Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Top two reasons why student projects fail

This article is not only for students, but also for faculty who are advising students on their projects (either extracurricular, or as part of a project-based "Capstone" course).

The sad reality is, most game development projects fail. This us true for student projects, and it's also true for big-budget "AAA" industry projects. With industry projects the reasons for this are many and varied, though there are some common themes; there are tons of project post-mortems available for you to see for yourself on sites like Gamasutra.

With student projects, failure is much easier to predict, because I think the vast majority fail for one of two reasons: overscope, and overreach.

Overscope starts like this: "I love playing God of War / Gears of War / World of Warcraft / Something of WarSomething. You know what would be great? If we made a game just like that, only better!"

Some professional industry projects start like that too. These are called "sequels." If made by a different team, they are instead called "clones" (or if you're feeling generous, "homages" or "spiritual successors"). Why can the industry succeed at this (sometimes) when virtually every student team fails miserably?

The main reason is pure hours worked. Let's take a typical console game: you're talking a team of anywhere from 30 to 200 people, working 40 to 80 hours a week, for 2 to 5 years. Even at the low end, that's 30 people x 40 hours/week x 100 weeks = 120,000 hours. Add to this the productivity difference between experienced professionals and totally green students (with programming this has been measured to be somewhere around a 4x to 10x difference), so a high-school or college team would need to put in 480,000 hours to make "the next Gears of War" or whatever. And that's a minimum. For a typical student who has the time to commit maybe 10 hours per week, that student needs 47,999 close friends. It's not gonna happen!

When I see a student saying they've got a 20-person team to make a game, I cringe. That is way too many people; communications overhead will kill the project alone, if scope doesn't! If that many students are interested in making games, they would do far better to organize themselves into a few 3 to 6 person teams, work on separate projects, and occasionally swap around their works-in-progress to the other teams for playtesting and honest feedback.

What's the cure for overscope? Go to the other extreme. Design a game that you can do in one week or less. If the game comes out looking good, you can always spend the next week adding another small set of features. If it comes out horrible, you're not so attached that you can't abandon it and try again with a brand new project. This does mean an adjustment in expectations -- you might not make the next Final Fantasy game, but you can make the next Tetris, the next Everyday Shooter, the next Spelunky!, the next Narbacular Drop. Look at the IGF winners, particularly the Student Showcase winners. Look at the best games from Global Game Jam or other high-profile events like it. Don't make a massive, sprawling game; make a small, tight, focused game that does one thing and does it well.

Genres to stay away from: RPGs, Sims, "open world" games, and anything else that is extremely content-heavy. A student team just can't churn out as much content as a large team grinding for years, so even if you manage to make a working engine (which in itself is questionable), at most it'll feel like a short demo -- several years of your life for ten minutes of gameplay is not a good use of your time. The only exception is if you can distill the genre to its core: an RPG playable to completion in 5 minutes, a Sim with only one action, an "open world" game that takes place within a single screen with no scrolling, or some other ridiculously simplified variant.

Overreach is an entirely separate problem, although it's often true that both problems manifest on the same projects. Overreach sounds like this: "Yeah, I've never designed a game before... and I only know a little programming... but I have this Great Idea for a game, and I'm sure I can figure it out if it means seeing my idea come to life."

Why is this a problem? First, some basic facts about game development:
Designing games is really hard, especially for someone who hasn't done it before.
Game programming is really hard, even for someone who knows "normal" programming, and especially for someone who knows no programming at all.
Making good-quality game art and audio are really hard, especially for someone who hasn't done it before.
Making an original game is really hard, even if you have done it before.

Combine any two or more "really hard" tasks, and it becomes a pretty much impossible task. This is the mistake that an overreaching student makes: they are trying to run without having learned to walk or even crawl.

The cure for overreach is patience. If your Really Great Idea is worth making, learn how to make it before you try to actually make it. If you're learning programming, then just learn programming -- program something that is already designed (i.e. a "clone" of another game), and that already has art (you can either use placeholder images like colored squares that you threw together in Microsoft Paint, or you can use free tile sets available all over the place on the Web). If you're learning game design, just learn design -- make a board game or card game, and stay far away from any kind of programming task. And so on.

