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.


Daniel Yokomizo said...

There are some modern RPGs that are as different from traditional RPGs (e.g. D&D, Hero, GURPS) as Agricola is from Monopoly. They are known as story games or indie RPGs (there are some differences between those categories).

Many of these games are much simpler than traditional RPGs, discard assumptions (e.g. some are GMless, some have an endgame condition), play in short sessions and outside the campaign mode, have strong mechanical elements that reward some player or character behavior. I recommend Spirit of the Century or In a Wicked Age as good gateway modern RPGs.

Robert Yang said...

In my own game design course, we focus on outdoor games - playing outside with games like tag and capture the flag, and how that informs video game design. It's non-digital, but I feel it's more "basic" and "pure" than boardgames.

Of course, that typically carries its own problems: much like Euro boardgames, students bring assumptions about what playing outside is like. Students' games are often variants of tag or hide and seek or something generally lame, but now I'm tweaking class activities into something that'll hopefully trick them into being creative.

It's nice to see other people stressing non-digital game design in games education. Huzzah!

@incobalt said...

It makes me feel really good that I do all of these (sans group). I've made many an ugly board game in my day (including a Clue-inspired game that used swatches of fabric to represent rooms). I think that making board games and roleplaying games are useful for creating a foundation and examining the basic mechanics used in video game design. A board game like Key to the Kingdom, for example, has the very basics of AI instilled in the game, as well as an exploration/collection mechanic that is very often found in video games (not to mention, boss monsters).

Making a roleplaying game from the ground up is an excellent way to get the designer to start thinking about "What if the player does this? How does the system handle it?" Since the RPG has to deal with the players trying to break the rules and looking for loopholes, the system must be able to handle such play. Video games would benefit more from this kind of thinking (and allowing the players to play their own way, instead of imposing a style of play on the player).