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Diary of a Game Designer Lessons in Game Design

I’ve always wanted to be a game designer. Since I started doing game design and publishing for real, there has been a lot of learning. I thought it would be helpful if I shared my experience as a game designer getting my games from my head to the table. There are a few things you should know about my approach and situation that may make my experience different from yours, but with shades of similarity.

My Situation

Location

First, let me tell you my situation. I am based in Australia, Canberra to be exact. Because of that, I don’t have access to many game stores, hobby store etc. Yes I have some, there are good ones here in fact like The Loaded Dice, The Games Capital, and I love going to Guild for pizza and games. We also have LFG here which is great for designers as they run mini-Essen conferences etc. But we don’t have near the coverage as Sydney, Melbourne or even Brisbane. Not to mention places like the US and EU.  So getting a hold of games, game parts can sometimes be tricky, or at least take more effort.

This also means travelling to conferences like GAMA, Essen, and GenCon are big undertakings, not just a weekend away.  Yet these are valuable events to connect with the industry. Essen for example has almost 147,000 people through the doors, GenCon last year was 65,000. That’s a lot of eyes for your games.  In time where there are about 1700-2000 new games released each year, you need to get in front of as many people as you can. Living in Australia, makes that a challenge.

Budget

There are a LOT of potential game designers out there that are positive they could have a hit on their hands if they only had enough money to get a game published. Yes, you can try to door knock publishers, or crowdfund, or try your hand at busking at the local mall, but let’s face it, you need startup capital to get things done.

I’m starting this out with a modest budget. All my own personal money so far. This doesn’t make it impossible, and in fact it’s how most of the games, either board games or mobile phone games are done. But what it means is that you have to be very crafty with your money. You can’t just drop $12,000 to get a booth at PAX and sell all 50 copies you were able to print with your couch money.

So this diary is all about working with a limited budget and building slowly. Maybe start with some minimalist games (aka Love Letter, Zombie Dice, etc) and use any profits from that to help fund your bigger projects. That is my approach. There will be more on that in upcoming posts.

Time

When you are just starting out, you can’t quit your day job and become a full time game designer. Well, not unless you are living in your parents’ basement and they pay for all your living expenses.  I don’t. I have a mortgage, wife and two kids to support. So my time is evenings, weekends, etc.

This is a challenge, because I also need time for my family, and my own health. I believe that it’s all too common in our hobby to lose site of one or both of those.   It’s not just your shirt size though. The other factor is if you are not moving around and keeping yourself together, you can’t make good games. You produce crap because you aren’t firing on all cylinders.

Time balance is a challenge.  Like all creative endeavors, you need to be in ‘the zone’. My day job is working for a large software company. I’ve been a developer, security consultant, and now work with leading edge technology. I’m familiar with being in ‘the zone’ and focusing.  You need that uninterrupted period of focus to do your best creative work.  Finding that time is a challenge.

Game Designer Hats

As a game designer you will wear many hats when you are starting out. Especially if you are a one man/woman band.  There are many disciplines involved in getting a game from idea to table. You have mechanics, theme and setting, aesthetics and graphics, layout and component design. Then there are manufacturing issues such as board design, making sure you are being efficient with your card count to avoid paying for printed sheets you don’t use, and box sizes, art files, quotes, shipping distribution etc. A good game designer will also need to know how to delegate.

Marketing

Any new publisher will need to market themselves. There is print marketing, social media, etc and all of the prep and organization associated with it. There is also the biggie, the money management and business acumen to keep your dream viable. Managing the money and organizational aspects are not my forte.

Financial

In my case, I have someone keeping me in check. My wife handles the business side of the company so I can be the game designer for the company. She keeps me from breaking the bank, or getting so caught up in designing pins to handout at conferences that i forget we have to pay for those pins. She uses very specific terms to convey these messages to me too. Things like “I’ll allow you to do that if you can convince me we can recover the expenditure.” There are a few other choices ones that I can’t repeat in public, but you get the idea.

Art

The other one that was the worst one for me was Art. I can’t draw a line without the help of a ruler.  (just look at the artwork for Kickin’ Your Caterpillar and you’ll quickly see what I mean).

Kickin' Your Caterpillar game design shot

Kickin’ Your Caterpillar card game. Game Designer Rocky Heckman

I had to find an artist.  When you are starting out this can be challenging. Hopefully you have a friend that knows their way around Adobe Illustrator that can help you out. I didn’t.  So I went to places like fiverr.com and freelancer.com

Now, this can be very hit or miss. I had one experience where the guy was finding clip-art on the internet and sending it to me as original art. This is a bad thing. Then I came across Daniel Salcido on fiverr.com and found a fantastic artist that fit the style we were after for Troll Bridge and Kickin’ Your Ass perfectly.

You will wear many hats, but chances are they won’t all fit you. I’m sure most solo game designers will tell you that you will need help with at least some aspects of the process.  Richard Garfield didn’t do Magic The Gathering all on his own. Steve Jackson didn’t become the success he is without surrounding himself with people to take care of things so he can focus on design.

Let me add a side note here. If you are reading this you are either randomly browsing the internet, or you want to be a Game Designer enough that you found this little place. If you don’t recognize the names Richard Garfield, and Steve Jackson, or even Ignacy Trzewiczek you probably have more homework to do before you try getting your first game published.  This leads me to my next point, homework.

Homework

Another tidbit about my situation is how much homework I can do. We live in the glorious era of the Internet. Because of that, we all have information at our fingertips. I can say that because I know you have Internet access or you wouldn’t be reading this.  🙂

One of the things I have been doing is listening to podcasts…a lot of podcasts, especially about game design.  Thing is I’m sure I’m missing a lot of them. Here are a few of the ones I listen to regularly:

I travel a lot so have time to listed in the car, on walks, airplanes etc. It’s a pretty easy way to keep in touch with what’s going on in the industry.

The other thing that I found I really had to make up ground on was the major social sites. I’m not talking about Facebook and Twitter, I mean Board Game Geek. I’ve always been an avid player, but never really engaged with that community. No particular reason other than time. But to be honest, there is no better resource for board game links, news,  information, etc. Get on there.

Play Games

To be a good game designer play lots of games. Not the same game lots of times, but a lot of different games. This is one of my bigger challenges. Because I travel so much I’m not home often. When I am home, I choose to spend time with my family rather than my gaming group. My wife isn’t an Alpha gamer. My kids have the potential to be but are only 7 and 9. So they aren’t in to things like Battle of Westeros, or X-Wing, or even Dominion….yet.

Play game whenever you can. There are gaming groups and Meetups in just about every town and city. Play with strangers. That is one huge benefit of our industry, people always need an extra player.

Now you know a bit about my situation and where I’m coming from as far as how I approach game design and the resources I have available. I figure if I can do it from a small place like Canberra Australia, anyone can do it with the right approach.

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