Once you've built the development skills, one at a time, you'll be ready to put them together to make an original game. But jump in too early, and you will likely never finish.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why I Love Social Media

I realize I haven't posted here in awhile, mostly because I've been kind of busy. But something that's occurred to me recently is how social media is becoming a really great thing for games education.

To be clear, most of my students are on Facebook so they can share drunken pictures of themselves with their friends (and then get chewed out by me for it when I point out that this is what their future employers are going to see). My students are generally not on Twitter, and don't see the point. In both cases, I think my students often miss the point, and lately I've taken to being more aggressive about promoting the upsides.

The teachers I talk to are split more evenly. Some are totally into social media, others have dabbled but haven't really taken the next step, and others haven't drunk the kool-aid yet.

Why Students Should Care About Facebook
  • Pretty much the entire game industry is on Facebook. If you want to get into the industry, you had better have a Facebook account. This is a great way to keep in touch with people you met at GDC or your local IGDA meeting or whatever. Guess what those industry people post on their Facebook status? If you said "job postings" give yourself a virtual ribbon. (You should probably have a LinkedIn account too, because everyone in the game industry has one of those too, but you can't play games on LinkedIn.)
  • Like it or not, Facebook is now a non-trivial part of the game industry. Zynga's annual revenue from FarmVille alone is greater than that of most AAA retail games. Social games are a new breed of game (at least on this scale), and students - especially those about to graduate - had better pay attention, because right now there's an increasingly good chance their first job will be working on one of those.
  • There's a lot to learn (good and bad) from the play patterns of social games, that can be applied to other kinds of game designs. In particular, the use of metrics to inform design and the ways that games use social cred as a game mechanic are things that can easily carry over into other multiplayer games, from board games to console or online PC games.
Why Students Should Care About Twitter
  • The entire game industry is also on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, you don't have to be a personal friend of David Jaffe to follow him.
  • Yes, a lot of tweets are things like what your favorite developer is having for lunch that day. Guess what: this is a great way to see game developer culture from the outside. Want to have some idea of what it's like to work with these people? Follow them and see what they sound like.
  • Every now and then you get to see some amazing back-and-forth conversations happening in real-time between some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.
  • Yes, people tweet job postings, too. Perhaps more frequently than they do in their Facebook status, even.
  • If you can't afford to go to a conference like GDC but you're interested in what's happening, follow the Twitter stream. Each individual tweet doesn't say that much, but in aggregate you can extract a lot of meaning and get all the major high points - it's the next best thing to being there.
  • Perhaps most importantly - and this is true for both Twitter and Facebook - their value is multiplied once you're actually in the industry. Right now with the social network I have, I don't use social media to swap drunken stories; I use it to swap valuable information. Just the other day, I asked about who had done research into the psychology of how people's estimates of odds/probability go horribly wrong (I wanted this info for a class I'm teaching) and got a bunch of great references. Later, someone I follow asked if there was such a thing as a game design notation, and I was able to point them to two examples. It's like trading money! (And anyone lucky enough to be following either conversation got the benefit of seeing all of the questions and responses in real time.)
Why Teachers Should Care About Facebook
  • It matters to students (see above). If your students are trying to break into the industry and this helps them, it should be relevant to you.
  • It's an interesting way to connect to your students outside of class, in a more casual/social setting.
  • It's a great way to keep your own connections with industry and other educators you know. (And former students who join the industry, who make some of the best connections of all.)
  • Facebook games provide great fodder for classroom analysis and discussion about game design. And if you happen to play these games on your own for fun, you'll never be lacking for neighbor requests / item gifts if you ask your students for them ;-)
  • You can create groups on Facebook, for free, and use these to supplement your classroom learning. Yes, a lot of schools have their own courseware like Blackboard, but that has the disadvantage that it's a separate, isolated place where students have to go. They go to Facebook anyway, so it's a lower barrier to entry if they can post pictures and status updates and then check on their classes as long as they're there.
Why Teachers Should Care About Twitter
  • As with Facebook, it's relevant to your students so it should be relevant to you.
  • If class happens to be scheduled during a big industry conference, keeping a live Twitter feed on the overhead projector is an interesting way to generate some spontaneous discussion (though it can be distracting).
  • It's a very immediate way to connect with your class. If you have a random thought from home at 10pm that you think would be relevant for your class, tweet about it and use a specific tag (like your course number) so your students can follow. You can also issue challenges to your students outside of class and have them retweet their responses... like, "change a rule of Tic-Tac-Toe to make it better, in 140 characters or less" and see what they make of it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Game Balance Concepts

So, for those of you who recall, I ran a free online class last summer. (If you missed it, all of the content is still there, and you can feel free to look through it at your own pace.)

