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.|
|The competition entry that evolved greatly into a soon-to-be-released game. Hint: there are no longer any dice!|
|The Wampum prototype for the Hippodice competition.|
|The Artifact prototype for the Hippodice competition.|
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.|