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PAX Pox: Lessons in Big Gaming [Part II]

Today's post recaps our experience with PAX Pox, a Big Game designed for GAMBIT's presence at the inaugural PAX East. We cover the three main lessons we can take away from our experience and look at how these apply generally to Big Game design.

Lesson 1: Think Big (Okay, Now Bigger)loadgame_paxpox_logo.png

Because we're talking specifically about Big Games, small-scale play testing generally won't cut it. While these tests can be useful for detecting major design flaws, they're not going to highlight the more subtle issues that plague Big Games. Mental accounting, while difficult, is the best bet for preventing such issues.

Begin by imagining yourself as a GM on game day. Place yourself under the precise conditions of your game and carefully walk through every detail of each step in the process. Got that? Now, start over from the beginning. This time, imagine each step while facing 20 impatient players. Now imagine 50. What changes in each scenario? How are you going to reach those impatient players? Can you distribute your game materials efficiently? Generating answers to these questions may be difficult, but will force you to confront any imprecise elements of your design.

Lesson 2: Know Your Audience

Our game relied heavily on player-to-player recruitment. Our hope was to utilize this to rapidly spread word of our game. In theory, potential players (we'll call them 'primaries') would approach our booth, become Infectors, and infect 24 carriers. Those 24 potentials (we'll call them 'secondaries') would return to our booth, pick up stickers, and infect 24 more carriers each. While we approached this type of explosive growth, we never quite reached numbers it would predict.

The issue here was not with our design, but rather with a failure to fully catalyze the reaction we had set up. When we were first designing PAX Pox, we focused on the primaries. We designed our achievement structure for them, based on the notion that simply recognizing their task completion would sufficiently motivate these self-selecting players. We neglected to note that secondaries, the key component in our exponential equation, were driven to join through entirely different motivators. Most were persuaded either by the promise of swag or by peer pressure from the primaries. Had we considered this, we would have shifted the focus of our achievements away from intrinsic motivators towards more tangible rewards. We also would have put more energy into convincing the more hesitant secondary players to join.

We might have been able to foresee these issues had we dedicated more time to researching our audience. By surveying the PAX forums, we might have noticed how greatly convention-goers valued booth swag. We also could have taken the opportunity to promote our game and built a stronger initial pool of players.

Lesson 3: Avoid Tunnel Vision

In the weeks preceding the convention, it was hard to imagine we would ever get through three days of PAX Pox. This tunnel vision, created by a desire to just get the darn thing over with, caused us to skim over details not necessary for completing the game. Though it's tempting to prioritize tasks solely based on time restraints, project goals should ultimately factor into how tasks are ranked.

The original goal of PAX Pox was to inform players about GAMBIT. Had we kept this at the center of our design, we might have focused more on the social media elements of our game (twitter and Flickr). These might have encouraged our players to keep learning about GAMBIT even after the game had ended. We also could have devoted more energy to involving journalists in our game. These two initiatives fell by the wayside during PAX as we focused on immediate needs rather than long-term goals.

Where to go from here

Looking to the future of PAX Pox, we find ourselves facing two big questions:

  1. How would the game have been played if we hadn't had booth space?
  2. How would the game have been played at Siggraph instead of PAX? How about GDC China?
Interestingly, both questions help address the issues I've described above. Had we asked the first question during the design phase, we might have focused more attention on streamlining the processes that bogged us down during the game's expansion. The second question reminds us to carefully consider audience. What are the motivations of a Siggraph player versus a PAX player? How would the language barrier of GDC China affect us? All these questions highlight details of our game that could have been improved and yet were difficult to spot during the planning process.

I would encourage anyone designing a big game to generate a list of questions that concentrate on how the game would change under various conditions. If our game is any evidence, there are always opportunities to streamline your design.

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