Thorsten Gimmler Micro-interview

After watching and responding to Daniel Solis and Kory Heath’s discussion on the iterative process of game creation and different modes of thinking on when a game is complete in my previous post, I decided to send a message to Thorsten Gimmler asking two brief questions.

Daniel had mentioned that No Thanks! is a “perfect” game in his mind and Kory affirmed that this was a very good game. So, after searching around for a while for an email or web presence for Mr. Gimmler and finding nothing, he showed up on a German Facebook listing. So I messaged him there. Here’s what I asked the man who makes games where you politely decline stuff:

"Hi Thorsten,

Do you have a perfect board game? (one that you admire above all else).

And do you think your game “No Thanks” is a perfect game?

Thanks, 😊
TC”

Moments ago (a few days later), I received this response:

"Hi Thomas,
Do I have a perfect board game? I have more than 2000 games at home. I think that there are some perfect board games between. But I can´t say, that this is the one and only! 😉 I have a lot of games that I love!

I think that “No Thanks” is one of my best games. Is it a perfect game? I think that this is something other people had to decide.”


So, is the search for creating the perfect game a fruitless quest? Not really, but it looks like even Thorsten agrees that even picking favorites is difficult. The crushing, soul-defeating criticism of games that we make rests in the hands of those who buy or play our games.

Thorsten has made Daniel’s perfect game and even he doesn’t acknowledge it. It could be humble German designer speak, or it could be that we are our own worst critics and that’s probably good, because we’d probably stop creating games if we already created the perfect one in our own minds.

Kory Heath & Daniel Solis talk about different approaches to finding the “perfect” game design. (excuse the abrupt ending due to connection issues, but the conversation is very interesting)

My Thoughts:

I used to subscribe to Kory’s mantra. I would find myself agonizing over each word in a 10,000 word thesis for my English Degree or constantly returning to the same paragraph in a short story I had written three years previous. I wanted to convey this exacting, calculated, and ultimately intangible feeling to the reader through the written word. I wanted every sentence to flow like poetry.

What I found was, people didn’t get it, in general. A few did though and they understood my mindset and the reason behind the words, but the vast majority didn’t appreciate the work. I thought this was, and still do, a good thing. I’d rather have a rabid and small fanbase than appease everyone and dumb it down. But, the work involved is never worth the eventual reward.

And that’s key. And it is especially true in game design. The work involved is never worth the reward for completion. Hyperbole, I know, but so infinitesimally true that I don’t feel like making exceptions. It’s a big parabola of creation to playtesting to iteration to satisfactory completion. The initial spark of creation is easy, the creation of said spark is harder, playtesting is even more difficult, and then iteration is where the time meter spikes and a designer could spend a lifetime trapped in this loop of spending years to make only the tiniest incremental improvements to the game in question. That’s why the reward for “completion” is never worth the effort. because paradoxically, the game is never “complete” in the designer’s eyes.

I can’t subscribe to Kory’s mantra on the one extreme. I am not a good judge of the merits of my own game. I am my own harshest critic. I could spend forever trying to make my own Puerto Rico, and I would never feel as though I had attained that level of perfection. The best I can do is try my best, improve my knowledge of game design, and present my version of a great product to the community. However, I still choose to spend more time than others may see as “worth it” because that polish will be seen and will improve my chances of creating more projects in the future. 

And in response to a topic that Kory mentions, designers get better with time, so it makes it really hard to be a perfectionist. Unless you never ever release anything ever. Years ago, I taught myself to draw cartoons. Like, I really had to teach myself. I have no natural talent for doodling. My hands also shake a little, so my gestural work and my signature never looks the same twice. And what I initially thought was great work, ended up being terrible in retrospect. Same thing with my game designs. If one of my five earliest designs would have been picked up by a publisher, I’d be looking back right now with complete regret. And at the time, I thought they were great.

