So this is the first post in what will hopefully become a weekly series of interviews with more established designers. In each episode, an established designer will come and talk about a Roadblock they’ve run into with one of their designs, how it showed up, how they identified it, and the process of fixing it. The goal is to give you specific examples of the process of designing a game, and ideas of what you can do when faced with similar situations.
Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Sen-Foong Lim, designer of so many games, such as Junk Art, Belfort and Akrotiri, just to name a few, and fellow Canadian! Sen is also the first ever recipient of the James Mathe Mentorship Award!
SFL: Hey there, thanks for having me! Jay and I have designed a ton of games together and we’ve got another one coming out soon!
JV: Awesome! And this one I’m really excited about! First, can you give us a bit of background on the game you want to tell us about today?
SFL: The game that’s been on my mind (no pun intended) recently is MIND MGMT. I co-designed the game with my long-time partner in crime, Jay Cormier, and the creator of the comic book of the same name. Matt Kindt is a New York Times’ bestselling author, comic book writer, and artist. He’s a force to be reckoned with!
The comic that the game is based on tells the tale of secret agents who work under the assumption that they are saving the world. They quickly find out that their organization, MIND MGMT, may not be everything it seems to be on the surface. A group of agents go rogue and try to bring down the organization from the outside. The game tells the take of these agents trying to stop MIND MGMT from recruiting enough agents to follow through on their diabolical plans. It’s a one-vs-many hidden movement game with a system that allows the game to adapt and change over repeated plays. Did I mention that these secret agents have psychic powers?
MIND MGMT is going to Kickstarter in early March 2020. This is the first game that Jay will be self-publishing under his “Off The Page Games” imprint, so we really needed to get it right!
JV: Secret agents with psychic powers sound like an incredible game right there! Now, what was the issue you ran into, and when did you first encounter it?
SFL: The real problem was how we had tested the game – we had primarily used the same 2 groups for multiple playtests. As they got better at the game, they wanted more challenges and so we complied!
And this was a huge problem.
We poured our hearts and souls into this game which resulted in it being overdesigned. There were so many player powers and extra bits and stuff that we had built into the game that players who had never played it before felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options they had. They were paralyzed by all of the options.
We actually broke Matt Leacock’s brain during one of the playtests. He was just overwhelmed by all of the possibilities in the game. To have a designer the calibre of Matt give us that feedback was really powerful. That told us that we had swung too far in one direction, and made us take a step back to reflect upon what had happened to the game as we developed it.
JV: Was there something about the game that pushed you towards testing with the same group all over again? Or just happenstance?
SFL: We just got comfortable in our groove, with our testers, and we (looking back) probably didn’t want to teach the game to new players again and again. We were also likely in the brainspace of “more is better!” without realizing the detrimental effect too much content would have on new players who were just trying to grasp the basics.
Jay and I live in different provinces and we both have playtest groups. We thought that would be enough diversity but we failed to recognize that skill creep is a thing. To go along with this, we can turn to the psychology of meaningful engagement as demonstrated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Csikszentmihalyi states that as a persons’ skill in an area improves, they require the challenge to rise accordingly or they may disengage from the task. Applying this to game design, what was happening was that our players were getting more skilled in the logic and deduction part of the game and so they needed more moving pieces to keep the game interesting for them. You can see this in many games – the constant influx of new cards in Magic: The Gathering is a great example where it is phenomenally difficult to understand ALL of the cards EVER as a new player, but experienced players clamour for more because they like the game and new cards maintain their engagement level.
JV: Is there something about the game that made it more susceptible to that overdesign?
SFL: In this particular case, logic and deduction games require skills that you can learn and improve upon with repeated plays, especially if you play with the same group. So as the Agents learn how to use their psychic powers to improve their chances of capturing the Recruiter, the Recruiter feels like they need more tools to combat them.
We didn’t think about the product in terms of a long-term thing over many plays. We just kind of “thought vomited” all of the ideas we had into the box and that was what was overwhelming.
JV: Did that overdesign lead to anything useful? Were you able to keep some of that content?
