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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin

Game Development: Art or Design?

I recently received feedback on Makiavelia from a potential publisher. The overall feedback is great, but in order to meet the market of the publisher, the game difficulty has to be taken down a notch. The two main points to address are:

  • Evening card distribution: not having a good mix of cards in hand can feel frustrating.

  • Pacing up the action phase: the constraint of a 2 non-repeatable actions from the set of 3 possible actions can feel frustrating.

Now there's two ways of looking at this: from the game designer's perspective (that's me!) and from the publisher's perspective.

Makiavelia test-players enjoying themselves.
Testing new ways of drawing card and balancing card distribution with Makiavelia.

Designer's Perspective:

The designer's perspective is that of the artist: focusing on creating the game for its own sake.

In the case of Makiavelia stated above: the core experience of the game is to maximize the use of your hand by playing it right in relation to other players. So even an "unlucky" draw patch, with only influence cards, can actually result in a win. For instance, the cards can be traded, they can be used against one player in order to gain favors from another player, they can be used as a threat or as support and secure inclusion in the share of the treasure.

Similarly, the limitations on actions force players to make tough choices between draw, build and attack. As a player you can do only two of these and you cannot repeat. Therefore, you must decide and feel pressured into making tough choices.

In short: the frustration is supposed to be part of the game, and so, from the designer's perspective, it's at home where it belongs.

Publisher's Perspective:

On the other hand, a publisher has (should have) a clear idea of its market. Not all publishers have the same target market though. In the case of "my" publisher, its market is Gateway and Above-Gateway games.

So perhaps Makiavelia in its current form is on the far end of the Above-Gateway games. For such games, frustration isn't supposed to be part of the game experience: Gateway games are supposed to be inviting, and Above Gateway games can be challenging at best.

This means that for my publisher, the game needs to be adjusted, and the "frustration" caused by uneven card distribution or action constraints, needs to go.

Tough Decisions

Therefore I am now working on some adjustments. However, an important aspect of making adjustments is knowing how far you're willing to go.

To me, my game is a art first and foremost. Makiavelia is already available online, there are already few copies produced with The Board Game Maker, and so I am actually happy: I've completed my art project.

The next step is sharing the game, which is optional for me. And so there's two ways to go about it: self publish or use a publisher. I've decided to go with the latter, because I am happier creating games than doing the biz, and also because publishing is more sensible with scale (4 or more games), which I do not have.

For the publisher, taking on a game means taking risks and therefore it is entitled to make demands on game development. They're looking for a product design, not for a piece of art. And so as a designer, one needs to take on a publisher's perspective, which means making the necessary adjustments to meet market demands. That's when the designer wears the developer's hat.

This comes with tough decisions, especially if the game is the designer's "baby", as Makiavelia is to me--especially if it is art first, before being a product. The question you're facing and need to answer is: how far are you willing to go to meet the market?

I've seen this discussion twice online in the past weeks. The first was a new game idea I was toying with and sharing. It is a witch-themed game using funny ingredients with reference to "farts" and "boogers". This seemed to shock some of my colleagues, who thought it wouldn't be appropriate to some market, to which I replied I didn't care much about the market, as the game was to be created for its own sake as I see it in my mind.

This doesn't means I will never adapt to a publisher's needs, but to me it would be a different game or a different version of the game perhaps.

Another discussion popped up on the Board Game Spotlight regarding a kid's game, where the theme's backstory is a cute doggy stealing household items, which include "knickers" and "bras". These items lit up a strong but fascinating discussion from the readers, among which designers.

The Knickers that set the Internet on fire! Courtesy of Joanne Jones, image and text subject to copyright.
The Knickers that set the Internet on fire! Courtesy of Joanne Jones, image and text subject to copyright.

If you have the patience to read the thread, you'll see how this is really about game as art vs game as product. The authors of the game were happy with their own creation, and had received feedback on the artwork from the UK, where they are based. The author is also a primary school teacher and therefore has some authority on what's suitable for kids or not.

Nevertheless, concerned about the market and how the more conservative end of that market would react, they reached out to the Board Game Spotlight community. As it turned out, there was more negative reception from the US crowd (and the cultural context explaining this could be great material for a social science and marketing case study). What the author took away from this short poll is that "the main cause of upset is the difference between what is accepted as humour in the UK as opposed to US". Perhaps the extra 'u' in the British spelling does make a difference after all :)

By the end of the discussions, the authors decided to listen to the feedback and to modify to the game accordingly--favoring market adoption over creative impulse.

Updated design: Granny's underpants saved the day.  Courtesy of Joanne Jones, image and text subject to copyright.
Updated design: Granny's underpants saved the day. Courtesy of Joanne Jones, image and text subject to copyright.

The rational questions to ask oneself is: how much of the market is going to respond negatively? What's the share of that market? And is changing the game worth winning the extra share? If you self-publish, you have to weigh this carefully, and if you're working with a publisher, well, it's a bit more black or white: you either accept the demands or you don't.

Of course there are always ways of adjusting a game without changing its identity altogether, and if the designer is creative enough, it shouldn't be a tough task to accomplish. I guess that's where the ax hits the log and you find out how talented you are.

Three Paths Ahead

I'll conclude with this: there are three ways to go about it:

  1. Make your game as art: don't care for publishing at all. If the game isn't suitable for a market that's sizable enough to mean business, then don't worry. I would always recommend to satisfy you own personal goals first, as those are boxes worth ticking before nailing your coffin.

  2. Find the market that's right for your game: you can design your game first and find out what market is right for your game and approach the right publishers or target the right demographic.

  3. Adapt to the market: understand what the publisher needs, find a publisher you're comfortable with and adapt. You can always do a version of item 1 in this list to satisfy your personal needs.

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