But, I also see the issue with Daniel’s mantra of making a hard deadline and pushing out titles. I give myself deadlines and artificial limitations in order to expand my problem-solving skills, but I will also completely scrap a project. There are times, especially when working with existing licenses or completing freelance work for companies, that a “good” game will be put onto the market when it either could have been great with more time or should probably have been left on the shelf as a “good” learning experience but not something worth offering to the consumer. Deadlines cause this.

In my experience, seeing other designers such as James Ernest, Reiner Knizia, Corey Konieczka, Eric Lang, Mike Selinker, Paul Peterson, and countless others, who may have one or two Great games, but have a swathe of shit in their catalogue as well, it makes me not want to be them. Now, all things considered, I would like to be as well-known as them, but I would also like to be more consistent in quality. They have a different mindset than me and it’s not bad, we would just disagree on what constitutes an acceptable level of finish to a game.

It’s a balance. I err more on the side of Kory than I do on Daniel’s. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and I like to lampoon myself in order to keep my ego from going off the deep end. But, that’s not to say that both wouldn’t disagree with my own personal gauge for when a game is ready to be released. When it comes to business though, I’m way more on the side of Daniel. I love the Indie community. I love open source development and yet I still want to make a career out of this stuff. 

There is no such thing as a perfect game, so being well-versed in game design, playing a multitude of games in all genres, and making sure that my games stand out in that crowd is what matters most to me. 

One of the greatest gifts in life is when you have a legacy to work on. How many people just meander, how few really create. — Reiner Knizia via Twitter

Moments of Epiphany

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Earlier this year, I watched the exceptional documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” While the name of the film feels slightly more whimsical, the focus of the feature is on one man’s passion to create Sushi at the highest possible level. And Jiro is deadly focused. In fact, his precision and skill is only matched by his obsession. He is a man of strict routine and gradual iteration, where each delicate (extremely expensive) meal is prepared with attention to every exacting detail. And each plate, each experience will be ever-so-slightly improved from the previous one.

He is tireless and precise. He wakes at the same time each morning, prepares, cuts, observes, teaches, and inspects every minutiae. When he is not working, he dreams of working. When he is working, he is happy. He improves himself each day through an almost robotic, yet loving repetition, and he sees his own imperfections or failures even when no expert could ever spot them.

When I watched the documentary, I too felt an immediate respect for the man and his passion. The way he devotes his life to his craft is inspirational and it reminded me of a fortune cookie, a pearl of wisdom, from Reiner Knizia:

"To become a successful game designer, you must get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, every morning, to work on your designs."

~Reiner Knizia via Twitter

If anyone has followed Reiner Knizia’s Twitter account over the last few years, it is jam-packed with inspiration quotes and sayings. It is filled with ego, most likely unintentional, which, to me, is the best kind. 

I am not Jiro

But, when I made the connection; when I started to compare his drive, his dedication to a game designer, I kept comparing him to Reiner Knizia instead of myself. I mean, it’s not necessarily Reiner Knizia, but a multitude of designers that work in a certain mode. Robotic, loving, iterative focus. 

I am not Jiro. I realize that I don’t work like that. And I don’t really think game design, or at least “good” game design is a process where I create a game, then that same game with a slight difference in scoring, then another that uses tiles instead of cards, and name them all different things, or give them different themes, and push them all into several publishers hands. The argument that “well, people need to eat,” has never rung true to the ears of this low-middle income white suburban child. And if I ever had to work with Hasbro, I think I’d start to hate games.

I don’t wake up at 4am all the time. In fact, I work till 4am most weekend nights. My bed time is somewhere between 1am and 11am. Sometimes I cut my own hair; other times I go to a stylist. I’ve been known to be become so focused on a game design that I don’t sleep for 48 hours. I’m usually sloppy, but every now and then I’ll clean up my home and keep it clean for an entire month before it lapses into piles of games and papers. I generally eat healthy, focus on whole grains, olive oils, good fats, veggies, but ever since my bike was stolen in Myrtle Beach, I’ve lapsed on the exercise front. 

Luckily, this year I bought myself a nice, large, red game design journal, otherwise my notes would be scattered across the room. But, somehow, I always find them.

