Friday, September 29, 2006

Looking for more "Making Of..." videos

I've noticed a wonderful trend in AAA (big-budget) games lately: many of them include DVD-style bonus content as unlockables. This includes reference art, developer interviews, and other behind-the-scenes stuff that really gives some insight into the game development process.

These things are great for the classroom. All of the stuff I'm teaching about the theory of how games are made, is reinforced by live developers that made a really sweet game. Some of these developers are important enough that a student should know what they look like in case they meet them at GDC or something.

So far I've found three games in my personal collection with this kind of bonus content:
God of War
Sid Meier's Pirates! (Xbox version)
Guitar Hero

Unfortunately, in all three games, I actually had to play for a bit to unlock these things. But that's the kind of selfless sacrifice I'm willing to make for my students :-)

Have you encountered any other games lately that feature this kind of material? Please let me know!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Teaching How to Write is Hard

Timely as ever, Darius mentions the importance of not referring to "the user" or "the player" in design documentation.

I tell my class to avoid "the user" because it makes it sound like you're writing a piece of software, not a game. Software has users; games have players.

I also tell my class to avoid "the player" even though it's marginally better than "the user." Referring to "the player" depersonalizes the experience and destroys empathy. Darius also pointed out another reason: not all players are identical.

The easy way to do better is to write in the second person: "you press the X button" rather than "the player presses the X button". This builds reader empathy.

The harder way is to create fictional characters, give them names, and tell stories about them. "Confident from his years of experience with Street Fighter 2, Joe mashes the X button into submission." Human brains inherently grok stories, far better than bulleted lists or technical descriptions.

And in spite of all this, half of the design docs I get back in a homework still speak of "the player". The tendency is apparently a tough habit to break. (I remember I had similar problems learning to avoid using passive voice.) But I have to wonder why. Why is it so natural to write in a style that's so unnatural to read? And what can I do, if anything, to really drive the point home... so that students get it right the first time?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teaching: Grading Homework

Now I understand why so many homeworks I had to do as a student involved right answers: specific numbers, computer programs that either ran or didn't run on test data, multiple choice. It's because it's much easier to grade; in some cases it can even be automated with those ScanTron things.

Even the essays I had to write were typically on a given subject, and everyone in the class was writing a different variation of the same essay. These are harder to grade since you actually have to read them, but it's still relatively easy because you know the kinds of things you're looking for.

Well, I made the mistake of starting my first assignments with "choose any game"... so everyone's assignment is going to have different content. I also didn't specify an exact format, so some people write paragraphs while others give bullet points (and both are equally valid). So for each student I first have to look at the game on Mobygames and Wikipedia and IGN/Gamespy/Gamespot to understand their game, then look through their description and see if it's reasonable. With 30 assignments total between my two classes, that's a bit of work.

Next time I give these classes it will be easier. I won't need to prepare each lecture in advance (I can re-use most of the content that I'm creating now) so I'll have extra time for grading. I'll also give an example of what I'm looking for so that students have a format they can follow.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Culture Shock: Strunk & White are Dead

As a game designer, your top priority is clear communication with the rest of the development team. A good design doc is concise, easy to read, and uses all sorts of tricks to get others to read and understand it. The Elements of Style is the Bible.

Go up a bit on the corporate ladder and everyone's got a PhD in English Literature. You never "use" anything, you always "utilize". You don't "work together" with other people, you "synergize". Things that could be said in one simple sentence stretch on for paragraphs, because in the business world it's more about impressing or intimidating the other party than communicating with them.

In academia, where the whole reason for you to exist is to transfer knowledge and ideas, you'd think people would emphasize clarity. But listening to people speak and reading what they write, it sounds a lot more like business than game development. What's the point of sounding educated, if it comes at the cost of being understood?

Me, I'll take points off of a student's paper if it sounds like it was trying too hard to impress me with vocabulary. If I don't enjoy reading it, then something went horribly wrong...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Teaching: How to deal with procrastination?

I remember being a student, and going to great lengths to rationalize why I should start my assignment tomorrow. Can't do it right now, I need a solid five-hour block of time and my gaming group starts in three hours. Don't start it early, there's always problems in how the assignment is stated, let some other sucker run into the traps and force the professor to issue errata, and then I won't have to waste my time running into one brick wall after another. I remember how it was.

