Game development, in an ideal setting, is all about creativity. Brainstorming awesome ideas, refining those ideas, and polishing the execution of those refined ideas is what we do. But for some reason, we’ve mostly been doing this within the context of a game, never reaching through the fourth wall. Of course, once we caught on to that little fact, we did what we do best. Enter stage left: Co-designing games with players.
The basic idea of co-designing with the players is simple: start with a basic idea, and implement suggestions that get tossed at you from people. In the end, the development process itself doubles as a brilliant marketing scheme (who doesn’t want to buy something fun they helped make?. #IDARB, a game that used design suggestions through Twitter, did a great job with this. Like all great ideas, though, this needs some refining.
The major sticking point is that this requires public interest, which not all of us are capable of garnering (I’ll be the first to admit to that fault). Going back to the #IDARB example, it really only took off once indie superstar Tim Schafer not only offered a suggestion, but also passed it along to his fans. Once the people have noticed, you need to work quickly to maintain interest (notice the difference between when it first started on Jan 3 to the updated version on Jan 10). The problem here is we can’t predict what goes viral or how, and this has a big risk of going one of two ways: either we keep putting in our own ideas and showing updates and essentially just developing traditionally, or we keep trying to get eyes and interest and come off desperate and pathetic.
I’ve been experimenting with trying to get people to co-design a game I’ve been working on for a few years called Avalon. Like I mentioned before, I am by no means any good at marketing or getting attention, but I’ve found that suggestions don’t usually come snowballing in like they did with #IDARB. They come in spurts-- one suggestion on name spelling here, maybe two suggestions on combat a bit later, with another suggestion about a week after that for adjusting graphics. I’ve pretty much been just working traditionally with frequent updates, while walking the razor’s edge between invitations and pleading for feedback (sometimes not so successfully, which I think has foiled a lot of my better attempts).
A minor sticking point to co-designing is picking and choosing which ideas you implement. Not all ideas can get in, lest the game become overloaded and the design break down entirely, but part of maintaining interest is making sure you implement enough of them in such a way that they’re recognizable as their ideas and the game still flows nicely. Shunted ideas are all well and good, but ignored players are former players who will tell their friends they’re being ignored. Want to watch your game go from 60 to 0 in no time flat? That’s how you do that. And trust me, if trying to capture interest initially is an uphill battle, trying to recapture interest after the game falls on its face is like a fight up Everest. This is another reason you need to implement ideas very quickly, and update as soon as it’s in.
Co-designing a game with players requires tact, great people skills, and a very quick workflow. While it’s a constant balancing act between failure and shining success, the experience and the payoff can be amazing, such as with #IDARB. Just remember: the internet has no attention span, but it will never forget failure.
Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.