INTERVIEW: Mack Martin Takes the Designer’s Questionairre

It was only a matter of time till we cornered DUST Warfare designer Mack Martin and bribed him into taking the BoLS Designer’s Questionaire.  Let’s dive in:

How did you first get started with formal tabletop game design?

That’s a tough one to really nail down. There are a lot of guys out there who do some fantastic things with their hobbies. I would consider anyone putting together cool PDF’s for the web as doing “formal” game design. That’s probably a bit semantic. Professionally, however, my first “published for retail” works were for Fantasy Flight Games, working on the Warhammer 40k RPG lines, most notably Dark Heresy.

The short version of how I fell into game design sounds much cooler than it is in reality. I was working as a skip tracer and loss prevention agent. A few guns drawn on me made me realize that I really wanted something else for myself. I made a ten year plan that began with my getting a degree and ended with me working for a major game company.

I hit the books and a bit more than four years later I had my bachelor’s degree and was working at FFG. I’m pretty proud of that. Maybe I should have aimed a bit higher!

Can you talk a little about the challenges and differences in designing for venerable existing game franchises versus fresh new systems?

I think the two are very different. When I “came over the wall” from fan to creator I learned that creating a game system and creating content for one are vastly different. The biggest, in my mind, is the purpose of the two.

When designing a new system a designer focuses on how players interact with the rules. He attempts to make a game fun, challenging, and clearly written. When I make a game, I attempt to juggle the learning curve, so that players discover new strategies and tactics as they play. I work hard to make my games “easy to learn, hard to master”. I want them to be as intuitive as possible.

When developing for an existing system a designer asks different questions. He wants to add new content to keep the old experience fresh, and to give the current fans something new. Sometimes he wants to attract new fans as well. He has to play doctor/mad scientist to the game system as a whole. It becomes vital that a content developer is a fan of the original product, he owes it to the current fans to become one if he isn’t already a die-hard player of the system.

Do you first approach a game system from the rules point of view, the miniatures, or something else altogether?

So far in my career, all the miniatures games I’ve worked on have had the miniatures already designed for me. With Dust Warfare, Paolo Parente and the rest of Dust Studios already had a fantastic line of plastics. The world was well established, and I just had to make sure that the game made those figures come to life. So I definitely started with the figures, and made sure the game helped represent that fictional context.

One day, I would like to see if the miniatures can serve the game, but miniatures take so long to produce that I expect that isn’t really realistic. The two must be made together, or the game has to come after. Making them together would, I think, be ideal.

What are your leading design mantras when approaching a project?

Every now and then I ask myself one question. “Will this game still be engaging in 10 years?” All games are learning games, so if there is an element that can be quickly mastered, I try to exchange it for something more elegant.

What are the leading pitfalls you see with new fledgling designers – and following up what issues did you personally have the hardest time working through when you first started designing?

Murder your darlings. It’s a phrase stolen from Hollywood. Once I have a vision for a game lined out, I ask myself what my favorite part is. Then I cut it. That’s where a fledgling game designer usually goes astray. That “favorite bit” will often lead to them making their games way more complex than they need to be.

Complexity seems great on the surface. But some of the best games aren’t very complex. Early in our careers, most game designers mistake complexity for texture. Often, however, that complexity touches on something greater. I prefer to make games more complex by having the player discover new tactics instead of being taught new rules to govern tactical options presented by the rules. Chess and Poker are my favorite two examples of simple games with deep complexity.

EDIT: I just read Rick Priestley’s interview, he mentions “Murder Your Darlings” as well (in a quote from Jervis Johnson). It’s interesting how this lesson is so hard to learn, and yet so important that so many game designer’s echo it.

What is the most beautiful game-mechanic you have put into a system that you are most proud of?

It’s probably bad form, but I’m most proud of a mechanic for a game that isn’t out yet. We are currently a few days from the end of the Through the Breach Kickstarter. I can honestly say that the character creation mechanic for the Malifaux RPG is something I’m very proud of. I set out to make a “tea
ceremony” character generation system that built a character with a future, as well as a past. Every time I help someone make a character, I feel like I accomplished exactly that.

What is the most challenging ruleset or army book you have ever worked on and why?

That would be the Sino-Soviets in Dust Warfare. They had to have a niche, but I knew that their aircraft niche was only going to be unique to the force for a limited time. I had to balance a temporary defining role with long term defining factors. It was quite a balancing act. I got a lot of help from one of my playtesters (Christopher Seefeld) to pull it off. We tested the living bejeebers out of it.

What is your favourite miniatures game (or edition) judged solely by the ruleset – why?

My favorite system that I didn’t make, is Warhammer 40k, both 5 th and 6th edition were fantastic fun for me. I say “that I didn’t make”, simply because everyone has things about a system they don’t like. We all have different personal tastes. When you make a game, however, you get to really minimize those. It’s one of the hidden perks.

What famous rulesets do you look to for inspiration?

I don’t know if I look to them for inspiration, so much as I learn from their successes and failures. For inspiration I look to the fans. I like to hear about what excites and disappoints players. That’s where I cook up my ideas.

How does a designer know when a system is done?

A system is done when my playtesters are arguing about whether a change is needed or not! If only 10% of your testers want a rule changed, and the other 90% like it, you’ve probably got a pretty solid game.

