Friday, July 28, 2006

Topic for Discussion: Learning vs. Gaming

At the wonderful design/art/business blog Lost Garden, there's an interesting post about how learning in the context of games is fun. It alludes to the earlier work by Raph Koster.

The comments, however, have moved to a discussion on why school is largely considered Not Fun, if learning is supposedly the Ultimate Source Of Fun.

I still can't help but feel that something is wrong with the theory. If learning is fun, then classes(especially college with its more freeform attitude towards learning) should be fun in spite of the educational system. Teachers shouldn't have to work hard to engage their classes, they should have to go to great lengths not to engage them. But clearly that's not the case, which implies that only certain types of learning are fun.

Which types? Does learning have different "types" in the same way that there are different kinds of fun? Are certain types of learning more fun than others?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Game Design Curriculum: Fine Arts

Now we cover the really creative stuff. How much art do you need to be a designer?

Intro to Art or Intro to Architecture. Two reasons for this. First, some aspects of game design are pretty artistic, so understanding the basis of art can give you some perspective (or architecture, since designers are effectively architects: instead of creating blueprints and plans for building a structure, they create blueprints and plans for building a game). Second, you’ll be working with artists, and being able to understand some small part of what they do will help you communicate better with them.
Computer Art. Take a course that requires you to use the tools that artists need to use on the job (currently this would be either 3DSMax, Maya, or Photoshop). Again, this lets you communicate better with artists on your team, and lets you express your ideas more visually.
Improvisational Acting. You learn three things in this class, all useful skills to have as a designer: creativity; thinking fast; and making the other people on your team look good.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Topic for Discussion: "Pacing" of a class

In comments to a previous post, Patrick Dugan mentions a "progressive curve of increasing [grades] as the semester progresses".

This reminded me of something I've been ruminating on for awhile. If you have a class with regular assignments throughout, what's the best way to weight the assignments with respect to time?

Most of the classes I've taken as a student follow a roughly constant curve; each homework is about as heavily weighted as any other, with occasional (seemingly random) spikes for large assignments, plus of course a heavier weighting on the mid-term and final.

On the other hand, most games I've played (especially boardgames) follow an increasing curve; early victories or setbacks are small, later ones are more important. This is great for games, because it keeps players interested to the very end. Also, players will know that even if they start out poorly, they can come from behind to win if they do particularly well in the endgame, so no one loses hope. Would this progression be worthwhile in a (game-like) classroom?

  • Students given incentive to try harder in the last half of the course rather than drop.
  • Early assignments are safe experiences, where students can learn my grading style without huge risk.


  • If every class did this, students would have too little work to do early in the semester, and be overloaded as finals approach.
  • Puts too much emphasis on the last half of the course, so may only be suitable for classes that build on earlier topics, rather than "survey" classes that cover a variety of unrelated material.

So, what's your opinion? Constant weighting, or progressive increasing? Or is there some other method that might work even better that I haven't considered?


Since I appear to have some frequent readers now, just a note that I plan to be updating this blog once every two to four days, as I have been so far.

So, if you stop by every day, that's great, but I don't want you to be disappointed. Dropping in once or twice a week should be plenty.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Game Design Curriculum: English

By now you might be wondering if game design is a purely technical field. No, I promise, there are plenty of arts (fine and otherwise) in the field.

Writing. Designers write. A lot. If you can’t stand writing, seriously, you might consider entering the industry through a different field. Anyone who writes a lot needs to start with a foundational course in college-level writing.
Creative Writing. Designers are the ones who write the text that goes in the game: backstory, storyline, character dialogue, and related stuff. Designers are also asked to write formal game proposals, which involve a bit of creative writing.
Technical Writing. Designers write two types of documents, primarily, that are technical in nature (that is, their purpose is to convey information rather than to entertain). These are the design document, and the game manual. If you ever wondered why no one reads the manual, it's because most manuals are not written very well, because the writer did not have a solid grounding in technical writing.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Topic for Discussion: Grading Methods

I'd like my classes to feel distinctly game-like, so it's only suitable that the grades themselves are game-like. So far I've considered two ideas, and I'm trying to decide between them.

