Saturday, April 30, 2005

Great White Games

In the course of hanging out of the Forge (pardon me for not hyperlinking that, but I do it all the damn time, and its on the linkbar, anyway), I see a heck of a lot of game designs. And, particularly, I'm seeing a lot of two types of game designs, both of which you might expect to see a lot of on such a site. The first are games that the poor designer has been developing alone, generally scorned by their play-group, for a decade or more. The second are games developed by people who come in, see all the cool theory and activity and interesting games being done on the Forge, and go "wow, cool, I'm going to design a game, too, and it's going to involve every bit of theory I can find."

Neither of these games ever get finished. Ever. And for this reason I call them "Great White Games," after the famous Melville novel.

Why is this?

I think it is mainly that the people designing them lack the craft to bring them to completion. Completing a long creative work -- not to mention one that involves a lot of serious analysis, like a game design -- is a humongous endeavor. It is something that requires training and, most especially, practice. These designers have never written a game before, but they are invariably attempting to do something like "a generic engine for all mythology" or "a realistic system for modelling any world, but most especially my home fantasy world" or "a complicated political manifesto about nested social structures."

Half of these games are simply doomed. Their authors are trying things which are simply impossible to do in the course of a game. These folks can be likened to a rainbow chaser or a dog chasing its tail -- we might feel sorry as we watch them go round and round, accomplishing nothing, but there is really nothing that can be done.

The other half of the games, though? Lack of craft. Fundamentally, these are complicated and difficult projects, that require rules finesse, theoretical insight, and years of research. And the people trying to design them, don't have it. So they just keep moving around, writing draft after draft, trying to figure out how to make it work.

Here's a dirty little secret: We all have Great White Games. Everyone has, in their heart, the game that they want to make that will be perfect and revolutionize the world. I know I do -- two of them, one of each type -- and they are named Chorus and Tactics. Chorus is a fantasy setting like Polaris, but 800 pages long, runs under 5 systems at once, and has a cosmology that includes eight or more detailed universes. Not planes, like D&D, but universes. With different physical laws. Tactics is simply the realization of all theoretical and technique development in the context of a multi-lateral Gamist campaign-play game.

Sound awesome, don't they?

But they never will happen. At least, I don't think so. I have a theory.

What is the secret to finishing your Great White Game? Let it go. Stop working on it. Do something else

The hardest thing to do as an artist is admit that something is beyond your reach. I literally cried when I dropped Tactics development in favor of Polaris. Polaris was smaller in scope, smaller in size, smaller in rules and much less revolutionary. Polaris was just smaller: less glamorous and less perfect. And I hated it for that.

Let's think about this for a second: Tactics was beyond my reach. And I loved it for that. Polaris was in my reach. And I hated it for that. I loved the project that I couldn't do, I hated the project because I could finish it.

I want you all to take a moment to reflect on how stupid that is.

Groucho Marx was talking about anti-semetism when he said "I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member," but it has much wider-ranging meaning. Things that are doable by mortals seem just smaller and less important than things that are doable by the gods that haunt our minds.

I want to borrow, for the community of game designers, some ideas that traditional craftsman have used. Most importantly is the idea of a journeyman work -- the one piece of work that proves you are capable as a professional. It is not your masterwork -- that proves you a master of the craft. And it is certainly not a life's work -- that is the greatest thing you create in your life. Rather, it is a technical piece to show your competence, training, craft and skill. And teach you a lesson about finishing something good.

Every game designer should print and sell a journeyman work before they start their masterwork. Every game designer. That means you.

At the very worst, you'll have a good game on your hands afterwards.

(The only exception to this rule that I can think of is Ron motherfucking Edwards. Again.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post! I can identify with the idea that I'm drawn to projects that are beyond me, and despise the projects that are easily finished. Also, as soon as a project reaches the point (after considerable time and effort) where it can be deemed as "finishable" that's when I lose interest...

Finish it. Publish it. Stand by it.

Tony Irwin

12:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A draw of the great white is that it can remain perfect & beautiful in your mind. It never has to break & crumble on the rocks of reality. Of course we love it.

It's scary to bring something so much a part of us out into the real world where it can be seen and judged. But that's the only way for it to actually have a chance of becoming a real, worthwhile work. _All_ the games in the sky don't work. How could they? You make them functional by bringing them down to earth & working with them until they do run.

Game design has been seeming a lot like engineering to me, lately. You can draw as many sketches as you want, even run simulations, but until it actually gets put into play, your really know diddly about it.

Thanks, Ben. Good words.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


What a great follow-up. Yes, that's it exactly.


1:54 AM  
Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Yup. That's what I did. Can't recommend it enough.

2:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Awesome words and sentiment Ben.

I'm one of those designing a Great White Game, I suppose. I came to the Forge (stumbled on it, really) in the late summer of 2001.

