Behind the Scenes, Part 6: Design By Committee

Ever wondered how we design our games? This is the sixth post in a blog series about how we approach the challenge.

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

The Times, They Are A-Changing

The game we’re currently working on is the first that’s involved a sizable group of people in the design process. In the past, the process has been mostly driven by me and Max, with various individual puzzles proposed and/or executed by early team members (mostly Tara and Adam). It was also conducted under some pretty constricting time & budget constraints: we had little money, almost no space to work in or even store things (which necessitated a light-speed strike/build schedule in the game space), and lots of other small business growing pains that demanded our time and attention. The old, scrappy, top-down system had its advantages — mainly speed and flexibility — but it also meant lots of late nights, oversights that could have been averted by another set of eyes, and compromises between vision and final product.

But a lot has changed since we launched our last game, The Crypt… in January 2016! (Side note: It’s kind of a travesty that we’ve gone so long without a new game. In our defense, the 6-month process of moving into the new space, and redesigning all of the games for it, kind of took it out of us. And the Gallery in particular, which most of you hadn’t had a chance to play in its previous incarnation, got a major facelift.) In our new location, we finally have time, space, and staff to work with, so we’re now able to engage in a much more deliberative process.

Design Leads

Working on this new game, after a couple of false starts, we’ve found that it still only makes sense to have 1 to 2 design leads — project leaders who have final responsibility and creative control over the look, feel, and content of the game. For This Game (I keep catching myself as I’m about to accidentally reveal the title!), that falls to me and Max once again: the concept was my baby, and it’s the most tech heavy project we’ve attempted so far. For our next game (January 2018?), the design leads will probably be Tara (who proposed the initial concept) and Max. Any more than two, though, and the differences of opinion, diffusion of responsibility, and even coordination of meetings starts to get a little paralyzing.

Puzzle Chiefs & Design Review

When we finished the puzzle/design proposal process, we put all of the puzzles, décor, and other game elements we could think of into a Google doc, and asked people to sign up for anything that they wanted to be in charge of. Often, but not always, the team ended up signing up to be Chiefs of the things they had proposed. Max and I took on the rest.

Then we asked everyone sign up for an initial design review with us. If anyone was unsure of how to get started, needed a reminder of how their game element(s) fit within the overall flow or theme, or was getting off on the wrong track, we wanted to find out as soon as possible. During design review, we ended up making some major changes to mechanics/inputs/outputs/theming, and reassigning certain puzzles based on skill sets.


Last night during our weekly meeting, we held our first three rounds of workshopping — we discussed two puzzles and one effect. They were even more helpful than I had hoped. It was fantastic to watch the power of a 7-person group in bringing up concerns (like, “How will players know what to do?” or “How does this fit with the plot?”), serving as a sounding board for new ideas, and coming up with solutions for aspects where the presenters had gotten stuck. The Chiefs are still ultimately in charge of (and responsible for) their own game elements, but the input from the group is invaluable.

Another major benefit of workshopping is that everyone has a much better sense of how their projects fit in with everyone else’s. In the past, when the only central nodes of contact were me and Max, staff spent a lot more time working in a vacuum, which sometimes resulted in (if you’ll excuse a stylized example) a square peg of a Tara game element that needed to fit into a round hole of an Adam game element.

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be spending the final hour or so of every meeting doing workshopping on almost everything — 4 minutes to present the current state of each game element, and another 4 minutes for questions/criticisms/ideas. Once a game element has been presented, Max and I will be able to talk with its Chief about specific next steps and timeline.

Designed by Individual(s), Refined by Committee

In sum, the strategy we’re finding that works — or at least, works for us — is to have a clearly defined person (or, at most, two persons) responsible for each creative element, and for the game as a whole, while activating the brilliance of the group to refine and build on core ideas. We have very high expectations for this coming game in terms of everything from surprise to delight to cohesion, and if we’re as successful with it as I hope, then I think we’ll ultimately owe a lot of that to our design process, which we’re refining as we go.

Thanks for coming along for the ride so far. Check back for more in a week or two, or sign up for new post notifications at the bottom of our main blog page:

– Ethan, and the rest of the Escape New Haven team