Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Culture Shock: Information Sharing between Peers

When I was working at a game company, there were always a lot of people looking for information. Different people would read Gamasutra, GameDailyBiz, Game Developer Magazine, or any number of other websites, blogs and publications.

If you found something interesting, you would generally send it around to the other people at your company who might also find it interesting. Usually this meant one Game Designer would send an article on Game Design to all the other Game Designers, but there was no rule against crossing departmental boundaries; maybe an Artist would find an incomprehensible document on Graphics Programming, and forward it on to the Programming department.

And this was fine. We're all on the same team. If you find something that helps another teammate do their job better, you get social points for it.

As a teacher, I find myself continuing to do this out of habit. I hear a story on NPR about indie bands and I mention it to the professor who teaches audio production. I see an article on game writing and forward it on to the professor who teaches nonlinear storytelling.

And it just occurred to me, after half a year of doing this, that I've never received anything like that from anyone else on the faculty.

Maybe it's just that no one I work with is actually keeping tabs on the game industry as much as I am, or that everyone else is too busy to be thinking about it. But I'm wondering if there isn't a different culture in academia -- it feels less like we're a team, after all -- and maybe when I do this it's construed as me telling my colleagues how to do their job, or implying that they need my help or something. Not my intention at all, of course, but I have to wonder.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Students: Reading between the lines

For many companies, especially large ones and especially those that are public, a lot of attention is given to PR, corporate image, etc. that leads to a tendency to try and appear perfect. Every public statement is whitewashed, the language sanitized for their protection.

This causes interesting conflicts within the game industry. One conflict commonly cited is game reviews by magazines: it's tough to write a negative review when the game's publisher is taking out a full-page ad for the same game in the same magazine.

Another conflict that's more immediately relevant to students is the stuff they read online, particularly Gamasutra's post-mortems of projects. A large game publisher might not want to air their dirty laundry, saying everything that went wrong on the project that's currently selling in stores. As such, one has to read the "what went wrong" section very carefully to get to the real story of what happened.

It's particularly fun when you can be your own example, as I'm finding out now for the first time. A student pointed out to me that GameTap's Rick Sanchez had responded to my letter criticizing his treatment of episodic content in games. The man works for GameTap, so he clearly can't say anything negative about their business model; yet, he says that he agrees with some of my points, so a student following this dialogue would have to expertly read between the lines to decide what Rick really thinks. And that's a skill worth having.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Emergent Design: The Generic Genre

In the industry, you're often focused on a specific genre of game, not thinking about the broad spectrum of games as a whole. So perhaps it takes a student's eye to spot larger industry trends.

Such it was today in class, when my Game Design students came to the conclusion that you could make a "kart racing" game for any IP, any license at all... while still respecting the original story. We were unable to find an exception. It would seem to be an entirely generic genre.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Teaching: Tradeoff between ease of grading, ease of cheating

It occurred to me that as I make homework assignments easier for myself to grade, I also make it easier for students to cheat on them.

At one end of the scale there's multiple-choice questions which are absolutely trivial to copy, and impossible for me to prove any shenanigans unless I use high-powered statistical software.

At the other end of the scale is an original essay, which is basically impossible to copy without it being obvious (I can even type key phrases into Google to check for copying from outside sources), but original works take at least half an hour to grade each... which adds up in a 30-person class.

I want to narrow the scope of the essays, perhaps even reducing them to bullet-point lists, next time I teach the class. But now I'm realizing that the more time I save on grading, the more time I have to put into making the assignment cheat-proof, so I'm not sure if I can actually save time at all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Teaching: Teacher as Game Designer?

With the second offering of my Game Industry Survey course, I reworded a few of the homework assignments to make it clearer what I was looking for, based on confusion from the first offering.

Sure enough, the new crop of students is better at providing what I asked for, because my documentation was clearer.

Now I'm starting to wonder if this is entirely positive. In game development, clear specs that leave nothing to the programmers' imaginations is considered a good thing, because you're trying to make a game that's true to the designers' vision. But in a classroom, removing the students' room for creativity teaches them that they should be prepared to accept clean, detailed specs and follow instructions... not exactly the skills I want to pass on to the next generation of game designers.

In a way, if I treat homework assignments as design documents, my students end up getting better grades... but perhaps not learning as much.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Teaching: Teachers as Marketing (?!)

Normally I don't just link to the post on some other blog (I'd rather make my own content, thanks) but this article was too relevant to pass on. In brief: marketers spend their time trying to get your brain to pay attention and learn their message (something that teachers could do better at), and teachers spend their time transferring actual, useful information (something marketers could do better at). Sounds like a good idea to me.

I would add game designers into the mix; their entire purpose in life is to take a game and make it Fun (whatever "Fun" means).

So, teachers could learn from game designers: how to take this "Learning" and make it Fun. (Or rather, since learning is inherently fun -- especially in the case of game development classes -- how to take this "Learning" and not suck the inherent Fun out of it.)

Marketers could learn from game designers: how to take your advertising product and make it fun. Interactive advergames that concentrate too much on product marketing end up not being very fun, and thus losing their message.

Game designers can learn from marketers: all that brain research on how to get the brain to pay attention seems rather handy. As it is, we're still stuck with Csikszentmihalyi's 17-year-old research.

Game designers can learn from teachers: if you have some kind of greater social message you want to include in your game, how can you do it without beating your player over the head with the message in every cut scene? Especially useful for those working on training games, advergames or other "serious games" that are more than just entertainment.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Culture Shock: Textbook Evaluations

There were definitely times as a game developer when I'd have "I can't believe I'm actually getting paid to do this" moments.

