Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Journal Review: Game-Based Learning in India

In this article, game designer Sande Chen deduces valuable game design-related findings from a study of the use of handheld, educational games in India.

I read this article from the International Journal of Educational Development.  I don't usually read such journals, but I have read a couple theses on the use of games in the classroom.  I thought this article, called "A comparative analysis of a game-based mobile learning model in low-socioeconomic communities of India," by Paul Kim et al, would be interesting to note what differences or similarities there might be with classrooms in India vs. classrooms in Europe or in the U.S.

First of all, when it's a low-income area, we usually don't think they'll have access to computers or the Internet.  Maybe they're just struggling with adequate lighting or teachers.  In this study, the mobile devices were brought into the communities courtesy of NGOs and there was not enough for each student.  This is similar to situations in Europe where children (usually 2) may be sharing a computer.  In the India study, a group of children would share a device.

I have previously noted in this article that girls tend to yield control to a boy playing the game but in situations with 2 girls, they will crowd around and participate together.   They will either have one use the controller and the rest give comments or as in the India study, all of them are touching the device.  While this did happen in India across genders, this hesitant behavior is also evident in those who had less exposure to technology.  This could be the difference between the poor and the more well-off students.  Perhaps girls only display that behavior because they are typically less familiar with gaming, and not because they are girls.

I found the most interesting finding from this study to be about group formation.  The study discovered that the optimal group size was around 3, at least in terms of sharing and learning how to use the device and excel at the game. A student with a device to him/herself struggled more than a group of 3 students.  At a group of 7 students, some never got close enough to the device.  Frustration and disengagement prevailed in a group size less than 3 and more than 3.

From a design standpoint, we might think about designing educational games for a group of children to play together rather than for one child alone.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

December 2012: Game-Based Learning

Welcome to December!  December's topic is Game-Based Learning.

There are several terms for games/game mechanics/game technology used for other purposes besides entertainment.  One, "gamification", has certainly elicited strong reactions.  Critics of gamification don't like what they feel are tacked-on mechanics that did not deliver the promise of "fun."  The same critique happened for "edutainment."  While there were many successful edutainment titles, those games were sometimes heavier on the "edu" side than the "tainment."  Later, it was thought that the term, "serious games," could reform or replace edutainment and also expand beyond the elementary school setting.  However, serious games certainly did not suggest fun because it was a term designed to make teachers and governmental agencies take them seriously.

There is more and more interest in game design and using games in education.  Hence, the term, "game-based learning."  While game-based learning can simply mean using games for education, I think it is also meant to suggest a paradigm shift and an interest in students understanding game design.  I've been told that game design is a 21st century skill and that the art of looking at life as a system is a desirable lesson.  There is even a school that embraces game-based learning and tries to teach everything in that way.

I've love to hear stories about how game-based learning is being used in schools.  Is it being adopted readily?  And what are the results?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Mods

In this article, game designer Sande Chen examines how modding board games and sports can inspire creativity.

One of my first mobile projects was on porting the board game Scrabble to mobile devices for JamDat, which would be later acquired by EA to become EA Mobile.  Scrabble is a familiar game.  Most everyone has played Scrabble, yet, as I found, people play by different "house" rules.  As Brenda Romero mentioned during my visit to see her installation, Train (See Reflections on Train), part of the board game experience is that the board game players can change the rules.  In fact, one player of Train decided that some of those passengers could make it to Switzerland.

Have you ever "modded" a board game?  If you don't like how Monopoly takes so long, how about creating a rule that alleviates that?  Have some fun taking a look at some old favorite board games and see what ideas you can generate.

The programmer of Scrabble and I used to take breaks by playing ping-pong in the office.  We would invent new ways of playing ping-pong:  Double Net, Double Hit, etc.  Every day, we would try to come up and play new variations of ping-pong.  For BarfBall, we used a Nerf ball that the dog had chewed up and spat out.  This gave the Nerf ball some weird properties when hit with a paddle.
Book version

For a recent assignment in A Crash Course on Creativity, I was challenged to come up with a new sport by looking at common household items.  If you are interested in seeing what others came up with, you can do a search on YouTube.

Here's my take:

I definitely looked at different "sports" and tried to see what I could modify to combine all these elements.

I think it's great that aspiring game designers can "mod" computer games.  But remember, you can always do these thought experiments as well.  "Mod" a board game and see what you come up with!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Play a Little: Office Space

In the book, InGenius: A Crash Course On Creativity, by Tina Seelig, the author points out that as toddlers, we are surrounded by bright colors and stimuli to encourage discovery. Through playing, we learn. But as we go through the school system, this creativity can be stifled.

Do you remember your old high school or elementary school? Were the desks lined up in rows? Schools were patterned after military barracks. There’s this picture of the teacher as the “fount of knowledge” and the student as the “vessel.” Then, as we graduate, we may find ourselves in similar spaces: cubicles or tables lined up in a row. The message is that the workplace isn’t a place for play, but for serious effort.

I’ve been at companies with the cubicles and even one where all personal surfing or e-mail had to be done during lunch breaks on a computer set aside for that purpose. But I’ve also been at companies where it’s alright to take a walk or play a couple rounds of pinball. I’ve seen some companies set aside a “fun” location, where there’s the consoles and a stack of games. That’s supposed to be the appeal of working at a game company – that it’s different, it’s fun, and not your regular corporate work-slave place. We’re in the business of play, right?

What does your office space about your company? In the Stanford design school where Seelig teaches creativity enhancement, the classroom is set up more as a performance stage than a lecture hall. The chairs and tables aren’t bolted down, but are props for exercises. In her book, she interviews several firms that value creativity. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of workplaces with scooters and slides. One of the most interesting case studies was a design firm who encouraged a culture of constant re-invention. If a colleague went on vacation to Paris, she might come back find her workplace transformed into a mock sidewalk café.

