gamedesign

Rediscovering Childhood at PAX West

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The hotel ballroom is dimly lit and filled with row upon row of standardized chairs, the kind that were cheap to make but meant to look expensive with deep blue cushions surrounded by metal frames. I manage to grab a free chair during the ensuing game of musical chairs as all the attendees scramble for the limited resource. Though thankful for having a seat, I am now forcibly pressed against the man next to me. He is middle-aged and heavy set, dressed like in he came straight from a job in an accounting firm to the convention, his tie and dress pants contrasting with the majority of attendees, dressed in video game themed clothing showcased heavily-armed robots and shirtless barbarians.

Despite his formal dress, I am assured that the man pressed against me along with everyone else in this room is a game enthusiast. The room and presentation we are preparing for is part of the Penny Arcade Expo, a massive games convention that takes place in Seattle every August. The presentation in question is for a game called X-Com: Enemy Unknown, an unreleased game the presentation promised to showcase a previews of.

To say X-Com is a misnomer, the original game had come out in 1994. The trouble was that since that game came out, no remake had been developed that matched the critical impact and success the original made. The new game promised to remedy this and hence the crowded ballroom.

Looking to break the awkwardness of our forced contact, I attempted conversation with the man next to me that I was now partially sitting on.

“So…are you excited about X-Com” I asked?

Receiving no response and wishing to fill in the dead space, I answered my own question: “I can’t wait; I have been waiting for this game for a couple of years!”

The man’s head turned slowly towards me at a pace roughly equivalent to the head turning scene in the Exorcist. His face was calm and reserved as he responded with a single sentence.

“I have been waiting seventeen years for this game!”

His response synched with the dimming of the lights and the beginning of the presentation and I was left reflecting on the man’s response as he clasped his hands on his lap and returned to his reserved posture (as reserved as one could be with another man practically on your lap).

As the room went dark and the massive project screen lit up with the beginning of the trailer. As the screen was filled with firefights between human marines and aliens to a soundtrack of deep bass notes, the man next to me sprang from his seat, nearly knocking me from my chair in the process.

The formerly meek accountant now climbed his chair and began jumping up and down on top of it, his fist pumping the air as he let out an unending shouts of “yyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh” at the top of his lungs!

As I stood their stunned and scrambling to avoid his tie as it whipped around him, I surveyed the room and noticed that my neighbor was not alone in his enthusiasm. All around the room, men and women were jumping up and down screaming their support for the game.

One factor was shared by all the vocal enthusiasts however, they were not of my generation. The group that jumped up and down as the youth around them sat stunned was middle-aged. These were the parents, the professionals and the gamers from when the PC market was still on Dos.

After a few minutes of unrestrained fervor, the older members of the crowd quieted their shouting, sat back down on their seats, some fixing their hair while others simply looked around calmly as if the whole incident never happened.

Incidents such as this remind me of how games transcend age and generate such enthusiasm and unbridled joy regardless of age. This is why I and many others play games and why we will continue to do so, regardless of age.

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Maintaining the Creative Edge

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boardgame creation

If you are like me, designing games is an enjoyable activity, or at least preferable to doing your taxes (somewhere on Accounting subreddit, a user is cursing my name). I started a game company to design games.

The whole initiative to publish came out of a desire to control all elements of game design. Like most designers looking to self-publish, you will find that you spend a lot less time designing games and a lot more time pouring on all the factors that go into turning an idea into a physical product. Some of these factors include but are not limited to: marketing, manufacturing, collaboration with artists, taxes and banging my head against a wall trying to learn Excel.

headdesk
Me + Excel

 

From a personal development standpoint, deciding to self-publish is the right decision. From an enjoyment at creating games standpoint, I find myself going obscene lengths of time without working on game designs.

The trouble is that while going through all the trouble of launching a game, you find yourself having become disconnected from the game design community because…well you haven’t designed games in a while. Your creative edge when it comes to game design has become blunt.

I eventually stumbled across a solution that effectively maintains my abilities as a game designer while still respecting the time limitations I am under.

The solution is the 24 hour game design challenge. The challenge is simple: create a game in 24 hours. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be playable and the first draft of the rules need to be complete.

