Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The importance of Graphic Design

So this post comes from a topic that is often discussed in the game design industry when it comes to game prototypes.  The question is generally "How much time/effort/money should I spend to make my prototypes look good?"  Most recently, there were two good blog posts in regards to subjects with opinions and reasons for or against a good-looking prototype.

The Benefits of Crappy Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that you don't invest time into making it look better because you're less likely to change the game based on the amount of time that you've invested into making it look good.

The Benefits of Pretty Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that looks amazing because you are more likely to get players to play your game with a better looking prototype, therefore getting more feedback on your game in general.

Both posts have their merit, and I agree with points made in each one.  As long as you're able to throw away the hours that you pour into making something look good, I agree that you're better off with something that looks professional and amazing based on the fact that visual appeal is important to getting people to playtest your game.  I'm aware that there are examples of dozens of great games being developed with crappy prototypes, but honestly those are the exceptions, not the norm.

However, what I'd like to discuss isn't just making the prototype look good, as that can be done by slapping some art by an amazing artist onto your board and pieces and calling it a day.  No, what I'd like to discuss is using good graphic design on your prototypes to make your games better, regardless of the art.  This goes further than just making something pretty.  The purpose in graphic design is to assist in understanding the information placed in front of you.

The excuse of not having enough time to make a game "pretty" when you really mean "functional" is just good enough.  We all have limited time, and that includes the people you want to be able to playtest your game to help you in making it better.  Spending time making the information easier to digest will improve the feedback that you receive about the mechanisms and interactions of your game.

Adding graphic design to your protype does not mean just adding artwork to your prototype.  Remember, we're trying to make the information that you present to players easier to understand.  Take the following example:

This is a section of the first iteration for a playerboard of a game that I'm currently designing.  A stack of cards would be placed over different 2x3 sections of this square to portray different game states of the stack of cards being available/unavailable for purchase as well as the related ability being locked/unlocked for use.
I put this together as quickly as possible to get a prototype printed and playable.  I thought this was a clever way to portray the information, and it is functional in the sense that all of the information that I needed to play the game is present, but there are a few things that are wrong with this design.
  • The font is all the same size
    • Whenever possible, you should use different sizes or types of font, including using bolded words to effectivly direct the eyes towards the different portions of information.
  • No visual groupings
    • Breaking up information into groupings through shapes, colors, or font types is very effective when it comes to assisting in digesting information visually.
  • Too many words
    • Using symbols or pictures whenever possible to convey messages will reduce the time it takes to process the information.

This is what the second pass of that same section looks like.  It's not perfect, but it is certainly an improvement over the first.  You can see where I've changed the sized of the font, grouped the information together and reduced the amount of text for things that were just titles of units.  Using this version was easier for the players, but the different card orientation was still more confusing to players than I wanted it to be. 

This is the third pass of the design that doesn't change the orientation of the cards, and instead places a token on top of the stack to signify if it is available for purchase or not.  The stack starts on the green box and slides to the left when the ability has been unlocked and is available for use.

If this version of the design still proves to be confusing for the players, which ultimately detracts from the game play, I will likely create something a bit more standard in concept.  I was trying to do something visually different from what people might expect, but if it turns out that this is still confusing, I will eventually go towards the familiar.  Possibly a placemat that has the abilities listed on them along with the costs to unlock them, and use tokens to signify locked/unlocked status.  This would separate the text on the cards and the text on the abilities from one another, which may clarify the situation.  I could also potentially use 2-sided tiles with one side having the ability and the unlock cost, with the other side just having the ability.

I didn't go to school for graphic design, these are just things that I've picked up along the way while designing games.  At first I just wanted to make my games look better, but at this point I use the information to improve the functionality of my designs.

Here are some resources that you may or may not be aware of:
Between these 5 items, if you're not able to create better looking and more functional prototypes, then you're probably doing something wrong.

Thousands of fonts to use in your games, completely free.  Different fonts have different licenses, so please review those upon your choice to use them.

This is a completely free vector image program.  If you're not sure what a vector image or vector program is, it's simply an image format and the subsequent manipulation software for a style of image that can be shrunk or expanded to any size without losing any of the details of the original.  Vectors treat the images like objects, whereas raster images (like jpegs) convert everything into pixels.  For more information on different types of images, I would recommend a few Google searches as there are plenty of overviews on the topic that will inform you better than I would.

