09 May Game Design Lesson #1: Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Game Design
I’ve been looking back over my progress with Immersion RPG and its settings over the past 5 years, and whilst at first my reaction was, “What the hell was I doing for these 5 years?!” on second glance I realise just how much I’ve learnt. I figured some of this information may be useful for other up-and-coming game designers out there – so here goes!
Research is critical. It is also one of the things that I learnt last. I mean, I had already researched game mechanics exhaustively (which is super important – you don’t want to end up copying someone else out there, or reinventing the wheel), but what I had not researched was the community, other game designers, other types of games that were similar in theme, and so on. With Infected! I just sort of wrote it for fun, and then it was so popular with people who played it that they convinced me to make it into my first published setting. However, it would have saved me a lot of time and effort if I had researched the zombie field well before I wrote my second draft.
Funny enough, I only watched The Walking Dead a few months ago (I know, I know…), and then there are games like Day Z, The Last of Us and other movies and themes that are similar to my setting, which it would have saved me time if I had just looked into first.
Immerse yourself in your setting, topic and community (pun intended – we are Immersion RPG after all!).
This leads to…
2) Have a Unique Setting
This may seem obvious, but it is not as obvious as it may seem. There are lots and lots of games out there – how are you going to stand out of the crowd?
The thing is, it’s pretty hard to be totally unique. I mean, pretty much any setting that you think up will be similar to a dozen others out there. The trick is to make yours that little bit different. Make the flavour yours, change it up so that it’s not just another setting.
For instance, I noticed (fairly recently), as I was playtesting Infected!, that it seemed to be a pretty standard zombie apocalypse story. The Infected were a little different, but not very. And then the world was just totally gone…which smacked of, well, every single other story out there. It seemed kind of two-dimensional.
Further, I found it hard to characterise areas in the book for two reasons – one was that it didn’t seem very real to me, and that made it hard to commit to the story (for me, that takes a lot of interest out of it), and the second was that basically everyone was dead…so…who exactly was I going to characterise?
You may run into problems like this now and again. Don’t worry, just know that if you work at it enough, you’ll figure it out. Turns out, I had the perfect solution. I just really looked at how such a situation might unfold. I looked at history (the Black Death, Ebola, etc.), and found that even the worst viruses in human history have never been able to wipe everyone out overnight, even in the Middle Ages!
So I made the virus more realistic. It took longer for people to turn into Infected. Fewer of them would become the Infected (most would just die), and of course, it would takes months, if not years for the virus to wipe everyone out…if ever.
Boom. Now I had some serious interest. Imagine society slowly falling apart around you, month by month, until in many parts there was nothing left. Imagine living in a city that was tearing itself apart. Armed gangs, violent soldiers, police, walled districts that may or may not let you in, and areas where the Infected roamed at will. Imagine starvation dogging your steps so much that you might be willing to go through an Infected zone to reach a safe zone.
Now that’s different.
It’s still a zombie apocalypse, but it has a different slant. One that I haven’t really seen before, and one that gets me excited.
So, always make your setting unique, always change it so that it’s yours, and then learn how to tell people about it in one or two sentences.
This is a big one. I knew basically nothing about marketing before I began this. And I still have a long way to go, I’m sure.
Jamey Stegmaier from Stonemaier Games has a lot of information about what he uses for marketing. He’s even got this checklist. It’s good advice. I feel the same way – try to help others, write articles, make videos that are of interest to them. If they’re truly helpful, then people will be interested in what you do – it’s like karma.
Other things that I have done is gotten really nice artwork done. This is not cheap, but I have found that I have had zero impact trying to tell people about a setting with no art – whereas, when I show them, and have a killer setting behind that art, people are actually interested.
Stonemaier actually recommends being about 90% done on your work before you go to Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding platform, and I would second that. The reason I say this is because to get the most bang for your buck, you want everyone to be talking about you when you go for crowdfunding. One way to do that is to get lots of sites to review your stuff. But do you really want to send them a half-finished product? Even if you’ve got the artwork, you’ve got to have it put into the manuscript in a nice way, to show them that you’ve taken the time to get it all ready, that you’re organised, you’re committed, and that this is the real deal.
Basically, you want to inspire confidence. You will find yourself that you will have more confidence in a product that looks mostly done, as opposed to a product that is just words on a page, and maybe a few crayon drawings.
Make it look good, present it well, then broadcast the hell out of it to anyone who’s interested (but do so in a tasteful way – you don’t want to spam people, and you want to be of genuine help to those in the community. You can do this through the product you provide, but it depends on how you present it). See if bloggers would find it of interest to their clients to do reviews, interviews, articles, with you. People in the RPG community are usually really helpful, so just make sure you’ve got your product ready to go.
