The woes of the amateur game designer

Woe I am sure a lot of you have found my blog for the first time after they heard about one of my game designs. Especially Warrior, Rogue & Mage has been pretty popular and I am also quite happy with how Arcane Heroes turned out. Aside from those two games I’ve designed a few others that were interesting enough to be posted at my Stargazer Games site. But there’s a whole library of unfinished ideas, games that never really worked or that I abandoned to work on something else.

My archenemy is surely what I call “game designer attention deficit disorder”. It usually sets in after I’ve started on a new project. And suddenly something else attracts my attention. “What’s this? A new game? An interesting new concept to borrow? How could I make this work with my system? Ohhh, shiny…” Usually my project comes to a sudden halt at that moment. I stumble upon a game that I like and at once my brain starts to salvage that game for ideas. The attempt to incorporate these ideas into what I am working on right now usually fails and I get frustrated. This frustration often makes me abandon the project and move on. Until I find the next distraction. Rinse and repeat.

There have been some cases when I was able to avoid this. In the case of WR&M a few good friends helped me to get through with it. Without them this game would probably never have seen the light of day. Another way to avoid this is to compress the whole design process into 24 hours or less. Then I just don’t have any time to digress. My first draft of WR&M and Arcane Heroes are great examples for this. But I have to be in the right state of mind to pull something like this off.

A problem closely related to the game designer ADD is that recently my designs tend to look like clones of existing games. This doesn’t happen on purpose but it’s probably a side effect of me reading a lot of roleplaying game rulebooks for reviews. Some time back I discovered the excellent FU RPG and without noticing the game rules I was working on at the time slowly started resembling FU. A more recent example was the Mistborn Adventure Game Primer. I read the rules and was blown away. It already shared a few concepts with a game I am working on and I really had to fight the urge to borrow too much from what I’ve read in said primer.

I am no professional game designer. Writing games is a hobby for me, not something that pays my bills, so it’s not something that puts me in real peril, but the fact that I always face the same problems when working on a game design is driving me up the walls. I have a lot of ideas what I would love to do but I also think I put too much stress on myself. Which is pretty silly because I doubt anyone expects me to churn out great game designs every other month or so. What I really would like to know how other people handle these issues. Perhaps some of you want to share your thoughts on that matter. As always any comment is highly appreciated!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

7 thoughts on “The woes of the amateur game designer”

  1. I think we all suffer from that sort of thing. I’m struggling to try and stay on point in my own little side project right now, and it’s a daily exercise of forcing yourself to finish one thing and do it right before moving on to other ideas.

  2. I have to veto a lot of my new projects. I look at them and say to myself, “Do I have the time or energy to do this properly? Would this be taking away from something I already said I was going to do?”

    That kills about 9/10ths of the new ideas that pop up. I do try to incorporate things I really like into existing projects, but it usually takes several iterations of the new idea being streamlined and fully melded in before it becomes truly one with the existing project.

  3. I don’t think it’s bad when good game ideas find their way into your designs. Combining good ideas can sometimes lead to an even better game. (While, in my own experience, it can just as often lead to problems.) I think the key is being open to change, and letting the things evolve over time. Very few really creative things just appear. They are almost always the product of a lot of work over time (and not necessarily work on that project, but experience working on others.)

    When you find game mechanics you like, and maybe an innovative way to apply them, toss them up on the blog, or in front of your players and see how others see and use them.

  4. I’m posting here by request of Michael. Well, he didn’t really ask me to post, but asked if I had any comments which is a bit of leading question and gets into the whole arena of semantics (which we’ll leave for another time).

    Professional writing and game design is my gig, so I can speak to this without looking any crazier than one might think I already am for doing this to begin with, so let’s get done to the crux of the matter, and ask the BIG question. Should a designer (amateur, professional, or otherwise) let himself be distracted by other designs, ignore their existence altogether, or use them a positive influence to inform his own work?

    Certainly, this is a slanted question as I’m pressed for time as I’m running behind on a few project deadlines. Obviously, the right answer is the last answer. Read other works. Learn from what has gone before. Create your own path. The thing is to not do it in the middle of your own work or you can suffer creative paralysis. Don’t change destinations midstream. Eat right. Exercise. You know the drill. Finish what you’ve started. After you do that, allow yourself an opportunity to explore. Between projects it’s cool to check out other games. While in the middle of them, it can be easy and attractive to incorporate elements of other works into your own (unless you possess iron discipline). The best thing, I’ll underscore, is to wrap up your work. Let it make the rounds of playtesting and feedback. Then, and only then, if you still got that itch to scratch, go for it. (Odds are, you won’t.)

    Later gators!


  5. That’s great advice, Sean. Of course avoiding other people’s works in the middle of a project is hard to do for a blogger since we usually do reviews and are always on the look-out for new stuff to write about. So I guess I have to work on my discipline. 🙂
    And what’s this exercise stuff you talk about? 😛

    1. Michael,

      As a reviewer, you have to be on the lookout for new stuff. You’re entirely right about that and, since I managed to snag a few slices of time this morning, I’ll talk about what to do when you’re in the middle of a project and you start looking at a new game while working on your current project. Ready? Off we go.

      I mentioned iron discipline in the previous post, so let’s talk about ways to develop and reinforce one’s focus on the project at hand. There are several tips I would posit can help anyone’s focus-fu.

      1. Analyze the “thing” you like about the new game. Is it the nifty way they do races? Is it the new Edges/Feats/Whatever? Or is it simply the novel way they address world building or something as mundane as how it’s organized?

      2. Can any of these things inform your present work? While one shouldn’t cut and paste with wild abandon (unless you’re working on OGL and, even then, I would advise keeping this to a minimum in most case), you can certainly peel back the surface and examine the underlying principles and see how they can add to your work.

      Here we get into a logic branch.

      A. If they can add to your work, are they necessary or are you putting make-up on a clown? Don’t bloat your work with unnecessary baggage. If you think they can add value, continue to step B or jump to step C.

      B. If you find they can add to your work, apply the concepts and adjust as necessary. Games are often inspired by elements from other games, just don’t be entirely derivative. Pay it forward. If you like how world-building works in Game X and are compelled to use it, then examine the principles and apply them to your work in your own way.

      C. Get back to work on your project or, if you cannot resist, proceed to step 3.

      3. You can’t let go of Idea X and must use it. Fine. You are weak and can wrestle with that demon later. Open a new file, jot down the ideas you like, brainstorm a bit to purge yourself of the purity of your inspirations, and, this is the hard part, save the file and proceed no further. It will be there later when you’re down with your current project. After that, you can guess what I’m going to say here, get back to work!

      Take care,


  6. Oh yeah, this sounds painfully familiar. I don’t think I’ve even gotten close to finishing a project really. Maybe this NaGa DeMon is just what I need to force myself through the ‘shiney’ syndrome.

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