This has come up a few times over the past months, and I thought it would make a neat post. As co-owner and game designer with Masquerade Games, I love designing games and helping other designers playtest, tweak, and perfect their designs. I’ve often been struck with how similar the mindset is for designing a game and working on my first full-length novel. (My novel is ‘written’, but is in editing purgatory for the forseeable future)
Here’s a few aspects of the creative process that I’ve found to be common to both:
Plotting out a board game is a mess of brainstorming. I might start with theme (I want to make a game about pirates) – or I might start with some mechanics (I want to make a worker-placement deck-building game). Either way I throw lots of ideas on a sheet of paper and make connections until an idea takes form.
Writing my novel was very similar. I started with an idea (I want to write a sci-fi book that mixes my love of post-apocalyptic rebuilding, Michael Crichton-style mis-application of science stories, and eastern philosophy). From this idea I started formulating characters, plots, and eventually I developed a framework for a core plot line that fleshed out the idea.
The process for both was very similar, with plenty of pictures, thought bubbles, arrows, and such filling the pages. The ideas take lots of refinement.
- Finding The Heart
This was a subtle similarity at first. With game design, often after fleshing out the idea you start to make a mock-up. A prototype that you can mess around with to see how your ideas actually work. The first drafts usually never leave the “lab”, but it allows you to see what the idea is capable of. It’s often during the prototype stage where you “find the fun” in the idea, and then all your tweaking goes into maximizing that fun, and trimming things that pull away from it.
Writing’s been very much the same thing. However, “find the fun” often turns into “find the message”. What do I really want to say with my story? I had to write my entire novel twice before I figured out that my story is better served by focusing more on the characters. The story is as much as story about my leads’ anxiety and how he is changed by his invention, as much as it is a story about how the world at large gets changed by it.
Often times in both creative fields, the result of all your brainstorming and prototypes looks drastically different than the final product. Plenty of ideas get abandoned at this stage, especially when they end up so far from your original vision that you lose incentive to keep going. (I’ve got a closet full of old prototypes to prove it).
- Get Help
I’m very fortunate to be a member of an amazing group of game designers. The New York City Board Game Designers Group has been an incredible resource of networking, friendships, advice, and playtesting. It’s an opportunity to give my expertise to other people, and to get outside influence on my own designs. Designing games in a vacuum does not work! I do get additional opportunities to network (METATOPIA being a perfect example) Of all the benefits to being part of multiple design groups, its the networking and support that mean the most. Often times the encouragement to try something completely different or uncomfortable results in incredible progress and evolution for your ideas. In this way, games take on an identity and “fingerprint” much larger than your own – and this almost always makes for a better game.
And boy is this true in writing. If it wasn’t for my friends, beta-readers, and professional help I’ve received, I’d still be “tweaking” my first draft of the book. Looking back on it now, I’ve grown so much as a writer and as a person because of the insight and tools I’ve received. Having experts point our the flaws in your writing, technique/style, plot, characters, etc… does so much for you because you tend to be close to your work. Too close to see what doesn’t work. There’s so much in your own head about your plot and characters, the scenes in your head – and not all of it ever gets onto the page in such a way to give a reader the same vision. So I’ve learned that writing a book in a vacuum doesn’t work!
This bring up the next critical point:
- Learn how to take advice
First, an admission: I used to be very defensive about my work. When I started designing games, there was so much I didn’t know. Having people play your prototypes and say “I didn’t have fun” or “this doesn’t work” was like getting your heart ripped out and fed to the dog. Over time, you become better at your craft and make fewer dumb mistakes – but hopefully your ability to take criticism the right way also improves. You take the feedback and apply in where it is warranted, and throw out what might be overly opinionated or a huge departure from your vision for the game. Not all advice is created equal. Finding honest playtesters who respect the creative vision (like my NYC group) is always a huge bonus, and hang on to people like that at all costs!
Writing has been very similar. Realizing that what you wrote isn’t working was very painful at first. Even more so than a game since it takes a really long time to write fifty, sixty, seventy thousand words. My first draft of the novel was nearing 100,000 words before I realized it wasn’t working at all. Thanks to timely advice from beta readers, I decided to go back and re-write the whole damn thing. Keep in mind that I have a day job, and still design games, and have other side projects. So I was writing about 1,000 to 2,000 words about 5 days a week. That first draft had taken me almost 9 months to write..and I was effectively throwing it into a shredder.
But you know what? I had a thick skin from all my experience making board games. I learned that often those first throw-away prototypes help you hone your craft. They help you to “find the fun/message”. They help you realize how much better your creation can be. You don’t want to throw our the proverbial baby with the bathwater – except when you do. Making a lot of shitty board games was critical to me learning to not to get discouraged for making a thing 2,3,10,20 times before it works. Before game design, I don’t think I would have spent another whole year re-writing my book from scratch. And I’m so glad that I did.
- You’re Never Done. Except When You Are.
Game Design is so tricky. It’s often you can get a game to 90%, 95% – but you feel like its “missing something”. You tweak, you hone, but often times my game designs always feel like I could add more awesome to them. This is common among game designers. One important skill is to realize that a game will never be 100%. Even when you think its done, others will have opinions that will make you rethink your decisions.
But at some point you have to ship. You have to deliver.
Writing a book has been a similar experience. As of today, I’ve re-written the first chapter of my book over a dozen times. There is not a single sentence from the first draft that has escaped the wrath of editing. And I know that my latest draft is a far cry from the final manuscript. Your mindset is important here. I want my book to get better. I want my writing to get better. To not see revisions and deletions as failures and wasted time was the hardest lesson for me to learn. I hate to waste time, throw out old ideas. And if it wasn’t for all the practice I got doing it for board games, I would have quit as a writer long ago. As they say, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.
But at some point, I’m going to have to submit my novel to publishers. And that will probably mean giving them something even I think isn’t perfect. Otherwise I’ll be writing this book forever.
My last point is simple: I became a better game designer by playing lots of games. Lots of games. I set a goal every year to learn at least 50 new games, preferably many more than that. I want to play whatever I can get my hands on. Digital board gaming has made this even easier – so there’s no excuse. I see old mechanics used in new ways, new mechanics, games that I love, games that I hate, games others love and I don’t. When I learn a game I ask myself all sorts of questions: why does it work? where is the fun? how does the theme impact the mechanics?
Before designing games, I didn’t think like this. My perspective changed. I still have a blast playing games, and I love playing favorites at a very competitive level (currently ranked #21). But often when I’m playing a game I’m doing much more than focusing on my performance. I’m watching how others are interacting with the rules, the other players, where they are finding the fun. All of these things have made me a better designer.
Writing is not different. When I started writing a book, it’s no accident that the amount of books I read shot up. I also listen to a lot of audio books for when I go on long road trips or flights for work. (Thank you Audible!) But now instead of digesting just the words, I’m attuned to sentence structure, how a writer formulates dialogue. How do they describe complicated technology (I read/listen to a lot of sci-fi)? How do they introduce/describe characters? I’ve realized that there are definitive skills for looking deeper into something someone else created while I’m playing/reading/listening to a thing. Multi-tasking might be a way to describe it, but I would prefer to say that it’s the ability to appreciate and learn from the art and effort behind a creative product.
So this by no means is comprehensive. There’s been a lot of other lessons I’ve learned from both – but I thought it would be fun to write about the common threads. More than anything, I now see creativity as creativity, whatever the medium. Much of what I’ve written here could probably be applied to kitting, acting, or becoming a world-class rodeo clown.
Keep making stuff,