Sunday, July 29, 2007

Textbook Review: 21st Century Game Design

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"21st Century Game Design" (Chris Bateman and Richard Boon)

This is a dangerous book. I can recommend it for veteran game designers since it provides an approach to game design that they may have never encountered before, and it's one more tool in their already-large toolbox. For anyone else (especially students), this can take you down the path to ruin if you just follow it as gospel.

The idea behind the book is simple: identify your target audience, then use psychological profiles to predict what games and mechanics are most compelling to the intended market. This basic concept of "designing for the audience" is a useful one, and I can see it being applied successfully in the field if used with care.

Strangely, the authors seem overly fond of MBTI as the preferred player demographic. For those who haven't encountered Myers-Briggs, it defines sixteen personality types and then proceeds to lump all of humankind into one of these compartments. Reading a description of these personality profiles bears a striking resemblance to another method of classifying people, and my understanding is that either one is about as useful as the other in terms of predictive value. (If you're curious, I'm ISTP, and Virgo. Those of you who place great faith in personality types are now saying to yourselves, "ah, of course!" while the rest of you already know me far better from my writing than any category I fit into.)

I find it ironic that Ernest Adams, who writes the foreward to this book, wrote years ago how designers should concentrate on making great games instead of spending all their time talking about marketing and player demographics. He even talks about how Purple Moon -- a company that used a startlingly similar approach advocated to this book in order to make "games for girls" -- died horribly because their designers spent so much time doing market research that they forgot to actually make their games fun.

Students: Avoid this book. (In my experience, most students don't need much convincing to not read something, so that's all I'll say on the matter...)

Instructors: Do not use as the sole text for a book. If you mention this book in your classes, warn the students that it is just one of many approaches... and one that has not yet been used successfully to make a hit game. It may be worthwhile to discuss short excerpts in an advanced class, as one of many methodologies for designing a game; as an exercise, have students rip apart the logic, separating the useful from not-so-useful parts.

Professionals: It's worth reading the first part of the book, before it goes into the actual details of personality types, just to consider the concept of a player-centric approach. The rest of the book is built on the foundation of MBTI, though, so it's not worth considering the remaining content unless you've already drunk the MBTI kool-aid.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taking Advantage of Students

When I first read this article on how some unscrupulous companies will try to bilk students by promising them high-paying summer jobs in the game industry, my thought was that this behavior is abhorrent.

My second thought is that it's unnecessary. Aspiring game developers already go to great lengths to convince themselves that they'll be able to enter the industry in the first place -- something that, sadly, not all of them will ultimately do. These people don't exactly need any extra false hope; most of them already have plenty as it is.

The one thing I make sure to drill into my game design students -- I probably mention this more than anything else in my classes -- is that no one should expect to get an entry-level game design job in the industry fresh out of college. Yes, a few lucky ones do, but it's so rare that no one should be relying on it as their primary career. I want no one to have any illusions about this.

This comes as a surprise to many students. After all, game development programs are sprouting up all over the place, so at first glance one might think that industry demand is increasing at a proportional rate. It's not.

As far as I'm concerned, any university that touts any kind of game development program (and especially anything involving game design) is implicitly telling prospective students that they will be able to get a job in the field that they're studying. This is just as much of a lie as the article I was reading. Compare:
"Get paid $80 per hour in QA for the summer! Just pay us a $39.95 membership fee."
"Get a full-time job as a game designer! Just pay us $100K tuition."

As such, universities should be careful to notify all prospective undergrads that a game-focused major is dangerous: it doesn't guarantee a job in the industry and may make it more difficult to fall back on a job outside the industry. Given the time and expense it takes to earn any degree at all, these disclaimers need to be shouted loud and up front, before a student decides on what school to attend.

Some might protest that trying to talk students out of attending your school would lower enrollment. In my experience, though, the students who ultimately make it into the industry are the types who are well aware of the risks and who are dedicated and persistent enough to go through with it anyway. The students who would have second thoughts are precisely those students who would make your school look bad to the industry and lower the quality of your program anyway. So, in the short term you trade off quantity for quality; in the long term, your higher quality gets industry recognition which feeds back into greater quantity. Therefore, being up front with prospective students could actually raise enrollment in a few years!

