Monday, April 22, 2013

Designing for Competitions

Advantages of Entering Competitions

Game design competitions can be helpful in many ways, especially for the hobby designer (i.e. one that does not work for a publisher or does not depend on game design income).

First, it usually provides clear boundaries as to game materials and other factors, such as target group and even theme.  These outside limits help a designer immediately focus.  I've written before about the need of self-imposed limits, when one is designing on spec rather than on a contract basis.  A competition usually has many of these limits built-in.

Second, it provides a clear deadline.  Without deadlines, game design can go on forever.  I often tell publishers that delaying the release of my games is a dangerous thing, as I continue to find ways to tweak them if given more time. A deadline forces one to "finish" it.

Third, entering a competition guarantees that your prototype will be playtested by a number of diverse people.  Finding playtesters and asking/bribing/blackmailing them into testing your prototype is one of the most challenging phases of game design.  It is much easier for extroverted people like me to host game nights where testing can take place, but for introverts, entering competitions is another great option.

Fourth, the feedback you receive--both positive and negative--can help you improve your design submission and give you the confidence to pitch it to a publisher.

Fifth, winning a competition can get your game noticed by publishers.  Some competitions are organized by publishers offering contracts to the winners, and some include publisher representatives on their juries.

My Experience with Game Design Competitions

I neglected, in the list above, to mention one of the main reasons I enter competitions.  I do it for the same reason I play games: because exercising creativity in a competitive setting is fun.  There is something that draws me to a competition, no matter how prestigious it may be.  Perhaps it is the specific program and limits, or the fact that I will be able to get feedback from the public on a design before it's published.

Competitions have also been rewarding for me in that they have led either directly or indirectly to several publishing contracts:

Alea Iacta Est, for example, began as a simple entry into a game competition using dice and a standard deck of cards in 2006. The competition was canceled without ever informing the participants, but I enjoyed the game so much that I continued to expand and refine it with my friend, Bernd Eisenstein, and it eventually found a publisher.
The competition entry that became Alea Iacta Est.
That same competition inspired another design that I have been working on ever since.  The dice were eventually replaced with tiles, and the game transformed from a 2-player affair to accommodate up to 5 players in its current form, which has now been signed by a German publisher and is planned for an October release.
The competition entry that evolved greatly into a soon-to-be-released game. Hint: there are no longer any dice!
Both Wampum and Artifact, another game from Bernd and I, were not designed specifically for a competition, but it was only after being awarded by the Hippodice Competition that they received interest from publishers and, eventually, contracts.  The latter is also planned for an October release.

The Wampum prototype for the Hippodice competition.
The Artifact prototype for the Hippodice competition.
Just two months ago I found out about a local design competition from a "print on demand" publisher here in Berlin.  I found the material possibilities--and limits--intriguing. The entries were limited to using pawns in 6 different colors and 6-sided dice, along with light or dark Backgammon discs.  The game boards would also be printed on bendable, vinyl sheets.  The 3 finalists will be played and judged this weekend at Potsdam's 23. International Game Market, an annual event in the largest city on the outskirts of Berlin. The theme of the event, which is designed more for children and families than for gamers, is "fantasy" or "using your fantasy," and the competition encourages the games to incorporate that theme into their design.

The deadline was unusually short, but I was intrigued enough to enter, although there was not very much time to playtest before sending in my submission.  I just found out that my design was chosen as one of the 3 finalists, and I've already sent my improved version of the game board and rules, which I had continued to refine after the competition deadline.  I've also worked on a few other prototypes which have tried to take advantage of the unusual game board material.
My entry: Fantastic Stories as initially produced by Spieltz for the competition.
It will be fun to see the game being played at the event when I bring my family this Saturday, and the game will be available on the publishers print-and-play website sometime thereafter.  And, like some of the other games that began as a humble entry into a relatively unknown competition, perhaps this one will also evolve into something bigger in the future.

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