Of course, life in the game industry is totally different. You don't put off critical tasks, because at best it puts the entire project behind, and at worst it gets you fired. Also you're working on a game that you (hopefully) care about, and any lost time now means one more cool feature that won't be in the game. It's been long enough that I actually forgot that there are people out there that don't start working on a task as soon as it's assigned...

So, I encourage my students to start early on their projects because it will give them time to iterate properly. My professors told me the same thing when I was in college, and I learned to ignore them. Naturally it's come back to haunt me, and now I get emails at 11:45pm on Sunday asking basic questions about the homework that's due Monday in class.

Is there any way I can say this and still be taken seriously? I really am completely serious about this, and it's a necessary skill to survive in the game industry. But every time I talk about the importance of starting early, I can almost hear my 10-years-younger self in class saying back to me, "yeah, right".

Monday, September 18, 2006

Teaching: Design Exercises

I've had a lot of success at Hi-Score with running game design workshops. The basic formula is always the same: I create some initial constraints, and then let the participants loose. The constraints make the creative process easier, because the designers are forced to start off asking themselves questions, and asking questions about your game is a great way to narrow down what it is that you're actually going to build.

One of the easiest kinds of constraints to make is a thematic constraint. Your game can be anything, any style, but it must be about frogs. Or rain. Or paint. Or whatever. CMU ETC's experimental gameplay project did this.

In my game development class, the project I just handed out today asks the students to make a game on the theme of Light and Dark. Including two opposing themes joined by the word "and" does a subtle, interesting thing: it forces designers to ask, how do the two themes relate within the game? Are they opponents (Light versus Dark, e.g. Archon)? Are they collaborative (Player wields the forces of Light and Dark together)? Are they orthogonal (There is a Light World and a Dark World and the player must navigate between them, e.g. Zelda: Link to the Past)? You will get radically different games based on how the relationship is interpreted.

I expect you could have similarly interesting results with any two opposing forces. Design a game about Nature and Technology. Or Land and Water. Or Cheese and Chocolate. Anything to force the designer to start asking a question about the theme itself.

By sheer coincidence, my colleague Darius recently blogged about another way to present a constraint for a game design exercise: take a controversial, famous quotation and make a game to demonstrate the idea (or disprove it, I suppose). Could be a great design exercise for a serious game developer. I think this is also a great method because it forces the designer to ask two questions: (1) do I agree or disagree with this quote, and (2) how can I express my opinion through gameplay?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Teaching: Fun in Class

What makes classes fun?

Oops, sorry. I forgot, classes aren't supposed to be "fun," they're supposed to be "engaging." Okay, what makes classes engaging?

Things I've noticed that get students' attention:
  • Interactivity. If I'm constantly asking questions and not just lecturing, everyone is paying attention. Students are more interested in listening to what their classmates are saying, than to what I'm saying :-). The questions don't even have to be 100% relevant, as long as they have some small relation to the topic (or they act as a segue into the next topic).
  • When I absolutely must transfer information without interactivity, students pay more attention if I'm animated and excited about what I'm talking about. It must be a quirk of human psychology: if someone is really interested in something, then you're more likely to be interested too, because there must be a reason why the other person is interested.
  • Playing games in class. I'm lucky to work in a department where every classroom has a really nice projector, where I can hook up a console and play it on the big screen. Even with the lights turned off (which always put me to sleep as a student -- I need light) everyone is watching the screen. I always give the controller to a student; playing distracts me and makes it difficult for me to point out what's going on in the game. Besides, there's never a shortage of volunteers.

I think it's vital for students to be engaged in any class with the word "game" in the title. It's an expectation, the same way that students taking a comedy class would expect to laugh a few times each class period.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Game Design Curriculum: Game Design Classes

Wrapping up my series on the game design curriculum, I wanted to suggest some game design classes. You can't have a game design major without some classes that focus on game design, right?
(I realize these are not practical for students who may have no control over their university's curriculum. That's why I saved this section for last.)

