Friday, December 27, 2013

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture (Part II)

In Part I, game researcher Mark Chen takes a look at what might create better game culture, i.e. a community of consumers and creators who think critically and reflectively about games. In Part II, he argues that tabletop gaming should receive the same level of academic interest as digital gaming.

The High Fashion Phenomenon

And yet BGG is only a small part of tabletop gaming. It may seem that the tabletop community is pretty monolithic given how much a one-stop site BGG is, but, outside of the net, tabletop gaming is surprisingly scattered. I’m reminded of this every week as I attend meetings of a local board game Meetup group. The regular attendees come from all walks of life. Among others, there’s techie people (which could just be because we’re in Seattle, though there is an interesting intermingling between tech and board games), a lawyer, and a bunch of service industry folks. Very few are academics, and most of them don’t really know BGG exists.
Toshiyuki Hashitani’s wooden board by Wolfgangs SpeileParadies for Settlers of Catan
Still, I suspect the movements and fervor found on BGG trickles down. It’s like high fashion setting certain trends that eventually trickle down to Walmart shoppers. The games that become popular were popular on BGG first. Maybe another analogy is with digital gamers who buy AAA games and new hardware every season: They push (perhaps too uncritically) the industry in certain directions and generally make it grow, which then allows for a whole slew of other players to follow in their wake (who may not even know there’s a wake they’re following).

A Disconnect?

Most of these players also don’t know about the recent rise of games journalism, criticism, and activism (love Ligman's TWIVGB). For all the work we’ve seen in the last couple of years pushing for inclusivity in gaming and examining games deeply, none of it is hitting on-the-ground gamers… Wait. Is that true? Admittedly, most of the work being done is on the digital gaming front, so looking at local tabletop meetup groups and saying something about the work with digital games’ reach is probably not fair. Okay, so I’ll just say this: Tabletop criticism and journalism is massively threadbare, and I hope places like Shut Up & Sit Down herald a new trend in rectifying this. Hopefully, more academic research will also look to tabletop gaming.

Serious Leisure and DIY Gamers

Jared’s Magic Realm build using carthaginian’s redesign
One of the most fascinating pockets of community on BGG are the hobbyists (a huge “serious leisure” literature repository that everyone should learn about) who make their own versions of out-of-print games. Take a look at all the cool remakes of Magic Realm (MR), for example. It’s a game with a cult following for its intricate simulation of a fantasy setting and its detailed and nuanced combat system. What’s really cool about MR is that a BGG user, Karim “carthaginian” Chakroun, wanted to try the game but discovered that he’d have to make the game first. It turns out, he’s a graphic designer and he decided to produce a set of PDFs with new artwork that anyone can download to make their own copy of MR! (Game rules can’t be copyrighted, but artwork is protected, so, to recreate a game, players have to change up the art.) As it happens, carthaginian has made lots of custom artwork for out-of-print games *and* he’s moved onto professional graphic design for games, such as Alien Frontiers!

Alien Frontiers

Carthaginian and other BGG users who engage in this DIY practice represent an interesting intersection between tabletop gaming and crafting/making. They share tips and tricks and how-to guides, much like what you’d find on Instructables. There’s also a number of BGG users who are amateur designers, releasing their own “print and play” games through BGG as PDFs.

Use Tabletop Game Design to Understand Games Better  

This, then, represents a different way games scholars and critics can get into making games. Tabletop design can be a more approachable pathway for non-techie people. It’s easy to grab a deck of cards and think through new game mechanics or to grab a used game from a thrift store and mod the rules or write new rules using the same components. It becomes more important to think about the manual for a designed game (something which is often absent for digital games), and this forces a different kind of dialog between the designer and players. I believe this difference pushes the designer to think about the boundaries of the game and cohesiveness of theme to rules in a different way than what’s afforded by digital game design.

So, yeah, (if you’ll allow me to switch to 2nd person…) make your own games! Make both digital and tabletop games! And, yes, the first game will likely suck. Learning is most effective through failure. This is as true in designing games as in playing games.

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture]  

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He also holds appointments at Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. He recently wrote a book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, Mark is making games to promote critical thinking and cooperation and researching the communication practices of users. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game researcher Mark Chen takes a look at what might create better game culture, i.e. a community of consumers and creators who think critically and reflectively about games.

image from barefootliam at deviant art!
I’m going to make two statements (interleaved with ideas) that converge later.

What is Better Game Culture?

One is that, as we argue for better game culture, I think we’re basically arguing for more critical and reflective consumers, creators, and scholars of games and gaming practice. “More” in the sense that we just need proportionally more people who do think critically and reflectively about games and gaming. But also “more” in the sense that who we do have are continually learning and making connections and generally becoming better at what they do.

Use Game Design to Understand Games Better

And one of the best ways to learn how to think about games, their structures, and experiences is to make them. By making games and thinking through player experiences as they navigate rules and systems, a designer really starts to pay attention to cohesiveness and the internal logics of a game’s space. Equipped with this experience, the designer starts to also see other games differently, understanding that sometimes intent just doesn’t match up with underlying mechanics whether that’s due to technical limitations or something inherently flawed with the design structure. When the narrative or theme is supported by the game’s rules (sometimes in place as a holdover from whatever genre tradition the game is following), it can be an extremely beautiful experience, such as with the case for some players of Depression Quest or Lim.

Speaking of Lim, Merritt’s previous article speaks to a diversification and inclusion of gaming (which really can’t happen fast enough… and I don’t think is going to happen unless we continually fight for it), and something that should be stressed is how relatively low the barriers to making small digital games are these days (once you get past the initial barriers of social structure and disparate everyday experience, as Merritt aptly points out). Indeed, the hardest part of making interactive fiction games in Twine or Inklewriter, is the writing! Even 2D platformers, top-down JRPGs, and point-n-click adventure games can be made pretty easily these days with GameMaker, Construct, RPGMaker, and Adventure Game Studio.

The Rise of Tabletop Gaming

The second statement is that tabletop gaming (i.e., gaming with and around board and card games) is experiencing a massive growth and golden age right now, and, just as with digital games, a lot of community and culture around tabletop games is supported and afforded by the net. It’d be very easy to get lost in the forums of BoardGameGeek (BGG).

In fact, BoardGameGeek has a crazy extensive database of tabletop games. If a game is played with physical material and had some sort of distribution (as in, it’s not just a game cousin Jane made up and shared with her brother), it’s in BGG’s database. Each game has its own set of forums that cover reviews, strategies, house rules, clarifications, news, issues, etc. Then there are non-game specific forums, such as regional ones to help people meet up with other players, general boardgame news, reviews of iOS and Android ports of favorite games, etc. (A whole bunch could be said here about affinity groups and literature on digital media and learning.)

