How to Build a Game #22 Dissect Your Process to Make it Better

Making Game Design More Than a Hobby

If you want to make game design more than a hobby and try to make it a living, or a hobby that pays  on a “part-time” basis, you are going to have to maximize your time. If you want to go pure game design, become a self publisher or become a publishing company yourself, you are going to have to look at your process and figure out how to improve each step on the path that is game development. One of the main reasons, in our experience, that makes game design take so long are the time sinks between play testing, making changes, and getting more play testing done. Another time sink for us is getting ourselves to a point where we are working on our projects on a daily basis. It has taken me a couple months to get accustomed to working on all the things we work on that are game related. This really does become a part time/full time job and there is a major adjustment period, if you have a day job and the regular things of life going on while you are trying to create and develop your games. Another major time sink is the artwork. There is a lot of back and forth with your artist about what you want and what your artist can produce.

The overall point is, designers need to spend time looking at their entire process for creating and developing their games. Dissect your process and figure out how to make your process more efficient and how to run parts of the process in parallel with multiple games. Making a living with design is really difficult and dissecting and making your process as good as it can be will be crucial to your ability to make game design more of a hobby.

Disclaimer: I am no expert and we are not at a point as a company where we are able to leave our day jobs and do this creative venture for a living. However, the time we spend learning the industry and watching what other publishers and designers do to make a living at this has given us a good idea of what is required. What I am posting about here is what Aidan and I have identified as areas we need to target to make this dream of making games for a living a reality. Also, this is by no means a complete list, these are the parts of the process I have something to talk about.

Idea Conception

Generating ideas is easy, it doesn’t take a lot of time and can be done with little material requirement. What we do to make this better is to keep an active list of current projects and potential projects. When we hold a brainstorming session we will write down each unique idea on a large index card and add it to “the stack”. We will then keep the stack in order of active games first, then potential projects in order of how much we like the idea or how much potential we think the idea has. When we get to a point where all of our current projects are in a holding pattern (for whatever reason) we will refer to the stack of ideas and jump into the next game project.

Basic Framework of Rules

In the very early development of a game, we will be working on the initial framework of the game and the first iteration of the rules. We have found the best way to do this is to think of the rules as hand written bullet points. We never found a good reason to make a full rule book at this point in the games development because the rules will change after the first playtests and since you will be guiding your alpha testers through the first few tests, they will look to you to be their rule book. So really what we need for rules are bullet point reference rules just to get us through alpha tests. We have never had a need to take the time to write out a full rule set, the rules will change anyway.

Build an Alpha Prototype

This may or may not be a time sink, depending on how you go about building your first proto. If you want this part of the process to flow as well as possible, you need to have the absolute basics of prototypes on hand. Index cards, basic set of dice, some different kind of pieces and a pair of scissors. Building your proto to be as functional as possible is the best way we have found to make the best use of this time. During our alpha tests we make lots of changes on the fly, we will add and subtract cards on the fly. The point is that you should only put in the build time to make your alpha proto with the basics of the game so that you can get the concept in front of your alpha testers

Alpha Testing

Here is your first major challenge and I don’t really have an answer for you because it depends on your unique situation. Alpha testing requires you to get people together, that takes time. Alpha testing requires you to test your game on more than just one or two occasions, that takes time and coordination. Getting people together when you hit a certain age is a challenge. People have lives and finding enough people that are willing to play the same index card and Lego piece protos 5 to 10 times is a challenge. You will need to find a way to get a dependable group of alpha testers. The way we got around this problem is part of two different solutions. We co-design everything and we “employ” our high school and college buddies to get together once or twice a month to test our alpha games. Co-designing allows us run tests between the two of us if the game allows. However, if we have a game that requires more than 2 players, normally an auction game, we have a semi regular get together with our buddies and they are all willing to play our alpha protos. We are lucky that we have them as a solution to this potential time problem.