Respectability is results. Sometimes results are based on complete luck, but many times that lucky break is predicated by a moment of epiphany or determination that causes a person to be in the right time at the right place. Focus is important. Drive is important. But, having and living and experiencing life is equally as important. 

Sushi is not game design. I could wake up and work all day on designs and study the latest trends and iterate my games constantly. I could do this 12 hours every day, each day, and I could still fail miserably. There are so many factors that enter into a creative process and if I’m truly exploring the space, there is no way to become so strict. In fact, I’d probably go insane. Because Sushi is a food and it can be prepared each day, the exact same way only with minuscule, incremental improvement in quality and finesse as years and years go by. There will be moments of epiphany, but these will be few and far between as honing the craft is far more important than exploring the infinite space of cuisine.

Jiro does sushi. He can’t make the best cheeseburgers. He appreciates other foods and the abilities of other chefs, but he focuses on his passion. We take different approaches and achieve similar results.

Analog game design is too wide a space for such a focus. For me, at least. I see the innovation that has happened within the last twenty years and I scream, “I want to be a part of that world!” I like too many different games to be confined to one specific market, and I want to explore all the flavors of the ludilogical culinary buffet. I have my style and my preferences, and that already sets me apart, but I need the freedom to explore and I don’t see anyway that someone could make amazingly diverse games if they woke up at 4am and worked at it all day long. It would just be a bunch of pacing around in circles for hours, wishing I could go somewhere and be inspired.

So, in short, Reiner Knizia can blow (with the utmost respect, of course). His advice sounds good. But it is flawed. It assumes that a creative process is, in fact, an analytical process that can be repeated simply by showing up to work each day, ready to design.

Dedication is the will to see a project to completion. I have that. I am constantly thinking about game design and I will complete many games. I hone my craft each day by reading blogs from other designers, listening to podcasts (a new thing for me), playing as many games as I can, playtesting designs, and writing out my thoughts (and sometimes posting them). And I will continue on in my slapdash, sloppy, disorganized, manic way, allowing the creative muse to strike whenever it pleases. Because if I design like a robot, I will churn out 5000 games, and 5 of them will be good. I want variety.

I think my game Club Zen sums up my mindset the most on how game design should evolve. The point of the game is to become the most “zen” person while vacationing at a resort. It is a brain-burning, medium-weight, worker-placement game about managing stress. As it should be. If you go into the game expecting that the game will relax you, then you miss the entire point of what makes a person Zen. Balance. If you don’t have to temper the chaos, if there is no challenge or surprise, no forces pushing you out of balance or no one else to interact with, then why design games at all? Why attempt to achieve enlightenment if it’s served to you on a small, square porcelain plate?

It’s okay to be inconsistent in an approach to design. It’s okay to sketch out an art piece or sometimes just jump right in with a paintbrush swabbed with acrylic or stare at blank canvas for five hours. I just make sure that when that inspiration hits, I follow it through to the best of my ability. Sometimes maniacally, sometimes over the course of a year. A game designer is not defined by the work he does that no one ever sees, but the end result.

If all you get is positive feedback, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing up. It means you have friends, not play-testers. — Luke Peterschmidt

Increasing Numbers

Into the Void

The need to create is intrinsic for most human beings. It’s the more socially accepted mutation of “play,” which we embrace as children, and allows for others to engage and experience the same structured play environment. Sometimes creations are purely made for personal enjoyment, but for the vast majority of Things people make, there is a purpose, even in the rare cases where the creator doesn’t even recognize the consequences. 

Stuff people make isn’t just cast into the void. 

Consider a lone post, maybe a twenty word Twitter post, that is sent from your fingers out into the electronic space. No one reads it. No one responds. No one Retweets or Favorites it. It’s like the contemplative unanswerable questions, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” or “If God is all-powerful, can he create boulder that even he cannot lift?” If a Tweet is posted and no one reads it, was it really worth posting at all?