Well, I'm doing it again this summer. Game Balance Concepts is a ten-week course that will go in depth in the topic of game balance.

Why do this again? Because I'm clearly insane. Also, I'm hoping to actually get paid for my time. But mostly, it's because game balance has always been an interest of mine, and it's the kind of niche class that I would never be able to teach (or even propose as a Special Topics course) as an adjunct. So, this is the best method I have of creating an experimental course with original content, just to see what happens.

At any rate, the class starts on July 5, so come and join me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Takeaways from GECS

I'm just getting caught up from attending GECS last week and meeting a bunch of other really awesome people. The focus of this workshop was using games to teach STEM courses; usually the crowd I hang around with is game developers who get into teaching, but here I saw more educators who were taking steps into games, so it was a bit of a different perspective. Here are the lessons I learned:

There is interest in games beyond "game development" schools and departments. Some traditional educators see games as a means to an end, a way to make their content more accessible. From their perspective, they couldn't care less whether it's games, or inquiry-based learning, or circus clowns, as long as it gets their critical course content to stick in their students' brains. This is certainly not always the case -- there are plenty of professors who delve into games because they are gamers -- but there are others who are unfamiliar with games but are still trying to use them because they want to be effective teachers. The game industry (especially those of us who teach) need to reach out more to other departments, rather than staying in our own comfort zones.

Games are not the only way to teach. While some "serious games" people like to tout games as some kind of panacea that makes all learning activities more fun and engaging, the best examples of so-called "games" that I saw were not taking advantage of the interactivity so much as non-game elements that are engaging. One example, by engineering professor Brianno Coller, illustrates this. He opens a course in Control Systems by presenting this racing-car game, where the car is controlled by some very simple source code. It starts out not doing anything; he tells it to move forward, and the car drives straight into the first wall. He then tries to get it to take a corner, by steering towards the center of the road (with the tightness of the turning proportional to how off-center the car is -- if you're at the side of the road, you swerve wildly, while a slight displacement only requires a slight correction). This seems intuitively like it would work... but when you run it in the simulation, something strange happens. The car takes the first turn, but then starts veering wildly out of control, vastly overcorrecting for its position, until it eventually gets so far out of line with the road that it crashes into a side. This leads into a discussion and exploration of why that happened, how to correct it through a phase shift, and all of the calculus and other heavy math that you need to derive it. He has found that this method of teaching is far superior to simply diving into the equations with no context.

Is Brianno's course superior because it uses games to teach? I don't think so. Instead, what he's doing is opening his lecture with a real-world mystery, something the students can see that is interesting and counterintuitive, and then he goes through the course material to solve it. Once he's got that "hook" the students are much more interested in learning the material, because it's not just a bunch of random facts and equations anymore... the learning has a purpose. And while that mystery may be presented within a game world, I don't think it's the game that gets student interest as much as the mystery itself.

A storm is coming, and it is going to suck. One concern I'm seeing from a number of people is that game industry growth is not keeping pace with the number of graduating students from game-related programs, and yet the number of academic programs is still increasing. As a result, I think the industry is going to get more and more competitive over time, and things are going to be pretty rough for students for awhile (until we find some kind of equilibrium). Corollary: it's likely that we will see more industry "abuse" of fresh students, in terms of expecting long hours and lower pay, since there is more labor supply than demand. Reputable schools should warn their current and prospective students about this trend. (Don't worry about dropping your enrollment numbers; in practice, you're not going to be able to talk most students out of choosing a game development major, anyway.)

Another storm is coming, and it is also going to suck. One by-product of the many industry layoffs this last year, is that a lot of ex-developers are considering teaching as a career, which is a great thing. However, to save costs, a lot of schools have been taking advantage of this by hiring more adjuncts and reducing their full-time staff. This is exceedingly dangerous on the part of the schools that do this, and here's why: the game industry is cyclical in nature. When the next upswing hits and the industry goes on a hiring binge again, schools can expect at least half of their adjuncts to leave. If a department that used to be 50/50 between full-timers and adjuncts goes down to 20/80, and then half of the adjuncts leave, the result would be devastating.