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture]  

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He also holds appointments at Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. He recently wrote a book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, Mark is making games to promote critical thinking and cooperation and researching the communication practices of users.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Auctions as a Game Balancing Tool

In this article, game design instructor Sebastian Sohn gives a summary of different auction types used in board games.

Auctions are widely used in board games as an in-game mechanic or as a meta game.

Auctions are how conflicts are resolved in life. Auctions deal with the what economists call "unlimited wants yet limited resources." Auctions are also great for game design for several reasons including:
  1. Realism and use in day-to-day life.
  2. It’s a balancing tool; allowing the designer the ability to offer asymmetrical starting resources, yet places game balancing in the hands of the players.
  3. Finding the right price is an enjoyable game of its own. 

Auction Use in Board Games

Axis & Allies 
English Auction used as meta-game balancing tool.

In this WWII-based board game, the Allies tend to win more often due to historically accurate (Allies won) but poor game balancing. In many tournaments, players bid to play as the Allies. The winning bid is paid to the low-bid player, who then begins the game as the Axis Powers. This allows for a more balanced game, as the Axis player can now use this influx of resources to strengthen his strategy.

No Thanks! 
English Auction used to avoid a penalty.

No Thanks! has an interesting twist to auctions. In normal auctions, players pay to win something, while in No Thanks!, you pay to avoid penalty points. Every round, a card with penalty points ranging in 3-35 points is offered. In turn order player may take the penalty points or bid one chip. If you take the card, you take the penalty points and the chips on top that you can use to avoid other cards.

Vegas Showdown 
Multiple English Auction occurring simultaneously
Play Vegas Showdown AI for free, costs to play with people 

This game’s auction offers a multiple items simultaneously. Players bid in turn order. If one gets outbid, that player is bumped off auction block and can bid on something else next turn. Being bumped usually triggers a chain of bidders being bumped from item to item until everyone's ideal price is reached. This is similar to the rules of a White Elephant Gift Exchange, a holiday party game used to distribute gifts.

Modern Art 
Multiple types of auctions

Modern Art is a pure auction game where you act as buyer and seller of modern art painting. Continuous turn-based English, once around English, sealed, buyout auctions are featured. When you sell a painting, money goes to the selling player, not the bank. This is a great game to play to learn how different auctions work.

Auction Basics

Most auctions end when the highest bidder pays for and receives an item. Auctions have two prices--the bid price and ask price--as well as two parties: the buyer (bidder) and the seller (asker). When the bid and ask price are equal, a sale is made. Where the payment ends up is important in a game's economic system. Some examples where the proceeds end up:

Monopoly: when a property is auctioned off, all proceeds go to the bank. And yes, Monopoly has auctions if you play by the official rules.

Modern Art: the seller receives all proceeds for paintings sold unless she buys her own offer. If one buy their own offered painting, then the seller pays the bank.

Hollywood Blockbuster: the proceeds of the auction are distributed equally to all other players.

Common Auctions

English auction
Any bidder may offer a bid at any time until the auction’s close. Each bidder can bid or rebid at any moment. This is the most common auction in life and can be emotional, causing people to become irrational and overbid.  

Turn-Based English Auction
Since English auctions can be hectic, loud and highly emotional, many games use a turn-based approach: each Player raises the bid in turn order or passes. To shorten the auctions, most games will not allow a bidder to reenter the auction once the bidder passes. English auction may be continuous, each bidder keeps bidding higher multiple times in turn order or may be once around, declare one and only one bid in turn order.

Sealed (first-price) Auction
Bids are submitted secretly to the seller; participants do not know each other's bids. This style is commonly used in real estate sale and by the US government to procure contractors.

Vickrey Auction (sealed-bid second-price auction)
A sealed auction, the highest bidder wins but pays the second highest bid. Used as quick auction that has similar results to a English auction. Proxy bid by Ebay and US Treasury securities sales use an auctions similar to Vickrey. War of Attrition, uses an auction similar to Vickrey to simulate and analyze human behavior. War of Attrition is used in branch of mathematics called game theory as a scientific model.

Exotic Auctions

All-Pay Auction
Auction that has the highest bidder winning, but all bidders end up paying. This is used as model for political campaigns or lobbying. It’s good for auctioning abstract resources like turn order (initiative). In Age of Steam game, turn order is auctioned in this manner, but only the top two bidders pay.  

Top-Up Auction
This is a variation of the all-pay auction. Winner pays as usual but the losers pay out the difference in between their bid and the next lower bid. Top-Up Auctions are commonly used by charities as fund raisers.  

Dutch Auctions
A high asking price if offered and is steadily dropped until a buyer accepts. The dutch tulip market and the US Treasury both use this style of auction. Ebay used to offer this type of auction as a way to sell multiple, identical items to multiple buyers. It has a similar effect to sealed auctions, as only the winner’s bid is known. Buyout Auction The seller offers with a fixed price. Ebay uses Buy-It-Now on top of their standard auction as way to purchase immediately at a preset price, rather than wait for the end of an auction.  

Reverse Auction
The roles of buyers (bidders) and sellers (askers) are reversed. Asks are lowered until a bidder accepts. In traditional auctions, multiple bidders usually compete for one good or service offered by one seller, while in a reverse auction, multiple sellers compete to provide goods or services to one buyer. and Lending Tree use this model by acting as brokers in pooling large number of sellers to few buyers.

Walrasian Auction
In a Walrasian Auction, both bid and ask prices are adjusted for in batches, until an equilibrium priced is reached. This is similar to how the stock market works. A similar auction style can be found in the video game, M.U.L.E.

[This article originally appeared on Sebastian Sohn’s personal blog.] 

Sebastian Sohn is a "well played" game player, critic, and game design instructor. He is especially fascinated by the use of games as an experiential teaching aid and constantly on the lookout for tabletop games, videogames, and roleplaying games that teach life skills.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December 2013: Board Games

Hello and welcome to December 2013's topic:  Board Games!  This topic is just a reminder that while the IGDA Game Design SIG and this blog does favor digital games, we also are interested in board games and other types of games. 

After all, many computer game designers, as Erin Robinson described in her article, Building Treehouse, first conceptualize their design prototypes as board games.  While pitching my design for a game to help young adults realize the importance of saving for the future, called Rainy Day Castle, I set up a table with a crudely drawn tower and various stand-in pieces for gold and monsters.  Not only did this help by-standers understand how to play the game, but this set-up also provided me with future insights about how to improve my game design.  Game design instructors often ask their students to design board games, as was mentioned in this recent article on GDAM

Renowned game designers are interested in ALL games, not just video games.  Brenda Romero, game designer in residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media, designed several board games, including Train, for a series called The Mechanic is the Message.

So let me know about your board game experiences!  And remember to follow the submission guidelines.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Project Spark: Inspiring a New Generation of Developers

In this article, aspiring game designer Trae Bailey describes Project Spark, a game intended to help others easily create games for Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows 8. 

