Learning to identify and serve core engagement is relatively recent in my journey as a designer. For the first several years, I didn’t even know what it was. I pushed game bits around and fiddled around with rule systems like most freshman designers do, hoping to “find the fun.” I took detailed notes at every playtest session, listening for those key phrases “I like ___ because ___,” and “I don’t like ___ because ___,” then ran back to the workbench to add more of what the players liked, chip away what they didn’t.
This approach often ran into dead ends. Hours were spent looking at rules which should have been invested in experience.
When a player says “I like/didn’t like ___ because ___,” this should be the beginning of a conversation, rather than its end. This is an opportunity for you as a designer to ask the key follow-up questions. Two columns ago, I directed you to identify the core engagement in your game. Make that knowledge work for you.
When your playtester gives his general impressions of an alpha prototype, you will be prepared to immediately follow with “how did you feel when you were playing? You said that you liked ____. In what way did you enjoy it?” Identify where his strongest responses were. These are the stars that will guide you to the game’s core engagement. Finding this first accelerates all the work which must follow.
Diligent playtesters will offer up a great many suggestions throughout your game’s development cycle. Listen carefully to each. Then let your understanding of your game’s core be the ruler by which they are measured. Your guiding question will always be does this change enhance my game’s core?
As your design matures, so will the questions you pose to your players. End your beta playtests with questions like “this game is meant to make you feel like _____. Did your experience fit that description?”
Case Study: Burger Shoppe
Len Stemberger is a designer in the North Houston design group. A few months ago, he brought the first prototype for Burger Shoppe. In Len’s words, the concept was “Diner Dash as a tabletop game.” In its first incarnation, players ran competing fast food restaurants and tried to serve the most customers, fastest.
The prototype had promise. We gave our feedback and bounced ideas around for about an hour. Some ideas were minor tweaks. Some ideas would completely overhaul the nature of the game. This sort of brainstorming is standard for our group.
Because the game was very young, Len hadn’t yet decided on the game’s core engagement. Because Len is new to designing games, he failed to make his first priority the identification of that core. The result of this was that the next version we saw was a wholesale Burger Shoppe rebuild. Len had fallen for the greatest game designer trap–he’d tried to incorporate all our ideas into one box. He did not have core engagement as a guide to filter our input. Much as I had many times in the past, he had fixated on rules over experience. Burger Shoppe would undergo several equally drastic overhauls in the months to come, all because he still had not identified its core.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t see what was happening. It took another member of our team to do that.
During one particularly reflective design session, John Eyster led an extensive evaluation of the game. We probed its theme, mechanisms, intent. Together, we were able to identify why the game’s design had lacked focus. Quite simply, Len was not sure what Burger Shoppe was meant to be.
Len’s story has a happy ending. A few weeks ago, Len brought a brand new prototype to the table. When this game was being alpha tested, his questions were clearly focused on identifying the game’s core engagement. When he revised the game and brought it back, it was also clear that each change was made to better serve his identified core engagement. Revisions are happening faster and cleaner.
And with that parable, we conclude our series on identifying and serving core engagement. This will undoubtedly be a topic to which we regularly return.
Before we depart, please join me in thanking Len Stemberger for allowing us to use him as a case study. It is difficult to have our successes and failures dissected for the world to see but he gave his blessing regardless. Thank you Len.