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Design in Detail: Being Your Own D and D Department

Having selected a prototype (see Design in Detail: Prototype Selection) its time to get alpha playtesting. For me this consists of two stages, closed alpha and open alpha. Closed alpha is where I sit around playing my game against myself, usually entirely in my head, writing and re-writing it until its very basic mechanics work. This stage has two purposes. Firstly, while the open alpha will only involve close, trusted friends that's still no reason to waste their valuable time. So you should use closed alpha testing to ensure that there's something worth presenting to them. Until you design and produce your prototype and push the cardboard around the table you'll probably find a few parts of your game to be practically unplayable so this is your chance to find and fix them. The second purpose is to work out how to be your own designer and developer. Many games give these jobs to two different people and the relationship between them varies depending on the individuals involved, but in broad strokes the designer tends to originate the idea of the game and the developer engineers specific elements to work smoothly. Playing both parts yourself requires some clarity of purpose at this stage. As designer you have to have a clear understanding of your game's spirit. As developer you have to get the thing running, spirit be damned. I'm lucky to have been on the developer end of a very rewarding designer/developer relationship. As developer of Gaslands, I had to be free to come up with whatever worked for the current mechanical problem we were facing, even if it stomped all over the spirit of the game. It was the job of the designer (Mike Hutchinson) to defend that spirit against my spanner wielding assaults. With SSO I played both roles, which was quite tough since as developer its very easy to end up with tunnel vision and wring all the fun out of your project. Even if you don't, when you open yourself to playtesters they will with all the love in the world try to make your game into their game; you need to be ready to defend it from them and to do that you need to know which parts of the game are vital to defend and which you can let go of.