Since these courses aren't standardized anywhere, I'm making up the names as I go.

Game Industry Survey. Game design students, especially, need some kind of survey class that talks about the important people, companies and games that every developer (whether a designer or not) should know; and also, an overview of the types of companies and jobs found in the game industry. As I said earlier, you should have at least one minor related to another area of game development, so this course would help you decide which area to minor in.

Theory of Game Design. Every game designer wants to have their own Grand Unifying Theory Of What Makes Games Fun. Most of them are useless. A precious few have gained acceptance (or at least acknowledgement) within the industry: LeBlanc's MDA, Koster's Theory of Fun, Bartle's player types, and some others. Students should be introduced to the prevailing theories of what Fun is, where it comes from, and how to make it.

Core Systems Design, Creative Design and Level Design. Those of us in the industry largely learned game design by doing it; the same is true for artists in other media. The bulk of game design courses in school, then, should be practical and not theoretical. I would envision several "pure" design courses where students are given a set of projects, each with their own constraints. Students then create designs, test them and iterate on them, ideally under the watchful eye of an experienced designer who provides guidance. By "Core Systems Design" I mean creating the basic rules of the core of a game; "Creative Design" would deal with the design of characters, plots and storylines, and UI; and "Level Design" is, well, level design.

Technical Design. A designer should have some experience in the left-brained side of their field. This course would include some Game Theory (prisoner's dilemma, payoff matrices, stuff like that), some applications of mathematics in game design (e.g. solving intransitive games, use of triangular numbers in games), and some basic understanding of numerical methods and computation (for example, what the difference is between integers and floating points... and why Hit Points -- and most numbers in a game, in fact -- should be integer).

Prototyping. As far as I can tell, the only people in the entire game industry who like to see 500-page "Design Bibles" are Producers and Publishers, because it gives them the impression that work is being done. Designers don't like them because they take a long time to write and they're impossible to maintain halfway through the project, and the written word is static while most game systems you're documenting are dynamic. Programmers don't like them because reading a massive design doc is boring, confusing, and obsolete as soon as the designers stop maintaining it. A far better way to communicate and "document" living systems is with a prototype, whether it be in the form of a paper boardgame or an actual computer program. Designers should be able to whip up a quick prototype of a small system (say, a subscreen or a turn-based combat model) in Flash or a similarly "light" scripting language, even if they don't know C++ or Java.

Team-Based Game Development. This wouldn't be a game design class per se, but an interdisciplinary class where students work together in moderately-sized teams to create a full game or game demo. Of all disciplines, game designers cannot exist alone; they need to learn to work well with programmers and artists. Luckily, finding strong programmers and artists who want to make games isn't that hard at most universities :). If you look hard enough you can usually even find one student who's skilled enough at game audio, and maybe another student for production (or the teacher can act as producer). This course might also be called a "capstone" or a "portfolio-building" class.

For what it's worth, this year I'm teaching Game Industry Survey; plus a Prototyping course (my university calls it Game Development) and an advanced variant that will be closer to what I'm calling Core Systems Design; and a 20-week Team-Based Game Development class (we're calling it a Capstone), and something else (TBD) in the Spring. So, I'm practicing what I preach here.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Teaching: First Day

So, my first day of classes ever was this past Wednesday.

The good part about teaching games is that I'm seeing students at their best. They're well-behaved, engaged, motivated and intelligent. I've heard horror stories from other teachers about how rude or lazy or dishonest their students are, and I'm just not seeing it in my classes at all. Much as I'd love to take all the credit with my natural teaching ability, I'm sure the subject material has something to do with this also :-)

One down side to teaching games: none of my classes are part of any core curriculum (yet), so my classes are the first to be dropped in the event of a schedule conflict. In a way, this is a good thing, as my class sizes stay relatively small (about 15 students each) so we can have some real group discussions without too many people getting lost in the noise. I can't imagine what it would be like to teach to 150 students at the same time, while trying to make the class interactive in some way; for the time being I don't have to know.

