Sunday, May 24, 2009

Academic Program as MMO

On the IGDA Education list, fellow industry-vet-turned-educator Kevin O'Gorman made a great comment that I wish I'd thought of first:

There's the curriculum you roll the program out with (fingers crossed the people that pulled it together were at least aware of the Ed SIG Curriculum Framework) and then the tinkering and fine tuning that goes on from that point on. It's like an MMO -- the launch is the beginning, not the end of the process.

How far can we take this analogy? Pretty far, actually...
  • Both academic programs and MMOs need hefty amounts of resources to initially develop, before either one of them sees a single paid player/student.
  • Both are based on a similar pay model: pay-per-month or pay-per-semester, regardless of how many classes you take or how often you're logged in.
  • Multiple sections of a course are the academic equivalent of instanced dungeons.
  • Character classes are the MMO equivalent of an academic major.
  • Look at a skill/tech tree for a class in a typical MMO. Looks suspiciously like a list of classes and prereqs, doesn't it? (Hint to game schools: try adding a "tech tree" diagram to your course catalog and see if it doesn't remove half the pain from your academic advising.)
  • In theory, an MMO wants its players to stick around forever; in practice, it's recognized that there is regular churn (you could call this the game equivalent of "graduation"), and so the developer/school must be concerned with attracting new customers/students as well as retaining existing ones.

The analogy does break down eventually. I don't think I've ever sent my students on a "fedex quest" in exchange for grades, nor can my students buy better equipment in my classes in exchange for cash. Students could theoretically sell their work to others at an online "auction house" but it's against the TOS/EULA of a class to turn in work that isn't yours (unlike many MMOs). You can buy "pre-leveled" characters but not a "pre-completed" degree.

Still, perhaps schools could be improved in some aspects if administrators took some cues from WoW.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Career Advice for Teachers and Designers: Do, Don't Show, Don't Tell

There is something that has taken me many years to learn, after observing a number of other game designers and the systems that affect their careers. It boils down to something like this:

If you have to tell everyone how great you are, then you're not.

The best designers do not have to "self-promote" within the industry, because they have worked with other people who respect them enough to be their willing evangelists. As soon as you spend too much effort trying to build yourself up, that is precisely when the rest of the industry will gleefully tear you down. If you feel unappreciated, like you're just not getting a fair shake and you're not getting the attention and appreciation you deserve, it is because there are so many talented people out there competing for that same attention. Best move is to be patient and not overreach; yes, you will feel underappreciated for awhile, but in time your good work will come back to you.

If, by contrast, you spend a lot of time and effort convincing people that you're God's gift to game design, the worst possible outcome is that you succeed in your efforts. And then you're given a project that is beyond what you can handle. But you won't realize it, and you'll take the entire project down with you, and your co-workers will not thank you for their pink slips when the studio closes.

The same rule applies to teachers, but in a different way.

There is a temptation as a teacher to drum up attention for your classes. You want students to know that you're teaching all these cool classes about video games. You want enough students taking your classes that it proves to the higher-ups that there is demand and that they need to throw more resources at your program. You (and probably your boss and boss's boss) want "butts in the seats" under the assumption that if only enough people take these classes, they'll see how awesome they are and spread the word.

This leads to a similar problem as with the industry. If you promote your classes, you will get some students who either feel compelled to take them by your high-pressure tactics, or you will get students who are largely unmotivated and assume that "game class" equals an easy A. Neither of these students really wants to be in your class, nor will they try particularly hard.

In the long term, I'm thinking that the best way to promote your classes is to spend all your time making your classes a great experience. If the classes are that awesome, your students will evangelize for you, and they'll do it better than you can. Your initial class population might be lower, but it will also be more motivated and energetic because those students had to do some work just to take the class -- they had to find out that it was there, and they had to read the course description and probably talk to their advisor to see if this was for real, and they had to sign up on a leap of faith without encouragement from you. These are the students you want in your class.

In both industry and academia, this is the advice I would give:

Spend your time doing great things. Don't spend as much time showing or telling about your work. Let others discover it for themselves.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Back to basics...

