Why I Abandoned My Course About Game Design

Photo by Cindy Tang on Unsplash

What does it mean to fail?

We see failure in little things. My kids get loaded with standard-issue plastic junk at birthday parties. It’s colorful. It works for about 2 minutes. Then it breaks, left in a pile on the floor. Eventually the pieces find their way to the garbage.

Clothing can fail, revealing a bit more than intended. The accidental view may be stimulating or grotesque for the innocent bystanders. I’ll leave it to your imagination.

On a more serious note, failures of infrastructure are inconvenient and sometimes catastrophic. Think of the power going out or a gas line explosion.

Or think of what happens when a freeway bridge fails. We usually drive over bridges without considering the amazing benefit they provide. While the most famous bridges stand blatantly tall, with their elaborate suspension cables and lighted towers, most bridges inconspicuously support traffic from below.

I remember a bridge that went out on the New York State Thruway in the late 1980s. The river it spanned was swollen from the winter thaw and a heavy spring rain. The current washed out the supports, leaving a wide gap in both directions. A number of cars and trucks went over before someone realized what had happened and stopped traffic. According to reports, ten people died.

That bridge was along the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods path that we always took to visit my grandparents for the holidays. It’s shocking when something you have depended on fails so badly.

What else can fail? How about human failure? Schools threaten us with it. We can fail a test or a paper, fail a class, fail a grade, fail to graduate. Even if you manage to get through school without failing, you can still fail to accomplish anything important in life.

Even if you do accomplish something important, you can fail to spend enough time with your family. Or the important thing you accomplished can eventually fail. Apparently failure to drive the bridge supports deep enough in the 1950s is what led to its collapse some 30 years later.

So even those who manage to do incredible good, say by constructing time-saving, super convenient infrastructure, make mistakes that lead to failure.

Life is messy and unforgiving. Entropy is always against us. To survive, we find ways to cope.

If you read lofty quotes, you know the feel-good adage that failure only comes when we give up. Clearly that is not true in the sense that many failures occur despite perseverance. Nevertheless, that mindset is more productive than one of permanent hopelessness and despair. We need encouragement to keep going, to keep trying until things work out.

With that as a backdrop, let me tell you about my latest failure. It’s a good story, and I think you can use it to keep yourself going with whatever you are trying to do.

I took a course last year that teaches people how to make money selling online courses. Yes, that is something of a twist, that someone can sell a course about how to sell courses. You might expect the punchline to be that the whole things was a scam. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Still, it’s not easy to find a subject that enough people will pay for to make an profitable business out of it. I tried to follow the formula. It goes something like this.

  1. Think of all of the ways to make money online. Put them into buckets, and realize that one of the best ways to make money is by selling knowledge. Better than ads, better than games (believe me!), better than large-scale software systems (for the solo-preneur, that is). Better than cat videos.
  2. Pick a topic that you know well enough to teach others who are less knowledgable. You just have to be more of an expert than the people you intend to teach. Since I have designed a few games, game design for beginners is a good choice.
  3. Find a market with a burning need or pain point. Blog about interesting things “where your market hangs out online,” and build up a list of followers. Get at least 100 of “the right people” to follow you. It’s not enough to have a bunch of your buddies. You need access to potential customers.
  4. Create a course that solves a burning problem of your market. Make it a work of art, a masterpiece that you can sell for about $50 with a clean conscience. You’re going to offer a money-back guarantee, so it needs to be solid.
  5. Launch the course, and enjoy months of success as people benefit from enlightenment and tell their buddies with similar needs. This is the part where you make money while you sleep. Notice all of the work it took to get to this point? No one said it would be quick or easy.

I did bits and bites of all of the steps, but I have to admit that I skimped on step #3. I never found my real market before creating my course. Only my imagined market of beginners who want to start designing games.

Now, it turns out that they really are out there. A couple of times a week, someone new will ask on Reddit how to become a game designer. Usually the advice is to “watch free videos on YouTube” and “just get started.”

My course has a few additional benefits over the standard advice. It covers the fundamentals and provides structure for coming up with game designs. By the time you finish the course, you will have designed your first game. I think most people could use the help, which is why they are asking for it.

So I charged ahead and spent a week sharing “interesting content” with folks on Reddit. With just a few posts, I managed to attract hundreds of readers and got one pre-order. That’s right. I only managed to get a single serious prospect for the course that I wanted to launch by the end of the month.

Figuring that it could just be a matter of time and marketing effort, I considered launching my course anyway. If nothing else, I would learn the remaining aspects of the business.

So, I moved on to step #5. That’s when I realized that hosting my course would cost about $35 per month. Heh, with my one student, I would be making about $27 at the discounted “introductory” rate. That came with a money-back guarantee and a promise for a full year of access. I would have felt better with at least ten prospects.

However, it turned out that the real kicker was that I also skimped on step #4. The videos I produced are packed with information, but my delivery skills are pretty bad. I failed to create a masterful work of art.

