People Make Their Own Win Conditions

People make their own win conditions. This is as true in games as it is in life. And it’s true when it comes to being an indie publisher.

In Games

I used to play a lot of chess with a friend of mine also named Ryan[1]. We would go out to a local brew-pub and drink liter steins of beer while playing game after game. Typically, we’d play three games during one of those afternoons, of which I averaged winning one out of three games. Ryan was pretty good. And while we had a ritual where we would deconstruct a loss — including backing up a few moves and playing together to see how to get out of a situation — I still wanted to win.

When it would get to a point in a game where I wasn’t going to win, due to material lost and position ceded, I would play to the stalemate. Sometimes, I would get that stalemate. And while that isn’t a win per the rules, my own emotional rewards for achieving this new goal were triggered. I felt like I won. And when it comes to psychology, feeling like you won is winning.

I used to also play the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, many years ago. I made a Scorpion deck that was neat, thematic, and…impossible to win with in a multiplayer game. Almost all we played were multiplayer games, so it was a bit of a disappointment. But then the third time I tried it, I noticed a pattern — I ended up playing the kingmaker, the player who would decide which other player would win. The other players started to hate that deck, because it robbed them of a sense of a “clean” victory, so my new win condition, from an emotional reward standpoint rather than a rules standpoint, was to make the win “dirty.”

And I won a few times, from that standpoint. It did get boring, so I made a new deck, but these times where I would adapt what was, for me, “winning” to feel good about the game I played is interesting. If you watch, you’ll see the gulf between “winning by the rules” and “winning by your own emotional validation” — tight gulfs can result in hyper-competitive people for whom there isn’t much of a different, or you’ll see wide gulfs in people who just enjoy playing games regardless of who wins…if the game is interesting. Sometimes you even see that last one to an extreme, where “an interesting game” is the only reward condition, and winning a “boring” game doesn’t actually trigger the emotional rewards.

(Edit: To be clear, since Rob brought it up, I’m not advocating this, especially not to where you become a dick to other people. I’m pointing this out because we all do it at times, and it’s useful to examine that.)

In Life

You also see this all the time in life. The asshole who cuts you off in traffic is trying to feel a win. The person who gives a dollar to someone on the street is trying to feel a win. We’re always going for wins in life, in big and little ways. Sometimes it’s a win against another person and sometimes it’s a win against a sense of yourself or the world. And when a big win looks like it’s not going to happen, folks grasp to change the win or to get some small wins instead. It happens all the time, and it’s worth examining if you’re a game designer.

And that’s where we get to publishing. Specifically, the indie publishing vibe of “this isn’t my core business, and I don’t rely on it to pay for my bills.”

In Publishing

The reason so many stupid, pointless bullshit arguments happen revolving publishing in indieland is because different folks in it have different win conditions. There are folks for whom “I have a book in my hand!” is a win condition, or number of sales reaching some arbitrary point, or just the act of finishing a draft and putting it out on the Internet, etc.

And sometimes in publishing, we feel like we’re not going to hit whatever win condition we fantasize about early in a game’s life — a bunch of sales, awards, critical acclaim, the respect of our peers, or whatever we think of when we go to bed on a night after working on the game. My humble win for Mythender was to sell as many copies and get as much play as A Penny For My Thoughts did. Not because I needed that to pay for anything, that was just the mark I was going to hold Mythender to.


When it’s clear that we’re not going to win, we adapt or suffer disappointment. And it’s pretty clear that Mythender won’t get as much play, because it’s a weird die-heavy game. A bit ago, I decided to change the design to match the win I wanted, to make a game, and strip out a lot of the economy & number of dice needed. I worked on that for a bit, but I was really unhappy with it. The mechanics work, even if it seems cumbersome and it is component-heavy. That was discouraging as fuck, because I was breaking my game in order to make it more accessible & sellable.

After talking with some friends, and initially saying “I’m closing Mythender” — to where I even have a blog post about it that I kept hesitating clicking “publish” on — I thought about what the win condition was. And I spent a bit thinking about some of the other things I wanted to do with Mythender: use it to demonstrate a way of presenting RPG text, experiment with PDF widgets, show folks how this complicated engine that no one else has made[2] works. So I changed the win condition: just get it done and put it out there, like some sort of thesis paper on information presentation & flow.

Trying to sell it isn’t a part of my win condition, so I’m right now playing with putting it out for free. Because by putting “will it sell?” on the line, I’m putting a place where I might lose a personal win condition. And for Mythender, I’m not sure I want that sort of post-creation stress.

That’s what I’m working on right now, alongside making notes on a game whose win condition is “be considered a quality investigative horror game” and “gets as much play as A Penny For My Thoughts.”[3]

The Unwinnable Condition

There’s one condition that you can’t win: make the game perfect. There are folks who believe you can, and tell you things like “You need to just let your game sit for a long while” or “A year is too short a time to make a game.” You get this from people who are afraid to actually finish their games, because finishing a game and then discovering that there’s one more thing they could have done — and you always discover that — means you put out a game that’s an emotional loss.

Don’t listen to those people. Their notions are broken because they cannot win, and they’re trying to pass their inability to win and to change their win condition onto you. Sometimes there’s wisdom in their statements, but that needs to be separated from their crippled notions of winning in order to apply them in a non-toxic fashion to your publishing and your life.


