The Design Arc

The Software Development Spiral, with analysis, evaluation, planning, development in quadrants

One of the designers I greatly admire, is Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic the Gathering. I admire many things about him, like his abundant communication and his willingness to take risks.

Magic the Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater.
Mark Rosewater – From wikipedia.com This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In 2017, he posted about some changes that Magic the Gathering R&D have made to their design process. The concepts of vision and set design are quite interesting, and I suggest you take a look here. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Mark has talked at length about changes he, and others, have made to their design process at R&D. Which brings me to the thing I admire most about Mark as a designer – his ability to always challenge himself and others to improve.

Last month, I posted an article titled The State of Paper Dice Games 2019. One of the things I mentioned in the article, was a release schedule I had – I was focused on releasing one “thing” a month. It was usually a free game or resource, but in October it was First Role – an introductory RPG system.

In the time since I wrote the article, I realized something. My release schedule was filled with small projects that I could release each month – but none of my big projects, the fun games I wanted to create, were anywhere on the schedule for release. In my haste to publish more content, I was making it harder to publish the larger projects I’ve been working on.

I needed to find a change. For now, I’ve settled on the Design Arc.

The Design Arc

The design arc is a flexible schedule of ordered tasks, that when completed, will bring a game from the original concept to published format. The design arc will be measured in years, and the game that is being designed will go through incremental improvements, and eventually, releases, until its final publish. It’s very similar to the developmental cycle of, say software.

The Software Development Spiral, with analysis, evaluation, planning, development in quadrants
Something like this, but not quite.

The design arc is not a new, or even innovative concept. But it’s a concept I think will work with my flexibility, my schedule, and the types of games I want to create.

Focus

One of the things I’ve noticed in designing games over the last five years, is that many of my designs take time. Lots of time. There are a few designs that I’ve been actively working on for 4 or more years. The design arc is going to enable me to organize my tasks and tests, keep a focused eye on progress, and most importantly, allow for a long design process that avoids pressure for a constant monthly release.

The design arc allows me to stay focused on a project over long lengths of time, even if part of that focus is putting a project down and walking away for a month or two. This is a strategy I use when I get very stuck with a design challenge. One project, Dwarf Mine, I put down for almost 6 months, until inspiration hit and I realized a solution to the problem I had.

Explanation of the game Dwarf Mine.
The intro paragraph to an upcoming playtest for Dwarf Mine (working title).

With the organized nature and flexible timeline in the design arc, my projects will stay focused, even after a long hiatus from a particular game.

Playtesting

The design arc will also allow me to playtest more. The short shortsightedness of my monthly release schedule was forcing me to publish games that either didn’t require playtesting, or didn’t get enough playtesting. The resource that stumbled the most due to this was Dungeon Builder. I thought, and still think, the concept is worth exploring more (especially from a thematic and flavor standpoint). But, I had given myself a quick deadline, and I rushed it out the door.

One of the tables in the game resource Dungeon Builder.
The naming table in the game resource Dungeon Builder.

With my larger projects, I was aware that playtesting would be necessary. By focusing on a design arc, rather than monthly releases, I can take the time for the playtesting that is needed. Ultimately this should result in games that are much more fun upon first publishing.

Community

One of the games I am most excited about, is Oceans (an Evolution Game). Oceans is set to be released in 2020, but I’ve been excited about it since 2018. How is this possible? The designer and founder of North Star Games, Dominic Crapuchettes, announced it in 2018. He ran a community playtest later in 2018. He’s kept open communication with fans of the Evolution franchise, allowing them access and information in advance of his 2020 Oceans release.

A monthly release schedule leaves almost no time for building, or even communicating to, a community. Looking back over the last few months, I have a strong admission of guilt, that I was unable to effectively communicate any of my releases.

A broader design arc will allow me to communicate more freely, and give me a tool to build a community around a game.

Looking Forward

If writing an article is any benchmark of enthusiasm, I am very excited about my new design arc structure. Like I listed in the article above, it frees me up to pursue larger projects, helps maintain focus, allows more rigorous playtesting, and gives opportunity to build a community.

I will be using the design arc structure to my game designs as we move forward into the holidays and 2020. If talking about design is something you care about, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on twitter at: @paperdicegames. You can also sign up for the game mailing list here. Otherwise, stay tuned for more fun games!

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