I know that when I see the prototyping supplies at NYU, I do get flashbacks of pre-school from all the bright colors of the fun “toys”, like the rubber bands, blocks, Legos, Post-Its, and dice. If you want to capture that spirit of playfulness, then think about promoting an environment of playfulness. It’s too easy to get mired down in sameness. Creative solutions and creative products don’t come from sameness.

Play a little.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On Volunteering

The following article was written for the IGDA Newsletter. 

As someone who has led a volunteer organization and participated in many other volunteer efforts, I can tell you that what you put into it is what you get out of it. Disappointed that your IGDA chapter or SIG is not doing enough? Volunteer to make a change! Once you start, it’s contagious. Other people will step up and start volunteering too.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Wednesday Lunch in New York, I volunteered to set up an ARG SIG meet-up. From that initial meeting, I met people and we decided we wanted to do a monthly NYC-based Drink Night. It would be a low-key event, just a gathering. It didn’t matter that we started small. One has to think about current commitments and what a person is capable of doing. There’s no sense promising a gala event when there’s no one to help with it. It really is like production planning. Evaluate your resources and see what you can do in the time frame permitted.

Of your resources, the most important is the people! Treat your volunteers well and let them know how much you value their contributions. They could be doing other things with their time. Always remember that your volunteers need to benefit from this activity, even if it’s just your appreciation. No one wants to feel used or abused, especially for a volunteer activity. If your volunteers aren’t having fun, then there’s something wrong.

Treat yourself well, too. If you can’t secure that elusive speaker, then oh well. What’s the alternative? Sure, it would be nice not to have the same speakers all the time, but you work with what you got. The sky’s not going to fall down. Don’t overtax yourself. Remember, starting small is alright. As more and more people come to events, there will be more ideas for events and more people willing to work on them.

Another important item to remember is publicity. You put in the effort and so did your other volunteers, now will people come? Try to get the message out wherever you can and send out reminders, if you can. Most chapters and SIGs have a Facebook group to facilitate this. If you don’t have one, start one.

Good luck and have fun!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 2012: Mods

Welcome to November and a new topic for GDAM:  Mods!

I noticed that when advice is given to aspiring game designers, they are often told to start with mods, or modifications, of games.  Many big games come with tools so that players can build new levels and share with the game-playing community.  Many well-known game studios have a modding background.  Large projects may need a team but there are also tools for smaller games or games that can be developed by one or two people.

I would like to hear about your experiences as part of the mod community and what advice you would give to aspiring game designers who want to get started.  If you are interested in contributing an article, please look at the submission guidelines and e-mail the article to me.

Here are some questions to get you thinking about the topic.
  • What valuable lessons can you learn from modding?
  • What skills do you need to get started?  How hard or easy would it be to pick up? 
  • Do you have any success stories or memorable experiences to relate?
  • What is the community like?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Video Game Music: Player Immersion (Part II)

In Part I of this article, lead audio designer Gina Zdanowicz discusses how video game music enhances a player’s gameplay experience.  In Part II, she offers examples of diegetic and non-diegetic music in games.

A technique that is becoming more popular in games is diegetic music. Diegetic music refers to music that originates from within the game world. It’s always nice when a game score can incorporate epic music in the game world, but in real life when you are walking around in a park or on a beach, you don’t hear any music unless you have your headphones on. Diegetic music, although coming from an object within the game, can still set the mood of the environment.

Let’s take a look at some games that use diegetic music to enhance the player’s immersion into the game world.

Fallout 3 makes great use of diegetic and non-diegetic music. Characters in the game have wrist-mounted computers called the Pip-boy 3000, as well as radios scattered around the game world which play music and other broadcasts from in-game radio stations. If the player has their Pip-boy 3000 turned on, they have to be careful of the radio alerting NPC’s to their presence. When the radio function is turned off, non-diegetic background music is played through the game world.

Bioshock also uses a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic music, as well as no music, to set the mood. In the game’s opening scene, the player escapes from the plane wreckage to a lighthouse set on a small rocky island. The lack of music in this scene hints to the player the feelings of a desperate struggle to survive. After the player enters the lighthouse, music starts to fade into the scene. The music is coming from downstairs, which provokes the player to follow the music down the flight of stairs to find the radio in a bathysphere. The music plays two roles in this example: It gives the player a reason to move forward in the game, as well as sets the mood.

The use of diegetic music in Bioshock really underscores the dying city when the player enters a room with a scratchy, 60’s-era record playing. Diegetic music, which is used in place of orchestral background music, can be heard from around corners or can be muffled by doors.

Left 4 Dead allows a player to turn on a jukebox, which will attract a zombie horde. During this attack, instead of non-diegetic music playing, the jukebox music continues to play even if the jukebox is out of visual range.

Grand Theft Auto is, while cliché, a good example of diegetic music. Car radios broadcast different stations and songs that the player can choose to tune into while driving the vehicles in the game. After all, who doesn’t love riding in a car with the music pumping?

A diegetic switch is a technique which can be used to continue the diegetic music throughout the game. The music starts off as a diegetic broadcast from a radio or other source within the game, and as the scene changes, the music switches to a non-diegetic version of the same song and continues to play in that environment.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time starts with the diegetic version of Saria’s as it directs the player through the lost woods maze. As the song grows louder, the player is aware that they are moving forward in the right direction. If they player goes off course, the song’s volume decreases, alerting the player to change direction. After the player learns the song, it becomes non-diegetic music in that environment.

As video games evolve, game music must also evolve, allowing for a cohesive integration for a seamless visual and aural experience, which will deeply immerse the player into the game world and keep them there until they press the pause button.

