Friday, July 30, 2010

When Do I Abandon A Game?


Let's deal with a heavy topic today: abandoning an RPG design. Abandoning a game can mean different things for different people. I know some designers that never commit to a design unless they know how and when they will finish it. In fact, they don't even begin designing a "game" until they have spent months designing potential mechanics and/or examining the themes they might want to consider for their design. They almost never quit on a project. Those kinds of people are rare.

I'm more in the second group. I'm willing to bet most people are. Right now, I have a Word document with over 85 sketched-out RPGs. What I mean by sketched-out is: the rudiments of Chargen, Resolution, Setting, and Advancement are planned out. There's a title and a targeted demographic. But of those 85+, I've only ever brought 1 to print: The Holmes and Watson Committee. Many designers probably have similar stories. There's a ton of games they've sketched out, written about, outlined, and dreamt of, but ultimately let it go for whatever reason. Sometimes, before the games really got off the ground.

But I want to talk about abandoning a game that is further down the line in development. This is a game where the designer has spent hours and hours writing it down. Spent hours and hours playtesting it. Spent hours and hours talking about it to friends, players, and Internet junkies. Maybe he has even published an Ashcan. This is a game that is well developed and has seen functional play at some level, BUT (and it's a big BUT) isn't achieving the kind of sustained, fun, and effectual play the designer wants.

Actually, most games that get published end up in that situation at some point. Playtesting will hum along fine, but there will be something missing or there will be some part of the mechanics that don't seem to work the right way. At this point, one of three things will happen. First, the designer will solve the problem. Perhaps he'll get some help form online forums or a blog. Perhaps one of the players will suggest a change that works out. Perhaps it will come in his sleep. Hey, it happens. However it comes, a solution presents itself and the designer jumps on it and development continues on its merry way.

Second, the designer will just publish it anyway. This is not all that desireable and is frequently the reason why the first edition of a game is quickly followed by a second.

The third eventuality is the most painful. The game is abandoned. It dies. But how does a designer make the choice to leave it and move on? It's an intensely personal thing and the designer has to take a hard look at himself in the process.

Designers are under development as much as their games are. I don't care if this is your first RPG or your thirtieth. Each game teaches you something about roleplaying and something about yourself. Publishing a game is a grueling, grueling process. Designers aren't joking when they say that. It's a personal expression of creativity, determination, and heart. The process changes you- usually for the best. And that's the important part: The Process Changes You.

When we start designing games, we have a certain skill set. Most of the first games we design are a lot like the games we enjoyed growing up. That's a good thing. But after the first one, our skill sets change, we add some new ones, and the next time around, the game is quite different from the last. Our taste, vision, and perspective change. This is a continual evolution for as long as the designer designs.

The decision to abandon a game comes when you aren't willing or you aren't able to change to suit the needs of the design. If you get to a point in your design where you are totally at a loss, where designing the game doesn't even make sense to you anymore, where you aren't willing to give up what you currently believe and currently enjoy to get it finished, it's time to leave the game behind. It can be painful because you know that the design is right there, just out of reach. But the skill set you currently possess is lacking to complete it, and there's no reconciling that.

It happens to the best of designers. Three high profile designs I can think of are Robots and Rapiers by Ralph Maza, Acts of Evil by Paul Czege, and Dragon Killer by Vincent Baker. Ralph, Paul, and Vincent know how to make games, but they got to a point in the designs of these games where they just couldn't take them any further. They had to abandon them and move on to other things. I don't presume for a moment to know what that meant to them personally. I'm sure it was difficult to some degree. But they made the choice, and as a result we have games like Apocalypse World and Blood Red Sands. So abandoning a game is not a bad thing. If it happens, it happens because it's a necessary thing.

So is that the end? No. Just because you abandon a game doesn't mean it's gone forever. Take the three examples from above. I spoke to Ralph about Robots and Rapiers about a year ago. He's filed the game away and plans to start over with it and publish it one day in the future. Vincent is returning to work on Dragon Killer after taking several years off. He learned a lot from publishing Apocalypse World and now feels he's ready to tackle the design problems for his former game. Paul has opened up Acts of Evil for anyone to develop. So it's very possible that someone, some day could publish a finished version of the game.

If you get to a point where your design requires something of you that you can't or don't want to give it, then it's okay to put it away and leave it behind. Maybe some day you'll be able to return to it. Maybe you won't. But if you chose to leave it behind, leave it behind. Abandon it. Don't let it hang over you. Move on to something else- it doesn't even have to be RPG design.

It's okay to abandon a game. And if making RPGs is really your passion, a new design that better matches your skills and interests will be just around the corner.




tania said...

it is not easy to abandon game in many cases.

- Tanya
Web Design Firm

Troy_Costisick said...

You are absolutely right, Tania. It is incredibly painful and difficult to abandon a game- especially in the later stages of development. I know plenty of designers who have, and it hurt all of them. But each one tells me the same thing: it would have hurt more to publish a game that didn't work.

As hard as it is to abandon a game, I believe it is harder to publish a game before it's completely finished only to watch it languish with bad reviews and bad play experiences.



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