If you turn a plant around perpendicular to the gravitational axes, it grows in a spiral. In other words, if you keep changing the definition of up and down, the plant just adapts, and adapts, and adapts. That’s what life does. If grass can do it, you can do it. Well, except for photosynthesis.
Let me tell you about the first card game I ever made. I was 23, it was 1999, and I had no real interest in game design before that. But Lunch Money and Chez Geek and Once Upon A Time and other such amazing new card games had just come out and the world was teetering on the edge of the golden age. So when my sister and I were watching Primary Colours and she suggested it could be some kind of game, I got out some cards and went to work. The game was called Election, and it was about building up Platform cards (like “Bomb Them Towelheads Back to the Stone Age!”) and Character cards (“I Triumphed Over Dyslexia”) before a random game card triggered the end, and avoiding attack cards that showed you to be a hypocrite. People played it an laughed at my flavour and setting (my biggest strength, already), but it became very obvious that putting down point cards was always a better strategy than attacking someone else.
I thought and thought and thought and thought and spend an entire year trying to figure out how to fix that. And I had no idea what to do next. I concluded I had no skill for game design and put it away and with it any intent of doing more.
Fast forward fifteen years. The Golden Age has raged and for me, RPGs have waned in my tastes, replaced by a love of the cardboard dream. The itch rises again. Some friends and I come up with hundreds of film tropes in an attempt to make an Apples 2 Apples type parlour game, but it’s not much of a game and we don’t know what to do next. One of those friends starts getting the bug and starts making cards. He takes them to unpubs and protospiels. I feel bewildered; surely I should be able to do this too. But there’s a block. I just can’t figure it out. It’s like I don’t speak the language.
So I go to conventions and ask questions about how to push forward. When to give up. How to get ideas. I study the process. But it’s slow. See, at every stage, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Not only do I not know what to do, I don’t know how to find out. Listening to podcasts doesn’t fit. Reading books feels off. And I couldn’t ever ask someone to playtest something for me. Not even my friends. It almost killed me asking people to play There Is No Spoon all those years ago. And I know I can make RPGs.
But I can make RPGs. So I start there. I write It Is Forbidden, but more importantly, I take it to an unpub. I stare down the barrel of hell and ask people to play a game I wrote. I get in fast and then run away shaking. I remember the first time I asked a business if they’d be interested in being interviewed in my old magazine PTGPTB. I had a car accident that day I was so nervous.
But then I get the game out again at PAX 2016 and amongst friends I run it again.
A few months later, I have an idea for a card game. And now I know enough about how to print pictures. How to sleeve things. It’s hard but I learn by doing. It’s ugly as hell but it exists. And at CanCon in January, I go to a publisher meet and play other people’s stuff. And right at the end, I bring out my baby. And it falls over and fails but a few people offer instant suggestions, and immediately it gets better.
You know the rest of this story. That was Baby Dragon Bedtime and everyone who plays it loves it. And it looks like it’s getting published. In the week leading up to PAX 2017 I saw how to coalesce one game and it may be optioned as well. I’ve made two whole card games since I’ve got home nine days ago. They’re not nearly finished of course but they exist to be tested which is what matters. And it wasn’t so hard because I can find the software now and can print and sleeve and make. My hands find the positions. Nothing screams in my head about the wrongness of it all. In fact it comes so quick I can barely stop. I listen to three podcasts while I go, and read my game dev books, and run unpubs.
Like I said, you know this story. It’s the story you always hear. Sucking at stuff is just the first step to be pretty good at stuff. But it’s not about skill, or not just about skill. Nature knows what is normal, and if you change anything, no matter what, the system screams. The plant realises up is no longer up and the system goes into shock. Everything it used to do is wrong.
And then, it grows upwards in the new upwards. As if nothing changed. As if it always had.
I’m cheating somewhat of course. Game design isn’t a physical skill like drawing or dancing, and I’d been studying it by osmosis my whole life. But there’s lots of skills like it. And those that aren’t like it – well, once you turn the pot, the learning comes much easier. Often in messy, ugly jerks and starts, other times in gushes, but once you know about changing your nature, the learning gets easier.
Nature does what it knows. Change feels like death. But once changed, doing it differently is life. Yes, there are skills, and that’s a barrier too. But there’s also the pain of change. Once you know it’s there, you can ride it out. And in a blur, everything is suddenly easy. Everything is suddenly just what you do. As easy as breathing. Turn the pot. You can do it.