Saturday, November 19, 2011

Remote Lectures

Here's an all-too-common lament from teachers who aren't located in a game development hub like San Francisco:
"I'd love to have some guest speakers from industry in my class, but none of them live here. Occasionally I can snag one if they're in town to see family or something, but it's not anything I can count on. And I don't have the budget to fly people in regularly."

There's a better solution out there, and it's so simple that I'm amazed this doesn't happen routinely. It's called Skype. (Okay, technically any videoconferencing software will work. But an awful lot of professional game developers use Skype already. For those who don't, it's shockingly easy to download, install and use.)

The setup is incredibly cheap. At minimum, you need:
  • A computer in your classroom and a computer at the guest lecturer's desk. You can pretty much count on any game developer to have a computer, and it's honestly been awhile since I've stepped into a classroom at any school that didn't have at least a computer at the podium and overhead projector.
  • Audio and video in the classroom. Again, most classrooms these days come wired for it. Absolute worst case, bring your own laptop. Most laptops these days have speakers, mic and webcam built-in; if not, you can get cheap-but-passable for $20 or less each.
  • Some way for the guest lecturer to speak to you: speakers and mic (or headset) and webcam on their end. Many developers have this already. If not, spend $50 or so to order some basic equipment on Amazon and ship to them directly; it's a nice way to say thank-you if you're not paying an honorarium, it's a whole lot cheaper than covering travel expenses, and a gesture like this drastically increases the chance they'll do it again next year.
  • A willing guest lecturer. Often the easiest part, since there are so many to choose from. Just make sure your social network is up to date.
Then you just have to set up a time, videoconference them in, have them give their lecture and take some questions, thank them for their time, and you're done. (Strictly speaking, you don't even need video; you could get away with just having a normal phone call, connected to a loudspeaker in your room. But I've found that being able to actually see the other person adds a quality that's worth taking the extra steps.)

Hints and tips to make things easier:
  • Sometimes I find that a speakers + microphone combo leads to echoing, when the microphone picks up the sound from the speakers. To avoid this in your classroom, keep the mic turned off except when speaking. To avoid this from the guest's side, suggest a headset instead.
  • Run a test call beforehand to do a sound/video check, maybe a few days in advance, just to get the bugs worked out of the system. If possible, do your test using the exact same setup/location where the actual call will take place.
  • Have the guest's phone number, in case the internet picks a bad time to go down, just so you have some way to get in touch with them in an emergency.
  • Make sure the guest knows how to use whatever videoconferencing software you're using, and walk them through it if not. If they have slides, make sure they know how to share their screen.
  • Set this up in advance. Check in a few days in advance, and a few hours on the same day, just to make sure you're still on. Sometimes developer schedules can suddenly shift last-minute, so if you have the occasional cancellation, better to find that out before your class starts.
  • When looking for guest speakers, don't limit yourself to your home country. In fact, it may be more convenient for people who are at a time zone that's a few hours apart from you; spending an hour doing a guest lecture from home is sometimes easier and less disruptive than doing so from the office in the middle of a work day. (That said, if you can set up a virtual "studio tour" with the developer walking a wireless webcam through their office, it can be all kinds of awesome.)
  • If the speaker is in a different time zone than you, make sure you know the difference, and specify time zone in every email and other contact you have to make sure there's no confusion. To make it the most error-proof, give both times, yours and theirs ("So, we're still on for tonight, 3pm ET / 8pm GMT?").
  • Lastly and perhaps most obviously, be respectful. While many developers are happy to get involved with education and share their knowledge with your class, remember that they are still volunteering their time for your benefit. You need them more than they need you. So be sure to treat your guests well, whether they are connecting to you virtually or in person. Do this right and they may even recommend other speakers for your class. Treat a speaker poorly, and maybe they'll tell their friends to avoid you in the future, and suddenly you'll have a much harder time with this. It's a small industry, after all...
  • Conferences like GDC are a great place to meet potential guest speakers. Bring up the subject gently, then follow up a week or two later to those who expressed interest.
If you've done this a lot, feel free to post any additional tips (or traps to avoid) in the comments.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Four Difficulty Levels of Assignments

As a teacher, I have a few different kinds of exercises I like to assign my students.

There's the traditional kind of assignment where there's a definite "right answer" or thing that I'm looking for. Students are at least used to this from other classes, and they are at least easy to grade: just see if the student's answer matches with the answer key. List five causes of the Crash of 83. Define "positive feedback loop" and state whether it emphasizes early-game or late-game strategy. However, I find the scope and usefulness of these to be limited; game design rarely has a single "best way" to do something.

There are assignments where the student has to exercise a specific skill taught in class, but there are many ways to apply it. Write five one-paragraph concepts for potential game projects. Design the combat system for an RTS. Write a new backstory to a traditional strategy game, playtest it and report on the effect of the narrative on the player experience. These mimic real-world design tasks and provide pretty direct training for the role of game designer. Most of my assignments are in this category.

Then there are larger-scale assignments where a student has to combine skills to take on a major project (typically this takes the form of "create a game from scratch"). This is the kind of end-to-end, open-ended design that a student won't get to see again until they're 20 years into their career as a senior designer, or until they go indie.

Lastly, every now and then (no more than once per academic term, maybe as little as once per year), I like to offer an epic challenge: something that, as far as I know, is an unsolved problem of game design. Sometimes this is something I've tried (and failed) to do myself. Sometimes it's just something I'm curious about, but not so curious as to actually take the time to do it myself. Sometimes it's a relatively famous problem that I've seen attempted and failed by many people who are far more brilliant than I am. I'm talking about things like "design a computer role-playing game that plays in 5 minutes" or "design a collectible business card game that can be played with the stacks of cards you get at GDC, with rules simple enough to be printed on the back of your card" or "write a pitch document for a game based on the Shakespeare IP."

Roughly, I suppose you could say these four categories roughly correspond to Easy, Medium, Hard and Legendary difficulty levels.

You might be thinking, "wait - why assign something that's so difficult that I can't even do it myself?" A few reasons:
  • Learning the lesson that Game Design Is Hard. I make every effort to tell my students that game design is not just a matter of sitting down, coming up with "Great Ideas for games" and then sitting back and collecting royalty checks while other people do all the work. Impossible assignments let me show rather than tell and I think the lesson comes across much clearer.
  • Freedom to fail. While I don't come right out and say that any assignment is impossible, I do let my students know when I'm giving them something challenging. They learn that in game design, it is possible to fall flat on your face... and that sometimes it's even desirable to do so, as you can learn a lot from failed experiments. When you already expect your game to suck, you're more willing to take crazy risks in an effort to fail spectacularly.
  • Tiny chance of success. Few design challenges are truly impossible; it's just that the solutions haven't been discovered yet. Try enough times in enough ways and you will eventually reach a solution, if only by accident (the "million monkeys on typewriters" approach, although I'd like to think my students are slightly more skilled than the average monkey). Some day, either by brilliance or blind luck, one of my students might actually solve one of these things. The student that does so is going to have one impressive centerpiece for their portfolio. Even students who don't crack the problem completely but do manage to make a small dent in it, can learn a thing or two about design from what worked and what didn't - and that lesson can be shared with me and the rest of the class.
  • Offering a glimpse of the next level. When teaching new skills, I like to give my students context: not just "here, learn X and Y for this class" but also "here's where you're going to use it later." By giving students some things they can't do yet, I hope to plant a little seed of fascination with a problem that they want to solve, something that makes them want to keep going... something that they can keep coming back to later as they get more knowledge and experience as a way to gauge how much they've grown as designers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Problem With Gamification

This blog post is indicative of the kind being thrown around by so-called "gamification" aficionados. I've seen a number of others along the same lines, but this one is fairly succinct and direct, and I think it can act as a proxy for other similar statements. If you're in too much of a hurry to read it, the practical upshot can be summed up in three points:
  1. The education system in the US is broken.
  2. Grades are an outdated game mechanic. This is part of the problem.
  3. Replacing grades with other extrinsic motivations such as virtual currency is superior and will give students the motivation they need to learn.
Okay, so I have no problem with saying education is broken. It's hard to find anyone who thinks otherwise these days. What about the other two points?