Gina Zdanowicz is the Founder of Seriallab Studios, Lead Audio Designer at Mini Monster Media, LLC and a Game Audio Instructor at Berkleemusic. Seriallab Studios is a full service audio content provider supplying custom music and sound effects to the video game industry. Seriallab Studios has been involved in the audio development of 60+ titles.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Video Game Music: Player Immersion (Part I)

In Part I of this article, lead audio designer Gina Zdanowicz discusses how video game music enhances a player’s gameplay experience.
Music has always been an important part of entertainment media. As gaming continues to evolve, game music is more heavily relied upon to integrate with the games visuals, to set the scene, and to evoke players’ emotions. Game music should affect the gameplay, and the gameplay should affect the music. The player’s actions influence the interactivity and evolution of the music, just as the music influences the player’s decisions during game play. This combination immerses the player deeper into the gaming experience.

One of the biggest challenges in creating music for video games is in understanding the limits of the game audio engines while trying to provide a seamless interactive experience.

Techniques such as varying tempo, genre, instrumentation and musical notes can set the perfect mood for each area of the game and tell the player exactly what emotions they should feel in those areas.

A layered score is a technique that has several streams with different instruments on each. Those streams should be composed so they are strong on their own and work well with the games visuals, but also be able to be mixed together with the other streams to evolve the music as the game play changes.

Music that builds to a crescendo can signal to the player there is danger just ahead. A boss battle may require more intense music with several layers of instruments and heavy percussion. After the boss is defeated, the music slows down in tempo and the instrumentation thins out, signaling to the player that the danger is no longer imminent.

Super Mario Brothers utilized increased tempo to signal to the player that time is running out, which evokes a sense of urgency to complete the level before running out of time. Dead Space 2 uses ambient soundscapes and a large orchestra to create an eerie, yet larger than life feeling. A small string quartet was used in the game to contrast the large orchestra and to portray the vulnerability of the main character.

Both music and visuals must be well thought out and tightly integrated to create a cohesive and ambient environment. A game’s pace is just as important as the musical build up that allows the player time to feel safe in order to deliver the next tense moment with impact.

When you take a look at how far music in gaming has come, it speaks volumes to its importance in the game industry. Music is no longer just set in the background of the game. Rhythm genre game titles such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero offer a twist on standard game play and offer music as the game.

Gina Zdanowicz is the Founder of Seriallab Studios, Lead Audio Designer at Mini Monster Media, LLC and a Game Audio Instructor at Berkleemusic. Seriallab Studios is a full service audio content provider supplying custom music and sound effects to the video game industry. Seriallab Studios has been involved in the audio development of 60+ titles.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What is a Game Designer?

In this article, MMO developer Brian Green explains what exactly a game designer does in an organization and why a variety of skills is required for game design.

So, let's start with the basics: What is a game designer?

A Communicator

The primary job of a designer is communication. This means you need to get used to doing a lot of writing, meeting, and explaining. Really, your ideas are actually secondary to the main focus of explaining those ideas. A designer with mediocre ideas and great communication skills is better than a designer with super ideas and no communication skills.

Why is communication so important? If the designer cannot communicate their ideas, then those ideas are stuck in his or her head. Without good design, it is harder for implementers to coordinate and plan the project. The designer should also be able to identify details that the implementers might not consider.

Not Really the Idea Person

So, what about ideas? Most aspiring game designers are disappointed to learn that they won't get to be the "idea person" on a project. In fact, the direction of game project is usually already established by someone (maybe a senior designer), approved by executives (sometimes approving his or her own flawed idea), fleshed out in high level meetings, then passed down from the lead designer to a junior designer. Note that you will still have a chance to be creative, but you won't necessarily be suggesting sweeping changes and directly choosing which games will be made. You will probably be working on a smaller portion of the whole project. This is still an interesting job, however, and you should take the opportunity to learn as much as you can while doing your work.

Also note that most new designers are going to be working on the "second tier" type projects. These games include ports, sequels, and other games that aren't going to be as interesting to work on as the hot new high-profile brand. But, you have to start somewhere. As you gain experience and work into higher positions, you will generally be able to work on higher profile games and get more creative freedom, but will not necessarily call the creative shots. Even a lead designer will see many of the details about the core gameplay already decided for them. So, what does a designer do if he or she is not the "idea guy"?

An Organizer

One major responsibility of a designer, particularly a lead designer, is organization. A lead designer organizes the different thoughts that everyone has come up with prior to starting on the project. He or she has to consider how these different systems work together and organize them into a series of documents. The lead designer also evaluates all the ideas and offer feedback based on my experience, particularly the parts dealing with online-specific aspects. The lead designer will also organize documents for the Creative Director, Executive Producer, and other designers to review and work on. After all this organization, the lead designer will still have to work on the details of some of the documents themselves along with the other designers. Eventually the design documents will be handed to the implementers to make early versions and prototypes of the game.

Good organization makes it easier to collaborate on the design. For example, there may be the design for a general advancement system in place in addition to a general quest system. A designer should be able to point out that some concept prevents them from working together, or that the advancement system expects players to gain X experience per hour, but that the quest system states it will provide Y per hour. Good organization skills to understand the systems are what make this feedback possible.

A Researcher

When it comes to the creative part of the job, a designer has to evaluate and flesh out ideas already presented. If the game contains RPG-style combat, for example, a designer needs to evaluate ideas for viability. If the ideas are not feasible, he or she must bring up these issues to managers and perhaps even suggest a way to alter the idea to make it possible. Once the idea is determined feasible, the design team needs to fill in details. How do you do this? Research!

One of the most useful skills a designer can have is knowing how to find information. In this day and age, that means knowing how to use search engines, online encyclopedias, and wikis; of course, you need enough basic knowledge to know how accurate the information you find really is. However, don't be afraid to go to the old-fashioned physical library in your town as well.

It also means having an extensive knowledge of other games, and that means playing lots of games! You should play major games in the genre as well as a few offbeat ones and a good selection outside your project's genre. Having a grasp on other genres can help give you inspiration for design problems you will encounter. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to copy existing systems wholesale without understanding the design choices that went into that work.
If you don't enjoy reading pages and pages information, synthesizing data to present to other people, and playing games, do not become a game designer.

