For a while now I have been struggling to make progress with some of my game designs. I have plenty of ideas, and many prototypes, but when a particular design doesn’t quite cut (which is, on sober reflection, most of the time) it can be difficult to see the path ahead.
Gil Hova, a game designer from New Jersey whom I met in New York a couple of months ago, recently tweeted that one of his own designs wasn’t working, and that “it just doesn’t have that pop”. I thought at the time that this was a particularly eloquent and efficient description of a sophisticated problem. All I can say is: I know the feeling.
A game is not — cannot be — merely the sum of it parts. Take a box of components, a few mechanics, a little, or a lot, of theme; add some choice, or some chance, or mix the two to your pleasing; throw in a helping of tactics, or maybe a slice of strategy. Shake, stew, blend, bake or even leave in a warm, dark place for a few hours covered with a damp tea-towel, and what have you got? Well, 9 times out of 10 — if not 99 times out of a 100 — you’ll get something that looks exactly like its constituent parts. Only more messy. Which is to say you’ve got something only a mother could love.
The only question that counts, of course, is to ask of the game: “Is it fun?”
“Is it fun?” (bellows the incredulous and imaginary designer). “Didn’t you notice how clever it was? Didn’t you stop to admire all these hand-picked, top-quality ingredients! Or marvel at my cunning for putting all of them together with such subtlety, novelty and elegance? Did no-one ever tell you that a definition of genius is the ability to connect the unconnected?”
“Yes, I noticed all of that” (whispers the patient, implacable and equally imaginary playtester). “I’m not an idiot — and you, I hope, are smarter than you look — but you have created an experience that I don’t enjoy. And this isn’t the first time. Did no-one ever tell you that a definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”
So I would say the following, principally because I think I need reminding: if a game isn’t fun then it isn’t much of a game. The point of creating it is to entertain, and not to demonstrate either the ingenuity of its construction or that of its designer.
Like I said, no-one eats cake to taste the flour.