I had a Storyteller Heartbreaker on my hands, and the folks there opened my roleplaying horizons up, and I've been on the long hard slog of research, gaining skill and theory along the way ever since.

I really do plan to finish my game, though, hopefully this year. So maybe it's not a GWG after-all.

Partly, this endeavor has taken so long because this is a hobby for me - number 3 behind family and work-day-job for me. This means that it doesn't get a lot of time and attention from me.

And if I do end up being one of those doomed never to complete my game, so what? I, for one, don't want anyone's sympathy. If I'm enjoying what I'm doing, why not continue to chase that rainbow?


"Oh, it's you...

2:41 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


Boo howdy, that's a heavy post.

I don't think I can really give any productive response. Can I?


2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wasn't expecting you to - my questions were rhetorical, really.

I was just giving a different point of view. I think the sentiment that you have to have a completed journeyman work to call yourself a game designer is a good one, and true enough. I'm just not sure that those of us who haven't (and may never) complete a successful (by the would-be-designer's definition) game design need others to feel sorry for them. Nor do I think we have nothing to contribute to the discussion of game design. Most of us, are, after all, a part of the target audience for completed games.

Not all of us who aspire to game design have as much focus on it as those 'graduates' of the Forge who have gone on to create some really frickin' cool games, and to publish them, and maybe even enjoy a little commercial success.

I'm hopeful that your Polaris will fall into that category, that of completed, successful game, because it looks to have a heck of a lot of promise.


"Oh, it's you...

4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think you have to print and sell a journeyman game.

I do think you need to write them and think about them and play them, but printing and selling are the business of publishers, not designers; it is a quirk of the Forge-indie community that design is required to be legitimised by publishing, but not a universal ideal.

Personally, I'm in it for the design, and Actual Play is just a litmus test for whether a given design does what I want it to or not, and publishing is a route to actual play.

But it's not the only route or the only worthy route.

4:28 AM  
Blogger --timfire said...

Ben, this post definitely goes up there with Ralph's "Shooting the Sacred Cows" and Emily's "game design and psychology" as must reads posts/threads for game designers.


5:06 AM  
Blogger Tymen said...

Great words of wisdom, Ben.
I'm looking forward to Polaris.
Here's hoping that As Above, So Below is my Journeyman Game and not my Great White Game. Although since I've play-tested the game once and am play-testing again in just under two weeks. It's looking closer to the former, than the latter.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jason --

You're missing the point: This isn't about "hey, we 'graduates' (whatever that means) of the Forge are somehow better." It is about trying to get you to finish your damn game.

Let me put it this way: I want to play the games that you are going to write. Trapping yourself in circles when you could be making good games is an offense to gamers everywhere.

Shreyas --

You have a good point, but it is important to realize that there is a huge difference between "finished game" and "no, really, finished game." Polaris was a finished game a year ago. Even playable (Eero did play it.) But it still wasn't really quality. The processes of refining it for publication via playtesting, of having to get it into a really finished state, have been invaluable.

So, no, you don't have to publish it yourself in the grand Forge style. But some degree of "finished product" above and beyond "can, technically, be played" is necessary.

Tim --

Looking forward to the Mountain Witch. I really see that game and Polaris as brother and sister: born in the same contest, finished in the same year. We'll have to do some sort of contest at GenCon this year. Whomever gets the most sales buys the other guy drinks?

And I'm still jealous that you placed and I didn't. ;-)

Tymen --

Good luck with your playtesting and I'm looking forward to your finished product. I haven't had the time to give As Above, So Below a thorough look-over, but what I read looked fascinating. Angel games are the bomb.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's cool, and I don't think I'm missing your point. As an aside, I wasn't using the term graduate of the Forge in a pejorative way.

I think of all the cool games that've come out of that primordial crucible are awesome, and mean really good things for the future of this industry. I was just saying that not all of us can carve out the utter dedication to go from concept to polished product as quickly as say Primetime Adventures, Capes or With Great Power did, to name but a few.

I do have one follow up question: when you say "Trapping yourself in circles when you could be making good games is an offense to gamers everywhere.", what do you mean by that?

In my case, I'm just taking the slow boat to a completed design. I brought a nearly complete beta version of a game to the Forge in 2001, and a few of the elder statesmen there pointed out all the obvious stuff to me.

Since then, I've gone through rounds of revision and playtesting (mostly privately - as in not in public view on the Forge). It may take me as much as another year to complete my design - hopefully less.

But all that time has not been in vain. I've got a lot better handle on my vision now than I did then, and I can actually see my way clear to creating a functional game with some degree of polish.

All I've been saying is, that for me (and for other I know who lurk and contribute to places like the Forge), this design thing is a journey and fun in and of itself. Even if we never reach the promised land of a complete and polished playable game, it doesn't mean we aren't having fun, it doesn't mean we're frustrated, and it doesn't mean we can't contribute to the overall understanding of game design as a craft.

