Note: Mike is a frequent collaborator and has judged many of our design contests, but his opinions remain his own. Odds are pretty good he knows what he's talking about, but nothing in his columns constitutes official Button Shy policy. - Jason
What's All This Then?
Welcome gamers, designers, and friends, to the first in a series of posts taking a closer look at the 18 Card Challenge.
After viewing 228 entries for the September contest alone, I realized I had quite a few pieces of advice for future entrants. Once I'd made up my mind to write something, I took to Twitter to solicit questions to include in a "Best Practices" article. I was surprised to see that many of the questions had to do with the judging process itself. I'm still not sure whether these came from a place of curiosity, or a desire to crack the system and figure out how to impress the panel. Either way, let's start this blog series by talking about how we judge contests here at Button Shy
Currently, all submissions are collected via email, which are then forwarded in batches of about 25 to a handful of judges. This month there were 10 judges viewing submissions (ok, so that's two handfuls), including some Button Shy designers. Each judge is encouraged to watch the short pitch video, glance at the rules and PnP files, and then fill out a survey about the game. In addition to the big question, "Should this game be played?", there are a few sliders to help to frame a judge's thoughts about their first impressions.
I'm sure there are already more questions. What do you mean "glance" at the rules? How important is theme? What's an average score? How many of these hypothetical questions are you going to write before you move on?
Many of these will be covered in upcoming posts, but I do want to talk about that "glance at the rules" bit. In previous contests, we've gotten over a hundred entries, and this time it doubled to over two hundred. It's simply not possible to watch 10+ hours of pitch videos and read every word of the rules docs. We've seen enough pitches to know when a game is worth a closer look. To give you an idea, I watched all of the pitch videos this month, opened the rules for roughly 40 of them, and eventually got my list down to 20 "Yes, this should be played" games.
Did that sell you on the importance of your pitch video? I know many of you are worried that flashy videos will be unfairly weighted, but it's often just the opposite. An overproduced video just adds to the amount of time I have to spend figuring out what your game is about. I'll certainly discuss the pitch at some point, but here's the short and sweet version: PLEASE SHOW US HOW THE GAME WORKS!
(Mike, stop yelling. - Jason)
Fine, whatever, I'm calm.
Phase Two, Play Day
Since we had such an incredible field for the September contest, we settled on the idea of 20 finalists (games that we'd actually print and play). That number will likely fluctuate from contest to contest, depending on the number and quality of entrants.
Five of us got together and played just about every game in one evening, and we managed to get the remaining games to the table over the next few days. So, what is is that we look for?
First and foremost - does the game deliver the experience it sets out to? Sometimes a game succeeds in being silly, but forgets the fun. Some puzzles wind up being a series of very clear best moves, with few opportunities for interesting plays. The biggest hiccup for "clever" games is that there is too much random guessing, leaving behind a list of resolution rules that we plod through.
If your game clears that hurdle, the next thing we look at is whether or not a game is broken. Oftentimes a game is purring, but grinds to a halt when someone realizes that if you always do X, you literally can't lose. We may encounter a situation that is not described in the rules, but feels like a common enough occurrence that it's a fundamental oversight. Testing games with designers and publishers is tough, because we always have to repeat the mantra "no developing, judge the submission."
One of the questions submitted on Twitter was about whether or not the level of development was taken into consideration, and the answer is yes and no. To win the contest, there's an unwritten rule that your game shouldn't break when we test it. Why unwritten? It's possible that a game comes along that's so wonderful, everyone is willing to overlook a broken rule, but it hasn't happened yet. So, yes, a fully functioning game will almost always beat a broken one, because everyone is subjected to the same limited timeline to playtest and refine games before submission. However, Jason is always scouting for games to publish, and a game with a ton of potential will certainly be noticed.
Phase Three, Medal Ceremony
At the culmination of playtests, there is usually a stack of 3-5 games that could potentially win. Following the unwritten rule described above, working games tend to move up, and broken games move down. Now there may be 2-3 games that we'll compare head-to-head, and oftentimes the deciding factor is excitement. Did we enjoy our play? Did we talk about it, maybe even compare other games to it? Would we play again right now? It's always surprising to me that the other steps are more difficult than choosing a winner, but sure enough there's usually a game that stands out.
..... but, "marketability" though?
The last question I'll address in this post is how much marketability plays into our decision. This was asked several ways: "market saturation," "likelihood of working together," and "is the winner always published?". It's impossible to say that things like that aren't in the back of our minds, especially Jason who's constantly vetting games for publication. What I can say is that to win this contest, we looked for games that delivered on their promises, worked, and were fun. Seems simple, right? A fairly large number of games delivered on 2/3 of those things. Focus your efforts there, and worry about things like marketability *after* you know the game is worth more of your time.
Thanks for reading! Parts 2 and 3 will be posted Wednesday and Friday this week, so come on back and learn the secret to a good pitch video, and why white space is both amazing and terrible.