Granted, you should have a quality program as well if your school is going to offer one at all. If your classes consist of teaching students how to tighten their graphics, you're not doing anyone any favors.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Textbook Review: Patterns in Game Design

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Patterns in Game Design" (Staffan Bjork and Jussi Holopainen)

If you've never seen a book on Patterns before, this is likely to be different from your usual experience. A "Pattern" is, more or less, a common problem and its established solution. The point of a book of Patterns is to prevent you from reinventing the wheel with each new project.

Most Patterns books are programming-related, because programming is the most expensive part of game development, so a lot of cost savings can (theoretically) come from code re-use. Applying the same concept to game design is intriguing; as far as I know, this is the only book to do so (although similar works like the 400 Project existed first).

This book's concept of a Pattern is slightly different. It is more of an encyclopedia of game design concepts; for each concept, it explains what it is, what design decisions must be made to include it, and links to other related concepts.

Unfortunately, the book has some inherent flaws due to its very nature. For one thing, the field of game design does not have an established critical vocabulary, so the authors had to invent names for a lot of concepts that will be unfamiliar to designers or students. This makes the book read like a foreign-language dictionary: every time you try to look up the definition to a new word, the definition itself contains half a dozen words that you also have to look up. This makes for frustrating and dull reading, and since it's a physical book you don't even have the benefit of having hyperlinks to click on. This would have worked much better as a wiki than a book.

To make matters worse, the publishers decided for some strange reason to put about 200 of the Patterns on an included CD instead of in the printed book. However, many of the Patterns in the book reference those on the CD (and vice versa), so when looking at references you have to go back and forth between the two media.

I found the most useful thing about this book to be the overall taxonomy of concepts, where a game is broken down into major component parts (such as goals, rules and player actions) and then each of those parts has a number of concepts (e.g. different kinds of goals, such as Chase or Capture or Evade). This would fit well into a conceptual class on game design, as it goes into more detail than any other book I've seen on the list of concepts.

Students: You can safely avoid this book for the time being. You get enough tedium from the rest of your classes; there's no need to inflict more of it on yourself. Also, there's no obvious way to tell the difference between the terminology that is in common use in the industry, and that which is purely the invention of the authors; talking about Avatars and Bosses is all fine and good, but if you mention Hovering Closures or Focus Loci in your job interview you'll probably just confuse everyone else.

Instructors: The basic concepts in this book could be used in your lesson plans to supplement a theory-based game design class, when you talk about the component parts of a game. Just don't borrow the terminology that isn't in common use. I wouldn't recommend this as a required text for any class; it's not organized in any fashion that I can imagine being useful for a class, and it doesn't lend itself well to exercises. Keep a personal copy for reference when making your lesson plans, but keep it away from students.

Professionals: The terminology and organization of this book give it a large up-front cost in time; even if you just want to use it as a reference text, it's only practical if you've already read through (or at least skimmed) most of it already. If you do put in the time, it may be a source of inspiration when you're working on the core mechanics of a game... but only if the game is highly derivative by nature, because this book only documents common game features that already exist. In other words, it may help you solve problems that have already been solved in other games, but only in exchange for actively reducing your creativity.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Results of E3

Of the whole of the game industry, nothing has forced me to rewrite my lesson plans as much as E3 with its unexpected "downsizing" last year. So, I'll take this opportunity to read between the lines in the media coverage -- a useful skill that I try to teach in Game Industry Survey, since it's rare to see a negative spin on anything, but you can still spot it if you look closely.

Focus on First Party. ("First Party" are the console manufacturers, for those of you just joining us.) There was a lot more squawking about Xbox 360 vs. Wii vs. PS3 than there was about the games themselves. Given that this is the first E3 in the new console generation, I suppose it's only natural. But how quick people are to forget that a new system is only as good as its games!

Price Wars? There was a lot of talk about "price wars" among consoles. As far as I could tell, this consists of Sony threatening to drop the price of the PS3 and then raise it again, while Microsoft and Nintendo mostly ignore them. Doesn't a "war" require two parties? Maybe "price civil war" would be a more accurate description.