Game development has been a life-long goal for many game enthusiasts since the birth of the gaming industry. The problem is, with each passing year, that dream has been complicated due to the rapidly increasing standards of video games. However, with the recent proliferation of indie game development, many more individuals have decided to pursue their passion for game development. The good news does not end there; in attempts to inspire more individuals, a game has been created that allows users to create other games.

Team Dakota (under Microsoft Studios) is developing Project Spark, a game that functions as an extremely user-friendly game development toolkit, for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows 8. Project Spark essentially demolishes the barriers for entry to the game development process by eliminating the need for entering code that may seem esoteric to the aspiring developer and allowing for more intuitive creation. In other words, the game allows users to shape their creations like they would a sandcastle; if a mistake is made it can quickly be demolished, changed, or built over.

Project Spark showcases quite a bit of very interesting features that aim to transform a living room or bedroom into a small indie game studio. Features such as the ‘Brain’ system and the Kinect support help to make this a reality. The former functions like Game Maker, but with more specific drag&drop behaviors for various objects, characters, weapons, or other props in the world. The Kinect support allows users to implement voice acting (ex. narration, dialogue, ambient sounds) or utilize the device as a motion capture camera (ex. animation, cinematic, etc.) in attempts to provide a more complete experience for their game. .

Worlds created with Project Spark can be as large as 5x5km and can be shared and revamped by other users many different times. This allows for collaboration on a massive scale when factoring in the many potential developers that might use this powerful tool. New genres, styles, practices, and other game development methods can be explored without the fear of wasting thousands or millions of dollars to do so; the game is free-to-play with the option for purchasable DLC for extra features. .

The implications are very promising; many talented individuals and those with untapped technical experience can showcase their ideas to the world and, in turn, many others around the world may iterate on that idea. The game focuses on streamlining the process so that game development is intuitive and fun; in addition to this, users are able to actively playtest newly added features on the fly while others are actively editing the world around them. The platform could be of use for publishers and developers alike after the game’s release date (TBD).

Project Spark grants users the luxury of creating games without the technical boundaries of traditional game development. There are many possibilities for this tool, but the most imminent seems to be what the game industry can gain from it. What innovative game design concepts will be explored or created? Will any of the creations have relevance in comparison to AAA developers or top indie developers? Inevitably, the final outcome is dependent on the many potential Project Spark users and their different ideas and perspectives. .

Trae Bailey is an aspiring game designer with much ambition and high hopes for the gaming industry. He has been an avid consumer of video games since the age of four and aspires to develop creative video games that will hopefully inspire future generations of developers.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?

In this article, game designer Chris Bateman explores what he calls the wrapping paper fallacy and why it misrepresents the experience of many players.

A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes its mere trappings. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.

I've been told Markku Eskelinen advanced exactly this metaphor of wrapping paper in respect of the fiction of games. I shall call this the wrapping paper fallacy, since while it is true of some players playing some games, it is not true of all players nor of all games. An attempt to restrict the category of games to only those that fit this fallacy would be misguided, and fall under my critique of implicit game aesthetics. Rather than a systematic argument (such as the one I provided in Fiction Denial) what I want to offer here is an observational rebuttal to the fallacy by describing play situations that cannot plausibly be understood in this way.

Perhaps most significantly, the play of tabletop role-playing games is impossible to understand without reference to their fictional content, and it is implausible to suggest such games could be remounted in a different setting with impunity. In fact, the players of these games have strong aesthetic preferences for the kind of fictional worlds they want to play within, and only a tiny minority of tabletop gamers become drawn into the kind of systems-focus that 'discards the wrapping paper'. With freeform and other diceless forms, there is very little system to 'unwrap', which is to be expected in a game form so intimately wed to its fiction. Even considering computer RPGs, which do have systems that might be unwrapped, the fictional content is rarely if ever set aside. If the mechanics come to dominate the fiction, some players will view this with disappointment, some will happily engage with the systems while still enjoying the fiction, and some will have their play destroyed by the intrusion of the rules into their experience.

Similarly, in games that attempt to evoke fear it is implausible to view the fiction as a discardable wrapper since it is always involved in the desired experience. The rules can support the fiction – as Resident Evil's ammo, inventory, and save management mechanics all do – but it is ludicrous to suppose an 'unwrapped' survival-horror game satisfying its audience. Indeed, as current examples such as Amnesia (and older examples such as Clock Tower) demonstrate, the beneficial confluence between fiction and function has great power to enhance the players' experience within the fictional world of horror games, but they cannot do so in disregard to representation. The lamp-management of Amnesia relies precisely upon depiction to work – and this is far from a rare case in videogames. Any game aiming to evoke horror experiences necessarily depends upon its representational techniques, which could never be simply discarded without failing to satisfy the players they attract.

There are also those cases that are experiential in nature, for which mechanics beyond the interface contribute little of importance. The snowboarding game is a great example, particularly when played by those who don't really care if they win. SSX, for instance, provided a very satisfying simulation of mountain descent at speed – but this is not simulation in the game mechanical sense, but in the representational, theatrical sense. Fiction is essential to this experience, and only in the less popular 'trick' modes of such games is there any possibility of 'unwrapping'. Indeed, what would it mean to 'unwrap' the downhill descents? To think solely in terms of the branch points on the route, and to set aside the sensory experience entirely? It is not plausible to think that anyone could be engaged solely in the route-management aspect of a snowboarding game, since the vertiginous fiction of the snow-capped mountainside is precisely the main attraction.

Another example is the sports game, which relies for its appeal upon its fiction and the veracity of its content to the sports they are modelled upon. When a group of friends play 2-on-2 football with a FIFA videogame, it misdescribes their experience to suggest the representation is set aside so they can focus on the rules of football. This would be nonsense! Rather, the fact that it is fictional that your team is fighting for victory on a digital pitch is quintessential to the pleasure of such games. Even in the case of something like the Statis Pro tabletop sports games, which have game mechanics beyond the rules of the sport being simulated, the appeal is always that you are (fictionally) playing with real teams and real players. If you take off the wrapping paper, there is no reason to continue playing at all.

Rather than the image of the mechanics as a desirable present wrapped up in pretty but ultimately forgettable wrapping paper, a better point of reference in respect of the kinds of play described above (and many other instances) would be the relationship between representation and function in gallery artworks. The interest in the painting is primarily in what it represents – in the picture. Familiarity will allow the player of such an artwork to see past the fiction and enjoy unveiling the skills of the creator – Van Gogh's brush work, the pigmentation of the old masters, the impressionists' ability to imply through colour. But at no point does the fiction of the painting cease to matter. Indeed, it is this that the deeper understanding of a painting seeks to explore.