Method 1: Dance Dance Revolution scoring.
The class is out of a maximum of 1,000,000 points. A typical assignment might be 100,000 or so. Giving out awards of a few thousand here or there for class participation is easy, and it's more points than they'd get in all their other classes combined.

Method 2: Zelda scoring.
You start with a full health meter of 100 hearts. When you lose points on an assignment, your grade "takes damage". Extra credit provides "healing". You can keep track of your own grade on a life meter provided on the syllabus.

Zelda scoring is more realistic in that students always know exactly what their maximum possible grade is, and overall where they stand. But it can also be more demoralizing and intimidating since you're always losing points instead of gaining them, and it sets up an adversarial culture between me and my students since I'm dealing damage with every assignment.

Do you have a favorite? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Game Design Curriculum: Science

As with math, the creative field of game design doesn't intuitively seem to require a strong scientific background. But if we've already established that math is useful, science shouldn't be too much of a stretch from there.

Physics I. As I mentioned when I was there, any game that uses physics (and there are many of them) requires knowledge of kinematics. Taking the rest of the sequence (heat, fluids, electromagnetism) is not necessary, as those aren’t used in games nearly as much.
Biology I and Chemistry I. Some aspects of game design are scientific in nature (consider that an advanced prototype that asks the question “is this particular mechanic fun?” is essentially a scientific experiment), so a basic understanding of the scientific method is useful. A good basic Biology and Chemistry class will teach you about the basis and methods of science. A bad class will just make you memorize a bunch of stuff and not tell you why it’s useful at all, but at least it gives you the opportunity to meet some Bio/Chem majors who can explain it to you if you ask. Your best bet is probably an intro course for non-majors, if one is offered at your school.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Game Design Curriculum: Math

When I mention math to most college students who are interested in design, it comes as a surprise to them. Game design is a creative field, and creativity and math go together about as well as, um, chocolate and broccoli. Right?

Except that any time you hear the words "game balance" (as in, "this game isn't balanced" or "I need to tweak the balance of this level") you're really talking about math. Game balance means that the game is neither too difficult nor too easy, and while it can be done by trial and error, it goes much faster if the designer can put together some good mathematical models. Game balance is the designer's job, so a good designer needs to know at least enough math for that.

Two examples should suffice. In Civilization, each unit has its own cost, strength, defense, speed and several other numerical stats. If those numbers are out of whack, then players will find one particular unit type (or strategy) to be better than any other, and the game will quickly become boring. Similarly, in Final Fantasy (or any RPG of your choice), there's typically a huge database of numbers: monster stats, player stats, level progression charts, combat formulas and so on. Those are all math, and they all need to be designed.

So, what math does a designer need? I've found the following courses helpful:

Calculus. Calculus teaches you the math to describe and analyze how fast something is changing. It is therefore necessary if you’re trying to describe a variable in a game that changes over time. If you’ve ever heard talk of game “pacing” or the “difficulty curve” of a game, that’s calculus. Also, the entire field of Physics is based on calculus, so taking Calc will help greatly in your understanding of Physics (I'll talk more about Physics, and science in general, in a later post).
Linear Algebra. This gives you the tools to solve systems of equations using matrices, which is useful when you have several variables or stats in your game that you need to relate to each other. It’s also useful for solving certain types of game-balance problems, like Rock-Paper-Scissors-like ("intransitive") game mechanics. It’s also used in computer graphics for rotation and scaling, which you might encounter at some point.
Intro to Probability. The field of Probability was created to study games (gambling games in particular), so this shouldn't be much of a surprise. Any game with randomness requires probability to describe the exact nature of that randomness. Rating systems (or any other form of player ranking) also require probability, to show if they’re fair or not.
Intro to Game Theory. Sadly, “Game Theory” has very little to do with game design; it’s a branch of mathematics that deals with particular kinds of probability questions (particularly those that involve multiple players making simultaneous choices). If you’ve ever heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that’s game theory. It’s useful when designing certain types of multiplayer dynamics, especially in boardgames or strategic computer games.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Game Design Curriculum: Where We Are Now

To my knowledge, there are two previous attempts by the game industry to come up with a curriculum. I do promise to start writing about my own ideas soon, but first I'd like to comment on what has come before.

