Awhile back, talking about the littlest con, I said that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. I said that’s your elevator pitch. If you can’t produce an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. This is true in relative ways for expressions in other media—novels, movies, comic books, and so on—but we’re talking games here.
All games rely on this initial expression to become all they can be. A lack of focus at such an early stage leads, at least, to wasted work as designers realize a game’s scope needs narrowing. At worst, uncertain direction at the outset is a path of failure. Kitchen-sink design’s best results are like World of Synnibarr—wonderfully schizophrenic but ultimately playable only as a novelty experience.
Putting the point succinctly, goal-oriented production can’t occur smoothly without clear vision of the end. This little axiom is true no matter how small the design goal is.
Writing for D&D Insider requires that sort of directed attention. First contact for work on Dragon or Dungeon is, literally, the pitch. You have to sum up your idea neatly, showing you know your objective. Realizing that you’re pitching to one very busy man (Steve Winter) puts more pressure on you to home in on your design goals. Fortunately for you, you aren’t starting with a blank slate. Dungeons & Dragons, as a high-fantasy roleplaying game with a ton of history, provides a lot of context for the pitch. The problem in that framework is tightening your vision.
I actually learned the concept of the pitch long ago from the writer’s guidelines for GURPS. Back then, the proposal process required you to write the sell text you thought should appear on the back cover of the book you were proposing. The assumption was, rightly, that the ability to summarize a potential product’s contents clearly and succinctly shows you have needed focus. Doing it with attention-grabbing style shows you have skill.
Challenging your chops even further, try summing up your idea in one sentence. I call this the nanopitch. Back before Keith Baker’s Eberron existed, the Dungeons & Dragons setting contest, which Keith won, required this. Every entry had to have such a summary statement. Wizards of the Coast called this synopsis “core ethos” in fine Gygaxian style. The whole initial proposal had to fill one page or less.
For those of you who are interested, here is a paraphrasing of what I understand was Keith’s core ethos for Eberron.
Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Lord of the Rings meets film noir.
This statement takes understood media icons and genres, and then it turns them into a succinct, clear, and apt description of Eberron. I’m hooked. Tell me more, Mister Baker.
For contrast, here are my core ethos statements from my three proposal submissions, with world names added to differentiate them.
Ancentynsis: A millennium ago, the Tempest of Fallen Stars cast its Curse across the land, but civilization has risen again in a savage time of new legends.
Shining Lands: The Nine Furies covet the world and the Radiant Host has decreed that mortals must overcome this evil alone.
Durbith: Infernal powers secretly rule a dying world, and heroes must struggle against this mysterious doom and the sinister truth behind it.
Parts of these summaries sound like aspects of the 4e cosmology or other settings. That’s because these statements are too general, or because I worked and had influence on 4e. Through my current sensibilities, I see lots of other flaws in my proposals, but the weakest link is a core ethos that lacks the precision of Eberron’s.
Looking at my setting proposals, my core ethos statements are weaker than Keith’s is, for sure. All the core ethos statements I’ve seen, admitting I haven’t seen that many, are. Although the whole initial proposal for a setting in the contest could have been be one full page, and I wasn’t at Wizards at the time, I’m willing to bet that thousands of the over ten thousand proposals were eliminated right after the judge read the core ethos. I’d say that was especially true if your core ethos contained a semicolon or an em-dash, or any umlauts. But I digress.
If you’re designing a whole game, rather than a supplement for an existing game, writing a nanopitch, elevator pitch, and sell text works as a good trial. But these tests only do their job if readers besides you really understand your idea from what you’ve written. Submitting to this honest evaluation can tell you if you’ve centered your attention enough.
Games such as Fiasco don’t just appear out of someone’s fevered imagination. (Okay, they might, but let’s pretend they don’t.) Although I don’t know, I’m willing to say that Fiasco is likely an outgrowth of its designers knowing its genre and intended play style, at least in theory, from the start. Otherwise, it’s impossible to believe the game could represent its apparent intent so well. A finished game of Fiasco really feels like you just watched or help create a Coen Brothers movie. The game I played felt a lot like Burn After Reading, complete with a slough of corpses created in third-act carnage.
The best games, regardless of intent or media, live up to the elevator pitch ideal. Mage the Ascension, as an off-the-cuff example, isn’t merely a game about wizards and magic. It’s a game about a war for reality wherein consciousness is reality. Mages manipulate the world within the confines of consciousness, personal (enlightened or not) and collective. Left 4 Dead, for another instance, is furious survival horror that needs little other narrative detail. It’s intentionally visceral, allowing you to know the story and characters in the narrow context of desperate battle against long undead odds. Knowing details of the zombie infection doesn’t deepen the experience. It’s not the same as a zombie film or television show (or graphic novel), such as The Walking Dead, in which knowing and caring about the characters is required for a similar effect.
