Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Game Design Concepts: an Experiment

For those of you who I met at GDC and found their way here, welcome!

One thing I talked to a lot of people about is an experiment I'm doing this Summer, called "Game Design Concepts."

This is a free online class that I'm going to teach. It is not affiliated with any college or university, and not for credit. It will be taught through a combination of blog, email and wiki. It contains all of the information (and then some) in one of the game design classes that I normally teach in a classroom in exchange for tuition money. But I'm releasing it for free this Summer.

The subject of the course is, as you might expect, game design. The intended audience is:
  • Students who are interested in game design, and either are at a school that doesn't teach it well or doesn't teach it at all (or maybe you just want a second opinion).

  • Teachers, especially those who teach game design. You can compare my material with that of your own class. Maybe you'll find some useful resources that you didn't know about, and maybe you'll be able to offer me some hints in return.

  • Game developers who aren't designers. In a lot of companies, game design is still considered something of a "dark art" and those who aren't designers are often curious about how game design is done. In a few hours a week, this whole other field can (hopefully) be demystified.

  • Game designers. Do you have an interest in contributing to education? Do you want to know what it is that the next generation of designers -- the ones who are likely to report to you in 4 to 6 years -- are being taught in the classroom? This is a way to find out, and contribute your own experience in the process.

  • Anyone else with an interest in learning more about game design. For example, parents or grandparents of game designers who are curious about what these kids are doing; or hardcore gamers who want greater insight into the design decisions that make their favorite games so great.

If I've got your attention and interest, the blog is at gamedesignconcepts.wordpress.com and all updates (including instructions to register) will be posted there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gearing up for GDC

It's that time of year again. I can't believe it starts in less than a week.

If you're going to GDC this year for the first time, here's a link to my advice for what to bring with you. And here's another link to Darius's store of GDC advice. Be prepared!

If anyone wants to meet up, there are three easy places to find me. First, I'm speaking at the Game Education Summit on Monday. Second, I'll definitely be at the blogger group gathering on Thursday. Third, it's tradition by now that I'll be up early for breakfast on 3rd floor of Moscone West each morning, at the tables right near where the escalators dump you out. Look for the guy who has board and card games.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Culture Shock: Learning Disabilities

Autism. Aspberger. OCD. ADD. ADHD. Tourette's. Bipolar. You name it, someone in the game industry has it. Probably several someones, and probably at least one someone who is incredibly successful.

For this reason, it's hard for me to even call these "disabilities" -- given that the word "disabled" literally means that the person is not able to do something, and clearly it is possible to make games regardless of what psychological label might be applied to someone. But then, I'm not a psychologist.

For the most part, people in the game industry don't care if you've been diagnosed with anything, as long as you can help them make great games. You could be criminally psychotic for all we care, as long as it doesn't impact the development schedule. (Okay, I exaggerate. But only slightly.)

So, it took me by surprise the first time a student gave me this little slip of paper from the campus office of disabilities, several years ago (I've since gotten used to this ritual; it seems there's always at least one per class, and usually more).

For those of you who have not taught before, here's how it works: the student brings you this paper that gives you (as the teacher) no practical information, except to tell you that the student requires some special privilege (commonly, extra time and privacy when taking exams). You have to sign it -- in all the places I've taught, I've never been allowed to keep a copy -- and then the student takes it back. Presumably it gets filed somewhere, I don't know.

And then, naturally, you forget about it, because you're not allowed to keep a copy. Until exam time comes, and you remember that two of your students have special requirements, but you can't remember which students (many students with so-called "disabilities" are quite high-functioning), and one of them might have dropped your class a few weeks back anyway. Oops. I've been doing this for a few years and I still manage to screw this up most of the time.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that you're given no information about how to teach more effectively. I understand and accept that we're dealing with confidential information on a need-to-know basis, and I will often be getting the bare minimum of relevant information. But this conflicts with a desire to teach properly, and if I know that (for example) talking more slowly or repeating myself will help or hurt the situation, or if making my lecture notes available is useful, or if I should avoid calling on a student in class because it would embarass them... well, it'd be good to know, but there's no way for me to find out without a confidentiality breach.

The obvious thing to do in these situations is to talk to the student directly, and simply ask if there's anything you can do... but often the student doesn't know, because they aren't a professional educator.

