Arrested development

In my last design journal, I spent some time pontificating about why I had managed to be so successful in my limited experiences of running initial playtests of my two designs. Both times I have designed games they have (mostly) worked on the first playthrough, and I wondered why – but maybe I wrote too soon, as I discovered shortly thereafter.

I playtested my new game a week after its initial playtest without doing any work on the design in the interim. I made a couple of minor tweaks to set-up and to gameplay – the kind of changes that are necessary to make between plays to try to even out some of the rough edges – but otherwise, I wanted to see how a subsequent playtest with essentially the same game – and fortunately, one of the same players – would go.

I wanted to determine whether some of the issues that had been raised in my initial playtest were due to the circumstances of the game (ie. the particular players and their interpretation of the rules), or whether there were some deeper, more insidious issues that needed to be fixed. Well, I got my answer, and the result of that second playtest is that I am now “officially” back “in development”.

There comes a point in a design at which it seems necessary to move the focus from playtesting and tweaking into a more intentional phase of development – a kind of “back to the drawing board” time in which the functional work is more about reworking the design on a fundamental level before putting it back out there again, perhaps with a new prototype and new rules.

I know that different designers do things differently and that some just keep tweaking as they go through playtesting, but I find that once I get to the point at which I know that something does not work, I need to take the time away from the active playtesting of the game in order to get to the root of the problem without the pressure (perceived or actual) of feeling the need to get it back out there.

And it was very clear to me after those first two plays that the game needs development, even though 75% of the game worked on the first play – and believe me, I understand that percentage still marks a substantial success out of the gate for a brand new design. The suggestions I received were invaluable for making a few decisions as to the future of the game, but they also meant that I did not see the purpose in continuing to playtest the game in its current format before putting in that development time.

Okay, so I had to go back into development – so what? It seems like it should be an easy transition, a natural part of the design process that ebbs and flows and weaves and winds its way through the entire big picture of game design. But as with any creative enterprise, it turns out that the hardest work is not the work itself but in finding the motivation to do the work when it’s not as directly rewarding; there is, after all, a great satisfaction in seeing your game in the hands of live players that is not necessarily duplicated in the hours and hours of work it takes to get to that point.

In this case, I was surprised to find that the need to make this transition from playtesting to development required more emotional energy than I had expected. I understood cognitively that it was likely that I would need to put a not-insignificant amount of work in after my first set of playtests (which turned out to be two), but there was something in the fact that I felt as though I could not keep playtesting the game as it existed that proved to be more emotionally draining than I had expected and that does not really match up with the actual work that needs to be done.

I suppose it makes sense, considering the energy that I put into generating that original prototype and the fact that it took me close to a year to get it to that point. Most of that time was not spent actively designing, but rather having the design lingering passively at the back of my mind and allowing it to emerge occasionally in a short burst of creative energy before it faded again into the background.

I had imposed a deadline on myself to push my design to the point of playtestability when I did, and then I chose to devote time and energy to developing it to meet that self-established timeline. But then, once that deadline had passed, the immediate benefits had subsided, and the hard work of development loomed, I found myself not continuing the momentum, and  I find myself, almost two months later, not having done any work on the development of the design – or any game design or writing about game design, for that matter.

I am sure that some designers are invigorated by re-entering the development process, and I am at times among those ranks – just not right now. I admit that there is a certain appeal to the fun of getting to play and tinker at my own pace; ultimately, however, I still find it difficult to do the work of development not only in the midst of the business of life but even when life is not as externally busy (like, say, during the summertime).

And so this self-analysis ends up being not so much about the mechanics of the process of development as it is about how to work through the emotions of being in the midst of the process and how to get back to the work of design. It seems like it should be easy to do the work of design – something I genuinely enjoy – but I still find myself not doing it and not quite being sure why that’s the case.

I know it’s tautological to say so, but the best way to get the work done is to do the work, so I am trying to find ways to start working on my design again in order to find that momentum again and to allow inertia to help carry me forward – including finally writing this post, for example. I am finding ways to establish routines and expectations and to channel my creative energy in hopes that this time in development will be fruitful and that I will be able to push through it in order to create the next prototype and to not have to feel like I’ve made a huge mistake.

How do you work through your development process? Does it provide emotional challenges for you? How do you address those emotions?

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