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Prototype... Prototype... Protospiel

Kes Sampanthar

January, 2005

I went to Protospiel 2004 (P4) knowing it was the fourth time the game designer's conference had been held, knowing my fledgling game needed testing and feedback, and knowing my stomach was in knots. After a few minutes of interacting with other game designers, from published ones like James Kyle (Hell Rail) to other newbies like myself, I knew this event would leave me excited and invigorated, and would have a huge impact on my game designing.

Matching shirts are optional.

Stephen Glenn conceived of Protospiel, a conference where game designers can test their prototypes and get useful feedback from peers. Play testing is a crucial step in game design and it's difficult to recruit people to help you with it. The invention of a game's rules and physical components is only a small part of a game's experience—the bulk of a game's fun, or not, comes from the players and their interactions with the game and with each other. Due to this nature, game design is considered a second order design activity. A designer really only knows a little about how the final product will turn out to be, until it's tested.

Friends and family are the easiest to rope into play testing, but feedback like "Honey, you know I love everything you do!" and "Of course I liked it!" and "It's... really interesting, dude. Yeah," help little (aside from your ego). Even the occasional "This sucks" isn't useful to the evolution of a game unless it's followed by a list of reasons why.

Protospiel was born to fill this void. The concept of the conference is simple, and it was perfectly named: you bring your newborn game prototype(s), play each other's games, and talk, talk, talk about game design. Protospiel is a simple and elegant idea, which is what every good game design aspires to. It's also a total blast, another important attribute of games.

The Protospiel conference has grown rapidly during its four years and is now split into two conferences, Protospiel (held this year in Lansing, Michigan and organized by Mike Petty) and PowWow (in Charlottesville, Virginia under the guidance of Stephen Glenn).

Before Protospiel

Before P4, my game, MetaMemes, was pretty raw, more primordial ooze with potential than a real creature. I had spent two years prototyping and play testing with a small cadre of friends, and the game had made several evolutionary leaps. When I started, I had no idea how to even build a board game. What I did have was a raw concept for a creative game, a hazy idea of the kind of fun I wanted the game to achieve, and lots of experience playing games.

I've been into games of all kinds since I was quite young. Monopoly and Risk were two of my early favorites. My earliest memories of game design were when friends and I would design new variations to Monopoly on the back of the regular board, and once I lost the rules to Manacle and had to make them up on the spot when a group of friends wanted to play . I got into Dungeons & Dragons in 1982 and was fascinated by the rich fantasy world, a world you could invent and add to. At around the same time I was playing a lot of computer games. My fascination with D&D and computer games led me to writing text-based adventure games. I created a complete world for a D&D campaign as well, inspired by the amazing universe of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with maps, stories and puzzles to be solved.

I was a typical teenager and drifted away from games and game design for many years, but after I left university in 1994, a new game revived my interest in the world of games—Magic: the Gathering. I also started playing lots of Go and Chess.

Unfortunately, I knew nothing of the exciting leaps in European games that were happening at that time. Board games were making a huge resurgence in Germany, but I didn't know it, yet. There was a dearth of board game design resources, so my early forays into game design started from square one, and consisted mostly of reading computer game design books. There are quite a few similarities between board and computer game design, but not enough.

So I went back to the source. I researched by playing the standards—Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Risk, Cranium—and trying to find common features that would help my design efforts on MetaMemes which is, put simply, a creative card game where players combine ideas and objects to come up with new ideas.

I learned about the amazing games resurgence in Europe just last year, after taking a course run by Ben Baldanza called "Beyond Monopoly." Settlers of Catan was an awakening. This was no Monopoly, or even Cranium—the game immersed you for the entire game, and had no downtime waiting for other players to move, this was what a great game could be. I knew then that I needed to throw out my assumptions of game design and learn the fundamentals.

MetaMemes went through many changes during this awakening, morphing from a board game in the style of Monopoly and Cranium to a card game. My first prototypes were very intensive. The testers liked the game, but were so drained at the end of play that their hoarsely whispered suggestions that Gatorade and Power Bars be included in the box could barely be heard.

How Does One Design a Board Game?

I faced a catch-22 in my game design; MetaMemes is the kind of creative card game I wished I had to study while I was trying to design it. So I took a step back and plundered my knowledge of creativity and brainstorming. The best way to come up with "the next great idea" is to generate tons of ideas—the more ideas you think up, the more there are to choose from and/or combine.

I used a 5 phase creativity model (as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention) to improve the design of my game. The first step is Preparation. Become immersed in the field of study, which in this case means playing games. I wanted to learn what had come before, both to create something original and to avoid making common mistakes. So I dove pell-mell, willy-nilly, full-throttle, and with great vigor into playing European games. I enjoyed myself immensely and kept an eye out for any games with unique mechanics and play experiences.

