When I first joined the Museum this semester as a game design intern, I was given an overview about MicroRangers: Keeping the Balance: its gameplay, inspirations, and challenges. Essentially, the experience is going to heavily resemble Pandemic and Forbidden Island, both of them cooperative “disaster” board games by designer Matt Leackock. In MicroRangers, players would travel from site to site in the museum, making sure the biodiversity in each site does not reach critical levels.
Now, 6 weeks later, we’ve nearly finalized the print prototype for the game: a physical board version of what’s eventually gonna be an augmented reality experience. It was an interesting challenge for me: How am I going to take a game that’s so reliant on interactivity and physical movement in the real world, and turn it into something with paper and tokens? Here are some of the techniques that helped me out.
Design Takeaway #1: Play games and play with games
If our game mechanics are heavily based on Pandemic and Forbidden Island, then we can’t make a game without putting some time into playing them deeply first. Reading the rules or watching a video would not always suffice, as one could gain a lot of insight from the emotions and reactions of players during the play experience.
Playing the games laid the foundation for finding a solution to one of our main issues: creating meaningful choices for players. We needed to have an extra layer of things to do, an additional task between players and victory. In Pandemic, players don’t simply remove blocks to cure diseases, as that would be too one-dimensional, but they’re also collecting different colored cards as well, and it’s the cards that directly tie in with the victory condition. With that in mind, we came up with Research Points, which are tokens that would be earned as players managed threats around the board. In order to win the game, players must earn a certain amount of Research Points and place them in the Hall of Biodiversity. The amount of Research Points they earn varies depending on their performance in the various mini-games around the museum.
Similarly, game designers shouldn’t be afraid to tinker with pre-existing games. Having played Pandemic several times, I tried to modify the rules so it would somewhat replicate the museum experience: I could only play in North American cities (there are 9 of them, which is the number of sites museum players will visit), I wasn’t confined to a single role, but could use any ability once and only once, and I could move anywhere, regardless of distance. Playing the modified game was very helpful in getting the prototype off the ground. I could sort of envision what it’s like to travel between 9 museum exhibits and solving problems, how long the game might last, and how many cards should be in the deck.
Design Takeaway #2: Playtest. A lot.
As I’ve been working on the MicroRangers non-digital prototype, I played it all the way through over 30 times. In the past month, there’s been 10 versions of the game, all of which have one or two really minor changes, such as a difference in the amount of points one gets, or how quickly sites start getting damaged. Early on the game had some serious problems, being much too difficult, as chain reactions between damaged sites were too easy to trigger. It took a lot of little tweaks before getting to a version that we’re satisfied with, and each one of those tweaks required a full play through. If, like me, you’re not that good at math, you’ll have to play the game again after every tiny change to make sure nothing broke.
Different playtesters also give you different feedback, so it’s important to diversify how you test, and who you test with. For example, playing with Barry led to a lot of thoughts on player experience and narrative content. Mechanics couldn’t be implemented just because they worked in a design sense, but also had to match the story we’re creating, as well as the expectations of a player who is running around the Museum. Playing with one of my classmates in game design school led to more critical behavior, with a desire to “break” the game and find mechanical inconsistencies. It might be tempting to just roleplay as all the players yourself, but you will get a lot more objective feedback you hadn’t thought about if somebody else is playing your game.
One more important tip: Take notes! It’s easy to think you can remember all the changes you’re making or all the feedback you’re getting, but you won’t. Have a notebook with you when somebody’s playing. Seeing that you’re writing makes players more comfortable with giving detailed feedback. Also, make sure you keep track of changes in a spreadsheet. Have all versions available in front of you with a row for each variable, so you can see how it’s been changing over time. This makes it easier to find out where do problems seem to center and how you can go about fixing them.
Design Takeaway #3: Go all out
So we’ve been making this paper prototype for the past month now, but how do we know it’ll translate to an enjoyable experience for museum visitors? We looked to answer this question by playing the prototype in the museum halls, and having to physically move from one site to another as we played. We used a drawing app to simulate the changes in game state, a dice rolling app to replace the mini-games, and a deck of cards to indicate which sites are becoming dangerous.
We also wanted to spend some time at each site to simulate how long players will be watching videos and playing games before moving on but, unfortunately, we couldn’t do that due to time constraints. Despite this, we made a lot of interesting observations. Realizing how packed the museum will be and how tiring it is to move around, we decided to “cut the fat” from the prototype. We removed complex rules and situations that would be too difficult to understand in such a crowded environment, and shortened the game so players would have to attend just 5 sites before winning the game (or losing it), instead of 8 or 9. While some mechanics were lost, at the same time, some opportunities opened up. We realized how fascinating it is to stand in the Dzangha Rain Forest, which led to some new and more elaborate events that would occur there during the game. When you’re making a prototype in a different format than what the actual game’s gonna be, keep in mind that the experiences are going to be vastly different. Playing the paper prototype in the halls allowed us to reduce this discrepancy.