Sunday, February 10, 2013

Should Game Designers Play Other Designers’ Games?

Because our weekly playtesting group at the Spielwiese is open to anyone to participate, either as a playtester or designer, we see all kinds of prototypes.  Some new designers bring fresh and innovative ideas that challenge and inspire our core group.  More often than not, however, the “new” designs are only slight variations of games that already exist.  And more often than not, the designers have no idea that their “inventions” have existed for some time.

My advice to every one of them: ''Play other people’s games.  Lots of them.  Look at the shelves around us piled high with over a thousand games of every kind, and tell me how many of these you have played.  And if you do not have regular gaming groups to try out many of them, read about them online or watch video reviews in order to get an idea of what has already been done."

Most game designers I know have the same approach. There is one very prominent designer, however, who disagrees.

Reiner Knizia, one of the most prolific game designers in the business, has revealed more than once that he does not play other designer’s games.  And one reason, of course, is that with so many of his own prototypes to playtest and all the time needed to market his designs, he simply has no time left over for “regular” game nights.  That part is perfectly understandable.  However, Knizia goes further in claiming that this gives him an advantage, as quoted in this interview:

“Not knowing many other games is a big competitive advantage for me. Other game designers obviously cannot contain themselves and play many other games, claiming that this is important for market research. Of course it is mainly for entertainment! By doing so, they spoil themselves with other people’s ideas. I believe that the evolution of the human brain is not entirely geared towards game design: the design process requires a lot of decisions, small ones as well and big ones, how to handle and how to solve many of the tricky game situations. Now, the human brain has evolved to learn from experience. In game design this means that if you already know the solution another designer has applied to a similar feature, the brain irresistibly meanders towards this solution. As I do not know these solutions, my brain is free to develop my own innovative ideas…”

I understand where he is coming from, but I disagree with his assertions—even when it applies to his own work—and I find his comments more than a little condescending toward his competitors.

Inspired and Challenged by What is Possible
First of all, seeing and experiencing games from other designers gives us the opportunity to see what is possible. Would engineers have built rockets if they had not first seen airplanes take flight? For innovators, seeing what has been done before is inspiring, not limiting.

Furthermore, I cannot imagine advising young authors not to read anyone else's books, or young painters not to ever set foot in a museum or gallery. Books inspire a new generation of writers, just as museums inspire a new generation of artists.

Certainly, the temptation exists in game design to re-use mechanisms from other games, but the best designers use the best work of their competitors as a challenge, and they have the discipline to innovate in their own work.

Innovation, by the way, is always a relative term, and it often means “finding new uses for existing elements”—especially in boardgame design.

And Knizia unsurprisingly borrows from earlier game mechanisms too.  Because he no longer has the time to play the latest games, however, these mechanisms are sometimes quite a bit older. Take his Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, for example, which clearly builds on the classic Stratego. And what about Carcassone: The City, his own 2-player variation on that popular brand innovated by Klaus Jürgen-Wrede?  Blue Moon was inspired by Collectible Card Games like Magic: The Gathering, and Fits is a clever boardgame adaptation of the PC hit Tetris. He claims in a lecture on his own website that Pickomino was his own attempt to make a "better Yahtzee,  and in the same lecture, he speaks of wanting to update Monopoly as well.

I personally enjoy Knizia’s original takes on existing mechanisms, and I’m sure I would not be alone in welcoming more of that. Who would not want to see what he could do with the popular “deck-building” mechanism, for example?

Instead Knizia has unfortunately spent the last several years borrowing—not from others—but from himself. It seems that limiting one's self to playing one's own games can be just as detrimental to a designer’s creativity.  He’s proven that point with countless variations and re-themes of his most popular mechanisms. We’ve seen no less than six variations, for example, of his “cards in ascending or descending order” mechanism first introduced as Lost Cities in 1999. Most recently, when a “new” card game themed around The Hobbit was announced, it made no mention that it was really just a new version of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Card Game from 2001.

Knizia proves by his recent output that avoiding other people’s games is not necessarily the solution to keep the brain from “irresistibly meandering” towards an already-proven solution, rather than pushing for innovation.

Avoiding What Has Already Been Done
“I know that there are many people out there who are trying to ‘steal’ my ideas even before I have had them…” – Reiner Knizia in an interview with Opinionated Gamers

When showing a new prototype at a convention a couple of years ago—so the story goes—Knizia was alerted by one of the playtesters to a game that had been on the market several years already and was almost identical to his prototype. The game was Qwirkle, and Knizia realized that he had been investing time developing a game that had already been invented—and was about to win the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) award.

To his credit, he communicated with Qwirkle designer Susan McKinley Ross, but it still seems odd to me that he did not offer to co-design a Qwirkle Card Game with her, and instead sold his prototype as a solo design. Furthermore, the game, Big Five, was released the same year that Qwirkle won its award. But then, this is understandable given the philosophy he put forth in the interview with Opinionated Gamers: he owns the ideas before he even has them, and Qwirkle was one of those that was “stolen.”

Knizia's career strategy for designing and selling his games seems to be working for him, and that's fine. I don't like it when I'm playing a game, and others tell me how I should be playing.  And no other designer has any right to tell Knizia how he should conduct his business.  He's had an amazing career, and many of his games from a decade ago will always be classics in my collection.

But I disagree with his stated philosophy to avoid researching other designers’ games, and it’s obvious that he does not always follow it himself. Furthermore, his own designs of late have lacked the innovation that his competitors have been producing, and they deserve his respect. 

In the end, game design comes down to discipline.  One can be inspired by a great many things, whether they are the themes and mathematics that permeate our lives and collective history, or the creativity and innovation that has gone on before and is happening around us every day.  We all need inspiration, but the best designers are those who can focus that inspiration and push their minds beyond the easy answers to find innovation in an already-innovative field.

As Knizia says—and I wholeheartedly agree, when it comes to game design:
“You can have anything in life, but not everything….”


bruno faidutti said...

In theory, I completely agree with you - we should all play as many games from other designers as possible. The only real issue is time. With only 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, the more games I design, the less time I have for other designers' ones.

Marco Valtriani said...

I agree with Jeffrey. For me, it's important to play a lot, it's stimulating and often entertaining even if I'm trying to analize the game I'm playing.

Bruno is right, there's no time to play everything, but I think that as a designer (or even a player) grows more experienced, he can be more selective, because he got the "tools" to discern what is worth playing and what is not, at least in theory.

Andrew Meredith said...

A comparative situation in writing is David Eddings. He stated in Riven Codex that he never read other Fantasy novels (Besides LOTR in his younger years). And because of that almost everything he wrote after Belgariad was derivative of his own work, so it stagnated. I still consider him an inspiration in my own work, but by choice, I developed away those base-lines. When game designing I do the same thing. I even started a game, then discovered that my personal favorite designer (Uwe Rosenberg) was working on a game on the same subject. Once I played the game and realized that my game design was not the same, I took the time to learn from that, and further separate my design in order to avoid being derivative myself.

jeffinberlin said...

I agree that it is difficult to find time to play other games, as I've reach the point where I enjoy designing and playtesting my own games more than trying to keep up with the flooded marketplace. If I read about games and designers who are taking the medium in new directions, however, I make it a point to play those games in order to see what is still possible and to challenge myself to take the medium in new directions.