Adapting other media into tabletop games can be quite rewarding if done well. Trying to do it well has its pitfalls as well:
Carl Klutzke related this story in the comments section: “Several years ago when I went to the Game Developers Conference, I met some folks from Disney Interactive who were tasked with making computer games from Disney’s IP. They really wanted to do good work, but their management just wanted them to crank out something fast, because they knew the game would get bought whether it was good or not. They were some very frustrated people.”
Gentle reader, it would be nice to reassure you that these poor designers were in an unusual situation. There isn’t. A similar experience arose while I was dealing with a certain IP. They were eager to see their characters and setting on game shelves but expected no more than a couple of weeks design time. Rushing the product to market, to cash in and get out, seemed to be their only goal. Since my desire was to create lasting products, I withdrew. Carl’s tale of these poor souls implies to me that it was wise to do everything possible can to avoid falling into their situation.
So how does the modern game designer go about creating a quality adaptation? Here is my process. It may not work exactly right for you but should demonstrate a framework you can adapt it to fit your process.
Go To School
Learn all the characters, learn its tone, its pace, its structure. Immersing oneself in the property is a common game designer technique.
When developing a game for Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary, I went back to the comic’s archives. I read every episode. At my side sat my trusty design journal, steadily filling with notes on characters, plots, recurrent themes, tone.
Then I read them again. And again, always looking for details I may have missed.
The Game Emerges
You have a large vocabulary of game types and game mechanisms. You have an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material. Send your brain to swim through all that knowledge. Let mechanism and theme, plot and type swirl together in your mind. Look for the big picture. Allow the details to remain blurry. From this interplay of ideas, your designer’s eye will see game potentials emerge.
After my second reading of Schlock Mercenary, I saw that stories were usually mission-based. My game would need to have a mission-based structure. Players would likely want to play their favorite characters from the comic. Could this game be fully cooperative? The mercenary team Tagon’s Toughs was filled with practitioners of enlightened self-interest–How about partially cooperative?
In the end, three different treatments of Schlock Mercenary were written.
Armed with a good general plan for your treatment of the game, it is time to run this plan past the creators. You will need them behind it–talking your work up, promoting the game, building anticipation among his or her fans. Besides, there’s little sense in putting hours into developing a design the IP holder rejects.
My publisher and I discussed the the three different treatments and selected one as having the best potential. From there, I created a three-page proposal. This proposal covered the game’s core engagement and showed a component concepts. Clip art pulled from the Schlock Mercenary website was all we needed to convey the general idea.
Supported by the creator’s blessing, launch into the development process. Create, test, edit, test more, create more, test more.
Ideally, you will find test groups that are already familiar with the source material. Alternatively, persuade your test group to become familiar with the source material. If neither are possible, proceed anyway. It will be a bit more difficult but so long as you keep service of the source in mind, you will still be on course.
We tested the game twice a week for a year, constantly making adjustments. We deliberated over its best and worst features. We deliberated over the best parts of the Schlock story to focus on and which parts to shift into the background.
After that year of development, we had a game in which every mechanism worked exactly as intended. We had a game in which every major part of the Schlock Mercenary universe was features.
Unfortunately, we also had a game which was rote, repetitive, and lacking in drama. We had a bad game.
Part of any successful artist’s process is the ability to learn from mistakes. Some ideas simply don’t work. We all have them. We all find ourselves facing a problem that is completely unsolvable. Be reassured that you are among good company. Remember Albert Einstein’s assertion that 99% of his ideas were bad. Accept that your best solution will sometimes be to back up and attack the problem from a completely different angle.
Howard Tayler and I were scheduled for a progress meeting at Gen Con. At that meeting, I had the uncomfortable responsibility of sharing with him what I have already shared with you–that the game wasn’t fun. He didn’t want his name on it and neither did I.
This could have been the end of the story. It isn’t. I went on to tell Howard about a skirmish system I’d been developing–the TacDice System–which was testing particularly well. We discussed making the Schlock Mercenary game more compact, of focusing the game around the dramatic (and frequently ridiculous) fight sequences of his comic. We played a skirmish using my proto and Howard enjoyed it. We had a new plan and went to work from there.
When Schlock Mercenary: Capital Offensive released, both critics and fans received it positively. We had succeeded in serving Mr. Tayler’s property faithfully and in making a good game.
And then I approached the great team at Greater Than Games about our interest in creating a similar TacDice game for their excellent Sentinels of the Multiverse property and Sentinel Tactics was born.
The road to success is a toll road. Our failures are the toll. Accept them and keep always moving forward.
What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.
5 thoughts on “Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 3”
I’ve been reading your Adaptations series with interest. I’ve found a property that I’d love to design a game for, but I don’t have the kind of relationship with a publisher that you have.
For those of us without intimate ties to a particular publisher, whom do you suggest approaching first, with proposal in hand?
You pose an excellent question Brett.
In that case, I always approach the creator of the IP first. It may be that he or she already has a relationship with a publisher in which case your concern is moot. Even if the creator cannot bring a publisher to the table, you will find it much easier to get a publisher signed on if the designer is already on board.
Would you approach them with an idea/pitch first, or first feel them out to see if they’re even interested?
That’s a tough call Brett. Honestly, go with your gut. I’ve done both and each has its merits and liabilities.