Postmortem for a 48-hour Game

So back in December I made Waystation Deimos. It's a 48-hour game, and it was created in something of a fit of inspiration based on a hack of the Spire system. It's not just a hack, it's a hack of a hack! The game it was hacked from was Facade, by Nora Blake. This would have been the Transfusion version, which is available as a demo.

Thanks in part to the following it got from the people in the Spire community, it quickly became our most downloaded game on DriveThruRPG, and probably also our most successful game financially* (PWYW isn't going to make any filthy lucre; to this date it has made a cool $14.40 after DriveThruRPG's cut, which at least means that I wasn't in the red on it).

I already wrote about it right after it was finished, but that was literally a day later and I didn't have Segira, which released later in December, to compare it to.

I haven't done a whole lot of other stuff after doing Waystation Deimos; I went semi-pro as a freelancer and my own projects suffered, and I'm working on a multigenre system that's just too big to really consider finished in any way.

Since it's been a while, I figured I'd talk about what role it had for me as a designer, given that it's my first game-jam style game since I actually started making more serious games with Loreshaper Games, like velotha's flock (which is also available on itch; you'll see it stylized different ways in different places because I was in a mood).

Getting Inspiration

I often have people ask me how I get inspired to make games**, and the truth is that I generally can't speak to it too honestly myself.

Now, you can look at my work and see that I tend to include my major inspirations as I go along. In the case of velotha's flock, this was predominantly music; I have a Spotify playlist for every one of my games that I've worked on since the time I switched over to listening to my music mostly on Spotify, which was after I stopped doing most of my early games.

In the case of Waystation Deimos, Altered Carbon was a pretty significant inspiration. I think I might have recently read one of The Expanse novels, or else I'd been anticipating one (I don't remember the relative release dates), and I think that's pretty apparent. I used to be very active in the Eclipse Phase community back in the day, and you can probably see some inspiration in there, though I also was thinking of (2018) Prey, especially the shiny alien bits***.

I was really into Forza Horizon 4 when the game came out, and I was actually working on the playlist that would become the mood playlist for Waystation Deimos because I wanted that sort of music as background accompaniment**** while driving (the shift to Waystation Deimos came when I added in a bunch of Sabled Sun songs).

I find that the real secret to creativity comes when you need to do something else. I was a full-time teacher when Waystation Deimos came out: it was finals week, I had so much grading to do it wasn't even funny, and I was also planning to release Segira in a couple weeks. I decided I could fit it in on a 48-hour timeframe on the weekend, and that's where it all came together.

Figuring Out the Game

When you're a game designer, it's helpful to think of games as being made up as a bunch of different pieces. Some of these pieces are critical, others are not.

I knew that Waystation Deimos wouldn't have rules for character advancement: it ain't that sort of game. I figured out pretty early on that it would be a "try to avoid the death spiral" sort of game.

That's not a type you see a whole lot of in video games and tabletop games. You see it in board games, and it's become increasingly popular as markets have matured and "hardcore" experiences like Dark Souls and roguelikes have become more in vogue.

That also meant that for most purposes, Waystation Deimos was a game that a group was going to run once, probably in  a single sitting. They might run it a couple times, or might keep trying until they "beat" it, but you're not building year-long campaigns of trying to escape a planet***** that is actively trying to die.

Rowan, Rook, and Decard's Spire was my Game of 2018 (this is a highly prestigious award among more or less nobody, but it's a good game), and Waystation Deimos is based off of a hack of Spire, as I've already said. Since I was starting with a relatively mature system, I decided that I would have character creation, but not advancement, and that the stress system would work pretty well as it stood. I hacked it to use d6s because that's what Facade did and also because I wanted a game that I could play anywhere. I have a lot of six-sided dice, and I'm more likely to have one on hand than any other type of dice.

48 Hours

Making a game in 48 hours is a rush. There's not a lot of good comparisons, but I like to pretend it's like I'm one of the NASCAR mechanics working on a car that went in for a pit stop and they need to get it going really quick. I don't watch a lot of NASCAR, so pardon me if I've butchered my analogy.

Day 1

My blog entry: "So I didn't finish the game in one day. That's okay."

When I work on a game, I always start with rules first, with the exception of perhaps 200-300 words of fiction. This is how I started BIOREAKTOR, the game I'm currently working on. The first day of Waystation Deimos was basically all rules, though.

You can actually see this day's progress on Dropbox. It's worth noting that I assembled the PDF from parts. This let me work with the text in LibreOffice (getting automatic bookmarks!) without having to worry about how to set up the cover and do other stuff, which I could outsource to Scribus or Inkscape depending on what I needed. The timeline at the end of the book was written near the end of this day, and the interview (page 4) looks like it was the first part written, but since I did each in separate documents they aren't included here.

I do a really neat thing and actually just wind up ending mid-sentence. That's totally on-brand for me, even to this day.

One interesting thing that I just caught on reflection: I was exporting this straight from LibreOffice, and I used Scribus for the final export. This led to a missing image that has since been updated.

Day 1 is really the fun day, in my opinion. You're full of nerves at the end, but you get to do the fun making parts of the game.

Day 2

Largely editing. I took the game into Scribus, though ironically the v2 of the game is mostly just me stitching together individual LibreOffice .pdf files, because it turns out that the Scribus transfer wasn't as error-free as I had hoped.

Also made a character sheet.

Day 2 was actually only like five hours for me, because I had other stuff to do, but I don't let on to this. My blog post pretends I'm happy about the character sheet, but doing character sheets sucks.

After Release

I think I've already mentioned this, but Waystation Deimos has the most downloads of any of our games and also the most donations that don't come from our friends, even before its re-release.

I recently read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and she has a chapter about waiting for things to happen after you publish a book and how it feels. There's some triumphs, but usually it's just a letdown.

By our standards, Waystation Deimos was a success (blog post). This hasn't been the case for every game.

As a game designer, I think one of the things that goes into doing what you do well is dealing with the nature of the business. You create, but you don't necessarily get to see your products in use. It's a very solitary experience, especially when you're not working as part of a jam. It's pretty much every other game that I feel bad after; I felt good after Velotha's Flock, because it was my first game in ages and I proved I could still do it. The Hammercalled quick-start didn't feel good, and I actually went into a semi-stupor for a few days. Waystation Deimos felt great. Segira felt bad, even though it wasn't really any less successful than Waystation Deimos (it never really caught up to Waystation Deimos, but it did okay).

Lessons Learned

There are three things that I learned from Waystation Deimos:

1. What you think will be a little tiny thing may actually wind up being something that people really enjoy. I know a lot of people consider Deimos their favorite thing I made, which I fully embraced once I got over the bitterness of comparing it to my larger works.

2. Give yourself some limitations as far as reasonable project extents, but just go ahead and do the thing you want to do. If you don't make the game, it's a waste of your inspiration.

3. Striking covers do really well, you don't need fancy art, but you do need some high contrast and probably some symbols or something. People love symbols. I read a lot of Carl Jung. I like symbols.

* Most successful here defined as games that got organic interest, not just my mom or friends tossing me a few dollars because she felt bad for me. Hi, mom!

** About 5% of the time this happens when I introduce myself as a game designer, and about 95% of the time this is someone asking what went wrong with my life that I churn out such drivel. Also, multiple asterisks at the end of a clause is some punctuation gore if I've ever seen it.

*** I never finished Prey; I'm not much into horror in video games or movies, though I'll do fine with it in text and tabletop roleplaying games. Kept getting scared of everything. Also, more asterisks before punctuation!

**** Yes, I listen to Atrium Carceri while playing driving games. You don't?

***** Deimos is, properly speaking, a moon.

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