I hope you all find your win condition, friends. And I hope you all grow to see your win conditions change as you get more wins under your belt. It’s pretty awesome.

– Ryan

P.S. I’m still going to be taking a break from blogging for a bit while I finish, but I wanted to pop my head up and say something. Let’s see how well this works out for me.

[1] If you’re familiar with how I held public Drunken Chess Tournaments back in my early 20s, this is the guy I founded that with.

[2] To my knowledge, of course. Though there’s a thing some of us say when anyone says “that no one else has made”: “There’s probably a reason for that.” :) Not to stop people from experimenting, but to check a misplaced sense of cleverness at the door as you work on your experiment.

[3] Penny is a mark for me because, well, actually as I type this sentence it seems hard to explain. But it’s the mark for similar-sized games I’m making. I’m not trying to duplicate Penny as much as use it as a goal for measuring resonance. I have no idea if that makes sense to other people, though.


11 Responses to People Make Their Own Win Conditions

  1. Quinn says:

    good stuff. Also of interest and frustration to me are people who can’t recognize where the win truly is and hold on to impossible wins. They end up blaming players and the game for a tension that they have created and failed to adapt to.

    I’ve played games (not for long) with people who had decks similar to yours but refused to control the win. When they can’t win in the standard way, then all of the things that keep them from it (everything, basically) become “cheap”.

    Though I think about this now and think that “futile struggle” is another attempt at a win. Many people who stick with poor strategies/wins are obsessed with honor and fair play (in a wierd, not-quite-as-intended way).

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, there is also a sense of who you’re playing with, when it comes to games anyway. My deck & play style was kosher in that group because they found their own win condition: “Make Macklin’s deck not work.” And when we got bored of those conditions, we moved on. Not that we thought explicitly about those ideas, just in our guts (as win conditions tend to be).

      This also goes to why people can’t just chill when someone is wrong on the Internet, because there’s suddenly a win condition that’s be unfulfilled: correct or defeat them. (Whee, psychology.)

      Though I think about this now and think that “futile struggle” is another attempt at a win.


      – Ryan

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    This has, historically, been my approach to very nearly everything. It’s powerful, flexible and useful, but also dangerous. Unchecked, it can be a very selfish thing, especially if your opponent is a sincere competitor. It’s very easy for this to be “If I can’t win, I will make sure no one else does either”, and that’s a dick move. In fact, the reality is that a lot of personal win conditions can be dick moves if you don’t think about how they impact the other people playing.

    I am not, I note, accusing Ryan of being a dick. I just want to call this out because this idea of making your own win conditions can be utterly intoxicating. I encourage people to embrace it, but at the same time, be aware that some care needs to be taken.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. There is always “don’t be a dick,” but then there are win conditions around that as well.

      I’m not saying “Hey, do this.” I’m saying “We naturally do this in different places in our lives. Look at that.”

      – Ryan

  3. Carl Rigney says:

    “Comparison is the cardinal sin of modern life. It traps us in a game that we can’t win. Once we define ourselves in terms of others, we lose the freedom to shape our own lives.” — Jim Collins

    It’s good to have goals, and it’s also good to distinguish between goals (things one has control over, like “Publish X”) and dreams (things one does not have control over, like “Sell Y many copies of X”).

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, I’m with you. It’s uneasy for me to articulate what I mean about the comparison with Penny. It’s not that I saw what Penny did and that’s what I want now, but I knew this vague sense of what I want and saw Penny do something like that, so that’s language I can use to communicate a scale.

      What I want for my games is to be awesome on my terms. Each game will have its own sense of what that means, because not every game I make will be for the same scale. Sometimes the language of comparison is useful, as long as it doesn’t trap you into riding down the wrong path.

      – Ryan

  4. Steve Segedy says:

    I saw this and thought it fit well with your thesis: Wondermark: Race to the Top

  5. grumpymartian says:

    Due to reasons I’m still not entirely certain about I would find myself playing chess against ranked players whose skill far outstripped my own. People who knew every combination of moves and were analyzing everything I did against decades of chess strategy, and/or ‘going easy’ on me. Both of which, frankly irritate the living hell out of me. So I’d go into total poker face mode and reconstruct the rules in my head so that all the pieces moved to regulation but that my goals were totally weird (like: Protect the Pawns– Save the Universe!) and then play through the entire game with this new goal. I was being consistent enough that an observant opponent might think I had some kind of strategy they’d never seen before but it wouldn’t make ANY sense. I considered it a win if after the game they asked me what the hell tactic I’d been trying to accomplish.

  6. Wayne says:

    There’s nothing wrong with a draw in chess, it certainly beats a loss, and half a point is worth more than no points. I was helping run the U.S. Championship in Modesto more than a few years back and watched Boris Gulko and Josh Watzkin (of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame) duke it out. They had what seemed to me to be clearly a drawn position: pawn fortresses in the middle of the board with rooks manouvering outside for advantage, and eventually they mutually decided to draw. The thing that amazed me about these guys is they would go to the break room and reconstruct their position totally from memory and then work it over again and again looking for an advantage.

    For me, my win would be to get Zombie Cafe 2.0 carried by IPR. I’ve slowly got the art work coming in, now I have to get the rules revisions tested and re-analyze production options.