This year, I’m a mentor in Mike Belsole’s Mentorship program (if you don’t know it, go check it out, it’s pretty sweet). I don’t consider myself accomplished enough for that title, but I thought that if I think myself smart enough to write about game design, I guess I should be smart enough to mentor game designers, right?
I met with my mentees, and there’s one piece of advice I repeated often, and so I thought maybe I should write a blog post about it:
“You should work on more than one game at a time.”
Working on multiple games is, I think, the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project. Many will disagree, and that’s fine, but I think working on a second game, and probably even a third, will make each of them better.
Rebuttal 1: But Jon, I barely have time to work on this one game?
When I was in university, I used to say that about working out. “I barely have enough time to live my life as is, how can I add a half hour of physical activity a day?” Then I realized that by doing a half hour of physical activity every day, after a few weeks, I had an extra hour’s worth of energy.
It’s the same thing with game design. Working on multiple games takes time, but that investment will very quickly pay for itself by allowing you to bypass blocks (when you get stuck, hop to something else), to group actions (printing three prototypes is not three times as long as printing only the one), and by allowing you to take some distance from your work (which helps you avoid dead-ends and death spirals).
Rebuttal 2: But Jon, this is my baby! I don’t want to work on anything else
I said earlier working on multiple designs is the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project: if you want to stay in that second category, that’s fine. I still think your game would be better if you took on a second project, but I get it. It’s too much trouble for just the thrill of creating something. Fine, this advice doesn’t apply to you specifically.
However, if your goal is to design games, you need to get rid of that “my baby!” feeling ASAP. You know the saying “kill your darlings”? You need to turn that baby into a darling to even start considering killing it. And to a mere tool to start cutting efficiently. That distance, it comes from spreading your love around, just like with actual babies (wait what did I just write?) It’s what gives you some
Rebuttal 3: But I have very limited playtesting opportunities!
Probably. You know what though? It’s a lot easier to get testers to try something different than the N-th version of a prototype they’ve played twice a week for 3 months. It also becomes easier for them to compare your prototypes: when you say “I need to test something, what do you want to play?”, their reaction is the first feedback of that session.
Also, I strongly suggest working on games which don’t overlap in game length and/or player counts. I usually try to have one filler, one 2-player game, and one mid-weight Euro going at any time, and if I could design a party game, I’d add it to that list as well. If I work on two mid-weight Euros at the same time, they do take away from one another’s playtesting time, but with this system, they rarely compete.
Rebuttal 4: When I spread my focus, I don’t get anything done
That’s a tough one. I’ve been there, trying to make 20 games at the same time, wheels spinning so fast that I rarely was working on only one. If the first 3 are mostly misconceptions, this one is a true pitfall: you should only get started on a second game after you’ve made some progress on the first one. Don’t just go running after the shiny new idea: write it down, keep it for later. If you find you can’t focus on game 1, jump over to the new idea, and use that drive to get it to a testable state and get it to the table.
I find that people who jump from project to project without getting anything done are usually not certain what the first step is. You get that new idea, and because you’ve been stuck in the idea stage forever, you’ve lost any momentum to the previous one: it hasn’t gone anywhere, and so why not jump to a new one? That is not what I’m advising here. That being said, once you’ve turned an idea into a game, something with enough structure to get it tested, then is the time… to get it tested! After that, you reiterate, and test again. However, when you start getting frustrated, then! Then you probably still want to work on it a bit more.
It’s hard to know when any creative project develops an energy of its own, but at some point, even if you leave it on the table for a month, you’ll go back to it. At that point, you go look at your notebook full of ideas, find the one that excites you the most, and try to turn it into a game as well.
Rebuttal 5: I don’t want the quality of the work to suffer!
It won’t. It actually is suffering much worse right now, because you’re not working on other stuff. You’re lacking the distance to be more objective, the ability to put it down when you’re stuck, the experience you gain from solving problems in Project A which helps you in Project B. You’re lacking the momentum that comes from the early steps when you reach the later ones.
Most of all though, working on projects one at a time exposes you to the biggest problem all designers, especially younger ones, face: the kitchen sink. By focusing on one project at a time, you never have to define what it is: it’s just your game. You never have to define what it’s trying to accomplish, what are the must’s and the don’t’s. By spreading out a bit, you have to draw the line somewhere, if only to differentiate A from B from C: that keeps your projects focused, and makes you ask the dreaded question: “what makes this special?”
It might seem illogical, but I swear: I’ve been there, and I’ve been part of multiple design groups, I’ve had discussions with others. I’ve seen the difference it makes. This blog is about offering advice that goes beyond the first-level, often discussed stuff, and this is perhaps the most underrated design lesson I’ve come to.