There are indeed some artworks that make the functional components more central to their experience – Jim Warren's Ripping sequence, for instance, or the blank canvases displayed in the Hayward Gallery's Invisible: Art of the Unseen exhibition. No doubt there are some appreciators of contemporary art who prefer such invention to more conventional paintings. But we should not confuse the tastes of a subset of those who appreciate art for the experiences of everyone who can enjoy a painting. The same is just of true of games. The wrapping paper fallacy makes a minority experience into a model for a vast and diverse landscape of play, a model that is much more parochial than its advocates tend to admit. Theorists of games need to spend much more time watching how people play and much less time treating their own experiences as universal. Only when we actually explore how games are played by everyone can game studies really claim to be studying games.

[This article originally appeared on International Hobo's blog and is reprinted with permission.]

Chris Bateman is a game designer best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, 21st Century Game Design and Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Toward Creating Better Videogames,and his eclectic philosophy blog, Only a Game. Until 2012, Bateman was the managing director of International Hobo Ltd, a consultancy specializing in market-oriented game design and narrative. He has worked on more than forty published games.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Teaching Iteration and Risk-Taking

In this article, game designer Ian Schreiber describes the inherent difficulty in getting students to embrace failure as a part of the iterative process.

There is an inherent conflict between the nature of classes and course objectives, when it comes to designing a game as a class project.

The best way to learn to design games is to make a rapid prototype, fail miserably, figure out what you did wrong, and try again. Repeat until you get it right. In order to do this, the student has to feel like it is okay to take risks, that it is perfectly acceptable (even expected) to try crazy stuff that may simply not work out.

But of course, this is for a grade. Enter the fear of failure. Or, it's not for a grade at all. No threat of failure, but likely no effort put in by students on an "optional" project. Is there a way around this paradox?

Here's the method I'm currently using:
  • My non-digital game design project has four milestones. The first is just a high concept, target audience, basic information (number of players, etc.) and some core mechanics. The second is a rough but playable prototype. The third is a playtested prototype, with the mechanics finalized or close to it. The final milestone is a polished product.
  • All milestones are graded. Early milestones are easy points -- just turn in something, anything, as long as it works. Later milestones are graded based on the quality of the design -- you'd better have done some iterations.
  • For the future, I'm thinking that early milestones should be worth fewer points than later milestones. This puts less importance on early work and more focus on the final product.
  • On the days where milestones are due, students bring their works-in-progress to class and present the work for peer review. This also gives me a chance to see how the projects are progressing. In the future, I should probably just give a grade right then and there for the early milestones.
  • Make it clear to students from the beginning that the more they iterate on their project, the more they playtest, the more they fail and then change, the better their final project will be. Unfortunately, this is one of those things they might just have to find out the hard way for themselves. I'll try bringing in a student work from an earlier course (with permission) in its various stages of completion, to show just how much difference playtesting can make.
[This article originally appeared on Ian Schreiber's blog, Teaching Game Design.]

Ian Schreiber has been in the game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. Also an educator since 2006, Ian has taught game design and development courses at a variety of schools, and on his own without a school. He has co-authored two books, Challenges for Game Designers and Breaking Into the Game Industry. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

November 2013: Hyper-Realism

November 2013's topic was submitted by game designer Pascal Belanger.

The race to realism is bringing us to the point where some say we are too close to reality, citing LA Noire as an example that has apparently "defeated the uncanny valley".  This affects us all especially in the AAA industry where the majors associate immersion to realism.

  • How important is it that your games are realistic? 
  • How does it affect your design decisions?  
  • Does it hinder the games landscape? 
  • Is it a good thing in the long run that we put so much effort in representing life in a somewhat more real than real way?

Some articles on this topic:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Game Dev House: A New Approach to Workshops

In this article, game developer Erin Margolis discusses why she feels game design workshops are still useful experiences in an age full of online courses and describes her recent experience running a game jam at Game Dev House.

In this information-filled age, there is no lack of access to articles, tutorials, and courses. However, there is a lack of human empathy and people who can listen and understand one another. Workshops are a playing ground where gamers and players can connect and practice use of what skill sets they have, but more importantly gain social interaction and share personal experiences.

Anyone can find all of the information that they need on their own online, but there is a synergy in forming communities. Community, in the truest sense of the word, is about growing and sharing.

Articles that inspire, new software that helps to guide a person’s vision, group discussions that engage where others can be heard: This is all community. It’s a place of substance and can be a powerful place for people to create alongside one another and advance to the next step.

Game Dev House ran a game jam on June 29th this past year where we had over 20 attendees. It was a free event that took place at Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, NJ and was advertised for a month. There were 2 guest speakers, lectures, game demos, and prizes. Our main event turned out great in getting people who did not know each other to work in small teams and make a project idea which they presented in front of the entire group.

After hanging out with this group for most of the day and getting to know them, I was able to assign them a role on the team and get them to collaborate and build. We had storyboard conceptions, character creators, presenters, and illustrators. It varied a bit per team.

It was really cool to see the teams working together and having a great time! This was a foundational starting point for the attendees to experience game development with other people.

After the workshop was over, the attendees expressed a wide range of interests in different aspects of the game development process. Since their interests were as varied as their experience and age, I surmised that it would be most beneficial to get an online group going where separate sects could be formed addressing each of their goals and needs. It seemed to be that this group of people liked hanging out and socializing together, but it would be easier to teach them through online coaching and or small classes.

Ultimately, it is enjoyable instructing both online and onsite classes and connecting with many different students. Game Dev House facilitates the bringing together of developers and students who are looking for more than a conventional approach to learning. The combination of international ideas, home-grown games, and student projects has proven to do more than we expected! The culture has been free to define who they want to be and been given a platform of recognition. This builds up the individual to pursue whatever goals and dreams that they have outside of conventional game development, and we support that!

Erin Margolis is a NJ resident and has been working as a game developer since 2005.  She is passionate about game development and its impact on the betterment of society.  Game Dev House was launched on 10/31/12; ironically, the day after Superstorm Sandy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Is HTML5 Ready for Prime Time? (Part III)

In Part I, game developers Raymond Jacobs and Tom Novelli take a look at HTML5's capabilities and dispel common misconceptions about JavaScript.  In Part II, they propose a solution to HTML5's nightmarish audio problems. In Part III, they give a rundown of other issues that may be encountered when making HTML5 games.


One of the principle buzzwords in the HTML5 movement, WebGL holds great promise, the ability to use the native graphics API for 3D games. Our experimentation however, has shown webGL is /not/ ready for prime-time today. The fact that I can run an OpenGL example program written in C++, and on the same machine fail to run the same example written in WebGL, means there are still issues. Damn those proprietary NVidia/ATI drivers! WebGL also has a steep learning curve, compared to Canvas. That all being said, if these issues can be overcome, WebGL should be a very viable option for 2D and 3D graphics middleware - hopefully by year's end.

Annoyance: WWW Baggage

Browsers support a ton of document-formatting features (CSS, HTML, XML, SVG, etc) that aren't terribly useful for Canvas and WebGL games, and are probably best avoided as much as possible. A simple game requires only a half-page of HTML as a container to load the Javascript. Unfortunately if for some reason you know nothing about web design, you'll have to learn basic HTML and CSS in order to create JS games. It's necessary for landing pages and UI dialogs anyway.