Grades may be part of the problem, but they are not an "outdated game mechanic" because they are not a game mechanic at all. Very often I see rewards classified as "game mechanics" but they are not. The term "game mechanic" has a specific meaning to game designers; roughly speaking, a mechanic is a description of a systemic reaction to an event (such as a player input or a given kind of game state). A reward system that describes the conditions on which a reward will be handed out, and the exact rewards tied to what actions, would be a game mechanic. A grading rubric is a game mechanic. A grade or other reward itself is, in game design terms, a resource or a reward (but not a mechanic). Anyone who is going to speak of something as a game, needs to learn their terminology.

Second, and this is where a lot of "gamification" things fail: extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. This has been documented so many times, I'm amazed I even have to say it. You could make a valid argument that by their nature as an extrinsic motivator, grades reduce a student's intrinsic love of learning. But to say that replacing one form of extrinsic motivation (grades) with another (virtual currency) seems flawed in the extreme. They have the same problem! Here's a recent example, where the introduction of 'badges' made students concentrate on earning badges to the detriment of their learning. Well, duh!

You might be thinking: Okay, Ian, if you're so smart, then what is the fix to grades? I would say that we need to do a better job separating the grade (assessment) from the actual learning. Let the reward for learning be the fact that you're learning something awesome and it's giving you new skills and abilities, and you are "leveling up" merely by learning it. I understand we can't do away with assessments entirely, but how about we be clear that they are assessments, not rewards? Young kids start out looking at the world around them with a sense of wonder; in theory, it should not be that hard to simply not get in their way as they enjoy learning stuff.

Look at any expert that is passionate about their field... say, a physicist. Do you think they were motivated to learn physics because they got good grades, or because they thought it was inherently awesome to learn about how the world around them actually works? For that person, this fascination with How Stuff Works is their reward, and as teachers we would do well to find out what makes it so fun for that person to do physics all day, and how we can show our students how awesome that is for them, too. And this is something that the external reward systems propagated by "gamification" systems simply doesn't seem to account for.

Let me be clear. As far as using best practices from the field of game design and applying that to make other tasks more fun and enjoyable, I'm a huge fan of doing this, especially when it comes to teaching. At its best, this is what "gamification" is, and I'm all for it. But all too often I see the term "gamification" used synonymously with "external rewards such as points or virtual goods" and that is something we must all be very careful with, because that may solve some problems in the short term but is probably ineffective or even detrimental to learning in the long term.

Monday, March 07, 2011

My Education Rant

At GDC this year, I was given ten minutes to speak at the Game Educators Rant. I actually went over by a few minutes (with apologies to my fellow panelists) so I had to cut the end of the presentation a little short. What follows are my notes (sans slides, and edited for strong language since this is not meant to be an M-rated blog).

I’d like to start with an apology. I like futurists. They’re really entertaining to listen to, and their picture of the future always sounds so bright. But sometimes when I listen to them, maybe you feel this way too or maybe it’s just me, I feel like they’re from another planet. Ray Kurzweil has said at a past GDC that we are approaching a time where our lifespan will increase at a rate faster than +1 year per year of time (indicating we’ll live forever); Jane McGonigal’s current spiel with her new book is that games will save the world. I’ll have a hard enough time just living through GDC week, and making games that are fun. Now I’m supposed to live forever and save the world? No pressure, right?

By contrast, I normally consider myself a pretty down-to-earth guy. But for this rant, I’d like to take a very rare opportunity to put on my futurist hat, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I metaphorically leave Earth and start making some pretty wild-sounding pronouncements.

Present Day, 2011

First let me start with what’s going on present day, because even if I can’t predict the future, at least I can predict the present. Within the past year, maybe a dozen or so entrepreneurs all got the same idea at the same time. They identified an underserved market need: there are a lot of people out there who want to learn something, without having to deal with formalized education such as colleges and universities. I’m sure that each of these has an identical business plan, which goes something like this:

  1. Become an open education platform.
  2. Attract educators who are willing to put their content on your site for free (maybe you’ll pay them to develop content, just to get eyeballs on your site), and pitch to other educators who want to charge some nominal amount for access. The site collects a percentage to pay its expenses and make some profit that’s used to fuel growth.
  3. In a few years, become THE place for people to go for this, the Amazon or eBay or whatever of casual learning. Be the first to market; perform a big land grab before anyone else realizes just how wide open and in-demand this space is.
  4. Get acquired by Google, pocket the money, and that’s the exit strategy to tell to the VCs to get funding.

In Entrepreneur magazine last month there was a full article on this emerging trend of what they called “casual learning”. So this is clearly something that’s happening right now. But before I talk about what this means in the future, I want to talk about the past and how we got here.

Distant to Recent Past

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to fantasize that some time long ago, the primary mission of universities was education, research, and service. Somewhere along the line, funding got cut, and schools had to make a decision: make due with less even if it means not fulfilling the mission as well as they’d like, or shift focus to getting more money to continue the mission. There was a shift towards the latter; a focus on education changed to a focus on tuition. Instead of just doing research, it became important to write grants and get research funding. In place of community service, there was a shift to profit generation through fee-for-service. Eventually schools seemed to focus on money entirely, and the original mission was backgrounded or forgotten.

Maybe we were hoping that people wouldn’t notice, and maybe for awhile they didn’t, but when we started squeezing our students with tuition increases that were higher than the increase in cost of living, we started to look like greedy bastards. And not only were we greedy bastards, but we’re arrogant greedy bastards: not only do we charge an arm and a leg for tuition, but we won’t even let them pay for tuition unless they first apply and are accepted to our school; they have to be good enough to give us money, at least for the private schools.

Side rant: when looking at tuition increases, many academics are quick to point out how their school offers a generous financial aid program that most of their students take advantage of. Don’t try to convince me that financial aid fixes any of this, unless you’d be happy going to the supermarket to get a gallon of milk and being charged $50,000 for it, but you can get it at a reasonable price if you fill out an application showing your financial need. Financial aid isn’t help for students, it’s market segmentation to extract the highest dollar possible from our students, so let’s not pretend that we’re doing any favors here.

Anyway, people got tired of dealing with formal higher education and started looking for other ways to get their education without an extra helping of bureaucracy. One of the more notorious side effects of this was the “correspondence course,” and I’m sure there were times in the past where pundits would say that this was going to totally disrupt and displace higher education, and of course it hasn’t. I mention this because it seems on the surface to have a lot of similarities to these kinds of online casual learning experiences I’m talking about, and I’m about to tell you here that online casual learning is going to slaughter formalized game education, so it’s worth saying why casual learning isn’t just the next fad in correspondence courses.

The main thing that really makes a difference is that it’s on the internet. Web 2.0, in fact. This sounds terribly cliché, so let me explain by taking my first tentative steps into what I see as an inevitable future, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Future, Part 1: 2016

There’s obviously enough demand today to support casual learning as a business, so at some point in the future, one of the existing services, or another like it, will almost certainly emerge as the clear market leader. I give it 5 years tops before this happens, probably a bit less. Look at other spaces where a need was identified and there was a big startup gold rush to capture and monopolize the space: how long did it take during the dotcom boom to go from there being a ton of competitors in the online auction space to having eBay be dominant, or for Amazon to corner the market on online book sales? How long does it take a new Web browser to totally displace the previous one? Time flies fast in Internet years, so it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to say that within 5 years at most we will have one company that is the single undisputed household-name go-to site for this kind of learning.

Two days later it’ll get acquired by Google, because it’s just the kind of thing they do.

The Future, Part 2: 2021

Once a single casual learning company dominates, their website will start to become a giant education collective that attracts everyone. If you want to learn something, this is going to be the first place you’ll look. If you’re a leader in your field and want to teach something, put your information here. It’s just like why everyone goes to eBay for auctions: if you want to buy something at auction you’ll go there because that’s where the sellers are, if you want to sell you’ll go there because that’s where the buyers are.

