A Strategic Withdrawal
The period since I wrote the last design diary has been difficult for me in terms of my life situation, but also in terms of development of All Systems Nominal.
I ran the game at GauntletCon as a one shot, and that began to reveal a lot of fundamental flaws with the design that I talked about in a vlog on my YouTube channel:
While the combat system was every bit as good as I thought, the character elements fell flat, despite a lot of spotlight management and eliciting questions on my part as the GM. This was a recurring problem with my earlier playtests, and suggested something needed to be done. I also found that I wasn’t driving the gritty point of the game home enough, and that was a result of a lack of clarity on what it was supposed to be about.
Digging into the design more and starting to write the GM materials for the game made me reflect on what I was trying to say with it, and that process forced me to start to outline some major changes I wanted to make. These feelings were only reinforced by reading Jack de Quidt’s excellent interview with Simon Stålenhag, which helped me think more deeply about the themes I wanted to express. I started to want the game to do the same thing for players it had forced me to do for myself. This meant writing a game that would help players to take a good long look at their attitude towards war and war machines. With some inspiration boosting my spirits I started to work on these revisions, but the workload of my day job, preparations for a big move, and commitments to other projects started to take priority, and I wasn’t able to keep up my writing.
Feedback from other playtests confirmed a lot of my instincts, but also brought to my attention how poorly formatted the text is, and how its original terseness continues to hurt it in terms of comprehension and ease of use. All these things were good to learn, but in my current state of exhaustion they were problems I could not address. The game needs a thorough tear down and reassembly, and that is beyond my current capacity to do.
After Action Reports
So what have I learned from half a year of work on the game? What would I do differently in the future?
Know Your Audience
The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was a notorious flop, partially because it diverged from what its audience expected and wanted. Design of D&D 5e started with, and was supported by an extensive process of market research and community feedback, a contributing factor to its massive success. Even for those of us without Hasbro’s marketing might backing us up, this is a valuable lesson to keep in mind. By running related games, asking questions, running surveys, and having discussions, you can get a sense for whether there is a match between your design intentions and your audiences’ desires and capacities. I put many dozens of hours into reviewing existing mecha games before writing All Systems Nominal, but I did not take the time to learn enough about my audience, and this lead to a lot of design pitfalls. In many ways it felt like repeating the infamous D&D 4e mistake. There is no such thing as perfect market research, but at least consider the effort it can save you down the line.
It’s also possible to write a game as a pure passion project, regardless of market research, and attract people with your passion for what you’re doing. Every game design has a core that is both conceptual and emotional, and if both aspects of this core are strong it can really hit. This is something deeper and more meaningful than player experience goals. It informs not only how play is structured but structures the process of writing itself. The design of All Systems Nominal was well ordered conceptually, but it lacked emotional strength, and this was evident in playtesting. A game is a technical construct, but it’s also a lot more than that, and a lack of emotional clarity in design can really sink a project. Staying in touch with the emotional core of your project means practicing self-care actively, and engaging in introspection about what you are feeling about your process and where that is leading you. Very often pursuit of formal design sophistication is a way of avoiding emotional honesty with the design process, and leads to a mediocre product. If you find your core slipping out of your grasp then pause, practice self-care, and try to understand why it is escaping you.
But ultimately if your game is going to be driven by your passion for its core, you still need to communicate that core to your audience. I began designing All Systems Nominal by trying to create a design scaffold similar to World of Dungeons that would allow players to express their own passion for the subject matter of mecha fiction. I subsequently learned that a successful game design in this space was going to need a lot more handholding than the scaffolding approach could provide. The text was not expressing enough to fire the imaginations of the players. That required me to revisit and redefine my fundamental design objectives, but the text of the game retained many traces of its original toolbox approach. If the core of your game changes, make sure its expression in the text changes to match. This is very hard work, which leads to my final point.
Avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy
Never think that the money and energy you have put into a game automatically justifies its further development. Only your engagement with the core of the design can justify continuing to work on the game. If that core changes, seriously consider whether continuing the project is doing you good, or if you ought to work on something else instead. It is easy enough to throw your hands up and start something else in order to escape feelings of frustration or inadequacy, but let yourself look past that and see if and how you still care about the core of the game.
I honestly believe that All Systems Nominal will one day be a good game, I can see something in it that I still care about, but I also know that I cannot engage with it at the level it needs right now. It is okay to accept both of those things and return to fight another day.
I hope that my thoughts in this diary will be of help in your own design process!