Alumni Report: Never To Die

As part of the build-up to the launch of Game Chef 2012, we’re checking in with a number of recent Game Chef “alumni” to see what their post-contest experience has been like and how their games have continued to develop. Today we spotlight Game Chef 2010 winner James Mullen and his championship game, Never To Die.

Tell us about your game.

It’s a game about the worst night out of your life: a bunch of mates go out looking for laughs and trouble, but they get a lot more trouble than they bargained for and their lives are changed forever.

What state was your game in at the end of Game Chef, and where is it now?

By the end of Game Chef 2010, the game had been played 7 or 8 times and had reached the third degree of separation, e.g. people were running it who had been in games run by people who had been in a game I had run, so I was pretty pleased with that. It got a major rewrite after the first playtest, but everything after that was a tweak to either the advice and guidance given for starting a game or the individual character abilities, which took the most work to make interesting and balanced.

In the time since then, I’ve looked at making various changes to how it works, but I’m wary of adding too much polish: it works well as it is and everyone who’s played it has enjoyed it. Some people have even come back for a second or third helping, so the focus has been on making the gameplay clearer rather than changing the mechanics. The whole thing has pretty much survived from its original form to its present one: it was playable from the first draft, so later drafts have been about enabling other people to take on the role of “the city,” which means working to get the assumptions of play out of my subconscious and down on paper.

What have you learned over the course of the game’s development?

The first major lesson: nobody owes you feedback. It’s terribly nice to get it, no matter what it is, but by and large you should be happy if everyone is smiling at the end of a play session, as that’s often the best (and only) feedback you’ll get.

It’s been very interesting to watch people’s reactions to the game: putting my neck on the line here and working from a relatively small sample, the female players relish the prospect of playing chavs* a lot more than the males. Some of the best laughs and most memorable atrocities have been the work of women playing the game; it’s almost like a cathartic experience, getting to vent back all the worst excesses they’ve had to put up with from certain types of men. I could be over-analysing there, though.

Also, working within arbitrary limits and restrictions is a massive spur to the creative glands. Thinking “I’ll design a game,” is a lot different to “I’ll design a game that’s no longer than 5,000 words in 2 weeks which has a theme of mortality and loss.” Being a little OCD when it comes to writing and game design, I actually completed the first draft of Never To Die in under 2 days, a trend which continues into my other endeavours. It’s become a standing joke at my RPG club that, if the game someone wants to play doesn’t exist, I’ll have written it by tomorrow!

* “Chavs” in the UK are roughly equivalent to “white trash” in the USA.

What are your ultimate goals for the game and how close are you to meeting those?

With the help of several friends, I’m preparing a print version of Never To Die for release this year. Matt Sanderson has done a stunning layout job that captures the urban feel of the game, mixing stained brick backgrounds with graffiti-style fonts. Rhona Robson is doing a character study for each of the “lad” archetypes: when I saw her first draft, a little electric tingle went down my spine; she’s really brought home just how dark the characters all are, just beneath the skin.

There should also be some extended play advice in the book and some reskinning options, so that you can play the lads as a boy band on the night it breaks up, a dysfunctional RPG group, or a small band of soldiers fighting together on hostile soil.

What advice would you give to other Game Chef alumns who are thinking about developing their game further?

Decide what your agenda is: if you want to get your game published, then do that. On the other hand, if you’re happy just to run it from time to time with your friends and give a copy to anyone who asks, then that’s just as good. Develop it the way that makes you happiest and don’t create more stress for yourself than you want to take on. Like any hobby, if it stops being fun, take a break from it.

What would you tell folks thinking about participating in Game Chef for the first or second time?

When designing your game, keep asking yourself, “Is this something people will do?” Up close, it’s easy to focus on how the components of a game all fit together to make a smoothly working machine, but then you step back and realise the human component has dropped out of the equation. The best kind of game is one that knows how people work and incorporates that; don’t expect people to make a big investment learning how to do things differently. If you want to develop it more deeply after Game Chef, you can, but make sure your contest draft is practical to play.

So, the next point is: playtest, playtest, playtest. Play it until you’re sick of it, run as many games as you can find time for. Every time you go to a club or a convention, offer to run your own game. Arrange a couple of extra game nights with your friends just so that you can test it some more. If you hear about anybody else running it, get in touch to thank them and ask them for any and all feedback they can give. Become an expert in your game, understand how it works at every level, but remember that you want other people to play it when you’re not there.

More information about Never To Die is available online here.

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