Over 1000 icons that were created specifically to be easily recognizable as spells/actions/things on a button in a game.  Downloadable in either SVG (vector) or JPG (image) formats, this is an invaluable resource for placeholder images on your prototypes.  The reason that this and the following site are great are because your prototypes don't need professional artwork to improve their functionality, often just adding simples images is all you need.  Images serve as a way to distinguish cards/pieces/locations at a glance, instead of forcing your brain to compute some text on a card.

Another resource for placeholder vector images, but spanning past the game-world into more standard objects, and not necessarily in all the same style as the game icons site.  Still another great resource for graphics in your prototypes.

This is a completely free raster image manipulation software equivilent to Adobe Photoshop.  Having never used Photoshop, I can't really compare the two, but I'm told they are similar.  I rarely use Gimp except to cut out pieces of an image, or to create textures.  This software is more to make the game "pretty" instead of functional.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

GenCon 2013 Recap

I write this after a week of rest, coming back from the convention that has the best 4 days in gaming.  I played a few dozen games I had never played before, saw some people in awesome costumes, met a lot of people that I had never met before and played catch up with old friends that I haven't seen in years.  Yet as much fun as the convention is, it's tiring all the same.  I'm excited to go every single year, but by the end of it I'm happy to be going home.

As noted in my last post, I spent a lot of time preparing prior to the convention.  Part of this preparation involved reaching out to publishers to set up meeting times to talk to them at GenCon where it was most convenient for them.  This is a piece of advice that I've heard from numerous designers, and yet, it just didn't pan out for me.  The responses I got, if I heard a response at all, were generally "Come see me at the booth and we can take a look if we've got time."  Now that could sound positive, if it wasn't for the fact that there are 40,000 people at GenCon, the exhibitor hall and every booth in it are usually jam-packed with customers looking to buy games and exhibitors looking to sell them.  There generally isn't a lot of free time to just "drop by" to show them your games.

 So I went to GenCon with exactly zero meetings scheduled, which was a little disappointing, but that just meant I was going to have to put some more effort into getting my games in front of publishers.  When I arrived on Thursday, I met up with an old friend to catch up and we walked around the dealer hall for a few hours.  I knew I had an event that evening which was the Publisher Speed Dating event, so since I didn't have any scheduled meetings, I was going to try and use that little bit of face time with each publisher to allow the walk-up ask for a meeting scenario to not be just a complete cold call scenario.

Publisher Speed Dating
I arrived at the event before the first time slot even started, just to get a feel for how the event was going to go.  It was really fascinating from a designer standpoint to see how other designers present their games.  The event started at 7pm and I had slots for the Euro/Medium game track at 8pm and the Light/Party game track at 9pm.  I think the 8pm time slot was fantastic.  The event had a chance to warm up and everyone was in the groove of how the event was going to continue for the rest of the evening.

I decided before the event that I was going to try the impossible and present two games every 5 minutes instead of just one.  The idea being that if the table had no interest in one of the games, but did show interest in the other, that I would be able to spend the time talking about one game over the other.  Of course, this made the task more difficult on myself, but some preparation beforehand instead of just deciding to "wing it" made it possible.  The main preparation was ensuring that I was able to do a 45 second elevator pitch for each game flawlessly and without skipping a beat.  Crafting the pitch is nearly as important as designing the game.  You need to be able to say something within a 45 second window that sparks someone's interest in playing your game.  Sometimes that can be done with visuals, but words are going to hold a lot of power as well.  This should be blend of theme and the key mechanics that make your game special.

8:00 - Euro/Medium Game Publisher Track
The gamble seemed to pay off.  I finished all of my 5 minute slots having pitched not one, but both of my games, with plenty of time to spare to ask questions or go into further details about rules or any questions the publishers may have had.  Essentially I took the first 90 seconds to pitch both, and asked them to choose one, then I would go through a very brief rules explanation and a sample turn.  Out of the 10 slots, there was a 7/3 split in the interest for the two games, which was almost exactly what I expected.  I received a lot of praise in the professionalism of my presentations and my pitches, and publishers seemed genuinely impressed that I attempted the two game approach given the short time.