We think there are more academic standards than there actually are. How many schools has the average faculty taught at? I don't know, but the answer seems to be pretty low. And yet, a lot of people I talked to just assumed that their experience would extrapolate to every school in the country. One example is the assumption that adjuncts always get paid less than full-time faculty; I've run into some schools that pay them about the same per course (it's the same course, after all), and other schools that actually pay adjuncts more, on the theory that (a) they need to partly make up in cash what they don't pay in full-timer benefits, and (b) a lot of adjuncts have day jobs, so teaching is effectively "overtime" work for them, and they need the extra pay as incentive to put in the extra hours. Another assumption is that full-time faculty always teach a certain number of courses each term; I've seen requirements of anywhere from 5 courses per term down to one course per year, depending on the school, the department, and how much research the faculty is doing outside of their classes. Another assumption: everyone complains about how hard it is to work across departments because they are "silos" and yet I've seen some rare schools where inter-departmental collaboration is the norm. It seems to me that each school is different, and there are few if any standard practices that really apply everywhere. I was just a bit surprised at how many career faculty seemed unaware of this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Upcoming Events

Looking for something game-related for your students (or you) to get involved in? Here's what my calendar looks like for the next few months:

Health Games Challenge: this weekend (May 21-23)! A 48-hour game jam (i.e. build a game from scratch in a weekend) based on the Apps for Healthy Kids competition. We have seven sites: Boston MA, Seattle WA, Albany NY, Athens GA, Fairfax VA, Orlando FL, and Pittsburgh PA - site info is available on the event website. If you're not near a site, you can still participate from home; send an email to info@healthgameschallenge.org stating your intentions. I like game jams to begin with, as they provide a great experience in a short time; this one in particular is interesting because the end result might actually do some good in the world. (Full disclosure: I'm one of the organizers for this event.)

Games in Education and Computer Science: June 3-4. Registration is closed for this workshop, but if any of you happen to be going, I'll see you there. Participants will work together to identify problems and solutions in the space of using games in engineering / computer science education. Work groups will producer reports (similar to Project Horseshoe), so expect a post here, after the fact.

Game Education Summit: June 15-16. I attended this last year in Pittsburgh, and there is no better place to meet people who are interested in the intersection of games and education. This year it takes place in Los Angeles (a bit far for me to drive, so unfortunately I can't attend this time), but highly recommended if you're in the area and/or have a travel budget.

Origins: June 23-27. This consumer-focused game convention takes place in Columbus, Ohio and is the third largest such event in the world (after Gen Con and Essen Spiel). Teachers get in free as usual (you need to show some kind of academic credentials). While there are some education-focused sessions, mostly it's about immersing yourself in playing all manner of non-digital games. This makes it more useful for game designers than, say, programmers or game audio folks.

Protospiel: July 9-11. I went to this last year and it was the most amazing experience I've ever had as a game designer. It is essentially a small gathering of non-digital game designers who spend a weekend playtesting each other's games. These are people who understand games, design, and playtesting, so it is about the best kind of feedback you can possibly get. Potentially instructive for students who want to see what real playtesting is like. The down side is that it's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so it may not be in your area. If you are in the Austin, Texas area, there's also the inaugural Protospiel South coming up soon (May 28-30).

Overall, it's looking to be a busy and eventful Summer!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Adjunct versus Full-time

In the game industry, there is a big difference between working for a single company full-time and being a freelancer. In education, we use the term "adjunct" instead of "freelance" but they are essentially the same thing. There are benefits and drawbacks to each.

