Board- and digital game designer, Stone Librande of Diablo 3 fame, was sharing some of his tips from 19 years of game design at the latest Spilbar-talk in Copenhagen.
He is probably best known for his work on famous computer games such as Diablo 3, Spore or Sim City. But when game designer Stone Librande is not busy at work, creating new digital worlds for the player to immerse him- or herself in, there is a good chance he is thinking about the board game for next Christmas. For it has now become tradition that each year, Librande will have designed a new board game for the family to be revealed at Chrismas eve.This tradition has been going on for 19 years now, and that was the topic for the latest edition of Spilbar. Librande’s work with these games, how they were products of different constraints and goals, and what they had taught him over the years. In an incredibly packed (and hot) room at the Danish Design Society, around 200 people had showed up to hear what Librande had to say.
As a theme running through the entire talk was, that the goals for one game, was often a product of the shortcomings of the previous game. All the games have some form of drawback, but it was fun to hear, how Librande would often address these shortcomings in next year’s game – often overcompensating, creating new unforeseen problems in the process. However, there were also tons of specific advice, both with regards to boardgames, but also a lot of things, that were useful to any form of game – digital or otherwise.
One of the first pieces of specific advice was in regards to the players of your game. At an early stage, Librande learned that he had to pay attention to his audience, even if they might just be his own two sons. And he also learned that the best way to gauge the appeal of a game, was to look at peoples faces, while they were playing it.
When people play your game, you look at their faces. You don’t look at your game, you look at them. And you will know instantly whether or not they are bored.
Another very useful lesson, that Librande could pass on to the audience, was how important the narrative framing is to the player’s experience. One of the 19 games that Librande had designed, centered around controlling robots through a number of commands you set up in advance. But when the game cast the players as the robots themselves, the game felt frustrating. The robots did stupid things, and that made the players feel that they were stupid themselves. But if the players were instead portrayed as scientists, who were trying to control the robots, the players didn’t feel stupid anymore, which created a much less frustrating experience.
Regarding the design process, Librande also told that he often finds the playing pieces before he designs the rules. “I let the pieces tell me the rules,” he said, as he brought out examples where the playing pieces had inspired the gameplay itself. And this method also seems to give the characters more of a personality because you start with them, and not the rules.
A very important rule of thumb that Librande has also come across during the many years, is that it’s a really good idea, to “give the players something to fiddle with, when its not their turn.” Librande learned this when he made Junkyard Robots – a game where you build a robot out of scrap parts, where the different parts give the robot it’s skills and abilities. What he found was, that players actually enjoyed fiddling with their robots so much, that many times, they were not even ready, when it became their turn again.
Another fun fact was, that it was actually one of the board games, that ended up getting Librande a job at Blizzard, working on Diablo 3. He loved Diablo 2, but couldn’t let his kids play it, because it was too violent. So he decided to make a card-version of Diablo, combined with Dungeons and Dragons. The game focused on the monster-killing part, which is very grind and loot-based, and has a nice feeling of progression. But the many cards forced him to put all the data into Excel, to be able to balance it properly.
He then called Blizzard and said “Hey, I’ve got this card game that’s like Diablo – wanna play it?” They said “ok”, and Librande ended up playing his card game with the boss of Blizzard North, without knowing who it was. He then asked if they could maybe help him publish the card game, but was met with a counter offer – Why didn’t he just come to work for them instead?
Before ending the talk, Librande rounded off by mentioning a couple of additional hints that might be useful to anyone working on designing games:
- Don’t be afraid to start over
- You can’t playtest without players
- Make games for your audience – find out who that audience is?
- Make your own personal games – because it’s fun!
- Think long term, Deadlines forces compromises. Take your time (if you can)
- Challenge yourself constantly – don’t just do, what others are doing.
Next Spilbar is November 20th at Bio Asta at the Danish Film Institute, Gothersgade 55 in Copenhagen, Denmark.