#11: Game Building – Virtual or Physical?

Continuing with my policy of explaining “beginner” concepts with examples, today we will discuss how I typically begin developing games and how you can apply that information to your game building endeavors.

Every game I have ever developed began by focusing on virtual development. Now, I don’t hold the secret to perfect game design, nor is this the only way. All I can say for certain is that from my personal experience and every design story I’ve heard – games made the most forward progress with focus on and development of the virtual aspect of the game. Therefore, I recommend beginning your game building by building your virtual game, first.

What am I talking about? All games (card game, dice game, board game, etc.) have a physical aspect and a virtual aspect. The physical is everything in the “real” world – the dice, board, rule book, pawns – things you can touch with your hands or directly influence. Therefore, the virtual aspect is everything pertaining to your game which is non-physical – the feeling you are conveying, the experience you are creating, the reason why players are pushing those tokens around that board. Yes, the mechanics and theme, but also the experience and story, too.The physical is the game in your hands; the virtual is the game in your mind.

Ok. Now you know my vernacular, but how does this apply to my thesis? A plethora of anecdotes can be found at Hyperbole Games, The League of Gamemakers, The Game Crafter, and even in interviews at places like The Game Authority of how other indie developers tinkered with a specific mechanic for so long or built a game based on a certain component (dice, for instance). You’ll notice that those stories usually involve very long periods of time (years sometimes) and a LOT of iterations. I posit that none of those ideas went anywhere, none of them were truly games, until the developer created a virtual world for it. Without the virtual aspect, the components (and to a lesser extent, the mechanics) are interchangeable in any other game idea and, therefore, don’t constitute a game in and of themselves. Once the virtual began, the mechanic had a reason and a home.

All of my games, every idea I’ve had, began in the virtual world. Each time, I developed a story to tell (players are delving into a dungeon killing randomly generated groups of monsters) or a certain interaction among the players (I want bluffing and trash-talking, backstabbing and underhandedness). Then, I added physical components which allowed me to present that virtual aspect. My most recent game, The King’s Highway, is an easy example. I first had a desire for a micro game in my repertoire. How can I make a fun, simple, small game? Dice are great. How should I use them? Oh, players can build a path from random road segments on the dice. Well, obstacles and specific destinations would give a slight challenge. So, I guess I can include maps. If I break the map into sections on cards then they can be randomized, too. How big should the cards be? Well, the custom dice at The Game Crafter are pretty big. So, I’ll use the jumbo cards in order to have enough room to spread the map out. How many dice? A full sheet of stickers will cover 20 custom dice. Let’s start with 20 dice.

Without even trying, I began developing the virtual aspect of a hoped for game, a “why”, long before I had a “what”. True, the what (dice) shaped the overall story. It was still the virtual which gave life and purpose to the project. Specifically, my development process seems to follow a pattern of building the virtual, setting the physical, re-analyzing and building the virtual, adding to / refining the physical, refine the virtual, ad nauseam.

So, where are you at in your process? If you’ve been stuck for a while, try analyzing your virtual world. Then, tell me what you think. I’d love you hear from some experienced / published game developers / publishers, too!

Let me know what you think