The second phase, Incubation, might be the hardest, and it's certainly the one most likely to have your loved ones impatiently demanding how, exactly, you can claim that doodling on the tablecloth with a magazine open in front of you and the telly on is "designing". Incubation is basically sitting on your ideas and letting them grow, and it involves another catch-22—making yourself not think about your game so that you can think of something brilliant (this is step 3) while you're shaving or in line at the DMV. Incubation is hard to define—it's an indefinite period of time where you just ponder games, specifically and in general. In my case, knowing my incubation period for MetaMemes was limited by the nearing start of Protospiel 2004, I focused on the newly rediscovered world of text-based adventure games, which had made a comeback since my youth, immersing myself in computer game development while my other game ideas incubated.

The third phase, Insight, is the mythical "A-ha!" or "Eureka!" moment that also mythically strikes at odd times. Like all myths, there's some truth and quite a bit of fiction to both, so don't worry if your idea doesn't pop out of your head shouting its name. I'm not sure when my "eureka" moment came, but there is a before and after. In the "before" I didn't know how to make my good, but raw, idea for MetaMemes into something truly elegant. "After", I did, but I have no lightning flash story to tell. I'd been wrestling with the intricate and complicated sets of cards and rules needed for the prototype of MetaMemes. Getting rid of one type of card streamlined the whole game mechanism—this was the first "a-ha!" realization. The second was, in retrospect, more of a "duh!" moment than a "eureka," but I've found those two are often one and the same. I realized that people enjoy brainstorming in pairs more than by themselves. It seems obvious now, but my game design notebooks reveal that it hadn't occurred to me at all before.

Next, also known as Fourth, comes Evaluation. This is the "Whoa, Nellie" stage that inventors find the most difficult to work through. "A-ha!" comes with a lot of adrenaline and excitement, but serious scrutiny is called for to make sure the idea you're excited about will actually fly. Some ideas are unreasonable, some aren't going to work with the current constraints, and some are just plain bad. A serious evaluation of your idea can save a lot of fruitless work. Don't squash your enthusiasm, just give it some warm milk and put it to bed for a nice nap while you do some serious evaluation.

After my own "Whoa, Nellie" moment, I went back to my game design notes and asked myself if my idea actually met the criteria I'd decided make for a good game. Did these new ideas make MetaMemes more interactive? Check. Is the mechanism elegant? Check. Does it create any complications? Not sure. The only way to answer that question is to try it and see what the effects are. This brings me to the last phase...

Elaboration. Don't neglect this step; it's where an idea actually comes to fruition. This is where I needed to redesign my cards, modify the rules and get a prototype to play testers. Every occupation, and even avocation, has a mantra and game design's is "Prototype, Prototype, Prototype." It's one thing to think of an idea and talk about it, but you won't know if it works until it's implemented. Develop a prototype and start testing as soon as possible, which in this case means get people to play your game and make them give you feedback. Make another prototype, and test some more. Rinse and repeat. Most people dread this phase. It involves taking criticism about your special idea. But it's absolutely necessary.

Arriving at Protospiel

Before I left for the conference I gathered my friends and did one more rinse/repeat cycle of prototyping. I took the feedback and did some last-minute tweaking. The mechanics were now set, the cards were printed, and my wife made a game board . So I was all ready for Protospiel... right?

I suddenly realized I'd be walking into a room full of game design experts with my very first prototype. It was a tad unnerving. Dominic Crapuchettes would be there, he'd recently released Cluzzle, James Kyle, the author of Hell Rail, would be there , and Kory Heath with Zendo and Why Did the Chicken! and Mike Petty with What's it to Ya? Published designers! I suppose I should have been reassured that Mike and Dominic had both published games since Protospiel's inception, but it only made me more nervous.

In some ways, game design can be likened to sausages. When it's an idea, or piggy form, it's all cute and cuddly. When it's a finished sausage, it's yummy and smells delicious. In between, well, you just don't want to know. Play testing is like the making of sausage. Getting people to play your raw games is tough in the first place, and if it goes badly, well... mumbling my prototype was pretty raw and this iteration was untested always sounds like an excuse.

But I knew I'd never make progress with this game I believed in, if I didn't put it out there for real critique.

I arrived at Protospiel late and everyone was already very absorbed in playing games. Mike Petty welcomed me and I stood watching until a new game started. From that moment on I was immersed in a glorious tidal wave of playing games, discussing games, thinking about games, nothing but games. I had entered a world of people who loved games and creativity as much as I did. It was an awesome experience—I'd been part of communities of people who loved games, and communities of people who were creative, but here the two worlds intersected.

