Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Origins 2008

It's that time of year again.

I'll be speaking twice:
  • Friday 6/27 @ 9am, room C215: "Game Design for Teachers" - basically a repeat of last year's presentation (I posted a two-part summary here and here). Last year I ran out of time, so I streamlined the content a bit for this year, concentrating on the theory more than the practical.
  • Saturday 6/28 @ 9am, room C215: "Advanced Game Design for Teachers" - new this year, includes the practical aspects (some case studies that I wouldn't have time to present in the other session) and a short workshop where we'll take some content from the attendees and find ways to present it to the class in a more game-like way.

I'll also be taking a lot of photos and meeting with some game publishers for the book, so I expect this year to be a bit different in that I'll be spending as much time doing work as I will be playing games.

This year will also be different in that I know some of my students will actually be there. (It helps when my students from this last year live in the same city, as opposed to 80 miles away.)

If anyone out there is in the area, feel free to find me and say hi. And if anyone out there happens to be a teacher in the area (this includes anything from homeschooling to K-12 to grad student TA to college professor), bring your credentials and you get in the door for free.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why You Hated Your College Teachers

Okay, there were probably a handful of professors that were incredibly inspirational to you, but these stood out in a sea of instructors that you've long since forgotten. (Even if you're currently a student.)

Having compared three different schools that I've worked at, I think I know why.

A full-time teaching instructor is expected to teach four classes at a time. From my experience, teaching a class takes about ten hours a week (this includes about 4 hours in class, plus extra time for prep work and grading). So far, that's a 40-hour work week, which is expected.

But then you have office hours, typically anywhere from 4 to 10 additional hours per week. If your students don't show up then you can use this time for grading, but it seems to me that if you're counting on your students never visiting you then that's a greater problem... but it's certainly not something you should be encouraging as a teacher.

Then there's academic advising, which is nothing most of the time but makes for a week of hell somewhere near the end of each class, as you get a flood of students with paperwork. So far I haven't been involved in this process enough to say what the time commitment is, but I think I can reasonably say that it's not zero.

There are department meetings, which is an extra hour or two every week or two. Already we're somewhere around 50 hours per week. If you want to do anything extracurricular, such as be the sponsor of a student club or perform community outreach to local high schools or offer seminars to your faculty colleagues or what have you, that's extra. Some schools mandate that you put in a minimum number of these kinds of extra hours, others don't.

Now, those of you in the game industry are scoffing at me here. I'm concerned about a mere 50 hours, when it's not unheard of in game development to pull 90+ for extended periods? Ah, but here's the rub: game developers are, by and large, a passionate bunch. We got into the game industry specifically because we love games and want to make them. I'd say that of the professional developers I've worked with, somewhere around 90% of them have a passion for their work and are more than willing to put some extra time in if it'll improve their project, or if it'll give them a chance to improve their own skills and hone their craft.

Teaching is different. Of all the professors I've met, maybe 5% are passionate about teaching, so very few are going to willingly put in the extra time unless forced at gunpoint. And the thing is, with both teaching and game dev, the quality of the final product is proportional to the amount of work you put in.

There are other things that modify a teacher's workload:

  • Studio/practical classes take significantly less time than lectures. You just have to design assignments, so the amount of prep work before class is minimal. Strangely, it counts as the same, so loading up on studio classes is a way to game the system. Of course, someone has to teach the lecture-based classes, so you're just reducing your workload at the expense of your colleagues (who are probably not as passionate about teaching as you).
  • Online classes are insidious. They seem like they should take less time because there is no lecture, but I think they actually take slightly more time because you have to log in, check email and contribute to discussions on an almost-daily basis. Think about how much time you spend just checking your email, RSS feeds and discussion forums in the morning and you'll see what I mean. The time flies by so it doesn't feel that bad, but the total time per week is a little more than a typical lecture class, so you have to be careful. Some schools recognize this and actually pay a slight premium to online instructors; others treat online as equivalent to a "normal" class.
  • For lecture classes, my above figure of 10 hours per week depends on two major factors: amount/intensity of grading, and amount of previous course prep. If your assignments are easier to grade (e.g. multiple-choice as opposed to essay questions) that will reduce your time commitment, at the expense of having assignments that are meaningful -- the Real World rarely gives you multiple choices, after all. As for course prep, a class requires more time the first time you teach it. Some schools give you a break if one of your courses is brand-new and developed by you (say, only teaching 3 classes instead of 4), while others make no such allowances.

There's a common theme here. Almost everything that a teacher can do to make their own life easier, does so only at the cost to the quality of their students' education. Which means that the teachers who are passionate about teaching and really care are the ones who spend 60+ hours per week, and everyone else is going to do whatever they can to bring their hours worked as close to 40 as possible.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

From Gamer to Designer

Most of the people I knew in the game industry who were game designers, were that way from a very young age (myself included). We would make games, even if they weren't very good. When we played games, we would think about the rules. We would write design documents in crayon. It's just something we did naturally, without having to be prompted.

I'm sure that in the game industry, that made game designers easy to screen out. If you ask a question like "what's your favorite game" and then start analyzing that game -- what were the design mistakes (no game is perfect, even your favorite), what would you have done differently, what elements of the game make it so compelling -- the discussion flows naturally with the right candidate. For the people who are more gamer than game designer, though, this kind of question is anathema. "What do you mean, critique my favorite game of all time? It's awesome, it's great, what more is there to say?"

