Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 3

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.

TagonRuns.pngWhen 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.



The Proposal

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.



Contingency Plans

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.



Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 1

Comicpalooza was a few weekends ago here in Houston.  I seized the opportunity to approach several comic book creators, discussing with each an opportunity for game tie-ins to their comics.  The idea of having a new way to market their property excited several of these creators and we arranged to discuss these ideas further after the con.

Why seek these meetings?  Why write adaptations at all?  With a rewarding day job and no particular desire to abandon it for the life of a full-time designer, I am free to pursue any project that interests me.  Why specifically seek to attach my name to comic books, television shows or movies? Why not stick to proven game design ground–the politics of medieval Italy, trade in the Mediterranean sea, castle construction? Why should any designer take the risk of writing a game adaptation?

The answer lies in the summer of 2003. Kevin Horovitz and I were hanging out and generally shooting the breeze. Kevin noted that an excellent opportunity for game design to move forward was lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.  He pointed out that many American games of the time were endowed with highly marketable themes but mediocre (or worse) game design.  German games by contrast had superior design but  mediocre (or worse) themes.  How wonderful would it be for someone to put modern designers together with marketable themes.  Such games might change the public image of games for the coming generation.  This idea has been floating around my head ever since.

Kevin’s dream has begun coming true.  Today we have designers like Brian Yu, and Rob Daviau who have actively promoted good tie-in design through works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman: Gotham City Mystery.  Today we have solid tie-ins like Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones.

But for each Star Wars: Epic Duels or Spartacus, we still have hundreds of thin paste-ups with no ambition greater than cashing in.  These are the muggers of the game market, assaulting the buying public with a famous theme and disappearing with their cash, leaving them disappointed and sour to our beloved hobby.

So how do we do it right?  How do we go about creating the Spy vs Spy Boardgame rather than the Full House Boardgame?

Having written a few of tie-in games and worked with a few different IP holders, here are some starting thoughts.  Like many other topics, it is one to which we will be returning.


What To Adapt?

There are a huge number of properties in the world. You could easily spend the rest of your design career writing them. How should you select the right one? Before approaching any creator, three major potentials should be considered: (1) Can the fan base win? (2) Can the creator win?(3) Can you win?

The Fan Base Wins

The ideal property has an enthusiastic fan base. Offer those fans a new experience with the characters they love. Give them a new way to engage with those characters. Let them feel the setting. Let them be the characters. Achieve this and they will eagerly support your product.  If so, the fan base wins.



The Creator Wins

Many creators now work for themselves rather than for any large publishing firm.  They believe in their artistic vision and are willing to take the risk and bring their vision to the world.  Can your design create a new way to reach their fans?  Might fans of your work come check out the creator’s work? Will the added revenue stream helps keep them in the black, able to continue doing the work they love. If so, the creator wins.


You Win

Just like the creators, most of us game designers work for ourselves.  Very few do it for the money.  We know the joy a fun game can bring. One of the greatest rewards for a game designer is seeing players that joy. Can this property bring new players to your vision? Does this property give you the opportunity to expand your catalogue? To write the type of game you’ve always wanted? To push your favorite type of game into new thematic territory?  If so, the you win.


Fan base wins. The creator wins.  You win.  These are the reasons to seek before pursuing an adaptation. Next time, we begin discussing the actual process of creating an adaptation.

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.