I wish I had a concrete example for everyone to follow but there are so many individual cases out there that you will just have to think about the best way to get a group of people together who are willing to play the same early development games many times and on a regular basis.

Build a Nicer Prototype

Now that the earliest tests are done, use the feedback to make a finished beta prototype. Same as the alpha, this may or may not be a time sink. I think you can make the beta out of basic components that perform the functions required, regardless of how they look. Pieces should be as uniform as possible but if you want to use yellow legos to represent your spaceships, go nuts. The best way to save yourself time here is to have pieces on hand that you can use to build beta prototypes. I plan to cover the contents of a good prototype at a later date but for the sake of this post, you should have those materials on hand to save yourself the most time.

Beta Test in the Open

Now that you have your beta ready to go, who are your beta testers and how well can you leverage their time to test your games? We use the approach of going to our FLGS and looking for people who would like to test our game. Over the course of time we have been able to build a small group of people who like our games and are always willing to give them a test. In the case you don’t have an FLGS nearby, look to find testers from the friends of your friends, the people you work with or your friends at/from school. Similar to alpha testing, this is really a case by case problem and however you can develop a network of play testers is the best way that you can save time.

One nice little tip I can give you, use beta testers to test sections of your games, if they are willing. I would give them one full play before I dropped sections of a game on on them, but section testing can be more efficient if there are areas of the game that need specific testing.

Full Blown Testing

Having written a relative novel up to this point, let me just wrap up testing as the most time consuming part of the game design process. The best solution to this problem is to develop a playtester network. What we have done to develop our network is to join the Indie Game Alliance, they have a play tester service. We have developed our own local playtesters. While it is not that easy to get them together on a regular basis, we still have the beginnings of a group of people who want to test our games for us. Another time saver is to find the local cons in your areas, and by area I mean within 6 hours driving distance. Go to the open play areas and guerrilla test your games. Finding play testers is about getting to know people and making friends and connections in the hobby so you can have a ready supply of people who are willing to test your games.

Marketing

This is my view on the time it takes to get marketing done. The more time you spend on marketing, the more you will get out of it in the long run. Marketing is a time sink because you should be working on marketing on a daily basis. The best way to save time on this is to practice and get better at it. Figure out what marketing strategies will have the most reach for the least amount of time spent. We write a blog, have started a podcast (release date yet unknown), we are active on twitter everyday, we go to our local meetup groups and FLGS. While I have been saying that you should figure out ways to save time and make the process as efficient as possible, this is where I tell you to make the time, but also figure out how to have the biggest reach for the least amount of time spent.

Artwork

This is a tough one because there is no easy way to speed this process up. There is a lot of back and forth between you and the artist. It just takes time, but the nice thing about art is that you can develop artwork in parallel with the rest of your project. Have a clear idea of what you want from your artist and learn how to communicate what you want, as close to what you want so that your artist can more easily create what you are looking for.

The End

I had more of a list to blab about but his post has gone on long enough. There should be enough here for you to get a start on dissecting and figuring how to make your process as successful as possible.

If you have any comments or questions, leave a comment here or email Chris at c.renshall.tgik.games@gmail.com

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If you have any comments or questions, leave a comment here or email Chris at c.renshall.tgik.games@gmail.com

If you have made it this far, would you like to go a little farther? We have a regular Google hangout with other designers. We talk about the games we are working on and share helpful tips and ideas on how to make designing our game easier. We meetup every other Saturday. Either comment here or tweet me or email me and I will add you to the list and send you a link to the Google hangout.

2 thoughts on “How to Build a Game #22 Dissect Your Process to Make it Better

  • Good article, I love the idea of having a list of game idea in the background ready to go once another project reaches a holding point.
    Playtesting is definitely the most difficult to complete, especially since you have very little control over who is able/ willing to attend. If you want a project to run as smoothly as possible, retaining control of as much of the process as possible is the way forward, I believe.

    • Thank you, playtesting really is the beast of the process. We have been working on building our play tester network and even though it is a long process the payoff potential is huge.

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