Words about worlds

Report from Metatopia

by | Nov 7, 2023 | Chatter, Games | 0 comments

So, a few weeks ago, when it became clear that our family member was going to be fine, we gained back some emotional energy, and we gained back some time.

This led us to decide, at just about the last minute, to go to Metatopia with some of our games. Getting there took some rapid planning and a stack of work that was not at all helped by a persistent headache I developed last week. However, Tom is nothing if not determined. Unformed Worlds showed up at Metatopia with three games: Nebula, Dragon Hatch, and Harbinger. Dragon Hatch and Nebula were praised by their play-testers. Even better, Tom heard from others who were hearing good things about our games. We’re beyond pleased with this response.

What about the third game? Therein lies a tale…

Tom will fling himself into situations where I won’t go without a shove. If you are ever wondering, “What qualities should I look for in a collaborator?”, add that to your list.

Harbinger been in existence for about 3 weeks. It tries to bring orbital mechanics to the tabletop. When we started it, we knew that the science of the solar system and the mathematics of orbital mechanics were going to have to take a back seat to good game mechanics, but we started with the science. In fact, we started with the question, “Can we put an orbit on a board without a stack of math?” The answer was a quick yes. The hard part came after, in moving beyond that first simple question.

As I said, Harbinger has existed for only about three weeks. It felt like there was something to it, but it was going to take a good bit of work to get there. Now, my design preference is to keep working on a game with a very small, tight group (often just 2 people) until it is playable. Then, let other people see it.

My partner likes the seat-of-the-pants approach: get a basic idea down, get pieces from anywhere, and ask a bunch of people to play the game in alpha. If there is anything to the game at all, then clear, honest feedback will advance the game much faster than 2-person collaboration.

This year, Tom was the one nominated to attend Metatopia. When we talked about what to bring, we knew immediately that we wanted to bring Nebula and Dragon Hatch. We agreed that Nebula was a solid game but needed a bit more interactive punch. Dragon Hatch was fairly polished and nearly ready for prime time. Left to myself, I would probably have stuck with those two, running 2 playtests of one of those games. However, Tom wanted to bring Harbinger. It would be clearly labeled as an alpha test. All right, I said, but better you than me. That game needs a stack of work.

Tom called me on his way home from Metatopia. He summed up the feedback for Harbinger as: this game is definitely underwhelming. However, these marvelous playtesters (who, as I said, knew they were getting into the sticky lands of alpha-testing) then dug in and gave a stack of good feedback. We have a lot of ideas for improving Harbinger. The game will probably be playable a lot faster than it would have been with just the 2 of us working on it.

It is absolutely an emotional hit to be told that something you made is not very good. In this case, opening himself up to that experience allowed Tom to gain solid insights from other designers. The designers’ friendly, thoughtful feedback, and Tom’s open-minded response to that feedback, created a worthwhile experience. I am very grateful to my partner, who is bold enough to sometimes risk a fall. I am sure Tom will remind me of this when and if Harbinger reaches the shelves.

I am now going to brag a bit. The playtesters for Nebula felt that it was a solid game that could use a little more interactive punch. Then, they gave great suggestions for adding that punch. The playtesters for Dragon Hatch told my partner that this was a more polished game than some that were already under contract. Then, they made a stack of suggestions for taking it up a notch. Some of their suggestions were already on our to-fix list (why, oh, why, didn’t I put in the corner art? Someone tell me why!). Some we would never have originated on our own. The “pander” mechanism, in particular, delights my heart (thank you, Will!).

Yeah, that feels good. However, the best part from where I sit is that in every case, the playtesters’ opinions of the games were in line with our own estimates. When you work in a small space, without frequent contact with other creatives, it can be easy to lose your objectivity. It’s been a worry of mine. Part of the reason we wanted to bring these games to Metatopia was to see, were we right or wrong in our estimates of their quality? So far, we appear to be on point. We also have lovely stacks of ideas for improvements to all three games. With a little tweaking and the art work improvements we wanted to do already, Dragon Hatch will be ready for prime time. I think Nebula will not be far behind. And the next time Tom wants to bring an alpha test to the table, I’ll cheer him on.

I want to say, Metatopia sets designers up for success. Tom wasn’t sure what to expect. He was more than pleased to find such a friendly, welcoming environment. Every playtest, he said, the playtesters approached the process of feedback as collaborators with each other and the designers. Tom could feel the thought and care behind their words. Thank you, Metatopia staff, volunteers, game designers, and players. We will be back!


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