It’s obvious that learners will go here because they can get their education more cheaply than with a university, if nothing else. But you might wonder, why would an educator take their course content and put it up there, instead of doing what we’ve always done, by teaching classes at a school and publishing textbooks? The answer is our commitment to service, because we believe in our hearts that information and education should be freely available to everyone.

Ha ha, just kidding, it’s all about the money. The fact is that you’ll put your course up here because you can teach a class and get paid, oh, somewhere in the range of $2k to $5k (US) for a single 10-week course if you do the math. Or you can put it on a casual learning website, charge $100 per student, fill 100 seats and make 2x to 5x more money per class, even after Google takes their 10% cut. 100 students sounds like a lot of work until you remember that this is casual learning, so there are no assignments, no assessments, and no grading, so you’ll actually spend less time making more money for the same class. The students of course are happy to pay $100 for a class that would normally cost them thousands if they took it through a school, so you will fill those seats.

Now that you understand the opportunity, here’s the big paradigm-shifting area where online casual learning is a huge step beyond those correspondence-by-mail courses: the ability to form online communities. Just like with Amazon, students won’t just be buying a product (taking a class), they’ll also be asked to rate the quality of the content and instruction. Before too long, all the best courses will bubble to the top. You couldn’t do this with correspondence which I think is why it was always so marginal; maybe a tiny fraction of those learn-by-mail classes are actually halfway decent, but as a consumer you have no way of knowing which ones are worth it and which ones aren’t. But with technology that’s already available today in Drupal, students in online casual learning will be able to interact with each other as a community, they’ll be able to provide feedback, rate content, and generally enrich the course consumer experience.

At this point, maybe ten years from today, we will have recorded lecture series and even live lectures, given by the best lecturers in the field, accessible to students at pennies on the dollar that they’d pay at our school. TED has already done this with individual talks, so it’s only a matter of time before it happens with entire courses and even entire curricula and degrees. We’re not quite there yet but it’s not that far away and there are already people working to get us there.

So here’s the math that our future students will see. Say they want to take a course in differential calculus. They can pay $4000 to take it at a private university. Or they can pay $400 to take basically the same course from a community college, and those of you at community colleges already know this is happening because every one of you that I talk to is talking about how you have record enrollment and problems with fitting everyone into the parking lot, because you basically came along and ate the private schools’ lunch when it comes to “general ed” requirements. But 10 years from now, those students who are at community college today will instead be able to take that calculus course from Sir Isaac Newton himself, who traveled forward in time just to record a lecture series on this new branch of math that he invented, because that’s just how awesome he is, and they’ll be able to take it for $40.

And when a prospective student comes to you and says, well, what can your school do for me that I can’t get on my own, what’s the value added, why can’t I just do this on my own… if we just keep going the way we are now, we’re not going to have a good answer.

What are we we’re going to say, that we have live instruction? They can offer live instruction, and their lecturers are better than ours. Seriously, think back to when you were an undergrad… how many of your classes did you really think were outstanding, life-changing experiences taught by really skilled teachers, maybe two or three out of all the classes you took? Let’s face it, most of our faculty suck at teaching! If you put your entire faculty roster up against an entire curriculum of the best lecturers on the planet, you are going to lose, and lose badly.

Maybe you’re thinking the one competitive advantage we’ll still have is our accreditation, and the fact that our diploma actually acts as some kind of certification that a student didn’t just sign up for a bunch of random classes, they actually were able to demonstrate that learning of some kind actually took place, and the online courses can’t certify. But there’s two problems with that.

Most relevant to us as game educators is that the video game industry doesn’t care about degrees. At GDC you can see over 10,000 employed, experienced, professional game developers who only care about one thing when hiring: can you help them to make a great game? And if the answer is yes, they don’t care if the reason you can help them make a great game is because you’ve got a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, or if it’s because you taught yourself assembly programming at age 11 and have been constantly building your skills ever since and you never bothered with college because it took time away from making yourself a better programmer. If you don’t believe me on this, ask a bunch of developers for yourself and they’ll tell you the same thing, especially in fields that aren’t Computer Science. And at this point we will all be well and truly screwed.

Sure, our colleagues in the math and computer science departments will be laughing at us because they’ll still have students, because some fields will still require the certification of a degree at an accredited school. But that’s going to change too, it’ll just take a little longer for them, because of the second problem with the argument that schools offer certification as their one competitive advantage over online lectures.

The Future, Part 3: 2026

Let’s suppose I’m right that online casual education really takes off in ten years. Then I give it another 5 years out for this whole business cycle to repeat itself, but this time with certification and testing programs that will pop up all over the place to support online learning, because that will then be identifiable as a clear market need. Probably these things will be offered by the people who run testing centers for things like SATs, or medical board exams, or stuff like that, so we’ll see all these places you can go in person to take a certification exam to prove that yes, you actually do know differential calculus, so now you’re paying maybe $50 for a class and then another $50 for certified testing if that matters to you, and these test banks will actually seek and be granted accreditation of some kind so they will have the same legitimacy as our diplomas do today. And at that point the other departments will be just as screwed as you are.

A New Hope

These changes are coming. If we just keep doing right now what we’ve always been doing, these changes are inevitable because they logically follow from what we’re already seeing today. And they are going to be highly disruptive to higher education, and we should be scared about them. So… what can we do, other than panic?

First, we can talk about these issues, acknowledge that change is coming, and put our really well-developed brains together to figure out how to best address it.

Second, the price of education has to come down. MIT has actually put their course material online for free, so have Stanford and a few other schools. If your school hasn’t, ask why. I mean, seriously, do you really think that your course material gives your school a competitive advantage over MIT? How about showing some humility here?

Third, following from above, our schools will need to start seeking alternate sources of funding. I don’t know what these sources will be. Maybe we’ll start going the public broadcasting model, make tuition free, and every semester we pass out a collection plate and ask students to donate. Maybe if we’re really smart we’ll do this the week before finals, and promise with a wink that the size of the donation totally won’t affect their grades.

Fourth, we need to get smarter about marketing so that prospective students understand the value we’re giving them for their money, because they’re about to get a whole lot more demanding from us in this area. We have an image problem, and it’s not going to get better on its own. (Don’t believe me? See how many people in industry still remember the phrase “tighten the graphics on level three” and that commercial is seven years old.) We do still offer things that can’t be matched by do-it-yourself online learning: the campus experience, for whatever that’s worth; a structured environment to those students who will benefit; integration of education and research. You can probably think of some other things to add to the list.


Change is coming, the elements have already been set in motion, and we’ve got this huge gift of maybe 5 or 10 years’ lead time to figure out what to do about it. So let’s use that time effectively while we’re all still here and our departments still exist.

Take a deep breath. I’m returning to Earth now, where I promise you’ll find me firmly planted for the rest of the year. Thank you.


If you are interested in the other rants at this session, Brenda Brathwaite has posted her rant here (short version: if you're teaching game design, you need to teach coding), and Colleen Macklin has posted hers here (short version: stop making "games for X" [learning, health, etc.] and start making games for their own sake). Will update this again if I find that the other panelists, Frank Lantz and Mary Flanagan, post their rants anywhere.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Culture Shock: Broken Terminology and How to Fix It

Going through the Expo floor at GDC is a rather unique experience. Like a highly expressive game (Minecraft or Sim City, for example), the experience is different for each person depending on their personal actions and goals. Students and unemployed developers looking to get jobs will be networking in the aisles, hanging out at the company booths, and maybe walking randomly through other areas to pick up swag or play with cool-looking toys. Professors network with industry on behalf of their students, and also visit the other school booths so they can all compare notes on who is best representing themselves. Exhibitors do... um... whatever they do. And so on.

Personally, I walk around looking for themes (this year I saw heavy representation of IT companies, cloud computing services, social media support services, middleware, geographic regions trying to attract companies, and schools trying to attract students - note the irony here, since most students at GDC are already at a school so it's a bit late to recruit).

