Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Game Industry Hates My Students

This Tuesday, Final Fantasy XII is released. One week after that, Guitar Hero 2 hits stores. Two weeks after that -- just in time for finals at my school -- it's the Nintendo Wii. Pretty much everyone in my classes is holding their breath for at least one, if not all three of them. So am I, for that matter.

In theory, in the middle of all this, I'm supposed to be assigning work for my students to do. As if they're going to be the least bit productive with all these wonderful distractions.

It would be so much easier if actually playing the games was the homework assignment. But I know another professor who tried that, only to find that one of the assigned games was delayed a few weeks. Oops.

At the very least, I'm not going to have any time to play these games myself until winter break, so I'll have to make it a policy that anyone giving spoilers in class immediately drops a letter grade :-)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Designing an Interactive Final Exam, Part 2

The other half of an interactive final is, of course, the content. So, this one goes out to all the developers and teachers out there:

Topics in the course include:
  • business models in the industry
  • the process of making games
  • history of the industry (including its roots in board games)
  • current events
  • emerging fields (game journalism, serious games, etc.)
  • academic/industry relations.
I'll be putting together a list of questions I can ask on these topics, and find ways to work it in to a discussion on some particular game or other. For example, I can show a game that didn't do well in the marketplace and ask about WHY it didn't do well (maybe it had poor graphics for its time, or maybe it was overshadowed by a major event, or maybe it had poor marketing, or maybe the development team didn't do its job properly). In some cases, actually playing the game can provide some clues here, and I'll choose my examples carefully.

If you have any ideas for good questions to ask (and games to go with them), or good games for discussion (because they have a lot of unique properties), send them to:
ai864 "at" yahoo "dot" com

Please don't post them here in the comments. I don't know if any of my students read this or not, but I'd hate to give an unfair advantage to those who know how to use google :-)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Designing an Interactive Final Exam

I gave my students a choice: a traditional pen-and-paper exam with the standard true/false, multiple choice, matching, fill-in-the-blank, essay... or an interactive final exam which is obviously more experimental. Absolutely NONE of the students opted for the traditional exam, even though it would probably be easier (or at least, easier to prepare for).

This is good, because now I only have to design one final exam and not two :-)

My first task as a combination game designer / instructor: come up with a set of rules for an interactive final. So far I have:
* I'll demo a series of games, retro and modern. For each game, I'll point out certain aspects of the game and then ask related questions to each student in turn. So, it's kind of like an oral exam. In a group. With games.
* After a student answers (or is unable to answer), other students can elaborate or disagree for extra points.

If you have comments on the rules, feel free to post them here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Culture Shock: Competition

The old joke goes something like this:
Q: Why is the infighting so fierce in academia?
A: Because the stakes are so low.

In the game industry, if you need help from someone else in the company, they generally go out of their way to help you. It's intrinsically understood that you're all on the same team, working towards the same goals (i.e. shipping the game, and remaining profitable), so helping your co-workers is just helping yourself.

In college, everyone has their own agenda, and other people's agendas run counter to yours. If you ask someone else for assistance, they may not give it to you unless it serves their needs as well. In fact, they may work to sabotage your efforts if they think your success will cost them resources later on. This is doubly true if you're trying to get help from someone outside your department, as is often necessary when you're teaching an interdisciplinary subject like game development.

For example, ever since the start of Summer, I've been looking to reach out to Computer Science students. If any of my undergrads are going to actually make games, they will either need to know how to program (a rare trait in a telecommunications major) or they will need to know someone who does. Tonight, I met my first CS student -- just one. I'd like to find at least five more that are interested in game development, before winter break, so they can register for a class where they can make a game on a team...

IGDA Game Education SIG is now online!

As announced recently by my colleague Darius, the special interest group for game education in the IGDA now has a blog.

So, now it appears I have competition. :-)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Teaching: Advance warnings aren't.

One of the classes I'm teaching is all about rapid prototyping. We started on paper and are just now progressing to digital prototypes.

I mentioned on the first day of class that there would be some programming involved, and that the skills students would use would end up being about 25% programming, 25% art, 50% design.

I had the students with programming experience raise their hands, so that they could be identified by their classmates.

I left a full week in the schedule before we started anything programming-related, with no assignments due. I suggested students use the time to either (A) learn a rapid-prototyping tool like Game Maker or Flash; or (B) do a few simple exercises in a tool that they already know, like drawing sprites on the screen; or (C) find someone else in class who knows how to implement some of this stuff, and pair up with them.

