Friday, October 31, 2008

Fighting Designer's Block

I recently attended an online seminar called "Creativity Coaching" (sorry, I can't find a link to it), billed as, essentially, a method for overcoming creative blocks -- whether you're a writer, artist, game designer, or some other creative type.

The practical upshot is this: it's easy to be creative when you're passionate about what you do, but it gets harder when the creativity is forced or mandated on a project that you're not particularly excited about. You might come up with dozens of story ideas for a fantasy RPG every day, but that doesn't mean you can churn out a bunch of help text for Career Mode in Madden 2009 with the same gusto.

If you're in a situation where you feel like you have to do a task rather than wanting to do it, you're at risk for becoming creatively blocked. (This is true for students as much as professionals. In both cases you're often asked to do something that feels arbitrary or tedious to you.)

The solution is to find that passion again. Remember the reason why you love your field in the first place, and go do that for a bit. If you're a game designer, spend a weekend making a short game, as in a Game Jam. If you're an artist doing commercial work, do a personal art project on the side. Basically, do something creative for yourself and not for money or a job, on your own time. I realize that if you're in the middle of crunch, this isn't always the easiest thing to do. But perhaps that's just one more reason for companies to avoid crunch in the first place, if they want to keep their people in top creative form.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Students who Know Everything

If you're teaching a class on rocket science or brain surgery, your students are probably not going to enter your classroom thinking that your class is a waste of time, or that they know more than you about your subject.

Mostly, this is true for game design as well (as long as you, as the teacher, have enough credentials to convince your students that you really do know more than them). But game design is one of those fields that everyone thinks they can do, because it looks so easy... so eventually, if you teach game design, you'll encounter a student who is convinced they know something you don't. You say something in class, and they contradict you, right there in front of the rest of the class. They insist that you're wrong, they tell you exactly why. You state your case for why you're saying what you are, but they aren't swayed. The class polarizes, with you on one side and this student on the other, and neither of you apparently willing to compromise.

And of course, game design is a living field, with varying opinions on all sides of just about any topic. So who's to say that you are right? But then, if you're not, how can you be teaching a class where you don't know the right answers... or where there might even be no right answers?

How do you deal with that?

If the point you're arguing about is actually interesting and you can think of any value in continuing, involve the rest of the class. Ask for opinions. Get a discussion going. Some of my best class moments were completely unplanned: a student once asked which was better, save points or save-anywhere, which launched the whole class into a wonderful hour-long digression that was far more valuable than the stuff written in my lesson plans. In addition to the topic itself, your students also learn how designers discuss problems in the field, whether it's in a classroom or a GDC roundtable.

If the student is hung up on some pointless minutiae like the exact definition of a positive feedback loop, exit the discussion. Defer: "I'd be happy to talk with you more about that after class today or during my office hours, but I don't want to get too caught on this one detail. We have a lot of other things to cover today, so how about you give me the benefit of the doubt and pretend that what I've just said is right, just so we can continue to talk about the other topics in class today, and we can look it up later. Does that sound reasonable?" (Bonus tip: If you ask "does that sound reasonable?" about anything, no matter how unreasonable, the other person will probably agree. Most people find it really hard to tell you to your face that you're being unreasonable when you ask.)

Warning: If you defer, make sure to follow up. Otherwise, you give the impression that you're just trying to silence anyone who disagrees with you, and ideally it's better if your class is your partner in education rather than your antagonist.

If the student still keeps disagreeing, as a last resort you can pull rank. You have the authority to send a disruptive student out of the room (worst case, by calling campus security to escort them out), if the student is getting in the way of everyone else learning. I've never had things come remotely close to that extreme, though.