9:00 - Party/Light Game Publisher Track
After going through the first hour, I felt this was going to be easy in comparison, and really it was.  Since the games were lighter, there was very little pressure to be had in the delivery of the presentations.  4 of the 10 slots already had the publishers leave by this point, so that was slightly disappointing, but I still presented my 2 games to around 12 publishers total for the time slot.   My themes got a lot of laughs, and I generally was able to discuss both games in full detail since one was a party game, and the other's mechanics are able to be learned in under a minute.  

After the event, I was feeling pretty good.  I accomplished what I set out to do, and I didn't fall completely flat on my face in the attempt.  There was various points of interest in games, and I ended up using that interest over the rest of the weekend to talk to publishers at their booths and by the end of the weekend I had 3 different meetings, one request for me to reach out to them after the convention and one publisher who has reached out to me since the convention, and left the convention missing one of my prototypes.

Of the meetings that I had, the games that I presented were always well received.  I got a chance for full games of whatever I happened to be pitching (probably a benefit of designing games that play in under an hour.)  I wont break out each meeting in detail, but I do feel like mentioning some of things that we discussed about publishing a game in general.

Games need a hook.
Even if you have one of the most ground-breaking mechanisms that the world has yet to see, you still need to get people to try the game to find that mechanism.  If the theme of your game is dry and boring, change it!  Even though Rite of Passage did get taken for further evaluation, I've heard a few times "This is a great game, but I'm not sure how to sell it."

Games with lower price points aren't generally as attractive.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are so many games that are "just a deck of cards" which have clever mechanisms.  Trying to stand out in the sea of games like that is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  The components of your game should be something that attracts people.

What a publisher likes will often surprise you.
I realized mid-way through the speed-dating event that what I thought a publisher would be interested in and what they actually were interested were often different.  Just because a publisher has never published a game like yours, doesn't mean that they never want to.  Give publishers the opportunity to make the decision for themselves and understand that they may have motives that you may not understand.

So, in the end, I would say that another successful GenCon is in the books for me.  I played some great games, met a ton of cool people, and I took some shots to get my games published without completely falling flat on my face.  I hope to make next year even better, but that's always the idea, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

7 Days to Judgement Day

...or at least that's what my wife told me this morning.

In a mere 7 days there are going to be over 40,000 gamers gathering in the wonderful city of Indianapolis, Indiana for the largest gaming convention in the US that is not related to video games.  That's right boys and girls, it's time for GenCon which really is a great time of year.  They call it the biggest 4 days in gaming, and if you haven't ever gone, it is something that you need to experience.  For myself, this will be the12th time attending the convention in just 13 years.  I look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, playing awesome games and having a great time doing all of it.

This is also the time of year that I get the most anxious.  It used to be that I went to GenCon to participate in the largest tournaments for whatever card game I happened to be playing at the time.  However, in the last two years, I've switched that focus from playing collectible card games into designing board games.  So now I'm competing in a very different arena in trying to convince a publisher to publish one of my games.

Now it isn't that I'm unprepared for this event, I've been getting things ready for the past 6 weeks.  I've got one game already under consideration, and one game that is completely ready for publication in addition to five (!!!) more that I will be bringing with me to GenCon in various stages of development.  This is completely different from last year when I was completely underprepared but didn't know any better.  No, this year I've upped the ante, overcome my rookie mistakes and I've plotted a course for success.  But even now, there is a chance that I don't succeed.

"Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze."
- Kelly, The Girl Next Door

I've competed on some of the biggest gaming stages in the past, numerous times.  It's not the stress of the competition that is affecting me, it's more the idea that even in all of my preparations, I've missed something that causes me to fail.  When I played cards, I would playtest for hours.  Build different decks, play different opponents, over and over and over again.  I would analyize the results, change the decks, and do it again and again.  This was natural to me, but in the publishing "game" you don't get to playtest like this.  You don't have a great feel for what the metagame of the field is going to be (aka - what the publishers want.)  This makes it exciting and terrifying all at the same time.

"You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."
- Wayne Gretzky

Now hopefully you're not reading this and thinking that I'm going to choke, or that I'm going to sabotoge my chances to succeed because that isn't the case at all.  I'm just writing this more as a reminder to myself, as well as an assurance to anyone else out there who happens to be in a similar situation to remind them that they aren't alone.  Also, this is what you get for a blog post instead of me skipping a second week due to spending as much free time as I possibly can in preparation for this event.