By Tom Bouwman-Wozencraft
Does your kid come up with new game ideas, make their own card games, or suggest new rules for games you already play? If they do, then you, my friend, have a young game designer on your hands.
Growing up in a politically liberal but culturally conservative home, I had a lot of difficulty growing my passion for game design. While I could play Chess, Risk, and other established games with my parents anything new and unusual was strictly off the table. This meant that I got no support from my parents when I created my own games, from 4x-style space empire card games to simple variants on the classic trading card games of the day. I was lucky to have friends who shared my passion for gaming, but not all kids are that lucky.
Game design is an incredibly difficult business, and the sooner you start practicing, the better. There’s a lot that needs to be taken into account – Balance, ease of play, target audience, marketability, and so much more – that it takes a lifetime of learning and feedback to master. Coming from someone who’s had to learn on their feet for a few years, there’s a lot that friends can’t help you with at an early age – getting the adults in on the design is just as important!
So how can you encourage your little designers? Here’s a few tips to get you started:
Play More Games!
This has become my standby advice for almost any situation. In this case, expose your child to a wide variety of games, both popular and not so much. After each new game, talk about what you enjoyed – what worked well, what didn’t, and if they’d change anything about the game. How would those changes affect the rest of the game? Encourage big-picture thinking.
A variant on this is comparing different games in a competing market and examining the pros and cons of each game together. Ask your local game store which game sells better and what player’s opinions are, and then discuss why this might be with your child. A good example today might be the competition between wargaming classic Warhammer 40,000 (if you don’t want to invest in the game, many game stores have demo sets or players willing to teach new people), and powerhouse newcomer X-Wing. Also see if your child starts to notice their friends moving from one game to others – For example, we’ve had lots of people leave the card game Yu-Gi-Oh to play the miniatures game Star Wars X-Wing, largely due to some design problems that the former has been suffering from. Maybe your children might start to see similar trends in their friend’s behavior. These are all things to talk about and ways to think critically about the games our kids play.
Discuss Design Pitfalls
Go over some of the things that kill big games with your child, and use real-world examples. Knowing what causes people not to play a game is important for a game designer designer, and it’s the first step to learning what *does* work well. Talk to them about the games they didn’t enjoy. Ask them what went wrong.
Once your child can identify these issues in major games, have him or her start looking for these issues in the games that they design themselves. Be sure to let them know that just because a game has these problems doesn’t mean the game is bad, but that it could be improved, and then help them take the steps to make the game better. Change rules. Iterate on their design and just keep playing!
Encourage your child to design their own expansion-based game
Whether it be a card game or a wargame, expansion-based games are the largest design challenge any game designer can face, and only become more difficult over time. Make sure to playtest your child’s game often, and give him or her plenty of feedback. Remind them that accepting feedback is important to the design process and can help them make the game better.
Once both you and your child feel comfortable enough with the base game, bring it to your local game store or get your local gaming group involved. Ask for their feedback as well, and if they enjoy it, your kid has a new project – Keeping the game going! Making new “expansions” for the game can become an excellent summer break project – and gives them something to brag about when they go back to school!
As another note on this, if your child’s game is really gaining support, consider talking to your local game store owner about what they would need to start carrying it. If your kid is hoping to get into the game industry as a career, getting a game published (even in the smallest of ways) is an excellent first step!
But Tom, why no love for digital games?
Quite simply, board games are far easier to prototype and build, especially at a young age. Making digital games solo requires programming knowledge, artistic skills, and will make it more difficult to focus on the design aspect of creating the game.
If your child is determined to look at digital games, finding an easy-to-mod game for them to work on is a great idea. In my own experience, I learned some elements of game design from modding Star Trek: Armada and designing story modules (granted, they were far from good) for Neverwinter Nights. Try to work in the board game designing as much as possible though, because keeping their minds on the design work can improve their skills more than pushing them into situations where they have to multitask.
With any luck, these tips will help you encourage your little designers to become the next generation of major game designers, working anywhere from Fantasy Flight Games to Ubisoft, and I look forward to eventually playing new and unique games from these incredibly talented kids!
Until Next Time,
Play More Games!!!!