The Man with the Plan

I often get told that I am a bit of a loner. I hear this every so often from my friends. I would probably hear it more often if I had more friends I guess, or maybe not. It is a conundrum that keeps me up for a few extra seconds every night. At various times it can be an advantage. In game design there are several approaches that companies use when developing new games. Each of the styles has its weaknesses and strengths, and not all styles work for all designers.

Whether these styles come into play often depends on the method the company uses to acquire new games. There are a lot of game designers in the field, although many of them are now huddled around something called Facebook. Because there are a lot of designers, many larger companies use a submission process, where they basically let the designers play in their various sandboxes and make their creations and then look them over when the designers bring the finished or “sufficiently finished to prove concept” games to their doors. Since larger companies usually have a proven track record of bringing these to market and several have proven track records for success, there is generally an abundance of submissions going for a smaller number of spots, and the really successful ones often have more submissions than they want to receive.

This approach does not work as well for newer companies entering the market place. While larger companies may restrict outside submissions from designers without a proven track record, if you have any sort of a resume, most companies will take a look at your creations. Because of this, most designers will attempt to go through the larger companies when possible, even if the odds of getting a product published are lower. Companies with internal design usually do not factor in to the submission pool process, since many do not take external designs if they have an in-house design staff to work up projects.

So where does that leave the newer game companies entering the market. These companies will often try what I like to call the “Cattle Call” approach, which is to put out an announcement or email blast to try to get various designers to submit games to them. While it can occasionally be successful, there are a lot of obstacles. Most published designers will go back to the same companies that put them on the map with new ideas. If the original company is not interested, they will work their way down their list of companies. New companies without a track record are likely low on the list. Most companies that request new games want something groundbreaking, which does not occur all that often in the gaming field. The other extreme is that they are looking for something very specific. In this case, if the designers already have something matching the requirement, such as a “party game that can be played with up to 10 players”, the designer may decide to submit it, but most designers are unlikely to design specifically to a narrow specification unless they think the game would appeal to other companies as well as the one doing the Cattle Call. The best way for a company to get good open submissions is to have a few successes, and in the board game category, Z-Man games is a great example of a company that worked up from being relatively unknown to a solid player in today’s board game field.

Aside from the Cattle Call or becoming a destination company for designers, the options are basically to develop a game internally or external and the choices are either a team approach, or the single designer or “Man with the Plan” method, which I tend to believe has the best track record of results.

A number of games seem to benefit from having a central designer. Games like Spore and the Sims from Will Wright, Agricola from Uwe Rosenburg, Through the Ages from Vlaada Chvatil, and that trading card game from that guy back in the early ‘90s whose name I keep forgetting.

Sometimes a dynamic duo will work, as in the case of Adam Powell and Donna Williams (now Donna Powell) for the Neopets website or in the case of Lance Priebe and Lane Merrifield for the Club Penguin website. However, in each of these situations the partner’s roles were well defined and the partners rarely overlapped on responsibilities. When a system is complex enough that separate roles can or need to be defined, extra cooks can help and not hinder.

When you are brainstorming ideas, I believe you almost certainly get better ideas when you have more people bouncing ideas around. When you are expanding out an existing game system, I think that a team approach can work if the team roles are well defined and in that case you can get often get results better than a single designer approach. For new games, unless the game is either extremely simplistic and fad based, or is essentially appropriating materials and improving on prior reference points (IE MUDs to Ultima to Everquest to WOW, or similar chains for FPS games), the Man with the Plan approach is usually preferable. For tabletop board games and trading card games, and potentially for medium weight computer games, it would seem hard to argue that the Man with the Plan approach is not superior.

Teamwork can be hard. Sure, those exercises where you fall backwards and someone catches you make it look so easy, but in creative projects you often run into situations where individuals have different views on where a particular design project should head. When these views pull a project in different directions, the individuals involved often get disenfranchised with the project and the results are often haphazard. You often end up with multiple games attempting to be merged into one and this is often not very pretty. With only one individual directing the process, you risk a similar alienation of other members working on the project, but if The Man with the Plan listens to all the suggestions and acts as a filter, the results are generally superior and the project progresses to completion in a linear fashion. Granted, this is a hard task for most people to accomplish and is probably harder for game designers, who often are not at the top of the spectrum in terms of “people skills”.

Team approaches work in some cases and not in others. A group of soldiers that operates as a team will have great results in execution of instructions, but if all of them were able to give orders, it would be a different story. Most teams stick with one quarterback and don’t switch up quarterbacks a lot during a game. Most companies have the same CEO all year long. When a project or goal is focused, the lower the number of individuals making decisions, the higher the chance of staying on the target. Democracy is great, but you only need to watch a few hours of C-span to see that having a lot of people with differing opinions try to come together is not a perfect process. (Don’t really watch C-span for a few hours. I would not inflict that on anyone.)

If you decide to go with the team approach, the best approach, in my never humble opinion, is to emulate the single model as much as possible. Have a team lead and make sure that person makes all the decisions with input. It often helps to have an independent person evaluating the progress, but that person should limit their function to advice and in the cases where they are unhappy enough with the course, replacing the person with another “Man with the Plan” to take over the project. If others insert themselves into the design process from a higher level, again you often end up with less directed results. In either the team or individual processes, the executives or project managers should be able to give detailed specs to design and expect something that meets the requirements laid out.

I am sure there are some readers that think that I am underrating the team approach and oversimplifying what is a fairly complex process, but luckily I am using the individual approach on this column and can filter out those potentially contradictory viewpoints that might otherwise bring my conclusions into question. It’s all about focus.

-Mike Elliott


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Do you work in this industry? YOu seem to know a lot about the subject

  2. MikeElliott,

    I prefer to think of myself as a romance novelist and not a game designer, despite having no published literary works, unless you count letters of course. All the contributors here spent time with WOTC. There are short bios of Richard and Skaff on this site, but you can get more info on any of the contributors published tabletop games, including my own, at

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