There are days when “adulting” just sort of stinks. I’m sure you know the kind of day I’m talking about -- the ones where work was boring, traffic was terrible, the mail was filled with bills larger than you expected, your taxes are due, you forgot to pay for insurance and you were in a fender bender. Over the years, I’ve heard from several new inventors/designers that “everyone has to deal with (insert unpleasant part of life) so it will appeal to everyone!” or “nurses/teachers/name-a-profession will love my game because they deal with this stuff all the time!” It’s key to remember that people often play games to escape from the humdrum of work and life. Who exactly would you want to come home from work to spend game night playing a game about work, paying bills, sitting in traffic, etc. In the documentary, The Next Great American Game, the new inventor the movie follows is pitching a game called Turnpike, which is about sitting in rush hour traffic. He’s told a few times throughout the film that it’s very challenging to make something fun out of something that is NOT fun – like moving at a snail’s pace while on the expressway. And while it’s not impossible to create a fun game out of unappealing topics like this, it takes a great deal of finesse (and some luck).
Look at the game Rush Hour from Think Fun (designed by Nob Yoshigahara). It’s a classic brainteaser, but it’s taken something that’s frustrating and used it for an item that’s meant to frustrate! Through the theme, the game highlights that everyone hates being stuck in rush hour traffic but wouldn’t it be great if you were the smart one who figured out how to escape the mess?! It’s a great use of a challenging theme because it’s paired with an appropriate game type.
The classic game Pay Day (designed by Paul Gruen) has players go through each month picking up bills, waiting to get paid, and making deals they might lose money on, and taking on loans. It’s been on the market since 1975 and it was a huge hit and even outsold Monopoly at one point. Kids loved it and now many adults feel nostalgic about it – but as an adult the fun has changed a little. Kids aren’t used dealing with paychecks and bills, but it’s because they chose an audience that is aspiring to be like mom and dad, the game worked! If this game was intended just for adults, I doubt it would have been anywhere near as successful. By considering the audience, this game did well -- enough to become a classic.
There’s nothing quite as dull as commodities trading, but Pit (designed by Edgar Cayce) took that terrible topic and through exciting and energetic gameplay made it a really great game! Granted, this game is well over 100 years old, so the theme may not have seemed quite as dull when it was first designed, but its longevity is due to the simple, quick, and lively gameplay. If I saw this today I would wonder why on earth they didn’t go with another theme, but it’s the gameplay and word-of-mouth that keeps it going. A more current game with ultra-fast dynamic rounds, Happy Salmon (designed by Ken Gruhl and Quentin Weir), is packaged in a fabric fish which is way better than talking about cornering the market on corn. The fabric fish may not appeal to everyone but if you see the game played it doesn’t matter if you like or don’t like fishing or eating fish, you’re going to want to jump in for the next game because it looks like so much fun!
Overall, it’s not impossible to make an un-fun topic into something fun, it’s just more of a challenge. You need to pair the topic with the right kind of game, make it appealing to the right kind of audience, and have some killer gameplay. And even then, if you’re looking to license it, be prepared to be asked to change the topic – but that’s a discussion for another white paper.
2017 I-SPI White Paper
Game Themes: Everyday Experience Doesn’t Equal Appeal
By Kim Vandenbroucke of TheGameAisle.com and Brainy Chick, Inc.