A Jack-of-all-trades

Okay, so now we know in general what a designer should do, what does a designer do on a day to day basis? Well, this is harder to define because it depends on many factors, including the project, the designer, and the organization. Unfortunately, the industry really doesn't have standardized titles or job descriptions. So, you get a lot of specialized titles that may mean different things at different companies. The skills required for a "systems designer" (which is my strength) are very focused on math. A level layout designer (which I am hopelessly terrible at), on the other hand, should be much more visually-orientated and able to visualize things easily in his or her head. Note that some companies might expect a "designer" to encompass many different disciplines.

It's not unusually to think of a designer as a jack-of-all-trades, especially as many designers have worked into a design position from another discipline. A designer with an art background might be assigned to develop the user interface, or work closely with the Art Lead to develop color schemes. Designers with a mind for programming might dig into the scripting system and help with implementation. However, a truly great designer should have at least a working knowledge of every aspect of game development. Even if the designer can't draw detailed pictures or make a 3D model, knowing how these tasks are done can help them communicate their ideas. Many designers also come form the QA department; this can be very beneficial if the individual had exposure to multiple elements of the game. And, knowing how to write test plans can help make sure that a design can be adequately tested.

In addition, knowing the different areas of game development helps keep the project possible. I've heard numerous stories about designers with no programming ability making designs that cannot possibly be implemented within a reasonable amount of time. Aspiring designers should get involved in multiple aspects of game development in order to make sure their designs are actually possible.

Putting it all together

If you want to be a great designer, you will need a variety of skills. This is one of the reasons why it's so hard to really write an exact description of what a designer is, and why it can be very difficult to teach game design in a traditional structured setting of university classes. On the other hand, it's hard to have the resources to train someone on the job. Which is why it's important to be self-motivated to learn all you can about game design, because it can be hard if not impossible to learn any other way.

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and a developer for Storybricks. More of his writing can be found on his professional blog.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Game Designers are Artists and Technicians – Because Life Requires Both

In this article, creative director Chris Swain indicates that game designers should have technical proficiency and creative storytelling skills in order to design successful entertainment games and other interactive experiences. 

Much has been said (and debated) about the “active” and “passive” nature of gaming and game design. Certainly, relative to storytelling in films and documentaries, the gamer takes an active role in the story outcome. But the game comes with a premise, characters, landscape and overall structure baked in. This then makes the gamer a willing participant in a scenario that is fully given to him or her from the game designer, who clearly works with a full cupboard of creativity.

Which brings us to the importance that storytelling bears in game design. The ability to construct a creative narrative needs to be at the core of a game designer’s skill set. Just as important, that creativity has to come from the knowledge and life experiences of the designer.

As an advisor to game design schools that include the New York Film Academy and formerly with the University of Southern California and co-author of Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games (Fullerton, Swain, Hoffman, 2004), I believe that successful students and ultimately professionals in game design have to be both technically proficient and creators.

Most people who enter a game design program know they want to be game designers. But they have to have both the technical aptitude and an artistic bent. I prefer to describe the vocation as a craft, but one that should be independent of the platform. The game should be something that can be applied to a board game. What they create should be very free form.

From my perspective and experience, it isn’t all about simple entertainment. I co-founded the EA Game Innovation Lab at USC, where students explore uses of interactive media, including games. The work of the lab includes broadening conventional wisdom about what games are and can be – work that has taken some surprisingly interesting turns.

An example of how a game/learning tool can work is The Redistricting Game  that I designed. The game explains the process of U.S. congressional district map drawing. While that may draw yawns from people who pay little attention to politics, there are many who claim the greatest power in America lies with the way congressional districts are defined. 

The process can influence which party ends up with the most seats in the House of Representatives. Each state is allowed to redraw its lines every ten years following the decennial U.S. Census, which determines where populations have changed. Each district represents a set number of people (the U.S. population divided by 435 House seats, roughly), so when a state loses or gains population it can eliminate or add a congressional district, requiring that the state be chopped up differently. What The Redistricting Game does is it allows the powers that be in a state (usually, the current governor or state legislature) take into account factors of population ethnicity, political affiliation and whether political friends or foes represent an area. The redistricting is done to the political advantage of those who hold power in the aftermath of the Census, however a handful of states allow this to be handled by an independent, non-partisan panel.

It may not be as sexy as Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. But if a reluctant student of government were given The Redistricting Game to play as a learning tool, it beats reading simple, dry text. The Redistricting Game illustrates the very nature of governmental politics: it’s a game to be won or lost. This is not unlike how things work in social and community groups and in workplaces. The lines between play and reality become blurred, as they have in many other parts of our culture in the digital, interactive age.

And it’s clearly why the business of storytelling is taking on greater importance in game design. Technical proficiency and knowledge is half of it. To be a creative and a storyteller, someone who can envision actions, reactions and consequences, intended or not, completes the equation. It’s a powerful combination.

Chris Swain is a leader in the games design and development industry, with two decades experience that includes building the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. His tenure at USC includes serving as an adjunct, assistant and research professor in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division, where he developed award-winning interactive games developed for AT&T, the BBC and PBS television networks, The Discovery Channel, Disney, Intel, IBM and Microsoft.  He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

October 2012: Game Designer Skills

I was reading recently about technical failures due to miscommunication.  Did you know, for instance, that the Mars orbiter crashed because some design team members were using the metric system while others were using English units?  This had led universities such as USC and MIT to highlight the need for negotiation and people skills (or "soft skills") to their engineering students.

Very often, design teams will need to reach a consensus among themselves.  Despite having the same goal (be it to design the best car or the Mars orbiter), engineers will inevitably disagree during the process of design.  They may also need to interact with or present their ideas to non-technical teams.

Working on a team is a topic in itself. (See my chapter in Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing for more thoughts on that topic!)  The very multidisciplinary nature of game design ensures that "soft skills" are necessary.