School booths are interesting. Some show off student projects and allow you to play them. Others just show video. One showed a bunch of design docs and art bibles and other written works for a current student project in progress. Most have at least some printed documents talking about their academic programs, classes and curriculum. I always look at these to see what they're teaching kids these days.

One particular school I encountered, I won't name names, had a degree in "game design" (those were the exact words used). When I look at the core classes, I see: a token programming class, a level design class, and a dozen art/animation classes. Hopefully anyone reading this immediately sees the problem here. Obviously, the school did not.

I brought this to the attention of someone at the booth, who pointed me to a director-level person in the same booth. This director looked at me like I was from Mars, as if she couldn't understand why I was concerned or what the problem was. It concerns me because this isn't just a problem with a single school, it becomes a problem for every school. Imagine if a biology degree at School A was equivalent to a chemistry degree at School B, a physics degree at School C, and a science degree at School D. And biotech labs have to put this all together to figure out who actually learned the skills they need to hire. Even if just one school screws this up, the message to industry is "ignore the name of the degree on every resume you receive because it might be lying to you about what it means." But I'm an outsider to the school, and I have no influence to fix this myself, even though it totally screws me over, even if I'm teaching somewhere else.

I think the solution here has to come from industry. I would love to see more industry professionals stopping by the school booths, taking an honest look at what they're presenting, and calling them out on it -- in public, right there on the show floor, if need be -- if they are peddling the academic equivalent of snake oil. If every developer that passes through the expo takes five minutes to do this with just one school, any school that is just blatantly lying to its students about the value of its curriculum will hear that message over and over, loud and clear. So... any takers?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Games are Publications

I was just asked an interesting question by a Ph.D. candidate: "how would I, as an academic researcher, contribute to the field of video game design?"

This is interesting because it seems so straightforward and obvious, but really thinking about it led me to a series of conclusions that really show both the similarities and differences between academia and industry.

Here's the "obvious" answer (well, obvious to anyone in industry): you don't. Industry largely ignores academic research. This isn't because game designers are a bunch of haters, it's for purely pragmatic reasons:
  • Academic papers tend to be "rigorous" which is a nice way of saying that they take forever to read before you get to the useful parts;
  • Even if we did have time, there's a dearth of peer-reviewed academic journals that specifically address game design, so we would have to hunt through all kinds of unrelated journals just to find something that's even relevant to the field;
  • A lot of academics have no understanding or experience of industry, and therefore publish research that is useless to practitioners, so you have to read through multiple game design papers just to get one that you can use at all.
All of these things mean that finding useful academic research takes an awful lot of time, and time is the one thing game developers never have. We're working on a game, for Pete's sake, and it has to ship yesterday. Who has time to read through journals? We'll read Game Developer Magazine and maybe some articles on Gamasutra, but that's the most we can hope for. And publishing there won't get an academic researcher promotions or tenure, so forget it. Hence, researchers shouldn't bother, the majority of the time.

But wait -- does that mean that the field of game design is stagnating, if there is no way to push cutting-edge research to the field? Quite the contrary; we see innovative and iterative designs all the time. So how does the field build on itself, if there's no research? Thinking about this uncovers a flaw in the original question: it is built on some assumptions about the function and form of academic research.

In the sciences, at least, here's how it works. Suppose you're a research faculty. You do some research. You publish your results in a peer-reviewed refereed journal. Professional R&D folks in industry follow at least the top-tier journals to stay current on cutting-edge techniques and technology. The academic journal represents a primary source of knowledge that builds on itself over time. The original question assumes that game design works like this too. It doesn't.

Here is how professional game designers do research: they play games. Unlike other parts of a video game, the design is laid bare whenever you play. By playing you can explore the mechanics that were designed. Any mechanics that are hidden from you, such as combat formulas or enemy stats, can be found in a published hint guide (which is the closest thing we have to a public design document, most of the time). This allows us to analyze and study games directly. We ask questions like "how do these mechanics create a positive or negative player experience?" and "why did the designer choose to implement that feature in this particular way?" and "what are the weak points of this game, and how would we fix it?"

It is really a wonderful form of "publication"; imagine if scientists did not merely publish the results of their experiments, but also made their petri dishes and cell lines and laboratory equipment and whatnot available, and these were included in each journal so that the reader could precisely replicate their experiments at home! This is what published games are for game designers. Play is the game design equivalent of reading an academic journal. (Oh, how I love this field.)

So, this brings us to the non-obvious answer to the original question: to contribute to the field of knowledge that is game design, make a game and release it. If your game does something interesting, game designers will play it, analyze it, pick it apart, learn from it, and incorporate its lessons into their future designs.

It also means that all game designers, whether in academia or industry, are doing cutting-edge research, and every published game is peer-reviewed.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Placement of Students in Industry

Wow, it's been awhile since I wrote anything here. The busiest schedule ever will do that to some people, so for those of you patiently waiting here, I apologize.

I just finished having an epic Twitter discussion with @bbrathwaite and others today, and it made me want to write out in long form something that's been bugging me a bit lately.

Among entry-level jobs in the game industry, it is definitely not one-size-fits-all. The best entry-level jobs offer outstanding work environments, working under amazingly talented senior staff; students who land these kinds of jobs are likely to learn a lot, and go on to positions of prominence in their own right years later. The worst entry-level jobs are little more than meat grinders, throwing inexperienced students in a bullpen and working them to a soul-crushing death on largely uninteresting and unrewarding projects, without providing much in the way of learning opportunities (let alone decent pay or benefits). The majority of jobs are somewhere in between the extremes.

Likewise, students themselves fall along a bell curve. Some are superstars, some are abysmal, and the majority are somewhere in between. Now, the really terrible students probably won't even graduate, let alone make it into the hyper-competitive game industry, so that problem solves itself. The mediocre students, they can get mediocre jobs, and hopefully the reality of the industry will give them enough of a new perspective to bring out the best in them (or conversely, they'll decide that the industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, and they'll gracefully exit) -- again, problem solved. But what to do with the really amazing students?

My personal feeling is that for the really amazing students, they deserve better than the worst the industry has to offer. I'm talking about the students who have already distinguished themselves before they graduate -- the ones I would hire myself, in a second, if I owned a game company. I do not want the best and brightest our schools have to offer, getting thrown into a meat grinder. There are better jobs out there, and I would like to see the most deserving students get the best opportunities. Ideally, their school (or at least one of their instructors with industry connections) helps place them in a good studio. At minimum, they should be taught how to sniff out and avoid the really bad studios, how to detect the warning signs of a toxic work environment.

Mine is not the only school of thought on this matter. Maybe you'll recognize some of these attitudes:
  • Industry experience matters a lot. Even the best student can't hold a candle to an average person with even 1 to 2 years of experience on a real development team. Don't hold students in such high esteem. (To which I would respond: as a teacher, I'm supposed to disrespect my students?)
  • The first job always sucks. That's typical for the industry. Newly-minted graduates need to "pay their dues" just like the rest of us. (I would say: just because something is commonplace doesn't make it right.)
  • Don't forget how competitive the game industry is, especially these days with so many layoffs, and industry-experienced people applying for entry-level positions. Any job is better than no job, and even the best students should be thankful for even the worst opportunity. At worst, they can still add "industry experience" to their resume. (I think this sets up a false choice, as if a student's only options are "bad job" or "no job." As I mentioned, there are hugely positive entry-level experiences out there, even if they are rare. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but I think that a few rare people are good enough that they deserve better.)
I wonder, though, if this comes down to a difference between the viewpoint of an educator and that of a hiring manager. I'm thinking primarily about what is best for my students; they are thinking about what is best for their company; and the two are not always the same.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Top two reasons why student projects fail

This article is not only for students, but also for faculty who are advising students on their projects (either extracurricular, or as part of a project-based "Capstone" course).

The sad reality is, most game development projects fail. This us true for student projects, and it's also true for big-budget "AAA" industry projects. With industry projects the reasons for this are many and varied, though there are some common themes; there are tons of project post-mortems available for you to see for yourself on sites like Gamasutra.

