(Start with parts one and two).
I don't consider myself a game designer because there are two things I haven't done which are central to game design: a) come up with an original game concept, and b) iterated on a design based on feedback from play testers. Game developer feels like a better fit, because I've taken an existing design and tweaked it, and I'm happy with being able to do this for High Frontier Interstellar because as a solitaire game I can be the sole play tester and be confident the game works.
Recruiting other play testers, especially for board games is a complex exercise and at the moment my 3rd edition Interstellar play testing components are a Frankenstein mess of the base game, 2nd edition expansion, a poster map ordered through Zazzle, a spreadsheet allowing substitution of unused 2nd edition cards for new 3rd edition cards, a hand drawn fuel strip, and a memorised list of changes to the poster map. Then I have to get other people to somehow play the game this way...
So instead of play tester feedback, I'm relying on intuition. And this leads me to a complex idea I want to explore here: that there are ideas that are somehow inherently better than others - in fact, it is possible to find the best possible solution to solve a design problem.
To be clear:- I'm not saying that the new edition of High Frontier Interstellar is the best possible game about crossing the unimaginably huge gulf between the stars. Instead, given the numerous small design problems I identified while playing, I attempted to find the 'local maxima' - the rule change that solved the problem with the minimum complexity and maximum thematic value. And it feels to me like I've been able to find these maxima - which makes me wonder why these exist at all.
To take a concrete example: in the 2nd edition, Biotechs could only perform two operations - and each operation was exclusive to one of the two possible starship configurations in the game (Beehive and non-Beehive). Biotechs ended up feeling not very 'Biotech'-like - they lacked thematic punch and flexibility.
I experimented with modifying the Biotech promote ability to allow them to (only) promote cards in the vats:- which ended up both too powerful and less interesting (it trivialized avoiding Alzheimer's). But this solution remained in my variant because it was the best I could up with, but ultimately unsatisfactory.
I needed a better answer - something that fitted the idea of a powerful ability but with a significant drawback. And it's the process of finding that answer that intrigues me.
During the hectic 'week of development' that resulted in 90% of the changes to the game (between the 2nd edition & variant rules to 3rd edition that emerged), I typically would confront each problem in sequence - either to develop a temporary patch (like the Biotech vat promotion idea) or to return to the problem plus temporary patch and find an ultimate solution. This would take roughly 20-30 minutes of examining the problem in my head, trying several other 'obvious' fixes and looking at why these wouldn't necessarily work. I'd end up focusing on one fix that I'd repeatedly try even as I'd forgot, then remembered why this fix wouldn't work. This would sometimes be followed by a sudden flash of insight which would reveal the 'local maxima' fix which would be somehow related to the solution I had fixated on, but addressed all the issues I'd thought about - if it was the first time I'd approached the problem, I would end up trailing off with the 'good enough for the moment' patch instead, and move onto another problem - perhaps documenting (via email or Google docs) why this solution was acceptable but didn't quite address the whole problem.
The next time I develop a project like this, I'm going to keep a developer diary to track this sequence more closely - because often the interval between the temporary fix and the ultimate solution would involve a period of sleep or exercise, where my unconscious mind would have the opportunity to chew the problem over before regurgitating the need to look at the problem again. I say that because the second time examining possible solutions would still need a period of reflection before finding the answer and it is not clear to me in retrospect whether this unconscious process was delivering the answer to me in a hidden form or simply giving me more ways of approaching the problem.
Not all problems took this form:- there is also a design process more akin to traditional brainstorming which feels like the unstopping of a dam to let the reservoir fill up the contours of an empty valley downstream. This occurs when I'm working on more of a blue sky or blank slate design space: such as the Extended Operations expansion to Interstellar I may release at some point where I came up 3 new professions and new operations for each existing profession in a relatively short space of time. There's also what feels like a line by line editing process, which usually correlates to a literal line by line editing of the rules, where a rule is expanded on, clarified and tuned to handle all the cases that could eventuate while playing.
It's this 'line by line' edit process that is more likely to reveal problematic rules:- but also the most likely to create problematic rules in the first place. This is because this editing is local rather than holistic, so that errors can creep into the game where 1 section of the rules says one thing where another part of the rules is operating on a different set of assumptions.
As for the inspired rules that just feel right, I'm not even able to always completely articulate why they are the correct rule. Take the final solution to the Biotech issue:- I ended up leaving them unchanged from the 2nd edition except to give them a new operation Wet Nano Lab with the text ‘Discard a Graveyard card from the game to perform a Science or Engineer Op’.
I can't explain definitely why this is the best solution. It meets the criteria of powerful ability with a drawback, and the thematic crunchiness I was looking for. It has the great side effect of allowing a get out of jail operation from either of the two most powerful careers in the game, and the drawback is significant enough that it is going to be used sparingly except in desperation (the Graveyard is used as a resource counter to limit the number of children your starship may have). But why of all of the possible design space in the game, is this ability the right one? I can't answer that on any level other than instinct.
(And my all time favourite game design technique worked perfectly again: if you ever have an equation that sort of does what you want, but isn't working, reverse the equality e.g < becomes >; or vice versa. Here it made fighting Hostile Goo a far more interesting proposition. I love it because it is so completely nonsensical but surprisingly effective).
In the next part, I want to talk about the multiplayer Interstellar game.
Friday, 26 June 2015
(Start with parts one and two).