On the day the first digital assignment was handed out, all of a sudden it was a huge surprise. We have to actually program? Like, displaying numbers to the screen and having buttons that change those numbers? Ohmigod, that's so unfair, this isn't a Computer Science class, most of us don't know how to program, how did this happen? (The current assignment is to do a functional mockup of a Diablo-like subscreen, displaying HP/Mana and doing some very simple inventory management: equip, unequip, drop.)

Next time around I'll hopefully have some actual CS students taking the class, and I'll pair students up manually instead of letting them do it themselves (and let them change groups on their own... if their other members consent). Maybe instead of a "dead" week, I'll assign some busywork project that forces students to learn how to do some simple prototyping tasks, like drawing to the screen. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else I could have done to prepare students for the shock of actually having to use a computer. Or maybe I'm being totally unfair, and overestimating the capability of a non-CS student to learn and use a game authoring tool (or socially network within the class to find someone else who can).

Comments? Suggestions?

Monday, October 09, 2006

I have found the dividing line

Percentage of my class that has played the arcade version of Dragon's Lair (1983): 0%.

Percentage of my class that is familiar with Gauntlet (1984): ~25%. Mostly from the more recent console versions, and Xbox Live Arcade.

Percentage of my class that played the original Super Mario Bros. (1985): 100%.

I suppose I can expect this to shift up by a year, next Fall.

Teaching: Work Ethic

In the game industry, if I found an interesting article on game design or business or something, I could just pass around the link in email and by the next day everyone will have read it.

In class, if I do the same thing with my students, maybe one or two of them will take the time to click the link. Even if it's something really cool, like listening to Warren Spector and Greg Costikyan cussing or a game you can play for free online.

And I think it comes down to the difference in how these things are approached. In school, I don't think most students think of it as a job (where you get "paid" in grades perhaps?), nor are they concerned with professional development (since learning new stuff is kind of mandated, which automatically turns people off from doing it voluntarily).

I was guilty of this myself; I didn't really develop a solid work ethic until I was 25 or so. But oh, how nice it would be to be able to teach it, since it's practically required to get into the industry (and certainly to do well once you're there)...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Teaching: Clarity trumps Fairness

It started out so simple. Have students each study their own special topic, in-depth, and present to the class. They're presenting things that everyone in the room should know anyway, like who is Shigeru Miyamoto and why is he important, or what was Origin Systems, so that they don't sound like they were born yesterday when they're rubbing shoulders with veterans at GDC. They may or may not have played Katamari Damacy or Shadow of the Colossus, but they should at least know what it is because they will hear people referring to them.

May as well match up the topics with their relevant courses. If a student is going to speak about Knights of the Old Republic, let's do that on the day when we talk about sequels and licenses. Someone speaking about the ESA should do so on the day we cover game publishing. Spread it out so everything makes sense, and so that I don't have to devote a full day of class to having every student speak about a series of unrelated topics.

But it wouldn't be fair to penalize students who signed up for topics early in the course, would it? Then they only get a few days to prepare, while someone who signs up the last day of class would have many weeks. Every student should have the same amount of time to work on this so it's all fair. One week is plenty of time to prepare for a short (3 to 5 minute) presentation. So, each student signs up for a date, I'll keep the topics secret, and I'll inform each student of their topic a week before they're due to present.

Now, in doing this I wasn't thinking about actual implementation issues, just how fair the policy was. It turns out that doing things this way is really hard for several reasons. First, I have to remember to email the topics a week in advance; I now have reminders posted all over my living space, but there were a couple times when I notified the student late. Second, I had a situation where several students didn't receive their topics by email; something got fragged in the system and they showed up unaware that they had to present anything. In either case I need to give more time to the student, but that pushes back their topic to a class where it's no longer relevant.

Third, students signed up on a sheet that's in my possession, and many of them didn't think to copy the dates they signed up for, so I get a lot of emails asking when someone's next topic is due. The process is definitely not user-friendly.

For this course, I've already set the policy and it seems a bit late to change it now, so I'll just have to suck it up. Next time I do this, though, I'll just make the topics available at the start of the course; it may not be as "fair" but it's a whole lot easier for everyone to follow.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Culture Shock: Tardiness

As I forcibly drag myself out of bed at some unholy morning hour so I can get to my class on time, it occurs to me that this is the sort of thing that would never happen in the game industry.

Mostly because if you show up late and say "sorry, I was up late playing this game that I just couldn't put down" people will understand. It's not something anyone should make a habit of, but it is a valid excuse.

As a teacher, of course, I have to show up on time or my students will leave. Many of them probably believe the widespread (but false) legend of some "15 minute rule": if the professor doesn't show up within 15 minutes of the start of class, then allegedly the class is automatically canceled. Sort of like how many of my students want to believe that emulation is legal if you own an original copy of the game, or if you delete it within 24 hours, or if the game is no longer sold in stores (all false).