Spin Master’s Nick Metzler on game development, working with licences and the advice he’d give budding designers
Games designer Nick Metzler has 16 board games on the market, with an additional four that he produced. Two more of his games are launching later this year, with the 2019 pipeline also looking promising. All this, and he’s only 24. Yes, Spin Master’s Incubation and New Business Specialist has been busy since kicking off his professional game design career at the age of 17, but it’s no surprise considering he’s been creating games since he was five.
Fresh from winning the Rising Star of the Year award at this year’s TAGIEs for his work on Spin Master’s Hail Hydra, we caught up with Metzler to learn more about his approach to game design, and how he looks to build his games around the emotional experience he wants players to have.
How did you get your start in game design?
I started my professional game design when I was 17 years old. I had just won the Senior Division of the 2011 Young Inventor’s Challenge at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair with a 3D cube game called ‘Squashed’ when the CEO of PlaSmart, Tim Kimber, walked up to me and asked me if he could bring the game to market. I was stunned. Without a second thought I said yes and my career path was laid out for me.
The year prior I won the same competition with a game called ‘That’s Cheating!’ in which the best cheater won the game. Prior to that I had created 20 something board and card games starting at the ripe age of five. I made puppet video games, 450 of my own trading card monsters, several computer games, Minute To Win It type challenges, team-building challenges, and started a business at 14 creating Amazing Race style birthday parties for the neighborhood. It’s a real shocker that I ended up making games professionally.
How would describe your approach to game design?
I begin with the emotional experience that I want players to have when they play the game and the memories they should have when they leave. I often build games around key ‘moments’ in the game like in a climax of a movie.
A perfect example is with Hail Hydra. In every single game, after 20 to 30 minutes of lying to each other and with tension in the air, the hidden Hydra agents reveal themselves by yelling “Hail Hydra!”, flipping their loyalty disc and damaging the city. Immediately after, the other Hydra agents usually reveal as well, damaging the city so much that it is destroyed, winning the game in a spectacular fashion for Hydra. I start with this emotional experience and set up the rules to support making those moments special, unique and emotionally charged with whatever experience I want players to have.
In my experience, some of the greatest movies have their audiences talking and sharing opinions non-stop after the movie is over, and I try to recreate that experience with social games that can be replayed and re-experienced several times without getting old.
Has your approach to design changed much from your first game to now?
Oh, were puppet video games not much fun? Yelling out “A” or “B” on a cardboard controller to move a puppet Mario across a paper screen wasn’t that exciting for anyone except me? Yeah, take THAT 7 year old Nick!
I slowly evolved my game design over time with each new game I created. I was fortunate to have a sister who hated playing strategy games, a father who claimed I made up rules as I went along due to the complexity of the games I made, and a mother who would give me the emotional support I needed to continue. Now I know it sounds sarcastic, but they forced me to expand from my own game desires to include more luck, and simpler games, ones that were intuitive yet exciting at the same time.
I adapted popular games to make them ‘better’, and tried to include a new element with each game I created out of the depths of the recycle bin. As I improved through the years I fell in love with science and psychology and started watching behaviour and decision-making. I realised that games and game design was much like a lab experiment, but one that I could manipulate in real time to create specific desired outputs. And that’s when I started studying emotions and the very nature of fun.
One of your recent creations is with the Marvel-themed social deduction game, Hail Hydra. Does your design process change when working on a licensed game?
The second step in my design process often involves choosing a theme or a mechanic to work from, so licensed games fit nicely when working from a thematic vector.
Sometimes we get lucky and get to work on an unbelievably rich brand that pairs perfectly well with a mechanic you’ve wanted to work with your whole life but never had a chance to *cough, Hail Hydra, cough, I love social deductions*.
To this day, the hardest game I’ve ever had to design was Secret Life of Pets: Home Before Dinner Game; a kids game! It seems easy from the outset, but the requirement was I needed to have a minifig of Max (the main character dog) but couldn’t use any other player pieces. Everything else had to be tiles. And it needed to be a two player game where they were against each other. That was a tricky one for me, and it ended up a little more complicated than I would have liked. Still a fun game though!
Limitations often help the design process because we’re not dealing with every possibility in the ether, but sometimes they can be handcuffs that we just need to creatively work with. It’s a give and take, but it’s quite fun and exciting to work with licensed material. There’s pre-created richness to the story that we’re expanding!
Do you think the games space is in a good place from a creativity standpoint?
Games are a medium. It’s a quite untapped medium as well, as it’s just starting to be explored with storytelling in the video game industry. The beauty of games is they allow the players to choose how they respond within an experience, pumping up the emotional investment that they attribute to it. We’re at the forefront of designing for this and there’s a whole world of new creative ideas that will come to life in the next few decades.
We’re in a very good space, and board games are a large part of that given their low price point for an ownable product and the inherent social nature of gameplay due to its low barrier to entry.
What advice would you give to any budding game designers looking to get their break?
Don’t expect to make money. Treat board games as a passion project and expect to lose money on your quest to success. If you’re in it for the right reasons, the success (and possibly money) will come. If you’re just an individual trying to launch your own game, marketing is more than half the battle because there are so many amazing games out there right now.
If you’re an inventor looking to sell your game to a company, networking is more than half the battle. Knowing what companies are looking for will allow you to stack the deck in your favour and you’re much more likely to get a hit. If you’ve got neither marketing nor networking skills, go to your local stores and look at the game shelves. Ask the employees what is selling more than others. Look at the news and see what’s top of mind. Chances are, companies are looking to replicate that success.
Look at macro trends going on in the world. What trends are rising? What are falling? What is getting talked about the most? There’s a decent chance these things can be molded into a game that a certain niche will want to buy, and therefore, companies may want to own. Just because one company doesn’t want your game doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. It just means it doesn’t fit their strategy. Keep designing!
What new games can we look forward from you in the near future?
I can’t say tooooo much… but I’ve got some great ones hitting market next year! I’ve got two coming out later this year, here’s an exclusive sneak preview of one!
“Alexa, what animal is man’s best friend?” Clearly we want Alexa to say ‘dog’. Draw a card, the card’s got a word on it- prompt Alexa to say the word without you saying the word yourself! If Alexa says the word, you get a point.
The game is called Good Question and it launches with some awesome and hilarious content (I’m biased). I encourage you to play the game at home, right now! If you like it, then you’ll want the rest of the words in the box. In addition, there’s some ‘impossibles’ words in the box- words that we can’t figure out how to get Alexa to say. Let us know when you do, because you win the internet.
Here’s some example words (play right now!)
- Cat (if you can get this in 1 guess, double your points!)
- Burrito (impossible. Prove us wrong.)
I’ve got an abstract strategy game, some light luck and strategy hybrids, maybe a cooperative game, some young adult focused games, and some licensed ones as well, all coming out next year, plus some more in the pipeline… so stay tuned!