My eyes get a little worse every month. I have started trying to do things on paper that maybe I would have left online, would have left on my monitor. I even purchased an app recently that shuts my screen off every so many minutes. But it's still hard not to close that app and keep working.
I went through the trouble to buy the fancy timer app because my old alarm would only make a pleasant sound every twenty minutes, an unimposing tolling bell that was intended as a cue for break time. But before I avert my eyes from this tiring refresh rate, let me take 20 seconds to check Facebook and Twitter. Several minutes later… Dammit, I didn't even rest my eyes, and now I need to get back to work.
Working on paper has pushed me to mess with art styles a bit more. I am working on art that feels totally different than what I do in Photoshop. Don't get me wrong, I really do enjoy the style us game artists have all developed. You know the one, with shade/base/highlight painting. But man, we all do it. Look at most every painterly sprite or texture, and tell me we aren't all following the same Photoshop formula.
I have been designing a physical board game to pull me away from the pixels, and I highly (HIGHLY) recommend you all try it as an exercise in hanging out with friends and learning how valuable iteration is.
One of the positives about physical work is the commitment it requires. I purchased a pirate board game five years ago by the name of Dread Pirate (no relation to Princess Bride) for really cheap. The game was unremarkable, but the production level was awesome. Pewter ships, little gold doubloons, a cloth map. It inspired me to make my own pirate board game.
Earlier this year, after Waking Mars shipped, (you purchased the latest Humble Bundle, right!?) I started designing my own pirate board game. I cannibalized the Dread Pirate pieces and set out to make a game where you actually feel like a pirate. The original Dread Pirate game centers on collecting all the jewels from various ports on the board and ocean battles of simple dice rolls to steal another pirate's treasure. But a pirate needs to do more than move and shoot. You want swords and cannons, and somewhere out there a governor's daughter to steal away to be your wench. I wanted to be a scurvy dog!
Rather than sitting in front of a computer, blasting my retinas with Unity, I spent a Sunday afternoon laying out in a Berkeley park watching dogs fetch things while I pondered pirates. I came up with a design I liked, hinged upon the concept of gaining Infamy points (rather than board games' traditional Victory Points).
I took my prototype to a local indie meetup, and listened to them tear it apart after five minutes of play. Next week I returned with another pass on the game. This time the criticism seemed to appear even more quickly. Mind you it wasn't harsh, it was constructive, filled with ideas, but it was so thorough it killed my motivation.
I went back to just making video games for a few months, until my pal Tim Keenan finished his game "A Virus Named TOM". He showed up at a get-together shortly after release with a board game of his own. The excitement of his physical game, the wacky humor he laced into many of his game cards, the personality of his idea, it revived my non-digital mind.
The other thing was, for the most part, criticism was held off while we played Tim's game.
Make your projects personal and don't take criticism too early.
So I had done two major iterations, and I needed to try a whole new angle. I had no idea if another iteration would be fun for anyone, but I spent time completely redesigning the game, really trying to strip it down to essentials, and then I took the prototype to another meetup. Suddenly things started to work. Mechanics began clicking. It wasn't really fun or strategic yet, but there was a kernel of hope!
Personalize things when and where you can.
I spent a couple hours drawing a pretty game board. People cared more once the board was a pretty map of jungle islands instead of a grid of "potatoes". The world was more real. You could bury your treasure where there was an X. I'll be adding names to things soon.
One of the things I've learned both with Tiger Style and independently is how important the creative/conceptual framework of your mechanics are, regardless of the amount of content. Creative content in support of mechanics is critical for almost any game. The bears in Triple Town are an important element to maintaining my interest in that strange match-3 gameworld. Their next game, Leap Day, also has me excited with its combination of deep mechanics with some super cute characters acting out those mechanics. I don't even have to go into how critical Randy Smith's story and world designs have been to Spider and Waking Mars.
Learning who you are
There was this moment a couple weeks ago where I suddenly realized I was an extrovert. I feel stupid not knowing sooner, but when you're trying to be a creative soul, you start to place yourself into positions that you think are correct, without always good reason. I liked being alone, I thought, therefore: introvert. But it's not so simple, we all like alone-time, just like we all need the company of others at other times. No one is a pure introvert, extrovert, a pure anything. Plato's ideals are only that.
Sure, I have some introvert tendencies, but I also rely on others and I need to socialize to refresh my feelings. That discovery has helped my game's development. I need people to play my game. I want them to play my game. I want them to show me exciting games that put mine to shame. One could argue that a board game is merely coming from my extrovert side and is representative of a need to create a game built on socializing. But even beyond this board game, what I have come to recognize recently is that I, personally, want to hear from people about their thoughts and reactions to my work because I am inspired by them. Their responses to life, to my work, to anything, motivate me.
I think it's very important that we try to understand ourselves, and if something motivates you, then seize upon that. You only have so much energy, and it will slip through the cracks if you let it. What inspires you, and are you making an effort to be inspired?
What does a game mean? How does it reward?
The game has been tweaked and modified, and I'm still doing so every game. Every session I try a couple new things. I tweak mechanics I'm happy with just to see where that might lead.
I am currently working on whether game rewards should be explicit or implicit? The reward of a game should be playing, right? The playing should be fun, so it seems strange to reward a person for playing. But a competitive game is founded upon better play than an opponent, and so that has to be measured somehow. But do I want to reward you for attacking an opponent? Isn't that just the fun of being a pirate? You win, you survive, so why should I reward you for surviving? Your reward lies in taking advantage of being alive longer.
...I'm still working on rewards.
The paper path
My board game is personal and physical. Every time I spend the time to make a new iteration, it feels ever more tangible and solid. I don't redraw every single line on the game board twenty times, the paper can't handle that. I draw new maps, starting from scratch with a fuller knowledge of my previous effort. Sitting on my computer, I can point you to folders and folders of drawings I started, blogs I began but didn't finish, game levels that are a few orange boxes leading up to a half-textured veranda. The same certainly could be said for my sketchbook, and yet my sketchbook is more finite than my Documents directory. I feel something akin to completeness when I fill up a sketchbook. When I stop writing a poem in my notebook, I have less space to work with. I feel further.
Drawing stuff on paper, making a board game as a hobby, hand-crafting things for my apartment, it feels more right than fighting the ever more persistent digital reality in front of me. I love my CPUs, my Mac laptop, my gaming PC, my iPad, my consoles, my iPod, but I sometimes feel the fickle ethereal nothingness of my digital creations and wonder if anything I make for these devices will have any chance of surviving fifty years from now. Will all of my digital games be trapped on ancient disc drives, bits slowly eroding, or will they still be able to enchant and offer wonder to future generations?
Randy is an indie developer who helped make Waking Mars with Tiger Style Games which is totally available on PC/Mac/Linux/Android AND iOS (so everything).
He also made Dead End, an iOS game, which you should totally buy for two dollars!
You can also follow his ramblings on twitter, like him on Facebook, go to his deviantArt, or I dunno. Oh, yeah, he also has an "about.me", which means nothing, but he figured it's all publicity, right? Uh, what else? Um, some poetry, too?