Benefits of Freelancing/Adjuncting
  • You can make your schedule as light or heavy as you want, with a proportional increase or decrease in pay. Since you're paid by the hour (or by the project, or by the class), "unpaid overtime" is not in your vocabulary. And if you've got the extra cash to hold you over and you feel like taking a month-long vacation between projects, no one's going to complain.
  • For industry freelancing, you typically make more money per hour than you would if you were salaried. Stupidly, the reverse seems to be true for adjuncts at many schools, but this will vary from school to school.
  • You are, essentially, your own boss.
  • Everything listed above has a flip side.
  • You only get to "set your own schedule" if you successfully drum up business. Sometimes your services just don't seem to be needed by anyone, and if you don't have a nice fat cash reserve, you starve. Other times it seems like everyone wants you to do something, and you have to turn down work because you just don't have the time. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine world.
  • You'll also find that psychologically, it is really hard to turn down work when someone is offering you cash. Even if it puts you in "crunch" mode to get everything done. Even if the project is a boring, soul-sucking grind. Saying "no" is a skill that most of us need to learn, and we learn the hard way.
  • You know about that "make more money per hour as a freelancer" thing? There's a reason for that. First, it's to compensate for the times when you don't have any work. Second, you don't get benefits -- no 401(k), no health or dental plan, no free games and snacks in the break room -- unless you pay for them yourself. So even though you get more money per hour of your time, overall you usually end up making less money per year than you would at a full-time job. (Naturally, this is even worse as an adjunct at schools where you get paid less per class than full-timers.)
  • You basically must have a fair amount of experience working full-time at a game company. For industry freelancing, you need a proven track record, but more importantly you need the personal contacts that come with the territory -- who do you think is going to hire you? For adjunct teaching, the whole reason to hire you instead of having a full-timer teach the class is that you've got field experience. So, freelancing is not an option that's open to you fresh out of college; it's a door that opens up slowly as you gain experience, and the more experience you have the easier it is. (If you've got 10 years experience like me, you get most of your business through a few key contacts. If you've got 30 years experience like some people, all you need is to Tweet saying "I'm looking for contract work, any takers?" and you get a dozen offers in five minutes.)
  • There are a lot of little hassles that are fairly trivial on their own, but collectively make your life a little more annoying. You have to bill clients and wait for them to pay you, rather than just having ADP send you a direct deposit automatically. Your taxes are more complicated because you receive a dozen 1099s instead of a single W-2. You have to keep separate folders for the multiple projects you're working on, and double-check every email to make sure you're not sending proprietary Company A information to the guy at Company B by mistake. You have to do some research on health insurance, rather than just checking a box next to Self, Spouse or Family on the HR booklet.
  • Yes, you're your own boss. As your own boss, you're a slave driver.
You can, of course, get the best of both worlds by having a day job and then moonlighting. Assuming your day job doesn't have you working so many hours that you wouldn't have the time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Good and Evil of Internships

Internships are typically short-term jobs targeted at students. In theory, the company gets the benefit of a "try-before-you-buy" way to evaluate potential junior-level hires before they graduate: that is, hiring a new person is much less risky if you've already worked with them before (assuming you actually liked their work, of course). In exchange, the student gets that all-important industry experience that gives an edge when they seek full-time jobs after graduation. Oh, and the company gets cheap labor. And the student gets to work on an awesome project like a game they'd like to play, which is like the bestest summer job ever.

In theory.

In practice, there are pitfalls on both sides.

From a company's perspective, interns aren't as cheap as you'd think. What you aren't paying them in wages, you're paying for in time: your average intern needs a bit more hand-holding (or as we call it, "management") than your average full-time employee, which means they are sucking time away from your more productive full-timers. If a $7/hour intern takes up an hour a day of your $80/hour programmer's time... well, you can do the math, but it's a bit more than it looks like on paper. And what do you get in exchange? Game companies don't typically want cheap employees, they want productive employees, and someone who (by definition) has no practical experience is not necessarily going to be that productive. Yet.

From a student's perspective, it's not all sunshine and roses either. Yes, you're working "at a game company" but what are you actually doing there? You are probably not working on anything mission-critical. Maybe you're doing QA, where you at least can't do any real damage if you suck at your job, but if your end goal is to be (say) a level designer then you're not really learning much about how to, you know, design levels. Maybe you're given menial tasks like taking notes in meetings, making copies, and picking up food deliveries. Or maybe you're given a real, honest-to-goodness game development task in your preferred field, and at that point you should be wondering why the company is getting away with paying you so much less than the other people who are doing the same work in the cubicles next to you.

This subject has come up a bit lately because of the somewhat common game industry practice of unpaid internships. There are some problems here:
  • In some cases, they are actually illegal. The criteria vary from place to place, so companies doing this would do well to consult a lawyer.
  • Even if it is technically legal in one particular case, there is the potential for others to see the practice as exploitative.
Is it actually exploitative? In my experience, no. The studios I've seen that offer them tend to be very up front about the fact to any potential interns. For exceptional interns, the companies do usually pay them (as long as they don't go parading it about the other interns). Because they are getting free/cheap labor, they're willing to work around the intern's schedule -- it's not a 40-hour work week so much as "show up whenever you want, choose your own hours". It's hard for me to call this exploitative, certainly not on the order of third-world child labor sweatshops or anything.

