Jan 18, 2006

It's as real as my skull and it does exist

Sorry about the delay in posting. I just crashed when I finally got home and then had computer problems today.

I arrived at the office at 9:20 am yesterday. I spot my contact, from here on known as X, and he ushers me into a conference room and goes to get another person, Y, at the company. I laid out my prototype and set up my laptop. When they come in, I gave X the signed submissions agreement I'd been e-mailed in advance. I asked them what they would like to know and was told to just say what I wanted. I had been hoping to start off with a question-and-answer session, so that I could gauge what concerns were biggest with them. Did they just want to hear the rules? Did they want to focus on the marketing aspects? Did they want information about my playtests with it? I took and breath and decided to just go through it all and try to watch for visual clues that I should expand on a topic.

I began by talking about how I was inspired to try to create this game. I felt that their current use of the license was incomplete and that when looking at how it was used in video games, it was clear that half of the property was currently being ignored in a way by their current product. I said that current attempts to do this type of game with the license were either unsatisfyingly simple or maddeningly complex.

I tried to gingerly mention the fact that their current product's attempt to incorporate this aspect came off as very shallow. This was a tricky area to tread because one of the original designers of that game was sitting across from me. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for this guy and I think the game they make is great. It is impossible to ignore this one weakness of it though. I'm certain I wasn't telling him anything he wasn't aware of.

Finally I mentioned what my design goals for the game were and began to list how the mechanics met those goals. I went through the basic concept of the game. Next I laid out the phases of the round. Then I explained how the order cards worked and that the order cards and special effect cards would be fixed with each ship. I showed them what all the numbers meant and how they were strategically important. I went through how firing of weapons was resolved and how the different numbers on the cards affected it. At this point X said they should play a game.

In the interest of not worrying about balance I gave them both a copy of the same ship. This would turn out to be a mistake. In the interest of time I also gave them the smallest (and hardest to hit) ship. This would turn out to be a bigger mistake. The reason the first decision was a mistake was that in worrying about making sure one of them was not overmatched and exposing a potential balancing issue I neglected to worry about a much more frightening possibility: boredom. An asymmetric battle, even if it was slightly unfair to one of them, would have showcased the possibilities with respect to diversity of play and expandability after the initial edition. The reason the second decision was a mistake was that in wanting to make sure the game would end fast by having a ship with a low threshold for damage I forgot that one of the ways I balanced the smaller ship was by making it hard to hit. These errors on my part would play out in their game.

Y insisted that his copy was a specific version of that ship from the franchise, as he refused to captain the other.

So the game began, and they immediately set about playing without a need for rules rehashing. At first I was surprised. Every time I teach someone the rules of a new game (mine or otherwise) they always forget the first part by the time we get to the end part. Then I realized that obviously they would be quicker to pick up on it; they did this sort of thing for a living and are accustomed to quickly processing and memorizing rules. I went around to their side of the table to watch them choose the order cards and make sure they understood what they were doing. They did need a reminder of what the special effect cards did, but other than that they were fine. After they chose their cards and revealed the first I realized that I had neglected to remind them of something that EVERYONE has forgotten the first time they played the game. I told them to check the costs of the cards to make sure that they did not exceed their respective limits. After looking at them for a few seconds X said, "I'm fine," and Y said, "I'm not even close," and laughed.

I was glad to hear that laugh even though it was in response to a mistake. It meant that Y was in a relatively lighthearted mood and not suffering from early-morning disconnectedness. So, they played out the first round and the only issue was they each used one card when they meant to use a similar card because I had not adequately reinforced the difference between them. They each just got the intended card when it came up and we moved on. I explained some of the special rules (healing, for example) when time came for them to be put to use.

I feel this is really the best way to teach a game. Start with a complete run through of the most important actions that must be taken, then add in the conditional actions when it is necessary to implement them.

