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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

Getting Started in Game Design

Dr. Lewis


Copyright 2007 Lewis Pulsipher

who am i
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
reality check
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
reality check 2
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
ok how much do you make
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
royalty example
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
what about the biggies
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
do i need an agent
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”
practice and get others to evaluate
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
intellectual property rights
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
the idea is not the game
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
licensed properties
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
boardgame developers
Boardgame Developers
  • You don’t control your own game!
    • My experiences –see
    • See also
    • Some publishers are different (e.g. GMT)
submitting games
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
two forms of game design
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
prototypes testing is sovereign
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
learning to design
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
art vs science
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
who is the audience
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
  • 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
how to design games
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”
publisher imposed limits
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
self imposed limits
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
do it
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
design vs development
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
the designer s game vs the game that s published
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
self publishing
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
brief what s important on the business side of game design
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
resources about the business
Resources about the business
  • 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