With student projects, failure is much easier to predict, because I think the vast majority fail for one of two reasons: overscope, and overreach.

Overscope starts like this: "I love playing God of War / Gears of War / World of Warcraft / Something of WarSomething. You know what would be great? If we made a game just like that, only better!"

Some professional industry projects start like that too. These are called "sequels." If made by a different team, they are instead called "clones" (or if you're feeling generous, "homages" or "spiritual successors"). Why can the industry succeed at this (sometimes) when virtually every student team fails miserably?

The main reason is pure hours worked. Let's take a typical console game: you're talking a team of anywhere from 30 to 200 people, working 40 to 80 hours a week, for 2 to 5 years. Even at the low end, that's 30 people x 40 hours/week x 100 weeks = 120,000 hours. Add to this the productivity difference between experienced professionals and totally green students (with programming this has been measured to be somewhere around a 4x to 10x difference), so a high-school or college team would need to put in 480,000 hours to make "the next Gears of War" or whatever. And that's a minimum. For a typical student who has the time to commit maybe 10 hours per week, that student needs 47,999 close friends. It's not gonna happen!

When I see a student saying they've got a 20-person team to make a game, I cringe. That is way too many people; communications overhead will kill the project alone, if scope doesn't! If that many students are interested in making games, they would do far better to organize themselves into a few 3 to 6 person teams, work on separate projects, and occasionally swap around their works-in-progress to the other teams for playtesting and honest feedback.

What's the cure for overscope? Go to the other extreme. Design a game that you can do in one week or less. If the game comes out looking good, you can always spend the next week adding another small set of features. If it comes out horrible, you're not so attached that you can't abandon it and try again with a brand new project. This does mean an adjustment in expectations -- you might not make the next Final Fantasy game, but you can make the next Tetris, the next Everyday Shooter, the next Spelunky!, the next Narbacular Drop. Look at the IGF winners, particularly the Student Showcase winners. Look at the best games from Global Game Jam or other high-profile events like it. Don't make a massive, sprawling game; make a small, tight, focused game that does one thing and does it well.

Genres to stay away from: RPGs, Sims, "open world" games, and anything else that is extremely content-heavy. A student team just can't churn out as much content as a large team grinding for years, so even if you manage to make a working engine (which in itself is questionable), at most it'll feel like a short demo -- several years of your life for ten minutes of gameplay is not a good use of your time. The only exception is if you can distill the genre to its core: an RPG playable to completion in 5 minutes, a Sim with only one action, an "open world" game that takes place within a single screen with no scrolling, or some other ridiculously simplified variant.

Overreach is an entirely separate problem, although it's often true that both problems manifest on the same projects. Overreach sounds like this: "Yeah, I've never designed a game before... and I only know a little programming... but I have this Great Idea for a game, and I'm sure I can figure it out if it means seeing my idea come to life."

Why is this a problem? First, some basic facts about game development:
Designing games is really hard, especially for someone who hasn't done it before.
Game programming is really hard, even for someone who knows "normal" programming, and especially for someone who knows no programming at all.
Making good-quality game art and audio are really hard, especially for someone who hasn't done it before.
Making an original game is really hard, even if you have done it before.

Combine any two or more "really hard" tasks, and it becomes a pretty much impossible task. This is the mistake that an overreaching student makes: they are trying to run without having learned to walk or even crawl.

The cure for overreach is patience. If your Really Great Idea is worth making, learn how to make it before you try to actually make it. If you're learning programming, then just learn programming -- program something that is already designed (i.e. a "clone" of another game), and that already has art (you can either use placeholder images like colored squares that you threw together in Microsoft Paint, or you can use free tile sets available all over the place on the Web). If you're learning game design, just learn design -- make a board game or card game, and stay far away from any kind of programming task. And so on.

Once you've built the development skills, one at a time, you'll be ready to put them together to make an original game. But jump in too early, and you will likely never finish.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why I Love Social Media

I realize I haven't posted here in awhile, mostly because I've been kind of busy. But something that's occurred to me recently is how social media is becoming a really great thing for games education.

To be clear, most of my students are on Facebook so they can share drunken pictures of themselves with their friends (and then get chewed out by me for it when I point out that this is what their future employers are going to see). My students are generally not on Twitter, and don't see the point. In both cases, I think my students often miss the point, and lately I've taken to being more aggressive about promoting the upsides.

The teachers I talk to are split more evenly. Some are totally into social media, others have dabbled but haven't really taken the next step, and others haven't drunk the kool-aid yet.

Why Students Should Care About Facebook
  • Pretty much the entire game industry is on Facebook. If you want to get into the industry, you had better have a Facebook account. This is a great way to keep in touch with people you met at GDC or your local IGDA meeting or whatever. Guess what those industry people post on their Facebook status? If you said "job postings" give yourself a virtual ribbon. (You should probably have a LinkedIn account too, because everyone in the game industry has one of those too, but you can't play games on LinkedIn.)
  • Like it or not, Facebook is now a non-trivial part of the game industry. Zynga's annual revenue from FarmVille alone is greater than that of most AAA retail games. Social games are a new breed of game (at least on this scale), and students - especially those about to graduate - had better pay attention, because right now there's an increasingly good chance their first job will be working on one of those.
  • There's a lot to learn (good and bad) from the play patterns of social games, that can be applied to other kinds of game designs. In particular, the use of metrics to inform design and the ways that games use social cred as a game mechanic are things that can easily carry over into other multiplayer games, from board games to console or online PC games.
Why Students Should Care About Twitter
  • The entire game industry is also on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, you don't have to be a personal friend of David Jaffe to follow him.
  • Yes, a lot of tweets are things like what your favorite developer is having for lunch that day. Guess what: this is a great way to see game developer culture from the outside. Want to have some idea of what it's like to work with these people? Follow them and see what they sound like.
  • Every now and then you get to see some amazing back-and-forth conversations happening in real-time between some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.
  • Yes, people tweet job postings, too. Perhaps more frequently than they do in their Facebook status, even.
  • If you can't afford to go to a conference like GDC but you're interested in what's happening, follow the Twitter stream. Each individual tweet doesn't say that much, but in aggregate you can extract a lot of meaning and get all the major high points - it's the next best thing to being there.
  • Perhaps most importantly - and this is true for both Twitter and Facebook - their value is multiplied once you're actually in the industry. Right now with the social network I have, I don't use social media to swap drunken stories; I use it to swap valuable information. Just the other day, I asked about who had done research into the psychology of how people's estimates of odds/probability go horribly wrong (I wanted this info for a class I'm teaching) and got a bunch of great references. Later, someone I follow asked if there was such a thing as a game design notation, and I was able to point them to two examples. It's like trading money! (And anyone lucky enough to be following either conversation got the benefit of seeing all of the questions and responses in real time.)
Why Teachers Should Care About Facebook
  • It matters to students (see above). If your students are trying to break into the industry and this helps them, it should be relevant to you.
  • It's an interesting way to connect to your students outside of class, in a more casual/social setting.
  • It's a great way to keep your own connections with industry and other educators you know. (And former students who join the industry, who make some of the best connections of all.)
  • Facebook games provide great fodder for classroom analysis and discussion about game design. And if you happen to play these games on your own for fun, you'll never be lacking for neighbor requests / item gifts if you ask your students for them ;-)
  • You can create groups on Facebook, for free, and use these to supplement your classroom learning. Yes, a lot of schools have their own courseware like Blackboard, but that has the disadvantage that it's a separate, isolated place where students have to go. They go to Facebook anyway, so it's a lower barrier to entry if they can post pictures and status updates and then check on their classes as long as they're there.
Why Teachers Should Care About Twitter
  • As with Facebook, it's relevant to your students so it should be relevant to you.
  • If class happens to be scheduled during a big industry conference, keeping a live Twitter feed on the overhead projector is an interesting way to generate some spontaneous discussion (though it can be distracting).
  • It's a very immediate way to connect with your class. If you have a random thought from home at 10pm that you think would be relevant for your class, tweet about it and use a specific tag (like your course number) so your students can follow. You can also issue challenges to your students outside of class and have them retweet their responses... like, "change a rule of Tic-Tac-Toe to make it better, in 140 characters or less" and see what they make of it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Game Balance Concepts

So, for those of you who recall, I ran a free online class last summer. (If you missed it, all of the content is still there, and you can feel free to look through it at your own pace.)