But, if no one creates simply to cast their creation into the void with no recognition or effect, why are there people who post to Twitter or Facebook 100 times each day, recording thoughts and actions as they happen to an audience of nearly zero readers? Is it the hope of possible engagement? Is it obsessive compulsive disorder? I like to think that all this electronic, slice-of-life-spew, coagulates somewhere in the vast expanse of electronic space to create a wonderful and secret vomit rainbow. That maybe there is a purpose to it all other than releasing the voices that exist inside a schizophrenic mind.

Over 9000!

MySpace friend-collecting was my first introduction to the world of “increasing numbers” with no purpose other than to increase numbers. A personal MySpace page was littered with illegible fonts, color-choices, 35 different and separately loading videos, embedded midi files, multiple journal entries, and most importantly a list of all your friends. Collecting friends was a past-time for people. Since interaction was generally reserved to a small message board and private messages, there were very few reasons not to friend someone and just leave them on your list. I never saw the purpose, and in fact, thought it was stupid, but one of my friends had ten or twenty thousand friends. She was a girl; she had pictures of near-naked boobies on her page.

Most famously, Cow Clicker, a parody of both in-app purchase titles and mindless Facebook games, was a game that existed sheerly to infuriate players and increase a number. Every time a player clicked on the cow, the counter went up by one and the cow could not be clicked again for six hours, unless you paid real money for in-game currency. Absurdly, people paid. For a number. To increase a number that meant nothing, required no skill, no challenge, and maybe induced a chuckle or extra comment from a friend.

The sad fact is that when I create a game, I want people to play it and enjoy it, and I want to make money from the game, so that I can continue making more games as a profession. I have altruistic motivations as well, and dreams of oddball fame from pushing board games to new levels, but I have basic objectives. Maybe it’s not “sad” but it’s realistic. Right now, I work a job that is okay, but it pays the bills. I want to work with games instead and there is a possibility that I might be able to do just that. The point is, there is a real purpose behind my creation on top of personal fulfillment.

What I don’t understand is the need to be recognized for creation, specifically creation that is not intended to fuel income. Or shouldn’t be intended as such. It’s fun to engage with an audience. It’s fun to be praised for something, and sometimes it’s even fun to creatively advertise for thing you’ve done. But, if the sole purpose of advertisement or marketing or extra funds is purely to gather more numbers, more friends, more followers, more viewers, then what really is the point? Do I want a plaque that says “Best Podcast” or “Best Reviewer” or “Best ‘Let’s Play’ Video on YouTube” or “Best Game Design Post”? Unless it comes with cash prize and a salary, fuck that shit.

Even this post has an agenda, but it has absolutely nothing to do with making money. It’s specifically to dissuade people from using uninspired and trendy tactics to increase a number for no discernible reason. If you want 5,000 followers on Twitter, take a good long day and follow 10,000 people. Half will follow you back. Then unfollow people. Why do anything else except make good, consistent content and reasonably advertise that it exists for those that may be interested?

Here’s the thing. I like to reward excellent creation and design as most anybody does. If you make a game and I want to play it and you set the price, I’ll probably buy it. If you make a website that supports said game and ALL other games, I will give you a donation. If you review said game really well and ask me for money to support more reviews, I’ll probably be slightly annoyed and say, “umm, no thanks.” And even more singular on the food-chain, if you interview said reviewer and ask me for money, I will become violently angry and probably spew electronic rainbows such as the ones I am spewing currently. But, I still might just give you a Retweet or +1 or Share. This is the reality.

I don’t cast things into the void. I make them for myself. And the reverberations, little ripples of words for the outside world’s viewing pleasure, they kind of flutter about in the electricity for a while. Or for a paltry sum of paper and coin, they sit upon your desk in plastic and hopefully in your grubby, oily fingers as you seethe with delight.

I sometimes watch numbers rise too. I can’t deny that I like the feeling, but it’s just a number. That’s all it is. A subscriber count. A Follower total. I don’t ask my Followers on Twitter for money or pander; I make something they can buy and I provide content in-between. That’s my value. And I don’t like artificially inflating those numbers.