Because that's clearly helpful in a design document, saying that the game should be "great" and "awesome."

Now, I'm in the position of teaching people to be game designers, and it's just occurred to me that my classes have a high proportion of gamers in them, and not everyone sees the distinction. I didn't notice the dividing line in my classes either, until just now when grading the final exam. One of the questions goes something like this: "Write a one-paragraph game concept for a video game that has the following constraints: blah blah blah." And the answers that I get fall into a few different categories:
  • "My game will be just like a combination of this game and this other game." Great, but what if I haven't played those games? And how do you plan on being innovative if all of your ideas are based on earlier video games?
  • "My game has this story..." Okay, maybe you have a future as a story writer, but my class is in game design, specifically core mechanics. What does the player do?
  • A full paragraph with all sorts of things describing how great and fun it will be, with maybe two words to give some clue as to the actual gameplay. These are the fanboys (or fangirls, I suppose, but in my experience it's always the guys that do this). It makes me sad to see that after ten full weeks of learning about how to speak critically about games, as soon as I ask someone to apply it then it all goes out the window and they revert to their earlier fanboy status. I suppose there are some kinds of people that I haven't figured out how to reach yet.
  • And every now and then, I see a student who writes a concept that includes a description of mechanics and gameplay. Apparently, it doesn't occur to them that the question would be asking for anything else (and they're right).

Generally, the students who answer in the latter category are the ones who tend to do well in the class overall. It's making me wonder if this is something of a litmus test for game designers: ask an open-ended question that involves designing a simple game concept, and see what people do. Maybe I'll try that on the first day of class next time, as opposed to on the final exam...

And then for the students who aren't getting it on Day One, I need to work out some strategy to get them to abandon their lifelong gamer mentality for long enough to start thinking like a designer.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Spelling Lesson

Game designers have to do a lot of writing. As a teacher of game design, this means I see a lot of student writing. I don't know what they do over in the English department, but whatever students learn over there, it seems like it doesn't always stick. Maybe it's because no one ever draws the parallel between writing in English class and writing for other classes, that you use the same skills. I don't know.

There are a few errors in particular that I see more frequently than others in game writing. Given the importance of writing to a game designer, I think it's fair to say that these are the kinds of errors that could lose a job opportunity if they appear in a cover letter. (Programmers probably get slightly more leniency.)

This is my list of Most Frequent Student Mistakes. If you're a student, learn these, because you might not get marked off in your game design classes but you certainly will in your job application. If you're a teacher of game design, feel free to add your own frequent student mistakes in the comments.
  • Bored vs. Board. If you're doing a dull task, you're bored. If you're playing a game like Chess, you are playing on a game board. If you say that you're "board" it means that you feel like a non-digital game component. If you call something a "bored game" it is an insult to the game's designer.

  • Lose vs. Loose. If you fail to win a game, you lose. If something isn't tight, it's loose. There is no such thing as "loosing" a game, and you never "loose" a life.

  • Roll vs. Role. If you want to throw a pair of dice to get a random result, you roll them. If you are acting in character, you are playing a role. If you "role" dice it means you're trying to behave as if you were one of them. If you are playing a "roll-playing" game you're implying that you do more die-rolling than actual role-playing, which is generally considered an insult.

  • Suit vs. Suite. Each card in a standard poker deck belongs to a suit. Hotels and office buildings have large rooms called suites. If you refer to Clubs as a "suite" you had better be talking about a swanky dance club and not a deck of cards.

  • To vs. Too. If you could substitute the word "also," use too. Otherwise, use to. Not specific to games but a lot of students seem to have a problem with this and use "to" for everything.

  • Affect vs. Effect. For the purposes of describing gameplay affect is almost always a verb, and effect is a noun. A special ability in a game may have an effect on the game, and it may affect your chances of winning. There are rare exceptions to this which can generally be ignored if you're writing about games.

  • Know vs. No. If you understand a piece of information, you know it. The opposite of yes is no. If you say that you "no the rules of the game" then... um... well, I'm not really sure what you're saying, but it's not what you think you're saying.

Note that a spelling/grammer checker will often not help you with these, so proofread your own stuff even if Microsoft Word says everything is fine.

I also see some common misspellings, which surprise me in their frequency given that they would be caught by a spell checker:

  • Obstacle. Not "obsticle."
  • Strategy. Not "stragety" or "stratagy." And learn to pronounce it correctly. I blame Bugs Bunny for this one.
  • Ridiculous. Not "rediculous."
  • Sense. Not "sence."
  • Experience. Not "experiance."
  • Explanation. Not "explination."
  • Definitely. Not "definately."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Culture Shock: Retention and Turnover

In the game industry (and in fact, in any professional industry), employee turnover is expensive. If someone leaves the company and you have to replace them, there's the expense of interviews (which take a lot of time away from senior people) and then the extra time it takes the new hire to get productive. Companies that realize this do what they can to retain their employees. Indefinitely.

Being a professor is different. In my case, "turnover" means that a student has graduated. It means I'm doing my job correctly. It also means fighting against the instinct of "gotta keep our best people around" that I'm used to from being in the industry.