Developing Cage Match: Lessons learned

Cage Match! The MMA Fight Game will be in publication in November of this year!  Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll let you know when it’s available on Amazon!  Or visit the game page!

I’m not proud to say that the genesis of this game took place a full 2 years ago, and this pace will simply not work for future games.  At the same time, the game was pretty different now than it was a year ago, and that version was very different from where it was a year before that.  That’s the part that needs to be sped up.  I wasted a lot of time and a lot of money designing and printing expensive prototypes of old versions of the game, versions that were pretty far off in hindsight.  Even now, there are a few revisions vs. the review copies that I’ve put out there, but at least those are close enough that I don’t mind pictures of those being used.

One difference between Cage Match! and other games we’ve got in the pipeline is that this is targeted towards a more casual gamer, and that makes it harder, not easier.  Hobby gamers will learn to use nuanced rules and already understand concepts like dice bonuses and armor classes, different numbered dice and things like that.  Casual gamers will get bored quickly if the game isn’t simple and easy.  There’s very little room for error.  We’ve basically spent 2 years making it faster, and simpler, and faster, and simpler.

The good news is, we’ve made a great, lean, fast game and reached an interested market for it.  It’s going to be good.

The bad news is how much time and money got burned to get there, here we go:

    • Probably the biggest miss here was, initially we were going for the most authentic MMA game, the one with the most going on but that real MMA fans would agree was the best and most detailed version of a MMA fight.
    • That might sound like music to the ears of some people, but that group of people is very small.  However, I met a father-son pair early in the process who fit that description, and they wanted even more details in the game.  Having met them early on, I was kind of anchored on making the game for them — what is called the primacy bias.  It took a lot more play tests, like dozens more, to realize that they were the exception, not the rule.
    • The rule was that most gamers don’t want to play a long, nuanced, detailed 2-player game of MMA.  Using a 2-step process to learn what the result of the turn was, looking it up on an 8×8 grid and rolling dice each and every turn was too involved for this theme for most players.  There are some who would love the type of game I just described, and if that’s you, stick with us because we’ll still make an expansion with all of those elements as long as the base game does well.  For the rest, though, quicker and faster is better.
    • Not only was all of that involved, but all the looking up and dice rolling disrupted the flow of the game.  Some games went quickly but others would drag on for 30 minutes or more.  That’s fine for some games, but not for this MMA game.
old boxes of the game
  • In the mean time, I wasn’t finding many hardcore MMA fans among the hardcore gaming community.  So after a year where we already thought we were close, we pivoted to a more broadly appealing MMA game, one that would play fast enough to appeal to the lighter MMA fan, and be simple enough for the lighter gamer.  That’s a different target and it requires a different product.
  • That was about a year ago, and that part, in hindsight, made sense for where we were.  I think it’s since then that we needed to move more quickly up the development ramp.  We probably hired our final graphic design studio too early, and put them and us through a lot of unnecessary iterations before getting to a simplified, fast-playing game.
  • It’s almost like, and I may do this way next time:  If I stripped the game down to its very most basic form, what would that look like?  What’s the minimum I’d have to keep for the game to be viable?  Do I really need anything more than this?
  • That might have gotten me down to the eventual endpoint faster, one in which we still had the big change of improving the User Interface, something I also understand better for next time.  It also would have helped with reducing some of the moves.
  • Something I’ve only learned from the Ludology podcast recently, but applies here:  Humans can generally only handle about 7 things at a time, like a hand of 7 cards, and that’s why phone numbers were always 7 digits.  You don’t want 10 cards unless there are easy ways to group them.
  • Cage Match! used to have over a dozen options, and new players found themselves overloaded.
Over a year later, a better version but even this has long, clunky mats and tall, clunky screens that you have to pick up and read every turn.


  • Even the current version has 11 total moves, but they can be grouped into the 7 base moves, plus the 4 advanced moves.  That still might be a lot for the casual player, but most people can understand 7 basic moves, and we’ll have to make it easy to understand in the how-to-play video.
  • So anyways, not knowing about the limits of of the human brain, we burned another 9 months or so developing this version into the final version.  I guess that’s not terrible, but when you put it together with spending an entire year on one version, it’s too much.  This whole development process needs to be 6 months, and that’s it:
    • I need to find a way to get quick-and-dirty-but-fully-playable prototypes in front of other gamers, and get as much feedback as I can.
    • By the 3-month point, I need to find the fun heart of the game and prepare to strip everything else away to get to that.
    • I may have to ask myself “what’s the simplest version of this game” early in the process as well, and get that in front of gamers.  This was more of a consideration for Cage Match! however, than for a hobby game like Watering Hole, a Euro.
    • I need to make sure the User Interface is as clean as it can be, letting the fun heart of the game really shine.
    • THEN I can work the design studio, and do so to get things ready for production immediately following.  We do need to take our time with the components and feedback when we get drafts from the studio.  I have 5 other guys helping me, and I need to involve them during this design process.

All of that would have saved me time and money.  I have another great game, Watering Hole, to apply the lessons to!

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