Your next amazing, world-changing creative idea will only exist when you create it. Seems like a no-brained concept, right? Then why do ideas fail to get past their maturation phase? There are a few schools of thought:
- You lose interest in the idea and move on to something else
- You get distracted by other aspects of life
- You don’t think the idea worth going through the effort to turn into something concrete
The last bullet point in that list is a difficult one to combat, but I believe that you can push past all three of these obstacles with one thing: a plan.
Wow, radical idea. Is your entire blog going to be condescending?
No follow up to that? OK.
In today’s world, no one wants to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing. If you admit that you’re new to something, you may find just as many people who want to dismiss you as who want to help you. There are a lot of factors in your creative world that you can’t control, mostly, the opinions of the people who you’d like to consume your creative product.
What you can control, however, is giving yourself enough structure, with a well managed plan, to keep you on track so that even though this may be your first or second time creating something, you can still communicate your project timeline to people. It’s extremely important for trust. BUT with enough freedom for you to be able to stay creative and think outside of the box.
Another benefit of a plan is that your big, extensive project is broken down into manageable chunks which you can complete or delegate more effectively.
Fine, fine. But what’s the best way to do that?
Project management is an entire career for some people. But you don’t need a career to know how to manage a project. It may be good to do some research into different methodologies and figure out which is best for your project, but for creating a tabletop game, I use a variation of the Agile method.
…the what method?
The Agile method. This form of project management is typically used by software developers, including video games. The core tenets of the Agile method are as such:
- Individuals and interactions over process and tools
- Working product over extensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The way that I specifically translate these tenets to a tabletop game is:
- Individuals and interactions—focus on you and your team’s (if you have one) ability to work together to share ideas, instead of plotting, micromanaging specifically defined tasks, and extensive schematics.
- Working product—make sure that your assets speak for themselves as much as they possibly can over creating a 20+ page rulebook and making the assets barebones or far too artwork focused with little UX design. Even heavy role playing pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons have rule books which are well organized for function over form. Look at it this way, if your game normally takes an hour to play once people know the rules, if they have to constantly refer to the rulebook to remember a small detail of how the game works, try to portray that rule or mechanic in a card or token.
- Customer collaboration—create prototypes and play test your game as often as you possibly can. Don’t assume you have a mechanic down and you don’t need to see it in action. Don’t save play testing for the times when you get stuck. Don’t think that because your game can’t be completed or won that you shouldn’t play test it. Throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks should be built into your plan. Try to play test your game at least once a month, if not more.
- Responding to change—give yourself time to jump into that rabbit hole. You may find out that there are huge changes to your game that can make it more fun. Don’t think that because you’re exploring a different theme or a rather large change to the core mechanics of your game that you’re derailing your entire project. In fact, you’re doing your project justice by leaving yourself open to change. If you’re working on a team, being open to everyone’s creative input makes your game shine. Allow yourself the time to go on that adventure, even if you’re worried that it’ll push your deadlines back.
Exactly how loose (or not) is this “Agile method” as a plan?
In terms of creating a tabletop game, I’ve developed a variation of the Agile method. Since the Agile method (at least the one that I know) is fine-tuned for software developers, there are some aspects of Agile that I use and some that I don’t. I’ll break down, in terms of the plan, what I believe is important for you to track…and what tools you might consider using to track your project.
