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Getting Started in Game Design. Dr. Lewis Pulsipher. Copyright 2007 Lewis Pulsipher. Who am I. Designed my own games while a teenager Began playing commercial wargames in 1963

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Getting Started in Game Design

Dr. Lewis


Copyright 2007 Lewis Pulsipher

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Who am I

  • Designed my own games while a teenager

  • Began playing commercial wargames in 1963

  • Played the original Atari 2600 and have played some PC games heavily, but rarely play any video games these days; never owned a game console

  • Designer of six commercially-published board wargames (most recently February ‘06)

  • Active designer of board and card games (playtesters solicited!)

  • My main job is teaching networking, Web development in college

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Reality Check

  • Almost no one makes a living designing games

  • Most who do work for a game company, not freelance

  • You could spend the same time as profitably by picking up bottles and cans for deposits and recycling!

  • Most publishers don’t make a lot, either—and it’s risky

  • Many publishers exist largely to self-publish their own games

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Reality Check 2

  • So if you design games, do it because you like to, or because you must, not because you want to make money

    • Alan R. Moon, two German “Games of the Year”, would have had to get part-time job if not for Ticket to Ride winning

  • Recognize that your “great idea” is probably not that great, not that original, and not that interesting to other people

  • Finally, it’s extra-hard to get into video game design

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OK, How much do you make?

  • In my experience, royalties are a percentage of the publisher’s actual revenue

    • 5% is most common

  • Publisher sells to distributor at 40% of list price or less; distributor sells to retailer for 10% more

  • Internet sales are becoming significant—then publisher makes 100%

  • Shipping costs may be subtracted from revenue

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Royalty example

  • $40 list game, 5% of $16 = 80 cents

  • Per 1,000 copies, $800

  • $20 game, $400 per thousand

  • Wargame typical printrun is a few thousand

  • “Euro” games might go up to 10,000

  • Most games sell poorly after first six months, most are not reprinted

  • German “Game of the Year” might sell 250,000 or more, after award

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What about the biggies?

  • In general, the really big companies have staff to design their games

  • Many will not even accept outside submissions

  • Virtually all will require you sign a statement relieving them of all liabilities

  • At least one only works through agents

  • In USA, Hasbro owns all the traditional boardgame publishers such as Parker Brothers, Avalon Hill

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Do I need an agent?

  • Whatever for?

  • Yet, I did for my first game back in the 70s, in England

    • Unfamiliarity

    • I could meet and talk with him locally (London)

  • Shady “agents” and “evaluators” abound

    • Don’t ever get an agent who wants a fee “up front”

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Practice and get others to evaluate

  • Diplomacy variants and D&D material in my case

  • Post such things on your or other Web sites

  • Analogy:

    • Jerry Pournelle (SF writer) says be willing to throw away your first million words on the road to becoming successful SF writer

    • Similarly, be willing to make lots of games/mods that don’t make any money on the way to making (some) money as a game designer

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Intellectual Property Rights

  • Ideas are not important, and not valued!

    • Ideas are a dime a dozen: execution is what counts

  • Copyright now inherent

    • Forget that “mail to myself” idea

    • Registered copyright makes suits much easier to pursue and more remunerative

  • Ideas cannot be protected, only expression of an idea

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The idea is not the game

  • Novices tend to think the idea is the important thing

    • Ideas are “a dime a dozen”. It’s the execution, the creation of a playable game, that’s important

  • The “pyramid” of game design:

    • Lots of people get ideas

    • Fewer try to go from general idea to a specific game idea

    • Fewer yet try to produce a prototype

    • Fewer yet produce a decently playable prototype

    • Very few produce a complete game

    • And very, very few produce a good complete game

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Licensed Properties

  • Tie-ins with movies, comics, books, etc.?

  • Much too expensive

  • Not even worth the IP owner’s time to do the processing for a boardgame—there’s not enough money in it

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Boardgame Developers

  • You don’t control your own game!