What other skills do you think are preferred or necessary for game designers on the job?

Give me your thoughts.  Or if you have something longer to say (500-1000 words), send them to me as an article and I will post it up!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A penny for your thoughts, a hundred for your life

In this article, game developer Ben McGraw offers advice on designing power-ups based on his observations of indie game platformers.

I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life as a member of the verge community. And I’ve learned a thing or two from watching a few hundred game demos fly by.

Let’s talk about platformers and power ups today. 

The Master

In Shigeru Miyamoto’s games (Mario, Zelda, infinite others), the enemies all have some unique gimmick. Each one has a distinct movement pattern and/or ability in a combination that no other enemy has:
  • Goomba : charge forward. Fire is Fatal.
  • Koopa: charge forward, plus Shell Special. Fire is Fatal.
  • Para Koopa: bounces while in Parakoopa mode, or hovers back and forth. if stomped, becomes Koopa. Fire is Fatal.
  • Spiny: Cannot be stomped. Fire is Fatal.
  • Buzzy Beetle: fireproof. Shell Special if Stomped.
  • Lakitu: usually out of reach, shoots Spinys. Fire is Fatal.
  • Podoboo: Unkillable timing hazard.
  • Piranha Plant: Unstompable timing hazard. Fire is Fatal.
  • Bullet Bill: travels in a stright line, ignoring obstructions. Fireproof.
  • Cheep-Cheep: Special ability: TO BE THE MOST ANNOYING FUCKING THING EVER. Flies diagonally upwards at high velocity.
  • Hammer Bros.: Shoot projectiles towards you in a parabolic arc. 

Each of these separate enemies has a different modus operandi that alters how the player deals with them.

Reality marches in

When I’ve played indie games towards the low end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed a tendency to ignore this simple design tenet. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered the Monster, and then the Palette-Swapped Monster, and then the Yet-Again-Palette-Swapped Monster. At our luckiest, they will be of increasing speed or variable hit points instead of exactly the same gameplay-wise; At our unluckiest, they will be brokenly faster or tougher.
If video games exist to make you feel like a rockstar, then power-ups are the nosecandy that fuel you and alter your world for a short time until it all comes crashing down. And then you will do anything to get another one.
Unless you’re targetting masochistic assholes with your game (which you may!), making your game insanely hard is a losing strategy. You will alienate your players. Your game will not be fun.

A lot of the time in Mario 1, the level design was built specifically around the enemies. Lakitu levels were designed for Lakitu, low and flat so he was a hazard, with occasional moderate-difficulty jumps for the opportunity to take that bitch out.

Similarly, the SMB powerups all did specific things. The Super Mushroom gave you wiggle-room HP, and was required for firepower, which was helpful against most enemies, and necessary against a few. Invincibility was rarely granted when you would’ve wanted it in SMB, but was a pleasant distraction; The player didn’t notice that it was almost never granted when needed, they were just pleased to be an all-powerful god for ten seconds.

Often when I see power-ups in beginners indie games, they aren’t as clearly black-and-white. Assuming that the power scale is held in check, you get temporary effects that are largely inconsequential for how you interact with the enemies or the levels. Whereas the super mushroom in SMB lets you break bricks and the Fire Flower lets you destroy previously unassailable enemies, these games trend more (again) towards speed increases, HP increases, and damage-inflicting buffs.

I assume that the low-end indie games trend this way because, programatically, these traits are the amoung the easiest and most straightforward to tweak.

I’ve come to believe over the years that a power up exists so you are eager to get it. Video Games exist to make the user feel badass, as the man once said, and becoming slightly more of what you were just isn’t badass. What’s badass in the context of platformers is killing the unkillable, or exploring what was previously unexplorable.

Hey guy! What should I do?

The easy-to-implement usually doesn’t equal fun for the player. Give thought to your level design, and how the player can interact with the levels. Hide tempting things in plain sight and then give them the power to grab that forbidden fruit by smashing a brick or jumping higher over a wall.

Do not fear Lack of Content. If you don’t have a really compelling reason to have a Red Slime and a Green Slime, just stick with the Green one. Super Mario Bros 1 had the plain, simple goomba in every world. It wasn’t compelled to make a color-shifted goomba that was faster or meaner.

Do not be afraid to have a short level. Do not be afraid to have a short game. As long as you’ve got some clever tricks and conceits that your levels are based around, you will entertain. If you artificially inflate your game just to be longer, you will bore.

Don’t bore your players, or they won’t be your players much longer.

[This article originally appeared on the Ben McGraw's Egometry.

Ben McGraw has been making freeware rpgs and tactics games since 1997 and is currently working on an old new title at  Silicon Valley calls him "Grue", and you can find him on the twitternets as @bengrue.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

March 2012: Immersion


So back in March 2012, there was a Poll and the topic selected was Immersion.

I was then asked, "Immersion in what sense?"  Usually, GDAM topics are fairly broad, which means you can bring your own interpretation to the topic.  If your article has anything to do with Immersion, then you should be fine.  The submission guidelines are here and feel free to suggest new Topics as well.

I used to stick to one topic per month so that we could have a conversation about it, but a few months back, that policy was changed.  So, you can look to the topics at right and send in anything that fits one of those.  In fact, I see that some topics like Cheats didn't get much love.

Most people think of Immersion in the storytelling sense.  Do you as a player believe in the world?  Are you enraptured by the play experience?  Or more importantly, does the story make sense?

However, someone else pointed out that Immersion could be about user interface.  Does the interface add or detract from the user experience?  Does it have to be exactly how it is in real life (or what you imagine it would be in real life)?

I remember there was once a somewhat noted (because it's funny) chatlog of a player trying out WWII Online for the first time and exclaiming that he had flown planes in real life and it wasn't as complicated.  Btw, if anyone has that link, please send it to me.

