uring college, I took a course in creative writing where at the end of each class, the teacher gave us a two-page assignment to write for the next class. At the end of one class, she asked for us to write a short story about a college student having breakfast. At the end of the next class she asked us to write a short story about a serial killer having breakfast. When we turned the second paper in, she had the class discuss the differences between the two assignments.
Every one in the class agreed that the first assignment was much easier. Why? Because we all understood what is was like to be a college student. It was easy to enter the mindset of something we could relate to. The mind of a serial killer, though, is a completely different story. No one in the class understood that mindset. Trying to write in it was extremely difficult.
Why do I bring this up in a Magic design column? Because the issue our class had is one that faces new card designers. How do you make something that you yourself can't relate to?
Create Is Enough
To properly approach this problem, let's start at the beginning. How does someone become a Magic card designer? Note that I don't mean a professional paid designer—simply someone who designs Magic cards for their own reasons. It starts with the first time you come up with a card that doesn't exist yet, what I call the "you know what would be cool" moment. I believe almost all designers start by creating cards that make sense in the environment they play in. They create a card because something in a game makes them think about the possibility of such a thing existing. (I should note that even to this day I get a lot of great ideas simply from playing and noticing something I would love to have that doesn't exist.)
My point here is that I believe almost all designers come to card design from a very personal perspective. They create cards and mechanics and whatnot that are things that they would like to see in the game. That is, they design things that enhance the game for a player like themselves. This makes perfect sense. People, by nature, are most familiar with things that come from their own experiences. In the simplest terms, people understand what they understand.
All is good until the designer is asked upon to design cards for someone unlike him- or herself. This happens for all designers in R&D as one of our biggest responsibilities each set is to make sure that each subset gets enough cards in each expansion to make them happy.
As a quick aside, this, by the way, is the mistake that most novice designers make when they create their first set. They don't try to make cards for everyone. They make lots and lots of cards that they and the people they play with would enjoy. While this makes an excellent play experience for that group, as the design caters to them, it leads to a warped set overall. (Yet another reason it's crucial to have playtesters that aren't tied to your local playgroup.)
An important part of advancing your design skills is learning how to design for players and environments you are unfamiliar with. Today's column is going to look at ways to do this. In each case I am going to use my writing example from above as a jumping off point for the discussion.
Lesson #1 – Embrace What You Know
The first lesson of the college student/serial killer assignments was this: if doing Thing A is easier than Thing B, you probably want to do more of Thing A than Thing B. Essentially my teacher was saying, that as a college student it makes a lot of sense to write about college students. It's something you know. If you want to do your best work, play to your strengths.
The same is true for Magic design. If you're a die-hard Johnny and love creating open-ended engines then you should definitely do that. This isn't to say that you shouldn't also try to design other things, but that while doing so, still work on the kinds of designs that speak to you most. Creativity is about passion for ideas. The things you care about and are invested in are the things most likely to shine. This entire article today is going to talk about how to stretch as a designer. Stretching though does not mean abandoning your roots. Part of being a good designer is not only understanding your biases but giving yourself the freedom to have them. "Restrictions breed creativity" might be my #1 mantra but a close #2 is "whenever you fight human nature, you will lose". This includes your own.
Lesson #2 – Research
So how do you begin writing in the mindset of a serial killer? You start by learning all you can about serial killers. One of any writer's limitations is that they can only write what they know. This means the solution of creating something they don't know is to learn about it. In fact, many writers feel the most important first step of any project is taking the time to research it thoroughly. If you are going to set your story at a racetrack in 1977 then you definitely start learning all you can about racetracks, 1977, and most importantly, racetracks in 1977.
How does this apply to card designers? I'd say pretty directly. You want to design cards for a Timmy power gamer, then go find out what that type of player wants. You can do this in numerous ways, and I advocate doing it in as many ways as you can. Play the decks they would play. In this day and age, deck lists are easily available. Find one that fits the type of player you want to learn about and play it. Find playgroups where the whole playgroup has the same sensibility. Next, talk to people of this group. Ask them questions. Watch them play. Read articles by writers from this group. If you're in R&D, look at the research we collect. The key point here is do your homework.
Lesson #3 – Find Similarities in Yourself
Our teacher picked serial killers for a reason. She knew it was something that none of us had or could experience. None of us were going to actually know what it felt like to go on a homicidal spree. How then could we relate? The answer she said was in understanding elements of what they felt. For example, research shows that most serial killers feel isolated. The concept of isolation was something that we could grasp. Everyone has at one time or another felt isolated. As writers, we could take that knowledge and apply it to the story at hand. (Method acting follows a similar path by the way.)
Card designers are able to use a similar tool. As I explained during Timmy Week, I feel that every player has "Timmy moments." Every player has times where they tap into the thing that drives Timmy. If you can recognize those moments in yourself, it makes it much easier to make cards to satisfy that mindset. Just as writers have to look within to their own emotions, so too do designers.
