This article is the second in a two part series where I explore the development and design of a micro game. I am currently creating Micro Dojo, a micro game which I will self-publish on Kickstarter, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you. In this article I’ll talk about some of the challenges you’ll face in creating a Micro Game. I still heartily recommend you try creating one though!
Why (not to) Create a Micro Game
Value Expectation. Micro Games have a particular challenge in perception of value in two areas. First is the depth of the game experience itself – the general assumption is that micro games are simple and quick without much deep play. Secondly is the perception of value for money – when it comes to retail, a game in a smaller box will find it more difficult to command a higher price.
Solution: A low price point can make a micro game appealing during a campaign period where you want to lower the barrier to entry, but when it comes to retail your game might need some shelf presence. A decent sized box, larger cards, or deluxe tokens, can double or triple the retail price of your micro game whilst adding only some extra production costs.
Less Return on Marketing. Since micro games are generally low in cost, marketing efforts (both paid for and organic) will have less of an impact. A paid for ad costs the same to run whether it converts a customer into a $5 sale or a $100 sale. Similarly your organic marketing efforts will need to reach many more customers to hit a particular funding goal.
Solution: Focusing more on developing organic growth will mean that you won’t be losing a lot of money, but you are probably losing something more important – time. Though every game would like to have viral marketing, a micro game is usually much more accessible to the Print-n-Play audience than a big box game would be. Take advantage of this exposure and get your game out in PnP format as early as possible.
Less Return on Time. Just like with your marketing spend, the amount of time spent on creating a micro game does not scale as well as with a larger game. Yes, you will need to design less components, and create less artwork, and produce less print diagrams for manufacturing. You will also have a lot of activities that don’t necessarily scale with game size – finding playtesters, finding an artist, finding a manufacturer, handling fulfilment etc. You might also find that creating new content can actually be more time consuming than with a larger game, since that content has to be an even more perfect fit (for example in an 18 card game compared to a 200 card game).
Solution: There is no easy solution for this one, unless you decide that your micro game really isn’t a micro game anymore and you can flip this one by spending a little more development time for a lot more product. Micro games can have a surprising amount of content to them, so be sure you are not actually overdelivering on a budget product.
Quality of Life. With very limited space, you can end up making decisions that allow your game to function mechanically but impact the so-called ‘Quality of Life’ of that game. Pieces may have to be shared between players, tokens may be smaller (or harder to read), and visual reminders or instructions that are usually shown on boards or reference cards might not be possible to include in the space available. These Quality of Life issues can make a fun game become a frustrating experience.
Solution: Cutting down to the absolute minimum needed for your game to function is a useful exercise in game design itself. It is particularly useful in identifying quality of life issues, as without making any functional changes to the game you can identify through playtesting which parts are detracting from the experience – fixing those really does make your game better even if nothing has functionally changed.
Balancing. The last thing any designer wants is for a game to be solved, meaning there is a single optimal way to play which effectively eliminates player choice. Though no game can be perfectly balanced, it is quicker to find imbalances in shorter games with less complexity than it is in longer larger games. Micro games may also have less levers to pull to get to that balanced state – if an item that costs 1 resource is too cheap and 2 resources is too expensive, something elsewhere must be changed.
Solution: One solution to balance is to include more player interactivity, which can add an additional balancing mechanism directly via player skill or indirectly via social interaction. On the same topic above of overdelivering, consider how many games you think
How does this apply to Micro Dojo?
Value Expectation. One of the questions I asked myself during Micro Dojo’s development was “Is this a great game, or is this a great game for 5?”. In asking that question I realised that I wanted to provide exceptional value at that price point, by adding lots variability and replayability, but that Micro Dojo was not competing with a game like Agricola or Scythe. This helped focus the design process to identify ways to provide better value rather than just making it larger or more complex.
Less Return on Marketing. I am ignoring my own solution here by self publishing and choosing not to pitch to a publisher. I am working hard on marketing, made harder still as it is not my strong suit, and I will lose a lot of time and money marketing a micro game. So why do this? Because for me, Micro Dojo is marketing. I mentioned in the first article that Micro Dojo is an investment in both myself and my fan base, and so it is providing value beyond the return of the project alone. The effort and cost in marketing Micro Dojo, is also marketing for Prometheus Game Labs and future games.
Less Return on Time. The more I developed Micro Dojo the more ‘space’ I found to add things. Double sided tokens, a second board, a single-player player mode. Though Micro Dojo already has a lot of variability there’s still lots more that would physically fit. Maximising this content has diminishing returns (and was taking a lot more playtesting) so instead I’ve started to pare back some ideas to just the best ones. I now have a log of ideas for expansion content that can keep on building the game later in it’s life and to re-release the game for those that missed the first campaign.
Quality of Life. One change I made in the middle of development was to reduce the number of resource tokens available to the minimum required – three 3x tokens and four 1x tokens (making 13 total). Changing those three 1x tokens into a single 3x token allowed the game to function and saved 52mm of space on the punchboard (which doesn’t sound like much but believe me, it’s a lot). Though there were technically enough tokens, players kept having to trade denominations and it was becoming fiddly. Over the course of the game, having to change up or down 10 to 15 times quickly would go from being an inconvenience to irritating. This was a quality of life issue that I believed to be big enough that I chose to lose that extra token space( that could have been devoted to more functionality), and make the experience smoother for the players.
Balancing. As a two-player game, Micro Dojo relies on the game to provide balance much more than a multiplayer game. However Micro Dojo also has a huge advantage – both players are playing with the same board state. The objectives, and available buildings, are completely known to players at the start of the game and there is no randomness from the initial setup. This means that the game rewards the player who planned and strategised better, not the player that “got lucky” with a particular opportunity. The main concern for balance was to make sure that there was no particular building that became a “must-have” or “auto-win” which would detract from the main goal. After 52 games, the winning count of Player 1 vs Player 2 stands at 27-25. I’m OK with those numbers.
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