Friday, March 30, 2007

Game Designer as Event Host

It occurs to me that if game design is about creating an enjoyable player experience, it must share something in common with other fields that have similar goals: hotel guest services, cruise ship directing, wedding/party planning, and special event hosting. The abstract idea of "customer-centric" thinking and design applies to all of these.

Yesterday, we were fortunate enough to have a special event on campus that was one of the most terribly-run things I've had the misfortune to attend. It was a great case study for my design students; I hope they come back in future years to provide such a powerful object lesson for future classes.

The event was run by some promotions company that was apparently hired by Microsoft to push the Xbox 360, but in the process picked up game-friendly sponsors like Best Buy and (for some reason) Suzuki. They were certainly well-funded; they came with a pimped-out car and a large bus with sponsor decals all over, and they brought forty 360's (I suppose that makes one Xbox 14400, har) and so many plasma screens, and all kinds of giveaway swag. The guys running the event had an average of about ten years experience each. So, they had all the tools and potential for a massively successful event on any college campus. Which makes the whole thing that much more disappointing (and informative).

Among their errors:
  • No advance promotion of the event. They had people scattered across campus handing out fliers the morning of. No one I talked to knew anything about it beforehand, in spite of there being rather prominent television, radio and newspaper media all over the place.
  • Very loud music was playing at the event, making it impossible to hear any sound from the games themselves. This made the new Dance Dance Revolution game impossible to play.
  • All those consoles and not enough controllers. Dance Dance Revolution (a game meant to be played socially) had one dance mat per console, so you couldn't play with a friend (and it was one of those cheap $10 pads too, so you couldn't play any advanced songs). Fuzion Frenzy 2, a party game meant to be played with four people, had two controllers. Gears of War, a first-person shooter known for its excellent multiplayer mode (and equally known for its mediocre one-player) had one controller.
  • Some guy was trying to be an emcee, walking around with a microphone and taunting the people who were trying to play. In the words of one of my students, "he was trying way too hard to look like he was cool."
  • Overall, the whole thing just felt like it was put together by people who knew a lot about promotional events... and absolutely nothing about games or gamers. The result is similar to what happens when an all-male team of game developers tries to make a game for little girls.

What lessons do we learn about game design from this? Well, that's an exercise I left to my students!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Kurt Squire on Curricular Models

Another wonderful talk from the IGDA Educational SIG at GDC, courtesy of Kurt Squire. These are my notes:

A few years ago, we had: Game Dev programs (DigiPen, Full Sail); “Art and Design” schools (but with few game-specific offerings); ETC at CMU (grad school only); Computer Science; Media Arts & Sciences; Instructional Design; and for college dropouts, the School of Hard Knocks.

Today, we have game design degrees! Why? Popularity (or, increased enrollment); Intellectually interesting; Training for the game industry; Core disciplinary issues: interactivity, teamwork, etc. (carries over to many other fields).

There are lots of different ways to study games.

All faculty who teach games ought to play them, regularly.

Consider a “boot camp” introduction model: low-level courses that show that game development is very hard work, to turn away the students who aren’t self-motivated or serious about making games their career.

What happens outside class is more important than in class. Set up your academic program to encourage out-of-class work. One thing that can help a lot: have your university provide an open lab space where students can work on their own game projects – ad-hoc, informal, driven by excited students.

Have students work in teams. Have your faculty understand (and teach) cooperative learning.

You and your students will have many iterations for everything: individual projects, courses, and overall curriculum. Learn from failures.

Create opportunities for celebration, community ritual. Example: student project showcase at the end of each year.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Game Research Case Studies

There isn't a lot of academic research in the field of game design, and what little there is, I have trouble relating to. At the IGDA Educational SIG at GDC, it was refreshing to see a number of different takes on research that focus on gameplay -- exactly the type of research I'd like to do myself, in those hours when I'm not teaching. Here are my notes from the session:

Jesse Schell (CMU ETC):
  • Industry/Academic bridges are mostly 1:1.
  • One major problem: many universities can’t hire people with just a BS/BA degree, regardless of industry experience. (Example from last year’s GDC: the Lead Artist for World of Warcraft is unqualified to teach art at many universities. Wait… unqualified?)
  • There’s a huge bonus on both sides if this problem can be solved. As people cross borders between Industry and Academy, there is a transfer of technology and information.
  • The universities that build the best programs will likely be the ones that are able to find loopholes in the system, creative ways to get experienced industry people teaching their students in some capacity.

James Dargie (EALA):

  • Internally, EA has a process that’s something like rapid prototyping, but with artists instead of technical designers.
  • Pre-rendered trailer video, takes 1 to 3 months.
  • Shows visual style, quality bar and gameplay features at the start of a project.

