Friday, June 29, 2007

Textbook Reviews

Last Summer, I posted a proposed college curriculum for game design. That project is complete, so I would be in need of a new Summer-long blogging series for this year.

Books on game design are tricky things. There's an awful lot of material out there, enough to be quite daunting to the student, teacher or professional looking for the right one. A disappointingly large percentage of the books out there are practically worthless, and telling them apart from the "good" books often requires enough experience that you wouldn't need the book anyway. Fear not; I shall wade through the mountains of manure to find the few shining gems, so that you don't have to.

Then there's the matter of breadth. Game design is a huge field, like Science; you could no more write a single unified textbook on "game design" any more than you could write a "science" textbook. Every book will necessarily have its own specialization, so even the books worth reading may or may not be useful to a specific designer.

I will comment on several things for each book: first, the focus of the book (because the books themselves rarely tell you), and whether the writing on that topic is worth a darn. Next, the intended audience; again, the books themselves will almost always say they're "for everyone" or "for all levels" because the publishers know better than to limit their audience, so I'll provide my own opinion of who the book really seems most useful for. Then I'll talk about each of the three groups that comprise most of the readers: is the book suitable for a student studying on their own; is it useful for a practicing game designer in the industry; and is it useful as a textbook for a class (and if so, which class).

I realize that some of this may involve biting the hand that feeds me, since many of these books were given to me for free by the publishers so I could evaluate them as potential textbooks for my own classes. In this case, I feel my allegiance should be more to the cause of education than the financial interests of book publishers; if anyone wants a good review from me, they'll have to write a book worthy of it, plain and simple. (I receive no kickbacks or other compensation whatsoever for anything that I post here, nor will I ever do so. I promise.)

I will also include links to all reviews from this post right here, same as last summer, so bookmark this one later if you want the complete list:

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
Basic Game Design and Creation for Fun and Learning, by Swamy & Swamy
Patterns in Game Design, by Bjork & Holopainen
21st Century Game Design, by Bateman & Boon
Game Design Workshop, by Fullerton, Swain & Hoffman
Rules of Play, by Salen & Zimmerman
Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light, by Todd
The Game Design Reader, by Salen & Zimmerman
Game Design, Theory and Practice (2nd Ed.), by Rouse
Fundamentals of Game Design, by Adams & Rollings
Introduction to Game Development, edited by Rabin
High Score!, by Wilson & Demaria
Introduction to the Game Industry, by Moore
Chris Crawford on Game Design, by (surprise!) Chris Crawford
Break into the Game Industry, by Ernest Adams
Teaching Videogames, by Oram & Newman
Challenges for Game Designers, by Brathwaite and (shameless plug) myself
The Art of Game Design, by Jesse Schell

Sunday, June 24, 2007

If Game Design were Painting...

Here's another way of looking at what game design is, thanks to a recent conversation I had with Brenda.

Suppose I have this great idea for a painting, but I don't have the artistic or technical ability to pick up a brush. I could spend years learning anatomy, perspective drawing and the use of various tools, but that would take too long. I can picture this thing perfectly in my mind's eye, although once it's actually on physical canvas it might not look as cool as I'd originally thought. Or, maybe I have all the ability that I need, but I just don't want to put in the effort, because painting is hard work and takes a lot of time.

So, instead of doing it myself, I'll write down a detailed description of exactly what I want painted. I'll include all kinds of details, descriptions of characters and background scenery and color... although my vocabulary might be a little strange to a professional artist, if I never learned technical terms like "vanishing point". Then I'll give this description to a professional artist, and if my idea is cool enough maybe she'll make the painting for me.

Suppose I manage to find a willing artist. A first draft of the painting is made. I offer corrections, in some cases because the artist's work includes better ideas than what I'd originally envisioned, and in other cases because I was unclear in my "spec" and the artist misunderstood what I wanted. We go back and forth like this for awhile. Finally, the painting is done and we're both happy with it (or, I decide that it's "close enough" and I need the money). We sell the painting. I get all the credit, because it's my idea, and the painter was just my instrument. The painter gets more of the money from the sale, because of supply and demand (fewer people want to build someone else's idea, than to come up with the ideas themselves).

Of course, this would never actually happen for a purely creative work. And yet... that's more or less the relationship between game designers and game programmers. And part of me has to wonder how we game designers can possibly get away with it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Reusable Game Design Exercise, Iteration 2

Awhile ago, I posted a way to randomly pick a set of constraints for a Game Jam. I actually used it to generate one of my final exam questions for the Digital Game Design course ("write a one-paragraph game concept that fits the following constraints...").