This is particularly relevant for schools that have game dev programs, as most of them encourage their students to get internships, some schools actually require that students have a documented internship for graduation, and others offer course credit for internships (paid or not). In particular, this means schools need to:
  • Do some due diligence. Be aware of the labor laws in your area. I don't know if a school could get in legal trouble for deliberately steering its students towards illegal work, but I wouldn't want to chance it.
  • Keep up with local companies. Know which ones offer internships. If any of them offer internships that are technically illegal, it would be a great opportunity to gently notify them of this fact (for their benefit, so they can protect themselves -- it's probably just a matter of the studio not being aware).
  • Educate your Career Center, professors and students. For students especially, make sure they understand the issues at stake as they choose a place to work at.
Educators can certainly be part of the process of making sure this all happens.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Design Tech Tree, version 0.1 (beta)

I put this together today and thought I'd share. I've attempted to list every major skill or task that falls under the broad field of "game design." I then tried to create a kind of progression, based on which skills are desired prerequisites before learning or performing others.

This is very much a work in progress (I haven't even added any icons yet), so your comments are welcome. Click on the image for a large version.

Since this is mostly a graphical version of notes to myself, some explanations might be required. I'm not sure how much is obvious to the casual observer, however, so rather than write a lengthy essay explaining every last detail, I'll simply answer any questions you have in the comments here. Enjoy!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stop saying "They Don't Teach You This In School"!

Twice in the past week I've run into a person that said as part of their presentation, something like "this is the stuff they don't teach you in school." In both cases, this was part of a presentation given at a school. Does anyone else see the irony here?

Okay, in some cases a person is saying this and they're not at a school. But you know what? If that person is saying anything that's really useful, before too long educators are going to notice, and we'll incorporate it into our curricula, and now it will be something taught in school. The very pronouncement that something "isn't taught in school" is self-defeating.

If it were just a matter of technical details, I'd leave it at that, but there is something more insidious going on here. When someone makes this kind of statement, the implication is that there are important things you don't learn in a traditional classroom setting. This may be true, but why? The primary reason is that you get out of your education what you put in, and that some things only come with experience, so students should stop waiting for their professors to spoon-feed them everything they need, and go out there and make learning a passion, and learn this stuff on their own.

However, all too often I think students take away an entirely different message: school is useless, your teachers are lying to you, the only real thing that matters is getting a "piece of paper," feel free to ignore all of your course content, what it takes to succeed is not hard work but rather knowing a few key "secrets" that take no effort. This attitude is incredibly damaging, especially to professors like me who are bringing their own real-world experience into the classroom setting and actually teaching the things that students aren't supposed to learn "in school."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Game Jams in the Classroom

Just talked at GDC yesterday for a whole five minutes, on applying Global Game Jam in the classroom in five non-obvious ways (you know, other than "get students to participate"). I think I was talking too fast for anyone to actually take notes, so here is the gist:

1. Have students read post-mortems and do a cumulative analysis.

The "post-mortem" is a tradition in the game industry: after a project is released, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong in the process (or as I put it: "figuring out why your game sucked as badly as it did"). You can find these on Gamasutra and in Game Developer magazine, and you can even see student post-mortems on Game Career Guide. And to start with, reading these is valuable for students so that they can see the patterns and get a feel for the most common pitfalls and dangers of game development.

Beyond this, though, it's instructive to have students search for Game Jam post-mortems (these are unofficial and tend to be on individual participants' blogs, so you have to do some digging to find them). The interesting thing is that a lot of themes in industry post-mortems on 5-year AAA projects also appear in Game Jam post-mortems (scope control, pipeline problems, engine difficulties, team communication, etc.). So a lot of the same lessons apply on how to develop a game, whether the game takes 2 days or 10 years.

2. Game Analysis

I teach a class called "Game Criticism and Analysis" (sort of like art criticism or film criticism, but with games). The goal is to be able to play games and analyze them in a way that's a little more sophisticated than "it's good" or "it sucks."

