Updated: Nov 26, 2018
Hello! My name is Aislyn and I hate fun. I also made Ivion. For the context of this article, your background knowledge of where I'm coming from need only be that I simply despise imbuing the game I made with any sort of fun at all. Got it? Good.
Now, I'm not very good at game design. Not surprising, considering what was stated above. Unfortunately, I have some bad news—I'm probably a better game designer than you. If I'm bad at it, this may be disturbing information, but fear not! I can help make you better. You must simply kill some babies.
Aside from doing it as a hobby, it has a purpose in game design. One that's often a hard to swallow pill. The thing is, most of your ideas are bad. Most of my ideas are bad. Almost any idea ever is bad. It may sound good on paper, but it'll probably be bad. If it sounds bad on paper, it will be a horrible.
While I'm working on Ivion, 9 out of 10 card ideas are shot down before they even get tested. Then, 9 out of 10 cards tested are deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons. After that, 9 out of 10 cards get edited while balancing. 9 out of 10... then another 9 out of 10... then another 9 out of 10! Almost every idea can't withstand the unforgiving crucible that we call play testing. Does that statistic make me a bad designer?
Other things make me a bad designer, but I'm not here to tell you about that. The point is that 9 out of 10 ideas you have are going to be bad. Even if you're the best designer in the world, this is the case. You're never going to get it right in the first try. And that's okay. It's normal! If you're having trouble making something fun and interesting, that's good. That means you're testing, which means you're making progress towards finding that 1 in 1,000 concept that will become a product.
Gary may have the best concept for a game ever, but it doesn't matter. If you took a crappy idea and made a prototype, you're miles ahead of him. You're working on creating something real. The worst product is better than the best concept.
When I first started working on Ivion, it was a cheap Hearthstone knock-off. There was a flicker of a soul in the game with some decks focusing on your character instead of creatures. That was the first 1 in 10. We iterated. Once it focused on characters dueling, we added a board. It started as a weird, side-scrolling 1 by 7 movement system. It didn't work. We added Control, creating a much needed replacement of depth to the creature system. The next 1 in 10. The floodgates opened. This is ignoring the dozens of ideas that floundered amidst a sea of uncertainty that lasted for months.
This isn't an uncommon story. The games you see that look and feel perfect were carefully crafted over a marathon of iterations. How did they do it? They killed their babies.
Fun is subjective. It's also too easy to see your creation through a clouded lens, especially if it is untested. You may construct a vision in your mind, blueprint it on paper, scuff the dirt from your hands and think to yourself, job well done.
I fall victim to this too much. None of it matters until it's out in the wild. You've raised your perfect child away from the jungle, pampering it. It's so beautiful, sweet and innocent. You'll guard it with your life. But if you don't let it talk to other kids, play in the dirt and suffer some harm, it's going to be maladjusted. And... well, somewhat unsimilar to real life, chances are, when it goes outside to play, a boar will knock it off its tiny feet and then eat it. Ouch.
But then you make another baby because that one sucked anyways. And you have to keep making those babies and letting them die—you have to let other people tear into your ideas. You have to let strangers say mean things that you might not agree with, the jerks. They're going to find flaws that you couldn't see that must be addressed to make it presentable. And you have to be okay with that to improve.
You may have already known that, but here's the thing that a lot of folks get stuck on. Being told your idea is bad isn't the end. It's the beginning! If you've been convinced that your concept isn't up to snuff, that's your opportunity to dissect it. What was cool about it? What made it exciting to you? How do you distill that? What was holding it back? Finding the flaws will lead you to new insights on what was hyping you up about it, and what was weight to be shed. Once the idea has been cast out and your dreams crushed is the time to strike while the anvil is hot. In that damning fire is where the iron will be shaped into the sword it was meant to be. Woo-hoo, literary devices!
For some additional context, we just finalized the Calbria design alpha and sent it off for balancing this Thanksgiving weekend. It has been a long voyage where so many ideas have gone through the flame and melted in the heat. Its final form has a lot of diamonds because we stuck with it, not because we're good designers. We tested for hundreds of hours, oftentimes slogging through boring matches, faulty rules interactions and poorly synergized decks. It wasn't always fun or interesting. There are always times during this period where things seem insurmountable—like this could never be a product to show to the world. But this period is what separates someone who has an idea for a game from those who can call themselves designers.
In the early stages, it took us weeks to come up with one mechanic for one of the new Classes. There were multiple car rides where Aaron and I sat in silence for hours brainstorming ideas. I'd mention something and Aaron would shoot it down. He'd mention something and I'd shoot it down. The entire concept of the new Terrain type was called into question multiple times, and nearly reworked just as many times. Archetypes were constructed, torn down and built anew. Weeks were spent where nothing concocted saw the light of day. The same is happening for future content right now, and it kind of sucks! But it's necessary to find that 1 in 1,000.
If I had given up in Ivion's infancy, it could have stayed a beautiful concept in my mind. But we went through spooky fields of development where it was ugly for a time to make it beautiful in reality, which, I can attest, is a lot more cool than the former.
Given all of this, let's focus on the main points.
Don't get attached to your ideas. They're bad. It's easy to think the world of something you've spent a lot of time preparing. Don't evaluate how fun, cool or interesting something might be before you actually try it with someone who won't immediately tell you they liked it.
Show others your ideas, and listen. You may not agree with their finer points, but how game play made someone feel is always relevant information. They may have a 'stupid' reason why they think something isn't fun, but ultimately, that isn't the point. The point is that they didn't think it was fun. That's what matters.
Make failure the catalyst of change, not surrender. It can be disheartening to have spent so much time on a concept to ultimately find it wanting. That sense of failure is what may keep you in denial. To detach yourself from your ideas will equip you with the tools to shape them into something more.
Kill all the babies! Well, not all of them. 999 out of every 1,000. You get the idea. Now get out there and kill 'em, baby-killer! Let the chosen baby rise from the ashes!