Interview with Caroline Hobbs, designer of Downfall
Interviews with a Game Designer: In this series, we’ve asked the women who make games to talk to us about the whole experience so you can get an inside view of what it’s like to make the games we love! This time meet Caroline Hobbs, designer of Downfall!
Say hi and tell everyone a little about yourself
Hi! I'm Caroline Hobbs and I’m a gamer and designer living in the beautiful Pacific NW. I got hooked on story games years ago after I joined the Story Games Seattle Meetup. Once I started doing that, I was playing different games each week, and eventually I became an organizer. I often run games-on-demand at cons in the Seattle area, but for now I’m just another gamer playing roleplaying games with my friends whenever I can.
Tell us about your latest game. Gimme all the details!
I’m super excited about my new game Downfall! It’s a three-player story game where we explore a hero’s failure to save their collapsing home. Their world is about to end, but its demise isn't caused by something external; instead, it’s an exploration of how great societies doom themselves by adhering to the very ideals— like greed, pride, or ambition— that elevated them above others in the first place.
Downfall focuses on a central story—the story of the hero’s failure. Because I wanted the game to be about a single hero, I developed a system where players take turns role-playing one of three main characters. Each character provides a different perspective on the world’s collapse, and they’re all really fun to play. Character rotation is actually one of my favorite things about the game. People raise their eyebrows when I tell them that they take turns playing each main character, but then they sit down to play and they totally get into it. We’re able to focus on one story, and in Downfall the character rotation is the thing that unlocks that possibility.
What are the steps you take to start designing a game?
Everything starts with a cool idea! I think I have about 40 ideas just floating around on my phone and various sticky notes around the house—the ideas are the easy part. The challenge is in articulating the thing that's in your head to people through the rules. Start writing what the game is about and what you want it to do before you start anything else. Your rules should bend to fit your vision, but it can be terribly hard to focus on your vision amid the swirling chaos of play-tests and revisions. That's why it's so important to write what you want before you begin any of that. It keeps you focused and ensures that you’re working on realizing your vision—not changing your vision to fit whatever cool mechanics you think of.
You've clearly been playtesting Downfall a good deal. Any lessons you've learned about recruiting playtesters or integrating their feedback that you'd like to share?
When you're playtesting it's super important to play with as large a range of players as you can. You want people who are really experienced and you also want people who have never gamed. The worst playtests are really the most valuable, even if they're painful.
As for feedback, and maybe this is my pride speaking, the best feedback you can get is from yourself. When you play, you generally notice what's wrong with your game pretty immediately. For me, playtests are less about finding out what players like and more about finding out what I like. If you get it to the point where you love playing your game every time, then you're at a good spot. You won't be able to satisfy everyone, and don't try to. Instead, use your playtests and your playtesters' insight to hone the game into your vision.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?
DO IT! We need more games! I know it sounds cliche, but create the game you want to play. If you love playing it, other people will too.
What games or books would you recommend to aspiring designers--ones that changed the way you yourself think about games?
I have some fantastically embarrassing drafts of games that I started working on way back when I first got interested in game design, and the thing that characterized them was really flowery language with very little space dedicated to solid game instruction. As a designer, I'm so glad that I encountered games like Mars Colony, Microscope, and Questlandia which are so straight-forward in their instruction of the rules. Your game can be beautiful, but let the creativity come out at the table, and if it's right for your game, keep your rules text as tight and easy to navigate as possible.
How did you get ready for your kickstarter?
Coffee, mentors, and naps. But seriously, mentors are so important in getting ready for a kickstarter. Talk to people who've had successful kickstarters and get their advice. Look at other campaigns and take the elements you like. Take a deep breath and then just go for it!
What's your favorite reward level?
I'm really excited about the Secret Hits level. It’s been a lingering daydream to print One Missed Call to look like a little telephone book, and I'm so excited to share HAGS (which stands for Have A Great Summer), especially because this year is my 10 year high school reunion. But really the main event is the Downfall book. I want people to play the game and have this really nice book to add to their gaming library.
You seem to be incredibly busy in your community of gamers. Tell us about some of the other cool things you've done!
The community of designers in the Puget Sound region is really amazing, and there's a lot of collaboration that happens, whether it's playtesting or supplementing or just talking about design. Right now I'm part of a group that's designing different islands as a supplement to Ross Cowman's beautiful game Fall of Magic. I also did the art for Ben Robbins' Kingdom a couple years back, which was a really fun project to be involved in.
What's your next project?
My next project is actually helping my design-partner and husband Marc get his game, Eden, ready. It's a really beautiful counterpoint to Downfall. It’s about the first days of humanity in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve have left the garden and now their children are learning about morality by speaking with the animals that live there. It's super beautiful and I'm so excited to help him get the finishing touches on it!