Game School: Life, the Universe and Play Testing – being creative when life happens

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Pictured: Jim White, Brian Liberge in reflection, Guinness and Comet Cowboys.

This started off as a simple post about play testing my game Comet Cowboys, but in the course of 36 hours it turned into something else entirely. A common theme I see, a question I get asked a bit is this: How do you (in the generic sense, not me personally) continue to create when life throws everything at you? How do people go about play testing a game when they’ve had an awful day, or look at artwork when they’re battling a nasty flu? In short – how to do you stay creative when life happens?

I’ve been giving this a bit of thought lately in that space at the back of my mind normally reserved for nearly subconscious pondering and winning old arguments in the shower. I recently asked a whole bunch of design enthusiasts – folks who have not yet been published by an actual publisher – what their biggest hurdle was. Of the 12 or so folks I was talking with, 8 of them said they’re always running out of time, or that life just gets in the way. So how do you keep going in the face of, if not adversity, then life itself?

Know how you work

This is probably the most important point in this whole post. Everyone works a little differently and it’s very important that you step back for a few minutes and figure out now why you’re interested in creating games, but how you best go about doing so. Do you work best in silence? Alone? Positioned in front of the television with Voltron streaming by? What’s your most productive time? Now think of what’s your most productive time that you actually have available to you? Nail down how you best create, and when you best create, and then do everything in your power to carve out some time for yourself that best matches.working

Seems rather simple, but for the longest time I wasn’t doing that for myself. I’ve always known I’m a night person, but it wasn’t until the last year or two that I finally started setting aside a night or two a week where I can plug my headphones in, crank up my 80s thrash and then not listen to it for a few hours while I plug away at something. That’s how I best work, so I do my best to carve, wrestle, and otherwise steal time in my office to do so.

Find and define your passion

Okay, you’ve come to realize that crazy as it sounds, You’ll be getting up at 5am twice a week to have 2 hours of design time while the rest of the world sleeps. Now what? Here’s what! Work on what is currently keeping your brain clicking along. If that’s the one design you’ve been noodling with for years, get to it! For me, I like to have 2-3 games in active design at any one time. If I’m getting frustrated with pushing gravestone counters full of comets around in my head, I’ll take a break and focus on medieval Japan. If that’s just not in the cards for me that day, I’ll move over to my pirate racing game for kids. My passion is having as many of these things up in the air at once as I can. My passion is also whatever mechanic or style I happen to be playing a lot of an dissecting in my head. Currently that’s small box games.

Are there going to be days when you’re not passionate about anything game related? Absolutely. Sometimes I’m so damned tired or frustrated with other aspects of my life that I just don’t want to sit and design something. On those days Reddit calls me and I find it hard to stay away. So…

Set limits on procrastination

I allow myself one day a week where I can slack off. That’s right, if I’ve fought hard for two nights in my week where after the kids are in bed I can be designing and thinking, I may take one of those days and truly piss off with it. I don’t feel guilty because I’ve already made this bargain with myself. In fact, more often than not now I’ll find myself doing other game design related things which I can then file under productivity. Writing these articles for instance, or reading up on current trends in games. I sometimes find myself deep into art and design sites poking around to see what’s out there and getting even more ideas to plug into the “know how you work” section.

Make a real commitment

gymHowever it is that you work, and whatever your passion may be, after you set your limits you’ve just got to commit. Already blew off two hours of design time the day before but still don’t feel like working now? Tough. Like going to the gym you’ve just got to pick yourself up and get to it. Even if whatever is flowing out of your head and onto your word document is crap, at least you’re creating it. Who cares if you type out two pages of pure drivel if at the end of the time you’re actually creating. You’re still creating and this will help you later down the line. Also like going to the gym, the more your work out those muscles (your creativity) the more defined they get. Do this for a few months and even on your off days, you’ll be outputting better stuff than you did a few months prior. Most of the time, anyway.