Break up your project into phases
It helps to think of your project in phases from start to completion, to categorize them in larger stages. For example, I thought of my tabletop game in these phases:
- Prototype—the ‘beta’ and heavy play test phase; get your game to a point where it can be completed and winners can be defined here
- Design—this is a hybrid phase; you’ll want to play test quite a bit here but this is the phase where you want to collect feedback on the actual ‘user experience’ of the game; get your iconography and rulebook in a good place here AND make sure that you’re weeding out the game breaking bugs
- Produce—the money phase; here’s where you’ll try to get money to get your game manufactured and distributed in the next phase; you’ll still want to play test your game here but depending on your method of getting funds for your game, you may be able to open the play testing up to a wider audience; in this phase, you’ll want to figure out the cost of manufacturing and shipping; this phase is extremely important to the future success of your game and has high potential for pitfall, proceed with care
- Manufacture & Distribute—the concrete phase; this is where your game gets mass produced; it’s highly dependent on the success of your produce phase; and has its own logistics to work out; you’ll need to ensure the quality of your product as its mass produced and handle shipping from the manufacturer to a holding/storage facility and then to the end consumer
Define the tasks within a phase and organize them into sprints
Tasks—Now that you have an idea for the various phases of your project, think about the tasks that you’ll need to finish to complete a phase. Start one phase at a time. You don’t need to define all tasks for all phases up front. As I write this, I’m still in the Prototype phase of my project, making sure that I can make my game playable within my desired time frame of 45 minutes – 1 hour and that the game is winnable most of the time. I’ve defined what I need to do in direct but not pedantic terms. For example, some of my tasks include:
- Develop characters
- Define mid game ‘game changer’ condition for each character
- Lay out new gameplay and rules for ‘game changer’ conditions
- Develop assets (cards, tokens, etc.)
- Print and play test, collect play test feedback
- Tweak as needed, repeat until the game is winnable and appears to be balanced
NOTE: I do also think ahead a bit. It’s OK to think about the design of your game as you’re prototyping it but it’s more important to have a semi-solid game FIRST and then narrow down the design later. That’s why I’ve defined phases of my project, not to trap my thoughts into a box and then only allow myself to move on once I’ve figured everything out in that box, but to keep me just focused enough to be able to get the important things down before changing my focus to other aspects of the game.
Sprints—Once you’ve laid out your tasks, build them into sprints. A sprint is a short span of time for you to complete your tasks. Typically, the sweet-spot for a sprint is two weeks.
What that means is that you’ll want to give yourself a few tasks and complete as many as possible in two weeks. It’s OK if you don’t complete one in two weeks, you can just move it to the next sprint.
IMPORTANT: As you define your tasks and put them into sprints, write down the “definition of done” for each task. For example, “I’m done with developing characters once I’ve given a name to, created one special ability for, and defined the mid game changing trigger condition for four unique characters.
Dependencies—You’ll also want to think about the relationship between your tasks. If you can’t complete the print and play test task until you’ve completed the develop assets task, then make sure that it’s last on your list and possibly in a later sprint.
In the prototype and design phases, it’s important to be open to all ideas. For example, I recently (like, last week) decided to completely change the entire theme and story of my game.
You did WHAT?!
I won’t go into detail on that in this blog post, I’m saving that story for another time, but I will say that I am entirely more pleased and excited to play my game now. If you stick too closely to the rules that you defined when you first started your project, you’ll might not be happy with the outcome. Creative projects only work when you can pivot on a dime and make big changes as you work to complete them.
Creativity is having to build the plane as you fly it—although, I’d highly recommend against actually trying to build a plane as you fly it.
In the end, you’re the creative director of your project and you need to make these decisions. Not just that, you need to OWN these decisions. Anyway, let’s move on.
What tools do I use to track all of the junk I have to do?
There are many project management tools out there. I use Smartsheet, which is a paid software that has great project management features in a spreadsheet format. I can create dependencies between tasks and do things like show priority and task health, then calculate project health based on that.
My recommendation is for you to use the tool that you’re most comfortable with and the one that works within your budget. Pen and paper, whiteboard and dry erase marker, stone tablet and chisel—whatever works for you. I have some recommendations though:
- Smartsheet—provides familiar spreadsheet setting and easy to read structure, this works well if you decide to use the Agile method for your project
- Wunderlist—free version exists which gives you a to-do list type of interface
- Todoist—free version exists which is robust and lets you set reminders for tasks
- Evernote—free version exists and gives you the ability to easily take handwritten notes and add photos to organize your thoughts
Thanks for reading!
Take some time today to organize your tasks into a plan—then get to it!