    • My experiences –see

    • See also

    • Some publishers are different (e.g. GMT)

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Submitting Games

  • Read the publisher’s requirements

    • Some require you to sign a form and seal it in an envelope

    • Some won’t accept unsolicited proposals at all—this is common

  • Expect it to take a long time

  • Expect to get rejected

    • May have nothing to do with how good your game is

    • Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rejected many times

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Two forms of game design

  • Video games and non-video games

  • Scale is different

    • “big time” video games are produced by dozens of people, cost millions of dollars

    • “big time” non-video games produced by a few people with budgets in the thousands

      • Yet a few sell more than a million copies

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Prototypes—”testing is sovereign”

  • To best improve a game, you must have a playable prototype

    • Firaxis’ Sid Meier-Civilization series, Pirates

    • The sooner Firaxis got a playable version of Civ 4, the more they could learn

    • A playable prototype includes “artwork” or physical components, and rules or programming

  • The rules for a non-video game are the equivalent of the programming of a video game

    • Programming must be precise and is very time consuming (game engines may help in the future)

    • A playable set of rules can be much less precise, relying on the mind(s) of the designer(s), and notes

  • It’s also much easier to change the non-video prototype to test different approaches

  • It’s much easier to produce the physical prototype, than to create the artwork for a video game

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Learning to design

  • So we can have a playable, testable non-video game much more quickly than a computer game of similar scope or subject

  • Consequently, it’s much easier to learn game design with physical games than with video games!

    • Kevin O’Gorman’s concurrence

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Art vs. Science

  • As in many other creative endeavors, there are two ways of approach

    • These are often called Romantic and Classical, or Dionysian and Apollonian

  • Or: art and science

    • Some people design games “from the gut”

    • Others like to use system, organization, and (when possible) calculation

  • Mine is the “scientific” approach; and that is more likely to help new designers

    • Game design is 10% art and 90% science

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Who is the audience?

  • A game must have an audience

    • What are the game-playing preferences of that audience

    • Short or long?

    • Chance or little chance?

    • Lots of story or little story?

    • “Ruthless” or “nice”?

    • Simple or complex?

  • There is no “perfect” game

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  • Video games are more limited by genre than non-video games

  • Most video games and many others fall into a clear genre category

  • Each genre has characteristics that come to be “expected” by the consumer

  • Much easier to market a video game with a clear genre

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How to design games

  • Limits lead to a conclusion:

    • Characteristics of the audience (target market)

      • “People don’t do math any more”

    • Genre limitations

    • Production-imposed limitations

      • “Board cannot be larger than X by Y”

    • Self-imposed limitations

      • “I want a one-hour trading game”

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Publisher-imposed limits

  • Some are publisher preference, some are market-dictated

  • For example: many publishers want nothing that requires written records in a game

  • Another example: consumers strongly prefer strong graphics, whether in a video or a non-video game

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Self-imposed limits

  • You have your own preferences

    • Don’t design a game you don’t like to play yourself

    • If you don’t like it, why should anyone else?

  • Limits/constraints improve and focus the creative process

    • Great art and music is much more commonly produced in eras of constraints, rather than eras without constraints

  • Example of a limit: I want to produce a two-player game that lasts no more than 30 minutes

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Do it!

  • Too many people like to think about designing so much, they never actually do it

  • Until you have a playable prototype, you have nothing

    • (Which is what makes video game design so difficult)

    • It doesn’t have to be beautiful, just usable

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Design vs. “development”

  • “Development” has two meanings

    • In video games, it means writing the program

    • In non-video, development (often by a person other than the designer) sets the finishing touches on a game, but may include significant changes

    • Development takes longer than design, in either case

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The designer’s game vs. the game that’s published

  • Video games are often overseen by the publisher, who is paying the bills; so it is modified to suit as it is developed

  • Non-video games are often unseen by the publisher until “done”; some publishers then modify them, often heavily

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Self Publishing

  • Do you want to design, or do you want to be a businessperson?

  • But often it’s the only way your game will be published

  • Most self-publishers will lose money NOT counting the time they spend

  • Virtually all lose money if you count the time they put into the business

  • See

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Brief “What’s Important” on the business side of game design

  • Most people in the business are honest and try to do good

    • It’s too small a business to get tricky, word gets around

  • It really is a small business, and mistakes are common

  • Barring long apprenticeship and great good luck, you won’t make a living at it

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Resources about the business design

  • Game Inventor’s Guidebook by Brian Tinsman

  • “All about publishing” thread on ConsimWorld

  • Lots of books about video game publishing

  • Come to my seminar on Saturday at 2 about process of game design

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Questions? design