I'm also realizing a small flaw in my original plans: my syllabi make class participation part of the grade, but I'm so terrible with remembering names that I need to create a mechanism to track participation that doesn't involve my memory. I suppose I could take attendance, but that just seems so grade school...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Need help with Terminology

As far as I can tell, there are four basic types of interaction in a two-player simultaneous game:

Pure cooperation -- you work together against the game. One could make this REALLY obvious by having the players share a life meter, score, etc.

Pure competition -- players are in direct opposition, and there is a Winner and a Loser (or a draw game, maybe).

What I call "coopetition" -- there are two possible outcomes: either one player wins and the other loses, OR both players lose (but a shared victory is not possible). This forces the players to work together to avoid the we-both-lose outcome, but they also have to work against each other to avoid the I-lose-you-win outcome. Extremely rare in the field, but one of my favorite types of game forms.

And then there's this fourth, open-ended style where players can cooperate or compete at their discretion. The most obvious examples are games like Joust and Wizard of Wor where players can kill each other (and the game offers some reward for doing so), but players can also keep out of each other's way and just work as a team to get to the highest level they can. What do you call this style of gameplay? The best I can come up with is "co-option-tition" or "co-optional", both of which sound really lame to me.

Any ideas?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Kids These Days

As part of my faculty orientation last week, I learned a bit about the entering Freshman class (theoretically hoping to graduate in 2010), and also about some other teachers' attitudes towards students. It was a bit of a shock.

I learned that cheddar is money, not a dairy product. Dope is an adjective, not a noun, and it means that something is really good (although I think my generation wins for confusion here, as when something was really good we called it "bad").

I learned that the entering class has no meaningful recollection of any presidents other than Clinton and GW. The first Gulf War happened when they were two; it falls into the same historical category as Vietnam, WWI, and the Civil War. They don't remember the Cold War or the breakup of the Soviet Union; the threat of nuclear war isn't as scary as AIDS, Columbine or terrorism. The Kennedy tragedy was a plane crash, not an assassination. The original Star Wars trilogy has lousy special effects. George Foreman is the guy who sells those grills on TV. Popcorn was always cooked in a microwave, televisions have always had cable (and been in color, and had remotes), and telephones have never actually "rang" (with a physical bell). Record players and vinyl albums are what DJs use to mix music, and they've probably never seen an 8-track.

I learned that this is the generation of kids who grew up with Soccer Moms. Their parent is their personal assistant, their teammate, their coach, their friend. They may run the risk of being spoiled, but they're also confident, achievement-oriented, and they probably get along with their parents better than any other generation in history.

While these kids may actually respect their elders, they don't seem particularly respected in return. I mentioned that one of my goals in the Game Industry Survey course was to educate the students about the industry to the point that they could carry on an intelligent conversation about games; the response from the room was along the lines of, "you want them to have an intelligent conversation about something? Good luck with that..."

Excuses among students are common. One colleague told me that he killed a dozen or so grandmothers, aunts and uncles every semester, some of them twice. I found this similar to when I made online CCGs and we'd occasionally have to ban some kid from our game for poor behavior, and I learned that everyone has a little brother who logged into their account and caused trouble... even only children have little brothers.

It's only been ten years since I was in college myself. How did things change so much in such a short time? Am I aging at an accelerated rate, or have things always been this way?

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Sometimes, when you're surrounded by hype, it's important to remember deep down just how insignificant you are.

This year I went to GDC. It was a huge event, more people there for a single purpose than I'd seen in years. Over 12,000 developers came to learn, network, and talk shop. That's probably around 30% of the North American game development population.

Later on I made it to Origins. This was a place by gamers, for gamers and there were well over 15,000 people just living and breathing games. And this was just board and card games, mind you -- not a digital game in the lot. Had it also involved a LAN party, it probably would have been way bigger, maybe even three or four times this size.

I didn't make it to E3 (and thank you ESA for making me update my already-finished course syllabus :-) but there were like 70,000 people there, between industry, retail, press, and fanboys who managed to snag a pass from a friend. I can only imagine how packed that must have been.

And then, a few weeks ago, I visited the Ohio State Fair. Over the course of a week and a half, there were some 800,000 people who came from far and wide just so they could see a cow sculpture made of butter.

And the game industry just has no way to compete with that.