Because text rendering is awkward in Canvas and WebGL, you'll probably want to use HTML for in-game text (notifications, character dialogues, etc). The trick is to use "pointer-events: none" (CSS) to prevent the text from blocking mouse clicks.

Using CSS "the right way" can be tedious and pointless. When in doubt, use and abuse "position: absolute" with reckless abandon!

XML being a close cousin of HTML, one would think browsers would have excellent XML facilities. To the contrary, we have found them to be awkward and sometimes buggy, so we converted our old XML assets to JSON.

Also, you'll probably need to install a web server program such as Apache. You may be able to run your game by opening the HTML file on your hard drive (as a "file://" URL), but there are some arcane security restrictions that'll stump you, especially if you get into AJAX or WebGL.

Pitfall: Web Browsers are not 100% Compatible

There's always a catch; "cross-platform" is never seamless. Our advice is to support the top 3 or 4 browsers, and test your game on all of them regularly. Chrome and Safari are generally the best for games, and they both use the WebKit engine so they're nearly 100% compatible. Firefox is also good - better in certain respects - but be careful to avoid bleeding-edge features like "let [x,y] = point". IE and Opera require extra effort which may not be worthwhile for /serious/ games because better browsers are available for all devices. For simple casual games, on the other hand, supporting IE is easier and probably essential for commercial success.

If you're making phone/tablet games, beware: mobile browsers are different beasts.

Resource Packing and Loading

Unlike other platforms where you can zip everything up in an installer package, HTML5 requires a bit more effort. Atlas your sprites and sound effects, embed small HTML files in JSON, embed GLSL shaders if you're using WebGL, embed JSON files in JS, then combine and minify all your JS files. We automate the process using Make, PHP and NodeJS scripts, ImageMagick, LAME, and OggEnc.

Then, when your game starts up, pre-load all your resources (except perhaps music). We use async.js to ajax-fetch everything in parallel, then start the game loop.

AppCache (AKA Offline Mode) is a fairly easy way speed up pre- and re-loading (even for an online multiplayer game) if you keep it simple. Beware, it can go horribly wrong; read the highly entertaining Application Cache is a Douchebag article before you get too excited.

In the beginning, when you're running your game from your own machine, none of this matters. Do whatever works. Just be forewarned, if you finish an HTML5 game, resource loading issues could delay your release by a few days or weeks.


The potential of making games in a single language that can seamlessly blend with existing web services, have all the trappings and simplicity of web development in free and open platform makes HTML5 very attractive from both development and availability angles.

Raymond Jacobs is the driving force behind Ethereal Darkness Interactive (EDIGames), a western Massachusetts indie developer focused on the Action/RPG genre. Their most notable game is Morning’s Wrath, a fantasy RPG released in 2005. 

Tom Novelli is a game developer and musician in western Massachusetts. He is currently porting Morning's Wrath to HTML5.

Monday, October 7, 2013

October 2013: Story Frameworks

Recently, game developer Kaolin Fire posed this question in the Game Writers Facebook group:
Do you think there's value in adding a story to a dead-simple puzzle/arcade game (a la Tetris)? If so, where/how would you put it? An optional menu link? A "joining our intrepid adventurer" before the game starts that's skippable? Maybe just in advertising copy/the game description?
To which Altug Isigan responded:
If you have a strategic system that frames the tactical gameplay, then you have already something that functions similar to the frame story technique. ─░magine that after every round of Tetris you gain a Tetris token which you use to complete a puzzle, lets say building sort of a key that lets you escape from the Tetris universe. In that sense, many games tend to use multi-layered gameplay architectures in order to achieve a frame story effect. 
I've played several casual games where the story seems to be sandwiched between some gameplay.  Or seemed somewhat ludicrous. 
  • What kind of techniques do you have for stories in casual puzzle games? 
  •  Do these stories feel fulfilling to you?  
  • What's the best way to tackle this issue?
Kaolin Fire is VP of product development at Blindsight. He's been developing software independently since the days of DOOR games, not counting hours entering machine code from the back of COMPUTE!'s Gazette. He's had fiction and poetry published in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, and Murky Depths, among others; has taught computer science at high school and college levels; dabbles in cover art and cover design; and obsesses about the human brain.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere. 

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.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is HTML5 Ready for Prime Time? (Part II)

In Part I, game developers Raymond Jacobs and Tom Novelli take a look at HTML5's capabilities and dispel common misconceptions about JavaScript.  In Part II, they propose a solution to HTML5's nightmarish audio problems.


So I’m gonna come right out and say it, audio in HTML5 sucks. There is no reason to dance around the issue. Before I go any further, let me assure you, you can get a decent audio experience in HTML5, but here are some issues you’ll face:
  • Audio format issues: 
Certain browsers can only play certain audio formats, this means you will have to deploy at least two audio formats (currently .mp3 and .ogg). Blame software patents.
  • Bad Information: 
There is an API to ask a browser what kind of audio formats it can play; sadly this API is horrible with such decoder support responses as “maybe”. Across the myriad of browsers, we’ve also found the API to outright lie about what it can and can't support.
  • Cruddy Implementations: 
Some browsers, even though they swear they can play a format; their decoder/stream implementations are just broken. High start latencies, bad audio quality, incorrect timing. Some browsers (or operating systems) seem to implement the bare minimum just so they can say they support a format.
  • High start latency: 
If you load a sound file via http and hit play, by the time the sound has downloaded the moment has passed. This is okay for background music, but it's unacceptable for sound effects action games.
This all sounds really hard!

Audio is the #1 problem with HTML5 today; thankfully a lot of smart people have come together, and technology is emerging that makes HTML5 audio at least functional, if not feature-rich.

Audio Sprites to the rescue!

Just as the Atlas is a 2D packing solution for images, to reduce loads of http calls and nominal overhead; the Audio Sprite is a 1D solution for sounds. We took our lead from the ground work done by Remy Sharp. The basic idea is that you pack your sound effects into a single audio file, with a half-second of padding (silence) between each sound to allow for timing irregularities. An accompanying .json file lists all of the files contained in the audio sprite, and their start and end positions.

With audio sprites, you only need to convert one file to ogg and mp3, and you only need one http request to download it.
  • Latency b-gone! 
The main benefit of having one large sound file is that we avoid streaming issues with small audio files. The browser preloads the single audio file, then seeks to the beginning of each sound effect when called for, with minimal latency. Our only issue is that we need to monitor and stop the stream after the sound ends but before the next one begins.
  • “What about bad format detection?” 
This is still somewhat of an issue; we’ve found that you can favor MP3 and get coverage on most browsers; but at the time of writing it would not be a bad idea to include an MP3-or-OGG setting in your options menu. Also, make sure you're doing it right; a lot of people cut corners in format detection.
  • “This all sounds like a bit much to handle!” 
Yeah it’s a pain; it took us weeks to develop the necessary tools and tricks. If you’ve got a project in the works and need some help, drop us a line at this e-mail.
By the way, there is hope. Most web browsers already support the new Opus format and/or the spiffy new OpenAL-based WebAudio API. It's probably just a matter of time before they all do.

