Iterative Design in Action: Deranged Fantasy Games

Open any book on game design and one of the first terms you’ll see is iterative design. The idea is simple: start with something basic, test it, refine it, add to it, and repeat until you have a complete game. Take this approach instead of, say, keeping your elaborate masterpiece hidden during months of production so you can reveal the completed work of art to an adoring public all at once.

The problem? Even though your game, a sophisticated MMORPG with detailed class, crafting, and magic systems, a sophisticated economy, and countless enemies, works perfectly in your head, it won’t in practice. Not only will your numbers be waaay off, your interface will be incomprehensible, your combat system will be confusing, and your central mechanics will be poorly defined and boring. If you’d tested those basic assumptions first, you wouldn’t have wasted so much time perfecting the code and art that ultimately won’t make a good game. It’s much better to start small and simple and only grow when you’ve fixed up the basic kinks and know the core game will work.

Today, I want to illustrate the iterative design process by tracing how one piece of Corporate America has evolved from the first proof of concept prototype of the game to the most recent version, which is fairly close to being functionally complete. Along the way, you’ll see how following the process helped me and how ignoring it made my life more difficult. You’ll also get a glimpse of the design process in action: I’ll explain some of the challenges I encountered and the solutions I adopted to solve them.

Corporate America is a satirical board game about the 1% manipulating the population and government to benefit their businesses in the contemporary United States. The game piece I’ll be using as a model is Deranged Fantasy Games, which happens to be my favorite business in the game.

Ugly Beginnings

Every iteration of a game should be tested against specific questions, and the first should almost always be “Does the core idea behind this game work? Is it fun?”. In order to answer these questions, your game doesn’t need to be pretty or clean, or even all that functional. It just needs to work at a basic level. It’s almost certain that the game won’t turn out exactly like you imagined it would (and be honest, you probably don’t even have a crystal clear vision of what the game will look like), so it’s generally not worth it to put effort into making it look very nice or anything. In fact, it can even be a bad thing, because you will be more attached to your work and won’t want to give it up when you find it doesn’t work. Your testers might also be less willing to offer honest feedback if they feel like the game is in a polished state.

Original Deranged Fantasy GamesThis brings us to the first version of Deranged Fantasy Games. As you can see, it’s very bare bones, with no color or images and only minor formatting. In fact, I would have just written it out by hand on a piece of paper if I hadn’t already had some programs I wrote for another game I was able to adapt to quickly pump out cards like this. Remember, my goal with this version of the game was to discover if a game about corporate influence over government would be interesting to players, and if the mechanics I had in mind seemed promising. I barely paid any attention to the numbers or anything, just getting some down to try the game out.

So what does this jumble of text mean? Well, you can probably see the name at the top, and the type of card under it on the right (business). The $6 under the name indicates how much it costs to start the business, and the $3 in the bottom right is the business’s income–this indicates how much money the business makes when it makes money. Those words under the line are the business’s industries. Deranged Fantasy Games is in the entertainment, sin, and creative industries, which indicates how the population and government interact with it.

I’m happy to say that the first playtest was a big success, and showed that the basic game was very promising. Even though there were A LOT of problems, the players had fun and could see the potential for the game. Many of the problems were not about businesses, but there were two big problems that were.

The biggest problem was that it was difficult to tell what industries a business had, since they are all just black text. My first “quick” solution was to use color pencils to use a bit of color to differentiate them. Though it didn’t work all that well, it worked well enough that I decided to create icons to differentiate them, as you’ll see in the next iteration.

The other big problem was that the numbers didn’t work out. I was too conservative, and players ended the game with less money than they started the game with! Just so you know, when the optimal strategy of your game is to not do anything, the game is broken. Again, for the first version, this wasn’t too important, since I was just testing the basic idea, but it was something that needed to change to make the game more serious moving forward.

Adding Some Color

Revised Deranged Fantasy GamesI attempted to address the problems in this next iteration of the game. Note the colorful icons and the  slight number changes.

I also added a little flavor text to the card. It was important to me to test out the tone of the game, since it’s pretty cynical and sarcastic and about a topic people aren’t used to playing games about. While flavor text was fine to test this, I discovered that I took this too far, as I’ll discuss later.

Another change I made was renaming “creative” to “innovative”. My idea here was that the business depended on intellectual property to function. People were confused about “creative” and I hoped “innovative” would convey the idea more clearly.

The main problem I encountered with this iteration is that innovative worked differently from most other industries (like entertainment and sin), but the way it was displayed looked the same. Differentiating them would be a goal of the next iteration.

The icons worked well to help people identify the industries, but I got complaints that they were too small, so that was another thing to fix for the next iteration. The number changes also helped a lot, but number tweaking is something you’ll do throughout the design process, so don’t expect these to stay constant for long. I honestly doubt you’ll ever find the perfect numbers, even when it comes time to release the game–that’s one of the reasons games like StarCraft release patches.

Bigger and Better

Yet Another Deranged Fantasy GamesAs you can see, the differences here are pretty subtle, but they definitely improved things. The icons are slightly bigger and easier to see. The income is also bigger, something I hoped would help people remember the difference between the cost and the income of the card (not a common problem, but one I wanted to never happen). I also decided to bold the industries but italicize the other labels like innovative. The flavor text became italicized to differentiate it from special rules, which some other businesses had.