Normally, analyzing a full game is really hard in a class, because many games are very long to play ("80+ hours of gameplay!" is a common marketing tactic), and even shorter games are still 8 to 10 hours, which is hard to justify if you want students to analyze a new game each week.

Game jam games offer a solution. Because they are made in a short period of time, they tend to play quickly and have relatively simple systems, lending them to play in class or as homework without taking too much time.

3. Minimum bar for student projects

For "capstone" and other project-based courses where students work individually or on teams to make complete games over an academic term (or several), game jam games provide a realistic, achievable yardstick to measure project quality. I mean, these games were made in 2 days, so your students should be able to do at least as well with 15 weeks.

The best, most clever Game Jam games can be used as a source of inspiration for students, that they should be able to do better with so much more time. They can be used as a grading rubric, letting students know the quality level you expect (and informing the teacher about this as well).

4. Achievements

We tried some new things at Global Game Jam this year, among them Xbox-Live style "Achievements": totally optional extra challenges to allow experienced developers to really push their boundaries. It allowed people to seek their own level of challenge and comfort.

I see no reason similar things can't be implemented in most class assignments. (We already offer "extra credit" but "Achievement Unlocked" sounds so much more fun.) You can offer extra points, or you can simply make it available for the purpose of bragging rights.

5. Fix a broken game

As you might imagine, with only 48 hours, some games don't actually work. Maybe the team overscoped and had to make drastic cuts at the end. Or maybe the programmer stayed up a little too late and wrote some terribly insane code at 3am and now the entire thing is a mess. The whole project team would like nothing better than to sweep the whole thing under the rug and pretend it never happened (and hopefully take away some life lessons about how to not make games).

Additionally, there is often a disconnect between classes (where students typically start with a blank slate and write a complete, simple program from scratch) and industry (where you are almost always working with someone else's pre-written code, not even counting the use of game engines).

Luckily, one of the rules for Global Game Jam is that everyone (in theory at least) has to submit their complete game (including source code)... working or not. This suggests an interesting assignment: find a game that has the source code posted that doesn't actually run, and assign a programming team to fix it, while staying as close as possible to the original design intent.

Your students will hate you. They will complain that the people writing this code were horrible programmers. They will complain that the code is a mess, and that they just want to rewrite it all from scratch. They will probably use a lot more profanity than you are used to hearing from them. In other words... they will start to sound a lot more like professional game programmers :-)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Games at Conferences

As I'm going to GDC next week, it occurs to me that one of the things I'm known for in my small circle of colleagues is that I'm the guy who brings the board games. Video game developers generally like to play board games, and I happen to have a sizeable collection, so this is a win-win.