I also think about Assassin's Creed.  The interface was explained away in a sci-fi wrapper, but I really didn't like that.  I would rather be medieval assassin than a guy re-living ancestor memories.

What does Immersion mean to you?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gameful Design (Part II)

In Part I of this article, game designer Chelsea Howe explains the difference between gameful design and gamification. In Part II, she lists more reasons why gameful design is more compelling than what's popularly known as gamification. 


Tokenizes social relationships

Creates & strengthens social relationships

In many social games and social services, gates are put onto mechanics that force you to be viral and connect with other players before you’re allowed to continue (for example, you need 3 friends to expand your land in FarmVille). This is tokenizing – or only considering how many connections you have, and not the type, depth, duration, or any number of other facets that make each human relationship unique. Almost every social network game is like this. Even Twitter is like this.

Tokenizing is not actually social. For something to be truly social, the experience of playing has to be different depending on who I’m playing with. Mechanically, social means other people impact the game meaningfully; they’re making interesting decisions and expressive choices too, and my game is unique because of their unique contribution to it.

Again, this comes down to remembering that people are people and not numbers in a DAU or CTR graph or mindless click-machines
When you invite allies to join you, we ask you to give them a mission – something unique that you need and would be grateful for and something specifically suited to that person’s talents. We also ask that you check in – that is, have a heart to heart or face to face conversation with them – at least once every two weeks. These aren’t just numbers helping you towards some other purpose; the strength of your relationships matters and has a real and measurable effect on your well being. Each friend is a unique ally.


Requires little to no skill

Trains up skills of players’ choosing

This is closely linked to learning a system – when developing skills is seen as learning and mastery can be either knowledge-based or skill-based. Most services that employ gamification aren’t challenging or fun to do. They require no skill. In the tired example of frequent flyer miles, for instance: is it fun to click on a flight scheduler? It is challenging to pick Virgin over Delta? No, of course not.

And believe it or not, we love a good challenge – 80% of the time we’re playing, we’re failing. And we love it! We like failing, struggling, and utilizing our skills to succeed. We play games because they challenge us. And when they don’t? We just stop caring altogether.

In SuperBetter, YOU choose how you want to improve, and the whole game is about getting stronger. Power Packs are custom tailored to challenges, and focus on different skills across the board: social, physical, emotional, mental. Not challenging enough? Add another Power Pack. Overwhelmed? Take a break, or just do a single move (3 quests, 1 battle, 3 power-ups) a day.


Promote sharing indiscriminately, constantly, to everyone

Promote sharing meaningfully, at major moments, to whom it matters

Gamers are great at tuning out irrelevant information, and if they’re constantly spammed with the same canned messages, they’re not going to get engaged. Novelty is a huge component of engagement (it’s something new to figure out, to learn, to master) and unique content adds value. As much as you can, let players add their own messages, and prompt virality when it matters: when the player has accomplished something difficult, when they’ve expressed something unique, when they’ve really made a difference. And don’t blast it to everyone if it doesn’t apply to them: send it to the people to whom it matters most.


Phew! Long post! Those were just a few examples, but I hope they helped clarify the difference between what most people call gamification and what we consider the “right” way to borrow from games (gameful design). Looking over the list, here are the three key bullets I’d pull out next time you go out and try to design a great experience:
  • Keep it intrinsic 
  • Players are people 
  • Agency, agency, agency 
Now go make it gameful

[This article originally appeared on the SuperBetter blog.]

Chelsea Howe likes making games that make a difference. At Zynga, she designed and analyzed features that touched tens of millions of people, and at SuperBetter Labs, she used research on positive emotion and social connection to make those touches more powerful, evocative,and meaningful. By night, Chelsea designs award-winning indie games, runs the San Francisco Global Game Jam, and works with developers at Cornell University on experimental gameplay demos and youth outreach, all without a bat signal.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gameful Design (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Chelsea Howe explains the difference between gameful design and gamification. 

Two years ago I attended a conference on the emerging field of gamification – or adding game elements to services and applications. Just by giving people a bit of reward, you could incentivize any behavior you wanted — navigating to another page, leaving a comment, learning multiplication.

Others celebrated this silver bullet, but I, as a game designer, was worried. The medium I’d dedicated my life to was reduced to basic behavioral response to stimulus, to operant conditioning, to dolphin training. Click. Cookie. Repeat.

These gamification experts extolled all the superficial, short-term psychological hooks from games and none of the meaningful, metaphysical joy and satisfaction produced from playing. They forgot that players are people. 

As we designed SuperBetter, we wanted to prove that games are more than just dopamine injections, that players are more than chemical machines.

SuperBetter offers an alternative to gamification. Instead of taking the psychological hooks and operant conditioning from games, we use their deeply satisfying properties – things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback - to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning. We call this a gameful approach to design.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few key differences in how we approach design. Of course, not everyone who calls themselves a gamification company hits all of these points, but too many do.

We can do better.


Makes you do what companies want you to do

Helps you do what YOU want to do

You play games because it’s what you want to do. No one is telling you to play, no one is giving you money to play, no one is holding a gun to your head making you play. You’re intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you take pleasure in the activity itself.

If you don’t want to do something, no amount of awards, badges, leaderboards, or points is going to make you do it – not long term, not sustainably.


Relies on operant conditioning (reward, punishment)

Harnesses the good of games (feedback, agency, emotion)

You don’t actually play games for points or badges– those are just progress indicators that help you contextualize your improvements/skill (which is exciting). People love games because they are in control and can affect the world (this is called agency), because they can make meaningful choices and interesting decisions. They play because games are delightful, challenging, and filled with clear goals. Operant conditioning ignores all of those things, and tries to motivate using our most basic human instincts instead of the complex depth that makes us human.

SuperBetter’s core elements — quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies — help people feel more in control of their lives and capable of changing them (this is agency). Instead of setting goals for you, we let you choose goals that challenge you, and we make sure you’re creating a toolbox of ways to spark positive emotions in your life while identifying and gaining control over those things that hold you back.


