Last February, GeekDad Dave Banks alerted readers to a website for prototyping and selling original games. Inspired by a holiday season filled with Kickstarter gifts made by others, I decided to take his recommendation and use the site to turn an idea for three-person roshambo into a bona-fide product.
Owner J.T. Smith launched The Game Crafter as an original game producer in 2001. Since 2009, however, TGC has provided print-on-demand services to publish independent board and card games with high-quality parts, pieces and boxes. Home-baked ideas that were once slave to the engineering whimsy of an individual designer now could be mass produced, made to feel at home on any game shelf.
The origin of my game — Party On!— dates back a year, to an event run by Studio Cypher, a local game design company in Bloomington, Indiana. Will Emigh, one of its trio of co-founders, began hosting a quarterly game development session to help stimulate the creation and testing of independent games.
“Will wanted to foster the same sort of game development community that we had at Indiana University,” says Ian Pottmeyer, another Studio Cypher co-founder, “when we were there with a bunch of other game designers. Will was also seeing a lot of successful game design groups in places like Seattle and Carnegie Mellon. He wanted to have that kind of close-knit community here in Bloomington.”
It was because of one such event that a sleepless night turned into a set of playable rules. Coming from different sides of the growing gaming industry, Smith and Pottmeyer offer some insight and advice on taking this journey from brainstorm to box.
“The most important thing you can do as a game designer is finish,” says Pottmeyer. “We have yearly game jams so people have something they can finish.”
Tonight, Studio Cypher’s winter BIG Night will devote the evening to sharing information about game jams. Game jams are like hackathons specifically for building a game. Time is set aside and some design rules are established up front. Participants work within those constraints to come up with a creative game to play. The topic is intended to prep independent designers for the fifth Global Game Jam on January 25.
These community challenges extend a tradition that includes the Indie Game Jam, Ludum Dare and Nordic Game Jam. Last year, 10,000 people from 46 countries participated in GGJ and generated over 2,100 games in a single weekend. In Bloomington, the global jam will be hosted by SproutBox, another community-minded local company.
According to Pottmeyer, the best advice is to keep going. Don’t stop and think too much about something you’ll inevitably change later. “Some people will think they need to have their game perfect,” say Pottmeyer. “There will always be something more you can do, but at some point you have to say that it is finished and can go out into the world.”
Smith has seen the quest for perfection work against inexperienced designers, but often tweaking can mask a greater fear of sharing work. Pottmeyer sympathizes with that anxiety. “When you are making a game, you are always putting something of yourself in it,” he says. “What if people don’t like the game? The answer is, so what. You learned something from this experience, and you can make the next one better.”
“Sometimes the rough edges are what is fun about it,” adds Smith.
The game jam that spawned Party On! was a one-evening challenge, asking participants to create something new from three words: delay, friend, and switch. The catalyst words weren’t revealed until that evening, but I figured to get a head start on game mechanics the previous night, adapting to the specific constraint later. At the core of my idea was a three-player roshambo game. I quickly devised some rough rules involving wagers. Since I was shepherding five tween boys to the actual event, that prep effort was set aside to help an 8-year-old work through a board game involving wizards. It was enough, however, to provide the catalyst to create a couple prototypes a few weeks later.