It is often said that there is no “correct” rule design for a particular design challenge. That an infinite number of rule mechanics can be produced that lie along the dueling spectrums of realistic-abstract, and faster-to-slower to resolve, and detailed-to-macro in scope. Can you give us a sense of where you like to design within that framework and why?

I would say I prefer systems that are Semi-realistic, Fast, and Detailed. I want a game to feel like it is

representing something narratively true to the players. That doesn’t, to me at least, mean that I have to figure out how far a laser bolt would really penetrate thermo-plast armor. Instead, it just has to feel “true”. I want those rules to play quickly, without endless charts and dice rolls. I want them to focus on an individual or small group, that’s where a story is created.

Following up, how does one define “fun” as a designer, and how would you recognize or test for it in early drafts of rules?

Fun is a bit of a loaded word. Tabletop games aren’t “fun” in the same sense as a nerf gun fight, or prancing through a meadow in Holland. Although, now I feel the need to define “prancing”.

All games are learning games. We enjoy them when we are discovering or creating something new within the parameters of the rules. So I would define fun, in a game, as engrossing. A game is fun if it, temporarily, becomes your new “reality.”

It is a truism that players will always complain about any single ruleset, due to its size and complexity. How does a designer draw the line between “background noise” grousing, versus the possibility that something is truly amiss based on player feedback?

Oh, you just asked a question I can’t answer quickly. So settle in, this is gonna be a long answer.

This is the hardest part of being a game designer for me. I have an honest respect for my fellow gamers, and I don’t feel like I’m above them. Every game has three great games in their head. I don’t mean that patronizingly. Gamers come up to me at conventions all the time and want to tell me about their game ideas. They are good ideas! If they made that game, I would enjoy it. But the idea itself isn’t what makes a great game, the design/development that goes into making it a reality does that.

That’s the trouble. We all have these expectations of how great a game can be. Until you have brought a game to life, and seen the playtest process tear it apart, it’s a tough thing to grok. The purity of the initial idea has to get sullied by reality. We instinctively want games to have this purity of vision.

As a designer, I have to have both incredible hubris and unbelievable humility. It’s a tough thing to balance. When it comes to mechanics, I’m good at the hubris, I work hard on the humility. Sometimes the designer just has to believe that they are right, and that their vision is maintaining its pure vision. Other times, the designer has to listen to the testers and fans, and acquiesce his own control.

What are the core responsibilities a player should bring to the table, without which there can be no effective game-design?

Trust. As a player, I have had a tendency to back seat design in the past. I still have it, and I have to fight it. You have to trust that the game designer thought everything out. I try to play the game a few times before I start passing judgment.

Initially, I struggled hard with Warmachine’s “caster kill” aspect. It’s grown on me, however. If I had played a few games and said “nope, not for me,” I wouldn’t have learned to enjoy the game. Now I find that the “caster kill” really adds some vital functionality that I just didn’t see early on in my play experience. I wish I had just extended the game designer’s some trust; I probably would have enjoyed my first few games more.

I guess I got caught up defining what I wanted from a miniatures game, instead of looking for each game I play to give me something different. Now that I learned to do that, I can trust the game designers to deliver a new experience, instead of expecting that they create to my expectations.

Tabletop games evolve alongside societies like all other endeavors. Is there a single rule-mechanic or concept in any major tabletop wargame that you think was truly revolutionary, bring the industry as a whole forward? What was it and why?

“Off player interactions”. Warhammer Fantasy did this a little with the Armor save. I don’t know of any game before it that had the non-active player really doing much of anything. Maybe there was one, and if so I’d love to read the system.

Recently, this has come to the forefront in “reaction” mechanics in systems like Infinity. It’s also why alternating activations are so popular in miniatures game design right now. It minimizes the waiting time inherent with turn based games.

There are negatives to go with the system, so it’s important to know how to minimize those side effects. No system is perfect, they all have virtues and flaws. Off player interactions, however, brought in some fresh answers to old questions.

Finally, a thought experiment for the readers to get inside the head of a wargame designer. Lets take one of the most simple design concepts seen in almost any game system – a machine attempting to traverse an area of dense terrain. Can you give us 3 quick mental notes of what a rule mechanic that is “too hot, too cold”, and “just right” might look like.

Three systems? Ok, I’ll interpret hot as “lots of rules” and cold as “why even bother.”

A system that is too hot would attempt to account for the terrain density, the mobility of the machine(wheeled, tracked, other), and a variety of other factors. It would reduce the movement by a percentage, forcing the player to either do math or consult a table.

To cold, however, would be the exact opposite. It would be a system that doesn’t have terrain impeded movement at all. A tank can just drive through a forest. The designer might have this system work that way for simplicity, but he is losing some of the intuitive nature of the game.

A good middle ground attempts to account for the benefits of being in terrain with a consequence. It depends on the goal of the system. If you want the game to focus on the importance of terrain (as we did in Dust Warfare) then the benefits should out weight the draw backs. Soldiers aren’t slowed down, but they are heavily protected by terrain, for instance. If the designer wants to focus on lanes of fire, he might make terrain harder to traverse and only allow certain units to benefit from protect qualities.

Or, he could do something totally revolutionary, and have terrain do something else all together!

Everyone give it up for Mack.  Be sure to look through the interviews to see Rick Priestley’s and Alessio Cavatore’s answers as well.  Its an interesting set of responses to read. 

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