Clarity in Defeat

I might have reached a point in one of my game designs, several years into it, where I ended up designing something I didn’t want. Which is interesting and clarifying and maybe even one kind of success! But now I’m faced with the big decision: proceed or shelve it or something in the middle.

When I started working on the Secret Project (code name Monsterknights), my goal was fairly modest: write Pendragon World. KAP is great but it’s old, surely it can’t be that hard to reframe the good stuff into a sleek, fast PbtA machine.

And since it’s not that hard, well gosh, maybe I can start getting at some of the deeper thematic stuff that KAP really doesn’t. Like, it’s so great because everything is so old-school literal, even as it’s being driven by a very new-school metaphorical conceit (the Glory chase). So, joking around in a thread years ago, I mentioned that the Round Table is more or less like the classroom setup in Monsterhearts. Petty, tightly interconnected, lots of sex and secrets and insecurities.

But then if I’m going that way, then maybe there’s room to get at some of this neat pre-Christian druidic animism stuff that shows up in all kinds of revisionist Arthurian fiction. So sure, let’s build that out.

And oh hey, social class issues are interesting to me, so let’s build class into the structure of the world. There’ll still be feudalism and shit but that doesn’t even especially matter if you go back to the source. That is, the same well that KAP dipped into.

Stafford went (pseudo) historical to stitch together the Arthur myth. I went allegorical to stitch together the Arthur myth.

Drift, drift, drift. Add a bit here, discard a little more real-world anchoring there. Oh heck, why not, let’s add this mechanical flourish. Drift drift drift.

And now, maybe three years later, I’ve ended up with more-or-less a dark superhero story with broadly allegorical ties to the oldest proto-origins of the Matter of Britain. It’s so far removed from its original intent. In play it’s so far removed from normal human concerns. It’s like Nobilis in ways, and has the same problem (for me) of not being relatable and human and visceral.

Which, you know, maybe it doesn’t need to be! Maybe there’s an audience for a heavily allegorical pseudo-grail-knight story featuring animal spirits and superheroes and weird fairies.

The thing is, me personally? I’ll take normal human drama over allegory and abstract problems any day.

In deconstructing every tidbit of research, in indulging my best design talents in the worst possible way, in letting the design meander and drift to a point where even I can’t recognize where it came from…I think I defeated myself.

It’s not a bad thing. Not really. It’s only bad if I give up on the whole endeavor. It’s not bad if I find ways to use all these ideas.

I may post up something playable-ish at some point just so folks can see what all the fuss was about. I’m betting 99% of the readers will shrug and wonder what the point of it all was. What I’m sure of, though, is that I need to find a way to let this go. Because right now I’m spending an unhealthy amount of bandwidth on trying to salvage my sunk costs.

Next time, I think I’ll try to make sure my motives are coming from a better place as well. I’ll keep thinking about games I’d actually want to play, and not trying to achieve any goal more abstract than that.

0 thoughts on “Clarity in Defeat”

  1. So hey, this may not help but I’ll say it anyway.

    Most of the best things I’ve written are reincarnations of the dead of my design history. I tried to write something like Hope is the Last Thing in 2003. It was terrible. And while the version of the game I ended up writing is so very fragile and twisted in many ways, it worked (mostly) to do what I wanted (mostly) when I wrote it again over a decade later.

    I tried to write about Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland four times (late 90s, early 2000s, early 2010s, last year). And the last one I put out and play-tested and played, and it was only… partly successful. One of these days I’ll get it right.

    And so it goes, for me. I write something, I do a lot of work, I trash it all. I come back months — or years — or once even a decade — later and make something I actually like.

    (And there’s no reason you should really care, as like 40 people ever have played Hope, and only double that number have read it, so you know, successful it is not. But hey, design is design.)

  2. Having been on that road with a lot of my projects (Geiger Counter, hey!), I’ve definitely found it useful to post something playable, let other people enjoy it for what it is, and then come back to it fresh/later if some parts still stick in your craw. Also, I really want to see this monster(knights).

  3. Brand Robins yeah, I feel like it’ll be something someday. But right now it’s mostly the daily (!) anxiety and perfectionism that’s wearing me out. I had intended to have something playable for a thing in March, roll it out heavy in April, recruit outside playtesters in May, etc. I need to get real about my capacity to make any of that happen.