Console Hype. Overhyping is alive and well, thanks. Sony claims that Blu-Ray is the future and HD-DVD will be dead within months, so that's why you need to buy a PS3, yeah that's the ticket. Microsoft responds that their death has been greatly exaggerated, and by the way if it does die they'll just make a Blu-Ray peripheral for the 360, and we've got better games, so nyaah. Nintendo ignores them both and just states for the record that they think they'll sell a hundred million Wii. Wiis. Wii's. Wiii. Oh, whatever.

Games for Girls. Ubisoft announces "Imagine", a series of games targeted at girls age 6-14. Due to "extensive research" of the target market. And the games will allow girls to "explore their favorite interests and hobbies". Do these people not study their history? This is almost word-for-word what Purple Moon was claiming to do, and we all know how that turned out.

Oh, and I hear there were some cool games announced at this year's E3, too.

As for whether this is the death of E3, or same old same old, people seem split about 50/50. Personally, I'm more likely to listen to someone's opinion if they're not wearing a chicken suit. But hey, that's just me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Textbook Review: Basic Game Design and Creation for Fun and Learning

This is part of the series of book reviews.

"Basic Game Design and Creation for Fun and Learning" (Nanu and Naveena Swamy).

It is books like this that give the rest a bad name. For starters, in spite of the title, this book has absolutely nothing to do with game design. It should not be surprising that the authors have no published titles to their name and have apparently never worked in the game industry, which is a strong warning sign for any book.

In reality, this book covers the basics of implementation in Game Maker, a game authoring tool. Now, I'm a big fan of Game Maker itself. But the help files and example games included in the download and the forums on the website are far better at explaining how to use it, and go into greater depth than this book does. So, the book itself is entirely worthless; there is no need for it to exist in the first place.

To add insult to injury, the book attempts to explain some basic Object Oriented Programming methodology... and actually gets it wrong! If you're going to use the term "polymorphism" and apply it to Game Maker, be sure you know what it means first.

Students: Avoid this book. If you're interested in programming games but you're not comfortable with the more technical programming languages like C++ or Java, then you might consider starting out with something simple like Game Maker. But the documentation with GM is sufficient, and if you absolutely need a book to read there are better ones.

Instructors: If you're going to devote an entire class to teaching a single tool, you'd probably be better off teaching Flash than Game Maker; Flash is more versatile and powerful, and it's actually used in the industry from time to time. Even if you do want to teach Game Maker as part of a larger course, there is no need to use this book to do it.

Professionals: If you're a non-technical game designer who wants the ability to express your ideas in the form of a digital prototype, again, Flash is probably the best tool for the job if you have it available. Game Maker can be used to make certain kinds of prototypes really fast... but again, there's no need to use this book.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Origins Report (Part 3)

As the board game and video game industries are inextricably linked, it's sometimes useful to compare the trends in both. Here are the recurring themes I saw this year in eurogaming:
  • Pirate and superhero themes. No doubt this is to capitalize on the popularity of these themes in the movies. We often talk of the link between Hollywood and video games, but the link is very much there for board games as well.
  • Animals. I found a disproportionate number of board games that featured animals, including three games with camels, three games with sheep (not including the line of Catan games), two games with cheetahs, and then the occasional monkey, giraffe, elephant, kangaroo or penguin. I have no earthly idea why the fascination with animals, or why it's so much more pronounced in non-digital games.
  • Gladiator combat. If conflict is an inherent element of games, then it's no surprise that games should be particularly good at modeling a straight-up fight. Still, there haven't been many gladiator games in past years, so I'm guessing this year's rash of them is just a statistical fluke.
  • Educational games. There was a game that could be described as the Periodic Table of Pokemon. Another game that taught K-6 math skills, with a superhero theme. And another that featured many historical figures, with the History Channel brand. The thing I found shocking is that these games are actually touting their educational value as their main selling point. While this may get some extra sales with teachers and parents, it probably loses just as many (if not more) sales from gamers who would play these games except that we all know how much educational games suck. I have to wonder what would happen if a company released the same game under two different names -- one with an obvious educational slant ("Numbers League: Adventures in Addiplication") and another where the education is intentionally hidden ("Stupor Heroes"). Same game, different name and box copy, in an attempt to capture both the educational and gamer markets. No one is doing this, but I think it's an opportunity just waiting to be grabbed by any or all of them.
  • Shorter play times. Due I suppose to today's ADHD society, games are getting shorter. I noticed a large number of very solid, deep strategy games that were playable in 45 minutes (a couple of years ago, these kinds of games mostly took two or three times that long). I think this is great; I can play more games to a satisfying conclusion in less time. There are even some tabletop wargames that are playable in under an hour nowadays; thirty years ago, these were the kinds of games that would take an entire weekend to play.
  • Longer play times. Perhaps as a backlash of the shortening trend, I also saw a number of games that take 3 to 6 hours. You can always tell these games because they come in these gigantic boxes with tons of boards and tokens and figurines, and they cost $80 or so. Interestingly, the video game industry followed this same trend with budgets, starting about five years ago: you have to either be a "value" (very low-budget) or "AAA" (very big-budget) game, with it becoming increasingly difficult to find funding in the middle. That trend continues in video games to this day, although it may start reversing itself with third-party Wii games.
  • Reiner Knizia. Seriously, the man seemed to have at least one new game with every major publisher. I don't know if he's just morally opposed to an exclusive contract, or what.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Origins Report (Part 2)