Originally, I figured I the lower price point would compensate for the lack of quality, but that was before I watched the free videos. They are so well produced, they made me blush. There’s no way I would charge for my rough-cut videos.

To recap, here’s a summary of the issues with Design a Game.

  • I have practically no one to sell to.
  • I don’t think anyone is suffering for not knowing how to start designing games.
  • My production quality is too low. I need a lot more practice to become a decent presenter on video. Also, my scripts could use some polish and pizzazz.
  • The economics are wrong.

Doing a better job and getting things right would easily take 3 to 6 months. Meanwhile, the mortgage payment keeps popping up, my kids need to eat, and life in California is expensive. In other words, I need a real source of income.

As it stands, enough of the elements are wrong that I decided it would make more sense to put the whole thing on hold while I put myself back on the job market.

Did I fail? Sure. Am I stressed about it? Nope. Much better to recognize what was happening and cut my losses than to continue stubbornly along the wrong path.

So that’s that, and life goes on.

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See What You Can Do With These Game Ideas

A couple of posts ago, I promised to share one of my game ideas. This is my post to make good on that promise. Even better, let’s take a look at two ideas.

My game ideas tend to originate from either a twist on an existing game or some concept that can be made into a game. As a starting point, I think of ten ideas, anything goes. Most of them probably won’t amount to much. By coming up with ten ideas every day or once a week, eventually one of them is bound to be worth pursuing.

These are two that I think merit a closer look.

Pyramid

If you have made it to your 20s, you have lived long enough to be aware of pyramid schemes. How about turning that into a game?

Here’s the premise. Anyone is allowed to start a pyramid and be the boss, and players can join any of the active pyramids. The object is to convince players to join your organizations, which requires an investment of points. Those who join become recruiters who try to convince others to join.

Each player collects points based on a portion of the points collected below that player in the organization. The lower you are in the pyramid, the smaller the portion. At some point, it wouldn’t make economic sense to join, but recruiters can still do their best to persuade new joiners.

Players can participate in any number of pyramids as long as they have enough points to “invest.”

At some point, the top boss either makes the call to shut it down, say when growth starts to stall, and heads for the Bahamas. Or he or she gets caught by the authorities and goes to prison. Maybe the closest lieutenants have to pay a fine. Everyone else just loses their investment.

That’s the general sketch. Indeed, it might seem a little sketchy. Perhaps the point of the game is to demonstrate the problems with pyramid schemes, or to teach how to recognize them.

On the other hand, it might offer a way for the unscrupulous to practice without legal consequences. Also, people might also find a way to use the game as a proxy for a real-life pyramid scheme, where player points convert to money. That would be illegal (at least in the United States) or dangerous.

The game is suited for online play because it requires a lot of players the way I described it. In another form, the game could be laid out on a board and played in a way that’s similar to the Game of Life. Some of the spots allow you to form or join a pyramid, some add followers or receive regular payouts, some are where you get exposed and lose everything. If you make it to an undisclosed private island to live the life of luxury (and lonely isolation), you win.

Good idea or DOA? Alright, take it or leave. Let’s look at another.

Entrepreneur

This game is designed to give players a sense of the life of an entrepreneur. The premise is that you have this great idea for a business, and you want to launch a company and take it public.

You have to advance through levels, each of which gives you a baseline 10% chance of continuing. That’s a 90% chance of being wiped out each time you try to advance. You also have the choice to cash out once you complete the level you are on. Cashing out might cost you but probably leaves you with some rewards.

Maybe your odds are impacted by decisions you make. Choosing a narrow market, expanding in a way that builds on existing assets, getting the right professional help, and making good deals with helpful partners would all improve your odds. You can also make bad choices that lower the odds. Hmm, I can probably come up with a few of those, too.

Is this a board game where you have to go around some number of times? Is it based on decks of cards, one specific deck per stage?

I can imagine using dice to determine outcomes. Want to make a deal? A roll of 10 means it’s perfectly executed. A 5 through 9 means it goes through but is less effective than hoped. Roll a 2, 3 or 4 and the deal is off. A 1 means the deal is shady and costs you in the long run. That’s got the feel of an RPG.

Entrepreneur might be well-suited as an online multi-player game. Each player is busy trying to build his or her corporate empire. The “daily news” feed could be filled with the wins and losses of the other players, deal offers, and so on. Perhaps specializations develop: some want to build companies, others want to be venture capitalists. Maybe the bankers and lawyers are all bots with a range of programmed skills and ethics.

You get the idea, right?

Ta Da

So there you have it. Two seeds. Two kernels. Two ideas that might be developed or morphed into any number of interesting games.

If you liked those, let me know in the comments. I can share a few more someday.

If you are new to game design and want help getting started, check out Design a Game. It’s got all of my best thinking on the subject of game design. By the end of the course, you’ll be coming up with playable ideas of your own.

Finally, remember to subscribe because it shows me that you are interested.