Whatever you do, stay calm. Remember: if a student is arguing with you about anything, it means they're passionate about your subject (enough so that they're able to overcome the intimidation of speaking out in front of a group, and speaking contrary to a teacher!). Passion is a good thing. This student's passion might be misdirected, but it's still there, and I'd say that's infinitely better than a student who is bored, doesn't care about your subject at all, and just sits in the back quietly (or doesn't even bother to show up to class). So, consider it a victory if your students are confrontational... it means you're reaching them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One important difference between Game Design and Contemporary Art

I have a confession to make. Having gone on record as saying that all game designers should study art, I've never actually taken a course on studying art until just now. (I did take a course as an undergrad where we created art using a computer, but I'd never heard of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or Robert Mapplethorpe until recently. This is the point at which any artists in the audience are rolling their eyes, wondering how I got as far as I did... and everyone else is wondering what the heck I'm talking about.)

Now that I'm studying contemporary art, I'm seeing a lot of similarities between art and game design. In particular, the art world has already encountered a number of issues in the past 100 years that video games are only beginning to struggle with today. I'm sure I'll post more about that in the future.

Today, though, I want to talk about one of the few big differences between art and games. It has to do with accessibility.

When most people today see a piece in a contemporary art museum or gallery, their first reaction is: "huh? I don't get it." The reason is that a lot of art isn't trying to talk directly to laypeople; it's artists talking to other artists. If you're an artist and you want to say something about the quality or nature or meaning of art, you don't give a lecture at an art convention, nor do you write an article for an online magazine about art; you create a piece of art that states your viewpoint. And other artists and critics who are already familiar with the current issues and discussions in the field (and who are already familiar with you and your background, culture, and viewpoints) will immediately see your piece and understand what you're saying. It's a very efficient way to communicate, actually. You just do your work and it explains itself.

Game designers don't have this luxury. For us, improving our understanding of our craft is a separate activity from actually making games. We talk about how to make better games through articles on Gamasutra and Game Developer, we give lectures at GDC, or we just talk to people in local IGDA meetings or the like. And then when we're done talking, we go off into our own respective worlds and try to apply what we've learned.

And maybe it's because of the complexity of video games, or maybe it's because a lot of video games hide their underlying mechanics from the player, or maybe it's just that a lot of designers aren't that good at game analysis, but we don't learn much from just playing each others' games... at least, not compared with how much artists get from looking at their contemporaries' works.

Here's an example: suppose you're making a CCG and you want to know the relationship between drawing an extra card and having the opponent discard a card (both of which give the player a one-card advantage). I can tell you from experience that the discard is usually more powerful (by a factor of about 1.5x), unless your game has really weird mechanics. But if you just looked at a variety of CCGs, this isn't something that you'd see plainly. Sometimes it's downright obscure, because cards often have different cost structures, or combine things like drawing and discarding with other effects (which makes for more interesting cards, but also obscures the basic costs and benefits and relative values of the simple things). So, unlike an artist, I can't just stare at the work of fellow game designers to learn how they do what they do. And unlike an artist, I can't just make a great game and have it speak for itself, to the point that other designers will just universally "get it" and be able to make their own games better.

But then, this limitation is also a strength of games when it comes to the mass market. If you haven't studied games, if you've never taken a game criticism or game analysis course, you can still sit down and play a game and have a good time with it (even if you don't understand why you enjoy it so much). But if you haven't studied art, and you go to an art museum, most of the stuff in there will likely go over your head. So, the communication between game designers may not be as efficient as that of painters or sculptors... but on the other hand, more people can appreciate and interact with a game than a painting or sculpture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Using Games in Homework Assignments

A lot of my assignments involve either the study of games (sometimes within certain constraints, like games from a certain time period or genre or platform). There are a lot of challenges here. A few pitfalls I've run into and my solutions:

Assignment: Analyze a game from a particular genre.
Problem: Students unfamiliar with the genre will have a difficult time, since they have to research not only the game but the genre as well; this is often accompanied by a perception of unfairness or bias.
Solution: Cover a variety of genres over the course, so that every student will have a few assignments that are easier and others that are harder. Students who aren't hardcore gamers may still feel at a disadvantage. Another solution is to give links or documents that explain the basics of the genre for the uninitiated; you may have to put these together yourself, which is more work.

