Games Design - Going back to the beginning

Posted by: Pooka On: Aug 31st 2010

After a playtest last evening of the game I have been developing for a very long time, I've decided to scrap most of the mechanics, again, and start at the beginning. This is an incredibly difficult thing for me to do, as I imagine it is for anyone who becomes wedded to an idea, or a system, or whatever. Rather than being utterly discouraged by it (as I was with the last time I went back to square one), I'm trying to view it in a positive light and use this as further impetus to really put in the work and bust my ass to make this game what I want it to be.

So, here's what I'm hoping designers here can share with me - when has going back to the beginning been good for your design process? Is it ever, or often, a good thing? What should I try to keep in mind while I do it?

Posted by: James Mullen On: Aug 31st 2010 edited

The main thing is, why are you going back to the beginning? What had you missed out in the design process the first time around? Identify that and make it your starting point. For example, were you not clear on what the characters did in the game? Or what the GM did? Or how the mechanics supported the premise/theme of the game?

Starting from scratch is hard because you have to ditch so many preconceptions about what your game 'should' be about or what 'should' be in it; perhaps if you shared a little bit more detail, it would be easier to give you specific advice?

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Aug 31st 2010

I think Malcolm might have some insight on this from his work on Okhrana.

I wouldn't throw everything out without thinking hard about it BUT if that's what you have to do then you need to do it and not worry about it. When rebuilding if you see a perfect place an old mechanic will now work to serve your game's purpose then you can add it back in. No problem, because you're building up from a base again. (I think of it as building a ship.)

If you have a good vision of how your game should play then the mechanics need to serve that vision. If they don't then you have to bin them, no matter how hard that is (and we can have strange emotional ties to bits of our design!).

From my designs I've binned good mechanics a load of times (you can see the debris in my work-in-progress PDFs from the late 90s onwards on my website). I guess the clearest one to me is a game idea I had called Cluster, which was a SF role-playing game like Aliens, Leviathan, 40K, Dune and had a long weapon list with ranges, etc. It didn't really work for me, though, and lay fallow. Years later I wrote a SF RPG that scratched that itch "just right", it was called 3:16. It has zero of the mechanics of Cluster in it, but is it's child in so many ways.

3:16 also had the entire conflict mechanics junked between the 24-hr version and the published version. I stuck to them all the way through a single playtest and was then thoroughly convinced that they had to go (and it was the right call!). I did keep other bits of the game pretty much unchanged though (Flashbacks, setting) and jacked other bits up considerably (ranks, TPK bombs, planet generation).

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Sep 1st 2010

Gregor is entirely right about Okhrana. It was actually Gregor who commented that perhaps I should think about Okhrana in terms of a Cold City/Hot War-esque game rather than the Contenders/My Life With Master-esque game that it originally was.

The mechanics as they were enabled you to create a story. But they weren't satisfactory, the weren't meaty, they didn't really make the game about what I wanted it to be about: emigre political radicals being chased around Paris by the shadowing forces of the Czarist secret police. Gregor's comment made me realise that, yes, having essentially discarded the game because the mechanics were unsatisfactory, I could regain my enthusiasm for it AND make it workable by junking everything apart from the setting elements.

It was also a point of realisation that, unlike many other designers out there, the mechanical parts of a game are not my strong suit. yes, I can design mechanics and yes, I can create exciting, workable game systems. But I'm so much less intuitive and skilled than, for example, Gregor and Joe. But, in terms of the CC/HW games, I do have a workable core that is appropriate to that type of game. So why not use it for something similar? And by 'use it', I mean 'use it as a platform on which to build', rather than 'port it over wholesale'.

So, in my case, junking all of the existing mechanics actually put me in a much happier place, one where I was re-energised about the game itself.

I do realise this is more of a 'here is my story' post than anything that might be tangibly useful to your situation. But, it hopefully shows that we've all been through this dilemma (and it is a dilemma!) and there is the very good chance that you will come out the other side with greater enthusiasm for you game, and a better game as a result.


Posted by: Pooka On: Sep 1st 2010

Thanks very much for the responses!

James, I'm not specifically looking for advice about my game, rather I'm looking for advice about the design process itself, I suppose. So Gregor and Malcolm's personal experiences are certainly useful. Going back to the beginning an incredibly difficult thing for me to do, as I rarely finish projects but have really been putting a hell of a lot of myself into this one. But the urge to have a fun game that does what I want it to do and feels like a complete embodiment of my vision is WAY more important than the satisfaction of finishing something, which I will hopefully achieve someday soon.

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