Best solution, I suppose, is to take matters into my own hands. Read books on as many of these disabilities as I can find, particularly any that might give clues on how to teach better, and hope for the best.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Last-Minute Begging

I see this happen from all kinds of people.

Students: "I know I haven't turned in half of the assignments and I haven't been in class for the last month and this is the last week of the term, but I'm failing the class and is there any way I can do something for extra credit?"

Professors: "I know grades for this term were due a few weeks ago, but I've been so busy with other things that I never got around to sending them in. I hope that didn't inconvenience you by preventing your graduation, or making it impossible for you to get a final transcript for that job you're applying to. I'll get it in this week, I promise!"

Professionals: "I know you asked me how I was doing on my task list every week for the entire project and I've said fine, but I realize now I'm three weeks behind and we've got a milestone due tomorrow. Can I get some help?"

For some reason, some people have a really hard time saying that they're behind until it's too late to do anything about it. And yes, I've been guilty of this in the past, which makes me quick to spot it in others.

Now if only I can find a way to convince students of the danger of this without them having to live through the hell-stress of being about to fail, before the lesson sinks in...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

IDEO's Ten Tips for Teachers

Brenda pointed me at this article about creating a "21st century classroom experience." This has nothing to do with game design per se, except that just about all of these tips are restatements of basic game design principles, suggesting once again that game design is applied education (or maybe it's the other way around).

Summary of the tips and their context as a game design teacher (several points in the article are restatements of one another, so I collapsed them):
  • Don't just push information. Encourage students to think critically by creating an environment where the students can (and want to) ask questions. Translation: let the player actually play in your game world. How fun would a game be if it just told the player to enter a certain code and then asked them to play it back?
  • Make it relevant. Don't just explain arbitrary facts, put it in the context of how they're actually used so the students can see a connection between theory and practice. I've already written about that a couple of times.
  • Soft skills are important. What will really make the difference is your students' abilities in leadership, empathy, communication, teamwork, and other things that are hard to measure on multiple choice exams. This is why games like The Sims and World of Warcraft are popular, despite them not having distinct measurable goals.
  • Allow for variation. Education isn't one-size-fits-all; different students have different levels of ability and prior experience. Translation: include multiple difficulty levels in your game.
  • Give practical experience, not just theory. The article goes so far as to say that teachers are "designers" so apparently I'm not the only one saying this. Translation: if it's nothing more than a series of cut scenes, it isn't a very fun game. Or, as Sid Meier has famously said, "if the designer is having more fun than the player, you have made a terrible mistake."

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Teaching Iteration and Risk-Taking

There is an inherent conflict between the nature of classes and course objectives, when it comes to designing a game as a class project.

The best way to learn to design games is to make a rapid prototype, fail miserably, figure out what you did wrong, and try again. Repeat until you get it right. In order to do this, the student has to feel like it is okay to take risks, that it is perfectly acceptable (even expected) to try crazy stuff that may simply not work out.

But of course, this is for a grade. Enter the fear of failure. Or, it's not for a grade at all. No threat of failure, but likely no effort put in by students on an "optional" project. Is there a way around this paradox?

Here's the method I'm currently using:
  • My non-digital game design project has four milestones. The first is just a high concept, target audience, basic information (number of players, etc.) and some core mechanics. The second is a rough but playable prototype. The third is a playtested prototype, with the mechanics finalized or close to it. The final milestone is a polished product.
  • All milestones are graded. Early milestones are easy points -- just turn in something, anything, as long as it works. Later milestones are graded based on the quality of the design -- you'd better have done some iterations.
  • For the future, I'm thinking that early milestones should be worth fewer points than later milestones. This puts less importance on early work and more focus on the final product.
  • On the days where milestones are due, students bring their works-in-progress to class and present the work for peer review. This also gives me a chance to see how the projects are progressing. In the future, I should probably just give a grade right then and there for the early milestones.
  • Make it clear to students from the beginning that the more they iterate on their project, the more they playtest, the more they fail and then change, the better their final project will be. Unfortunately, this is one of those things they might just have to find out the hard way for themselves. I'll try bringing in a student work from an earlier course (with permission) in its various stages of completion, to show just how much difference playtesting can make.