Lewis "Lou" Pulsipher is another game-designer-turned-teacher. I seem to find more and more of us each year. He gave a session this year on game design. I was less interested in the content, more in how that content was presented (since that's the real challenge, isn't it?).

Lou is a big believer in documentation and backups. If you have an idea and don't write it down, that idea may never come to you again and it will be lost forever, so always have something nearby to record your thoughts. Regularly transcribe your ideas from the paper you wrote it down on to a computer document, and back up your hard drive regularly. Even if the idea goes nowhere right now, having it preserved lets you go back and dig up old ideas later on; they can be a source of new ideas, and you might also (years later) finally figure out how to get that old game to work. Having lost my own share of ideas over the years to lost documentation, I'm not going to disagree, and I found it interesting that he hammered on this idea quite a bit -- most game design books don't say much about it at all. I suppose this is the difference between theory and practice.

Also on the subject of documentation, Lou points out that many people don't want to read the game manual, they much prefer to have a friend show them how to play because it's easier. This is no big surprise to anyone who plays a lot of video games (nowadays it's standard for them to have an on-board tutorial that teaches you everything, so that the manual is superfluous) but the board game industry still hasn't caught on. Lou suggests that it would be very easy to audio-record a gamer explaining the rules of a board game, as if to their friends, juxtaposed with photos, diagrams or video. This provides a pretty efficient rules "document" that could either be packaged on CD with the game, or at least put on the publisher's website. Lou also mentions that this would be particularly useful for educational games; many teachers who aren't hardcore gamers would still like to integrate some games into their class, but they don't want to take the time to learn the rules.

Lastly, Lou proposes that a game can be broken down into nine atomic parts. Not all games have all these parts, but the sum of them could be used to completely describe a game His parts are:
  • Theme/history/story
  • Objectives or victory conditions
  • Game state (he called this "data storage and information management" -- a way to record the important variables in a game such as victory points, board position, cards in hand, etc.)
  • Order of play (turn-based, realtime, etc.)
  • Movement and/or placement
  • Information availability (that is, what information is visible or hidden from each player; this includes immediate information hiding such as a closed hand of cards or fog-of-war mechanics, but also includes unknown future information such as the outcome of a die roll)
  • Interaction of game entities, including conflict resolution
  • Economy: resources, the means to acquire them, and the means to exchange them
  • Rules of player-player interaction outside of the game state (this includes mechanics such as trading, negotiation, auctions, and metagaming)

I find it interesting to compare this to the list of formal elements from Game Design Workshop:

  • Players
  • Objectives/Goals
  • Procedures (I found this confusing in the text, but it essentially means the UI -- the actions available to the player allowed by the rules)
  • Rules
  • Resources
  • Conflict
  • Boundaries (that is, where does the game end and the Real World begin; includes physical boundaries such as a proscribed area of play, and conceptual boundaries that let the players know who "is playing" and who is not in the absence of physical boundaries)
  • Outcome
  • Dramatic elements (this includes story and narrative, but also the aesthetics created by the dynamics of the game itself, such as rising tension in a well-paced game)

There are similar elements on both lists, so it may be useful to combine them the next time I teach a theory-of-game-design class.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Origins Report (Part 1)

Last year at Origins, most of the sessions I went to seemed a bit... sponsored. As in, "Hi, I'm a representative from a boardgame publisher, and I'd like to tell you why you should use our games in your classroom. By the way, I have no experience in education, and I have no lesson plans, but don't let that stop you from buying lots of stuff."

