On Game Design and the “Wall of Awful”

by Derek Turner

I recently came across a concept in my various travels on YouTube that I immediately recognized in my own life: a “Wall of Awful”. It is a concept created by ADHD coach Brendan Mahan to explain the overwhelmingly negative feelings of failure, self-doubt, and paralysis that come from small failures or struggles along the way – the “bricks” in the Wall that soon enough stretches high and wide and becomes seemingly insurmountable.

Even though it was designed with ADHD in mind, I think the concept of the Wall of Awful can apply to anyone, and I often find myself referring to my own Wall of Awful in various areas of my life. (Please know that I am in no way attempting to minimize the experience of people with ADHD who experience this Wall of Awful by applying it to everyone – I just think it’s a really useful construct for anyone to know.)

A Wall of Awful can include anything: finances; housework; renovations; cleaning; relationships; professional obligations; errands; lists of things to watch or play; emotional responses; writing; or even game design, which is what I’ve been thinking about lately.

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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”.

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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.

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