The calm before the storm

Reflections on the period between prototype and playtest

Derek Turner

There’s a strange sort of calm resting over my design process right now, as I am in the period between having a functional prototype and its first playtest. I completed the prototype of my second game – First Past the Post, a game based on the Canadian Electoral System – last week, but it will have been a week and a half from when I finished assembling it until when I have a chance to play it, and I find myself in an interesting emotional state in the tension of the intervening time.

I understand, at least conceptually, that this period may be foreign to some game designers. I have heard stories of designers for whom this time is almost non-existent, as they make very early and very rough prototypes and are constantly trying new things. But it seems like my style is a little different, as both of my designs have had extended periods of idea incubation and design manipulation before they have been put out to others to playtest.

I had the idea for this particular game in May 2015, but it was not for another year that I started actually doing the work of designing it. I have worked intermittently on this game over the past year, so its gestation period to get to this point is much longer than the actual time it took to develop it this far.

So, perhaps as a result of my process on this game and perhaps because of my relative newness in the field of game design, I have a number of emotions that I am experiencing in this transitional time, and I thought I would take the time to explore some of those thoughts as part of the (my) design process.

Maybe delicious drinks will help me de-stress during the playtest process…?

There is a sense of purity in this period of time – a pristine, unspoiled state of “perfection” that permeates my perception of my design. After all, until now, most of the process has happened internally; sure, I have discussed the idea here and there, but I have not solicited anything more than feedback on concepts and ideas. But after I run my first playtest, that state of blissful ignorance will be shattered, reality will set in, and I will realize just how much of the game I had envisioned is actually broken.

Lest you think otherwise, I am not naive enough to believe that my design is not broken in many ways; on the contrary, I am certain that there are glaring errors in the game I have already envisioned, which is not counting the innumerable errors that will arise that I am certain I did (and likely could) not foresee without seeing the game in action.

Of course, I have a number of other emotions as I head into this initial playtest. Perhaps most strongly, I am excited to finally see this thing that I have thought about for a year in action. It’s the same kind of feeling as waiting for a Kickstarter to finally arrive, except I have more personal attachment to the product.

I am also feeling proud of what I have accomplished thus far, even without having a playtest yet. It has been a great feeling to even show off pictures the prototype, and it has been quite fulfilling to have others show excitement to finally play this game they have been hearing about for a year.

But despite my excitement and my pride, I am also feeling a sense of apprehension and trepidation that comes from the unknown. After all, there is always the possibility that this game that I have been imagining for a year (or more) actually will not work, and I am slightly nervous as to what I will do if it does not.

There is also the fact that once the game is exposed to others, it will start to change and become something else. I am certain that the game will be the better as a result of this process, but it is still a little disappointing to know that many of its flaws will be evident within minutes of starting to play it. And that’s okay.

I wonder if maybe I’m “overfeeling” in this transition period in that I’m having feelings about my design at all. But it’s hard not to, since this is something into which I have invested not only intellectual but also emotional capital over the past year.

I think it’s okay to have some of these feelings in this time, but I also think that I need to learn to manage those emotions and not let them overwhelm the design itself – and the best way to do that is to keep designing. After all, one of the first lessons that any game designer has to learn is how not to be too attached to any part of their design, since chances are it will change significantly from conception to final design.

My hope is that, as I grow in confidence in myself as a designer and I am able to devote more time and energy to game design that this period between prototype and playtest will continue to shrink in my future designs, and that my emotional experiences will become a little more normalized and regular.

But I am also hoping that the time between initial idea and development and prototype also shrinks. I think that if I am able to reduce the internal intellectual gestation period, it will be easier to detach myself emotionally from my designs.

As for now, I will see what happens when I put it my game out there and see what’s broken, as long as it’s a game mechanic and not my emotional resilience.

One Reply to “The calm before the storm”

  1. Hi Derek

    A very wise woman, involved in complex, overwhelming third world NGO projects, told me her simple philosophy for her successes against all odds, “find out whats going well and build on it.”
    (I welcome critical feedback, it promotes experience and expertise, I just need to remind myself to not get lost in that current)

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