Design Games not Graphics

by Clint Miller on Friday, October 10, 2014

Prototype Cards

If you’ve spent any time designing games, or even just reading about the process, then you know game design thrives on one thing: iteration. All games, no matter how great, started off as a thought experiment of the designer, and how it came to fruition was testing it, tweaking it then testing again. 

Reduce your Chances for Failure

The problem with this process is that it can be long, rife with chances to lose momentum or quit altogether. You walk around brainstorming for weeks on end. You bounce ideas off of your friends and family. You generate endless pages of notes. You physically design a board and 50 cards and then unleash the first playtest on your friends… and it sucks. If you can accept that and repeat it 20 or 30 more times you’ll make a game. Most people don’t get that far, and if they do it may take years.

In order to give yourself the best chance for success, you’ll need make those iterations as fast as possible and focus on what matters. One area you can save a lot of time on is designing games not graphics. “Form follows function” is a timeless piece of design advice, ignore it at your own risk!

Designing Graphics is Hard

Graphic design is its own discipline that takes years to grasp. Access to desktop publishing software doesn’t make you a designer and often takes more time than it’s worth for a game designer to learn. This also leads to a common problem I see from self-published game designers: spending money on artwork but doing the graphic design themselves. This is a bad idea and it is reflected in the confusing user experience and low sales of those games. Regardless of your plans to kickstart, print-on-demand, or pitch to publishers, fleshed out graphic design is something that should be done professionally, and as late as possible in your design cycle.

I know the appeal of making an impressive prototype myself. It’s almost worse that my day job is graphic design. I get caught up in making things look too nice when, after a playtest or two, I need to change the layout because I have a new stat to add to my cards. Game function changes can greatly alter the graphic design of your components, and you want to be able to make that functional change and get back to testing without spending hours on the computer.

Work Smarter & Faster

Start with as few components as possible. Don’t design 50 cards when 10 will allow you to playtest core gameplay. At this stage you should be using pen and paper and designing only what you need to get the game working at a basic level. Once core gameplay is solid you can work outwards, creating more content to pad things out. This is the time when I start writing content in a spreadsheet. 

Working in a spreadsheet has a few benefits. It can be easily exported into Photoshop or InDesign once it is time for graphic design. You can also share it with the online community and practice version control.

Once your content is fleshed out in a spreadsheet, use the software tool you are the most familiar with to layout your components. Don’t try to learn InDesign yourself if you don’t already know it, any word processor or graphics editor will work. There are plenty of free tools out there that will take your spreadsheet and export it into print-ready cards suitable for testing. 

Some tips for these initial designs:

  • don’t use fancy display fonts; you will probably make things harder to read
  • don’t worry about color choices; black on white and move on
  • don’t add images; it takes more time than it’s worth
  • do just enough to understand the components; keep it simple
  • do make the text large; legibility across the table aids playtesting
  • do use liberal white space; so you can make quick changes with a pen

Form Follows Fun

A common line of thinking is that attractive prototypes are more engaging to playtesters, but you should prioritize making your game fun and understandable over polishing aesthetic elements that are constantly changing. No one wants to play a good looking game that isn’t any fun! When the game looks polished too early, you and your testers are less likely to tweak gameplay and offer quality feedback. Early stage prototypes have their own beauty and give the tester the feeling that they are getting in at the ground level, especially when they see one of their suggestions implemented right then and there with a sharpie!

When to Push Pixels

Once you are pitching to publishers or kickstarting your game is when it’s time to get serious with graphic design. If you want someone else to publish and you don’t have a better alternative, feel free to do the initial graphic design yourself. I recommend taking a time to look at other component designs you like and mimic those as much as possible. You just want to do enough so it makes thematic and mechanical sense to a potential publisher, they are likely to do the final design themselves after buying the design anyway.

If you are self-publishing, you really need to get an experienced designer. You may have to shop around or call in favors, but it will be worth it to make your project look professional. There is no need to have your entire game designed before the campaign, just get a representative 5-15% done for backers to see what the finished product will look like if it funds. This will save you money up front, but it also means you aren’t wasting money or time on a project if it doesn’t fund!

Ultimately, you will find yourself with more time for testing, quicker iterations, and finished projects in less time.

Leave a Comment

Luke Laurie about 3 years ago said...

Great tips! It's best to let the game gel a bit before investing serious time into how it looks. I do however, eventually put a degree of gloss on my prototypes: enough to make it highly comprehensible, and to give some sense of the theme.

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