You’ll also notice the new icon for innovative. A graphic designer friend of mine commented that the icons looked great–except innovative. So sadly I had to ditch the old icon, even though it was just the right snarky level for me.

Sadly, by this point I was coming to terms with the fact that innovative wasn’t playing very well. People didn’t understand the concept I was trying to communicate with it. Also, it rarely actually came up in gameplay, making it feel like it didn’t matter most of the time. Though it didn’t make me happy, it was time to say goodbye to innovative.

The story of innovative is a sad one, but it wasn’t unique. Ultimately, it happened because I didn’t follow the iterative design process. I should have started simple and added complexity and nuance as the core game solidified. Instead, I packed in way too much stuff from the beginning, and tried to make it mirror real life too much. I should have made the industries abstract (hearts, clubs, spades, etc) from the beginning, instead of based on actual industries. In my defense, I wanted to test the theme of the game while I tested its mechanics, but it just led to heart break when I had to get rid of businesses and entire industries my playtesters and I had become emotionally attached to.

Shuffling Industries

Deranged Fantasy Games: Keep Truckin'As you can see, there was a big shift between this version of Deranged Fantasy Games and the last. Most of the changes are the result of switching the business’s industries, though.

As I mentioned in the last section, innovative’s time on this world was not long, so that bit the dust. Technology, another actual industry that other businesses had previously, took up some of its slack, so Deranged Fantasy Games acquired it.

Another big change is the loss of entertainment. I realized that another business had the sin/entertainment combination, and I didn’t want to have too many in the game. You might argue that games are in both the sin and entertainment industries (or maybe even that they aren’t in the sin industry, but where’s the fun in that?). Ultimately the needs of the game trumped the accuracy of the game. I decided Chupadinero Casino needed both sin and entertainment more than this business.

Deranged Fantasy Games also acquired media at this point, another industry. I decided the sin industry needed a boost, and a three industry business helped a lot. Plus, it seemed appropriate that the games company could better influence the population, given the whole concept behind Nothing Sacred Games. Having three industries also meant the cost and income needed to change yet again.

I also added a new special rule, “one population card per phase costs $2 less”. All media businesses have this rule, which makes it easier for them to control the population in the game. The icon in the bottom center is a visual reminder of this special rule, another feature I was experimenting with at this point in design.

The extra rule meant there was less room for the flavor text, which got compressed. I’d also gotten complaints about using “rape” in the flavor text. I want the game to be edgy, but I don’t want to offend people away before they get a chance to see that the game is full of social commentary, so I dropped this. Unfortunately, the flavor text started reading much worse now, and taking up space which is increasingly scarce, so don’t be surprised if you see it go soon.

One final change I wanted to mention is that I dropped to card type (business) and labeled the cost. This further helps differentiate the cost and the income, since my previous fix, changing the size, didn’t do the trick. I also didn’t need to label businesses as such any more. In earlier versions of the game, there were non-business cards in the business deck (cards like “Hostile Takeover”), but these seemed confusing and messed up the balance of the game, so they were dropped.

It’s Getting Better All the Time

Deranged Fantasy Games: Lookin' GoodAnd we finally get to the current version of Deranged Fantasy Games, in all its sinful glory. Note that this last iteration is from about 3 months after the previous one. I was iteratively changing the game throughout that time, but this particular business didn’t change a lot.

So what changes were made? First off, I got rid of that pesky flavor text, which was a mere shadow of the original idea. When it comes to designing games, you’ll have a lot more exciting ideas than you’ll have room, so you need to be able to cut ones that aren’t pulling their weight. Getting rid of the business’s tagline gave more room to increase the size of the special rule reminder icon, which helps people remember the rule.

There are only two other changes worth noting here. The first is making the line under the business’s industry solid. I did this for all of the businesses because I wanted to differentiate the industries a business has from its special rules. A few businesses have special rules that refer to industries those businesses don’t have, which confused some players about which industries the business has. So this change is more of a side effect change from other businesses.

The other big change is the technology icon changing from an iPod to a generic computer. While I think the iPod icon is probably more synonymous with technology in most people’s minds, if there’s one company I don’t want to incur the wrath of, it’s Apple. Using the iPod was fine in testing, but once I wanted to start showing more people the game, it was time for it to go. I don’t want to get sued.

Mission Complete?

You’ve seen the evolution of Deranged Fantasy Games from the first version to now, but is that the end of the road? Is this what the card will look like when the game finally goes to print? Almost certainly not. For one thing, all of the visual and artistic work I’ve done has been purely functional. I never prettied things up just to make them look better–I only prettied things up because the game needed it to function properly. However, the bare bones formatting and the “programmer art” I’m using for icons will probably change by the time I print the game for a mainstream audience, because most people are accustomed to fancy, colorful templates. I just need to find an artist first. Speaking of which, know any good artists that would be interested in a game about corporate control over government?

This game piece works pretty well functionally, but who knows what will change by the time the game reaches its final form. There might be some small number changes or even some radical basic changes (like changing its industries) made to this card before the game is ready for printing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak peek into the behind-the-scenes iterative design process. If you’re interested in more examples like this, let me know. We’ve covered the story of a single business, but there are tons more businesses, not to mention two other decks of cards, a board, and plenty of rules to discuss. Just let me know!

In the mean time, I hope this helps you remember that no matter how beautiful the game your playing looks and feels, it started as a rough idea in someone’s head and only with a lot of work evolved into the awesome experience you eventually enjoy.