A student is admiring my Ra board.
"Is that signed by Reiner Knizia?" he asks. It is. He even pronounces the name correctly.

I mention that at home, I also have a chessboard signed by Garry Kasparov.
The student asks, "who's that?"


Just when I think I've got this education thing down, I find out that there's more work to do.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Types of Student/Beginner Design Projects

There are many kinds of project that help someone to learn design. Some are more or less appropriate in the different stages of a student's educational experience.

Non-digital games (i.e. Eurogames). Design a complete non-digital game (such as a board game, card game, or tile-laying game) from scratch.

Advantages of Eurogames:
  • These kinds of games represent game design in its purest form. The design is laid bare, and cannot be concealed by high-poly-count art or impressive technology.
  • These games can be built very quickly and cheaply. To make a "first playable" version takes only a few minutes, typically using only simple components like index cards and notebook paper.
  • They tend to play quickly, which gives a lot of opportunity for playtesting, iteration, and polish if extended to a longer project (1 or 2 month time frame).

Disadvantages of Eurogames:

  • Does not often meet student expectations. Students starting out in a video game development curriculum may be confused or frustrated that they are not working on video games. Extra care must be taken to justify the concept.
  • In America, board games have a poor reputation from our culturally-accepted "family game" fare of Monopoly, Chutes & Ladders, the Game of Life, and other children's games. Initial exposure to Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Bohnanza, and the like requires a massive paradigm shift on the part of most people.
  • Because students have little experience with board games, many "original" ideas are actually things that have been done before, but the student is not aware. In my classes there's always at least one student who sponteneously and unintentionally re-invents some classic game that they've never heard of. These projects require a lot of guidance and game-literacy on the part of the teacher.
  • Some aspects of Eurogame design do not directly apply to video games. For example, it's hard to simulate the satisfying feel of pressing a button to make Mario jump in a board game.

Recommended for:

  • A student's first experience to the world of game design.

Tabletop RPGs. Design the system for an RPG, playable by one mediator ("GM") and a small group of players. I would also include LARPs and, to a lesser extent, ARGs in this category.

Advantages of RPGs:

  • Most students are at least familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, so prior experience is not a problem. A fair number are enthusiasts of the form, so this will generate a fair amount of excitement.
  • Most RPGs require a strong integration between gameplay and story, making them ideal for the study of both game-based storytelling and core systems design.
  • As with Eurogames, the system is laid bare in the rules, making RPGs a very pure form of design (even moreso than Eurogames, as most RPGs only have a handbook and not even any board or game bits).

Disadvantages of RPGs:

  • RPGs are a very specialized form of design that may not immediately carry over into some other game media or genres.
  • The enjoyment of an RPG relies largely on having a good GM and a good set of players. Good play can salvage bad design (and poor play can wreck a great design), making it difficult to evaluate a game purely on its own merits.
  • RPGs take a long time to play. Typical play sessions last several hours, played regularly over the course of months or years. This greatly slows the number of playtests and iterations allowed in the space of a single course.
  • Take a look at a professionally-printed RPG rulebook some time. Many are in the hundreds of pages, and are too large in scope for a student project. Even if you remove a lot of the fluff and filler, something as "small" as a 15-page rule set will still seem large to a typical undergrad student.
  • Since RPGs integrate story and gameplay, it's important to have a solid understanding of both before taking on this kind of project. Learning how to tell good stories is hard. Learning how to design a solid and balanced rule set is also hard. Doing both together at the same time is too hard.

Recommended for:

  • A mid-level elective course, with an intro game design course and an intro storytelling course as prerequisites.

Video games. Of course, when most students are thinking of "making games" they are thinking of video games. Generally, at the student level, I would subdivide this into two types of video game projects: very small and short individual projects, and mid-sized group projects. Most students would prefer to make large AAA video games, the kind that take several years with a team of hundreds of professionals, but of course the scope is too large for a college course.