So, buy VivaJava: The Coffee Game and soon-to-be-released VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game. Tell your friends. It took a lot of time and energy and love to make those. And you can have Something From Nothing, podcasts, interviews, blogs, advice, reviews, and all that other bullshit for free. Because if I have to start running contests and crowd funding drives and bake sales just to increase my Facebook friends, fund my trips to conventions, or anything just to do something I enjoy doing and doesn’t cost me anything extra to do, please call the police because someone has stolen my identity and I am locked in a basement somewhere.

5/10: I could see this being more appealing to the hobby games market with a sci fi graphic design added. — Feedback for Xenon Profitier (a game about distilling xenon from air)
this is every criticism of crowdfunding, distilled down to [its] essence and crystallized into one disturbing project. — Comment found on the Kickstarter Project “Wallet Battles”

What I Learned by Wednesday - The Wild Rumpus

Randomness

I guess I have to accept that many gamers come from a video game background and they seek a similar experience, but something that is unique to the board game realm. Familiar, yet different.

And something that board games do that video games rarely emulate, is complete and utter bullshit randomness. Lunatic-style romps that sometimes provide decisions, but then those decisions can be completely negated through no fault of the player. And for some reason, even though it makes no sense, that’s what many gamers seek and most will never see past them and get to the nice meaty chunks of goodness beneath the shiny, chromey, shell. Removing choice and relying on chance pairs well with drinking beer and smoking pot.

Sure, I know that board games provide a unique, strategic, and social experience that video games fail to emulate. I know that there are themes and mechanics and collaborative elements that would be extremely difficult to replicate within the digital realm. There is a whole world of amazing things to discover if only you could stop ONLY BUYING STUFF THAT HAS STAR WARS OR LORD OF THE RINGS PLASTERED ON IT. Or has zombies or guns or boobs or fighting or ridiculous magical spells that take minutes to read. WHAT THE FUCK? Yes. I know these things are cool when you’re thirteen, but… okay, they are still kind of cool. All I’m saying is, play the best games, not the best branded games.

The point is, random elements like cards that tell you what to do and cool, thematic art are what drive crossover hobby sales. Knowing this, I should consider what random elements are acceptable for me to explore when creating a gateway experience, without completely feeling like a tool, and present them in a way that is palatable for the general populace. If I can add chrome or theme to an idea without compromising it’s integrity too much, then I may have a winner. If I can both excite the niche and nichier niche, I may have a recipe for success instead of a recipe for dying alone in a gutter. 

What I Learned By Wednesday (ish) - 5 Destruction

Legacy -

I’m a regular game designer/guest on the Google Hangout on Air that is called Something From Nothing. (List of all episodes) This last weekend, we had the privilege of talking to Jamey Stegmaier and Rob Daviau, both of which are excellent designers, and one of which came up with an innovative concept of permanent destruction. Over the course of multiple playthroughs, players destroy or alter the game board based on various decisions and victory conditions, permanently scarring the game forever (or “making it your own”).

Last week, I learned that there are so many different ways to permanently damage a game and that choosing the correct method will probably make the difference between a game being considered a classic and a flop in this genre.

1. Destruction should be “player-controlled” as much as possible. Whether I get to name a country by writing on the board or place a sticker or rip up a card and throw it away, if the decision is made by the game through happenstance, players don’t feel as invested.

2. Destroying game pieces can sometimes be arbitrary or avoidable. Try to avoid destroying meeples or miniatures completely, since they can simply be “placed back in the box” rendering the destruction portion less visceral.

3. There are a ton of different, creative ways to use this mechanic. I’ve seen “scratch-off” stickers with abilities beneath mentioned, folding the board or cards, to hide or reveal info over the course of multiple games, or using little pieces of ripped up cards to affect the current game. Try to find a new twist and keep the surprises coming.

And that’s what I love about the Legacy mechanic. Surprise! If you can make people dread the consequences of losing a specific game, or the damage that could be done to the game, you are doing it right!