Publishing games is hard, but I have to try

maxresdefaultThey say we have to keep on our feet as we age. Somehow over the past 15 years I have wormed my way into a job as Professor of Media specializing in game design. I’ve never published a game, not professionally anyway. Not for money. Not with full review and development, you know, REAL publishing. It makes me feel inadequate, like I am pulling a trick on the world. Who am I to be teaching in a game program when I haven’t done the thing I am teaching?

I have some backdoor justifications, but they seem awfully weak. I could argue that my qualifications come from my training in economics and political science, where I did so much social modeling… and making models is the same thing as making games, right? Well, yes and no. It’s the same thought process, certainly. You have in your mind a certain human social behavior that you want to reduce to its core forces. You write down some rules for how the system works and then derive what happens when the system is up and running. It’s basically the same thing as designing a game and a set of AIs to play it, then analyzing the outcomes.

Let me give an example. In a market, the rules of the game are that the consumer can’t get anything unless he pays for it. The setup is, the consumer has an income Y and goods are offered at prices P. The quantity purchased is X. Y is a scalar, P and X are vectors. This means the consumer purchases X must satisfy PX <= Y. That’s the game. Here’s the AI. The consumer’s goals are specified by a function U(X) with U’ > 0 and U” < 0 for all arguments. The consumer seeks to maximize U(X) subject to PX <= Y. A basic optimization problem… get your engineering book out and solve. The result is a demand function X(P, Y) that tells us – the designers – what the consumer / player will buy given the game we set up. If we designers change prices or income, the consumer / player will react accordingly.

This is so close to game design thinking… but not quite. Game design (as commonly understood) has the additional requirement that the process of choosing has to be enjoyable for the consumer / player. Now, economists would say that this common understanding, that games have to be enjoyable, is unnecessary for one of two reasons. The first would be that the only point of the analysis is to predict behavior. Game theory, they would say, is about analyzing games that are played, not making games that people want to play. Fair enough. If I use “game design” in the way my students use it, though, it means they expect me to know not only how to analyze games that are made but also how to make new games that engage people. Because I am not an economist pure and simple, but a media professor, I have to think about engagement. The second reason economists would balk at engagement is that there should be no effects outside the model. The idea is to construct the utility function so that the player’s goals are fully accounted for, including any desire they may have to actually play. But this gets us into a nasty nesting problem. In order to take account of engagement in a theoretically consistent way, I would have to embed the consumer demand game I described above inside of a bigger game of choosing games. What a mess. It’s not a mess for common sense, but it is a nasty mess for mathematical model construction. My students are not interested in the design of metagames that mathematically depict choices within the game of choosing games. They want to make games that people want to play. And the most helpful way to handle that engagement is to keep it separate from the task of designing the game system.

1930s Man Teacher Looking At Camera With Pointer At Blackboard

Thus my economics background is really only a half-justification for being a game design professor. I can’t tell my students that game theory is all they need, nor can I show them a good theory of game design that includes psychological satisfaction. Thus I have to become a game designer as it is commonly understood: A person who makes an interactive artifact that people like and play, that receives notice from publishers and critics and the public. This is the same standard as professors of English who teach creative writing. On the one hand they can give lectures about the craft of writing creatively, but they also have to write something and publish it in some way in order to be credible.

I need to publish games, but it is hard to jump into a completely new area of performance. I spent my early career writing (bad) research papers. Then I wrote books. Now I am trying to design and publish games. It’s hard. My coding skills are not so good, and my first love is board games, so I have been trying for several years to get something published there. Well, this area is swamped with would-be designers. Board games are not like books and papers. In books and papers, there are specific places where you can send things. Submissions are welcomed.They are often rejected, but at least you get a review and some comments. Then you send your work somewhere else. Well, there’s no such thing as that in board games. Publishers are overwhelmed with submissions and don’t have the time to wade through them all. If you’ve never published before, they have no reason to review your work. It is very hard to get a publisher to even look.

As a result, these last few years have been humiliating. It’s like being young again, in a bad way. I keep getting rejected over and over! I try to talk to publishers at conferences and I keep getting the cold shoulder. I stand there for 30 minutes waiting to get one word with someone, only to get a brusque “Nah, nobody would publish that game.” A couple of publishers took my prototypes and I never heard from them again. Not even a rejection letter. It reminds me of the early years, trying to get big-time professors to notice my (bad) little papers. And failing… ouch!

In these moments my heart goes out to everyone trying to launch a new career or a new direction. These challenges to the ego… truly a test of inner strength … after each rejection to get up and try again. Very hard. Keep going!

Yes, keep going, because there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. After years of quietly trying and failing, I may finally have something in the hopper with a game company. Not yet! But closer.

Even though I have not published a game, trying to do so has still been the right thing to do. The journey has taught me so much about how board games are made. Real-world insights, not stuff from game theory. And I guess this is how a professor can sleep at night. If you have given your whole life to your subject, until your heart is bleeding, then you have some credibility in the front of the classroom. You may not be the biggest success in your field, but you do know what you are talking about, because you have lived it.