Advantages of individual video games:

  • Students really get to take ownership of their project, and it is usually very exciting for them to be making their own original video game.
  • A truly outstanding student project has the possibility of winning an IGF award, which is a big deal.
  • This is the most practical form of experience for students who want to make video games as a career.

Disadvantages of individual video games:

  • Most individuals do not have art, sound, programming, and game design expertise, so some students will be disappointed and frustrated at their inability to do certain things in their project.
  • Scope control is a problem with inexperienced students, who tend to design more than they can reasonably implement in a length of time. It requires a sharp eye and quick response from the professor to get students to keep their projects manageable.
  • Because it is not going to be a AAA game, some students will take a small project less seriously than they should.
  • At the very least, an individual game requires both programming and game design skill (art and sound can be fudged more easily). Learning programming is hard. Learning game design is also hard. Trying to learn both at the same time is too hard, and is the reason why so many people fail when they start out trying to program their own game from scratch as their first hobby project.

Recommended for:

  • High-level class with a lot of prerequisites. Concentrates on showing students how to assemble all these various component parts in order to make a complete video game.
  • High-level class with several game design and programming prerequisites. Concentrates on rapid prototyping, and making games that are ugly but functional as a way to test out certain mechanics or ideas. (A lot of prototyping can be done on paper, but some things like User Interface are best done digitally.)
  • Intermediate programming class, with a game design class as prerequisite. Students learn programming while applying what they already know about game design.
  • Introductory programming class, where the game design is done by the professor ahead of time and students can concentrate solely on implementation.

Advantages of group video games:

  • Most directly simulates the interdisciplinary team environment found in the industry.
  • Students can specialize; each individual does not have to be good at everything, as long as they are very good with at least one thing.
  • Allows for larger scope than individual projects (although still not as large as AAA games).
  • Like individual projects, an outstanding group project is potentially IGF material.

Disadvantages of group video games:

  • Most students do not have a lot of experience working in teams. Lots of things can go wrong: an individual unmotivated student that drags down the team, communication lapses between students that make integration difficult, the design team overscoping the project, personal conflicts between team members, and all of the other general chaos that happens when people try to work together.
  • Since this requires students from several disciplines, you usually have to recruit from multiple departments. Setting up a cross-listed class and getting the go-ahead from outside your home department is a bureaucratic nightmare. Getting a good mix of students with varied abilities is likewise difficult.
  • Students will tend to bite off more than they can chew, especially once they realize that they have so many people working on a project. Getting them to start small and add (rather than starting big and cutting) is always a challenge.

Recommended for:

  • A senior-level "capstone" course, after students have already taken all of the core courses in their respective majors.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Culture Shock: Academic Freedom vs. Industry Constraints

When reading about Brenda Brathwaite's series of non-digital games (this includes games about such heavy topics as the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, and the Holocaust), it struck me that this kind of project would never happen in the game industry.

I don't mean that it would never get publisher funding. I mean, it wouldn't, but that's not my point. My point is, even if it were on her own time with her own money outside of work, this would never be allowed to happen.

Think about it. Suppose you were a working game developer and you casually mentioned to some co-workers that you were thinking of making an art piece and showing it at galleries, and that the topic was highly controversial and this was sure to have a lot of people cheering, and a lot of other people up in arms. How many nanoseconds would it take before your producer found you at your desk and asked you very nicely not to do this, out of fear that the Company would receive negative media backlash, and this is the last thing we need when we're courting three publishers for our next contract, so if you're interested on working on non-digital games maybe you could make something about fluffy bunnies instead? (I suppose some companies make controversy part of their business plan, but I'm talking about everyone else.)

This is a completely different paradigm than academia, where the whole concept of tenure is (at least in theory) supposed to be about the freedom to do anything, no matter how controversial. As an academic, you actually get support for things like this. You can sometimes get funding for things like this. Not everywhere, I'm sure, but it seems more likely that a random school will at least not get in your way if you want to take on a controversial product, compared to a random game company. One more point to consider if you're considering a career in either and you prefer to have total creative freedom.