to me during odd moments of the day. The sketchbooks I carry around everywhere still have poetry and art in them, but more often these days, they are filled with game design ideas.

The Joy of Playing
I’ve always enjoyed playing games, and I enjoy exploring what others have done with the medium.  Just as a good writer must enjoy reading, a good game designer must enjoy playing games.  And after discovering the avalanche of games I’d been missing—even though I’d lived in Germany for several years already—I was very motivated to make up for lost time, and I quickly amassed a collection of classics through the frequent flea market visits I made with my wife.  I’m still trying to play through these, even after attending and hosting game nights in which I learn at least two new games each session.

I still enjoy discovering different game mechanisms, even those that seem out-of-date in comparison to those incorporated into the modern crop of games.  It is interesting to experience the history and evolution of game design through playing older games, and their beauty can still be appreciated in the same way older works of poetry can be cherished, even when the poet’s use of language is much different than our own today.

Building Things
The tactile nature of boardgames is one of the reasons I prefer them to computer games.  It is no surprise, then, that I enjoy the prototype-making process when designing games.  As an architect, I often designed through model-making, and I often do the same through the making of prototypes.  Besides the enjoyment of making, I can think more clearly about the rules and gameplay when I am working with the visual and tactile elements, and the materials I choose (and limits I place on materials) can even inform the design.

Positive Feedback
It’s true that I probably would not have continued in many of the creative endeavors mentioned above without some measure of positive feedback, whether from peers or teachers.

I was, however, a closet game designer for a long time before I finally brought one of my prototypes to the “professionals” for their expert opinions.  And although that first prototype wasn’t successful, they saw enough thought in it to encourage me to keep designing, and to make connections with other designers and publishers.  That gave me confidence to continue, even when I knew realistically that it would be very difficult to get published.  Positive feedback—and the desire to work hard enough to receive it—was enough motivation for me to continue designing games.

Science and Art
I feel that I’m much more of an artist than a scientist, but game design is as much of a science as it is an art form.  Just as playing a good game challenges both my creativity and my problem-solving abilities, designing a good game also presents plenty of problems to be solved in addition to the opportunity for creativity.  In fact, writing rules for a new game is very similar to writing a flowchart for a computer program.  There are many other factors to consider as well: player decision trees, boundaries and limits, story arc, mechanisms, and how the theme and rules fit together.  And there is really no way of getting around the math of it all, unless the game is more of a communicative “party” game.

I enjoy this back-and-forth exercise between the right and left sides of my brain during the design process, and I can’t imagine it any other way, just as I would not want to go to the gym every day and only work on my biceps.  Game design, then, is a well-rounded exercise, a science and an art.

Interaction with People
One of the reasons I enjoy boardgames—and prefer them over computer games—is the interaction with the other people at the table.  I probably could not have survived my first few years in Berlin if I would not have enjoyed meeting new people, and when I discovered German boardgames, it was just as exciting for me to get to know German gamers.

Through one of my gaming groups, I found it fascinating to meet game designers, and to learn from them about their own creative processes and how the industry works.

I even enjoyed networking with publishers, as the ones I’ve met love to play games as much as I do and thus believe in their products.  They usually offered useful feedback and would even make referrals in case they saw potential in a prototype that did not fit in their brand.

Playing games is a community activity, and designing games is a team project that requires good relationships to work. All of my games could only be as good as they are with the help of playtesters, other designers and publishers, and my friendships with them will last much longer than any print run.

Why do other people design games?  You can check out some of the answers from other game designers at the Board Game Designer's Forum.

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