21 Dec Game Design Lessons #5: How Much Disclosure?
When you start making a game or book or product, one of the questions you will soon be faced with is How much disclosure? In other words, how much should you show people about your product? How much should you give away for free? How much should you tell fans or crowdfunding backers about the product in its design stages? What if you have a glitch? What if there are bugs? What if they take what you give away and then just head for the hills?
Well, from my own personal experience I have found that more disclosure is certainly better than less.
Should I Give My Rules For FREE?!
When I first started, I worried (like a lot of Indie Game Devs) that if I gave out my rules system then people would just use it and not want to buy the books. But that, honestly, is a silly concern. In actual fact what happened when I made it public was…absolutely nothing. Virtually no response whatsoever. Interesting, no?
Upon further research I discovered that it wasn’t a rules system that interested people, but a setting and a good presentation of that. There are dozens of rules systems out there. Just go and take your pick. Many of them are quite good. Chances are you’ll find something that works pretty well for what you want, and you won’t have to pay a bean for it. So the question rapidly becomes not, Will they take my rules and run? but instead, Why would they want my rules/game at all?
Particularly for Kickstarter projects, it is important that you prove to people that they will like your game and your system. Maybe when crowdfunding first took off you could get away with telling people something airy like, “I’ve got a great new 3d6-based RPG…” but now, people have been bitten more than a few times and have found that not all game creators will actually give them what they’re promising. And then there’s the matter of taste – maybe the game creator loves his system…but then again, he made it! If he doesn’t like it, no one will. Even if you have a fantastic game system, not everyone will like it, and it makes sense to give them the opportunity to find that out sooner rather than later.
So should you give your rules for free? Yes.
How much should you give? Well that’s up to you. For me, when I first created a display-book Sampler of Infected, I found that at first I gave only a hint of the rules because I didn’t want to bog people down in them, and a whole lot of setting…and then I had lots of people asking me what the rules were. So I put in some more. And still, people asked me questions about levelling up, healing, all sorts of questions that I had to constantly answer. So I gave almost all the rules…and then I found there were some problems. Combat was overly complex. People couldn’t understand the basic rolling mechanic. Disaster! You’d think this is exactly the sort of thing you don’t want to have happen…presenting a bad image, right? Actually, it was great.
The reason this was great was that it allowed me to get lots of viewpoints on the rules. It got lots of different angles, feedback, advice and even downright criticism. Sometimes this hurt, but it was a damn sight better than nothing. Nothing is your enemy. Obscurity is the last thing you want. Even if people are fighting and tearing you to bits about your rules at least they’ve seen them!
This will also help you to learn how to market your book properly. What sort of people are reading it? What do they like about it? What don’t they like? What did you get the best reactions on? This will likely help you tweak the setting too. In actual fact, for my Kickstarter on Infected, I was still tweaking the setting right up until the launch day. It was like digging for gold. I found that when I went the traditional route of, “Zombies, the end of the world, grey misery and paranoia!” there was only one loud, jaw-cracking yawn.
It also, frankly, felt cliche to me, and was hard to write about. Get that…hard to write about. It didn’t compel me. But, as I continued marketing it, I started changing it to a setting more like, “The Outbreak is over, the Infected are all-but wiped out, now is the chance for humanity to rebuild and recover.” It had evolved into a far more gritty, realistic setting, with a feudalistic post-apocalyptic theme…with zombies for some spice.
And I can thank disclosure for that one!
But there are other disasters you will have. Sending out the wrong file. Sending out something that has a major typo error, or has something totally wrong in it…this can all happen, and has happened to me many times. Is that disastrous…maybe. It doesn’t look good, and I hate it when it happens…but is it better to do nothing at all and wait for everything to be perfect? It will likely never be utterly perfect. I think you make it as good as you can, and every time you make a mistake you learn something new.
Will everyone remember all your mistakes in years to come? Well, if you keep improving your product and sending our better and better stuff, no they will likely not remember it. Or it just won’t matter. Because the new products will be that much more awesome that they will make up for it.
How Much Should You Tell People?
Tell them a lot. You obviously want to keep positive and not update them with problems without having worked out the solution (or at least be some way along with that solution), but don’t try to hide your flaws. That, actually, makes you look kinda sneaky. It’s a weird paradox: you want your product to be perfect, and look perfect, and so if there are some flaws or problems then you don’t want anyone to know about them…just brush them under the carpet mate, she’ll be right – or you don’t say anything at all. But that looks like you’re either a) stupid and unobservant, b) that you’re BSing, or c) like nothing is going on at all (there are no updates, you’re not saying anything…). Of them all, I really think that last one is the worst. You should say something regularly, so people know that you exist and are still doing your project.
For example, I recently had some problems with one of my artists. I was expecting him to get 10 pictures done (with backers illustrated in them) by about a month ago! So you can imagine my frustration that he is only halfway through that by now. It was proving tough to find other good quality artists who could get the job done at the price I could afford (not to mention the fact that I couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time looking for them – I was busy writing a book!). But then I found 2 artists. One I confirmed, and am so far very impressed with, and the other is coming along (I’m crossing my fingers) and I should hear back from shortly. All going well, I will have the images I need by the end of January, which will give me a few weeks to finalise the layout of the book, edit it, print it and ship it…phew!
So I told that to my backers. I also warned them that this may push back the delivery date. Which really, really bugs me. Sooo much. Particularly because I hate it when Kickstarter fulfillment is late. It’s just all too common.
But, I figure it’s better to tell people than not. Warn them ahead of time. Let them know exactly what is going on and why – and let them know that I haven’t gone to the Bahamas with their money.
The other thing I have done is consistently update the backers with the progress to date. I just recently sent them the full manuscript of the rules for Infected, fully updated and replete with examples and some fancy graphics… it’s not laid out, it’s not particularly pretty, there are typos, some of the text boxes might be in the wrong spot. But it shows them exactly where I’m up to, and lets them enjoy the product.
Will I lose anything from doing that? No. In fact, giving them the rules now lets them enjoy it and start to understand how to play it. Because that there is the biggest point of all. You need them to quickly and easily understand how to play, and why it would be fun, and what’s good about it, or they’ll go and play something else. Your rules may be the best in the world, your setting may be the most compelling and cool, but if they don’t get it, then they still won’t play it and they’ll never even know about your complex political structures and balanced rules system.
Tell people a lot.
I take my cue on this from Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games. If you are a game developer and you haven’t heard of him…well you should! Particularly if you want to do a Kickstarter. I have read hundreds of his lessons, and even gave him a thank you on my Kickstarter page because without his lessons I would not nearly have had as good a project. Jamey gives so much information. Check out his Kickstarter of Scythe (read the updates). In that he just gives everything. And because he gives so much, you trust him implicitly – because it’s all there for you. Case in point, he had a free download of his rules right on the Kickstarter page.
What do you think about disclosure? Just how transparent do you think game designers should be?