Learning from First-to-Market Products

My first Gen Con was reasonably successful. I met with many publishers about my game prototype MERC MAYHEM, and now I’m waiting to hear back from them.

In the mean time, I’m working on a new idea: a single-player storytelling game that’s light on rules, but heavy on possibilities. The player creates characters with personalities and aspirations. These characters develop, fall in love, and must eventually pass away – leaving their estates to their children and grandchildren. The goal is to complete your characters’ goals before they pass, so they die in peace. But characters’ goals conflict with each other, and every character is neither purely good nor bad, so you may have to deal with tough moral issues to accomplish their goals.

Sometimes a published game comes along that mirrors the headspace you’re in. This happened when I woke up today – I discovered a game with mechanics and a theme relatively similar to my new game. This is initially disappointing, because you’re not sure your idea is worth pursuing any longer as someone else was “first-to-market” with the idea.

Unless your idea was incredibly unique, these cases actually end up being more helpful than hurtful. They show you which of “your” ideas ended up being successful and in what form, saving you precious time and energy. In addition, they make you focus on differentiating your design from their design, questioning every element of your game in the process. Focus is usually a winning strategy in any creative endeavor – you should do everything you can to boil your idea down to its basics while maintaining what’s interesting about it.

I often think of the microcosms that indie-feeling films explore – think of the small town in Garden State, the limited number of locations in Let the Right One In, or the limited number of characters in Before Sunrise. All of these are successful because they don’t focus too broadly. They stick to their limits and promote creativity from within them. In return comes polished details that you don’t get in a lot of the more broadly scoped storylines/atmospheres. The devil is in the details, but the details come more naturally when you limit your scope.

Now, meet “Castaways,” which is apparently Arabian Nights meets Agricola. The original game Náufragos is here, and initial impressions of the English language version Castaways are here. It’s a cooperative game about surviving on an island and eventually escaping.

Castaways uses many of the same elements I was considering for my single-player storytelling game. Characters use energy to perform public actions (the character take on worker placement), there are limited resources, characters explore the island, events occur that lead to stories, and there is an eventual (avoidable) demise. It’s great to see the designer was successful in incorporating all of these factors, but there’s something missing from Castaways that I now know I should focus on more fully: character relationships, powered by traits and motivations. More small-town drama, less survival-exploration.

That’s the plan for now. I’m only a week into my own prototype, so despite that I’m already seeing some interesting results, my game could change dramatically from where it is now. MERC MAYHEM started with spaceships, moved into espionage, and ended up as an explosive action game, so anything is possible.

Anyhow, don’t get discouraged by new products that are similar to what you’re making. Learn from others’ successes instead of being disappointed by them.