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How Chris O’Neill Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do?

Chris O’Neill, game designer and layout designer for card and role-playing games.


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If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try?

Kobolds Ate My Baby! In Colour!!! is the perfect gateway to all of my design work, its a simple to grasp humorous role-playing game.

What tabletop games (including digital board/card games) are you playing most right now?

Roll for the Galaxy, Star Wars X-WING miniatures, a variety of RPGS (including Night’s Black Agents, Torchbearer, and others), Splendor, all of Ryan Lukat’s games (Eight Minute Empire, etc.)

What are your all-time favorite tabletop games?

Dungeons and Dragons is by far my favorite game to play, ever.  Any variation really (but secretly, its still the ODND basic game that I love most – where you are forced to make up rules as you play).  Magic: The Gathering is still the best card ever (though Pinochle is something that I love).  Race for The Galaxy (the card game), Siege of the Citadel (miniatures board game), and so many more.

What draws you to make games?

I’ve always “made” games.  I constantly think in game structures, have since I was a kid.  If the question is what draws me to make games that I plan to publish (which is very different than just making games), I think the answer is – it’s my passion.  I get really excited when I have an idea that makes other people excited – and the one area in my life where that most happens is with games.  (It also happens with cocktails, where I get an idea, and can make it a reality and share it with people, and then they get excited).

What are you not naturally good at, that you’ve learned to do for your work?

Editing.  I really hate editing, but its super important in gaming – not just editing your written work, but proofing, content editing, rules editing, etc.  I tend to write explosively, throwing down tons of ideas and words in a stream of consciousness – it requires careful editing to make that into something that you share with others, and then even more editing (especially with rules) to make sure that they are balanced, fair, and consistent.

Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?

My process is a gigantic funnel fueled by obsession.  I am constantly coming up with new ideas.  I have a big book filled with ideas, mechanics, titles, phrases – and I constantly combine and configure those ideas together until something pops out that I can’t stop thinking about.  I have about 20 working “worlds” for game ideas – high concept ideas – that I try different styles and game concepts on, until I catch an idea that gets me fired up (which usually results in me thinking about that game for days or weeks in all of my spare time).  Then i put it on the shelf until the passion strikes again.

Reaching a final product is a different beast.  Most of the game ideas that I have are really never going to make it be a product – they are just a piece of a grander puzzle – either a good failure, or a beautiful but impractical idea.  I literally have over 200 unfinished games, from which pieces or ideas will be used in the next round.  For some things, like Schrödinger’s Cats or Kobolds – the idea was solid and kept building – so I kept running with it.

What design-related media do you consume on a regular basis?

I tend not to read about other designers thought processes.  I know that a lot of designers write about their process, but it’s not for me.  I do enjoy KEN AND ROBIN TALK ABOUT STUFF – as they are two designers that I can never get enough of them talking about stuff (that being said, if their podcast was called Ken and Robin Talk about Movies and History, I would still listen).

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?

From a layout design perspective, I utilize the complete ADOBE CC CLoud Platform – Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.  InDesign is my core tool – if you are making books or cards, you need to be on InDesign – there is literally no other program that a professional should be using.  We tend to work in Microsoft Word (with a lot of Dropbox and Google Docs) for manuscripts and spreadsheets, and then build a manuscript, which I take into InDesign.  Since I work with artists, and produce my own work, I understand how to blend that all together with the Adobe Suite.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest?

I have a love/hate relationahip with playtesting.  I try to get to a playable prototype as quickly as possible – because playtesting is the only way to tell if a game is fun (which for me is the key to all games).  My hate side relationship comes in that I do not like the “development” side of the process.  Once I have the design work principally done, I want to start layout and production – not spending hours and hours replaying to ensure that the product is strong – but that is required.  When we reach the development phase – I tend to want to hand that off to others that enjoy that work – so that I can start working on something else.

In short, playtesting is 100% required, it’s just not fun…

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?

My biggest obstacles in games has been finding enough time to work on them.  I have worked in various sides of the business (distribution, freelancing, publishing), and as a game designer and publisher, it’s a very “independent” world – so I don’t see too many hurdles in making or publishing games.  The real challenge has been in finding ways to marry making games with having another career.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?

This is super hard.  My wife (fellow game designer and all around awesome person, Heather O’Neill) and I don’t have kids – so that does make it easier, but we both do design and publishing as a side job – we both have “careers” outside of the game industry.   Luckily, I have a spouse that has gotten really into making and marketing games, so we both spend a lot of our non-work time playing and making games.  I have reached a point in my “day job” where I can really control the amount of work that I do – so that I was able to dedicated a full day a week to the design and game work – which has made me far more productive and responsive.

Do you have a second  job? If so, what do you do? If not, when/how did you quit your day job?

As stated above, I have a full time (usually more than full time) job in the world of consulting and software.  Thankfully, I have a very specific skill set, which has allowed me to craft my day job around my schedule, and has allowed me to open up more time to focus on gaming.

I often think about quitting the day job and focusing on game design full time – but that is a very risky proposition (and I am typically risk-adverse).  I am currently working on 3 year plan – cutting back my “work” hours each year (as we bank more funds) to be able to focus purely on game design.

How many hours/week do you generally devote to game design? How many to other business-related activities?

So, my day job takes 30-50 hours a week (it used to be way more), and I focus about 1 hour a day to game design or game business, with a full day on FRIDAYS (8-10 hours), and then all the time that I cram in on the weekends (sometimes all of the weekend).  When working on layout or design, I can spend 2-3 hours in the evening working on things.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

Don’t be afraid to stop. Don’t be afraid to chase a cool idea, and then drop it when it crumbles or becomes un-fun.  Games should be about fun.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?

My father has a line that I like to break out when people ask this question, “I don’t live to work, I work to live.”  I also really like “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  In short, my advice in life is to make sure that you know what you want, before you start trying to find it – and then make sure that you are enjoying it.

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