This year was much improved. Publishers who were pushing their own agenda at least brought a good assortment of lesson plans and were presented by someone who'd been teaching for twenty years. Others, even if presented by someone who worked at a publisher, concentrated on practical content. And then there were the independents like me, just out to spread the word about whatever we had experience in.

Mark O'Bannon gave a primer on good storytelling practice. Since this was at a game convention, the subject was approached mostly from the perspective of "how to become a better GM by understanding what makes a good story", although the basic principles are the same whether you're writing a book, a screenplay, the plot of a video game or a tabletop RPG adventure. It occurs to me that "write a two-hour game session and then run it with fellow students in a group" would be an interesting assignment for a creative writing class.

The session was pretty basic, so there weren't many surprises for me: most of the content was taken from the holy trinity of Aristotle, Campbell and McKee. Two other books were mentioned as being useful in the context of game writing: "Characters and Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card, and "How to Write Science Fiction" (someone said at the session this was written by Ben Bova, but a search through Amazon suggests this was Card also). I'll evaluate these later this Summer if I have time.

There were a couple gems in the session I hadn't encountered before:
  • When creating a setting, build what O'Bannon referred to as a "community of opposites": character rivalries, feuding factions, environmental hazards, etc. -- things that exist as sources of conflict in the setting itself.
  • On the subject of showing character, a useful way to think of this is to have two emotions fighting against each other. When one emotion wins, that's when you see a person's true character. (Example: pride vs. fear. Put a proud character in a dangerous situation and see whether they fight or flee.)
  • McKee especially talks a lot about how the main character should change during a story, but O'Bannon points out that this doesn't have to be the case; it's possible for the main character to be more of a catalyst, someone who causes change in all that he touches, without actually changing himself. An example would be Kwai Chang Caine.

This post is already getting pretty long, so I'll summarize the other sessions later.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Speaking at Origins: Final Details

As promised earlier, here are the details of my speaking engagement:

I'll be speaking twice, once on Thursday July 5 at 9am, and again on Friday July 6 at 3pm.

The title of the talk is "Why use games in a classroom?" but that's actually not the best title. Presumably everyone attending Origins already understands the positive effects of gaming, and anyone attending a session for teachers is already on board with the whole games-for-learning thing. I'll actually be talking about some basic game design theory (i.e. "What Makes Games Fun") and then applying that to education, to make the class time more engaging for students.

If you're in the area, drop by and say hi!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Textbook Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design

This is the first in a series of book reviews. I'll start of with one of the few useful books I've read.

"A Theory of Fun for Game Design" (Raph Koster).

Everyone involved in game design -- students, teachers, and professionals -- should read this. It's very short, uses a large font, and every other page is a cartoon; you can read through it in an afternoon. It makes the case that learning is the source of fun in games, and that game designers are just a specialized type of educator.

This book is fairly light in content; it's not about how to design games, per se, but about what game design actually is. Probably the most important thing you can get from this book is a way to describe your field to friends and family who aren't gamers (particularly those with the attitude of "why are you wasting your life with those games, instead of studying something real?").

Students: Due to its brevity and tight focus, this is one of the few books that is easy for a student to just pick up and read on their own. If you're broke, you can always just read the thing in your local Borders some random afternoon.

Instructors: I think it would be tough to use as an actual textbook in class; it's too short. For classes where this book would be appropriate, just read it yourself and prepare a lecture that summarizes the key points. And then encourage students to read the entire book on their own time, if they find the topic interesting. Another option would be to require it as one of several short textbooks, and include assigned reading (with a summary report to be handed in) as part of a larger class -- either mandatory, or for extra credit.

Professionals: Pretty much every game designer I know personally has already read this book. If you haven't, you probably should, if only because it comes up in conversation from time to time. But if you work with other designers, they were probably bugging you about reading this long before I made this post.