How T. C. Petty, III Makes Games

Tell us about yourself - Who are you? What do you do? Why are you drawn to make games?

Hi, I’m T. C.. I am a professional part-time croupier at a casino in rural Pennsylvania. And currently I am attempting the starving artist routine by designing board games during the other part of that part time. I’m not in it for the money, apparently. Games are the way I best express myself. They say something about my personality and have been my lifeblood for years when I’ve been happy, lonely, or depressed. I like to love them just as much as I like to tear them apart and feast on their analytical insides. I do, however, hate many more games than I like, because they suck. Which is probably much of my personal motivation to make games that are great.

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

My favorite is VivaJava: The Coffee Game, but I’d say jump right into the Dice version, VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game. It’s a solid, dicey, euro, power-filler for one to four players and gives a good amount of satisfying decisions and variability in a tight design space. The bigger brother is a large-group, semi-cooperative, awesome game, so it’s a little harder to get to the table. Of course I only have two games out at the moment, so there’s only a few to choose from until next year when people can try out Xenon Profiteer and Don’t Get Eated.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:

I once built an atom bomb and blew up the world. But, I fixed it.

(I'm not totally sure if he's being serious about that. –A)

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

I’m itching to play my brand-new copy of Terra Mystica. I’ve playing the hell out of Panamax, Metropolys, and Eight Minute Empires: Legends.

What are your all-time favorite tabletop games?

It’s kind of like asking me what my favorite band is; The Beatles. The first answer is always kind of uninteresting. Puerto Rico is my favorite. But, I love Yinsh and Ticket to Ride: Europe and Yspahan and St. Petersburg and other stuff.

What are you naturally good at that helps you in your work?

Creativity. I worry about being insensitive to others, but not much else when designing a game and it helps. Any direction. Any theme. Anything interesting or not interesting. Whatever piques my interest.

What are you not naturally good at, that you’ve learned to do well anyway?

Networking. You need to know the right people. And not just know them. You need them to be happy when they see you. Luckily, I really enjoy the industry and the mentality behind the community behind the scenes in board gaming, so I don’t have to fake it. I’m generally a pretty introverted individual, but getting connected to Twitter and being an active contributor has seen my career just skyrocket. Also, everyone I meet in this hobby is super-fantastic. Except for that one guy.

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

Initial idea + mechanical spark = Game Prototype! Most designers talk about whether you are a “theme-first” or “mechanics-first” designer which I think is apt for most people in most situations. But, I find that my ideas only become realized when the two merge simultaneously and quickly. I love exploring theme, but I don’t sacrifice gameplay for theme, nor do I sacrifice theme for gameplay (though I tend to lean more this way in a pinch).

After piles of hand-written and text-edit notes, the first prototype is created. I don’t ever completely scrap an initial idea and begin again from scratch, but I will iterate the initial prototype forever with playtesting. And to note, my prototypes are not meant to be pretty. They are functional with just enough art and symbology to evoke the sense of theme. The worst thing to do is to create a prototype that I’m literally afraid to change. It’s easier when it’s a simpler game, but even then I don’t allow myself a pass on development. Games are a personal thing and even if I’m not making a game specifically for my own tastes, I have no reason to release a game that feels unfinished in my own personal scale of finishedness. No deadlines, just solid games.

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

Everyday I log onto BGG at least once. Usually to obsessive check the ratings on my two games, but many times because I am searching for something game design related. I’m also a huge Ludology podcast fan and I love Cardboard Edison posts on Twitter and Tumblr. (Me too – they frequently quote these interviews. –A) I maniacally click every blue link I see on Twitter and steal everyone else’s juicy game design hints (or scoff at the amateurs).

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

I’ve improved my process over the last few years, becoming faster and more efficient at iteration with each prototype. I used to make prototypes, full prototypes, in Microsoft Word. Now, nine years later I have become spoiled by the proper Adobe Suite, creating vector iconography in Illustrator and actual, real, professional layout in InDesign. From Word to InDesign file layout for final production in about eight years. I think thats pretty good for a hobby! My paper-cutter and one-inch hole punch have also changed my life. I use circles in pretty much everything ever. I am totally spoiled.

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

In general, I’m a perfectionist. The biggest hurdle for me when creating a new game is getting that first prototype to the table when it is “incomplete.” Logically, I know it won’t be THAT painful, but I still get nervous. So, I playtest, if at all possible, by myself as many times as needed, then only unleash it on my close friends when I feel I’m ready to receive outside feedback. After that initial hesitation, I’ll show it to anyone and everyone. I’ll blog about it, make PnP files, attend Unpub events and generally try to get as much feedback as possible. I need blind playtesting especially, and I’ll make changes based on feedback right up until the final productions copies are created.

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

I have to temper my ambitions. I realized very early that if I want to “finish” anything that I start, I have to create artificial and ideological restrictions on my projects or I will allow scope-creep to destroy any chance of that thing becoming a reality. The worst thing I can do is chase a “white whale.” (I'm not smart enough to understand that paragraph. –A) If I have an idea and that idea seems too big, I shelve it for later. I try to look for initial ideas that immediately pair with a good base mechanic and then jump straight into it. I may plan out the prototype for months beforehand, but as long as there’s an initial spark of a completed game, it has the best chance of survival. I fail at this countless times, but I try to not obsess over one idea for a long, long time.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?

Not very well. I work a job that allows me extra time and freedom to explore game design, but it kills all my weekends. I can’t promote my own games at conventions and I rarely see my close friends. But, I consider it a temporary sacrifice and I will find a way to keep a part time job that doesn’t destroy my social time. It’s all part of the five year plan, right? I’ve made a ton of friends over the last few years, and it feels like we always are in contact through Google Hangouts and Twitter. So when I do have the opportunity to attend a convention, it’s like reconnecting with dear friends all the time.

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

Apart from game design? Of course. And as I said, its not so bad, just kills the weekends.

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

I usually spend about 20 hours a week on game design, although I’m very much in waves. There are times where I will spend twelve hours each day for three or four days rebalancing and creating a new set of files for a medium-weight game. There are other times, where all I do is write a few notes in my notebook. I try to have a deadline at some point each month for playtesting which helps me from becoming too distracted.

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

Don’t dedicate yourself to one idea at the expense of everything else. Most people try their hand at game design. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s an easy thing to be bad at doing. If you find that the current game is just frustrating, throw it in the pile and start working on something else. It’s okay to make a bad game. It’s not okay to release a bad game.

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

“Everything he says is so true.” - Erin Weller (a classmate in reference to Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye”) I hated The Catcher in the Rye when I first read it. This odd comment from a classmate, outside of the assigned discussion had a poignant effect on me. And it encompassed everything that Salinger was trying to convey to a person at exactly my age and exactly that time. It completely made me feel stupid and overturned all previous objections. I like to embrace the innocence of first-time realization. What some people lovingly call teenage ennui. Fighting a pointless fight in a pointless world. I’m going to try and do what I do best at the highest level that I can do it and for me alone.

“That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact.” - The Catcher in the Rye

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

Ha. Dreams would be, Sebastian Pauchon, Friedemann Friese, Rudiger Dorn, and Mac Gerdts. But more English-friendly, Brett Gilbert, Scott Almes, Matthew O’Malley, and John Gilmour. Thanks to Alf for requesting me! Here’s a selfie where he is barely visible behind my auburn locks: