The Power of Time in Game Design

whatsyourstory

We here at Inspiration to Publication want to share stories from other designers about their process of getting their games published. So if you are a designer and you have a story – we want to hear it! Please contact us and we’ll figure it out.

Here’s a guest post by fellow game designer, Patrick Lysaght. Patrick took us through his impressions of attending Origins as a designer – which was quite insightful. Today is an exciting day for Patrick because his game has launched on Kickstarter! Let’s see what time does to a game design.

Glory and Riches

The Power of Time in Game Design, by Patrick Lysaght

Glory & Riches launched on KickStarter this morning. By the time the campaign is over, the design will be two years old. It will be another 6 months or so until the game hits shelves. At this point, the primary changes will be the final cuts with art/layout. Reflecting on the development of the game over the last week brought something important to my attention. Waiting for something to happen is not wasted time, it is a critical element in the refinement process.

When an idea is fresh and new, the creative process consumes your brain. You rapidly innovate, solve problems, and face large challenges. If a design show potential, you transition into a development phases where the problems become simultaneously smaller and harder. A primary example in Glory & Riches was the balance between the strength of Economic Expansion mechanisms and Military Conquest mechanisms. I spent months tweaking, adjusting, pouring over minute details, and frustrating playtesters. This is essential to a solid design, but it is not fun.

This second step, however, is not the waiting I am talking about. For me, this step ended around October 2013. At this point, I thought the game was done from the design standpoint. Effectively, I stopped working on the game, and focused on some other things. I was ready to handoff the project to the publisher and artist. I actually thought I did. I was wrong. One day a few months later, a new layout design occurred to me out of nowhere. It elegantly solved a problem I had brute-forced with an earlier method. The new concept reduced production cost, answered playtester-feedback, and was very visually appealing. The cost of this idea was months of subconscious thought. Without that time, the game would not be as good as it is today.

Another key ingredient to the power of time in game design is the outside perspective it allows you to gather. For example, Glory & Riches is a resource-management and area control game. Early on, it suffered from the first-player initiative problem. Going first conveyed too powerful of an advantage. I developed a system which reprogrammed turn order based on geographical control. I solved the problem…too well. The game exploded from 2 to 4 hours. Players could not sustain any gains. I reverted to the original scheme out of a desire for simplicity and gameplay. Then the breakthrough came.

Months later in a meeting with the publisher (Jolly Roger Games), the owner suggested an auction format. This simultaneously resolved the initiative problem, increased player agency, and balanced the value of resources in the game’s final phase. He didn’t see all of those elements at the time, but his suggestion made the instant connection in my mind. I couldn’t have arrived at that point without outside input. Importantly, this meeting happened a month after the initial target date for the KickStarter. The delay afforded insight, and produced a much better product.

From what I have gathered, 2-3 years has become a standard cradle-to-shelf window. When I started, I thought it could move much faster. If I could have rushed it through the process, I probably would have. I’m glad I didn’t. I am proud of the finished product. I hope that you will enjoy playing it as much as I do. Give your game time to age into maturity. You will be surprised how much a few extra months can improve it.

Here’s the link to support Glory & Riches on Kickstarter!

Pitching at Origins, part 2

Following up our first guest post by Patrick Lysaght, we have a more in-depth account of how he pitched his game to publishers at Origins. It’s a fascinating story that underlines the importance of preparation and a good attitude! Take it away Patrick…

“GLORY & RICHES” AT ORIGINS

            After writing my first post about the advantages Origins has for designers hoping to pitch their game designs to publishers, Jay asked me to write a more detailed report about my specific experiences with my own design.  Since no game designer in their right mind would turn down an opportunity like that, brace yourself for the short story told long.

INSPIRATION

            To set the scene, I need to give a brief description of “Glory & Riches.”  It is a 2-5 player strategy game of resource management and area control.  The players are medieval fief lords vying for their kingdom’s throne.  To succeed, they need to produce and trade resources, build buildings, train peasants into advanced units, and expand their territory.  The unique aspect of the game is a dueling set of expansion mechanics.  Players can either build their economy and purchase the loyalty of neighboring cities, or train an army for military conquest.  The game typically clocks in at about 2 hours.