Meeting Game Designers of the Future

Protospiel 2004 was a gathering of wizards, and the magic they created was games. As I looked around I could see some of these designers, one day, joining the ranks of Alan Moon and Reiner Knizia. This felt like a gathering of artists akin to the Home Brew Computer Club (which started the computer revolution), or the Renaissance, or the Hillside Group, or the Bloomsbury Group. Board game design isn't new, and I'm sure communities of designers have come together before. But America, 10 years behind Europe's resurgence in board games and board game designers, is starting to bloom. More Euro games are hitting our shores, more people are being exposed to games, and I'd hazard a sociological hypothesis that more people are looking for fun social activities that bring people together—the popularity of games like Trivial Pursuit and Cranium have shown people a glimpse of what games can be like. Families and friends in Europe are just as likely these days to get out a board game as to go to the movies. The market and tastes of America are slightly different than in Europe, and I believe American designers, this group of them in particular, can influence the resurgence of game playing in the United States.

One reason for this belief of mine is that game design is reliant upon the kind of quality (and quantity) play testing available through communities like that of Protospiel. A slight modification can make the difference between a so-so game and one that blows your mind. Only play testing reveals the intricate little workings of a game, and only feedback can let you know whether a big change to your game will improve or destroy it's fun.

Some of the designers who've been coming to Protospiel over the last four years commented on the rising quality of prototypes and standards of design each year has brought. Many of the games I saw at the event were very nearly "finished", and I would have rushed out and purchased quite a few of them.

Protospiel had daily seminars from some of the thought leaders of game design like Kory Heath and James Kyle. These sessions triggered thought-provoking discussions on the nature of games, play testing, and other overarching design concerns . Each game itself also sparked game design discussions, and merely listening in taught me much more than I could ever have learned from books about player interaction, economics, player motivations, and so on. The feedback on my own game was in the realm of the basics, what worked, what didn't.

Playing Games, Games and More Games

I played a lot of games at Protospiel of course, but it always felt like I didn't get to play enough. Games ranged from ones involving the whole group to 2-player games. I wouldn't be surprised if some single-player games were floating around as well. Some games were played multiple times, some only once, but all were thoroughly discussed. Themes ranged from Irish mythology to space colonization, from party games to deduction and trading formats. The only downside to the plethora is I didn't have a chance to try them all! Deciding which game to try next was an enjoyable dilemma, which is similar to a good game actually.

The Future of Protospiel, PowWow and MetaMemes

I knew from the moment I walked into Protospiel that I'd be back. The games at Protospiel are increasingly polished, the format has been fine-tuned, and the conference has gained momentum. All these are good reasons to attend, but here's another: Stephen Glenn, Dominic Crapuchettes, and Mike Petty are prime examples of what Protospiel can achieve. All three were part of the initial conception of the conference, and all three are now published game designers. Dominic has his own game design company, North Star Games. Stephen's game Balloon Cup won many awards, and Mike's game What's It To Ya? was selected for Games magazine's 100 Best Games in 2004 list. That's the cake, the fun-filled discussions with like-minded people you find at Protospiel is just the icing.

I know on a personal note that MetaMemes would be in much worse state if it wasn't for the great feedback I got at Protospiel and PowWow. The game morphed dramatically between the conferences and after. Mike Petty mentioned in his wrap-up email that MetaMemes was his favorite gaming experience of the event:

"Kes' idea generating game (Early Adoption) holds a dear place in my heart as it has much in common with ideas I've been working on the past year. I wanted to mention that as my favorite gaming experience of the event."

To get such high praise from Mike definitely encouraged me. His comments were instrumental in my decision to take MetaMemes to the next level. I had started talking to Dominic Crapuchettes at Protospiel about attending Chitag; the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. It was only after the conference and I read Mike's comments did I make the final decision to attend. Dominic and I decided we would share a booth. It was at this point that I realized I needed to take MetaMemes from prototype to production ready. There is a lot of work that goes into producing a game, especially when you are self publishing. I could write a whole article on what it took to make MetaMemes production ready . I know I could not have made such a leap without Protospiel and PowWow.

A small games factory

Stephen and Mike have created a conference that solves one of a game designer's hardest challenges with a simple, elegant solution: put a bunch of enthusiastic game designers in one room and play. I think Protospiel and its offspring PowWow are going to be the catalyst the US game community needs. This gathering of artists, like other creative communities before it, will have a great influence on the art of game design in the future. For myself, I've taken the great feedback MetaMemes got at the conference and am once again putting it through the rinse/repeat cycles of prototype, prototype, prototype. I propose changing that mantra a little to Prototype, Prototype, Protospiel. And repeat. MetaMemes still has a long way to go. For Chitag I published an Early Adoption version of the game. Since it's a creative game and it is aimed at a creative audience, I had a sneaking suspicion that this audience would appreciate a game that they could help mold and shape.

I am not sure what the future holds for MetaMemes, but I know personally I have a lot of other game ideas just itching to come out. I will be attending Protospiel and PowWow in 2005 with some new prototypes tucked under my arm.

If you are interested in games and game design, then come and join us. The future of the US game industry rests in our hands.

- Kes Sampanthar

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