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HEX Update – Becoming a Game Designer

May 15, 2015

Hi HEXers. We have more previews for you today, but first we’re going to drop something on you that’s a little bit different than what you’re used to. We receive many game design applications. People dream about making games, but it’s hard to get a handle on how you do it. It’s hard to even know how to approach the idea of making a game. So, Director of Game Theory Ben Stoll is jumping in to introduce you to his ideas about game and game design.

Attitude of approach

Hey there. Ben Stoll here, ducking out of the laboratory for a few seconds to share some thoughts with you about game design. This will be the first in a series that will explore some ideas for how to become a game designer. So fair warning—this isn’t your typical HEX article and doesn’t directly involve HEX!

Of course, games, game design, reality: all of these things are infinitely complex and impossible to pin down exactly. I’m only offering my own paradigms for you to consider as an aid to help you understand these things for yourself.

WHO THE HEX IS BEN STOLL TO TALK TO ME ABOUT GAME DESIGN?!

Good question! I’ve been the design lead for several board games and multiple trading card game releases before HEX. For the past three years now, I’ve been cranking away at helping to make HEX as awesome as it can be. I had a lot to do with the game engine and was lead designer for the first two sets. As Director of Game Theory on HEX, I work with Cory Jones and the other department heads to shape the overall vision and direction of the game. Currently, I’m working as hard as I possibly can to help bring all of you what really will be an amazing PVE experience ASAP (I know that doesn’t make the wait any easier!).

But I would say, when you look to a professional game designer for inspiration on how to become such a thing yourself, it might be more useful to examine what they did before they got in the door.

I don’t really have enough words in this article to tell my whole life story here, so the TL;DR version is that I always loved games, always loved the creative arts, always loved analysis, and always loved psychology/sociology/the way people work. This turns out to be a pretty solid cocktail of interests as a foundation for game design, and now here I am.

BUT HOW DID YOU GET THERE?

Being smart, creative, and drawn to things that will nurture your intellect and your creativity are some of the greatest blessings a game designer can have. The other simple trait to which I attribute my ability to become a professional game designer (my ability to get my foot in the door, which is where all the REAL growth occurs) is work ethic. Try as hard as you can, and never stop trying. If you get the opportunity to fill out a design test for a game design job, you should put so much into it that your creative soul should be bleeding by the end.

CrazedRummagingWEB

The other most important trait to getting your foot in the door is humility. When you start out on the path of the game designer, you often see the game through just one lens. The sneaky thing about game design is that you think you’ve got a full perspective on your game, because it does play to completion, and people may seem to like it enough. But maybe, for example, you haven’t considered the duration of your game, or you’ve considered it but you’re arrogantly using your best guess as to what’s acceptable instead of accessing tried-and-true industry data. You’ve built a paradigm for considering the worth of your game without knowing all of the parameters that determine your game’s worth.

Even the greatest masters start out with just a little bit of knowledge as regards these parameters. That’s why you have to seek out knowledge through reading and through learning from others, putting aside the ego that drives us but sometimes blinds us to what others (in ways, competitors) have to offer. If someone in the industry is willing to talk to you, or to play your game, or to read your design test or something like that, do everything you can to optimize that opportunity and receive it graciously.

If this seems like I’m being hard, it’s because work ethic and humility are the hardest things to learn and maintain. Don’t stress, friend: nobody is a great game designer when they first start. It’s too technical and knowledge-based of a craft for you to just be a “natural” at it. Fortunately, one of the best things you can do is to absorb the rhetoric of those that have come before you, and that’s exactly what you’re doing now!

WHAT IS A GAME?

Before we ask the very important question, “what is good game design?” we have to start by asking ourselves what a game is. This question is often pointedly asked and answered in game design books. There must certainly be more than one useful answer to this question, but for the purposes of effectively facilitating our intellectual communion, dear reader, I will define a game as follows:

A game is an interactive experience with defined parameters (rules) that can be received by one or more people on an aesthetic, emotional, and psychological level.

This definition is designed to be succinct and technically accurate, not reader-friendly. The most important thing for you to pull from the above definition is that I have found tremendous use in seeing game experiences as comprised of those three macro-elements. I believe that these three things can each often be crafted and tinkered with independently and have specific effects on the player independent of each other. You don’t necessarily have to start making your game by determining the aesthetic, emotional, and psychological experiences you want the player to have, but we will have to measure our game in terms of these things eventually in order for us to really understand our game and thus understand its effectiveness.

Unfortunately, we don’t have time today to get into the specifics of which aesthetic, emotional, and psychological experiences can be found in games, nor do we have time just yet to talk about how to craft those experiences. We’re still just building our approach. Be patient, young grasshopper!

WHAT IS “GOOD” GAME DESIGN?

We can start with our definition of a game above, but defining good game design asks that we layer a few requirements into our approach to crafting a game:

To approach game design effectively, you must determine the goals for how you want your game to be received on an aesthetic, emotional, and psychological level.

To execute game design effectively, you must understand why the defined parameters of your game are facilitating your goals or not.

To understand why the defined parameters of your game are facilitating your goals or not, you must be able to see, feel, and understand your audience very deeply and intimately, on an aesthetic, emotional, and psychological level.

PlantGarden Realize that the experience of playing a game, like many human experiences—eating, having sex, watching a movie—invokes emotional response, such as tension or laughter. What we’re going to call “psychological” (mental) response, such as the engagement and satisfaction that comes from accumulating a resource, deriving a plan, or completing a math problem, also comes from games. Finally, we have aesthetic response, such as the enjoyment of images or the colors of the game board.