Well, I'm doing it again this summer. Game Balance Concepts is a ten-week course that will go in depth in the topic of game balance.

Why do this again? Because I'm clearly insane. Also, I'm hoping to actually get paid for my time. But mostly, it's because game balance has always been an interest of mine, and it's the kind of niche class that I would never be able to teach (or even propose as a Special Topics course) as an adjunct. So, this is the best method I have of creating an experimental course with original content, just to see what happens.

At any rate, the class starts on July 5, so come and join me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Takeaways from GECS

I'm just getting caught up from attending GECS last week and meeting a bunch of other really awesome people. The focus of this workshop was using games to teach STEM courses; usually the crowd I hang around with is game developers who get into teaching, but here I saw more educators who were taking steps into games, so it was a bit of a different perspective. Here are the lessons I learned:

There is interest in games beyond "game development" schools and departments. Some traditional educators see games as a means to an end, a way to make their content more accessible. From their perspective, they couldn't care less whether it's games, or inquiry-based learning, or circus clowns, as long as it gets their critical course content to stick in their students' brains. This is certainly not always the case -- there are plenty of professors who delve into games because they are gamers -- but there are others who are unfamiliar with games but are still trying to use them because they want to be effective teachers. The game industry (especially those of us who teach) need to reach out more to other departments, rather than staying in our own comfort zones.

Games are not the only way to teach. While some "serious games" people like to tout games as some kind of panacea that makes all learning activities more fun and engaging, the best examples of so-called "games" that I saw were not taking advantage of the interactivity so much as non-game elements that are engaging. One example, by engineering professor Brianno Coller, illustrates this. He opens a course in Control Systems by presenting this racing-car game, where the car is controlled by some very simple source code. It starts out not doing anything; he tells it to move forward, and the car drives straight into the first wall. He then tries to get it to take a corner, by steering towards the center of the road (with the tightness of the turning proportional to how off-center the car is -- if you're at the side of the road, you swerve wildly, while a slight displacement only requires a slight correction). This seems intuitively like it would work... but when you run it in the simulation, something strange happens. The car takes the first turn, but then starts veering wildly out of control, vastly overcorrecting for its position, until it eventually gets so far out of line with the road that it crashes into a side. This leads into a discussion and exploration of why that happened, how to correct it through a phase shift, and all of the calculus and other heavy math that you need to derive it. He has found that this method of teaching is far superior to simply diving into the equations with no context.

Is Brianno's course superior because it uses games to teach? I don't think so. Instead, what he's doing is opening his lecture with a real-world mystery, something the students can see that is interesting and counterintuitive, and then he goes through the course material to solve it. Once he's got that "hook" the students are much more interested in learning the material, because it's not just a bunch of random facts and equations anymore... the learning has a purpose. And while that mystery may be presented within a game world, I don't think it's the game that gets student interest as much as the mystery itself.

A storm is coming, and it is going to suck. One concern I'm seeing from a number of people is that game industry growth is not keeping pace with the number of graduating students from game-related programs, and yet the number of academic programs is still increasing. As a result, I think the industry is going to get more and more competitive over time, and things are going to be pretty rough for students for awhile (until we find some kind of equilibrium). Corollary: it's likely that we will see more industry "abuse" of fresh students, in terms of expecting long hours and lower pay, since there is more labor supply than demand. Reputable schools should warn their current and prospective students about this trend. (Don't worry about dropping your enrollment numbers; in practice, you're not going to be able to talk most students out of choosing a game development major, anyway.)

Another storm is coming, and it is also going to suck. One by-product of the many industry layoffs this last year, is that a lot of ex-developers are considering teaching as a career, which is a great thing. However, to save costs, a lot of schools have been taking advantage of this by hiring more adjuncts and reducing their full-time staff. This is exceedingly dangerous on the part of the schools that do this, and here's why: the game industry is cyclical in nature. When the next upswing hits and the industry goes on a hiring binge again, schools can expect at least half of their adjuncts to leave. If a department that used to be 50/50 between full-timers and adjuncts goes down to 20/80, and then half of the adjuncts leave, the result would be devastating.

We think there are more academic standards than there actually are. How many schools has the average faculty taught at? I don't know, but the answer seems to be pretty low. And yet, a lot of people I talked to just assumed that their experience would extrapolate to every school in the country. One example is the assumption that adjuncts always get paid less than full-time faculty; I've run into some schools that pay them about the same per course (it's the same course, after all), and other schools that actually pay adjuncts more, on the theory that (a) they need to partly make up in cash what they don't pay in full-timer benefits, and (b) a lot of adjuncts have day jobs, so teaching is effectively "overtime" work for them, and they need the extra pay as incentive to put in the extra hours. Another assumption is that full-time faculty always teach a certain number of courses each term; I've seen requirements of anywhere from 5 courses per term down to one course per year, depending on the school, the department, and how much research the faculty is doing outside of their classes. Another assumption: everyone complains about how hard it is to work across departments because they are "silos" and yet I've seen some rare schools where inter-departmental collaboration is the norm. It seems to me that each school is different, and there are few if any standard practices that really apply everywhere. I was just a bit surprised at how many career faculty seemed unaware of this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Upcoming Events

Looking for something game-related for your students (or you) to get involved in? Here's what my calendar looks like for the next few months:

Health Games Challenge: this weekend (May 21-23)! A 48-hour game jam (i.e. build a game from scratch in a weekend) based on the Apps for Healthy Kids competition. We have seven sites: Boston MA, Seattle WA, Albany NY, Athens GA, Fairfax VA, Orlando FL, and Pittsburgh PA - site info is available on the event website. If you're not near a site, you can still participate from home; send an email to stating your intentions. I like game jams to begin with, as they provide a great experience in a short time; this one in particular is interesting because the end result might actually do some good in the world. (Full disclosure: I'm one of the organizers for this event.)

Games in Education and Computer Science: June 3-4. Registration is closed for this workshop, but if any of you happen to be going, I'll see you there. Participants will work together to identify problems and solutions in the space of using games in engineering / computer science education. Work groups will producer reports (similar to Project Horseshoe), so expect a post here, after the fact.

Game Education Summit: June 15-16. I attended this last year in Pittsburgh, and there is no better place to meet people who are interested in the intersection of games and education. This year it takes place in Los Angeles (a bit far for me to drive, so unfortunately I can't attend this time), but highly recommended if you're in the area and/or have a travel budget.

Origins: June 23-27. This consumer-focused game convention takes place in Columbus, Ohio and is the third largest such event in the world (after Gen Con and Essen Spiel). Teachers get in free as usual (you need to show some kind of academic credentials). While there are some education-focused sessions, mostly it's about immersing yourself in playing all manner of non-digital games. This makes it more useful for game designers than, say, programmers or game audio folks.

Protospiel: July 9-11. I went to this last year and it was the most amazing experience I've ever had as a game designer. It is essentially a small gathering of non-digital game designers who spend a weekend playtesting each other's games. These are people who understand games, design, and playtesting, so it is about the best kind of feedback you can possibly get. Potentially instructive for students who want to see what real playtesting is like. The down side is that it's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so it may not be in your area. If you are in the Austin, Texas area, there's also the inaugural Protospiel South coming up soon (May 28-30).

Overall, it's looking to be a busy and eventful Summer!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Adjunct versus Full-time

In the game industry, there is a big difference between working for a single company full-time and being a freelancer. In education, we use the term "adjunct" instead of "freelance" but they are essentially the same thing. There are benefits and drawbacks to each.

