Thursday, August 06, 2009

Soundbytes from Protospiel and SIGGRAPH

Protospiel is an annual gathering of non-digital game designers who come together to playtest their current works in progress. This is not a typical conference -- there are no sessions, lectures, or keynote speakers. It is all playtesting and analysis from start to end.

That said, I picked up a few things. In no particular order:

  • Resource: - a website where you can order colored stackables, plastic cubes, and other useful game prototyping bits for relatively cheap.
  • Ever since the success of the Pandemic board game, a lot of people have been experimenting with pure cooperative games (I saw a number of co-op games at Protospiel, in addition to the ones coming out on the market already). One problem with the entire genre is when you have a situation with one expert player working with a group of novices. In this case, the expert dominates the game: they can either sit down and shut up and let everyone else flounder about (and now the expert is bored), or they can take charge and direct everything (and now everyone else is bored). They can offer hints while still letting everyone else retain their autonomy, but overall the game relies on the expert player to keep things fun (rather than the gameplay itself being inherently fun). This is a problem that arises from games that are purely cooperative and also offer complete information sharing between players. One possible solution is to build "information walls" between players so that a single player doesn't have the info to direct everyone else... but then this pushes players towards playing individually rather than as a coordinated team, and the whole point of being "cooperative" is lost. One interesting solution I'm seeing is to make the play real-time, so that the expert player just doesn't have the time to coordinate everything; this is how co-op video games work (one player can't simultaneously work four keyboards and mice), and there's no reason it can't work with board games... in theory.
  • Games for girls: an important aspect here is the social dynamics between players. One designer did research on this by actually going to a mall, sitting on a bench outside a trendy store, and observing groups of shoppers. I thought this was a rather clever way to do research on a target audience, and could probably have applications with other audiences.
  • Resource: A lot of designers have a game from Amigo called Rage. This is not because Rage is all that great a game. It is because it is a card game with seven suits, numbered 1 to 15 in each suit, along with several Joker-like suitless cards... meaning that you can use some subset of a Rage deck to prototype just about any card game you can imagine.
From a purely cultural standpoint, I noticed some interesting things about board game designers when they get in large enough groups for culture to emerge:
  • You can tell which hotel rooms are populated by board game designers, because they all have the "do not disturb" sign hanging on the door at all times, even when they're not there. Why? Because they have learned through experience that hotel cleaning staff will often mistake their prototype game bits (torn pieces of paper, index cards and cardboard, etc.) for trash, and throw them away... or, almost as bad, to "helpfully" organize them so that you can't find anything. One game company employee reported that they no longer outsource the cleaning of their office, after one time when a janitor threw away a bag with prototype bits and a playtest notebook (this would be the non-digital equivalent of having your IT guy accidentally delete your entire code base on the server, along with all backups.)
  • There are some differences in jargon between board game and video game designers. "Analysis paralysis" (where a player spends too long thinking about their turn, stalling the game) happens frequently enough in board games that it is simply referred to by its initials, as in "this game is really prone to AP, you should add a sand timer." In video games, AP means Associate Producer, which is a bit different.
  • Meanwhile, a lot of board game designers have not been exposed to video game development at all. In a relatively large group discussion, someone was afraid of making too many differently-shaped custom pieces, and I suggested using "palette-swapping" -- that is, use a small number of shapes, and color them differently. No one had ever heard of the term before. This would not happen in a gathering of video game devs.
SIGGRAPH (I'm not sure why, but I always see people capitalize it like they're shouting it) is a conference on computer graphics, blending both the artistic and technical. At first I felt a bit out of place as a game designer (we don't normally work with graphics directly), but I found a lot of kindred spirits that are either teachers or game designers, and I wrote down a bunch of notes... again, in no particular order.

