Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Game designes often struggle with "edgy" content. Do we put in this extra thing because it's cool, or leave it out because it might push the game's rating to M when the publisher demands that it be T? Or, even if it's an M game, maybe this is just a little too offensive; we don't want the industry to have to go through Hot Coffee all over again. And then we criticize ourselves for being too hypersensitive, and doesn't the industry have to deal with enough censorship without us doing it to ourselves?

Well, I just had that same kind of feeling when teaching, for the first time (and probably not the last). I encountered a game that would make a great example for my Game Design class, for why the theme of a game can make a huge difference in player experience even if the underlying mechanics are the same. In particular, there's this game that is mechanically an uninspired clone of a street-fighting game... but the theme is either going to be hilarious or offensive depending on who you talk to, because the playable characters are from the Bible. So, I only brought it up after class, to a few select students who I knew would appreciate it. And now I'm chastising myself for putting political correctness before education.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Life Imitates Games

Within the space of one day, I have two student game concepts that are imitated by the real world.

One concept is an anime-inspired "bunny girl versus cat girl deathmatch" sort of game. This morning on the radio I hear about an endangered species of bunnies being attacked by feral cats.
Another student proposed a collection of carnival-midway-style minigames, sort of like the retro game Carnival only with more variety. Today I see an announcement about just such a game, to be released for the Wii.

The news was dated after the assignments turned in, so it's just a really odd coincidence. (Or, my students are just really good at predicting the future. Maybe I should ask them to consider a career in meteorology.)

Bonus coincidence: my Capstone class has been working on a game for the past 20 weeks with the theme of killing your avatar in the most entertaining way possible (as a reversal of the standard goal of saving/protecting your avatar). Then I find a game called Five Minutes to Kill (Yourself)... thankfully, with very different mechanics.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Emergent Design: Student Paper Prototypes

If you're a designer, you haven't truly lived until a classroom full of students brings you paper prototypes of their video game proposals to evaluate. This was the most fun I've had grading. Ever.

Pretty much every student had at least one thing in their prototype that the rest of us (including me) can learn from, even if it was "don't do this". Failures of prototypes usually teach more than successes. Some students (correctly) failed on their own several times, threw away their own work and brought in something that worked much better -- allowing them to discuss failures AND successes.

I did have some assignments like this back in the Fall, but the students were leaping right into prototypes without first writing up a formal treatment (and also without having a solid foundation of game design theory to build on), so I think for best results this really should be a three-step process (theory, then treatment, then prototype).

The only part I had difficulty with was when a student brought in something that served as a negative example. Having your prototype harshly critiqued in front of an entire class would be mortifying, so part of me wanted to just move on without too much discussion... but on the other hand, part of me wanted to call this out as a great learning opportunity for the entire class. I think I managed to split the difference, embarassing a few students without providing the education for everyone else. Some day with more practice I'll find a way to do that better.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Culture Shock: Doing the Work

As my class ran under time today and students left about half an hour early, it occurs to me that the decision to cut things short was met with enthusiasm -- not because my students hate taking my classes (I hope!), but they've just been conditioned through years of education to get out of class as soon as possible.

This sort of thing doesn't happen in industry. If I'm working as a game designer and spontaneously decide to take half of the afternoon off, the rest of the team isn't going to heave a sigh of relief that I'm leaving (nor is the publisher, or the client). But here, my "customers" are perfectly happy if I'm not doing the job I get paid to do, at least to a certain point. It's rather unsettling, really.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Culture Shock: Transparency

In every game company I've worked at, management was pretty transparent. It's not like you could always walk into the CEO's office and ask to see the financials, but in general any company-wide decision was justified to the employees and there was room for discussion. Often there was discussion before any decision was made.

Universities aren't like that. For one thing, they're much larger than your typical game dev studio, so there's a lot more things going on at once; if you were informed every little detail crossing the desk of your boss (and your boss's boss, and boss's boss's boss) you'd have so much information to sort through that you wouldn't have time to get any work done. Also, I think there's more of an overall attitude that people should be separated; professors should teach and do research, administrators should administrate, and no one needs to be aware of anyone else's job. Information is distributed on a just-in-time, need-to-know basis.