Added to an existing platform, curriculum, or service

Integrated into design from the ground up

All games teach. All play and all fun is learning. If the entirety of a system is “Leave Comment, Get Badge” people will learn that very quickly, and once a system is learned, it loses its charm, its fun, its pleasure. Tack on something like badges or leaderboards, and after an initial engagement spike, the system suddenly becomes a transparently irrelevant annoyance – or worse, an unavoidable reason to leave the site/service altogether.


Uses extrinsic rewards

Uses intrinsic rewards

Rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Here’s a true story about extrinsic rewards: A child with a love for music starts playing the piano. Her mother, wanting to encourage her interest, begins rewarding her every time she plays. When the mother stops rewarding, the child stops playing, her initial curiosity and intrinsic desire to play diminished by the reward system.

Lasting behavior change comes from within. Giving someone cash to do something taints the nature of whatever they do. Even if it’s something they wanted to do, getting a reward for it decreases intrinsic motivation, and actually makes people less likely to perform the behavior without reward. The moment you give someone a reward, you’re decreasing the likelihood of lasting, sustainable change for them. 

Intrinsic reward is a fine line and hugely nuanced. In SuperBetter, when players report actions, we increase their Resilience score. But Resilience isn’t a made up thing – it’s not just magical, virtual “points” – it’s a reflection of a very real, validated principle of psychology. You’re rewarded by seeing your progress in an immediate, tangible way, but not by the points themselves. SuperBetter also lets you track changes to your well-being, so over time seeing the difference is its own reward. Most importantly, players are rewarded because as they do these actions, they really do start to feel better and reach their goals.


Limited meaning/social context

Meaningful/customized awards

But wait – didn’t I just say rewards can be bad? There’s a difference between celebrating accomplishment (“award”) and incentivizing actions (“reward”). This is about the former!

Getting an award is a great feeling – when you’ve worked for it. When it feels relevant and special to you. When it represents success at something appropriately challenging. There’s nothing wrong about celebrating accomplishment; it feels great to be recognized for what you’ve done, as long as what you’ve done is actually something worthwhile.

If you go to certain sites you’ll find yourself with random badges for seemingly no reason at all, after just clicking through a few pages (and of course, you have to sign up to keep them). Is that satisfying? (No.)

While we do have a few automatically awarded achievements in SuperBetter, we found the best way to make awards meaningful was to ensure it wasn’t a machine giving them to you. Allies have the option to give achievements to their heroes: to create a title and customize the icon and provide a reason/description for the award. When players get awards from friends, it means something unique to them, their relationship, and their actions. It matters.

[This article originally appeared on the SuperBetter blog.]

Chelsea Howe likes making games that make a difference. At Zynga, she designed and analyzed features that touched tens of millions of people, and at SuperBetter Labs, she used research on positive emotion and social connection to make those touches more powerful, evocative,and meaningful. By night, Chelsea designs award-winning indie games, runs the San Francisco Global Game Jam, and works with developers at Cornell University on experimental gameplay demos and youth outreach, all without a bat signal.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Let's Review

Hi!  During my hiatus, I learned a couple things, one of which is a person can put a Webisode on YouTube and it can go viral FAST.  Whooosh! 

But let's review!  Topic at hand: Game Design Aspect of the Month (GDAM for short) was an initiative brainstormed out of the newly formed IGDA Game Design SIG.  I didn't wait for procedures -- just went ahead and launched! 

Ian Schrieber started GDAM off with exactly the kind of post I was seeking because it was directed to practicing and aspiring game designers.  I also intended GDAM to be a community blog, where we could have back-and-forth responses or difference of opinions.  We certainly had a bit of that in a couple of topics.

Speaking of topics, if you take a look, GDAM certainly has had a lot and I would welcome more posts on any of those topics as well as topic suggestions.  You can e-mail them to me.  The topics allowed us to focus on one thing for a month and study it from all angles.

Well, it got harder and harder to maintain GDAM without help, especially while I was working full-time.  Altug did help but went off to complete his dissertation (the sap! lol), so it's been mostly a solo project. 

So, to get things rolling again, I guess I can start posting again.  I didn't want GDAM to be about ME, but in the absence of submissions, I can certainly comment on game design related subjects.  Two of my GDAM posts were selected for Gamasutra's best of the blogs after re-posting on my Gamasutra blog, so I do have interesting things to say.  Even so, please do continue to send submissions.  I would like to get GDAM back on track again!

Yours sincerely,

Sande Chen

Friday, March 9, 2012

March 2012 Poll

Please vote for the March 2012 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!  Look at the submission guidelines for Topics and Blog Entries.

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • Immersion
  • Sequels
  • Animation and Game Design

Monday, January 30, 2012

Value Points: The (Almost) Invisible Metric That Runs Your Game (Part II)

In Part I of this article, game designer Mitchell Smallman explains the importance of value points and how value points drive users to support and play a social game.  In Part II, he relates how metrics help discover value points.

But we’re still talking about social games, so metrics are still going to be your best friend in STARTING to figure out what your players want. The simple, blood-sweat-and-tears answer is design new features and A/B test the hell out of them, knowing the numbers of each change in detail, until you know the type of player you attract as a second nature. However, this method takes a great deal of time and risk and often involves not a few failures, things that are difficult to justify with a venture capitalist,publisher or management breathing down your neck.

My favorite metric for a starting point, and other designers may have other terms for it, is the EFPA, the Engagement at First Purchase Average. How long have your players been playing before they finally say “you know, this game is worth some of my hard earned money?” From here, you can start analyzing where you can best meet the needs of your players and create value for them. The EFPA represents a value point, you just need to discover what it is. Perhaps players interested in progress reach a significant hurdle there and are paying to bypass it quickly. Perhaps that is when you start offering premium content that suits your player base very well. Perhaps your EFPA is very long, and they pay after weeks or months of play instead of days, and you then have to accept that your game may not have many value points at all. Or perhaps your EFPA is very quick, and there may be some interesting thing that players are buying right away. As you can see, discovering your EFPA doesn’t give you an immediate answer, but provides lots of interesting questions to help you discover the value points of your game.