Of course, one caveat on that is that you don’t need to send them the whole book – after all, it won’t be ready yet until the Kickstarter is done. Instead, what I recommend at this point (and what I’m doing myself), is creating a very nice Sampler, with a teaser on the setting, some basic rules, sample characters and a simple adventure. That way, they can give it a crack for themselves.
This would have saved me a lot of time and effort if I had realised this from the start! And this leads to…
4) Learn Photoshop and InDesign
Okay, so they don’t have to be these exact programs. There are other free variants, but to be honest, these are the best – and do you really want to skimp on your tools? I sure as hell don’t.
I used GIMP (link) for a long time, and found it pretty good (though prone to crashing and losing all your work, so make sure you save regularly). The major stumbling block for GIMP is that there aren’t nearly as many free brushes. There are thousands of such brushes for Photoshop, all over the web. Also, Photoshop tends to be able to do things faster and easier than GIMP. Instead of three steps, it’s one.
InDesign I have found tough to learn, but seriously awesome. There are countless things you can do with it – from laying out your pages, to creating character sheets or even promotional sheets. Whatever really. It works fabulously with Photoshop, and I wish I’d learnt it about 3 years ago!
One of the really important things with InDesign is to get your basics in right. Make sure you check out tutorials on YouTube. A lot. You may think you’ve got things pegged, but in all likelihood you may not.
For example, make sure you use Paragraph Styles and Character Styles. Don’t use manual overrides. The reason for this is that if you have to change a style (like the size of a font), you don’t want to go through the entire book manually selecting and changing each goddamned paragraph. That would drive you insane. Instead, it can be changed with a couple of button clicks. So much easier. I just found out that I had made the text in the book too big. It was size 12 instead of size 9. So I changed it. This would have taken days of work, instead of minutes, if I didn’t have paragraph and character styles – and if I didn’t have them somewhat based off of each other.
I’ll be putting up some tutorials on InDesign and Photoshop as I learn more. I’m not an expert, but it can be helpful to show new users the traps that new users fall into!
There are tonnes of things to learn, so make sure you get yourself really familiar with your tools. These are your bread and butter. You really need them to make your product professional.
Alternatively, you could hire someone to do it, but I’m a perfectionist, and I don’t have gazillions of dollars. I find that I can do a better job, cheaper and faster, now that I’m familiar with my tools (though I did try the professional route…it cost me a whole bunch of money, looked poor and I ended up doing it myself anyway).
5) Learn About Websites
I have found this really important. You don’t necessarily have to learn enough to make your own website, but you should learn enough to manage it. For me, that’s WordPress, but there are many different types, and really, the amount you have to learn is pretty immense. So get started now!
It helps to find a good web designer, who will then be willing to teach you how to manage your site after you’ve got it set up.
And speaking of which, make sure you have a really good website. Use images to communicate your setting. Use that art that you’ve invested in! It’s worth it. Having a poor website will cost you in the long run. How else are people going to know about your setting?
Another important thing is to know a bit about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). Now, there are heaps of people that will tell you that if you pay them a sum every month they’ll get you to the top of Google for a particular keyword (like “RPG”, for example).
I would not recommend that you do that.
However, I would recommend that you learn to name your images with keywords, and possibly articles, heading, and so on. You want to be pretty judicious in your use of keywords in articles. I basically ignore that these days in favour of good content – because it irritates the hell out of me when people make an articles that just sounds like a whole bunch of keywords strung together. Grr!
If you do it correctly, when people search for your product, they’ll come up with lots of pics and articles of your game. That’s also why it’s so good to get reviews and articles by other people. They link to your site, and give you way more relevance and importance.
Check it out yourself – search for something like Fragged Empire (a new Indie RPG), and you’ll find dozens of articles. However, if you search for Infected RPG you will probably find Minecraft games at this stage (because I have yet to get all those articles and reviews). However, if you check the Images search results, chances are you will find a whole bunch of images from my Infected RPG site.
Don’t worry so much about backlinks. Some people talk about backlinks being all-powerful and amazing. They’re not really all that important. It’s more important to follow good SEO practice, name your pics and articles properly, and then get others to talk about you…whilst always remembering that your number 1 priority is to help others out there!
These are some of the things I wish I’d know earlier. I hope they help you!
~ Oliver R. Shead
Check out my upcoming game Infected! a zombie RPG of horror, suspense and survival.
When the world falls, will you try to save it, or help it burn?