2006-02-16 : Throwing It Open: Pulling the Plug

Clinton R. Nixon:

When do you know a game design just isn't going to work? At what point in the design process do you say, "Ok, fun experiment, but, you know, time to pull the life support."


Well, for me it's when it's been months and months since I thought about it, and then I happen onto it again, and I'm embarrassed by what I'd done. If I'm not embarrassed, hell, who knows, maybe I'll resuscitate the bastard.

Either that or when I've used so many of its ideas elsewhere that it's like a picked-over carcass, useless.

Sometimes I threaten to chuck a game mid-design, or while I'm at it chuck the whole stupid unrewarding endeavor OF game design, but that never works out for me.

An example of the former, subtype not embarrassed, is my Ars Magica Knockoff. What we've got there is some preliminary work on a design that's banged into its first serious design challenge, and I don't feel like doing the design work for that game that I'd need to do to solve it, not just now. So there it sits! And I happened to reread the thread today, and I wasn't embarrassed, and I remembered the design problem and the hard work it'd take to solve it, and I don't mind leaving it there a little longer.

Anybody who likes, please feel free to talk about your creative process.

1. On 2006-02-16, Troy_Costisick said:


At the moment, I'm working on 3 games at once.  At first I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep them strait, but I've found the opposite.  Not only have I been able to keep them strait, I've found that they spur creativity in each other.  If I get sick at looking at one, I can work on the other.

For instance, Hierarchy needs a lot of work right now, and I hate what I have to do to make it right.  So I'm working on a few minor tweaks of Cutthroat and Standoff that are much more interesting to me until the right inspiration and creative drive come to me.  I don't feel guilty for not working on Hierarchy because I'm getting stuff done on my other two.

So for me, having multiple projects at once keeps me working.  Now that I've convinced my friends to help me playtest this stuff, it keeps my playtesters wondering what'll come next.  So it's working out very well, IMO.




2. On 2006-02-16, Matt Wilson said:

Plus, what are your criteria for whether a game 'works' or not?

What I find unnerving is "we played and had fun, but entirely different things happened than the game suggests."

Well shit, now what? Should I just have it be that game instead?


3. On 2006-02-16, Vincent said:

That's exactly where the Dragon Killer is right now, Matt. I'm like, I had this vision for a thing about men and women, but it seems to be that the Dragon Killer - I mean, the dude in the game, the King of Death - isn't applying pressure to the right things to make the game BE about men and women. Do I abandon the men and women thing, or do I refigure the game?


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4. On 2006-02-16, John Harper said:

Matt, Vincent: Yes! That's a tough one. This exact thing happened with Stranger Things, and it wasn't acceptable to me. So, I chucked the damned thing and got out the hammer and tongs. It was painful, but I am much, much happier with the game now that it's doing what I wanted all along.

Will this be true for you, too? I have no idea. I was so invested in my first vision for the game that I *needed* to get it right. Like, deep down needed.

I guess the question is this: Is the not-quite-your-game thing something that you care about enough to finish and publish? It could be. Sometimes we don't know what we really want until we try to get it and fail.


5. On 2006-02-17, Joshua BishopRoby said:

I always have many, many irons in the fire.  Not all of them game design, not all of them destined for public consumption.  Generally speaking, I don't throw anything away.  I have lots of old word processor files, because you never know when something will leap out of the archive and demand to be developed—either as it was originally planned or in a new format.  My current game design started as a single campaign (and barely resembles its original form now).


6. On 2006-02-17, Kaare Berg said:

I've got four balls in the air, and a fifth brewing there in the back of my mind. I've also found that working on one either frees up space (as in that cool thing fits better here than over in that game) or one realises that that the game is about this, and not that.
That helps me.
My biggest problem is time.


7. On 2006-02-17, Tris said:

I bang ideas together in my head, and most get to the "and those two go together like that, that will work" stage, and that's as far as I usually go.  Like, the first stage of design, the broad scale creation, is what thrills me.  When I find that these elements I've invented mesh, like *that*, I grin, think about it for a bit, and then start something else.

Anything that is going to get developed further than this (and this is perhaps 1 in 10 ideas) sort of splurges mostly formed from my head into the nearest notebook/pc.  Then it gets however much development is coming to it (usually only enough to make it playable with a few friends) and then it gets abandoned in favour of the next few things I'm thinking about.

I have had a total of ONE design which WILL reach a broader stage, and I find the fine scale development slightly tedious, compared to making up new stuff.  This is offset by some very kind things people have said about the early versions, which keep me fired up to work on this thing.

I'm somewhat in awe of people who seem to keep a project for six months, mulling it over, then come back to it and rewrite it, and repeat until it's done.  For me, it lives or dies when it splurges out of my head.


8. On 2006-02-17, Levi Kornelsen said:

My creative process...

