Art for Art’s Sake…Sometimes It’s Not Just Business

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

I talk a lot about the business side of board game creation. So much of success in this industry is based upon your abilities as a project manager, marketer, promoter, and accountant. When I talk about game design itself, I often talk about the relentless play-testing, balancing, and different levels of communication that you must master so that your game is understood and enjoyed.

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But what about art? I don’t necessarily mean art as in pretty pictures, beautiful graphics, and appealing boxes. No, no, no. I’m talking about art for art’s sake. I’m talking about art in the sense of pouring yourself into a project, finding a way to creatively express yourself, and making something you truly care about. Where does art for art’s sake come into the business savvy game dev’s process?

Board games are often pretty because…why not?

“Secret one: if it ain’t fun, you’re done.” That’s a line ripped from a hip-hop track by KRS-One. It’s also an underrated rule of entrepreneurship. It is imperative that you like the project you’re working on, or you just won’t simply have the motivation to sort out the logistic tangles it takes to deliver. Oh, and there are always logistics tangles…

I like travel. I like it a lot. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little dangerous, and exposes you to a lot of different ways of life. The aesthetic experience of travel impressed itself upon my soul as the rubber of my car’s tires impressed themselves upon the freeways of the USA. That is where the theme came from. That is the basis from which the mechanics of the game are born. The mechanics and rules of the game are meant to capture the openness, spontaneity, and pleasant tension of travel.

I’m not so married to my ideas that I won’t murder mechanics. I’m not so attached to rules that I won’t rewrite the whole book if needed. Yet this is the wellspring from which my ideas are born. I suspect many game developers have had similar experiences.

Many of you know that War Co. was a childhood dream that I pushed long enough to publish. Fewer people know that the corporate dystopia theme basically came from career anxieties. In fact, even I didn’t really realize it at first. That’s because something in me came out through the writing of card stories. These stories were processed into art by James Masino. This art was used as a way to market and attract attention to the campaign. It paid off. The root of all this, the prime mover in this whole story, is self-expression.

It is okay to use your games as a form of self-expression.

You can still sell games while using them as a form of self-expression.

I feel like sometimes people see “sell-able” and “enjoyable to make” as mutually exclusive. I disagree with this so much.

I want to bring this all together now by telling you what James and I are thinking for the Highways & Byways art approach. There was a time in American history in the late 1960s and the early 1970s where travel was rapidly becoming affordable. Airlines were still nice. Motels were popping up. You look at postcards from this era and you see these beautiful and painterly representations of Americana.

Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Postcard
Photo the Bureau of Land Management’s Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Source)

I’ve been in and out of many Motel 6’s and Super 8’s that haven’t been updated since the 1970s. I’ve flipped through old books in the motels with faded pictures of bygone eras when the cars looked funny and blue jeans fit weird. I internalized this and wasn’t able to totally express what I was going for until James said it himself. As I’d been collecting brochures from rest stops, he’d spent hours searching for the right look on Google Images. He sought that certain je ne sais quoi tirelessly.

We’d had a conversation two nights ago that got me really excited. We both found ourselves expressing what we were trying to make Highways & Byways look like in the rough, imprecise language that so characterizes the early stages of creative projects. To be clear, we were not talking about accessibility issues, clear display of information, or high-level themes. We were talking about heart and soul. As it turns out, the heart and soul of Highways & Byways is probably going to look like this. (No promises. Games are iterative, you know)…

We want to capture that retro vibe of the “golden age of road travel” from back when a cheap motel cost $8.88 for a night. We want to capture that “load up the station wagon” era from before the Gas Crisis. Highways & Byways will exist in a realm where Gerald Ford is president, but cars from the 1990s are really old. It’s a little anachronistic, as if the luxuries of yesteryear are within the grasp of adventurous college students of this era.

This is not a calculated approach intended to appeal to the largest audience. This is not pinned to how many people I can get to sign up for a newsletter. This is not tied to a Gantt chart. This is what James and I want to do, and we’re going to find people who are into it.

Want to come along for the ride?

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • We’re working on the board. It’s been outlined and now it’s time to color it in for a play-testable draft.
  • I’m continuing to make wise use of downtime by growing my game dev Discord and by focusing on making the newsletter great for members and readers. My business case thinking is that once I get them both on autopilot, I’ll benefit from the exposure those two things bring while being able to refocus mainly on Highways & Byways.
  • I don’t have a lot of sexy updates this week. It’s nose-to-grindstone, ugly, early work for the next few weeks.

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