What do you mean "The Last 10%"?
I am talking about the last 10% of your game design. What takes an average game and makes it good. What takes a good design and makes it great. What takes a broken design and makes it playable. This is the part of design that takes the longest if done correctly. This is where all the playtesting and breaking your game occurs. This is where you tell your friends and family, "it is almost done." And then it takes 6+ more months.
What? How is that possible?
It can and does take this long or longer all the time. This can be the longest part of design. It is so hard because you are so close. It almost feels right. Or worse yet, it does feel right but really isn't ready and you release it. Lots of games get released without this final, crucial step. Not just Kickstarter game or small independent games, but games from big companies. I would argue that most of Fantasy Flight Games were this way for a while. That is why they kept releasing expansions that fixed their games. Or have 10 page FAQs. Or change the rules with the re-release (see RuneWars). They have gotten much better at this lately and their expansions can focus on what they are meant to, adding great content for people who love the game.
I don't want to pick on Fantasy Flight, it happens all the time to many different companies. At least they took the time to fix their designs. There are so many "Meh" games that come out, and a lot of that is just not taking the time to polish the design. After designing games for a while you will see this lack of polish when playing others games. The game has a good idea in there, but it just isn't complete.
How do you know if you are at this point?
The last 10% is after you have your main mechanics in place, but you still need some tweaking. The game is solid, you may even have some people who really love it. But as you play it more yourself, or watch others play it you realize there is something missing. Maybe it is balance. Maybe it is fun. Maybe the game takes too long. Maybe the game ends too quickly. Maybe there is a balance issue you haven't seen yet because you haven't playtested enough. Maybe the game isn't as replayable as it originally appears. Maybe it just needs......something.
Have you had this experience?
We are at this point with Bastion right now. The game even has a following of people who really love it. But we know it isn't done. We have been searching for something. The mechanics are solid. The gameplay works well, is smooth and fun. But something has been missing. We have recently started working with a publisher who found the thing we have been looking for the last few months. The game needed other ways to score. We were so close to the problem that we couldn't see it. We tried a lot of things to add more dynamic gameplay, but all made the game too complicated. After a fresh set of eyes took a look at it we were able to identify the problem and work toward a solution.
The same thing happened with Salvation Road. The game was good, probably good enough to publish, but after working with AJ and making a few tweaks it really started to shine. We even thought we were done with this one and there was room for polishing. I am not saying to never release your game to the public, but I am saying to get more eyes on it. The benefit of a publisher is that they have financial investment in the project too, so they will be more critical.
A lot of times that is what it takes. A fresh set of eyes to help push past this barrier. And it is little tweaks we are talking about here, not sweeping changes to the rules.
What can you do about this?
This is a big topic with lots of things to cover, so I will just get into the basics this week. The main thing you can do is playtest, tweak, playtest and show it to others. If you have access to other game designers or publishers they are the best for this kind of feedback. If not, take it to conventions and show it to strangers. Join a designer group. The worst thing you can do is just release the game before it is done. Don't forget your name is on that box. While this step is long and difficult, it is what makes a game shine.
Get your game out there. Don't be shy because it isn't done. Show it off to others so they can help you with things you are too close to see yourself. Go to the local game store, go to a convention, go to your family and friends. Other eyes on your game will always benefit it.
Can you wrap it up now, you have been out of town all weekend and I need some sleep?
That's it for this week, next week I am going to talk about time off (We just got back from a break, did it work? What are the benefits?). Until then, I am Peter, keep designing great games.