When it comes to game design – your players shouldn’t have to “will” themselves to suspend their own disbelief – they should do so willingly and without realizing it.
So you like board games and want to design one. I have an idea for you – it’s a super popular game, I mean – really popular. I think thousands – no, millions of people will love it. Oh – and there’s a few specifics: (1) the rules fill an entire book, which is hard to find and you have to buy, (2) most of the people who play have no control over whether or not their team wins or loses, and (3) over 95% of those who play lose each time it’s played.
Sounds like a crappy game? Maybe – but it also describes almost any one of the 4 major professional sports (or either of the major collegiate sports: football & basketball) in the US. Millions of people ‘play’ these games – no, not just the pro’s who perform on the field. They are the literal competitors, but the thousands in the stands and the millions watching at home are playing as well. They know the rules, follow the games, spend money and time on apparel, tickets and consuming news, video and other media about their teams. These fans are playing a game just as much as someone who bought a copy of Settlers of Catan or Monopoly (or, likely, a whole lot more – especially if they participate in fantasy sports).
Despite this dedication – the vast majority of these sports fans will not experience a championship this season, and a good many of them won’t even experience anything remotely close to a ‘winning’ season. In fact, many sports fans endure losing seasons year after year. For many teams – including many of those competing currently in the 2015 NCAA Mens & Women’s Basketball tournaments – they play (or cheer) for small schools without the talent or resources to ever expect to compete with the larger schools. Their biggest opportunity is to get luck and get a 16 seed in the tournament, where they will inevitably lose to a major basketball powerhouse like Kentucky, Duke or Kansas.
Yet – despite all these factors that would clearly make for a horrid ‘eurogame,’ fans of sports are rabid, loyal and keep coming back… why?
The answer is simple – sports teams are incredibly good at getting fans invested; at making them feel ownership in the team. Sports franchises has strong, geographic ties to specific cities – some even create mascots to tie to the city’s history or industry (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Boston Celtics come to mind). Some (collegiate programs) are associated with a specific university and alumni/student base. Teams have fight songs, colors, chants & cheers, paraphrenelia, honor rolls of famous players, a rich lore of great plays and big games across history.
In other words – sports franchises create an incredibly rich and inviting story for fans (players) to immerse themselves in. Being invested in a powerful story means you do not need to convince yourself to care – you don’t make a judgement call about whether your team might win this year or this weekend. You’re emotionally bought in – you want to believe, to be part of something bigger than yourself.
When designing games – capturing and nurturing an emotional story that welcomes your players in is critical to your game’s design.
The beauty of the eurogame revolution is the focus on exceptional gameplay. Eurogames ensure all players survive from beginning to end (there is no player elimination), the game has a shallow ‘slippery slope’ (everyone has a chance to win until the very end) and there’s no kingmaker situations (where one player who has been eliminated from contention can enable another player to win). Yet – one of pitfalls of this relentless, almost mathematical, focus on balance and competitive play is creating is a game that feels sterile and mechanical – a game you don’t feel a connection to.
Well crafted & original artwork, a well-written manual and a unique proposition for your game aren’t just ‘window dressing,’ they help build a rich story and emotional reaction for your players. That connection makes your players want to care, to compete, to stick it out and learn more about your game. Writers talk about “willing suspension of disbelief” – getting readers to accept the story being presented without consciously thinking about and questioning it. A well-crafted game shouldn’t have to ‘will’ players to suspend disbelief, it should be so compelling players suspend their disbelief without even thinking about it – they jump right into the game, the character they’re playing and the world the game is set in.
How do you get players invested?’
- Let your passion show through! – whatever you find really interesting, unique or fascinating should be the focus of your game. Others may question if such a niche topic might be able to attract a broad audience – but let me tell you: a niche themed game with a compelling story will attract a much broader audience than a broadly appealing theme. Think about it – there are way too many world-war 2 themed board games already!
- Work on telling a great story – don’t let the theme & backstory of your game fall to the background of your design process. Put time & effort into making everything about your game purposeful. The artwork should say something and add to the theme: a game about a gritty detective might go to the next level with some unique, film noir style artwork… but a cartoony & cheeky artwork might clash and make it harder for your players to dig into the game.
- TAKE YOURSELF SERIOUSLY! Have you ever seen someone go on stage to perform something who wasn’t confident in themselves? It’s painfully obvious – the way the hedge all their lines – they look uncomfortable, like the want to sink through the floor. Such people are struggling from stage freight – they’re afraid of looking silly. What they don’t realize is they look much worse being timid & uncomfortable than they could ever look by just being themselves – no matter how silly/zany they think they might be. Designing is the same way – if you do not have confidence in your ideas, it will show through immediately in the game design & playtest. Your ideas aren’t silly, or dorky or nerdy or anything like that. They’re good ideas – be proud of them!
So what’s your story? What adventure are you taking your players on?