Benefits of Freelancing/Adjuncting
  • You can make your schedule as light or heavy as you want, with a proportional increase or decrease in pay. Since you're paid by the hour (or by the project, or by the class), "unpaid overtime" is not in your vocabulary. And if you've got the extra cash to hold you over and you feel like taking a month-long vacation between projects, no one's going to complain.
  • For industry freelancing, you typically make more money per hour than you would if you were salaried. Stupidly, the reverse seems to be true for adjuncts at many schools, but this will vary from school to school.
  • You are, essentially, your own boss.
  • Everything listed above has a flip side.
  • You only get to "set your own schedule" if you successfully drum up business. Sometimes your services just don't seem to be needed by anyone, and if you don't have a nice fat cash reserve, you starve. Other times it seems like everyone wants you to do something, and you have to turn down work because you just don't have the time. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine world.
  • You'll also find that psychologically, it is really hard to turn down work when someone is offering you cash. Even if it puts you in "crunch" mode to get everything done. Even if the project is a boring, soul-sucking grind. Saying "no" is a skill that most of us need to learn, and we learn the hard way.
  • You know about that "make more money per hour as a freelancer" thing? There's a reason for that. First, it's to compensate for the times when you don't have any work. Second, you don't get benefits -- no 401(k), no health or dental plan, no free games and snacks in the break room -- unless you pay for them yourself. So even though you get more money per hour of your time, overall you usually end up making less money per year than you would at a full-time job. (Naturally, this is even worse as an adjunct at schools where you get paid less per class than full-timers.)
  • You basically must have a fair amount of experience working full-time at a game company. For industry freelancing, you need a proven track record, but more importantly you need the personal contacts that come with the territory -- who do you think is going to hire you? For adjunct teaching, the whole reason to hire you instead of having a full-timer teach the class is that you've got field experience. So, freelancing is not an option that's open to you fresh out of college; it's a door that opens up slowly as you gain experience, and the more experience you have the easier it is. (If you've got 10 years experience like me, you get most of your business through a few key contacts. If you've got 30 years experience like some people, all you need is to Tweet saying "I'm looking for contract work, any takers?" and you get a dozen offers in five minutes.)
  • There are a lot of little hassles that are fairly trivial on their own, but collectively make your life a little more annoying. You have to bill clients and wait for them to pay you, rather than just having ADP send you a direct deposit automatically. Your taxes are more complicated because you receive a dozen 1099s instead of a single W-2. You have to keep separate folders for the multiple projects you're working on, and double-check every email to make sure you're not sending proprietary Company A information to the guy at Company B by mistake. You have to do some research on health insurance, rather than just checking a box next to Self, Spouse or Family on the HR booklet.
  • Yes, you're your own boss. As your own boss, you're a slave driver.
You can, of course, get the best of both worlds by having a day job and then moonlighting. Assuming your day job doesn't have you working so many hours that you wouldn't have the time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Good and Evil of Internships

Internships are typically short-term jobs targeted at students. In theory, the company gets the benefit of a "try-before-you-buy" way to evaluate potential junior-level hires before they graduate: that is, hiring a new person is much less risky if you've already worked with them before (assuming you actually liked their work, of course). In exchange, the student gets that all-important industry experience that gives an edge when they seek full-time jobs after graduation. Oh, and the company gets cheap labor. And the student gets to work on an awesome project like a game they'd like to play, which is like the bestest summer job ever.

In theory.

In practice, there are pitfalls on both sides.

From a company's perspective, interns aren't as cheap as you'd think. What you aren't paying them in wages, you're paying for in time: your average intern needs a bit more hand-holding (or as we call it, "management") than your average full-time employee, which means they are sucking time away from your more productive full-timers. If a $7/hour intern takes up an hour a day of your $80/hour programmer's time... well, you can do the math, but it's a bit more than it looks like on paper. And what do you get in exchange? Game companies don't typically want cheap employees, they want productive employees, and someone who (by definition) has no practical experience is not necessarily going to be that productive. Yet.

From a student's perspective, it's not all sunshine and roses either. Yes, you're working "at a game company" but what are you actually doing there? You are probably not working on anything mission-critical. Maybe you're doing QA, where you at least can't do any real damage if you suck at your job, but if your end goal is to be (say) a level designer then you're not really learning much about how to, you know, design levels. Maybe you're given menial tasks like taking notes in meetings, making copies, and picking up food deliveries. Or maybe you're given a real, honest-to-goodness game development task in your preferred field, and at that point you should be wondering why the company is getting away with paying you so much less than the other people who are doing the same work in the cubicles next to you.

This subject has come up a bit lately because of the somewhat common game industry practice of unpaid internships. There are some problems here:
  • In some cases, they are actually illegal. The criteria vary from place to place, so companies doing this would do well to consult a lawyer.
  • Even if it is technically legal in one particular case, there is the potential for others to see the practice as exploitative.
Is it actually exploitative? In my experience, no. The studios I've seen that offer them tend to be very up front about the fact to any potential interns. For exceptional interns, the companies do usually pay them (as long as they don't go parading it about the other interns). Because they are getting free/cheap labor, they're willing to work around the intern's schedule -- it's not a 40-hour work week so much as "show up whenever you want, choose your own hours". It's hard for me to call this exploitative, certainly not on the order of third-world child labor sweatshops or anything.

This is particularly relevant for schools that have game dev programs, as most of them encourage their students to get internships, some schools actually require that students have a documented internship for graduation, and others offer course credit for internships (paid or not). In particular, this means schools need to:
  • Do some due diligence. Be aware of the labor laws in your area. I don't know if a school could get in legal trouble for deliberately steering its students towards illegal work, but I wouldn't want to chance it.
  • Keep up with local companies. Know which ones offer internships. If any of them offer internships that are technically illegal, it would be a great opportunity to gently notify them of this fact (for their benefit, so they can protect themselves -- it's probably just a matter of the studio not being aware).
  • Educate your Career Center, professors and students. For students especially, make sure they understand the issues at stake as they choose a place to work at.
Educators can certainly be part of the process of making sure this all happens.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Design Tech Tree, version 0.1 (beta)

I put this together today and thought I'd share. I've attempted to list every major skill or task that falls under the broad field of "game design." I then tried to create a kind of progression, based on which skills are desired prerequisites before learning or performing others.

This is very much a work in progress (I haven't even added any icons yet), so your comments are welcome. Click on the image for a large version.

Since this is mostly a graphical version of notes to myself, some explanations might be required. I'm not sure how much is obvious to the casual observer, however, so rather than write a lengthy essay explaining every last detail, I'll simply answer any questions you have in the comments here. Enjoy!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stop saying "They Don't Teach You This In School"!

Twice in the past week I've run into a person that said as part of their presentation, something like "this is the stuff they don't teach you in school." In both cases, this was part of a presentation given at a school. Does anyone else see the irony here?

Okay, in some cases a person is saying this and they're not at a school. But you know what? If that person is saying anything that's really useful, before too long educators are going to notice, and we'll incorporate it into our curricula, and now it will be something taught in school. The very pronouncement that something "isn't taught in school" is self-defeating.

If it were just a matter of technical details, I'd leave it at that, but there is something more insidious going on here. When someone makes this kind of statement, the implication is that there are important things you don't learn in a traditional classroom setting. This may be true, but why? The primary reason is that you get out of your education what you put in, and that some things only come with experience, so students should stop waiting for their professors to spoon-feed them everything they need, and go out there and make learning a passion, and learn this stuff on their own.

However, all too often I think students take away an entirely different message: school is useless, your teachers are lying to you, the only real thing that matters is getting a "piece of paper," feel free to ignore all of your course content, what it takes to succeed is not hard work but rather knowing a few key "secrets" that take no effort. This attitude is incredibly damaging, especially to professors like me who are bringing their own real-world experience into the classroom setting and actually teaching the things that students aren't supposed to learn "in school."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Game Jams in the Classroom

Just talked at GDC yesterday for a whole five minutes, on applying Global Game Jam in the classroom in five non-obvious ways (you know, other than "get students to participate"). I think I was talking too fast for anyone to actually take notes, so here is the gist:

1. Have students read post-mortems and do a cumulative analysis.

The "post-mortem" is a tradition in the game industry: after a project is released, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong in the process (or as I put it: "figuring out why your game sucked as badly as it did"). You can find these on Gamasutra and in Game Developer magazine, and you can even see student post-mortems on Game Career Guide. And to start with, reading these is valuable for students so that they can see the patterns and get a feel for the most common pitfalls and dangers of game development.