Another quick aside—whenever I talk about R&D trying to figure out if something is fun, I always get a poster or two on the boards who get mad and ask who we are to dictate fun. My answer is that part of the job of R&D is being the arbiters of fun. Note that we're not determining what should be fun, and we aren't forcing people to find fun what we think is fun. Rather it's the opposite. We are trying to understand what all of you find fun and recreate it. Our job is to create a game that's enjoyable. If you all aren't having fun, we are failing at our jobs. So yes, we have to understand what is fun. Let me end with the caveat that at any one time we are looking for what is fun for the majority of the players at whom a particular card or mechanic is aimed. Nothing is everything to everyone.
My point with this lesson is that designers don't have to become the player they are designing for. They simply have to be able to relate to what that players wants.
Lesson #4 – Find Similarities in Them
The last category asks you to understand how you might be like a serial killer. There is, of course, an opposite approach. Instead of finding out the serial killer in the college student, find the college student in the serial killer. The idea here our teacher explained is understanding what about a serial killer is normal from your perspective. This technique was used very well in the series The Sopranos. Part of what made Tony Soprano relatable was that he had concerns that the average viewer could understand. Being a mob boss isn't relatable. Visiting colleges with your daughter is.
For the Magic designer, this lesson means figuring out what things your target audience enjoys that you enjoy. How can you make them happy without leaving your comfort space? Or how can you stretch just a little to make them happy? There are a lot of common experiences to Magic players. Sometimes making a card that speaks to a different player is merely a matter of finding something universal that speaks to both of you.
Lesson #5 – Don't Assume
The next step our teacher had us take was to have us look at our serial killer stories. Everyone turned something in. What did we do? In most cases, we faked it. We wrote what we thought a serial killer might be, but we didn't really know since none of us did any research. This pitfall, my teacher explained, is a big danger of stepping outside your knowledge zone.
As a related aside, in communication school (I went to college at Boston University's College of Communication) we spent a lot of time talking about different entertainment mediums. The subject I was most fascinated by was the power of television. There are many reasons television has the influence it does. One of the most interesting reasons is as follows. The human brain separates information from where the information was gathered. The two pieces of information are kept in different parts of the brain. The reason this is important is that with time you forget where you learned something. Combine this with the human impulse to believe that what we know is true and you get a very insidious effect of entertainment mediums (and television in particular as people spend more hours watching television than any other medium—at least that was true when I was in college; the internet has thrown a monkey wrench into all this). Most of what you see on fictionalized television is simply not true. One only needs to watch a show about a subject they know to realize this.
Here comes the insidious part. Everything we learn from television gets stored in our brain. Sure, when we're watching it, we kind of know to take everything with a grain of salt. But that information sits there outlasting our brain's ability to remember where we learned it. This means eventually it's just information we "know." And if we don't have other information contradicting it, we assume it's true. I bring this up because relying on what we think we know about things that we don't actually know can get us into trouble.
What this means for Magic design, is that you have to be very careful about the assumptions you make. What you think some other type of player does is not often what they actually do. A common question I'll ask designers is "Who do you intend this card for?" This is often followed by, "What about it makes you think that audience will like it?"
The point of the lesson is simple. You don't know as much as you think you do. Of the seven deadly sins, pride is quite possibly the biggest trouble for designers. (Yes, yes, I get the irony that this is coming from me.)
Lesson #6 – Accept That Your Initial Work Will Be Subpar
One of the questions my teacher asked us when we said the serial killer story was harder to write was "Why?" The early answers were all about how we didn't understand the mindset of a serial killer. Once she moved us past those answers we got to a different series of answers. One of those second sets of answers was "I knew I couldn't write it." When asked to expand upon that answer, the student replied, "It's hard to write something when I know it's not going to be very good."
At this point my teacher started explaining the more hidden problem of stretching outside your comfort zone – fear of failure. In short, people don't like failing. Our education system (for my purposes, I'm talking about the American educational system) rewards success and punishes failure. (I talked a bit about this during my column Design Seminar: The 10 Mental Locks.) Part of expanding to new areas is an understanding that it will take time to learn. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike if you are unwilling to ever fall, an almost impossible task. Shifting to a new area requires the same acceptance of failure. Remember, it is the failing that will most help get you better.
In Magic design, what this means is that part of learning to design cards for a new type of player is designing cards that they won't like. This is why communicating with your target player is so important. You see, you're not going to know which cards you make are successes and which ones are stinkers until you expose them to the player that they're supposed to make happy. Not only will you learn what doesn't work, you can learn why it doesn't work. When the player doesn't like what you've created you get to ask why. It's also important to expose that same player to other cards you've made as well. I've had playtests where the cards I designed for a particular group failed while others that weren't created with the player in mind at all succeeded.
The point of this lesson is that learning any new skill is a journey. You can't stop at the first skinned knee.
And Now For Something Completely Different
My goal for today's article was to highlight one of the most common pitfalls of new designers and explain some techniques to help improve in this area. I hope today's lesson provided some new insights. As always, I am eager to hear your feedback.
Join me next week when we visit the big bad.
Until then, may you have breakfast with your own serial killer.