As many of you know, I have made more than my share of nation sims in the past. I'm up there beyond even Falsegods and Shadows in ideas put forward, as well as those started worked on and those that have tried to lift off. I was about to go to sleep, when I thought of Wiry's latest attempt for a game, and then Conductor asking me to make a Game of Thrones sim, and I thought "people need to know the work this takes". So here I am, 1:41am, writing about making games for free.
Chapter 1: A discussion on the difference between "An Idea" and "A Viable Game"
Many come to me, or start their own game, with "An Idea". This could be the simple "Modern-era Nation Sim" or something more complex like "Steampunk-to-Dieselpunk Alternate History where the Central Powers win the Great War, in a nation sim". In any event, these are just "An Idea", and nowhere near "A Viable Game". Now you might rush to me and say 'But I have 20 pages of background material and a map!' and I will respond 'That is all you have then'. The reason I would be so mean is because, while you might have written a vibrant history, with piles of information about the setting, you have yet to think of it as a game. In your head, its still a new world to be discovered.
This brings us to Problem 1: This is a game, not a world generation experiment. I know, making worlds can be fun, I know, I do it more often than I should. But anyone can start a wiki and make their own little interconnected world, even inviting others to join in. But that is not what you are doing. You are making a game, and you must remember this first and foremost. It took me time to come upon this realization (about the time I got 10 offers for games on my site, allowed 5 to go up as forums, and watched only 1 get to the design phase). And making a game is work, rewarding work when it pays off, but still work.
So what makes "A Viable Game"? First, you must put the idea to the side. Don't throw it out, you'll need it, but it is not the paramount of your work just yet. Second, determine the scope of the game and what kind of mapping you'll use [Those familiar with game and world design will know this as the "top-down approach"]. The whole galaxy is kinda sparse when you have 10 players each having their own, single, planet spread out around it. Being spread out is detrimental to diplomacy, trade, and play in the end. But don't make it too crowded unless you want wars (and lots of them), with everyone in one valley with minimal ways out, people will clash, and quickly. So find a happy middle, maybe even shooting for smaller than middle with room to expand (in case the idea doesn't pick up as many as you thought it would).
The Third step comes to Problem 2: What is Society like? Now I don't need you to tell me who's the biggest retailer or who's the most famous person, let me explain. Society, in my mind is broken down into Economic, Government, and Social factors, so answer the important stuff about each in turn. Economically, whats the universal (or simply trade) currency, and how does it affect other currencies, if any? Also, how is a nation's total income calculated as well as available industrial capacity, and is that capacity military only or include other things (such as building cities or more capacity)? In Government, what is the overarching government like (or if none, what is the most common government type)? Additionally, how are militaries seen overall in the 'game world'? This will determine if buildups are good or bad, if people are peaceniks or warmongerers, and so on. In Social, this is more about how society functions, what is each society's view of other societies like? How do they interact? Are some Isolationist? Additionally, what are people like on the average? You don't have to go down to the man on the street for every city, but every major civilization should be touched on.
The Fourth step is what I call "The Crunch". Stats my friend, and they are your friend or enemy, depending on how big a hole you dig. If, in the above Third step you wrote another 20 pages, you're going to have to turn that into hard statistics to create a game. At this step, you start to see "A Viable Game" and the task ahead. This and the next step is where most people drop out. You must remain strong if "An Idea" is to become "A Viable Game". The Easiest way to start this step is to choose something simple to latch onto and build from there. Population or money are the usual suspects, but some build from other things. In any case, you must make sure this is solid, before you build on it. Don't say 'we're using gold bars' and then change it to gold coins later, you'll have to redo all your work and might as well start over. And if you don't think its that bad to change one word in your work, imagine if you calculated for how many gold bars it would cost to make a house, and now you've changed to coins. Now redo every calculation for everything in the game.
Once you're done with the Fourth step, you must recheck everything you did in it and make sure you did not just make a nation sheet and some numbers. If you did this start over. What you need is a list of stats that affect each other. Only then can you move onto the Fifth step, which is calculations. You must take what you have built and bring it together into one flowing spreadsheet (or word doc if you wish). Put everything there: every number, every equation. Make sure they all fit together. Start testing them with random numbers (within parameters, you're not going to pay 150% of upkeep on your military unless you are crazy, nor will paying -50% make any sense), to check if things come out as you desire. Now you will likely come onto Problem 3: Errant stats. What I mean is stats that don't seem to do anything, just sit there and take up space. If you have a number that doesn't have anything to do with anything else, why is it there? Did you forget to add its effect or is it just a description (these are fine, but should be left out of any calculations, check Step Six)? If the number doesn't seem to be affected by anything else, or affect anything else, it is most likely useless. If you want, keep it but beware.
The Sixth step is when you pick up that idea you set aside. Look at it, then look at your calculations. Put in what you think each nation (or planet, or whatever) should have for stats, then see what it looks like after a few years. Does that look right? If so, good. If not, you may want to either revise your numbers or your background. One is going to give in the end. Try to find the limits in this system you have created. If something seems more powerful than it should be, cut it down some. If something is less than it should be, raise it up. This is your balancing phase, where you not only balance your idea with the system, but your system with your idea and itself. Here you can add in your descriptive 'stats' and make up a nation page. From there, any other things that need to be made should be and tested (and by this I don't mean "make your military units in step Six, this should have been done in Four). Finally, to finish out this step, plan how you want the forum to be set up (trust me, a good setup is important, and saves you the hassle of people saying "Wheres the OOC board? I wanna post pics of my cat!").
From there comes the Seventh step: Actually setting up a forum. Once this is up, make sure it feels good (there are dozens of free forum software and websites), and then make it look good, and then set up the rules. You need rules, such as "No multi accounts" and "be nice", or people will abuse the system. Also include how to play the game (how to submit budgets, order units, make deals, etc), or people will not even give the game a second look.
If you've followed these, the Eighth step is the most satisfying. Put your board online and get people to check it out. If this works, you should have a running game in no time. But remember, your first round should always be a Test Round. SWD didn't do this and we found out that the clock wouldn't work properly, so our 2nd round was a continuation of the 1st rather than a truly separate round. After your test round (don't do more than 5 years, unless you want your game to go long with short rounds), go back over your calculations and background, and get feedback from players and any admins you have. Work on any problems, and then you should be good for a Round 1! Of course, there's always room for improvement, so nothing should be set in stone.
It is now 2:41am. I wrote that in 1 hour. I will continue tomorrow night with a new chapter.