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Customs Creation - June 2016

Posted June 4th, 2016 at 11:11 AM by HS Codex

Designing Top to Bottom
By: johnny139

There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page. Or, when we’re talking about custom design, a blank card. So for today’s column, I’d like to talk about where you might want to start off: by discussing “top-down” and “bottom-up” design.

Before we begin, I’ll have to invoke the name Mark Rosewater. It’s a name that’s no doubt familiar to designers in the realm of TCGs—the longtime designer for Magic: The Gathering and writer of a weekly column known as “Making Magic.” While he has his fans and detractors in equal measure, with hundreds of articles over the past two decades, the sheer scale of his contribution to game design, as an art and a science, is unrivaled.

Among the design concepts he articulated is the difference between the two premises of set design: top-down and bottom-up. A top-down set starts with the thematic premise of the set; see 2008’s Innistrad, with the basic premise of gothic horror. Conversely, bottom-up starts with the mechanical angle; Mirrodin being an “artifacts matter” set. Heroscape, even in an official capacity, never had a release structure where such concepts could apply, instead opting for non-blind releases with arbitrary distribution of worlds and characters. Even so, the terminology can easily be appropriated for our design needs.

For example, the Death Knights of Valkrill are transparently a bottom-up design. Certain units needed mechanical support, and so, a squad was invented in order to fulfill that need. The window dressing of “death knights” could be changed without necessarily harming the final design, while their bonding could not. That being said, the vast majority of Heroscape designs are top-down. The game’s premise is the “battle of all time” ... how do we adapt, say, samurai to this game system? or vampires? or elves? In the modern, post-cancellation era, this has gone even further, as communities based around adapting pre-existing characters dominate the landscape. This is not simply adapting an idea, or creating a pastiche, but adapting a character wholesale. Agent Carr is not simply Morpheus from The Matrix—concessions can be made for mechanical purposes. Superman and Darth Vader arrive fully formed, and bring along a good deal of baggage. In most cases, these groups are locked into a downward direction.

So, how is any of this theory applicable to you, the custom creator?

First and foremost, at the very beginning of card design, knowing the direction is fundamental to the final quality of your product. Why are you creating this card? What was your inspiration? If you want to add a new unit to your favorite faction or find a home for a cool mechanic you dreamed up, the design is probably bottom-up. If you’re inspired by a certain miniature or want to adapt a pop culture fixture, it’s probably top-down.

It’s important to establish the direction in your mind at the outset. Soon enough, the time will come for changes and concessions, be they from your own playtesting and re-evaluation or from external criticism. When you hit this point, sticking true to your original vision—the why of this design—is imperative. Your peers are going to be blind to your design process; you’re the only one capable of understanding the full scope of your design, and it’s something you can easily forget when you’re in the trenches. At the very end, if the that initial spark is missing, the design will often feel hollow. Any change that conflicts with your initial direction is likely to end up doing more harm than good.

For example, let’s say you want more predators. New bonding options for the Fyorlag Spiders, common, in the 25- to 50-point range. You begin to build around this idea—an “alpha spider,” perhaps, with a figure you’ve found online. They’re fast but not particularly hardy. To give them a bit of spice, you come up with a venomous bite: perhaps a chance for an extra wound if they get through the enemy defenses. All told, you project them at about 40 points per unit.

But the figure availability is low: you want other people to play with Mr. Spider, so you just make him unique. But as a unique figure, he needs a bit more life, a bit more survivability, so you turn that dial up to 3. Some friends really like the mechanic you have for venom, so you make it a bit more potent. Mr. Spider is now a unique hero, costing 80 points, with a big, impressive Venom Bite Special Attack. It might be a good design ... but is it the design you wanted? Did you achieve what you set out to do?

This was a top-down design, but it wasn’t treated like one.

The figure and the venom were window dressing: these facilitate the concept of an “alpha spider,” which is irrelevant to the core design. Predator is a nebulous enough term that it can apply to just about any type of animal, from spiders and scorpions to wolves and hawks. If the figure didn’t lend itself to a common hero, the figure needs to change, not the design. The same is true for the venom mechanic: just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it needs to be here. There’s always room for another design to fully utilize it down the line.

Always remember the spark that you started with. When it comes top-down designs, this will generally be a niche or a power—anything that detracts from the concept needs to go. Adding new bells and whistles make a design more exciting, but there’s a delicate balance that must be maintained. For bottom-up, I’ll evoke a phrase tossed around in C3G – the “lunchbox” version of a character. Coined by the illustrious Matt Helm, it means trimming the fat and presenting the most iconic version of the character, without asterisks or addendums. A Superman lunchbox doesn’t show his super-ventriloquism. Your adventuring archaeologist probably shouldn’t include a Cut Up Bridges special power, even if it was a cool scene in that one movie.

This is, of course, a simplification. I’m sure some designs come from neither direction, and some wonderful customs are a little of both: the most memorable often emerge from where top-down mechanics and bottom-up inspirations intersect perfectly. Just keep in mind where you started ... and where, exactly, you’re going.
Total Comments 4


HS Codex's Avatar
We're pleased to feature this article by Johnny139, who has joined us for this and some other customs departments, and will be helping out in the writing. Welcome aboard, Johnny139!
Posted June 4th, 2016 at 11:15 AM by HS Codex HS Codex is offline
japes's Avatar
Great article Johnny. Sometimes we get caught up in the excitement of others in our designs and then when we are done we realize we didn't fill the hole we originally set out to fill.
Posted June 5th, 2016 at 09:40 AM by japes japes is offline
A3n's Avatar
Great article Johnny with a lot of insight.
Posted June 5th, 2016 at 10:00 PM by A3n A3n is offline
IshMEL's Avatar
Great article! And how did you know about what I did with my spider design? Also, I really had to look up "super-ventriloquism." Apparently you are not joking about that.

I tend to think of myself as a "top-down" designer, and often I've ended up creating needlessly complicated powers that are part of the character's "story" but don't necessarily make them fun to play. Hopefully I've gotten better at recognizing when these powers have got to go! Giving up your own ideas is one of the hardest things to do.
Posted June 14th, 2016 at 10:44 AM by IshMEL IshMEL is offline
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