Basically, when it comes to *creating*, I come across something I want to work on, and I just start hammering away at it.

Sometimes I stall.  Then I put it away, fiddle with ideas I got along the way, and come back with fresh inspiration or not, and work at it again.

This continues until I've got something I really, really like.  Then I show it off, and move on.  Occasionally, I come back again; other times, I don't.


9. On 2006-02-17, Mendel Schmiedekamp said:

I carry around a binder of designs I'm currently working on, at the moment the list on the back puts the total at 15, although a few of them ought to be retired. I also know I have a design or two that needs to be migrated into the folder. They range from completed draft to basic inspiration far removed from anything playable.

I usually retire a game when it becomes clear that direction has been lost, and then just give it up as fodder for future designs. I've pretty much done that with Good Fight, Five Stat, and up until recently Engima. Although now that I go back to it, Engima has it's grains of good stuff, so I intend to pull those out and start rebuilding the game around them. It helps when I follow holistic design that by changeing the start point I can fairly easily redesign a game essentially fresh. One example of that is my RPG Drift, which shares a fundamental root with an incomplete design named Technobabble, but grew very differently due to the influence of the "how people drift apart" theme.

I'm not certain how well holistic design works for marketable games, but it serves me well for designing experimental and proof-of-concept games.


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10. On 2006-02-17, Matt Snyder said:

Damn it, I wrote a big fat reply and forgot to put in my handle, then Vincent's computer went and called me a spamming bastard! Liar! (Actually, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that I use 3 different computers throughout the day, 2 of 'em within 4 feet of each other, and I flip between 'em all the time.)

Anyway, the gist was this: Because I'm a publisher now, I have forced myself to focus on and priortize games that I need to get out the door.

Example: I'm focusing on Dust Devils now so I can get it back in print. Not having sales from a good game because I'm out of stock and need to revise is hurting my resources for future designs. So, it's first priority. Part of the motivation is that I'm so excited to get cracking on the next game. And that game will produce revenue for the game after that. Neat.

Now, it sounds all cynical and business like. In fact, it's lots of fun. But, it most certainly is different than what I used to do, which was wander pretty aimlessly from idea to idea until maybe, sorta something took hold and I worked on it for a while.

I suspect I'm not the only one with changed habits now that the stakes of this little endeavor are higher. Demands are higher. Costs and needs are higher. It motivates me differently than, say, my wild idea did in 2001.


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11. On 2006-02-17, Matt Wilson said:

Creative process... man, I dunno, it's a little sad.

I'm terribly unorganized, and I think i've actually had the same ideas multiple times because I forgot I had them the first time. For the game I'm working on now, I totally forgot one of my initial goals. And now I can't think of what it was.

Because I'm unorganized like that, I can't really do those uber-tight narrow premise games like "what would you kill for?" I have to do it more like "what kinds of things matter to you."


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12. On 2006-02-18, Curly said:

This thread is to actual creative process
what 'Actual Play' is to actual play.

So here's my 'Actual Creative Process' post:

In the past I'd graze the internet for rpg talk, for hours.

When my blood-sugar got low from hunger, all the strange jargon & concepts would become an exciting manic overload.  I imagine that this William Blake mode is what it's like to be Ben Lehman, all the time.

Then I'd step out for some fresh air & cheap food.  Calming down, 1 or 2 notions would remain clear-enough not to evaporate.

So I'd head home & try to type those ideas into rules text.  The goal was to flesh out the notions clearly-enough that I'd understand what I meant.  And, hypothetically, so would some stranger reading the text.

After a few hours of this, if I was still enthusiastic about the game-sketch; I'd head outside again and show it to a bartender friend.  We'd kill slow hours of his night shift, hashing out the esoteric ideas.

Then we'd either stop, satisfied.  Or stick with an idea=du jour-longer; if we both still were intrigued.  Often, what seemed revolutionary turned out to be only New To Us.  Becuase you other fuckers have a tidy headstart & never stop trailblazing.

The above routine ended a few months ago, but already I'm nostalgic about it.  Nowadays, I don't have a routine. So I don't have a creative process.  Just creativity minus productive methods.


13. On 2006-02-18, Ben Lehman said:

So after the rather strange reference to me, here's what I actually do:

I sit down with my computer in front of me.  I pull up a couple of word documents —either seperate parts of one project I'm working on or a few different projects.  I try to write on these.  If I get into a roll, I close the other ones and I write and write and write on that one.

Which one is pretty random, as far as I can tell.  It's definitely beyond willful control.

If I don't have it in me to write that day, which is about 2/3rds of the time right now, I just do some piddly editing on a couple of things, tool around with D&D builds, or screw around on the net.

A project is: A blog post, a game, a short story, a novel, my resume, job cover letters, letters to folks, etc.  I try to keep a pretty open spread of things to be working on at any given time.  Just today I did some fiddly editing for Drifter's Escape (I forgot to credit Ron!  What a dork I am!) and wrote 700 words on "The Wise King and Frost's Boy" which is a short-story/novella length thing I've been working on for a while, part of a collection of stories.  I'm hoping to get something else done today, 'cause 1000 words really isn't enough.

So, for instance, when I say I've been stuck in Bliss Stage, it's just that I haven't been writing it for the last few weeks, despite wanting to.



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14. On 2006-02-18, Ben Lehman said:

Oh, and I know something is done when I don't open it for at least a month.

Now, usually this is because I've already decided it's done.  Which is usually: I'm totally disinterested in pursuing it to the point where it is actually physically repulsive to me to think of more work on the project.

Of course, sometimes that's a sign that I'm doing things well.  So it's all contextual.



15. On 2006-02-18, Michael S. Miller said:

My creative process is a long drawn-out thing. I carry a pocket notebook with me everywhere and scribble down whatever ideas hit me, so I don't forget. Ideas come over weeks & months, sometimes in short bursts (but nothing like you 24 hour RPGs do). At the moment, I'm tending to get ideas for 2 to 3 different games, and that's fine. When one of these game/idea clusters reaches a critical mass, I'll type up notes to myself, throw together some stark, ugly, but functional character sheets, and bring it to Kat & Michele for playtesting. Then it's to the revision-playtest-revision thing.

I think of all of the above as the "design stage" and it's probably my favorite—so much potential there. The problem is that when I'm finished the design stage, I don't have a game text—I just have a collection of notes to myself about how to play. Next is the "writing stage," wherein I actually explain to another person how to play the game. I also prevail upon the editorial genius of Thor at this point.

The obvious snag with the above process is that it makes external playtesting nigh-impossible. I'm working on changing that.

As for when to set a project aside? I've set two of them aside: Incarnandine (RolePlaying in a Shakespearean Style) because it's too big—it's my Great White Game—I'm not yet good enough to design it; and Limelight (movie star roleplaying) because I completely lost passion for the material. Whenever I'd mention it, people would bring up E! True Hollywood Story or the National Enquirer, and I'd try to explain that I was going for a more romantic, 1940s-esque kind of thing. They'd reply "oh, there was sex and drugs and scandal in the '40s, did you hear about..." and I finally realized that I didn't have the passion to re-educate, correct or otherwise fight to change people's first associations, so I moved on to other things.


16. On 2006-02-18, ethan_greer said:

My creative process is fluid, explosive, and exciting. This is partially due to mental illness, and partially due to adjusting my habits to said mental illness for twenty-odd years or so. It's an ill wind that blows no good, as they say.

What this means is, when I sit down to work on something, I'll get fired up about it and the words (or in rare cases, pictures or music) will just flow out. Sometimes I start out fired up, and other times I force myself to work on something and through that effort become fired up.

For me, creative expression, particularly through words, is pretty thrilling. I wrote much of Thugs & Thieves, for example, in a state of mild exhilaration.

So what went wrong? Well, I have this achilles heel in my creative process, and it's a matter of external validation. I showed Thugs & Thieves to some friends, and they wiped their asses with it. Took the mickey right out of me.

Also to consider is the fact that around that time I had an intense mental breakdown. Suddenly, being an indie publisher became waaaay too much for me to handle. Still is, in fact. I've been receiving proper treatment for a few years, and have the self-awareness to choose projects that will move me and satisfy my creative needs without destroying me. Hats off to you folks that have published your games for profit; it's quite an accomplishment.

How can my story be of use to you, the reader? Well, here's something I've learned in exploring my own rather mercurial creative process: Always be creative. What I mean is, that any act of creativity will enable further creativity. So if you're having a hard time on your game, perhaps one of the best things you can do is express your creativity in some seemingly unrelated way. Set the game aside and go fiddle with a guitar, or a ukulele (Hi Clinton), or a keyboard or something. Draw pictures, doodles, whatever. Write poetry or micro fiction.

What happens is, you've got this tension—you want to work on your game, but it's not flowing. So there's a buildup of creative energy that isn't being released. Release that energy and you take the pressure off your game. You'll feel better, and the next time you sit down to work on your game, you won't have the negative associations with frustration and creative blockage.


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17. On 2006-02-18, Meguey said:

Here's my writing process lately:

Have ideas in the car, when I can't possibly write them down because I'm driving.

Work out the ideas with Emily and Vincent, maybe sribble some notes that could make sense later.

Have the time to write, but only the use of one hand, as the other is holding the baby. This puts a literal cramp in my ability to get much/anything done.


Have both hands free, but not the time, since I'm trying to rush around getting stuff done while the baby is content to be set down or Vincent has him.

(Either of these leads to a net gain of very little writing at the end of most days.)