Raymond Jacobs is the driving force behind Ethereal Darkness Interactive (EDIGames), a western Massachusetts indie developer focused on the Action/RPG genre. Their most notable game is Morning’s Wrath, a fantasy RPG released in 2005. 

Tom Novelli is a game developer and musician in western Massachusetts. He is currently porting Morning's Wrath to HTML5.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is HTML5 Ready for Prime Time? (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game developers Raymond Jacobs and Tom Novelli take a look at HTML5's capabilities and dispel common misconceptions about JavaScript.

I will make the assumption that you, the reader, have already come to the conclusion that writing a game in a single language and releasing it on multiple platforms without porting or even recompiling is a benefit to your business, through greater visibility and empowering the player.

There has been a lot of misinformation floating around the web concerning HTML5. The most important question is, “Is HTML5 ready for prime time?”

The short answer is yes, you can write polished games in HTML5 and have them run across a myriad of browsers, platforms and devices with consistent results.

The longer answer - the subject of this article - is that HTML5 is still young, and there are real-world pitfalls which should be avoided whenever possible.

Beyond the Buzzword

So when we’re talking about HTML5, what we really mean is Javascript (JS) coupled with graphics and interactive APIs exposed to JS by the browser. Like any mature technology, Javascript comes with its own set of dogma and misinformation.

Here is a short list of common misconceptions:
  • "Javascript is slow!"
This was true until the browser makers started pouring R&D into JS optimization, circa 2005. Nowadays, according to this list, it's generally the fastest dynamic language - on par with static languages Java and C#, and only about half the speed of native-compiled C. That's not bad - it's awesome.
  • "Javascript doesn’t have classes!"
We hear this one a lot, and it just isn’t true; the prototypal inhertiance in JS delivers all the basic OO features you’d want in a game: member variables; member functions; sub-classing; static members; polymorphism; reflection; function/constructor overloading; type identification (instanceof).
Check out the object-oriented section of Tom Novelli’s JS reference for more information.
  • "Javascript isn’t secure because it isn’t compiled!"
The use of minification and obfuscation (if reflection isn't needed), turning your code into a whitespaceless, commentless heap of nonsense to the human eye is as effective as native code compilation. Remember, anything run on the client, be it Javascript, Java or C++ is not secure, and obscurity is not security.
  • "Javascript isn't a real programming language!"
This is just silly; look at From a language design perspective, Javascript is pretty nice. It's a pared-down version of Scheme Lisp with a C-like syntax and Smalltalk-style prototypal objects.
By the way, the next version of Javascript - ES6 - is going to be sweet.


Now that we’ve addressed some dogma concerning Javascript, let’s talk about HTML5. HTML5 simply adds to the existing HTML specification we all know and love, and as game developers we only really care about a few choice bits. So here are some exciting things you can use today with HTML5, and some pitfalls.


It’s the feature we’ve all heard about concerning games in HTML5. The Canvas creates a 2D drawing space on your web page. You can control the frame buffer size (pixel width and height) and set the screen size of the canvas element; it will automatically stretch or shrink the buffer to the element size. You can even create off-screen canvases and copy one canvas to another, giving the potential for powerful effects and/or performance enhancements.

With a simple setInterval timer (or better yet, the requestAnimationFrame API) and a canvas, you’re ready to start drawing things in less time it would take to install a typical IDE.


Besides blitting bitmap images at lightning speed, canvas includes a robust API (based on PostScript) for geometric lines and fills, and rudimentary text rendering facilities; use these sparingly however, as they tend to sap frame-rate.

Also, canvas likes to draw from a small number of source images and would prefer that you keep your drawImage calls down (this is probably a reality of underlying drivers/API which are 3D in nature). So, atlas those tiny images (you’ll want to anyway to reduce http load calls), and use offscreen canvases to cache unchanging parts of the scene (turn those 6400 drawn tiles into a single drawImage call).

Raymond Jacobs is the driving force behind Ethereal Darkness Interactive (EDIGames), a western Massachusetts indie developer focused on the Action/RPG genre. Their most notable game is Morning’s Wrath, a fantasy RPG released in 2005. 

Tom Novelli is a game developer and musician in western Massachusetts. He is currently porting Morning's Wrath to HTML5.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part III)

In Part I, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation. In Part II, she demonstrates how distributed development can be more productive but cautions that team building is still necessary. In Part III, she lists the benefits of working from home in a distributed development environment.

Work From Home

Studies have shown an increase in productivity when workers are allowed to work from home. One reason for this is how people view their time. When a person is in an office, they view all the time in the office as time worked. This includes gabbing with co-workers, playing ping-pong, mid-day power walks, etc. When people work from home, the only time they view themselves as working is time actually spent working. Breaks to do the dishes, take the dog for a walk, etc. are not considered work time.

Working from home also helps reduce the person's carbon footprint, unless they are the rare individual that commutes by bike or walks. For companies in urban areas such as Los Angeles, where programs to discourage individual commuting are in place, this improves the company's score card. Commuting can also take up to 3 hours of a person’s day. Those hours can be split between the developer’s personal life and the work with gains in each.

Working from home allows parents to be more involved in their families and less dependent on outside care takers. The result is less time spent making arrangement for the children while at work, less anxiety on the part of the parent, and a result in higher concentration and higher quality of work.


But what about Ms. Myers’ assertion that people need to be in the same office to innovate? As I know of no studies verifying or denying her hypothesis I will address it with questions about innovation rather than with data.

How much innovation is needed?

Does every single employee at a company need to innovate? Do you want your build system to be innovative or would you prefer a tried and true system that has been doing its job for 10 years. Do you want innovative accountants thinking outside the box on your tax returns? I contest the idea that everyone in the company needs to be innovative.

Do we have to be in the same room to innovate?

Often meetings where brain-storming and innovation take place are dominated by the same loud voices. When one or more members of a team are dominant, others are often quiet and their input gets lost in the noise. While this can also happen in on-line meetings, the ability to type text into a chat field during the meeting allows people who may not be as verbally assertive to still ensure their input makes it into the meeting without having to develop skills in interrupting others. And the record of the meeting allows review which can facilitate greater innovation.

Do we want to innovate for the sake of innovation?

Innovation is the hot new buzzword. But is innovation for its own sake necessarily desirable. Just because no one has ever made an FPS where bullets travel a player defined path rather than a physics defined trajectory does not mean that particular innovation will increase sales, provide a better experience or is in any way a good idea.