Anyway, another good sign came when they crashed into each other. I explained what happened when ships rammed, and at that point they started making jokes during the course of the game in the form of stories. For example, Y said something like, "[character] is drunk at the wheel," when the ships collided. This continued during the game, with them relating the game state to the franchise's real storylines in humorous ways. I was extremely optimistic at this point, as games are first and foremost about having fun. Even if the humor was not directly created by the mechanics, it created a positive mood that likely tilted their mental evaluations of the game in my favor. The worst sign of a game evaluation is silence. I learned this while working as a volunteer at conventions and demoing games. I could always tell the likelihood of purchase before the demo was even halfway through. The mathematician in me would now say that purchase probability was a function of words spoken by the demoee during the game. Luckily he's not in control of my brain right

P(purchase) = f(w,t,ds,ms) = (k*words*(1/time)*((demoee's score) - (my score))+c)/100

Damn, spoke too soon. So, the game continued with almost no interference from me. In fact, I became conscious of the fact that I was awkwardly silent so I explained the possibilities for diversity in ship design that were not necessarily evident because their ships were identical. I specified ways that the game could implement different factions within the universe. I also came up with examples that could change the scale of the game from tactical to strategic with only minor special scenario rules. I even came up on the spot with a way to make it possible to play the game single-player, something that had unfortunately never occurred to me before that moment. I'm actually quite impressed that my design allowed for such a thing. Single-player games basically have to be designed that way and I've never found one with much replay value. I'm sure there are some out there, but they haven't come across my radar screen. My point in all of this was to show the possibilities that the core mechanics came with.

I also told some stories of playtest games that were particularly remarkable and talked about the diversity of my testers in taste, experience, and age and their overwhelmingly positive response to it. I emphasized that even those who hated the license and its genre still liked the game a lot.

At a certain point (just as I felt the game was coming to a head, unfortunately), Y said "Alright, we've got the idea." This was disheartening. You usually want to see a person finish a game. They'd played it for awhile, but if I'd chosen different ships it probably would have been closer to a natural finish. X was somewhat ahead at this point. So he claimed that Y wanted to quit because he was losing. At this point Y boasted that he would have made a stunning comeback that would have perpetually shamed X and have been known as "X's-folly". I perked up at that point. It showed that even though they didn't come to a natural finish, they had internalized some level of personal investment in the outcome. This may just have been a symptom of a friendly personal rivalry that manifests itself at any opportunity, but it's still a better sign than complete detachment from the outcome of the game.

At this point I talked more about the marketing of the game, focusing mostly on the miniatures market this time and contrasting it to the current crop of miniatures games by aligning them all along a spectrum of unit complexity and dropping my game at the upper, unoccupied end of that spectrum. I also pointed out the large number of board gamers who are venomously opposed to playing a CCG because of the perceived cost but are still willing to spend significant amounts on board games and how my design could be marketed to them.

Lastly I turned back to the future of my design and how easily I've been able to express the different eccentricities of the franchise with relatively few rules. For a bit they talked amongst themselves about how you could do this or that and pointed out to each other opportunities for design. I took this as the bright spot in the presentation. By engaging each other instead of just questioning me it meant that they were actually thinking about the game and not just getting ready to shove my unwanted ass out the back door.

We then spent a few minutes talking about other matters than my game. Things like trade shows and other designers they'd seen. It was a very casual conversation that made me feel quite comfortable. Finally we wrapped it up and they said that they would be discussing it with the other people at the company and that if I had any questions or needed anything from them I should feel free to call.

As I was leaving I asked what kind of time frame I should expect a response in, making sure to note that I was not in any rush, just that waiting was an excruciating process. X said he knew what I was talking about, and that I should expect an answer in a couple of weeks.

I figure that I'll wait until the second week of February before assuming that they don't care about it. At that point I will explore some suggestions of options that some friends of mine gave me for this design. In the meantime, I have other designs to show off to publishers at Dreamation and Prezcon in mid-February that I will spend time polishing.

I will be at Dreamation starting tomorrow. I don't know what time the halls open / tournaments begin, so I'll just try to show up around 10am and if they're still closed get some brunch. Hopefully the hotel it is being held in has wi-fi. If so, I will make periodic posts during the day.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, they posted a schedule and it doesn't start until 8 pm tonight for some reason. At least it will give me some extra time to work on my prototypes.