A personal reflection on a year and change making games

As we’re getting into the final month of 2018, many of us are getting into reflective mode. It’s time for best of the year lists, and check-ins on New Year resolutions and goals set by our optimistic past selves. Sure, time is arbitrary and shackles us to obsessions with productivity and achievement, but hey it’s a good excuse as any to pause and reflect.

It’s been just over a year (+1 month or so) since I started putting up games I’ve made on itch.io (ehronlime.itch.io). I’ve been designing games on and off for a while now but I didn’t think of putting up games I’ve made publicly until last year. I figure I’ll just dive right into notes on the games themselves, and work through what I’ve learned in the past year of putting games up there. (Each of the headers below is a link to the game’s itch.io page FYI)

How to Say Goodbye (Oct 2017)

goodbye

This game was the primary reason for me starting an itch.io page. I had initially released it as a bunch of images on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ehronlime/status/924050316915441664), and I was worried it’d be a pain to find them again in the future.

I think this is the most personal game I’ve made so far. I’ve had the vague idea and structure for a long time, ever since a casual conversation with a friend at Trippy Taco a few years back. However, I never did anything with it until a few factors collided toward the end of October 2017. A friend was going to move away from Australia abruptly. I know in the back of my mind that I’d be moving back to Malaysia some time after I got married, and the wedding would be coming up soon, putting that timeline into focus. I had been enjoying the company of friends from out of town at PAX but I was also aware of the comedown from that high approaching. All that culminated in me frantically scribbling the outline of the game on index cards one morning as I was preparing to head out to the convention and posting it up online. I cried as I wrote it out, knowing that it wasn’t about making a game per se, but putting words to a future and feelings that were inevitable.

I don’t even know if it’s a “good game”. I’ve never mustered up the courage to play it. At this point I’m not even sure it matters if it is. That act of writing it out that morning was more important to me. I look back at that moment often, when I’m thinking of what I want to make or say with games. That was probably the most honest I’ve been able to be with making a game, and I want to use that honesty more often.

As a side note, as far as I know, there is only one physical copy of this game that’s ever been made (besides the initial note cards). I got a friend to help me lay it out nicely and made them into cards and gave them to the friend who left Australia. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it since then, but it was important to me that he got a copy since in a way he was part of its creation.

Super Aussie Rules Football (Oct 2017)

superaussie

This is another game that’s been percolating for a while. I played a version of it with some other designers at Devcon 2016, but didn’t really sit down to clean up the rules and write it out until October 2017. I’ve always enjoyed learning about how sporting codes and associations codify the rules of sports and the motivations behind rules changes, which ties directly into my appreciation of game design told through errata, rules updates, rulings on interpretations, and game patches.

I thought it’d be a fun exercise to run through the process of designing the rules of a game, as a game; which is such an obviously wanky thing for a game designer to design. I didn’t do much with it until a call was put out for potential tabletop entries for the Contours exhibition in 2017. I didn’t submit this, but it did motivate me to try and package up this idea into something that would be resonant, presentable and playable to a crowd that may not be well-versed in games.

I love the name Super Aussie Rules Football because it covers so many bases: football is a perfect example of a sport that has spawned many different forms but share the same name; Aussie rules football in particular is a great example of what I wanted the game to represent since it’s so hyper specific to a few regions in one country; the Super prefix implies the humorous tone of the game and also invokes videogames own take on evolving rules for a sport through evolutions of the fighting game and platformer genres.

One final note on this game: It’s been a long-standing belief of mine that editing and choosing content/phrases for a presentation style game (like this one, and Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity et al) is really tricky game design on par with other “more mechanical” games. It irks me if anyone implies that they are lesser games as they are not “designed”, but they absolutely are and it’s not easy and I now have firsthand experience of how not easy it is.

Tower of Babble (Jan 2018)

babble

Since 2015, I’ve participated in Global Game Jam and designed tabletop games at them. I greatly enjoy the focus provided by game jams and have enjoyed meeting people through them. This year’s theme was “transmission”, and the design we ended up pursuing to the end was based on communication. It’s a pretty simple collecting game, but hindered by restrictions based on communication, which led to a very obvious theme of building the Tower of Babel. So obvious in fact, that it turns out we had designed something very close to a published game (BABEL https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/217378/babel). The animal sounds trick is a great take on it though, that I wish we had thought of. It’s a lot more elegant than trying to explain different verbal restrictions. A huge part of game jam for me has always been meeting and collaborating with new people, so huge shout outs to Jade and Stephen (even though we already knew each other) for designing this game together. I think it’s one of the more “clean” designs out of all the ones I’ve worked on at Global Game Jams. The concept is easily grokkable and it gets straight to the theme of communication, which I’m really pleased with.

