Saturday, May 4, 2013



I'm going to write down some thoughts on game design.  

Mark Rein-Hagen designed the wildly popular 'Vampire the Masquerade' game.  He was also involved with 'Magic the Gathering'.  That's the guy I worked for during a couple months and tried to learn from.  Disclaimer:  He wasn't trying to teach me game design - we were working on games.  The stuff I've put down here are things I believe I've gleaned from him.  In fairness to him, I may be completely off on some of the stuff.  Up to him to correct me if he wishes.

For posterity, the games I've worked on include:  

Succubus - party game involving specialty playing cards.
Victoria - a board game.
I Am Zombie - a revolutionary new roleplaying game.

What I think I've learned from Mark Rein-Hagen:

1.  You have to build up a good amount of various useful contacts.  These include such people as artists, musicians, film editors, writers, editors, etc.  Game design is a team sport.  Unfortunately, all of these people will require paying.  

2.  The person who will be designing the game risks several thousand dollars in capital.  But what of Kickstarter?  Yes, this money is spent well before going onto Kickstarter.  You have to have a working game beforehand.  Also, art sells the game.  Art is amazingly expensive.  For something the size of a playing card, I've been told the usual price is $100.  Holy crap.  If someone were to ask me "How much money should I start with?"  I'm going to guess at $5000.  No clue how much profit this could roll into with a successful Kickstarter, but it could be a nice amount.  The money part I didn't really get involved with, other than being an ongoing cost.

3.  When Mark worked, he set himself a very tight deadline to complete enough of the game to appear on Kickstarter.  Keep in mind that you have to make the game then play test it a lot.  Other groups have to sign NDA (non disclosure agreement) forms and play test it.  If you are able to silently watch them play, so much the better.  If you try to help talk them through it, you get skewed data.   Most folks agree that a year or longer is needed to develop a game.  Mark chopped the time frame down to three months and compensated by working fifteen hours a day on it.

4.  When giving assignments to writers, you have to be extremely specific.  The more general you are, the less usable the result.  If these writers are in daily meetings with you, the vision can be more easily shared.  If not, be even more specific in your writing assignments.  By specific I mean you have to make an outline then ask them to flesh it out.

5.  Art sells games.  I've mentioned this before but Mark mentioned it often enough that it deserves it's own bullet point.  Mediocre art means you sell less or not at all.  This is why you have to pay big bucks for professional artists.  Trying to get your friend 'who can draw' to make art will handicap or destroy your game.

6.  Always think in terms of monetization.   The role playing industry is pretty much crippled because as soon as a book comes out it is scanned and put onto torrent sites.  If all you are printing is a book, you won't make much for it.  This also goes for movies, audio books - anything that is easy to turn into data.  Sure, there are a few honest people and collectors out there but not enough to fully fund your project.  And yes, many people spend a lot of time bitching that it shouldn't be this way.  Guess what?  It is.  Deal with it and think outside the box.  This is one of the reasons the roleplaying game "I Am Zombie" uses a dynamic character sheet comprised of playing cards.  Sure, someone could try to print out crappy copies of the cards in black and white and they could be used but the cards aren't that expensive and will look and feel so much better to use that buying them will make more sense.   Also, special poker chips are used which have many words printed on them for skill bumps.  And other things.  Very crafty, clever thinking on Mark's part.  The important thing for gamers will be that it combines into a solid game.

7.  Like all roleplayers, I've spent time working on game systems - whether new ones or altering existing ones.  The conversations would go wildly off track, degenerate into Monty Python jokes and so on.  Mark didn't allow this.  We worked hard and kept focus on the game.  Churn, churn, churn.  Whether we were driving, shopping or eating when we were on the clock we were expected to be working.

8.  You can't hype a game too much before Kickstarter comes out.  Get ten thousand people eagerly awaiting it's appearance and you are most of the way there.  Less than that it may be stillborn.  

In conclusion:  If you are wanting to develop a professional game for publication that actually earns money, it is a lot more work than altering a few rules of an existing game with your friends.  A lot more has to be ready before kickstarter than I thought.  Prepare yourself for hard work and significant financial risk.  When you think it's done, hype hype, hype...

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