Jeremy Gordon (Secret Level / SEGA):

  • Undirected R&D is attractive to industry since we’re all trying to solve the problems we don’t know about yet.
  • But… it requires overtime or extra funding (or both), and there’s no immediate ROI.

Doug Whately (Breakaway Games):

  • Breakaway has an interesting funding model internally: Serious Games and Entertainment Games divisions. Serious provides funding for Entertainment, which is treated as funded R&D whose results can be used by Serious.
  • (I found out later that there’s a similar symbiotic relationship between Wahoo Studios and NinjaBee, with Wahoo creating AAA games that fund NinjaBee’s low-budget indie games, which in turn are treated as R&D to help Wahoo.)
  • Working with universities is hard because of scheduling. Universities work around the academic calendar; game studios work around fiscal years.
  • Suggested that some studios might do better if they have rotating undergrad internships throughout the year, encouraging Seniors to take a quarter or semester “sabbatical” to work in the industry for 3-4 months during the school year. In this way, a company can have a steady supply of student interns year-round… not just in the Summer.
  • In classroom learning games, expect to see a huge battle between professors. Half will love it because it gives them new tools to teach; half will hate it because it’s an outside intrusion into their acutely-honed, time-tested lesson plans.

John Hopson (Microsoft Games User Research Group):

  • Developers are inherently distrustful of anyone trying to tell them how to do their job. This includes academic researchers. If you approach a studio saying “my research shows exactly what you’re doing wrong”… prepare to be ignored.
  • Start out with one-on-one: “Give me half an hour of your time, and we’ll show you how to make a better game.” After that works and you’ve built up a small amount of trust, ask for a little more… one baby step at a time. Build long-term trust.
  • Schools need to promote their technology to the industry: make sure you show up on a Google search when the industry is looking for you!
  • Build cool stuff. If you write a paper for the industry that you think is so great, why don’t you use it? Better to make a working demo, then write a paper that explains how you did it. (Fa├žade is a good example of this.)
  • We all have the same concerns as any other field of research that tries to interface with industry. The only difference is that our industry is relatively new.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Doug Church on Academic/Industry Collaboration

The great Doug Church gave a keynote at the IGDA Educational SIG at GDC. Here are my notes from his session:

  • The things the industry wants done, it’s doing already.
  • The things the industry doesn’t know it needs… well…
  • There is no pattern of discovery in gameplay, i.e. no way to build on previous work. Game AI is in a similar state. (Graphics and Physics do have a pattern of discovery; that’s what SIGGRAPH is for.)
  • There is no design publishing culture, and no design or game-analysis critical vocabulary. We’re stuck describing game mechanics as “it’s like this other game”.
  • Not much “software publishing” culture at universities.
  • Ideally, it would be good to enable undirected research in the Academy.

Sharing Tools/Engines:

  • Academics are always asking to use industry game engines to help with their work.
  • Industry doesn’t want to inflict their barely-working engine on poor unsuspecting academics. (Engines are usually coupled with the team and processes that built them; just handing an engine to someone else won’t be much help.)
  • Also, some companies treat their engine as IP.
  • Memorable quote: “If someone stole all the code from Electronic Arts, it would probably hurt them more than help them.”

Knowledge Transfer:

  • The people in the industry didn’t learn from textbooks.
  • The industry is guild/apprentice like. No shared context, philosophy or vocabulary.
  • When an academic tries to approach someone in industry, the response has more to do with timing than anything else: a developer under crunch won’t respond to your emails even if they’d really like to help you.
  • The industry has a hard time with long-term commitment. The Academy can’t easily promise specifics or results by a given date. This makes it hard for the industry to fund formal academic research.
  • Also, developers are skeptical of formal training, while academics are skeptical of the academic value of games. (Hopefully both of these will change in the future.)

What Next?

  • Students are the key stakeholders in everything; put them first.
  • More industry/academics working together; for now this is limited to 1:1 collaborations.
  • Universities must understand that a game-focused curriculum is not just an interesting backdrop for the “real” education, or a diversion from it; game development courses are an invitation into a community and a chance to choose a future.
  • Use iterative processes on different ways to collaborate:
  • Lightweight participation is easy. That’s what we do now. We need more 1:1 successes until we get some critical mass.
  • Bidirectional placement! Can a developer teach a course in their spare time (or take a year off to do so full-time)? Can a professor work in industry during their sabbatical year?
  • Developers need to give academics more access to their efforts, so that good practice can be studied and documented.
  • More student group projects! (Amusing possibility: each year’s crop of students must not only create their own game project, but also support the previous team’s software.)
  • We need formalized grammar and vocabulary, but it’s uncertain where this will come from. Previous tries from academia were forced/mandated and didn’t work. Not coming from industry, either.
  • Overall: we need energy, motivation, mutual respect, and people who understand both sides… like today’s students!
  • Both sides need to balance reality with idealism.

