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Game design advice

Game design advice

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The following are a few questions it's worth asking yourself, before running your game for the first time. They're based on problems that tend to show up at the Sandpit during a game's first round of playtesting, so you can save some time by taking them into consideration while designing your game.

For advice on props, see Prop ideas. For handy games mechanics you can use, see Mechanics.

Does the playing area need to be bounded?

Some street games can rely on players deciding for themselves how far to stray (like Journey to the End of the Night, where runners can take as circuitous a route as they dare), but others can benefit from having a clear boundary.

If your players are hunting around for a particular clue or target, within a time limit, then you can help them by giving them a map showing how far they need to go, or setting the game in a building or park that has easy-to-explain edges. It's not always a lot of fun for a player to find out they wasted half an hour exploring an area that never would have had anything in it.

Do players need to be able to recognise each other?

If players are hunting or helping one another, it's often useful to give them a means of distinguishing themselves from members of the public. The first run of Night of the Vampire turned out to be tougher than intended, because players couldn't always recognise one another, and spent a lot of time and energy avoiding non-players who looked like they could have been a lurking vampire. Some games thrive on this (like Checkpoint, where the border guards have to learn to recognise the smugglers), but don't make it a part of your game unless you want it there.

It's usually enough to buy a length of coloured ribbon to tie around people's foreheads or upper arms, but if you've got the budget, some cheap props or costumes are always good.

If players might be tempted to hide or remove their ribbon, and if that would break the game, make sure to tell them not to. (They usually won't, but if it's a "sneak past these other players" game, they might decide that ribbon-hiding is acceptably in-character.)

Will players know when the game is over?

Don't forget to give a clear end time, and instructions for what to do when the game is over, before sending people out into the streets. If there's a large, public clock somewhere in the area (particularly one that chimes), you can use that to make sure everyone's playing by the same time.

Will the players be doing anything that might look suspicious?

If your game involves a lot of sneaking or chasing around a city, there's a chance that one of your players will be challenged by the police or building security. (Although we've never had any trouble personally, beyond a few passers-by stepping forward to "help" when they see a player chasing someone full-pelt down a busy street.)

To help the players out, it's a good idea to make sure that everyone gets some sort of paper handout, so that they can show they're playing some weird game rather than scouting a diamond heist. Make sure your handout doesn't look too much like plans for an actual diamond heist. Ribbon armbands are also useful here, as something to point to while saying "it's okay, it's just a game".

We usually put some out-of-character text at the bottom of every handout, throwing in a mainstream-friendly phrase like "scavenger hunt" and giving the phone number of one of the organisers.

Will your game stop working if some people give up?

On a sunny day in an interesting city, you might lose a few players who decide to stop playing, who didn't really understand the game in the first place, or who had to leave early. Make sure that the game is robust enough to carry on without them.

If prizes are at stake, it'd be good to let anyone leaving early still have a chance to record their score - either have the game moderator stay in the same place for the whole game, or put a phone number or email address on the handouts.

What happens if players have questions mid-game?

If your game involves players dispersing, some of them might walk for a few minutes before realising that they don't understand what they're supposed to be doing. In most cases they can ask other players, but - again - it can be useful to either have the moderator hanging around somewhere obvious for the whole game, or (for longer games) to put a "helpline" phone number on the handouts.

Could anyone get hurt?

With any sort of chasing game, people are going to trip over, or dash out into roads. If you've got a high-octane game, tell your players not to be too reckless, and give them a word to shout if they ever need to pause the action due to some imminent danger.

What interaction will the players be having with the public?

Some pervasive games involve players interacting with unwitting members of the public (either by design, or because they might mistake someone for a player, or an actor), and it's worth thinking about how that's going to feel from the public's point of view. Being able to intrigue and entertain people is great, and it's fine to confuse or surprise them a bit as part of that, but be careful about crossing the line into actually startling or offending someone. (Asking someone weird questions or pointing a UV torch at them is good street theatre; jumping out from around a corner or hissing an insult about their shoes can be rude or upsetting, particularly when these people didn't sign up for anything.)

You can really make someone's day by having a pervasive game unfold around them, but you also have the power to ruin that same person's day with a misjudged comment or action. Think about how your game might feel to a passer-by who has no idea what's going on.

Do you mind if players break character?

A risk with games that may involve interacting with random members of the public is that players will be too embarrassed to stay in character, and will creak into a nervous "Hi, I'm, um, playing a game, we, uh, have to scan people's foreheads with these UV lamps. Sorry. Are you one of the other players?", breaking any sense of immersion they'd worked up.

It can help to give the players a specific feedline that isn't too embarrassing, and which they can clearly back out of if they get a confused response - it can also help to give them a prop or a costume and a clear fictional identity (like the border guards in Checkpoint, wearing hats and glasses and inquiring seriously about innocuous items) so that they feel more like a mysterious street theatre actor than a lone weirdo.

If the players are looking for particular targets and you don't want them to accidentally start talking to the non-playing public, you can keep everyone in character by giving your targets a clear, visual marker which the players can check for without having to say anything.

How quickly can you hand out your handouts?

If your game involves giving multiple handouts to the players, try to streamline this process as much as possible - people want to start playing as quickly as possible, and you don't want to slow down your introduction with an overcomplicated system.

If you can spare the preparation time, try to reduce everything to a single, physical handout. If you're giving each player a sheet of paper, a ribbon and a pen, then take the time to buy some cheap envelopes and pre-fill them with the contents, so that you can rapidly hand out one per player, without having to keep track of anything. (This is also useful for making sure that you don't miss out a vital prop.)

If you're running a game for a crowd of unknown size, handouts can serve as a useful form of "ticketing" - when the last handout's gone, the game can't take any more players. For this reason, you should make sure you hand out the handouts before explaining the game in detail, so that any surplus players can retire.

Will you need to contact your actors during the game?

If you're running a game that involves several non-player actors wandering out in the wild (like Mr Smith or Paparazzi), it's good if you can get their mobile phone numbers before the game starts. If there's a change of plan, or if your game is delayed or cancelled at the last minute, they won't be left in the dark. If it wouldn't be out of character for them to be making a phonecall, you can give them your number in case they have any questions or doubts during the game.

Do your players need to split up?

If you're running a game over a large area, where players interact competitively with one another, we've found (with games like Hand to Hand and Watch Your Back) that if you start everyone at the same location, they'll just keep challenging the nearest player and won't wander very far from the starting point.

If you think your game would benefit from players encountering one another across a wider space, it can be worth deliberately encouraging them to split up first. Games like Hunt the Scavenger tell players to disperse and wait for two minutes to pass, before all beginning play at the same time. Rubble hides some first-come-first-served bonuses around the playing area, giving players a reason to run off and find them.

Will extra players be a problem?

You might get a few extra players turning up for your game, if people have brought friends along. Decide in advance whether your game can easily adapt to include extra players, and whether you need to bring along any extra ribbons or printouts to cover them.

If your game can't take extra players, but extra "scout" roles wouldn't unbalance anything, you might be able to pair or team people up, with each team representing a single "player". Games like Paparazzi and Haggis Bandits can work just as well with pairs of players sharing a single camera or haggis-score-sheet; they can work together to discuss tactics, and one can scout ahead and call out to the other.

Further reading