In good game design, we are determining what exactly we want those responses from our players to be, and then we’re trying to craft a game that, as reliably as possible, actually invokes those responses. I should say, we don’t have to start by determining those responses, but we do have to predict and understand what those responses will be and how they intersect with whatever our other starting point for our game may have been.

For example, when designing the card Plant Garden, I started with the aesthetics, the relatable story of the card: a garden in which you aren’t quite sure what sort of exotic plant will sprout. To create the experience of anticipation for both players, we let the card sit on the board for a few turns, accumulating counters before the mystery is revealed. To make this anticipation more exciting and tense, we polarize the weight of the outcomes a little bit: Vine Goliath is going to typically be a lot tougher to deal with then Venus Fly Gorger. Finally, we give a little bit of extra context to the Seed Counters, and let you feel a little bit of creative ownership over pairing your Plant Garden with Briarpatch Conjuror. So, many different experiences are woven together in this card and we need to make sure we’re offering these experiences alongside generally good gameplay as well (but that’s for another article). For the player, they might simply experience Plant Garden as a card they like or don’t like, but we as the game designer need to get under the hood, as it were, and try to figure out why.

So, it’s not that your starting point has to be saying to yourself:

“I want to primarily offer the emotional cocktail of excitement and anxiety that comes from a rule-set that requires player-to-player deception, tempered with the creative satisfaction that comes from building your own agenda and character attributes instead of selecting or being dealt a pre-made agenda. This ownership will create more personal investment in the outcome of the game, and it will allow players to access and avoid various play experiences so that they can customize the amount of deceit they engage in to their own preferences and social comfort levels, a feature not frequently offered by games in this genre. The emergent ‘meta-game’ of analyzing which people are likely to craft which sorts of roles might normally interfere with the ‘actual game’ in an undesired way, but because the thematics of my game deliberately celebrate breaking the fourth wall, as well as self-referential moments, this emergent meta-game actually harmonizes quite well with the total experience.”

Instead you can start with “You know what sounds really fun? One of those games in which everyone is ostensibly a good guy, but a few people are secretly bad guys…but the twist in MY game will be that you get to build and customize your own agenda! Also, I want it to take place in this weird sci-fi reality where beings craft their own life ahead of time before they are born into it!”

The thing is, your intuition is already analyzing past experiences of other games to help you to re-imagine fun existing mechanics while innovating new mechanics. But the more you really understand why your intuition deemed those past experiences fun, the more surgically you’ll be able to craft your game to make it fun.

Artists from many different disciplines will tell you that they pick different starting points. You might start with a character, with a setting, with a message, or with the fact that you want to make a good 2-player game, because where the hell are all the good 2-player board games? But in order to optimize your chances of optimizing your game experience, you need to be sure that you’re making adjustments to it based on your very under-the-hood understanding of how your game impacts the aesthetic, emotional, and psychological centers of your players.

That’s the first piece of the puzzle: making sense of what it is you’re actually setting out to do.

You’re setting out to craft an experience for other people— An experience with very deliberate and very clearly defined goals, which you’ve derived from a deep understanding of the people at whom those goals are aimed.

Sound fun? Sound ambitious? Sound monumentally difficult? You’re damn straight it is! And this article is just to get us primed, just to get us oriented in a very summary way.

We haven’t even really gotten into the nitty gritty, the raw art and science that we game designers are cooking up in the laboratory, nor are we even going to start THINKING about all the other crap that’s realistically often involved: the business, the politics, the technology…we’ll save that whole mess for another day. One thing at a time!

CONCLUSION

Hopefully we have our bearings a little bit. We’ve looked at a basic outline for how we can begin to approach both becoming a game designer and designing a game effectively.

In the next articles we’ll dive more into the details of the skill sets that people traditionally associate with game design. This will help us to understand how exactly to choose and then to craft the aforementioned aesthetic, emotional, and psychological experiences for our players.

Until next time, thanks so much for reading!

Princess Cory Has Some Competition

Today, we have cards for you Blood and Diamond fans out there. First, let’s debut this debutante and have her blow a kiss to her adoring public.

Vampire-Princess Vampiric Kiss

Vampire Princess flies over any bumbling ground-bound blockers to steal a kiss from your opponent’s hand. As your opponent’s actions are snatched away one by one, you’re siphoning a bit of your opponent’s vitality and making it your own. She fits perfectly into existing mono-Blood archetypes, giving you another way to either dominate the late game or dominating the beatdown race with your endless removal. Since Vampiric Kiss is also a common blood card that you can find in Armies of Myth booster packs, you can also run four of these in your main deck. That makes an opening hand including the princess much, much more exciting.

Vampire Princess does a decent job of getting the small things in life out of the way. She is a princess, after all. The next card is a much bigger effect, capable of sweeping your opponent’s army while leaving yours unscathed. One-sided sweeper? Yes, please!

Purge

Typically, troop-heavy decks are fearful of board sweepers, not for them. Extinction kills all your troops as With Purge, you actually need a troop in play that troop gets to live. All others die. Arachnophobes should especially feel drawn to this diamond rare, and it does very well against those beastly big wild decks.

Stress Test Postponed

During testing, we discovered some issues that will require more time to resolve. As such, we will need to push the Stress Test Tournament to a later time. We’re working on picking a new time/date and will let everyone know as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience and understanding!

That’s all for this week. Please leave any questions or comments in the forums, and don’t forget to Follow us on TwitterLike us on FacebookFollow us on Twitch, and register on our forums.

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