Value points are regular bullets, not silver ones. They take time to aim, sometimes miss and don’t always get the job done by themselves. But if you have enough of them, and you unleash them fast enough, nothing will stand in your way. You can get a sense of them through many avenues aside from metrics. Your community forums and groups, while they may not always ask for things that are in your business interest, will tell you very vocally what they value. Observations in similar games may help you discover your next feature or release based on an understanding of why it is successful, rather than copying wholesale. Be prepared to discover new things. Maybe you didn't design your game to hook players on the story, but maybe that's what your players are showing you they are willing to pay for! Don't be stubborn in your direction if it turns out players value something you didn't intend. In the end, it comes down to understanding the players that enjoy the game you have created… and that is part of the job that is never truly complete.

Mitchell Smallman is a Game and Narrative Designer currently working for Big Viking Games in London, Ontario, Canada. He has seen Gremlins 34 times, trained as a luchador and once brightened up Vin Diesel's day. You can read this and other articles of his on his blog

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Value Points: The (Almost) Invisible Metric That Runs Your Game (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Mitchell Smallman explains the importance of value points and how value points drive users to support and play a social game.

This is my confession. I started out working in social games…I’m one of those few people who has only ever worked as a designer in the social games field. Sometimes it makes me a pariah, with designers I admire voicing concern over the damage that social games are doing to the industry as a whole. Thanks to a few successfully monetized games, sometimes I am seen as an authority, someone who has figured out how to bring the little game studio some decent cash. Both times, I’m treated as if I have found some sort of silver bullet to the heart of the game consumer; that I have found a mystical and perhaps unhealthy “release money” button in the human soul. I must confess… I have taken work on this principle even though I know that no such silver bullet exists. There is no metric you can track and tweak that makes people pay money for your game. There is however, a great deal of money to be made by understanding your audience as a consumer and a game player at the same time. To do this, I usually ask developers to consider what I call “value points.”

A value point is the moment a player assigns monetary value to your game. Your initial art and UI design is a value point. People look at a game, and see how much work, polish and appeal to their sense of style has gone into the game, and they place a value on it. A game with “programmer art”, while having a well-designed system, will still be missing a key value point. Content design is another value point. Not just things like spelling errors, but character consistency, and narrative progress matching player effort are other examples of value that can be easily lost. There’s nothing more frustrating for a player to be engaged in a narrative and work hard at an obstacle to get the next piece, only to have the quality of the reveal be lackluster because the designer places no value on the narrative and expected the player to do the same. Value points are discovered my constantly thinking of your player as a human being making a decision and analyzing your game as opposed to just a metric.

Although social games are often designed with an iterative design style that is very ,very heavy on data, value points are the portions of the game that are often difficult to nail down in terms of action. The numbers will not tell you why your game is missing that thing that makes people decide to support your game instead of others. How do make your game, which may have similar theme and mechanics to others, LOOK like it is worth investing in it instead of a competitor? How do we make it demonstrate its advantages and hide its disadvantages? How do we attract the type of player that will enjoy our game more than other games? These are things looking at the data of your existing players will help only a little, and market research only goes so far. Eventually, whether it is a new feature or a new genre of game altogether, a game can always increase its value by offering something new, but it is always a risk. In order to chart such a release successfully, the designer needs to understand what the players, be they players they already have (retention) or players they want (acquisition) place value on if they want the game to monetize.

Mitchell Smallman is a Game and Narrative Designer currently working for Big Viking Games in London, Ontario, Canada. He has seen Gremlins 34 times, trained as a luchador and once brightened up Vin Diesel's day. You can read this and other articles of his on his blog.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 2012: Virtual Goods

January 2012's topic, Virtual Goods, was submitted by game designer Sande Chen.

She writes:

In 2007, I started working for a company that was interesting in bringing Chinese-style "microtransactional" games to the West.  People weren't sure how these would translate -- if American consumers would go for it, this "free but with microtransactions" model.  We had seen in China that the MMOs and even the middlecore games were having success selling power-ups, weapons, cosmetic items and other virtual goods.  The price was so low, maybe 1/10 of a cent, but the large volume of sales made up for it.  I found that in designing these initial microtransactional games, I needed to give incentives for people to buy, but I also wanted people who were not paying to be able to earn the power-ups. 

The following year, I wrote the article, The Social Network Game Boom, for Gamasutra, predicting the success of social network games.  At this time, companies were experimenting with different models.  Were people willing to pay $50 for a virtual item?  Would people buy monthly subscriptions in addition to virtual goods?  Was there a good mix between advertising and selling virtual goods?

Fast forward to this year and we see that mobile game marketplaces are loaded with free apps, but these free apps are making money by selling virtual goods!  There have even been some shifts in the MMO market to feature virtual goods for premium currency rather than the straight subscription model.  So what have we learned?

Here are some questions from the Game Design SIG to think about, if you want to contribute an article to GDAM:
  • What are the most lucrative virtual goods?  What are the most popular?  Are these necessary the same?
  • Why are so many virtual goods so expensive?  What happened to microtransactions, selling items for 1/10 of a cent?
  • Is most monetization of virtual goods from whales or from the microtransactions of millions of players?
  • If monetization is dependent on whales, how can we make Virtual Goods more appealing to the mainstream?
  • Are consumables the way to go?  How about energy packs that extend the amount of time a player can play?
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

January 2012 Poll

Happy New Year!

Please vote for the January 2012 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!  Look at the submission guidelines for Topics and Blog Entries.

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

  • Sequels
  • Sandbox Games
  • Virtual Goods