Some games fail in some way to live up to what seems to be their own core ethos, although this might not affect whether the game is fun. A schism might occur between expectations and options. Fallout: New Vegas is an illustration of the point. Fallout is about post-apocalyptic survival and science-fantasy action, but it has always had a measure of silliness with its 1950s World of the Future taken to the breaking point. To me, that made Fallout 3 more than acceptable in its idiosyncrasies. The hardcore mode on New Vegas is fun for various reasons, but it fails to fit in well with the expectations Fallout’s ethos sets forth. Put another way, in hardcore New Vegas I need to drink water or suffer penalties, and ammo has weight, but a human being I shoot in the face with a shotgun lives on to shoot back. It’s weird.
This break between ethos and expression can also occur when a game breaks from its normal modes into unexpected, sometimes jarring, territory. Matt Sernett described his experience with the Afro Samurai videogame in such terms, saying the boss fights frequently required play styles the game had yet to require. That makes those fights frustrating, because despite the fact that you’re supposed to be at least the second-best warrior in the Afro Samurai world, you have to learn new skills on the fly against the strongest opponent you’ve faced.
Fable 3’s designers made a similar mistake when they changed the emote system. Fable 2’s system wasn’t the best, but at least it didn’t try to force me to dance with shopkeepers to make friends or to burp when I wanted to make a rude gesture. (Fable 3 did better than earlier Fables, however, in how your actions influence those observing you.)
None of this is intended to suggest that a game shouldn’t break from its normal modes on occasion. Experimentation with the expectations your game has created or integrated just needs to be done carefully. For instance, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction contains a flashback that takes you out of hit-and-run stealth tactics and into a warzone. That said, the skills you learned earlier in the game still serve you well in this high-action scene.
Like Splinter Cell Conviction, countless games originate in existing intellectual property (IP), rather than creating a new one. More care has to be taken with existing IP. People coming to the game have expectations that the game designers can’t influence, much less control. Case in point, it was unexpected that the Dresden Files RPG allowed me to be anything other than a mage or human, like Harry. My reaction has little to do with the quality of the game, which is good, and everything to do with my own previous interaction with the Dresden Files IP.
This point brings me back to Matt Weise’s IP Verbs exercise, which my friend Wil Upchurch (formerly of Fantasy Flight Games) asked me to elaborate on. Matt Weise is a member of the of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, and this is his idea, not mine. His IP verb exercise is mostly about living up to an audience’s expectations of an IP, since the IP itself already defines numerous aspects of the game. Matt described the premise fittingly when he brought up how many James Bond games are about shooting rather than the subtler aspects of the Bond IP.
With the exercise, you still need to answer the who and why questions of the elevator pitch to round out your game. An IP might define these or allow for some surprising twists, but the meat of the task is coming up with what the player does in the game.
Compelling in an exercise I’ve seen is a mock design teams use of The Wizard of Oz. That story is about Dorothy, the heroine, traveling the Yellow Brick Road, befriending creatures along the way to gain help and ultimately escape the Wicked Witch of the West and return home to Kansas. She does so without much intentional violence. Considering all this, the team came up with verbs such as befriend, cooperate, escape, explore, fly, help, oppose, seek, talk, travel, trick, and so on. They also paired the verbs with nouns form the IP, and they came up with and game about action subtler than typical video game fighting.
The team, led by Jeff McGann (Irrational Games) and Steve Graham (DSU game design faculty), decided that the player plays the flying monkeys, lackeys of the Wicked Witch of the West. You see, the monkeys are tired of serving the cruel sorceress, so they’re engaging in a secret revolt. Their aim is to help Dorothy make it to Oz, foiling their mistress and ultimately leading to her demise. The hitch: They have to do all their helping without anyone growing wise to their trickery, especially the witch. Mollifying the witch, if she grows suspicious, and faking out Dorothy and her friends are part of the plan. Success means, ding-dong, the witch is dead and, whaddya know, the monkeys are free. That’s what the team called The Monkey Business of Oz.
I’d play that game. The concept also lends itself to more than one media expression.
And that’s the point of sharpening your design skills by honing you ability to crystallize your concepts. Ideas come in droves. The skill and willingness to extract the gold from the raw ore is the real magic. Then comes the ability to communicate your intent with those who can help you produce your idea. If you can make them see the gold by incisively directing their attention with a good pitch, you’re well on your way.