Find others in your tribe

This is really important. You cannot do this in a vacuum. Really, it gets very, very lonely pushing around cards and cardboard all by yourself. Find some friends that share your enthusiasm for playing. Find yourself some communities online where other like minded people hang out. Board Game Geek, Google Plus, Facebook, the forum of your favorite publisher – all good places to start.

Once you do find your tribe, make sure you get and stay engaged. Make a real effort to contribute on a daily basis if you can. It will not only broaden your horizons, but it will also get other people interested in your ideas. You really can’t buy the kind of interest you can generate by being truly and honestly engaged with your tribe. Contribute! Comment! Add something of value! You’ll come away with two added bonuses. First, you’ll meet a lot of people who are similar to you and can encourage, commiserate and share with you. Second, you’ll come away with some great ideas and great advice.

I’ve noticed over the past few years a cool and interesting thing happening with my and my involvement with social media and gamers. It’s bleeding from online to real life. Just this past Tuesday I met with a whole bunch of people writing, creating and playing games at a bar in Cambridge. The picture above was taken at this gathering, as Jim and I tested out one of my new games, Comet Cowboys.

Step back

No one can do the thing they love 24/7/365 without burning out. If you start to feel like you’re burning out, head back to the “set limits on procrastination” bit and realize that not everyone can possibly be GO! GO! GO! all the time. Take a day off. Take a night off! Go out and do something utterly unrelated for a while. Hang out with your spouse, play with your kids, go fishing. You’ve got to give your unconscious time to unwind and hit on those neat ideas too.

Dive in

Although this is the second to last point I’ll make, it’s the most important to me personally. I don’t design games to make bucket-loads of money. I don’t do it for fame. I do it because it’s something it turns out I really, really love divedoing. It took me nearly 35 years to realize this. So when the world goes a little crazy, when I’m stressed out beyond belief, when I sometimes feel like I just want to get into bed for a full 24 hours, I turn to design. It’s a cathartic experience for me, making something simple and hopefully, eventually, elegant. I enjoy it like I enjoy nothing else because it’s not like anything else I’m doing in my life.

Recently there was a death in my family. The kind of emotional roller coaster emotional event that drags everyone along with it regardless of who they are, or what they’re doing. It was an awful time, with some awful circumstances and when I wasn’t feeling the pull of it at that moment, someone close to me assuredly was.

I also found that more than my usual and healthy escapes (a bit of television, reading a good book, going for a walk) that designing games was extremely cathartic for me. I actually entered a creative period greater than any I’ve experienced before and I’m still fine tuning designs I came up with over the past three months. I suppose it was a mix of doing something I enjoyed, and having the kind of pent-up, stress fueled energy I don’t normally have to deal with. Heck, if you can’t sleep and your mind’s racing, I thought, might as well put it to good use and do something creative at the same time. Hopefully what I’ve come up with will help bring some other folks a bit of enjoyment and fun in their lives as well.

Putting my money directly into my own mouth

These points above are what I’ve first unconsciously, and over the past half year or so entirely consciously done to spur myself into designing more, designing smarter and making overall better games. And it’s working! Here’s a very brief list of the games I’ve created in the last six months, or improved on significantly, in no real order.

  • Fools! (A push your luck card game with a hidden hand mechanic).
  • Gaido (A very small card game based on card facing and timing, mixed with some luck).
  • Upgrade Wars (A fairly in-depth card engine you use to create giant robots and field them on the table as they fight each other for dominance).
  • So You Want to be a Pirate? (A racing game with pawns and cards, that features hand management and a slight bit of backstabbing).
  • Comet Cowboys (Based off of Othello, and then off of a design idea laid out by Daniel Solis, this tile laying game has you trying to herd the biggest bulk of water ice comets into your little part of space).
  • A Little Bit of Evil (A re-theme of the four hundred year old game Poch, with a few twists. Cards, boards and 120 markers representing the hapless humans you’re all fighting over).
  • Zombie: Shambling and Hungry (A sit down, up to 4 player card game of being the best and brightest of the undead. Also, a game with which you can systematically infect your group, your friends or an entire convention).

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