I understand that there are very practical reasons for this, but at the same time it's still unsettling to not really be aware of what's going on around me. I hear the results, but not the reasoning... so when I hear "such-and-such department now has a new vision" I have no way to place that information in the proper context. I also worry that such opaqueness at the management level, whether at a university, company or government, opens the door to abuse of power since there's less accountability. Not that this will absolutely happen, mind you, but the door is open.

I suspect this isn't an "industry vs. academia" thing, so much as a "small vs. large organization" thing. All of the game studios I've worked for have been small: dozens of people, not thousands. And it's not like I can find a 30-person university to compare.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Speaking at Origins

In the board game industry, there are two major public-facing events in the US (similar to what E3 used to be for video games). One of them, Origins, takes place pretty close to where I live... and as if that weren't enough incentive to attend, teachers get in free.

Part of this education track involves access to a set of lectures and workshops about using games in the classroom. Most attendees teach something non-game-related, and many teach at the K-12 level.

I'll be speaking there for an hour on Friday morning (with a repeat on Saturday afternoon) on some theory of game design -- specifically, what makes students prefer games over classes -- and then how to incorporate that into the classroom to make it more engaging.

I'll post more details as they become available.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Reusable Game Design Exercise

One of the designers I worked with at Cyberlore, Jesse King, once came up with a wonderful design exercise. He made some lists of game elements (mechanics, themes and such), put them in Excel, and used the functions VLOOKUP and RAND to display a random element from each list. Your goal as a designer is to come up with a one-paragraph game concept that contains all the given elements. Then you hit F9 (in Windows, anyway) to reroll and get a new set of elements. Repeat until you realize you've been doing this all afternoon, and then sheepishly return to your day job.

It occurred to me that a "random game idea generator" such as this has two academic uses: in the classroom (as a fun brainstorming exercise or even on an exam), and as a way to randomly pick a theme for a Game Jam.

I went ahead and made one of these specific to a Game Jam environment (that is, it avoids game elements that would be difficult to implement in a short time, such as 3D worlds or online multiplayer). It has the following categories, and elements in each category:
  • Theme: Medieval Fantasy, Modern Fantasy, Modern Sci-Fi, Futuristic Sci-Fi, Alternate History, Romance, Drama, Crime/Mystery, Survival Horror, Ancient Mythology.
  • Genre: Turn-Based Strategy, Realtime Strategy, 2D Platformer, Overhead Shooter, Scrolling Shooter, Sim, Graphic Adventure, Puzzle, Time-Based/Racing, Dance/Rhythm.
  • Core Aesthetic: Physical Sensation, Growth/Advancement, Social Experience, Fantasy/Escapism, Narrative/Drama, Challenge, Discovery/Exploration, Deliberate Rulebreaking, Control/Leadership, Probability/Chance.
  • Objective: Chase, Race, Kill/Destroy, Build, Collect, Avoid, Spatially Align, Escape, Explore, Solve.
  • Design Challenge: Squad-Based, Nonstandard Control Scheme, Diplomacy, Feedback Loops, In-Game Economy, Emergent Systems, Fine Art, Training/Education, Fog of War, Abstract Graphics.
If you have any suggestions to add to any category, feel free to suggest in the Comments below.

If you'd like a copy of the Excel spreadsheet, email me at ai864 at yahoo. If you don't like Excel, you can do this with index cards instead; write a game element on each card, sort the cards into categories, and draw one random card per category.

Additional variants:
  • Allow the designer to ignore any one category, but the game must fit all the others. This relaxes the restriction, and might be ideal in a Game Jam if you want more variation between teams.
  • Choose game elements chosen randomly from among all the categories, so that you may get some blank categories and some categories with several elements that must be satisfied simultaneously (e.g. you may have two "genre" elements, 2D Platformer and Turn-Based Strategy, and you'd have to find some way to combine the two).
  • Make a game out of it with several designers present: the first designer generates a single random game element and proposes a game that contains that element. The second designer generates a new element and must propose a game that contains both elements. Continue until a designer can't think of a game; they're eliminated. Also, you can't re-use earlier game concepts; you must propose a new one each time.