    Adam D no I do not. The ideas are inextricably entwined. The problem is that the package deal is so weird and hard to elevator-pitch that I find myself getting tied into knots. I can’t point at a book or movie and say “it’s like this.” I can’t reliably count on a civilian’s casual grasp of the Matter of Britain to “get” the allegory. It’s evolved into something too weird and personal.

    J. Walton yeahhhh, that’s my next mini-goal. Still need to get the materials pulled together and visually interesting. Which is why a total walk-away is appealing, because anything more than that is still quite a lot of work ahead of me. I’m perfectly aware of the utter lack of interest in any game material that isn’t presentable and attractive. It’s a nontrivial obstacle.

  4. You seem to have concretely produced something you know you don’t want. Can you now, armed with that knowledge, start over and consciously do the opposite of what you did and then end up where you want?

  5. Sweet. So your perfectionism won’t let you release a non-pretty version to your handfuls of rabid fans (like me)? You still have to do a pretty release for a project that you’re thinking about abandoning? I’m not criticizing; I’m just naming the sickness that I also have.

  6. The thing is, me personally? I’ll take normal human drama over allegory and abstract problems any day.

    Yeah, me too. Except, like, some things can be powerful allegories for human drama in a way that makes it easier to play and get into. So I don’t always see those as opposed: allegory can be for different things.

  7. Sounds like you are a victim of scope creep. If time is not a factor, it might make more sense to go back to your core concept and start over. Perhaps have someone you trust and who understands your concept help keep you true to your concept?

  8. J. Walton I”m not even sure it’s perfectionism as much as harsh reality.

    Tiny Dragons is rad and will go nowhere because it’s a forgotten Tumblr page now.

    Robot Park is rad, legitimately interesting bleeding-edge design, but it’s a Word doc.

    My two finalist Game Chef designs (Dragon, Fly and Intake) I easily spent 3x the time on layout than design. I spent money out of my pocket for art! And they probably aren’t as good as previous entries that weren’t laid out. But I changed my priorities and it paid off.

    If you want attention, you get it laid out. Fact.

  9. Letting go of almost-finished games is freeing. It’s like throwing away all of that old stuff you kinda feel like someday you’ll want and then you move or downsize or hit a rough financial patch and it has to go, and once it’s gone you’re all “wow, I didn’t realize how much that was weighing me down”

    It’s not easy but like it’s gonna be ok if you do it, you know?

  10. I worked on Acts of Evil for eight years. I wish I’d set it aside a long long time before I finally did. I learned a lot by working on it — stuff that’s made my subsequent games better — but I wish I’d done some other creative projects in all that time.

  11. I sympathise. I’ve sneakily buried a few different projects, and one has only made it to something I consider worthwhile the fourth time I went to basics and rewrote it.

  12. Sorry, man. Design work is tough. <3

    [... and I'm going to say some stuff about my own history with design work, but mostly because you got me thinking about it. Please feel free to ignore, dismiss, yell at me for taking up space here. :)]

    My work always lives in a fury of half-formed, half-abandoned ideas, sometimes forced into the light by the Magpie machine. It turns out that thinking about a game is... well, probably better than actually making a game. At least, it's much less pressure.

    I can 100% say that my first two attempts at publishing games were driven by a theoretical view of what I wanted more than an actual understanding of what games I liked to play. Both of them have fans (and good parts), but it wasn't until I wrote Urban Shadows with Andrew Medeiros that I was like "Holy shit, I would play this game a lot." And now I tend to only write games that I would want to play and abandon them early when they don't meet that expectation.

    So... I think this is a good thing! You did some stuff and you learned from it, and now you get to jump in to doing a new thing and the only thing that died was your idealized image of a game that never existed! And your next game can/will/must move you closer to a place where you'll emerge with something you're genuinely proud of producing (and might be marketable!)

  13. Back burnering something is different than freeing yourself from it. You have to be able to do both. If all you let yourself ever do is back burner stuff you’re not really working with any particular artistic confidence. All the back burnered stuff you should have freed yourself from weighs you down and hampers you with doubt and shame and unconfidence.

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