Q: How valuable is it to teach students methodologies (e.g. agile development, time estimation)?
A: Specifics are not as important as the experience of trying – and understanding that game development is hard and can go horribly wrong!

Q: How can academics study the industry when it’s so secretive?
A: Indie studios may be more willing to open their doors. Or, cultivate relationships with many individual developers, and contact someone who just shipped a successful game and has some pull in their organization.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Critical Vocabulary Problem

I saw this touched on briefly at GDC this year, but no solutions were given. That's a shame, because it's not something that I can see solving itself anytime soon, and game designers really need to make some progress here.

The problem is that we really don't have a critical vocabulary in the field of game design. When we talk about game mechanics or dynamics, the best we can do is to compare it with what's been done before: "It's like the sandbox mode of GTA with the combat system from Halo, and the mini-map from Ratchet & Clank."

This is limiting: it prevents us from describing new innovations (I remember people trying to describe Everyday Shooter at GDC, and the best we could do was "you have to play it, then you'll understand"). It also limits us even when discussing purely derivative works; if I haven't played Okami, then you can't compare it to another game and have any real understanding between us.

So, we need a better vocabulary. Which leads to the next problem: everyone writing a game design textbook is trying to solve the problem at the same time, each with their own proposed language.

None of these get absorbed into the collective consciousness of the industry, because no single textbook on game design has been read by enough game designers. But designers in the field aren't trying to create their own vocabulary, either.

As a teacher, this creates additional problems. Suppose I use a textbook that uses a combination of existing industry jargon, and new terminology coined by the authors. I've yet to see a book that makes a distinction between the two, so I have to manually warn my students about which terms are okay to use if they're talking with a designer, and which ones they should ignore (or at least use cautiously). But then, if enough students who studied one particular textbook find themselves in the industry, this terminology could start getting used... and then I'm in the position of trying to predict which of the many textbooks will see widespread adoption in the next few years.

And then there are the teachers out there who have no game design (or game industry) experience, and couldn't tell a good textbook from a bad one, and won't be able to make the distinction between "currently in use" and "proposed" terminology in their classes. My students will be competing with these, and the other students may even sound smarter, with their talk about operational versus constructive rules... even though my students might be better prepared for the industry.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what direction a long-term solution can come from. Industry is too busy to figure this out on its own, and too insular to listen to suggestions from academics. Today's students may carry some critical vocabulary with them, but it's so scattered across many different texts that there's unlikely to be a consensus. I suppose it will ultimately take a single game design book that is so much better than the rest, that it gets adopted by every class overnight. Any volunteers to write it?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I now have a reputation for strange finals...

On Tuesday, I gave the game design final. Students in small teams learned to brainstorm game concepts over the course of the last ten weeks. This time I threw in a few twists. Three times, I changed the requirements. Once, I had one student from each group rotate to a new group (to simulate losing a team member and having to train a new one). Towards the end, I suddenly reduced the time limit, and then added it back when it would no longer do any good.

The students loved it. They totally understood that this was inspired by real-world events, and that all of the new requirements were drawn from previous projects they had done. I was afraid I'd hear a lot of complaints of unfairness, but my fears turned out to be unnecessary.

I did hear of a similar mechanism from another game design teacher at GDC. Instead of having pre-scripted events like mine, she used a "wheel of misfortune" to choose events randomly. I prefer that solution as a way to deflect students' ire (if there is any) -- it's not my fault, it's the wheel!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Conflicting Goals for Game Schools

As I recover from GDC, I'll be posting all of the stuff I learned about teaching and game design. I probably have enough material to keep me busy for the next few months.

I'll start off with an inherent conflict within any sort of game-related program: the desire to attract students, and the need to only graduate the best ones.