I started working on the game just before Thanksgiving 2012 as a fun way to spend some time with my siblings over the holidays.  In February 2013, the game was really coming together, and I started thinking about publishing it.  Jay and Sen have an excellent discussion about self-publishing vs. licensed publishing.  Suffice it to say that my current family, career, and financial situations do not allow me to pursue the self-publication option.  Since I had not yet stumbled across Jay and Sen’s blog, I did what seemed natural at the time.  I opened up my enormous trunk of games, and started looking at the publisher names.  Next, I started looking up publisher websites.  In the process, I stumbled upon the board game designer’s forum (www.bgdf.com).  They had some great advice about how to approach a publisher via e-mail.  Taking the leap of faith, I selected a publisher, and fired off an e-mail.

GETTING SERIOUS

            I picked Rio Grande Games.  I selected them because I whole-heartedly agree with their view of gaming’s role in family and character development.  Also, they flat out make good games.  I don’t think I have played a Rio Grande Game that has disappointed me.  Anyway, I sent their contact e-mail asking for the chance to visit their headquarters to pitch my idea.  In less than 30 minutes, I received a very friendly response from their “Spare Parts Guy” saying that the company headquarters was their owner’s house, and that he would not appreciate me knocking on his door.  He did, however, give me Mr. Tummelson’s personal e-mail.  When I contacted him, he told me he preferred to meet at a convention because they provide the play testers he needs to try out a game.  Also, he told me he would be attending Origins and GENCON.  Since GENCON was out for me due to work commitments (BOO!), this put me on a crash course with Origins.  I immediately requested a meeting at Origins, and he gave me a time that fit his schedule.  Now the clock was actually ticking.

ON THE CLOCK

            Play testing continued through March and into early April.  By now, the game seemed to be working very well, and I thought I was where I needed to be.  This was about the time I stumbled across Jay and Sen’s blog.  My initial response…PANIC!  Boy was I unprepared.  I had only made it to Step 13.  The sudden realization sent me into overdrive.  I prepped sales sheets, researched the convention facilities, and started thinking about other publishers who were attending the convention.  By the time the dust settled in mid May, I had official meetings with Rio Grande and Mayfair, and approved contact points with Z-Man and Asmodee.  Then, just when I started to feel comfortable with the concept of approaching publishers, the game underwent a significant prototype change, and all my products had to be reworked in the last two weeks before the convention.  Despite the stress, the mental gymnastics of working through Jay and Sen’s pre-convention steps gave me a clear, concise way to communicate the game’s core.

MY PITCHES AT ORIGINS

            I walked into the convention with what I considered a realistic goal: convince a publisher to take my game into their development cycle.  As a first time game designer and a first time convention attendee, I thought attempting to get a publication commitment on the spot would probably be out of reach.  My other post talks about some of the things I did at the convention to “get the word out” about my game.  Some of these ideas were spur of the moment, and some were definitely preplanned.  For example, I followed Jay and Sen’s advice all the way down to the roll aboard suitcase and business casual attire.  My focus here, however, is going to be on the pitches themselves.  I will cover them in chronological order.
MayfairGames_logo-mdMy meeting with Mr. Yeager from Mayfair Games was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.  He actually stopped by the table I was demoing my game at before our meeting, but as soon as he realized it was me, he wandered off to get some things rolling on the showroom floor.  I showed up a few minutes early to setup the game board so that he could see the components.  When Mr. Yeager sat down for the meeting, I launched right into my 5 minute drill.  After that, he asked some questions, and I basically ended up walking him through the role of every unit, resource, mechanic, and other component.  After that, I demo’ed a part of a turn.  We ended up spending approximately 45 minutes together.  At that point, he expressed a willingness to take the game into their development cycle, and talked me through the rough timelines and processes.  When I told him about my other meetings, he completely understood, and asked for me to let him know on Saturday if I would be sending the prototype home with him.  At that point, I asked him for some feedback regarding my pitch and prototype.  Mr. Yeager said that my prototype quality was better than average, my delivery solid, and he would be open to hearing about my other designs in the future.  In other words, I had achieved complete and total victory by 2 PM on Wednesday afternoon.
rio_grande_gamesThursday was rough.  I pitched to Mr. Tummelson at Rio Grande and Zev at Z-Man.  Mr. Tummelson stopped me about halfway through my pitch, and said that they would not be interested in my game.  It was a matter of a dice-based military mechanism and player elimination.  These were showstoppers for him.  On the plus side, he spent the next 20 minutes talking to me about the nature of the American game design atmosphere, recommended three other publishers to approach with my particular game, and encouraged me to continue designing games.  Also, he mentioned he appreciated the quality of my prototype and my degree of preparation.