SFL: Oh yeah, we scrapped nothing. The overdesign wasn’t in the content, it was in the content delivery. In fact, the way we changed content delivery allowed us to develop even more content because it would have less risk of being overwhelming.
JV: Can you talk about the steps that you took between figuring out the problem and finding the right way? What did you try that didn’t work?
SFL: There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and lamentation. A few tears may have been shed. After we had our pity party, we stepped back and took a good hard look at the game. The game was awesome. It was just too much all at once. We really wanted to keep everything we had spent so much time working on, but knew that we couldn’t expose players to it all at once. We thought about expansions, but didn’t like the idea of people having to buy more things to experience the game as we had fully conceived it. We wanted to give people all of the content, but not all at the same time. It had to be doled out in the right amount, each time.
The massive amounts of content went from being a design bug to being a design feature once we figured out how to deliver it all in a way that made sense.
JV: What was the right way to deliver that content then?
SFL: Rob Daviau had just shown us the power of Legacy games with Risk: Legacy and Pandemic Legacy (co-designed with the aforementioned Matt Leacock). We didn’t want to make a Legacy game, so instead we took a different tact by asking a different question:
“What if the game changed between games based on who won or lost the last game but in a non-permanent and customizable way?”
We wanted players to be able to reset the game should they be playing with a new group. We also wanted players to have some control of their choices in terms of what to add to the game the next time they played.
So we came up with the Shift System!
The Shift System is a little bit like Rob’s Legacy System in that there are things that you unlock over the course of the game. It’s a system in which the team that lost the last game gets to pick advantages for them and disadvantages for their opponent. Players track their victories and losses, so the more losses a team has, the more advantages they can give themselves / disadvantages they can give their opponent in future games against an opponent that trounces them regularly. In that way, it can help balance games for players with differences in skill due to age or ability.
JV: What advice would you have for designers to identify these overdesigns before they go too far?
SFL: In general, it’s all about testing and finding the fat.
Test your game widely. Test it with people who’ve never played it. Have a new team learn your game without any input from you except the rulebook. What you’re testing for if you think you’ve overdesigned your game is looking to see if people can’t make a good decision because there is too much to process (though, sometimes, that is intrinsic in a design – see Space Alert).
Things that need to be cut often appear to me in these forms:
– Rules that are forgotten or played incorrectly by players
– Rules that take longer to explain than they’re worth
– Rules that drive the game procedurally but are not a decision point
– Conditions that are passively triggered versus actively engaged
– Components or rules that are underutilized or have low impact.
JV: And once the overdesign is identified, how would you advise a designer to deal with the problem?
SFL: Some of this is preparation, some of this is mindset, some of this is testing
In terms of preparation, keep versions of your past games as well as documentation about your changes. The changes themselves are important – the rationale as to why you initially made the change may be more important, though. Your rationale for change will guide you in how you might tackle the problem from a different angle – the problem likely still exists, it just needs a different solution. You may also, as you alluded to above, have to roll back to a simpler version because it was, in fact, better!
In terms of mindset, the old adage of “kill your darlings” is echoed by many because it’s true – you need to be flexible enough to see your way around problems to find new solutions and sometimes that means removing something entirely. To ease the pain of that loss, remember that you can often keep things you discard for later use! If something does not support the primary hook of the game or the overall experience… cut it.
Remember: less is often more.
In terms of testing, you not only need to go back to the drawing board, but you’ll need to test your changes again. You cannot assume that things will work. You need to put the new implementation through its paces. Often times, you’ll also find that players are naturally efficient and will make new sense out of your game that will streamline some of the processes for you. If players almost always do B before A because it makes sense to them in practice, go with it!
JV: Well thank you Sen! I do feel like overdesign and designing in closed groups are a kind of problem new designers face a lot, and it’s interesting to see that it doesn’t seem to go away with experience!
And that was the first episode of Roadblock! Hopefully you found in it something that was helpful to you and your design process. Now imagine we had a cool 90’s out-tro with weird punk music: ROADBLOCK! ROADBLOCK! ROOOOOOOOOOAD BLOCK!