So, how is that being trapped in circles?


"Oh, it's you...

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if someday someone will write an article called "Forge Heartbreakers" about all of these journeyman games. ;)

2:52 PM  
Blogger --timfire said...

"Looking forward to the Mountain Witch. I really see that game and Polaris as brother and sister: born in the same contest, finished in the same year. We'll have to do some sort of contest at GenCon this year. Whomever gets the most sales buys the other guy drinks?

And I'm still jealous that you placed and I didn't.

Hey, sure thing, I would be up that sort of contest at GenCon. I definitely feel the same about Polaris. I've been wanting to try it out, well, ever since the IGC.

And btw, I didn't place in the IGC either. It's kinda funny that at this point, none of the winners has moved towards publication (though I know Ganagrok or however you spell it has gotten some playtesting).


9:43 PM  
Blogger --timfire said...

Oh, and one more thing -- Ben, I totally agree with your idea of "finished" and "no, really finsished." My game was playable a year ago after the IGC. It was also more or less complete 6 months ago, when I officially ended playtesting. But only now is it ready to present to the public.

10:01 PM  
Blogger DevP said...

"It's kinda funny that at this point, none of the winners has moved towards publication."

Okay, I get it, Ben thinks I should actually finish Dance&Dawn before my other Great White games, and now I'm almost convinced! Argh...

11:03 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jason -- How is that like moving in circles? It isn't.

Tim -- I just looked it up and you're right. I have no idea where I got that idea... Ironic, certainly.

Dev -- Dance and Dawn! Dance and Dawn! Dance and Dawn!

1:15 AM  
Blogger Matt Snyder said...

I fail to see how "Publish" does not equal "Make it available for play to people I don't know (or dont' know very well)."

Publish can equal "free." Designers don't just design. They design to be played. No publishing, by whatever means, results in no play. That's how I see it.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

I fail to see how "Publish" does not equal "Make it available for play to people I don't know (or dont' know very well)."

All I can say is this.

One year ago, people I didn't know (in a country I'd never been to) were playing Polaris.

Today, one year later, I've done a hell of a lot of design work and I feel that it is finally approaching "finished."

Actual Play cannot and should not be a standard for doneness.


1:59 AM  
Blogger Harlequin said...

Yahoy. Thank you, Ben; that's well put, and taken to heart. My own damn GWG has been all over the map as has indeed done exactly what you describe.

Another side of why it's so hard to let them go is that the GWG becomes a frame, in the Lakoffian sense. It becomes something through whose terms you see the (game design) world. Helpful, in that it provides context. But not only does it colour your perceptions and understanding, it also means that in order to let go you have to be willing to de-frame all of what you've parsed through it.

But, man. Thank you for saying that.

- Eric

5:37 AM  
Blogger Matt Snyder said...


If actual play doesn't equal finished, then what the heck does finished mean? Seems it's only relevant to you, the individual designer, care about that term.

If I can play it, happily, I don't care if you, the designer, think it's unfinished. I just want to play it. If it's broken, the do more (finished or not) so I can play!

And I ain't talkin' about Polaris. I'm talking about my own games in various stages of actual-play-ness. Rest assured, I've been thinking about this a while ... and my Moby Dick as well. We all have 'em, it seems.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

If actual play doesn't equal finished, then what the heck does finished mean?

Uhm... finished? Done?

If Actual Play does mean finished, what does playtesting mean?


P.S. To take a metaphor from crafting, again, let's think about a chair. At a certain point, a chair is definitely a thing that you can sit on. But it isn't necessarily "done--" it may need finishing to keep splinters from getting in your butt and carving to make it look pretty and some struts to make it hold up for years. Only once is has all those things is it really "finished," in my opinion.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Ron Edwards said...


I was mentioned; thought I'd join in.

Ben, you never saw "BSL" (stood for Bullshit-Less), or that little point-based fantasy game, or my try at fixing Rolemaster.

Nor is it necessarily apparent that I actually wrote the basics for Sorcerer and Sword first, and had my own weepy moment when I realized that I couldn't rehabilitate RE Howard and present a great sorcerer-game at the same time; I had to choose. Fortunately it was possible to hike the (original) former onto the latter eventually.

So yeah, I'm with you on this issue and the Great White thing. The main difference between a good photographer and a great one is that the latter takes more pictures and figures out which ones to throw away.


8:51 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi, Ron.

You're welcome anytime.


9:39 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

There is a follow-up to those post here


1:15 AM  
Blogger Kirt Dankmyer, aka Loki said...

I'm fairly sure Unsung is my Great White Game that's turned into my Journeyman's Work.

4:14 AM  

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