Have ideas again around 1:30 AM, when I'm trying to get Tovey back to sleep, and can't write anything down.

Occasionally, Tovey will sleep with Vincent while I can write, which is great, and if I'm very lucky, I'm clear-headed enough to remember what it was I was trying to write about, anyway. Thank goodness Emily and Vincent can function as my auxilary brain these days, and say "Here's what you were thinking." I still have to wade through the 'this idea is crap' part a lot though.


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18. On 2006-02-22, Dave R said:

When I'm working on a project, I tend to work in spurts triggered by a particular idea.  Often that idea spirals into a whole chain of them and I end up changing things around or typing frantically for days.  Then I'll put it aside again for however long it takes for me to get re-enthused.

I also tend to rehash everything I've done whenever I plunge into a project again.  Retracing my design process points out to me the places where it's weak and lets me reconnect with my appreciation for what I'm making.  There's always moments where I'll look at one particular component and think to myself, "Damn, I love that thing!  It's elegant/interesting/fun and I want to share it!"  That kind of thing really reaffirms my interest in the project, and keeps me from succumbing to my tendency to take all my neat ideas and throw them into the same bucket.  Just because they're all good ideas doesn't mean they go together.


19. On 2006-02-23, Jim Zoetewey said:

For me, my creative process greatly depends on the size of the project. With a poem, short story, or short muscial composition, I generally have it knock around in my head for a few days and then spit it out in one sitting.

Longer projects tend to be items of great pain and inconsistent spurts of action. For example, I've temporarily stopped working on my master's project (a computer programming project) due to intense frustration with the API's of some of the libraries I've been using. Some nights I found myself just uselessly staring at the screen, trying to work out how to do what I needed to do.

Instead of that, I've lately been focusing on my novel (draft three of a contemporary fantasy) and my business (contract web programming). In earlier drafts, I remember being able to sit down and just write for a time. As I've gotten further into writing the novel, I've found a need to plot each section more precisely than I did in previous drafts, get to the point more quickly and squeeze more stuff into less space.

Thus presently things require me to spit out my ideas, revise them a little, and move on to the next section, taking care to make things fit with what came before and will come after.

At this moment, I'm thinking that I most enjoy the early stages of a large project and coming up with the shape of things. Later stages are still fun, but getting the piddly little details right isn't as fun as creating the initial architecture.


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20. On 2006-02-24, gains said:

I like to have a few projects going at once, but once I see the light at the end of the tunnel for one of them, I need to give it priority.

I know when things are done because I set deadlines for myself at that "light and tunnel" stage.

An idea is never a bad idea. Just an old one. I can usually get some use out of ideas that I'm bored with and can't bring to fruition. Re-tooling them or just gutting them for parts. I was once told you can't finish more work than you start, so the reverse must be true.


21. On 2006-02-26, paulkdad said:

I'm finding two distinct ideas here.

First, pulling the plug. That's entirely intuitive, but there are some cues that guide me: (one) If I'm forcing the process something is wrong. Creative work for me is fluid and natural; and (two) It suddenly hits me that this thing is actually broken, and it can't be fixed.

Number one isn't a big deal, because maybe I just need to take a break. But when number two happens, I do what I do with a drawing that doesn't work... I throw it away. Some people keep old crap, and that's fine for them. I don't do it, because for me that would be a fearful response. It'd be holding on when I really need to let go. Time investment and prior relationship to the material are irrelevant; when the time comes I'm happy to move on. Destroying things is just a part of the process. Basically, I like to think that my understanding of the creative process grows no matter what I have to show for it. My next writing or drawing will be demonstrate that growth, kind of like waste matter is used to fertilize the soil.

Second, when it comes to the creative process itself, that's kind of complicated. A few thoughts: (one) I will start things as the ideas come to me, but I generally work on one thing at a time until it is finished; (two) I see talking about unfinished pieces as a waste of valuable energy; (three) My sketchbooks and notebooks are about developing my skills, and rarely have any direct relevance to finished pieces; (four) Tools and technique are a huge part of the creative process, and so I'm constantly evaluating the way I go about doing things. This means finding the right tools for the job, maintaining them, and organizing them in an efficient way; (five) Time spent away from a project is often a good thing. I'm growing, even if the piece isn't. Unless it's broken, I'll eventually know what to do with it; (six) Every piece is an experiment, and the goal is to learn (or re-learn) something; and (seven) Trust my gut. If I'm waffling back and forth between two different options, that's always an intuitive decision. One will just "feel" right, and the other will be discarded. In my opinion, taking the right step towards the completion of a piece may be time-consuming, but it's never hard.

For me, probably the biggest enemy to the creative process is forgetting stuff I've learned and practiced for years, and the second biggest one is starting something with the idea that it's going to be good.

Thanks for the topic, BTW. It's been a while since I've had to put something like this in writing. Quite fun.


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