My Life with Games (part 15)–Producing Dirty Secrets

We released Dirty Secrets at GenCon 2007, about one year after I started designing it. The first half of the process centered around the initial design, which resulted in the proof-of-concept prototype that I had in hand in December 2006. The second half was the hard part.

Making Dirty Secrets taught me discipline. From February through April of 2007, we ran two internal playtest sessions per week. I’d sit down with Crystal and Gabrielle, review all the rules tweaks I’d made since our last session. Then we’d play, trying to also pay attention to what we were doing that made the game work. (Stuff like “have a working theory of the crime” emerged from these playtests.) We’d also have discussions about how the various rules made us feel to see if they were actually accomplishing what I wanted them to accomplish. I’d furiously scribble notes. Then, when we were done, I’d go off and make rules tweaks to prepare for the next session.

My external playtest draft was debuted at Forge Midwest and was distributed across the Internet. Dirty Secrets was playtested internationally, which included sessions in England and Switzerland. In this connected era, this probably shouldn’t be as awe-inspiring to me as it is. But I don’t care. People who live across the world played my game! It was way cool.

And while they were giving me feedback, I was busy writing.

I knew that Dirty Secrets was an intricate game, so I wanted to include text explaining how to play the game in addition to straight rules text. So I wrote the book in two large sections. The first was the ruleset and the second was the “Handbook”, which I described as a bundled strategy guide for the game. In retrospect, I’m honestly not sure if this approach worked as well as I would have liked. To be fair, I haven’t really asked players to see if it worked. I think it was a worthy experiment, but it may have made the rules section itself a little too obscure. Oh well.

As the manuscript was approaching completion, Crystal stepped in and began her graphic design and art direction work. This ended up being a particularly ticklish piece of work.

You see, Dirty Secrets tackles issues of race and class as part of its design. Characters are described as a collection of demographics, which are selected from a list. So, for each character, you know his age, gender, race, social class, and legal status (e.g. ex-con, police officer, private investigator). In this way, the game forces your emerging story to account for these items, which can draw out hidden stereotypes or assumptions about these different groups. This is all well and good, but if our art direction wasn’t equally conscious, we knew that we’d be undercutting everything that we wanted to accomplish with the game and be rejected by the very target audience who we thought would embrace the game.

Crystal rose to the task. We had decided to use stock photography as art for the book, so Crystal scoured iStockphoto for a gender- and ethnic-diverse set of images. This was especially important for images that were being used for “investigators”, because these images depicted our understanding of what a Dirty Secrets protagonist looks like. And they look, oddly enough, a lot like people. I’m still really proud of the art direction that Crystal did, and I think that we accomplished our objective.

Crystal also included a lot of subtle flourishes with the images. She used the directions that people were looking to move the reader through the text. This sometimes involved mirroring images or mild tweaks to ensure that the images conveyed proper flow or violence or disgust or degredation or horror. The visual presentation of Dirty Secrets involved some fairly intense art direction. In particular, there’s one image of a junkie, tying off her arm in preparation to shoot up, staring out of the page at you. It still disturbs me when I think about it.

July was crunch time. If we wanted to be finished for GenCon, we had to hurry. By this point, my primary contribution to the production effort was doing Crystal’s housework so that she could focus on design and layout. At one point, she was pulling fourteen hour days. We slid under the wire, and Dirty Secrets was available for sale at GenCon 2007. Five years later, and it’s still my top selling game.

Each of my creative projects have changed me, and Dirty Secrets is no exception. In a way, Dirty Secrets became a love letter to my adopted hometown of Peoria. Because of the intense local focus of Dirty Secrets, I found myself becoming a student of the city were I live. Crystal and I continue to spend time poking around in the nooks and crannies of this place where we live. Also, I began to follow crime news and crime stats in Peoria, partly to refute claims that my neighborhood was more violent than others, and partly as an outgrowth of being a student of where I live.

Dirty Secrets also pointed out to me some of my own biases and prejudices. Racial issues aren’t my problem. Class is all where it’s at. I still find that I struggle with being angry with wealthier people, simply because they are wealthier than me. It’s silly to say out loud, but I know that it’s true.

Finally, Dirty Secrets reinforced in me a nascent desire to be involved in a particular form of social advocacy. In the text of the game, we discuss the idea of “hurting people who hurt people”. The oppressor is also a victim, and the victim can easily become the victimizer. I want to be involved in breaking those cycles. I want to help intercept someone on the path from victim to victimizer. I want to show him another way. I want to help make the world a better place, one person at a time. Like the poor youths in Ross MacDonald’s novels. Like the people who walk by my front door every day.

All this is the legacy of Dirty Secrets. At some point, people will stop buying the game, but its impact on my life will remain.

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