The other day, I receive an email from a textbook publisher asking me to fill out a survey on one of their books; they're considering a new edition and they want to know what teachers think of the current one. I happen to already have a copy, so it doesn't involve any extra time on my part to evaluate the thing -- I did that months ago.

So, I'm offered a complimentary copy of the book that I already have (hello, ebay), plus another book of my choice, plus a small amount of cash. In exchange for the privilege of letting a textbook company know how their products can be better modified to serve me, and knowing that they'll actually listen. Twist my arm, why don't you!

I never had this in the game industry. No one ever came to me as a programmer and said "here, we'll pay you to tell us what new features to implement in the next version of Visual Studio". No one approached me as a designer saying "we'd like to give you this complimentary copy of our mind-mapping software, just let us know if you find it useful." It's an entirely different dynamic.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Teaching: Student mistakes

To my Game Industry Survey students, most of the topics we cover are completely foreign concepts. When I ask them to research and present a topic in class, it's only natural that mistakes will be made; this is new material for them, and they have no way of knowing what's vitally important and what's a minor detail.

On the other hand, they really should know the important details by the end of the class. A simple slip like asking a game developer if they have any openings in "Q&A" will pretty much end the conversation right there.

So, when a student says Richard Garriott is otherwise known as "King British," part of me wants to be lenient because they did get the general idea, and they were clearly trying. And then part of me wants to take 50% off their grade, because I'm pretty sure that saying something like that at GDC is grounds for ejection from the premises. I'm still trying to figure out what's fair. (I suppose I could split the difference, being lenient in the presentation and then asking about it during the final exam...)

I should be clear that I mean no disrespect towards the guilty party; this is one example of many. I chose it because I felt it would resonate best with my readers who are game developers.

I will say that I visibly wince when something like this happens in class. I can't help it, it's a natural reflex. Maybe seeing that is punishment enough.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Speaking at GDC

It's official. I'll enjoy five of my fifteen minutes of fame on Tuesday, March 6.

I'll present my final exam from the Fall, condensed down to five minutes, during the International Case Blasts session. It's part of the IGDA Education SIG Curriculum Workshop.

I'm really excited to be able to share my experience with other game educators. If any readers will be at GDC this year for the full five days, drop by and say hi after the session!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Emergent Design: Sound Design

My Capstone course (where a group of students create a complete game) is fortunate to have a Sound Designer as one of the eight students on the development team. On a professional development team this might seem like overkill -- the ratio of Game Audio to Everyone Else is usually closer to 1 in 40, not 1 in 8. There are exceptions, but our game isn't one of them.

Anyway, our sound designer comes in on one of the first days of class with a short looping sound for background music. It consisted of two tracks: a light, airy guitar melody and some deep bass drums. They're part of the same rhythm, so it's really just one sound loop divided into two tracks.

Here's the interesting part. By changing the relative volume of these tracks on the fly, the nature of the sound changes. If your avatar is flying through the air, play 90% guitar / 10% drums. If you're deep underground, change to 10% guitar / 90% drums. Walking on the ground, it's 50/50. Same song, but the nature of it changes dynamically based on character location (or health, or proximity of enemies, or what have you). It really sounds like three different songs depending on how you mix it. The programming to support this is absolutely trivial.

I can't think of a single game I've played that does this. Even games with dynamic sound like Shadow of the Colossus and God of War swap in one track for another at specific points in the sound loop, not really blending them. I suspect it took them far more effort from their Programming and Audio departments to achieve the same result that my student was able to do in about twenty minutes.

Has anyone else seen this technique before? Because once you've seen it, it seems like a really obvious thing to do...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Culture Shock: Textbook Writing

As a student, I never really gave a thought to where textbooks actually came from. The extent of my understanding was
Step 1: Professor says 'I have a Great Idea for a textbook'
Step 2: Then a Miracle Occurs...
Step 3: Profit.

Most people working in the game industry don't think about writing a textbook in their spare time. It never really enters our minds. It's not like textbook publishers come calling to remind us. And it's not like we have any spare time, anyway.

This cannot be said of academia. Textbook company reps actively court professors in a variety of ways, both to peddle their wares and to seek out any future book authors.

Through talking with one reps, I now know how textbooks get made, at least at one large publisher.
Step 1: Professor says 'I have a Great Idea for a textbook'. I didn't expect to get this part right! It's a little more involved, though; the professor submits some materials like a resume and proposed table of contents. The objective here is to show that there's a need for the book, and that you're the one who should write it.
Step 2: Marketing people at the publisher do market research to see if there's enough people who would want to buy the book. If not, begin negotiation to find something that the professor is qualified to write. Meanwhile, an Editor evaluates the resume to see if this is someone who has the basic skills required to write a book.
Step 3: Professor is asked for a sample, maybe one or two chapters. Publisher submits these to colleagues in the field -- other professors teaching relevant classes, for example. This lets the publisher know if the professor has a clue what he's talking about, and also whether the book would be remotely useful in classes. If not, publisher may ask for edits and try again, or may simply hold on to the idea and try again the following year.
Step 4: Publisher receives positive feedback from the sample chapters. Begin negotiations on the actual contract, payment schedule, milestones, etc. The entire process up to this point takes maybe two or three months, minimum.
Step 5: Write the book. That part usually takes one to two years, although it varies (of course). Then it's printed, marketed and shipped.