Designing Officeball

Officeball's design process is an excellent example of something called "The Loop." The Loop - as defined by a former professor of mine - is a process of working in a particular direction, but resetting to the last workable point when you reach a dead end. The Loop was described to me as being applicable to graphic design, but it's oddly applicable to game design as well. It teaches iteration and encourages designers to let go of ideas and directions that become counter-productive. In the case of Officeball, it was incredibly useful to keep this in mind, as the development was full of red herrings.

Since I didn't want to make another Magic Numbers, I opted to eschew dice and other traditional gaming implements for something less conventional. Since I've been working in an office environment over the summer, I wanted to design a game specifically for that sort of space. I chose a common office object to work with - a hole-puncher - and based my design around using that object.

After purchasing a hole-puncher, I tested several potential mechanics by punching holes in paper (sounds fun, I know). The earliest concept used the punches as movement pawns in a boardgame. Rather than moving a piece, a player would punch holes near other punches to indicate movement. In practice, however, the idea seemed merely novel and not enough on which to build a solid game.

After deciding to abandon the hole-puncher entirely, I made the decision to continue working with my starting concept - to build a game ideal for an office environment. Given the number of people in an office, I decided to work on a large-scale social game, along the lines of Mafia. I decided to make my game about spreading rumors.

I knew players would work with fictional rumors, which would be provided by special cards at the start of the game. Each player would begin with a rumor about another player, as well as a card identifying which rumor was about them. In my mind, the game would be about keeping one's own rumor a secret, while trying to spread the other rumors as quickly as possible.

One early design had players spreading rumors by passing the rumor cards around but trying to avoid being handed their own rumor. This proved problematic in testing, as it was impossible your own rumor card.

Other implementations proved equally problematic. In each case, I wanted the rules to cleanly follow the logic of spreading rumors, but I also wanted to include a strategic element. Despite several iterations of the formula, however, I was never able to devise a rumor-spreading mechanic that worked strategically.
Looking back, this had a lot to do with my own insistence in keeping the mechanics simple. What makes rumors interesting is how they propagate. This is difficult to emulate in a social game, which relies on a small footprint in order to involve the broadest set of players. By refusing to complicate the design, I made it impossible to build out the concept of a rumor game any further. The idea couldn't grow, and I knew I needed to start over again.

Not wanting to loop back for the fourth time on one project, I decided to lower my ambitions to better suit the constraints. I knew I wanted to build an office game, and that I wanted it to be large-scale and social. I also knew that I had to keep it simple, and not rely on complicated or counter-intuitive mechanics.

For inspiration, I looked at Faceball, a new game born out of Yahoo's Flickr offices, which amounts to grown men in office chairs hitting each other in the face with a beach ball. I believed a slightly more dignified and covert sport could be designed, and using both Faceball and as references, I set to work.

Both ThinkGeek and Faceball reintroduce the concept of play into the drab office environment, and I wanted to mirror this in my game design. The problem with Faceball, however, is its gameplay is disruptive. I wanted to create a similar sense of play in a game that could be played parallel to work activities.

My starting concept was to adapt soccer or basketball to the office, having players move an object from one end of the office to the other in order to score a "goal." This forced me to think about methods of movement across the office and non-disruptive movements in particular.

I decided to integrate passing of into a common office activity: walking over to a colleague's desk. In my office sport, players would pass the ball to their teammates by approaching their desk under the pretense of work. Steals would happen in the same manner, with an opponent approaching a desk, asking a question, then taking the ball back to his or her desk.

In this game, however, movement across the office was difficult to track. What prevented a player from walking all the way up to the goal with the ball? Why would a player ever want to make a short pass? And what would be used as goals in this sport? These questions were all easy to answer, but I was hesitant to begin tacking on additional rules and provisos.

Instead of adding, I chose to subtract, simplifying the game to one of possession, where the only direct goal of the game was to possess the ball for as long as possible.

Officeball is less a game and more a game mechanic. The rules give several example games to be played with this mechanic but also emphasize the players' ability to amend and append to the rules their own cases and scenarios. At the same time, Officeball is only mildly subversive, as players can't make a move without a legitimate work excuse. And the best part is it's limited only by the imaginations of the participants.


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