Benefits versus Risks

The risks for developers in a distributed model mostly fall on the shoulders of middle management as it requires more than just showing up at the office and delegating tasks. Managers have to be willing to work with their team based on work results alone. No more can a manager say “if I don’t see you working, you’re not working” (a fairly ridiculous assertion in a creative medium as dependent on inspiration as on hard work). The manger must actually look at and evaluate the work of the employees and this takes time.

In addition, since managers don’t casually pass their employees, often giving them the illusion they are aware of what that person is doing, in a distributed environment managers must actually schedule time to sit down with their direct reports. Having worked for 2.5 years at one studio before ever receiving feedback from my manager other than a yearly raise, the value of regular meetings with direct reports cannot be over-stated. Managers and direct reports need to communicate regularly. The processes necessary for a distributed team are those which would help all teams, but the distributed nature of the work requires those processes be in place and be followed.

The benefits to allowing work from home can also be found in talent retention. Better communication, autonomy over work environment, and being judged by the quality of your work and not arbitrary measures are all benefits that help talent remain satisfied with their position. And while all of these can happen in a single location, they can also be easily overlooked in such an environment. Distributed development, when it works, puts these things as top priorities and they become integrated into the corporate culture for the benefit of all.  

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Friday, September 6, 2013

September 2013: Teaching Game Design


Two weeks ago, I presented, "What's in a Name? Serious Games vs Gamification" at the Serious Play Conference, held at DigiPen, a college focused on game development.  At the conference, there were numerous presentations on how to use games to educate children in topics such as math, science, and history.  Dr. James Rosser, Jr.spoke about how video games could improve the skills of laparoscopic surgeons while Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi unveiled an application to help managers facilitate flow states for employees.  The research indicated that companies actually make a profit while employees achieve flow!

During my time there, I did get to talk to an instructor at DigiPen.  There was not much discussion about teaching game development at the conference, although Lee Sheldon's book, The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game did come up during my Q&A period.

When I went to college, there weren't schools like DigiPen dedicated to game development.  Now, it's not odd to see game design offered in various departments, in colleges big and small.  I noticed that while GDAM has covered Game-Based Learning and Game Designer Skills, we have never had  a topic about teaching game design.

As it is the month children traditionally head back to school after the summer break, I think it's fitting that September 2013's topic is Teaching Game Design.

I invite readers to submit an article on this topic. Please read the submission guidelines first. Thanks!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part II)

In Part I, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation. In Part II, she demonstrates how distributed development can be more productive but cautions that team building is still necessary.

Making Distributed Development Work

Communication Becomes Top Priority

I doubt anyone will argue that if two people need to collaborate, it is much easier if they are in the same room. But how many times in game development is collaboration limited to two people? Entire teams are collaborating. And while entire teams can be brought into a meeting in the same location, the dynamic instantly changes. There is more discussion. And there is more opportunity for communication failures. Here are some examples:
  1. A meeting is called for 10 minutes from now. The entire team attends, except Bob, who is the only back-end developer on the team. Bob is at the dentist. They make a decision for a new interface. No one tells Bob. Bob continues working on the back-end based on previous assumptions. A month goes by before anyone discovers the problem and a month of development time is lost.
  2. Carol and Alice meet in the hallway to discuss a problem with the controllers. They decide to tweak an algorithm to fix the problem. They don’t realize that the algorithm used for the controllers is also used for AI. When they check in the fix to the controllers, they break AI movement.
  3. The art team is gathered around a monitor to view the latest models. Stan is in the back and can’t see the entire screen. The art director points out an area where there needs to be some work but Stan doesn’t see the entire piece and while he thinks he understands the direction he’s being asked to go, he’s not correct because he missed a critical element.
When the team is distributed across multiple locations and time zones, then how the team communicates becomes a top priority. No one can assume everyone is available for a meeting in 10 minutes; therefore any meeting has to go into the calendar where it would be obvious to everyone that Bob was at the dentist. The meeting would have been held when Bob was available.

Alice and Carol would not have been in the hallway, they’d have met in IRC chat where the entire team would be able to watch the conversation and the AI developer could have pointed out the problem at design time. And Stan would not be huddled around a monitor trying to see around others, but would have the screen he was supposed to be looking at shared on his computer so he can see it clearly.

None of the three meetings in the examples have a record of what has transpired. The tools used in distributed development in some cases automatically record the meeting and in others lend themselves to easy documentation. IRC automatically logs chats. In Skype meetings at Linden Lab there were usually side bars in chat along with the conversation in voice. This allowed everyone to more easily insert their opinions without interrupting and provided a chat log of what was being discussed. Screen shares can also be captured. All of this documentation becomes available to those at the meeting, to ensure everyone understood and also to those who could not attend so that they can quickly get up to speed on any changes. This is invaluable when bringing new people into a project.

Team Building

Having the right tools does not solve problems with attitudes. While people all in the same office can also get into cliquish behavior, when teams are distributed as teams rather than as individuals an “us v them” mentality can easily slip into the culture. This kind of attitude requires management intervention and needs to be aggressively addressed. Team building exercises are critical. Video cameras to bring the people more directly into the room in meetings help, but so do meetings that are just for team building. And if you can meet in a virtual world as avatars that adds a uniquely wonderful touch, particularly when your boss wears a brown paper bag on his head or the CEO is a rocketship. My personal favorite will always be the bloody meat cleaver wielding tiny fairy with the bass voice of one of the rendering devs.

 Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part I)

In Part I of this article, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation.

Marissa Meyers recently made headlines with the call for all Yahoo! employees to return to the office. She has dismissed studies of improved productivity when people are allowed to work from home and asserts, instead, that colocation of people is required for innovation. While Yahoo is in the unique position of a company trying to turn itself around, many will be watching to see whether this proves to be a successful move.

The game industry is not Yahoo!, however, and before we jump on board to adapt Ms. Meyers' theories, we need to first examine the cost of having all developers in a single location to the industry as a whole. .

Disadvantages of Colocating 

Personnel Costs of Relocation

IGN reported 20 studios closed in 2012. In addition, it reports 35 incidents of smaller studio closures or significant lay-offs. Speaking from personal experience, I saw one RIF (reduction in force) and one studio closing within a 1 year period resulting in 2 cross-country moves within that same year. Psychologists list the stress of moving as the most significant stressor short of losing a loved one. It is not only disruptive for the employee, but for the entire family. In two-career homes, it leads to arguments over whose career takes precedent. Some careers are only available in limited geographic locations forcing the game developing spouse to stop developing games or forcing the spouse with limited geographic options to forgo their career. When children are involved, it removes them from their schools and friends. For high school students, this can mean having to take extra courses and summer school since standards are local. For example, my son could not count ROTC as his PE requirement when moving to a school that did not have ROTC and would require an additional year of high school to meet that requirement alone. .