Fade From Black (May 2018)

fade

After Global Game Jam, most of my game making efforts were focused on developing Rise to Power 2 (which I won’t talk about here, since it’s still in development and really could be its own topic). While that was and continues to be a lot of fun, I felt a bit antsy just working on a single thing that wasn’t entirely mine (though I think I’ve managed to impart my personal touch on it) and had an unclear, or fairly far off, finish line. I went to Freeplay and felt re-invigorated to create something small and personal again. I looked back at How to Say Goodbye and recognized I wanted to make something in that space again. The timing worked out really nicely with the 200 word RPG challenge, and so I wrote this quickly as my submission.

Again, it’s been something that I’ve been pondering for a while. I haven’t really seen much in games that tackled sex in the way that resonated with me. This was also on the forefront of my mind this year, now that my wife and I are finally in the same country after 10 years of a long distance relationship. It obviously affected how we approach sex and intimacy, but what hasn’t changed is my fondness for the moments after: the afterglow, the sweet whispers, the jokes, the mundane conversations. It’s something I haven’t seen that much of (which is probably more of a comment on my media habits, since I later found out there was an entire movie on it specifically https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0465375/), and was curious about addressing within games.

I had initially filed this away as something that might work as a Twine piece, but with the 200 word RPG challenge going on, I thought I’d try working within that format. Again, as with How to Say Goodbye, it’s something I haven’t playtested and fully admit it’s probably not a “good game” but I was glad to get it out there. Going back to the earlier note about feeling “antsy”, this was a good outlet for me to put down something quickly, to a point where I was fairly happy to call it “done”, and then move on to other designs. The period after putting this out was quite fruitful in terms of kickstarting new ideas and motivating me to look at what other ideas I had on the backburner that I wanted to continue working on.

The Wedding Couplet (Sep 2018)

couplet

Not fully standalone games, but potential playsets for Follow (a great game by Ben Robbins, available here: http://www.lamemage.com/follow/). These cover two themes that I’d love to work on in games: dinners and road trips. I had initially planned to work them into standalone systems, but after tinkering with them for a while, I realised they could work just as well as playsets for Follow, This is a testament to the flexibility of Follow as a system, but also a reminder for myself that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. I’m also finding it fun and challenging to work within the constraints of an existing system, as I’m really more excited about exploring the themes and trappings than any specific “game mechanic” interaction.

This is one that I am keen to play and playtest before calling them done, for the following reasons: I’m still a baby designer in the RPG/storytelling game space, and in trying to write the playsets, it gave me a greater appreciation of their construction that I want to tease out through play. Also, as much as I think the general structure of Follow will work with these playsets, I suspect there might still need to be some tweaks to how they interact with challenges and breaking the fellowship. Finally, I might also try to turn them into Fiasco playsets but I’ve actually not played Fiasco before so I want to do that before attempting any hacking.

ANYWAYS HERE’S WONDERWALL: The Card Game (Oct/Nov 2018)

Wonderwall

This started as an off-hand joke, but I found myself devoting more design effort into getting this joke made than playtesting the game I had signed up for public playtesting at PAX, heh.

This is probably the most fun I had making a game this year, as I love jokes and melding joke construction and game design was a delight. It’s also highlighted to me the parallels in how I construct jokes and how I design games: hone in on an idea, throw way too much onto it to riff on the initial idea, cut out about 80% of the crust that detracts from the initial idea, irrationally hang on to way too obscure references even after the cutting process and still end up happy with the joke even if it lost some objective quality due to your personal hangups.

That concludes the individual games portion of this presentation.

I’ve really been enjoying making and releasing small games on itch.io and taking baby steps into RPG/storytelling games. I think I’ve managed to strike a balance I’m comfortable with in terms of making small games quickly and also working on longer term projects, and between exploration of personally resonant themes and developing mechanics and systems that are personally fulfilling. The term “personal” has been a lodestar this year as I’m starting to understand myself better and what I want out of making games. I also acknowledge that the method I’ve settled on relies on immense privilege. I have a well-paying job that also allows me a fair amount of flexibility and free time. I’ve also been lucky enough to have made many friends and connections in the local boardgames industry right before it hit a big growth period. This lets me work on games and put them up for free, while also alleviating some pressures to network and market myself since I already know some people. All this has afforded me a feeling of freedom in exploring what games I want to be making. I don’t have a nice conclusion to this, but hey I hope this has been entertaining if not insightful, and I hope to be able to share more games with you in the future.

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