Saturday, November 27, 2010

December 2010: No More War Games?

December 2010's topic, No More War Games?, was submitted by graduate student Nick LaLone.

He writes: 

Thousands of video games have used war as a central component of their mechanics or narrative and it isn't surprising. They were created during a time of war and were inspired by the popularity of war board
games like Tactics II, Diplomacy, Risk, and Advanced Squad Leader. These games reflected a changing social landscape as the world metaphorically shrunk. A general fear of what could happen, what had
been happening, made its way into what the people of the 50s,60s, and 70s wanted to play.

Since that time, despite intense competition over the video game market between different cultures, war has remained a central component. As Fallout 3 stated, war never changes. And, through games like Call of Duty, 3rd World Farmer, Minarette Attack, Halo, World of Warcraft, Valkyria Chronicles, Ace Combat, or even Lego Star Wars, the gaming industry has expressed nearly every possible angle on war; war hasn't changed.
  • What would it take start developing games that do not revolve around war?
  • Is violence necessary to explore in video games?
  • How does war change violence and is that change good or bad?
  • If females were featured in a game like Bad Company, how would the game have been different? Why?
Nick LaLone is finishing up his master's in Sociology at Texas State University-San Marcos. He specializes in race, class, and gender studies of popular culture. Lately he has been playing old war games with video game designers who have never played a war game.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ponies and Space Marines: Demographics and Design

In this article, writer and designer R.M. Sean B Jaffe reminds everyone that it's the designer's job to make a game fun, even if the game is about topics outside of the designer's comfort zone.

I have a powerful friend on the West Coast who asks his potential hires two questions. I’ll skip the first one since it’s irrelevant, but the second one is pretty straightforward:
“Let’s say we have a position open on My Little Pony Farmland Adventure. Would that interest you?”
As you may have guessed, the correct answer is yes. Because, as he puts it, "games are games."

While you may not have dreamed of that *exact* project when you were playing Final Fantasy or Doom back in the day and fantasizing about being a game designer, you should be aware that what sets apart a good designer is the ability to make almost anything fun. One of the most pervasive, successful, and well-known games of all time is about real estate and rent control in Atlantic City. I’ll let that sink in.

With the entire idea of games and game design turning on its ear, one of the great unspoken fears of a large element of the industry is the shift towards casual games and the demographics that come with that. The elephant in the room is that a lot of designers in the industry didn’t get into this biz to write for bored housewives, teenage girls or the elderly. They’re into goblins and lasers and space marines, and those are a hard sell for the above demographics, who seem much more into jewels, farms, and the aforementioned ponies. So, as a guy who got his start with vampires, antichrists and were-sharks, I’m writing this for you.

There was an adage in the tabletop industry where I got my start: write the *system* for the *game*. What this meant was that if you had a combat-heavy world like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, you didn’t spend days and days coming up with a perfect system for public speaking. Using that sort of logic, it makes a lot of sense to see what that people outside your comfort zone like about games, what makes them work, and what keeps them playing.

Recently I’ve heard a great deal of complaining about Farmville: “It’s not even really game!” “ You don’t *do* anything”, but not a lot of real assessment of what *does* makes it work. And while there are plenty of arguments to be made about Farmville, it can’t easily be argued that it doesn’t work.

Certain mechanics are popular with certain types of gamers: most FPS players have a fondness for “twitch” mechanics. These don’t go over so well with the casual crowd, who like a lot more time to make the decisions they are going to make. Small details like this are crucial in writing for specific demos, and it’s worthwhile for a designer to play every game they get their hands on, regardless of who it’s marketed to. That way, you get a feel for each demographic’s type of game, and can readily adapt to what a specific job might require.

When creating for any specific group, the most important thing to do is maintain a balance of what you may or may not know appeals to that group, and what you know as a designer is going to be the most fun. While Ponies and Space Marines all have their place, simple fun always has a broad appeal.

R.M. Sean B Jaffe is a writer and designer with a background in tabletop gaming and over ten years of experience in the industry working for companies like Griptonite, Vogster Entertainment, and White Wolf Game Studio. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his wife, his dog, and a fanatical devotion to old-school arcade games and tabletop RPGs. He is a bad enough dude to save the president, and for a reasonable fee, he can be convinced to rise from his grave and rescue your daughter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

December 2010 Poll

Please vote for the December 2010 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:

  • Crafting
  • No More War Games?
  • Indie Design Revelations
No More War Games?
Videogames have a heritage in that they were constructed from display technologies developed because of the Cold War. The first games all resembled some form of war simulation (with Pong being an exception), what would it take to skirt this trend and start developing games that do not revolve around war?

Indie Design Revelations
What takeaways are there from the current crop of indie games?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 2010: Designing for Demographics

Apologies for the late start!

What's the best way to tackle designing a game for a specific audience? That audience could be segmented by age, gender, or even location. Some designers feel that a great game appeals to everyone while others go fishing for specific likes or dislikes of a targeted audience. For instance, if 50-year-old women are known to like gardening, then games about gardening might be a clear direction for that audience.

Or how about when a game is successful in one country, how will it be received in another? Are there specific steps to be taken when localizing?

Can any game mechanic be successfully copied and marketed to different demographics? Are there differences in design or is it just in the marketing?

So what's your methodology and the reasoning behind it?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gaming the Game Developers (Part II)

Unfortunately, the second half of the podcast in September 2009 for Gaming the Game Developers had some sound quality issues.  I was able to get Josh Sutphin's voice louder but Grétar Hannesson is really hard to hear in the beginning of the podcast.  (And please disregard my breathing into the mike ;)

At this point of the conversation, Billy Cain had to leave (he was attending GDC Austin at the time) and Josh Sutphin joined the conversation.

Despite the poor sound quality, I think you might find the second half of the Gaming the Game Developers podcast very interesting.  We talk about the Lead Designer as "game master" and discuss how D&D and MMORPG design techniques can be used to motivate team members, what positive reinforcement loops work, and why social policy makers should look to game design for ideas.

In this podcast, producer Billy Cain, game designer Josh Sutphin, and game designer Grétar Hannesson discuss the topic of Gaming the Game Developers.

[Please note: The podcast does not appear to be showing in FireFox but is working in other browsers.]
To download the podcast: go here.

Games Referenced: Auto Assault, EVE Online, World of Warcraft, Gamestar Mechanic, Scribblenauts

Billy Cain’s game industry career began in 1992 at Origin Systems. Since then, he has designed, developed, produced, and contributed to many award-winning video games including Wing Commander: Prophecy and SpongeBob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman. As co-founder of Critical Mass Interactive, Mr. Cain has created a world-class game development and outsourcing company that has served Disney, Electronic Arts, Midway, NCsoft, Sega, Sony, THQ, Universal, and many other studios.

Grétar Hannesson is a game system designer and an enthusiastic student of human behavior and choice architecture. He cut his teeth on EVE-Online where he served many roles before that of a designer and is now working on an unannounced title for Ubisoft Montréal. He (sporadically) writes about game design and related workplace matters on his blog.

Josh Sutphin is the design lead at LightBox Interactive (formerly Incognito Entertainment). He also produces mods, indie games, and electronic music, and blogs on game design and politics, at