There are numerous game design sites hosting challenges with real prizes if you are inclined to share your ideas. Sites such as Board Game Geek post monthly 24 hour contests and The Game Crafter has a variety of design contests as well. You even stand to win a prize to boot, so why not give it a shot?

The 24 hour contest is important not only because it forces you to work quickly and avoid the humming and hawing of game design, but through thematic restrictions that are frequently incorporated into the challenges as well. Stipulating that must design a game with a Gothic theme for example can push you out of your farming (in my case) comfort zone and require that I design in a totally new way.

You can add an additional level of challenge through an idea generator like Boardgamizer. The device is great and throws a theme, mechanic, and victory condition at you along with an option constraint that forces you to design in all sorts of crazy ways.

Try out one of the above 24 hour challenges, dedicate a few hours (or a sleepless night) to pounding out a game. Whether the game is terrific or terrible is irrelevant, the point is that we are flexing our game design muscles, which is why we got into this industry in the first place.

Simple Thoughts on Signs

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The first board game convention I attended, I did not even think about bringing a sign. After all, the convention had a schedule and numbered tables to indicate where games were being played; why did I need to provide a sign? Admittedly, I was naive thinking that the convention organizers should hold any responsibility in getting my game played. After all, as a game creator you are your game’s salesman and it is up to you to hook people on your game.

From the experience I learned 2 important lessons:

  1. Not all gamers read the schedule
  2. An appealing sign pushes browsing gamers into playing your game

Since that lackluster day of sitting alone at my gaming table, I have learned a few important points that are shared below.

Banners and Free-standing Signs

My local university print shop.
My local university print shop.

The type of sign you use will depend on the convention you are attending. For conventions where a full-size table is given, a large banner to hang off the edge is an effective option, though they can be expensive. If you choose to go with a banner, shop around at local stores and you may find a better deal than online printer. I found competitive pricing at a local university print-shop and saved even more on not having to pay shipping.

If floor space is in plentiful supply, you may also consider a free-standing sign, though again you will want to shop around for a cost effective solution. Building your own stand to hang the sign on is also a viable strategy. A guide to building a free-standing sign post out of PVC can be found here.

Table Signs

A simple table sign on 8.5 x 11
A simple table sign on 8.5 x 11″ card stock.

Regardless of the convention specifics, I always bring along small table signs printed on Letter paper. When folded lengthwise, they should have your game on one side and your company (if applicable) on the other. They stand on their own, are portable, and are handy regardless of the table size. I get mine printed on cardstock so they don’t get crushed when I put them in my bag (a crinkled sign does not exude professionalism).

Whether to get them printed on Matte or Glossy card stock is a personal preference. I prefer Matte because it generates less glare from room lights that can obscure the sign

Another lesson I learned the hard way is to always bring more copies of signs than you need.

You can and will lose signs at conventions.

Consider the following scenarios when deciding how many copies of your sign to print:

  1. You have poor memory and misplace the sign
  2. Another attendee misplaces the sign for you (i.e. steals it)
  3. An attendee handles your sign while in the process of consuming Cheetos
  4. The sign gets soaked by a Blade-runner level downpour on your way to the convention
  5. A teething toddler gnaws on your tasty (and somewhat toxic) sign
  6. An ill child decided to reproduce the sum total of the day’s caloric intake on your sign

Any and all of the above can happen so print more signs than you need. That way, when you spot a child happily consuming your sign while the absent-minded parent looks on with pride, you can simply smile and nod, producing a new sign from your bag.

The “Back in 15” Sign

The reverse of my Table Sign.
The reverse of my Table Sign.

I am bad for having to make last-minute dashes to the bathroom after consuming coffee at regular intervals. During one such experience, I returned to a small note small note stating “WHERE WERE YOU? Creator was not here so we went to another game”. Do yourself a favor and have small sign to throw down when you have to dart away for food, the bathroom, or to argue with your phone provider about last month’s bill. I write mine on the inside of my table signs and then just turn them inside out when I have to leave.

To recap:

  • Signs attract people to your game, even in schedule-heavy conventions
  • Banners and free-standing signs are great, but check if your convention will allow them
  • Use small table-sized signs at all conventions
  • Bring back-up signs in case the first ones become unusable
  • Create a “Back in 15 minutes sign” for those moments of inconvenience

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