Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of working on one of the more unique rewards for Corporate America Kickstarter supporters: hand made prototypes from various stages in the development of the game. Many other projects offer art related sneak peeks into the development process, but I don’t actually know of another project that offers a glimpse into the game design process like these prototypes do, which were available at the Political Action Committee reward tier.
Those of you who follow the blog know I’m a firm believer in iterative game design, and I like to share that process when I can. But the iterative design process is just that: a series of tiny steps that eventually makes a game as good as possible. Since I’m so focused on the details of each small change, I often miss the big changes that occur over the course of long periods of time. Making these prototypes has reminded me of some of the huge strides Corporate America took over the course of its development, so I thought I’d share some stories today.
The earliest prototype available for Political Action Committee supporters also happens to be the first version of the game that anyone played (November 16th, 2011)! I’ve already talked a bit about that first playtest, so I’ll discuss about some of the quirks of this version and some of the big problems I discovered playing with it.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there isn’t a whole lot there! Honestly, the rules weren’t even stable enough to be written down, and the rules pictured come from a later version of the game (I needed to sign something for my supporter!). This version lacked a board, Executive Privilege cards, any art or icons, and even $20 and $50 bills!
Some of its features didn’t make the cut, though. For example, there were four industries (agriculture, clothing, construction, and education), one PR problem (sort of) (creative), and one ideology (social) that aren’t in the final game. There were also all sorts of wacky laws and protests that were either too complicated or didn’t do enough that were eventually cut or evolved into something else.
So what was wrong with this version? It turns out a lot! Of course, you should always expect a lot to be wrong with a first prototype. You make a first prototype to experiment with an idea and see if the basic concept is worth your time. You shouldn’t expect perfection. Here are a few of the many problems early playtests showed:
Words do not equal images. Corporate America is all about how businesses, consumers, and legislation are connected by industries. You need to quickly be able to tell which cards relate to which industries. Without icons, these connections were a huge pain to identify. It was SO apparent after my first playtest that this was a show stopper problem that I went through each card by hand and drew in little icons myself so I could playtest again without having to update the software I used to generate the cards.
Engines must produce. The first numbers you set never work. But one thing I’ve discovered about myself as a game designer is that my numbers always don’t work in a reliable way: I’m too conservative with them early on. For example, in the first playtest of Corporate America, businesses made so little money that everyone ended the game with less money than they started! A game where the optimal strategy is doing nothing isn’t a fun game.
I keep numbers low because I’m afraid of creating cards that are too powerful, but I’ve learned that if you want to test something, you should make that thing attractive, which usually means big numbers. That’s why in the first prototype of the Corporate America expansion (playtested for the first time yesterday!), I intentionally gave the new stuff bigger numbers than I think it should have. My hope is that it gets people to play with the new cards so I can see how they’ll work in action and can then scale back as necessary. Plus, I know I’m not going to get the numbers right without seeing them in action, so I might as well overestimate them instead of underestimating them! (Even though I bet I still underestimated them.)
Differentiate players. One of the main goals of Corporate America is to get people negotiating about which consumer card should be played and what the government should do. But to do that, players must have different interests, which means being invested in different industries. In the first version of the game, there was no incentive to get multiple businesses with the same industry, so almost everyone had a fairly uniform distribution. That made debates about consumer cards and the president much less fun, since almost all consumer cards and legislation cards affected everyone about the same.
The solution to this was introducing corporate synergy (then called monopolies) to the game. Once added, synergy didn’t change for the rest of the design process! (Except the name.)
Incentivize what you want players to do. The original concept behind Corporate America was a game in which players, as corporations, would compete to control the government so they could make as much money as possible. While bribing in the Main Street Phase ended up stealing a bit of the show, the presidential elections are still one of the most fun and exciting parts of the game. But in the original version of the game, a combination of everyone having similar businesses and the president not really getting much power meant that most people didn’t want to run for election.
While increasing the number of legislation cards available for the president to choose from and making legislation cards more powerful in general helped solve this problem, it was Executive Privilege cards, which were added after the first playtest, that really made the presidency special and exciting.
Though the first version of the game was not terribly fun and had a lot of problems, it did what it needed to do: it showed that the game had promise and set a decent starting point to sculpt what would become an awesome game.
I was happy with the first version of the game and had fun playing it a few times with a few different people. I still have the very first edition I made, which has all sorts of numbers scribbled out and rewritten as I tried to get the game to play just right. By the time I had completed the next prototype, what I call the first revision, on December 2nd, 2011, a lot of work had already been done.
This version of the game featured fixes to all of the previous problems I discussed, including the addition of icons (which helped, but weren’t quite enough), the tweaking of numbers (note that I had discovered that magic $4 cost, $4 income, 2 industries formula for businesses by this point, though lots of other numbers were way off), and the addition of Executive Privilege cards. (Synergy had been added by this point as well, but didn’t require an update to the actual components of the game.) Some questionable inclusions from the first edition (like business cards that were “corporate actions” instead of businesses) were also removed, and new cards added to help balance the industries out a bit.
That said, there were still plenty of problems! Here are a sampling that you’ll see improved by the next prototype available to Political Action Committee supporters:
Too many industries. While it was hard for me to accept, there were just too many industries in the early versions of the game, including this one. I, like many other game designers, love coming up with lots of ideas, and it can be tough to let go of some fun ones for the sake of the game as a whole. In Corporate America, having too many industries means that some are not represented in anyone’s businesses too often, which means both consumer cards and legislation cards come up as blanks (not cool). The first two industries to go were agriculture (which collapsed into food) and construction (which had weird rules for being consumed). Creative (which transformed into innovative in this version of the game), was also pretty wonky and bit the dust after this version. Sadly, these would not be the last industries to go.
Help the players play the game. I really didn’t want Corporate America to have a board. I had just stopped working on a game that required a board, so I’d gotten a glimpse of how expensive and difficult to design they are. (I wouldn’t discover how difficult they are to make look good until I added one to Corporate America!) I designed the game so it wouldn’t need one, and this version of the game lacks one. But at the end of the day, there is enough information to keep track of (like which phase you’re in and how many cards have been played) that I had to give in and add one. The board actually adds a lot of additional functionality, like reminders for important numbers, but they’re still a pain in the butt and the wallet.
Icons aren’t enough. While the icons I added in this version of the game definitely helped make the game more playable, they weren’t enough. They were too small. Additionally, PR problems (then called externalities) looked just like industries, even though they behave quite a bit differently (they never make you money!). Figuring out exactly how to represent PR problems would be a difficult graphic design problem that would last until the very end, since PR problems do have some overlap with industries, but I at least identified that they couldn’t look exactly the same after this version was complete.
Focus on what’s fun. In the early versions of the game, I had all sorts of stuff in the game that proved too confusing or not interesting enough, so had to be removed. This is a slightly different problem, though: I had a few businesses that cared about things the players didn’t care about. One business cared about players trading or selling businesses to each other (something that wasn’t worth slowing down the game for). That business didn’t last long after this version. There were also several businesses that cared about when certain types of businesses started. These special abilities were easy to forget and forced you to pay attention to something you otherwise wouldn’t care about. These businesses survived until the next version, but they ultimately didn’t make the final cut.
Half Way There
Alright, I’ve already talked enough for one post, but I still have two more versions of the game to show you! I’ll have to save it for later, probably two weeks from now, since next week I want to talk about how awesome the global game jam was last weekend!