Beyond this, though, it's instructive to have students search for Game Jam post-mortems (these are unofficial and tend to be on individual participants' blogs, so you have to do some digging to find them). The interesting thing is that a lot of themes in industry post-mortems on 5-year AAA projects also appear in Game Jam post-mortems (scope control, pipeline problems, engine difficulties, team communication, etc.). So a lot of the same lessons apply on how to develop a game, whether the game takes 2 days or 10 years.

2. Game Analysis

I teach a class called "Game Criticism and Analysis" (sort of like art criticism or film criticism, but with games). The goal is to be able to play games and analyze them in a way that's a little more sophisticated than "it's good" or "it sucks."

Normally, analyzing a full game is really hard in a class, because many games are very long to play ("80+ hours of gameplay!" is a common marketing tactic), and even shorter games are still 8 to 10 hours, which is hard to justify if you want students to analyze a new game each week.

Game jam games offer a solution. Because they are made in a short period of time, they tend to play quickly and have relatively simple systems, lending them to play in class or as homework without taking too much time.

3. Minimum bar for student projects

For "capstone" and other project-based courses where students work individually or on teams to make complete games over an academic term (or several), game jam games provide a realistic, achievable yardstick to measure project quality. I mean, these games were made in 2 days, so your students should be able to do at least as well with 15 weeks.

The best, most clever Game Jam games can be used as a source of inspiration for students, that they should be able to do better with so much more time. They can be used as a grading rubric, letting students know the quality level you expect (and informing the teacher about this as well).

4. Achievements

We tried some new things at Global Game Jam this year, among them Xbox-Live style "Achievements": totally optional extra challenges to allow experienced developers to really push their boundaries. It allowed people to seek their own level of challenge and comfort.

I see no reason similar things can't be implemented in most class assignments. (We already offer "extra credit" but "Achievement Unlocked" sounds so much more fun.) You can offer extra points, or you can simply make it available for the purpose of bragging rights.

5. Fix a broken game

As you might imagine, with only 48 hours, some games don't actually work. Maybe the team overscoped and had to make drastic cuts at the end. Or maybe the programmer stayed up a little too late and wrote some terribly insane code at 3am and now the entire thing is a mess. The whole project team would like nothing better than to sweep the whole thing under the rug and pretend it never happened (and hopefully take away some life lessons about how to not make games).

Additionally, there is often a disconnect between classes (where students typically start with a blank slate and write a complete, simple program from scratch) and industry (where you are almost always working with someone else's pre-written code, not even counting the use of game engines).

Luckily, one of the rules for Global Game Jam is that everyone (in theory at least) has to submit their complete game (including source code)... working or not. This suggests an interesting assignment: find a game that has the source code posted that doesn't actually run, and assign a programming team to fix it, while staying as close as possible to the original design intent.

Your students will hate you. They will complain that the people writing this code were horrible programmers. They will complain that the code is a mess, and that they just want to rewrite it all from scratch. They will probably use a lot more profanity than you are used to hearing from them. In other words... they will start to sound a lot more like professional game programmers :-)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Games at Conferences

As I'm going to GDC next week, it occurs to me that one of the things I'm known for in my small circle of colleagues is that I'm the guy who brings the board games. Video game developers generally like to play board games, and I happen to have a sizeable collection, so this is a win-win.

Playing games at conferences is different from playing them at, say, a local game club. The social dynamics, physical setting, and time availability are constraints on the kinds of games that people are most likely to enjoy. Let us take GDC as an example. Here are some considerations:
  • I'm flying in, so I have limited space in my baggage (especially if I want to leave any room to take back some swag). This favors games that are small and portable -- card games, but even some board games that come in big boxes if I can remove the bits from the box, put them in plastic bags, and have them take up a lot less space.
  • Most venues are noisy, so it's better if games are either well-known (I don't have to explain the rules) or simple (I can explain the rules quickly without blowing out my voice). This also unfortunately reduces the value of games where players have to speak a lot (e.g. those games that focus on trading, diplomacy, or negotiation mechanics).
  • GDC is crowded, and every ten seconds one of the people at the table is going to turn around, see an old friend, and have to go off and say 'hi'. Games that are short (like, five minutes or less) are good here, as are those rare games that allow free entry and exit of players without screwing up everyone else. Ironically, games that have lots of player downtime can work well here: it lets players socialize with non-players when it's not their turn.
  • Table space is plentiful at the conference, but not so much at parties. Some board games that use a lot of space are fine at breakfast, but I also need to bring a few games that are a little more compact for the nightlife. (Also, most nighttime activities involve drinks... so waterproof games are a plus, as are games that can be played competently while drunk!)
  • Number of players is a consideration. Games that only support 2 or 4 players, or those that work best with a specific number, are not as good as those with wide ranges (2 to 8 players). You never know exactly how many people you'll have.
  • Avoid games with play times more than 30 or 45 minutes. Someone will inevitably have to go to a session, or get called away on business.
  • Games that have some kind of visual "wow" factor are nice, because they act as an attention-grabber for anyone walking past. This gives everyone at the table the opportunity to network, if only by answering the question "oh, what is that game?" over and over (hey, any excuse to get a business card). Note that board games with all the bits crammed into a plastic bag aren't so appealing at the table; this year I'll experiment with printing out a sheet with the game box artwork to stick in the bag, to make it look nicer.
  • Know the audience. Three games in particular seem to be loved by a disproportionate number of game developers I know: Family Business (which I never have to bring because someone else inevitably does), Pandemic (everyone seems to love it but no one owns it, making it an obvious choice for me to cart along), and Dominion (sadly disqualified because it doesn't travel well, though I may attempt to stuff the basic set into an old box I used to use for Magic cards).
  • Game developers (particularly designers) have discriminating tastes, so I try to bring games that showcase some kind of unique mechanic. If I can introduce other designers to new mechanics, this buys me street cred :-)
Given all of this, what games will I bring this year? I won't know for sure until I pack, but here are some likely candidates:
  • Incan Gold. Supports 3-8 players, has a small game box, the rules are ridiculously simple but still engaging. Plays in five rounds, with each round taking only a couple minutes, and players can theoretically leave in between rounds without screwing up the other players.
  • Pandemic. With the expansion, supports 2-5 players. Plays in about 45 minutes, pushing the upper limit for a game at breakfast, but this game sets the gold standard for pure-coop play in a board game... something that is notoriously hard to do.
  • Hey! That's My Fish!. Serves 2-4. Small box. The rules can be explained in less than a minute, and play lasts for about five minutes. Delightful experience in such a short time, and it has these ridiculously cute penguin pieces.
  • Notre Dame. For 3-5 players, takes about 45 minutes, and is about as complex and strategic as I dare to bring. That said, it has some absolutely brilliant mechanics, and is obscure enough that a lot of people still haven't played it yet. The box it comes in is large, but it's mostly empty space, so it collapses nicely.
  • Brawl. This real-time card game takes about a minute to explain and another minute to play. Theoretically supports multiplayer, but works best with 2. That said, the games are so fast that this makes a good filler if you happen to only have one other person and you're both waiting for some other people to show up. Comes as a set of small decks of cards, so it's very portable.
  • Rock!. Another real-time card game, also works with 2 (although I learned a nifty 3-player and 4-player variant from the publisher last summer). In an elegant way, demonstrates an important design principle: time pressure makes you stupid. It's just a single deck of cards, and even comes in a metal tin to protect the cards.
Other conferences have different criteria. GDX, for example, is a more relaxed atmosphere where you can actually congregate for a few hours at a time. So the games I bring there is different.