Being a Mad Hatter

One of the coolest things about games is that they incorporate so many different disciplines into a single experience. From game design, you have a lot of psychology, storytelling, and math. There are plenty of challenging engineering problems to solve when you’re building a game, especially if it’s a digital game. The art is clearly a big part of most games, and for digital games, you’d be surprised how much sound and music add to an experience. Writing comes up all over, from dialog to rules. Graphic design is needed for instructions, menus, HUDs, cards, etc. And then there’s the whole business side of things–which projects are worth pursuing? What’s the the best way of pursuing them? How will you get word out about the game? You need to be able to develop a fan base and negotiate and coordinate to get your final product out there. In addition to all of that, you need to know about whatever your game is about, since you can literally make it about anything!

While I’m incredibly happy to be able to spend one day programing physics engines and particle effects, then spend the next day working on a prototype by cutting straight lines like I’m in kindergarten, I’ve quickly become aware of some of my strengths and weaknesses among the many, many different roles I have to adopt. Discovering areas where my skills are lacking can be very frustrating, but it also offers an opportunity to learn and grow, something I cherish very much.

I tend to focus on game design on this blog–it’s my true passion–but completing a game involves so many other activities that I wanted to take a bit of time to share some of the other things I’ve been exploring. Today, I’ll discuss some of the graphic design work I’ve been doing for Corporate America.

Functional legislation: it’s not pretty.

Lately, I’ve been spending a huge portion of my time working on the graphic design for Corporate America. Until now, I didn’t really care about the appearance, I only worried about whether the layout was functional or not. But now that the rules for the game are pretty much stable, it’s time to make the cards actually look presentable. I’m hoping in the not too distant future to start a kickstarter campaign, where I’ll be asking people I don’t know to support me. They’re not going to support something they don’t think is legitimate, and having a professional look is one of the first hurdles they have to pass before they’re willing to give me the time of day.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the new look for business cards. Since then, one of the biggest graphic design challenges I’ve encountered is the legislation cards. They have a lot of difficult requirements: Players have to be able to quickly identify what they do from across a table, so they must have large pictures that help explain their rules. It must be clear which ideologies they have, since protester logic can already be complex enough even when players don’t have to squint to see which legislation matches which protests. The difference between laws, which stick around affecting the game permanently, and immediate legislation, which happens and then ends, has to be clear. Additionally, legislation varies widely in terms of how many lines of rule text they require and how many ideologies they have, and whatever template I use has to look good with any combination.

That’s a lot of requirements. On top of that, it had to look good! Where could I even start?

One thing I’ve learned while working on Corporate America is that basing a style on an existing style can be extremely helpful to ground an idea. When I designed the various styles of business cards, I benefited greatly from browsing the internet, looking for examples of business cards to get an idea of what people expect. For the businesses, the inspiration was clear: business cards (in the game) could look like business cards (used to impress others at conventions). But what could legislation look like?

My first idea was pretty straight forward: make legislation look like a law! Makes sense, right? But… what does a law look like? Well, in reality, laws probably look horribly boring: just pages and pages of tiny text. Most people probably couldn’t tell a law apart from any number of other awful bureaucratic documents they’d prefer to know nothing about.

Alright, so basing the visual style on a real law wouldn’t work. Is there something unrealistic people associate with laws? When I thought about it, I came up with two ideas: a law like from Schoolhouse Rocks, or something that looks like the original constitution: wrinkled and water stained with fancy writing.

It only took one friend commenting on how “Web 2.0” this scroll style law looked to make me realize it wasn’t going to work.

I experimented with a few possibilities in this space before giving up. There were a number of reasons. For one, I have some art and graphic design skills, but they’re fairly limited, and this style is just outside of my abilities (see the rough examples). For another, much of the graphical information just looked completely out of place on a fancy, old looking law. It’s possible a better artist could have made it fit, but I certainly couldn’t. Finally, I’m not even sure that this style of law would fit in with the rest of the game. Even if people think of script and crinkled paper when they think of laws, in the context of a game with references to many modern events and entities, I think it would just look out of place.


The “wrinkled paper” style laws looked a little better, but still didn’t mesh.

