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.
I used to play a lot of chess with a friend of mine also named Ryan. 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.)
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.