Mech vs. Minions, an inspirational post mortem by Chris Cantrell of Riot Games

This was a particularly interesting session. Not because it offered any insight to game mechanics, workflow, or narrative, but because Chris Cantrell shared a highly personal journey he embarked on to see this game realized. This session seemed to fall into the category of a game “post mortem” while offering some highly inspirational thoughts that resonate with my current stage of life. With that in mind, this is the easiest post for me to write on the board game sessions and so it is the one I will begin with.

According to Chris the story of ‘Mechs vs. Minions’ begins with Stone Librande. While Stone’s (and Riot’s) professional pursuits are in the realm of video games, most notable of which is the infamous “League of Legends” (but I probably didn’t need to say it), he hobbies around with making board games for his family to play. Before coming to Riot he created a board game called ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’. Upon arriving at Riot He was asked if he wanted to develop his board game into an actual product. His role and experience is in video game design. He wasn’t going to put job security on the line by gambling his career on a product for a market he hasn’t experience with. As Chris tells the story, Stone felt the idea of him making a board game as a real commercial product would be absurd. He wondered what poor fool it would fall to as lead.

Enter Chris Cantrell, the Poor Fool.

Chris was happy to be the lead on anything. He felt he was “living the dream” to lead a game’s development, even if it wasn’t a video game. All seemed well and good, but what’s a story without conflict? Chris was handed Stone’s game ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’ and tasked with play testing it, getting to know it, and developing it into a complete product. After much play testing Chris realized something critical, he didn’t get it. He understood the rules, he just wasn’t having any fun. The people he played with seemed to have fun, but he couldn’t see the appeal.

The game became a chore. He talked with his superiors about this, and the advice he was given is that he shouldn’t make a game he doesn’t care about. There was a real chance admitting this would be the end of his time with Riot. It would be better for him personally and for the game to leave in favor of a project he does like, than to drudge through developing a game that he doesn’t. One does their best work when they believe in the game.

Pulling It Together

The game was in development for a few years, and after a while the stakeholders were getting restless. Chris reached out to two different individuals that the team felt would offer good insight to the status of their gameplay. The first was Tom Vasel of Dice Tower, and the second was Quinton Smith of Shut Up & Sit Down.

After play sessions with Tom, Chris’s team was feeling very motivated. Tom mentioned that they seem to have a complete game that works on their hands. He mentioned that he not sure what they have to be worried about. With that inspiration they weren’t sure if they needed Quinton to come out. Ultimately they did bring Quinton out, because the travel plans were already in place and they wanted to meet him.

Quinton had a very different view. He felt the gameplay was shallow. He said that with everything League has built, this board game feels like it should be a core. To be successful it needs to expand with missions and narrative that build on that core mechanic. He would also expect that sort of depth from the board game, given their other pursuits and source material.

In this moment Chris came to realize that he needed to design ten games instead of one. He still struggled with the idea that he was working on a game he didn’t really care about, and that his mentor(s) recommended he not lead the game if those are his feelings. At the same time he had stakeholders who were getting anxious for the game’s release. He discovered that he does care about the game when he considers everything he could do to expand on the core gameplay; so, in order to care about the game and lead it as a successful product he would need to reboot the design. This is close to starting fresh, and to do that he would have to convince his stakeholders.

He was again ready to hear that his project would be canned or taken from him, but that didn’t happen. Now that he had personal buy-in, the stakeholders felt it worthwhile to give him the opportunity to rebuild the game. Had Chris not proposed this, his only other option would be to release a bad game. To a good designer, that is a fate worse than being let go.

Once the vision was in place, they began daily tests. They optimized their process by “failing faster” (a concept I teach my students, and I’ll expand on shortly) and having targeted playtests. At this point the rest is a ride to success for the board game and for Chris. He had a few more points to make, but I’ll discuss those in my personal take-a-ways.

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Hodge’s Take-a-Ways

I got some practical advice on how to care for your game out of this. Let’s break it all down.

1. Over the course of a life one will work on a finite amount of projects with a finite amount of time. Keeping that in mind, it is best to work on something you want to make, even if the process is terrifying. The project you are on might be the only one you ever do. Make sure it’s something that you personally want to give to your audience.
2. Self publishing has many perks. The largest seems to be that the costs spent on marketing and publishing can be redirected into the quality of the product’s physical presentation. I feel this is good advice, but probably works best if one has a built-in audience. Riot already has a legion of fans. This might be a harder point to work in if one is an unknown.
3. If you have the means (typically money saved by self publishing) put care into the box for your game. Nearly every product on the market is designed to have its packaging thrown away. With board games the packaging is part of the experience every time it is played. Make every game begin as a well crafted experience by making it a joy to unbox every time it is played, and put away. Chris referenced the experience he (and others, including myself) have when first unboxing an iPhone. Apple puts attention to detail in every aspect of their product experience, right down to the packaging. The goal is for players to have that feeling every time they play.
4. Make a game you think your players will like. “I would rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show 1000 people want to see” – Joss Whedon. Don’t get to caught up in all of the ways to monetize your game. It needs to be a game you and others want to make first. Starting with “what’s the current trend in profiting from games” is a sure way of starting a project one loses personal attachment to, and doesn’t realize it’s full creative vision. (that last part was me expanding Chris’s comments)
5. Targeted play testing is a great way to fail faster. Instead of focusing on the whole game every play session, choose an aspect of the game to focus on during each play session. It streamlines the ability to find problems within individual components of the experience.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t play League of Legends. It’s not that I don’t like to or would never play, it’s the matter of “finite time” mentioned earlier in the post. I’m a newly minted mid-thirty year old with lots of “adult obligations”. When I have free time, I choose to spend it working on my game. If my wife and daughter become LoL players one day, then I’ll likely get into it with them.

That said, I love Riot Games. This is not the first time I’ve heard a member of Riot speak. I’ve heard session from Stone Librande and others. One thing they all have in common is passion for the games the make, and the people they make them for. That is very noble and I believe that they would put player experience before profit, a quality I hope to emulate in my own pursuits.

Alright folks, be sure to check out my other posts from #GDC17 and thanks for reading!

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