Ok, so making the legislation cards look like laws didn’t seem promising… what else could I base my graphic design on? I then came up with the idea of not using the actual laws as inspiration, but the media’s response to them! I’d wanted to incorporate political cartoons into the game from a very early stage, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, since they would need pictures anyway. So, I started looking at a lot of newspapers for inspiration.

The cartoons did work well and overall the newspaper look was very promising, but ended up not working out. Again, my graphic design skills were lacking, but there were some other complications. For example, listing the ideology icons didn’t look quite like a newspaper, and having various numbers of ideologies and law icons made it difficult to have a single unifying template.

A fake article was a bit confusing…

Possibly most problematic, though, was that the look of newspapers is defined in large part to the blocks of text they contain, which is something I have tried to purge from my game’s cards. I even experimented with having fake text to make it look more newspapery, but this was confusing and didn’t work well for cards with different numbers of ideologies.

…and looked downright bad when there were ideologies.

There was yet another problem, too. Honestly, who reads newspapers any more? Old people, that’s who! But seriously folks, in a game that engages with contemporary issues, the newspaper look seems outdated. My friend Rebecca Blakley, a very talented artist, was kind enough to point this out. Thankfully, she also suggested an alternative, one that has proven to be effective. Why not base the cards on 24 hour news networks?

So, off I went to research what 24 hour news network screens look like. Thankfully, they’re just simple and tacky enough for my graphic design skills to handle. The ideology and law icons fit right in, and the amount of text seemed fine for that style. I most likely won’t be able to have traditional political cartoons, but being based on tv, large visuals work well. I was even able to make the system work for various numbers of ideologies!*

The new style works well for simple legislation without ideologies…

…and complex legislation with lots of rules and ideologies!







* I kind of cheated, since the template changes based on the number of ideologies and the number of lines the rules take.

But wait, the story isn’t over yet! Among the legislation in the game, there are a handful of common types that are similar, except they affect different industries. For example, there’s one type that boosts the income of businesses with a specified industry (one card boosts green, another boosts technology). I wanted a template for that type that is both interesting and clearly identifiable. So, I want legislation type templates within the legislation template! (I know, my mind is blown as well.)

The challenging part is that I have two different types of “good” legislation and two different types of “bad” legislation. On the good side, there is legislation that boosts all businesses with an industry, as well as legislation that lets the president give away money to owners of certain businesses. On the bad side, there’s legislation that reduces the income of businesses with an industry, as well as legislation that makes business owners pay one time immediately. The difficulty is that I want these easily and quickly identifiable from each other. This makes using colors difficult–it’s easy when blue = good and red = bad, but it’s more difficult when light blue = this kind of good, dark blue = that kind of good, etc.

I’m sure that actual artists or graphic designers would have lots of solutions to this problem, but it has been challenging for me. My brother Trevor Fristoe came up with a really good idea: introduce an Uncle Sam character to represent the president in a playful way on some of the cards. (By the way, Trevor is an awesome artist who has done a lot of concept work for my other games and taught me about the Tlingit art style I used for Xaat Disi.)

Happy technology firms…

…and a happy president!


Now, don’t get me wrong–these cartoons are by no means finalized. Even if stick figures have some charm, these stick figures could still use a lot of work. I’m hoping that the news channel style design will survive, but the important thing for now is that the cartoons function. The Uncle Sam character also adds a lot of personality and humor to the cards, which goes a long way in creating the sort of atmosphere I want around the game. These designs can act as rough drafts or sketches that a more skilled artist can improve.

And that’s that for today. As I continue to wear different hats during the process of releasing Corporate America, you can expect more posts like this. After all, one of the main goals of this blog is to give you an idea of what it’s like to be an indie designer, and this is a very honest view! I hope it also gives you an idea of how much work goes into making a game like this–today, I pretty much only discussed art and graphic design, and there were still many iterations and countless small decisions to make.

I also wanted to give a shout out to some of the people who have helped me come this far! From playtesters offering feedback, showing me weaknesses, and still enjoying the game, to the people who offer advice or teach me something new like Becky and Trevor, so many people have contributed to getting the game to where it is. Everyone who touches the game makes contributions. And many more will get involved before the game is released!

So, yeah. Hurray for everyone!

Hurray for everyone!

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