Playing games at conferences is different from playing them at, say, a local game club. The social dynamics, physical setting, and time availability are constraints on the kinds of games that people are most likely to enjoy. Let us take GDC as an example. Here are some considerations:
  • I'm flying in, so I have limited space in my baggage (especially if I want to leave any room to take back some swag). This favors games that are small and portable -- card games, but even some board games that come in big boxes if I can remove the bits from the box, put them in plastic bags, and have them take up a lot less space.
  • Most venues are noisy, so it's better if games are either well-known (I don't have to explain the rules) or simple (I can explain the rules quickly without blowing out my voice). This also unfortunately reduces the value of games where players have to speak a lot (e.g. those games that focus on trading, diplomacy, or negotiation mechanics).
  • GDC is crowded, and every ten seconds one of the people at the table is going to turn around, see an old friend, and have to go off and say 'hi'. Games that are short (like, five minutes or less) are good here, as are those rare games that allow free entry and exit of players without screwing up everyone else. Ironically, games that have lots of player downtime can work well here: it lets players socialize with non-players when it's not their turn.
  • Table space is plentiful at the conference, but not so much at parties. Some board games that use a lot of space are fine at breakfast, but I also need to bring a few games that are a little more compact for the nightlife. (Also, most nighttime activities involve drinks... so waterproof games are a plus, as are games that can be played competently while drunk!)
  • Number of players is a consideration. Games that only support 2 or 4 players, or those that work best with a specific number, are not as good as those with wide ranges (2 to 8 players). You never know exactly how many people you'll have.
  • Avoid games with play times more than 30 or 45 minutes. Someone will inevitably have to go to a session, or get called away on business.
  • Games that have some kind of visual "wow" factor are nice, because they act as an attention-grabber for anyone walking past. This gives everyone at the table the opportunity to network, if only by answering the question "oh, what is that game?" over and over (hey, any excuse to get a business card). Note that board games with all the bits crammed into a plastic bag aren't so appealing at the table; this year I'll experiment with printing out a sheet with the game box artwork to stick in the bag, to make it look nicer.
  • Know the audience. Three games in particular seem to be loved by a disproportionate number of game developers I know: Family Business (which I never have to bring because someone else inevitably does), Pandemic (everyone seems to love it but no one owns it, making it an obvious choice for me to cart along), and Dominion (sadly disqualified because it doesn't travel well, though I may attempt to stuff the basic set into an old box I used to use for Magic cards).
  • Game developers (particularly designers) have discriminating tastes, so I try to bring games that showcase some kind of unique mechanic. If I can introduce other designers to new mechanics, this buys me street cred :-)
Given all of this, what games will I bring this year? I won't know for sure until I pack, but here are some likely candidates:
  • Incan Gold. Supports 3-8 players, has a small game box, the rules are ridiculously simple but still engaging. Plays in five rounds, with each round taking only a couple minutes, and players can theoretically leave in between rounds without screwing up the other players.
  • Pandemic. With the expansion, supports 2-5 players. Plays in about 45 minutes, pushing the upper limit for a game at breakfast, but this game sets the gold standard for pure-coop play in a board game... something that is notoriously hard to do.
  • Hey! That's My Fish!. Serves 2-4. Small box. The rules can be explained in less than a minute, and play lasts for about five minutes. Delightful experience in such a short time, and it has these ridiculously cute penguin pieces.
  • Notre Dame. For 3-5 players, takes about 45 minutes, and is about as complex and strategic as I dare to bring. That said, it has some absolutely brilliant mechanics, and is obscure enough that a lot of people still haven't played it yet. The box it comes in is large, but it's mostly empty space, so it collapses nicely.
  • Brawl. This real-time card game takes about a minute to explain and another minute to play. Theoretically supports multiplayer, but works best with 2. That said, the games are so fast that this makes a good filler if you happen to only have one other person and you're both waiting for some other people to show up. Comes as a set of small decks of cards, so it's very portable.
  • Rock!. Another real-time card game, also works with 2 (although I learned a nifty 3-player and 4-player variant from the publisher last summer). In an elegant way, demonstrates an important design principle: time pressure makes you stupid. It's just a single deck of cards, and even comes in a metal tin to protect the cards.
Other conferences have different criteria. GDX, for example, is a more relaxed atmosphere where you can actually congregate for a few hours at a time. So the games I bring there is different.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Project Horseshoe

So, I went to Project Horseshoe this year, not knowing exactly what to expect, but hearing from survivors of earlier years that it was awesome. I was not disappointed, and now I understand what it is all about.

The format is highly similar to a game jam. The first night, we collect in one place and have introductions and casual conversation. Bright and early the next morning, we brainstorm a bunch of potential projects to work on, and then aggregate around a few that are of passionate interest. Then we spend the rest of that day and most of the next day working on our projects. At the end of the second day, we present our results to the entire group. I've praised game jams before, so if you like that kind of "get lots of amazing stuff done in a very short period of time" you'll understand the appeal of an event like this.

There are two key differences between PH and a game jam. The most obvious is that in PH we are not making video games from scratch, but rather brainstorming the solutions to difficult problems facing the game industry (for example, my group worked on how to build ethical decision-making into games, in a way that is more sophisticated than a choice between pure-good and pure-evil). So it is more of a "game design jam" than a "game jam."

The second difference is the quality of people. PH is invite-only. This is similar to the difference between the Global Game Jam (open to all) and the Indie Game Jam (invite-only among a small circle of professional game devs). Both methods can work well, either a focus on quantity or quality... as long as the "quantity" method includes some way for the great stuff to bubble up to the top. PH is in the latter camp.

All reports (from this year and previous years) can be found here.

Relevance to teaching:
  • Some reports may be directly relevant to student projects. For example, in one class this quarter, I see one student proposing a game with ethical decision-making and three students writing proposals for Facebook games, both of which are topics covered this year.
  • In a course on the game industry, game design, or game criticism/analysis, one possible assignment could be to read a report of the student's choosing and present it to the class -- the same way other courses might do the same with reading and presenting a current research paper or foundational article from the field.