Alert reader Nathan Ostgard pointed a few things out to me in email:
  • Exercising your skill of "learn to work within a set of constraints" requires different materials than exercising your skill of "be creative and come up with something new". My original spreadsheet is very much geared towards the former, and is not all that suited to the latter (mostly because it forces you to work within existing, well-established genres).
  • There is a difference between Theme and Setting. I lumped them both together without really thinking, but you could easily separate them.
  • You can easily add additional categories of constraints; the five I originally listed are by no means the only ones available.

He built a spreadsheet with the following categories, and elements in each category:

  • Setting: Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Futuristic, Medieval, Mythology, Modern, Steampunk. (I would add: Historical, Historical Fiction.)
  • Theme: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Horror, Mystery, Romance.
  • Objective: Align, Avoid, Build, Chase, Collect, Destroy, Escape, Explore, Find, Grow, Race, Solve, Timed.
  • Perspective: 3D Chase, 3D Eye, 3D Roaming, 3D Static, 2D Side, 2D Top. (I would add 2D Isometric, and the so-called "2.5D" of games like Viewtiful Joe.)
  • Bonus: Abstract, Cooperative, Emergence, Five Minutes, Fog of War, Luck, Physics, Rulebreaking, Self-Expression, Sensation, Social, Squads, Turns, Vector.

Thanks, Nathan!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pieces of Paper

A little while ago, two students presented very different views of my classes.

One student said that he took his tuition and divided by number of credit hours, and figured that he was paying about $120 for each of my two-hour lectures. This perspective made him extremely hesitant to ever miss class -- every time he did, it was like buying two new games and throwing them away!

Another student cynically disagreed, saying that what he was really paying for wasn't class time, but the piece of paper you get when you graduate. To him, the real value of school was its ability to qualify you for a job where you can "do interesting stuff".

The true irony is that this second student was in my Capstone class, working on a team to develop a game!

I wonder how I can best put up a resistance to this second attitude. Other than just being the best teacher I can, of course.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fun with multiple choice

I prefer my exams to contain essay questions, because they offer greater opportunity for expression; they're harder to copy without cheating being obvious; and they give me a better idea of just how much my students grasp the material. The down side is that they take forever to grade, so I can certainly understand the practical consideration of a multiple-choice exam -- especially since the professor is under time pressure to turn in final grades at the end of the course.

Brenda, another game-designer-turned-professor, says to me about multiple choice:

For a multiple choice exam, you can create the silliest answers, and people will select them. It's like a mini-game. My favorite silly answer is "Costikyans". I use it a lot. We talk about Greg's articles regularly in the quarter, and it still surprises me when someone selects his name as an answer. In this case, the correct answer should have been "Semiotics."

I'll have to try that some time, just for laughs.

And now that she mentions it, if I ever make an RPG, I'll be tempted to name the currency the Costikyan. It doesn't sound that much more odd than, say, Gil, Potch or Zenny. "A sword of flame? That'll be 300 Costikyans, please."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Correcting the Answer Key

During the process of grading a final exam, one student's answer to a particular question was very different from my own "correct" answer, but persuasive enough to make me question my own assumptions.

After looking a few things up, I think the student is right. I now have to change my own answer.

Naturally, this was the last exam I graded, so now I get to go back through every single other one and redo the grading on this question. (I won't take points away from students who made the same mistake I did.)

I have to wonder how common this is. I know that every teacher says they learn as much as their students, but I didn't expect to be learning things after the class was already over.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Extra Credit

On my take-home final exam, just for fun, I included an extra credit question: "What is the secret code?"

I gave out the code on the last day of class, as a bonus for anyone who was there. It turns out that every student was there.

Some students missed the question. I have no earthly idea how they managed this.

Some students not only missed it, but made up their own code. Predictably, most of these students guessed the Konami Code. Except that -- get this -- they got the code itself wrong. I seriously considered giving negative points for this question in such a case, as penalty for defiling the memories of my youth.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The down side of take-home finals

The day that my take-home final is due, it occurs to me there is one slight drawback, especially if the exam is sent to students online:

All of my students now have a permanent copy of the exam, so I can basically never use it again without making serious changes. (At least, not in the same school.)

I'll have to keep that in mind next time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Final of a Thousand Faces

I've discovered the joy of the take-home final exam. It's like telecommuting: my students don't have to show up at any scheduled time, and I don't have to make the trip to campus. I'll definitely have to do this more often.

In one of those "why-didn't-I-think-of-that" moments, I recently heard of an interesting compromise: a "take-home" final that is posted online at a specific time, and must be turned in within 2 hours. Essentially, this contains the time pressure of a standard exam, but without everyone having to be in one place. I suppose it makes it tougher to police cheating... except that I prefer essay questions anyway, which are really hard to copy without the cheating being obvious (especially if the test is timed).