Assignment: Analyze a game of your choice.
Problem: Even with my pretty extensive knowledge of video-game trivia, about half of the assignments will involve games I'm not familiar with. I then need to research all these games, which is fascinating and educational but also takes time that I often don't have.
Solution: Give a list of a dozen or so games that you're personally familiar with. Choose a variety that are well-known, so that the vast majority of students will have at least one that they already know. For students who complain that they don't know any of the games, you can negotiate with them after class to find a game that both of you know.

Assignment: Analyze this specific game.
Problem: Students unfamiliar with the game will complain, as with a specific genre.
Solution: Choose a game that is sufficiently obscure that none of your students have played it. This is relatively easy if you're studying classic games from before 1985 or so, as most of your students were not alive then :). It's also possible with more modern niche games. In this case, researching the game is considered part of the assignment.
Alternate solution: Time permitting, bring the game in question to class and do a demo and some preliminary analysis in class. Bonus points if you can put the game "on reserve" at your campus library or otherwise make it something that students can play for themselves on their own time.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lessons learned from SIEGE

SIEGE was an interesting experience for me this year. I learned a lot of valueable lessons, many of them related to life and career more than actually making games. Observations:
  • If you get a group of programmers together, they will quietly take notes. A group of artists will sit in their chairs doodling. A group of designers will loudly interact, debate and argue. (Corollary: never schedule a group of programmers to be in an adjoining or shared space with a group of designers, whether you're organizing a conference or putting together next semester's class schedule.)

  • If the conference session you're moderating has the word "Improv" in the title, any number of things can go horribly wrong -- you run out of time, you have to get moved to a different room, you decide to change what you're doing in mid-presentation, whatever -- and participants will assume it's all part of the act, and applaud your brilliance.

  • When a game designer (or student) first starts trying to define why games are "fun" they have trouble even conceptualizing it beyond "I know it when I see it." Then they encounter Csikszentmihalyi's Flow and/or Koster's Theory of Fun and have this huge epiphany: Eureka, all fun comes from learning a new skill! Then after awhile, they enter another stage of questioning this: wait a minute, if all fun comes from skill mastery, why aren't students driven by the promise of fun to get straight A's in all their classes (even the poorly taught ones), since that involves mastery of the material? Why is sex fun (by some standards), and yet doesn't involve mastery (ahem, again by some standards)? At any rate, you could think of this as three stages of evolution of a game designer, and different designers are going to be in different stages, and when they encounter one another there will be chaos when they start discussing the nature of "fun."

  • Another evolution happens during the career path of a game designer. At the beginning, you take whatever work you can get. Mediocre Sequel 2: The Safe Publisher Bet? Sure, I'll take it -- anything to be able to say I worked on a published title. This continues for awhile. In late career (I suspect this is when your published title count gets into the high teens, but it varies with how interesting your random projects have been until then, and it does require you to have worked on at least one brilliant title), you start to realize that your name is now its own IP, and that working on additional failures actually hurts rather than helps you at this point. And for the first time, you start turning down work because you're afraid of harming your own reputation (as opposed to some other reason).

  • Technical artists -- those rare people who know both art and programming -- are worth their weight in gold to a development team. At the same time, many technical artists are not particularly strong in either art or programming. I'm sure there's a corollary here, but I haven't yet figured out what.

  • If you start playing any Eurogame in the hallway at a game development conference, you will soon have more spectators than players. (At one point we actually had more spectators than the heavy-metal band down the hall who were playing the themes to Mega Man 2 in realtime as someone else was doing a speedrun, live. Apparently, Reiner Knizia is geekier than Capcom.)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Speaking at SIEGE

Through a series of random last-minute circumstances, I'll be going down to Siege this weekend. In particular, I'll be running a session with Brenda called "Game Design Improv" which is a series of hands-on game design exercises inspired by our book.

In between sessions, I'll be hanging out with other developers and academics, and possibly meeting some fellow students in the online classes I'm taking. If you happen to be in the Atlanta area, feel free to track me down and say hi!