Fantasy Fantasy: Dropping The Ball

Fantasy Fantasy: Dropping The Ball

Here's a quick story about how I started on a game, then got sidetracked long enough for a game to come out with a similar theme and a very similar name. File this under: Lessons Learned. 

I’m sure most game designers are juggling a handful of projects at once. Personally I’m juggling 2 medium-to-large ones at late stages, 2-3 medium sized games at the early stages, and a bunch of small games at a variety of stages. This is kind of how it just works. I (we) throw a bunch of ideas out there, prototype them, test them and roll with the game that sticks. And sometimes, it’s not just the game that sticks, it’s the game with a deadline that gets bumped to the top. 

The one that got bumped to the bottom was Fantasy Fantasy. A big dice fest that put players in the exact spot where Dungeons and Dragons and Fantasy Football meet. Stats and spreadsheets. The crossover here is pretty intense. I brought the game to Unpub 4 for it’s very first public tests and it accomplished exactly what I wanted. It was loud and  came down to the final die roll. The timing and tone was there, but the game was far from done. 

fan*ta*sy fan*ta*sy
a competition in which participants select imaginary parties from among the adventures in a land and score points according to the actual performance of their adventurers.

A few months later I had some design sessions with Luke Peterschmidt and we discussed a few directions to take the game. It ended up in front of some publishers at Origins / Gen Con, but here’s where the dropping of the ball started. It's also where my methods contradict most designers.

Here are things that I usually do (but didn’t do with Fantasy Fantasy).

    1. I always want to show off a pretty prototype.

While publishers will say that it doesn’t matter, I would highly disagree. A pretty prototype not only catches the eye and can create a different kind of emotional spark than an ugly prototype, it also helps get people into the game faster and understand it better as they play. When the brain needs to convert things without any other frame of reference, you re quick to lose people. And even if you don’t lose them, it can be enough to kick things off in a negative direction. Confusion can be the catalyst for a bad experience. It’s tough to bounce back when a test starts off on the confusing side. 

For Fantasy Fantasy, my prototype was just text and numbers. While the game is rooted in stats and spreadsheets, it shouldn’t look like one. This was not my style at all, but I was crunching hard to get things ready for Unpub. I also had Seven7s with me, and I spent the time making that one nice and pretty. AS a result, Seven7s was quickly pitched and we played a ton of games. I was confident to show anyone who was interested. Fantasy Fantasy had a learning curve perpetuated by a barebones prototype.

    1. I always design (and often develop) in private.

Many designers will show off their games in a very early state, and I’m the complete opposite. I will build it internally, test it with my private groups, then when I feel like it’s at a point where I’m willing to move forward with it, I’ll start to show it off and get outside testing. This is often after I’ve ironed out a lot of the initial kinks, but it’s also after I’ve picked out a name (even if temporary), made a pretty prototype, and felt like the game expresses the feeling and tone of the final product. From here I’ll test and tweak and test and tweak, but for me to get to this stage it means that I’m ready for anyone to see it and I’m 100% ready for first impressions. You only get one chance for a first impression, so I want to make it count. 

For Fantasy Fantasy, I didn’t reach this point yet. I had played solo tests and tinkered with some designer friends, but I didn’t get over the initial hump of being fully comfortable with the state of the game to show it off for first impressions. I did it anyway because Unpub is very, very important, but I was hesitant to have people play it in it’s current state. The quality of the prototype was a huge part of that, but some of the bigger rules were being tested and could have made for terrible experiences. Luckily everything worked out well, but I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time in the sea of amazing games that Unpub is.

Cut to 2015

I think I saw it first at Unpub 5, but I saw that JR Honeycutt (designer of our very own North South East Quest!) and Daryl Andrews had a game called Fantasy Fantasy Baseball. By now, I was midway through some of the bigger projects and Fantasy Fantasy had to take a backseat, but my first reaction as “Oh man. I guess I missed my chance with that awesome title!”. I didn’t know anything else about their game at that time, so I kept working on my big projects. 

Then in recent months I saw that Fantasy Fantasy Baseball was a signed game, and I even talked to JR about my original game and learned out about Football, Hockey and the full scope of the line. By now my guess was certain. I definitely missed my chance with the awesome title (which is a title that was bound to happen anyway - even pre-Unpub 4, I’d googled it like crazy seeing websites and bands with that name).

My secondary concern was probably a little bigger. Is the novelty of a Fantasy Fantasy game going to be its selling point? Not just as in selling copies of the game, but as getting interest to begin with. Is it the kind of thing that is judged on concept alone, with the first game to the market setting the stage and satisfying that niche?

My personal answer would be no. New games come to market and open up new worlds. The games that follow have an advantage: A point of reference. But also a disadvantage: A point of reference. :) The comparisons will be there forever. As a second or third or fourth game, you have a new duty and it’s to bring something new to the table. It’s an interesting set of issues that arise when you dilly dally, but it’s not something I worry about with these games because they are already very different. The one struggle that it adds is that I now need to spend a portion of the little bit of time pitching the game (whether to a tester, publisher, or customer) towards explaining the differences to the existing games on the market. That’s not impossible, but it is a new challenge. 

My Lessons Learned

I have two big rules - 1) make a pretty proto and 2) keep things quiet until they are polished. I stand by number 1 for it’s ability to cut the learning curve and provide a better experience for anyone playing the game. Spending the extra hour(s) will make a big difference.  But I think number 2 is where I really went wrong here. I showed something off that wasn't at my normal comfort zone (going against my rule) but then I stopped showing it off. I should have been more prepared the first time around, but since I skipped right past that phase, I should have went full force using the opportunities I was given. 

It may have been rough for its Unpub debut, but if I was blogging about this game post-Unpub, showing pictures and getting people involved, some of the challenges would already have been behind me. I would still have to explain the differences between this and Fantasy Fantasy Baseball at some point, but in some ways, people would already have seen what I was working on and known that they are very different games. Similar game ideas hit all the time, but that’s just an idea. There’s so much more to a game than the idea and have no doubt that we were just both on the same page at the same time. It happens.

And ultimately, all of that progress could have helped tie the title Fantasy Fantasy to this game. It’s such a good title and I’m sad to see it go. But I worked on other games, kept things quiet and that’s totally my fault. It’s not the end of the world and if it’s enough to kill the game, it would be a bigger problem than anything else, but it’s seriously the best name ever. :)

Going Forward

I’ve been trying to figure out where to go from here. Do I shelve this and come back later? (Probably) Do I try to retheme something that was built directly from the theme (Unlikely). Or do I go full force while it’s on my mind? (That’s always good motivation). Whatever I decide, I’m going to decide it publicly, since keeping quiet doesn’t help. 

If you've had similar experiences, I'd love to hear about them. And if you have a better name for Fantasy Fantasy during this time, please share!
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