Our instructor set the tone quickly: we’d only have a couple hours to create our working prototype game. During this workshop, my team and I received a challenge: recreate the massively-popular, team-based, first-person shooter Overwatch with just writing utensils, paper, notecards, and two dice. The motto the instructor gave us: “Work fast, fail fast.”

The Game Design Workshop at GDC took place in a large conference room with multiple long tables. After a few short minutes of instruction, our groups would learn by actually making our game. Luckily, we weren’t tasked with recreating then entire Overwatch experience; instead, we had to hone in on one particular feeling we experienced from Overwatch, then create a game that encompassed that feeling.

People ask me if I’ve ever thought about making games, and I usually laugh at the question. I like writing about games, but I haven’t felt the drive to create my own nearly as often. Still, I feel that the more I understand about the process of creating games, the better I critique and give feedback. So, instead of developing my own game from scratch, I attended a one-day game design workshop during the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.

At its core, game design is about providing a player with an experience. Whether it’s the whimsy of running through the Mushroom Kingdom, fear of exploring a creepy house in Resident Evil, or the coordination and conflict on a sports field, games are designed to capture an experience. In game design terminology, that experience is called “aesthetic,” a piece of the MDA Framework. Each game is made up of Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics: pieces which flow together to create a fully-functional game.

6 individuals sit around a table beginning discussion of their paper prototype game.
The design team for Paper Overwatch.

The people in my group came from a wide array of backgrounds: students and working professionals, game designers and product managers…and a journalist, of course. With a time crunch hanging over our heads, we made brief introductions before tearing into the project. We listed a number of feelings we experienced while playing Overwatch, including “competitive” and (jokingly) “salty.” We settled on “camaraderie,” deciding to make a game that made teammates feel driven to cooperate to succeed. Soon enough, the ideas started flying around about what we wanted to take from Overwatch: the objective-based gameplay, the various character classes available at any time, the psychology of trying to outsmart your opponent’s character selections. We pulled out notecards and scribbled down character traits and terrain modifiers for our map… unfortunately, we hadn’t come up with how we actually wanted to game to play first.

When thinking about a game, many people think about the “mechanics:” the physical controls, the graphics, the sounds… the component pieces involved that make the game work. In Overwatch, those are the facets people get the most excited about: the character designs, the layouts of the maps, the smooth animations. We’d skipped over was the “dynamics:” the system that the mechanics interact in. If a game is a car, the dynamics are the engine: dynamics are the systems that make a deck of cards and a board turn into a game. So, how would the game actually work?

We asked key questions to shape our Overwatch moving forward: what would players do during their turn? Were turns simultaneous, or one after the other? We settled on replicating Overwatch’s Escort mode: an offensive and defensive team would battle each other to either push a payload forward or delay it from progressing. Each player would play a card from their hand that resolved with the others rock-paper-scissors style; if the attacking team eliminated both of the defending team’s cards, they would gain “payload points.” Once the attackers gained enough payload points, they would push the payload on through the next checkpoint.

Justin, Carolyn, and Jeb sit around a long table with notecards and other resources.
Justin, Carolyn, and Jeb try out a Paper Overwatch strategy.

As we talked through the process of the game, each person’s strengths started to shine: Justin Ngai, a Game Content Manager at TinyCo, frequently brought the discussion back to concrete results, putting rule decisions on paper. Carolyn VanEseltine, a game designer and interactive fiction author for Sibyl Moon Games, introduced new strategies to punch up the gameplay. Molly Freundt, a game design student, brought in knowledge of the Overwatch classes and heroes to help refine the player cards. Meanwhile, when the discussion got too cerebral, Jeb Alvarado, a game designer who’d just finished the 2017 Train Jam, brought us back to focusing and actually testing ideas. Each of the eight of us made suggestions, critiqued others, and put our egos aside to create a finished product. Within just a few hours, Paper Overwatch was born.

At the end of the session, we’d made a complete, playable game. Each player held a set of cards representing the classes in Overwatch: Attack, Defense, Tank and Support.  The offense chose their cards and laid them face down, and then defense would do the same. Both teams revealed their cards at the same time, and the offense chose which cards cards attacked each other. Each hero card left standing could add a different amount of Payload Points to the offense’s total, and we made the Support card a wild card: it would only be worth one Payload Point, but could duplicate the partner’s card for surprise plays. The rules encouraged teams to talk with each other and plan their attacks, and wiping out the opponent’s team felt like an accomplishment.

The finalized rules for our prototype Paper Overwatch.
The finalized rules for our prototype Paper Overwatch.

I don’t suspect copies of Paper Overwatch will be making their way to shelves any time soon, but I’m ok with that. Of course, there were plenty of features we wanted to add: Ultimate Abilities to help change the flow of the game, character-specific cards instead of generic, class-based ones, to name a couple. We had to file those additions under”feature creep,” also known as “scope creep:” facets of a project which are more complicated than the time frame allows. Our final product may not have been fancy, but it worked and was fun to play. When I think about it now, I still smile.

Actually designing a game with a team gave me a better appreciate for the games that I love and play every day. Whether they’re casual games or deep, multi-world epics, each game requires careful planning, testing, and sculpting. Working on Paper Overwatch didn’t make me want to throw in the journalism towel and become a designer, but it gave me a deeper appreciation for the work of a talented, focused team. I never thought that’d I’d play Overwatch with no electricity, but GDC is all about creating new gaming experiences, shaping the games of the future for the better.