Now, the Twist: Hubris

Now, the Twist: Hubris

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey, forcing him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.



Before launching into the usual snarkery, I’d like to take a moment for a more serious topic. You may have heard that James Ward, creator of Metamorphosis Alpha and co-creator of Gamma World&emdash;a man with a serious involvement in the history of TSR &emdash;has become seriously ill, and the medical bills are adding up. Ward is one of the Names from the early days of the gaming industry, and if you enjoy playing games, he is one of the people to thank. You can thank him now by donating whatever you can to his medical fund. …

More personally, Jim Ward gave me my start in professional game design. He took a chance on a completely unproven philosophy major who hadn’t even graduated from college, put up with my crap as a punk kid, and did the same for a pile of other people. He was an excellent buffer against the excesses of TSR’s executive management, and he is a deeply kind man. Please help, and if you can’t donate, help spread the word. Thank you.

Shameless Self-promotion Moment
I’d first like to make a quick plug or two: Misfit Monsters Redeemed and The Inner Sea Primer from Paizo are both now available, and I worked on both of them.

I’m extremely happy with Misfit Monsters, in which I took a shot at making the dorkiest monsters of gaming interesting and fun: I reworked the delver, disenchanter, lurking rays (the executioner’s hood, the lurker above, and the trapper), and the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. Putting these together was the most fun I’ve had designing in a while, and I’m delighted to report the other monsters in the book are equally fun. If nothing else, you need to see what Adam Daigle did with the flumph, the one-time biggest loser of gaming ever.

Okay, the plug is over.

Begin Snarkery!
I spend a lot of time dispensing sage advice from my remote game design mountaintop. Yes, I’ll tell you, this is the way to do it. Heed my advice, aspiring game designers, lest you fall into lo these many traps! I have won awards! Much of this advice is hard won by dint of personal experience—my friend and former Planescape editor Ray Vallese sent me a mocking message on the publication of my last column, which as you may recall exhorted serious deadline discipline.

He wrote, “Who are you, and what have you done with Colin McComb?”

I shook my fist at him from a distance and made some crack about editors. But he was right, at least about my work ethic from years ago. As I noted in my last column, having a strong work ethic is a crucial character trait, and it’s one that you can and must build if you want to succeed in the gaming (or really, any) industry. I know this because I had to nurture mine, and it occasionally still requires some slapping into shape.

Because I have managed to do that and because I sometimes teach people how to design games as a paid professor, I thought I had become wise in all my dealings with games. I have grown and become an elder statesman! I can do no wrong!

Except, it turns out that’s not quite true.

Last weekend, I brought a game to the Rio Grande Game Design Competition at U-Con in Ann Arbor, a friendly little convention that I urge people to attend next year. I’ve had this game percolating for a while, and I’ve run a few playtests with my scrappy little prototype. Perhaps optimisticly, I thought the competition would be a good way to kick myself into gear on fixing it for eventual publication.

I was absolutely right. There’s no pressure like a deadline to get something done. (Hey, didn’t I say something about deadline discipline earlier? Note to self: edit this to look more professional. [Note to readers: this note was a joke.])

So I revised my rules with my last playtest notes, and I made several further prototype passes (the last few of which involved a Dremel, foam core, and Lite Brite markers… oh, and blistered fingers—can’t forget the blisters!). I carefully packed my game for its exhibition and judging at the hands of entirely disinterested parties. (Note to self: knock off the parentheticals!)

Into the Crucible
As I watched the game be unpacked and the players set up the pieces, I realized immediately I had left out a couple of slots on one of the crucial cards. I realized certain aspects of the game were overcomplicated and largely peripheral to overall gameplay. I had created a long rule set and had not made it easily accessible. And these were just the first and immediately obvious of the game’s sins.

As I watched the playtests, it became clear I had violated a several fundamental design precepts. Rather than being in the competition, I realized, I was using this contest as a playtest session with people who didn’t know me, and I walked away from the day with over a page of notes about the game that had to be implemented for the game to be playable as I had envisioned it.


The feedback the contest organizer sent back confirmed this. One of the questions said, “Do you want to replay this game?” One of the testers answered, “Not as written but with a few clarifications/adjustments it could be a lot of fun.” Another wrote flatly, “No.” Overall, the consensus seemed to be, “This game could be fun if it was, y’know… finished.”

For someone who tells his students they should get strangers to play their games and for someone who constantly harps on the need for a pile of playtest data, I seem to have violated my own precepts pretty significantly.

Man, is that annoying. For the future of this game, I hereby publicly commit to at least three playtests where I have no say or clarification as the players play and where the players have no vested interest in being polite to me or being concerned with my feelings. As Wolfgang has noted, “You can never have enough playtest data!”

I agree. I forgot that these rules apply to me as much as they do to anyone.

Chalk another one up in the Helpful Experience column.

4 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: Hubris”

  1. I’m so happy (and relieved, even) to hear that even the pros have rough times with design. There’s so many great designers and writers out there that it’s easy, I think, to feel intimidated and get hung up on mistakes. Thanks for another inspiring post in this excellent series! :)

  2. Congrats on the two Paizo releases! All kidding aside, Colin, you have certainly grown into your role as elder statesman, and you are well suited to dispensing helpful advice. Nevertheless, I reserve the right to kid you about things you did 15 years ago. That’s what friends are for.

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