Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Four Difficulty Levels of Assignments

As a teacher, I have a few different kinds of exercises I like to assign my students.

There's the traditional kind of assignment where there's a definite "right answer" or thing that I'm looking for. Students are at least used to this from other classes, and they are at least easy to grade: just see if the student's answer matches with the answer key. List five causes of the Crash of 83. Define "positive feedback loop" and state whether it emphasizes early-game or late-game strategy. However, I find the scope and usefulness of these to be limited; game design rarely has a single "best way" to do something.

There are assignments where the student has to exercise a specific skill taught in class, but there are many ways to apply it. Write five one-paragraph concepts for potential game projects. Design the combat system for an RTS. Write a new backstory to a traditional strategy game, playtest it and report on the effect of the narrative on the player experience. These mimic real-world design tasks and provide pretty direct training for the role of game designer. Most of my assignments are in this category.

Then there are larger-scale assignments where a student has to combine skills to take on a major project (typically this takes the form of "create a game from scratch"). This is the kind of end-to-end, open-ended design that a student won't get to see again until they're 20 years into their career as a senior designer, or until they go indie.

Lastly, every now and then (no more than once per academic term, maybe as little as once per year), I like to offer an epic challenge: something that, as far as I know, is an unsolved problem of game design. Sometimes this is something I've tried (and failed) to do myself. Sometimes it's just something I'm curious about, but not so curious as to actually take the time to do it myself. Sometimes it's a relatively famous problem that I've seen attempted and failed by many people who are far more brilliant than I am. I'm talking about things like "design a computer role-playing game that plays in 5 minutes" or "design a collectible business card game that can be played with the stacks of cards you get at GDC, with rules simple enough to be printed on the back of your card" or "write a pitch document for a game based on the Shakespeare IP."

Roughly, I suppose you could say these four categories roughly correspond to Easy, Medium, Hard and Legendary difficulty levels.

You might be thinking, "wait - why assign something that's so difficult that I can't even do it myself?" A few reasons:
  • Learning the lesson that Game Design Is Hard. I make every effort to tell my students that game design is not just a matter of sitting down, coming up with "Great Ideas for games" and then sitting back and collecting royalty checks while other people do all the work. Impossible assignments let me show rather than tell and I think the lesson comes across much clearer.
  • Freedom to fail. While I don't come right out and say that any assignment is impossible, I do let my students know when I'm giving them something challenging. They learn that in game design, it is possible to fall flat on your face... and that sometimes it's even desirable to do so, as you can learn a lot from failed experiments. When you already expect your game to suck, you're more willing to take crazy risks in an effort to fail spectacularly.
  • Tiny chance of success. Few design challenges are truly impossible; it's just that the solutions haven't been discovered yet. Try enough times in enough ways and you will eventually reach a solution, if only by accident (the "million monkeys on typewriters" approach, although I'd like to think my students are slightly more skilled than the average monkey). Some day, either by brilliance or blind luck, one of my students might actually solve one of these things. The student that does so is going to have one impressive centerpiece for their portfolio. Even students who don't crack the problem completely but do manage to make a small dent in it, can learn a thing or two about design from what worked and what didn't - and that lesson can be shared with me and the rest of the class.
  • Offering a glimpse of the next level. When teaching new skills, I like to give my students context: not just "here, learn X and Y for this class" but also "here's where you're going to use it later." By giving students some things they can't do yet, I hope to plant a little seed of fascination with a problem that they want to solve, something that makes them want to keep going... something that they can keep coming back to later as they get more knowledge and experience as a way to gauge how much they've grown as designers.