Tom Sloper doesn't exactly give a curriculum, but does give a list of courses he feels are necessary for a game designer to take. While I agree with Mr. Sloper on many points, this is not one of them. Realistically, there is no way an undergraduate can take all those courses and still major in anything, while still graduating in four (or even five) years. It's just too much. Also, he doesn't give the reasoning behind why those courses are supposedly important; from the list, I suspect he was considering the skills needed to design popular games. You can't design Civilization without having a strong background in history, so sure, all game designers should study history. But... what if you're working on Guitar Hero? Now those history courses don't seem so useful.

The field of game design is already broad enough that we're specializing: very few people are good at story design and level design and core systems design and technical design, even without expecting that every designer is somehow equally skilled to work on an FPS and a Tycoon Sim and a historical turn-based strategy game.

The other group working on building a curriculum is the IGDA, and they've put quite a bit of effort into their curriculum framework. This document has the lofty ambition of defining fields of study for all disciplines in game development, not just game design. As such, it is necessarily more high-level and abstract than I'm looking for here. Also, for game design it focuses on design-specific topics (core systems, emergent complexity, feedback loops, risk/reward cycles and so on) but doesn't draw any associations with existing courses in other departments. It doesn't say how much math a game designer should be taking, or how many courses in psychology or philosophy or history or what not, nor what kinds. The curriculum framework is an excellent starting place when thinking of how one would go about teaching a course with the words "Game Design" in the title, but it does not define a full liberal arts curriculum as I wish to do.

Some universities are trying to build entire game design departments with large heapings of course offerings. But if you're at a university that doesn't have a dozen game design faculty, what do you do? In the next post, I will start answering that question.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Game Design Curriculum

Suppose you were just entering college, and you already knew that you wanted to be a game designer some day. That's your career goal. In lieu of a game design major, what courses should you take?

Or, suppose you're a faculty member at a university, charged with designing a curriculum for a game design major. What courses should be included?

Hopefully the answers to these two questions are the same.

Unfortunately, the industry does not have any solid answers, yet. Part of the problem is that it's exceedingly rare for anyone to get a game design job fresh out of college. Also, game design is so interdisciplinary that it's hard to find a department that it naturally fits in.

So why bother coming up with a curriculum at all? Because there is demand for one from students, and from the game industry. Also, schools need consistency: if they graduate a student with a Bachelor's in Game Design, they need the industry to know what skills that student is expected to have.

Over the rest of the summer, I will write a series of articles on what I would hope to see in an undergraduate game design major. I will start by covering the work that has already been done and where I see room for improvement, and then I will give my own vision of what courses I've personally found useful -- and why.

EDIT: I'm adding a table of contents in this post, so that there is a central place linking everything together.
Where We Are Now
Fine Arts
Computer Science
Other Stuff
Elective Minors
Classes about Game Design

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Purpose of this Blog

There are precious few resources on the Web for professional game designers. There are even fewer resources for students who want to become game designers some day. There are no resources at all, as far as I could tell, for those who wish to teach game design in a classroom. So, I'm creating one.

This blog will live at the convergence of game design, instructional design and academia. I am writing for you if you are a:
  • Game industry professional who is curious about what it would be like to teach
  • Game design student who wants to see what goes on behind the scenes of your classes
  • Teacher or Professor who is teaching game design, or is curious about how to apply game design skills to improve your classee in an entirely different field

As long as I'm talking about what this blog is, I should also mention what it isn't:

It is not about game studies. Game studies is a wonderful field dedicated to studying the relationship between games and culture, which I am not a part of. I deal with game design: the art and science of making games that are fun.

It is not about getting a job in the game industry. There are already many great sites that talk about "breaking in". I'm a teacher, not an agent.

And for anyone taking my courses, it is not about sucking up for a better grade. :-)

If you're still interested, sit back and make yourself at home. Maybe we can learn something together.