  • Nowadays, some game design students are hired in large companies as Associate Producers and are given some basic production and design tasks to see what they can do. If they're really good at one or the other, they can transition into a role that fits their skills. If they suck at both, they can just get fired without too much pain.
  • For educational games, align the learning goal with the core game activity / mechanics; use the peer network as a learning environment; make sure that increasing relevant skills outside of the game translates to better performance within the game. (In this case, "gaming the system" or using a "walkthrough" or "FAQ" -- normally considered cheating -- is actually a good thing... as long as doing so allows the student to meet learning outcomes.)
  • There is natural tension between wanting to give the player complete agency, and wanting to give a controlled, focused (if "on rails") experience. Interesting compromise: use psychological principles (such as reciprocity, scarcity, appeal to authority, etc.) to manipulate the player towards the game's goals. The player maintains their sense of agency, while still doing what the designer wants them to.
  • Consumer psychology research is useful when making persuasive games, since marketing to consumers is essentially persuasion.
  • In cooperative games, think of communication as the core mechanic. If passing information to your fellow players has an in-game cost, that makes things interesting (and also solves the "expert player" problem identified earlier).
  • I used to assume that a game with intentionally incomplete mechanics -- that is, games where the rules MUST be interpreted or invented by players and cannot be 100% standardized -- could not be faithfully represented as video games. After all, video games require programming code, and programs can only follow instructions, not make value judgments or rules interpretations. But I missed something. You can do this in a limited sense, by putting certain parts of the game under manual player control. As an example, there used to be a client called Apprentice that let you play Magic: the Gathering online with your friends. This program didn't implement any of the rules of the game at all; it just let you click and drag cards and tokens around a virtual game board, and displayed your cards to your opponent. It was up to the players themselves to actually play the game by the rules, without using the computer as a rules mediator. A similar thing could be done for other games, such as tabletop RPGs (or games where one of the rules is essentially "the players decide on a rule").
  • Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have offered "Merit Badges" as a reward system since, like, forever. It only took the video game industry about 35 years to figure out how compelling this was. What else can we learn from the systemic psychological indoctrination of kids, in terms of how to use that to make better games? :-)
  • Resource: Future Pinball is a free-to-download pinball simulator that allows players to construct their own tables out of parts, with mostly click-and-drag functionality and minimal scripting (no hardcore programming). This offers some great opportunities for game design students. For one thing, very few 18-year-olds today are intimately familiar with Pinball, so it is a level playing field. Pinball table layout is highly constrained (by both space and availability of parts), preventing projects from having scope that grows out of control. Pinball table design uses the same skills as any other level design. By tying a "create a pinball table" assignment to an intellectual property (such as a recent popular movie or TV show), students can be challenged to take an existing narrative and translate it across media... a good skill to have, and a challenging one in the case of Pinball where the player actions are highly non-linear and unscripted (and unlike video games, it's hard to put the player "on rails" in Pinball).
  • One difficulty with making games with sexual content is that sex is extremely personal and different for everyone. Interestingly, I think the same is true of spirituality; if someone discovers how to make a compelling game that can bring a player closer to God, the same techniques could probably be used to make a serious game about sex. Is that ironic?
  • Will Wright was quoted as not liking the term "non-digital" to describe board games and card games and the like. He prefers "matter-based" games. I am amused.
  • As a teacher, convincing students to attend local industry functions (such as IGDA meetings) can be a challenge. Some students do not see the value, and approach this as "more gross-icky-disgusting-learning outside of school, and not even for a grade, so why spend my free time with that". Others see the value but are intimidated, and don't want to do anything embarrassing in front of the very people who may want to hire them later, so they just don't show out of fear. Professors may want to think of ways to work around this. Or, we could take the approach that the students that don't show are the ones that wouldn't make it in industry anyway, so it provides a useful selection/filtering process.
  • When analyzing games as an art form, where is the art? It can be found in many places: the visuals (obviously)... although there may be a distinction between "game art" and "art-games"; the game mechanics to the extent that they lead to play that expresses meaning; player activity which can be artistic, but raises the problem (expressed by Roger Ebert) of authorship -- if art requires an artist, is the artist the game designer or the player? ; the game environments, as an analogy to designing the stage as opposed to writing a play; the game code itself, to the extend that it enables everything else, and also that it can push the boundaries of the technology (consider the parallel between coding on a very constrained platform like Atari 2600, versus writing a constrained poem like a Haiku).
  • Currently, a lot of traditional museums are confused with how to frame interactive exhibits. Actually letting visitors touch the art is new to them and makes many of them nervous. As more artists are creating interactive works, and as more museum curators are considering ways to make the entire museum-going experience more interactive (even "game-like"), this problem is being attacked from both ends and will probably become a non-issue within our lifetimes.
  • Aristotle's three-Act structure doesn't translate well to games, because Acts 1 and 3 essentially map to non-interactive cut-scenes. Almost the entire game is Act 2. (However, if you use the three-Act structure on a micro level to design quests, NPC plot arcs, individual levels, and so on, it can lead to a more robust larger story.)
  • Game writing tips: don't write about what the main character does, but what they will experience (remember, the player is in control of what the main character does). Think of game fiction as told through objectives and rewards. Don't tell the story through the main character; instead, write the story through the NPCs and their own points of view.
  • Use the game space to create memorable moments.