ZMan_LogoI met with Z-Man later than afternoon in the Board Room.  He actually sat down and played a whole game with me.  It took just over an hour, and he asked questions throughout.  Like Rio Grande, Zev identified a few reasons he would not be interested in publishing the game.  He did, however, recommend some adjustments that would help streamline gameplay, compliment my pitch, and say that he would be open to future designs.  While these pitches were disappointing, I gleaned some important lessons and feedback from them.  Later that evening, I had a disastrous game demo in the Board Room.  Basically, one person was convinced the game was fatally flawed, and made it their mission to highlight it to me in a series of games.  By midnight, I was exhausted, discouraged, and genuinely concerned that my game was not worthy to be published.  I had just finished picking up the pieces (literally), and was resting my head on the table when it happened.

THE TURNING OF THE TIDE

            As I was sitting there, a man approached me and asked if I was testing out a prototype.  I said yes, involuntarily regurgitated the pitch I had given countless times in the last two days, and was about to tell him I would be happy to demo the game for him tomorrow when he opened the box.  He said he 5 minutes to kill while his son finished up a game, and wanted to look over my design.  What followed was 15 minutes of critical analysis about the size, material, and number of my prototype’s components.  I was at wit’s end, and was about to let him have it when a singular thought occurred to me.  “Why would this man care that my prototype instruction manual is not on normal letter-sized paper?”  Then the realization dawned on me.  I was speaking to a publisher.  We ended up chatting for about 30 minutes (he actually sent his son back to the hotel room), and he asked me to demo the game for his son the next morning.  Let me tell you, if you are going to have a bad day as a game designer, this is a good way to end it!

The following morning was a blur.  I executed an early morning play test to check a rule tweak to fix the issue highlighted Thursday night.  I met with Stefan Brunell from Asmodee.  We chatted for 15 minutes, and he expressed an interest in reviewing the rules for possible game development.  I demo’ed “Glory & Riches” for the small publisher who had approached the night before.  His son thoroughly enjoyed the game, and the owner asked me to meet him for a second play test that evening.  While killing time, I approached the owner of Stronghold games.  This was one of the companies that Rio Grande had recommended.  Also, I had met him on the first day of the convention while hanging around the courtyard during a fire evacuation.  He had given me his card, and asked me to stop by on Friday.  He listened to my pitch, and said that they might be interested in taking the game into development.

CHOICES

            By dinner time on Friday, I was floating on cloud nine.  I actually played a game that was not my own, had some time to grab a celebratory dinner, and found a quiet corner to reflect on my choices.  Mayfair had offered to accept the prototype, but warned their development cycle is long and relatively closed to designer participation.  Asmodee and Stronghold had both offered to review the rules, and consider accepting the prototype at a later date.  I now had only to hear back on the smaller company’s position.  The owner, his son, and two friends played the game late Friday night.  They finished up just before midnight.  He told me he was interested in the game, but that there were some adjustments that needed to be made.  He offered to take the game into development, and promised a final decision before the end of July.

Ultimately, I chose the small publisher for a few key reasons.  First, the development timeline was so much faster that even a rejection would not significantly delay the game.  Also, running through the development cycle with the small company could identify issues that could be fixed before sending it to a larger company later.  Second, the publisher promised a much more inclusive experience during the development cycle.  Third, I had established a real rapport with the small company, and just felt very comfortable with them.

AFTERMATH

OriginsLogoIn the months since Origins, the small publisher has lived up to his promises with one minor exception.  I have been completely integrated into the development process.  He would identify issues in a play test, and I could tweak, test, and recommend changes for his next test.  Due to some tremendous medical issues, however, he was unable to render a final decision until the first week of October.  I completely understood the delay, but I was still getting a little antsy.  Fortunately, he has agreed to publish “Glory & Riches!”  Right now, it is slated for kickstarter in late spring 2014, and release in late 2014, or early 2015.  As the contractual details are pending, I don’t want to release the publisher’s name.  Hopefully, I can post that soon.  In our conversations since the convention, however, the publisher has made a point of commending my prototype and presentation.  In fact, he said it was one of the key discriminators between my game and several other designs he reviewed at Origins.  My profession has a saying, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.”  In this case, Jay and Sen’s 33 Steps helped prepare me to identify, approach, and present my games to publishers in a professional manner.  You can bet I will be using them again in the future!  I hope my experience can pay forward some of the help I received.  Good luck in your design, preparation, and pitching futures!

-Patrick Lysaght