On the need to attract students:
  • If you're at a liberal arts college that's experimenting with its first game curriculum, you need decent enrollment numbers to show student interest. If your numbers are too low, the program gets canceled.
  • More students means more funding, which translates to better equipment and more resources to help your students make great games.
  • If your school has a reputation for a 90% dropout rate because you're just that harsh to your students, you'll have a hard time attracting anyone -- even skilled students who can make it, but who might not have the self-confidence to try.
  • Failed attempts hurt students a bit too much. If you have two semesters' worth of F's, it would take seven years' worth of straight A's to get back to a 3.5 GPA (which is a requirement for some grad schools and scholarships). Without some kind of grade amnesty/forgiveness, this seems a bit harsh for a program that will obviously interest many students who aren't prepared for it.
On the need to only graduate a few:
  • The game industry is still very skeptical of game-related academic programs. Simply slapping a label like "Game Design Major" on your students will not give them any legitimacy when they look for jobs.
  • Because of this, your students are effectively representing your school and in fact all schools with game programs whenever they interact with the industry in any way.
  • Since it's such a small industry, word gets around very fast. If one company hires one of your students and later finds out they have no idea what they're doing, it will be an uphill battle for any of your future graduates since all of the major studios will "know" that your program isn't preparing its students.
  • Even applying for a job is enough to soil your school's reputation. If a student shows a game-specific Major on a resume, attached to the worst cover letter ever written, what does that say about your school?
  • The game industry is a harsh world. Treating students gently does not prepare them for cold reality. Better for students to get used to it in school, and those that can't handle the abuse will be happier in the long run to not enter the industry in the first place.
I can see both sides. So far, I've been erring on the side of helping students as best I can, because low enrollment numbers puts my department out of a job. In the future, as our program gets better established, I'd like to shift towards a "boot camp" mentality, with some low-level classes that are overly harsh. This allows students to self-select out of the sequence before they do too much damage to themselves, and guarantees that only the ones who are really serious will continue on to the more "fun" parts. But by then, we may already have a reputation for being too easy on our students, and it will take time to reverse that.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Welcome, new visitors

I've met a lot of new people at GDC already. The two-day workshop on education was an absolute blast, and I enjoyed meeting so many people struggling with the same challenges that I did. This is exactly the spirit in which GDC itself was originally founded -- we're all isolated from each other, forced to reinvent each other's wheels, so let's just get together and share our knowledge so that we can all benefit.

If you're new:

Most of my posts are not time-sensitive, so feel free to browse the archives (and even comment on them). A logical place to start would be my original welcome message, followed by my series of posts on building a game design curriculum.

For those of you looking for the notes from today's talks, the notes from the undergraduate game design session is here (thanks, Beth). The notes from my five-minute case study aren't online in the Education SIG blog right now, but my final exam rules are posted here, and my after-the-fact comments on the final exam are here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lies I Tell My Students

I'm not much of a party animal or night owl anyway, so I'll just finish grading all of the assignments at GDC after the day's sessions are over.

Yeah, right.

This would have worked last year when I was a newcomer. This year, I know far too many people in the community. I didn't realize this until last night, when I found enough people at the Marriott ("the new Fairmont") to keep me entertained until past midnight... and this is on Monday, before most people are even here.

Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time...

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Off to GDC

Well, this is it... I'm leaving in about half an hour for the airport.

For those of you who are going to GDC as well, I hope to see you there. Look for a guy in glasses with a gray hoodie and a backpack, with 1d3 students in tow at any given point in time, and the name "Ian Schreiber" dangling from his neck.

For those of you who aren't going, I'll try to keep this blog updated on the normal schedule... but no promises. Maybe I'll be so busy that I can't post anything. Maybe I'll see so much cool stuff that I'll post much more content than normal.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Teaching: Recent Advice

Recently, another (far more experienced than me) professor gave me some unsolicited advice about teaching. This is the first time that this has happened since I started teaching, and I am grateful for it:
  • The best use of student evaluations (especially the numeric parts, i.e. "rate this professor from 1 to 10 in the following areas") is to identify my own relative strengths and weaknesses. There are no absolute criteria to base the numbers on, so knowing that I got a "7" in one category isn't that useful... unless most of my other numbers were significantly higher or lower.
  • Sitting in on another professor's class in order to observe their teaching style is fine, but it's considered polite to warn them first and schedule in advance. No, I haven't committed a faux pas here... but I might have, since it never would have occurred to me. If someone sat in on my class unannounced I'd be flattered.
  • College students aren't fully alert until around 10 or 11 am. If I get stuck with a 9:00 class, there is absolutely nothing I can do about this; it's a fight with human biology.
  • (Corollary 1: If I ever have a say in such things, insist that the earliest classes of the day start at 10, even if it means that the afternoon classes end at 6 instead of 4 or 5.)
  • (Corollary 2: If I can't do that, insist that the early-morning classes are the most useless and expendable in the entire curriculum.)
  • It's good to end class with a game. It reminds the students why they took my class in the first place; it reinforces what we've learned during the class; and amount of time spent on the game can shrink or expand based on how fast we got through the rest of the content.
  • It's good to ask students lots of questions and keep them engaged throughout. As time goes on, I'll learn to spend less time speaking and more time asking good questions and then moderating the conversation. (Should be a useful skill if I ever moderate a GDC roundtable.)