For a couple decades I regularly taught graduate computer management classes. One of the most important themes of those classes was that a manager/supervisor has to recognize what reality is, not what he would like reality to be or what he thinks it ought to be.
If you don’t know what’s really going on, how can you make it work better? Yet a great many managers lose track of reality, and the really poor ones are often in what I call “cloud-cuckoo land.”
You might feel that this shouldn’t matter to game designers but in fact it’s very important. Game design in some sense is project management. Your project can’t come to fruition if you don’t recognize the reality of it, the true state of your game.
The classic project management cycle is plan-execute-monitor-control-replan and continue with execution. That’s the same thing you’re doing with the game as you create it and especially after you have a playable prototype. In case it’s not clear, “monitor” means observe what is happening (the execution) and how that doesn’t match the plan, and “control” means act to change how things are going when they’re not going according to plan.
Of course, if you have no plan you don’t know where you’re going and so you’re most unlikely to get there. For a tabletop game the plan isn’t so much a prescription for how things will go (because things will change), as a description of where you want to end up. For a traditional AAA video game the plan is more prescriptive because it takes so long to get to a playable prototype.
Your principal reality check is playtesting. That’s why it’s vitally important to pay attention to playtests and to *listen* to playtesters. If you’re making a game with a team rather than solo (solo is common for tabletop games), you can also hope that the team will provide a reality check.
Unfortunately the team’s view of the game will be so skewed by their closeness to it that they will have lost touch with its reality to some extent. (Clearly you can’t rely on your family and close friends as principal playtesters to keep you grounded in reality; though that depends a lot on the family!)
In other words, insofar as the purpose of most games is to satisfy the target audience, it’s important that the playtesting is with the target audience. Otherwise playtesting doesn’t match reality. I’m convinced that this has been the flaw in many video games that fell on their faces, although it still more common that the games are issued before they have been sufficiently tested owing to unchangeable marketing schedules.
Remember that there are facts revealed by playtesting that the playtesters won’t tell you, won’t even notice. I recall specifically a game that worked well and playtesters seemed to enjoy, but which had the flaw that whoever was ahead halfway through almost always won. I had to keep track of the points and notice this before I had a chance to fix it. With a great deal more playtesting it might have been noticed by the testers, but don’t wait for playtesters to reveal flaws you can detect yourself by monitoring a series of games.
The heart of game design is monitoring and control, not the planning. Video game design books often give an entirely different impression because they concentrate so much on planning. That’s because, for AAA games, so much planning must be done before the playable prototype stage is reached.
The focus on planning is in fact a defect of the software creation process, at least as it has been traditionally practiced. Nowadays we have Agile and Scrum and other methods of speeding up the process so that a playable prototype is reached early rather than late in the production. But it’s still the case that it takes a long time to make a playable prototype of a video game compared with the time it takes to make a tabletop prototype.
That’s why many experts recommend that people planning a video game make a paper prototype as soon as possible, if that’s practical at all. I know of at least one video game where the entire game was “played” in a paper version before the software was created. (Shadow Complex, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4119/making_shadow_complex_donald_.php?page=2)
The need to focus on reality is why I sometimes say that game design is about critical thinking and self-criticism. One reason why novice game designers struggle is that they’re not accustomed to “getting down to reality”. Young people especially have been encouraged to “follow their dreams” and “be creative”, and are told that they’re special and wonderful, consequently they can be pretty far into cloud-cuckoo land when they are evaluating a game that they have created. Experience helps, both experience in game design and experience with a broad variety of life. A broad and deep education helps as well.
A reason why free-to-play online games have been so successful is that the players provide a strong reality check as the game is developed. The game is usually made available to players long before it could be called “finished”.
Then if enough players like it they are likely to tell developers what they like and what they don’t like, providing a strong reality check as long as a relatively small group’s opinion does not become dominant by virtue of being noisier. That’s the danger of online communities. They may have opinions that don’t jive with the majority of players, yet because they are amongst the minority who talk online about the game their opinions may be taken as representative of all the players.
Recognition of reality in the sense of what your target audience wants and needs is very important. I recently talked in a post on my primary blog (http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/) about avoiding arithmetic in games because so many people find it frustrating. Some respondents were dismayed that I didn’t recognize an opportunity to help improve arithmetic skills by putting them into games. But that’s a venture into cloud-cuckoo land. People in this century don’t want frustration in their games. The reality of the commercial game market is "arithmetic frustrates most people".
There is a well-known book about creating usable websites called “Don’t Make Me Think" by Steve Krug. What the author means is, don’t make people think about how to get at the information that’s on the website, because this distracts and frustrates them. This has to be modified specifically for games.
In many games we want people to think, but we want them to think about the mechanics and dynamics of the game, and about the opposition, not about something that is ancillary to the game, that is not part of success or failure. What’s important in a D20 tabletop RPG is whether or not you hit, not whether you can add modifiers to calculate your to-hit total. Doing arithmetic is ancillary, though there are other games where arithmetic is central to success or failure.
Don’t make people think about doing math unless math is central to the game. Don't make people think about anything that isn't necessary to the game.
But it all depends on your target market.