Limited Talent Pool 

Thousands of young people fresh out of school are trying to enter the game industry. However, with the Quality-of-Life issues rampant in the industry, we find a shrinking pool of experienced developers. People who start families begin to rethink 12/7 work weeks and leave the industry for a saner lifestyle. According to the most recent IGDA QOL Survey, 74.4% of respondents had less than 8 years of industry experience. The average age of developers was only 31.22 years and 76.9% of respondents have no children. .

If you draw a correlation between the age of developers and their child-free status with the exodus of developers with greater than 7 years’ experience, the logical conclusion is that this industry needs to become friendlier to older developers with children. One way to grow the experienced developer pool of talent is to look beyond the confines of local studios. Experienced developers live in the all the major game hubs, but many are settled in those locations and experienced enough they don’t need to leave for a good job. So a studio seeking top talent will expand its talent pool for developers if relocation is not a requirement..

The Bottom Line 

Next to hardware for server farms, salaries and benefits are the largest expense for a game studio. The more expensive the location of the studio, the higher salaries required. The difference for a developer in Denver and in San Francisco is 55%. So a $50K developer in Denver will cost $77,500 in San Francisco. And yet your game does not sell for 55% more in San Francisco than in Denver. It sells for exactly the same amount. From a simple bottom line perspective, it makes more sense to hire the developer in Denver..

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The State of Game Journalism

In this article, author Jason R. Rich reports on the growing presence of social media in game journalism and its impact on game developers.

Just as interactive entertainment has evolved dramatically in recent years, so has the way consumers are able to obtain the latest gaming news, reviews, game play strategies and gossip. For game publishers and developers, this now means having to take a multi-faceted approach to sales, marketing, advertising, public relations and promotions.

While printed, special interest gaming magazines, like Game Informer, and printed strategy guides (from publishers like Prima) still exist, their importance to gamers has somewhat taken a back seat to the vast number of online-based gaming websites, blogs, YouTube channels and special interest Facebook pages, for example, that are now populating the Internet.

Marc Saltzman, a longtime video game and interactive entertainment columnist for the Gannett newspaper chain and USA Today, explained, “Over the last five years, we have seen a lot more mainstream media interest in gaming, but far fewer specialty publications focusing on gaming. There is also a lot more opportunity for bloggers and online social media to cover gaming.”

Today, the success of a new game title no longer depends on positive reviews appearing within a few key printed gaming publications. Instead, word of mouth among consumers via the online social networking services can quickly make or break a game. Plus, news, game play strategies and other content related to new games can be disseminated almost instantly thanks to the Internet.

Thus, game developers and publishers need to continue working with the few remaining printed game magazine publishers to coordinate reviews and share game-related content in order to cater to the wants and needs of hard core gamers. However, it’s also necessary to reach consumers by working with the growing number of mainstream media outlets that now also cover gaming.

Meanwhile, having a strong online social media presence to promote word-of-mouth hype about games is more essential than ever, as is reaching out to the influential bloggers and YouTube channel hosts that cover gaming. Many of these individuals have larger and more dedicated audiences than traditional media outlets.

Andy Eddy, the editor-in-chief of @Gamer magazine (the official games magazine of Best Buy), stated, “Video game journalism, like other forms of journalism, has expanded quite a bit, so there are a lot of different ways for a gaming enthusiast to get information. There are still reliable game magazines, such as @Gamer, and game-oriented websites, but the Internet has enabled other forms to proliferate, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The ability to easily publish game-related information on the Internet means that there's now a lot of content, from reliable and not-so-reliable sources, to be had.”

He added, “As a result of there being numerous methods for enthusiasts to gather information and news, I think there's less loyalty. Instead of relying on one or two sources for content, gamers are able to do a keyword search on Google, and instantly be taken to a number of sources with the exact information they're looking to get. And along with that, there's a desire for instant access to news stories.

“Consumer tastes vary. There's no single or definitive source to tell you whether or not you'll like a game when it comes out. Simply put, I think it's now much harder for a developer or publisher to bring out a bad game and blow it past the buying community, given how quickly word-of-mouth opinions and media coverage spreads via the Internet,” said Eddy.

Word travels very fast about new video games thanks to online social media and blogs. “If a game gets a lot of positive buzz, starts trending, and word on the street is that ‘You’ve got to play this,’ a game is going to do very well,” added Salzman.

“Recently, we have seen games from small publishers come out of nowhere, that did not initially receive attention from the gaming or general media, become the next big thing in gaming. Look at Minecraft, for example.

“If there are two things that have changed the face of gaming media, it’s blogs and online social networking. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become very important tools to game publishers for spreading the word about new games. It’s widely accessible and instantaneous. It also provides a way for gamers to share their own gaming experiences and opinions,” said Salzman.

Game developers and publishers should still rely on the traditional gaming media to help them reach serious gamers. However, it’s important to understand that the gaming media is now segmented, with various publications and outlets covering specific aspects of interacting entertainment, such as online gaming, mobile gaming, console gaming or computer gaming.

“Game developers and publishers need to do their homework. Target the gaming media that caters to the genre of gaming that’s appropriate to their titles,” said Salzman. “Next, target the specific journalists at those outlets who cover the type of game you’re trying to promote. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Today, when it comes to promoting a game, utilizing the traditional gaming media and mainstream media, along with reaching out to bloggers, game-oriented YouTube channels, and utilizing online social media, are all equally important.

Jason R. Rich (@jasonrich7) is the bestselling author of more than 55 books, as well as a frequent contributor to numerous national magazines, major daily newspapers and popular websites. Beginning in the late-1980s, he spent more than 15 years covering interactive entertainment. Most recently, he wrote the Pottermore Secrets and Mysteries Revealed: The Unofficial Guide To strategy guide for Que Publishing. His own blog, which covers iPhone and iPad apps (including games), is called Jason Rich’s Featured App Of The Week.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How not to sound white: Exploring my culture through a video game

In this article, game producer Angel Inokon recalls how the struggle to connect to her Nigerian American culture led to the creation of her very first video game.

“You Oreo!” Of all the names the bully could have called me, I kind of liked Oreo. My round belly and chubby sixth grade arms made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed dunking chocolate cookies in milk until they crumbled into a mush of goodness. Yumm....

But it was intended to be an insult. I was a brown-skinned little girl with nappy hair who spoke like a white person. An Oreo is black on the outside and white on the inside. This is the story of how a video game helped bridge my cultural identity as a Nigerian Black American.

I never felt like I belonged – not at home or at school. My parents ate funny food, wore funny clothes and spoke a funny language. We were forbidden to learn their native tongue, Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s 400 plus dialects. To make matters worse, they had a British education so we were hopelessly out of place at school.

We weren’t Nigerian enough to speak our native language and not American enough to sound black. I would beg my parents to teach me Ibibio. I fantasized about how awesome it would be to have my own secret language – I could talk about people in public, understand jokes that seemed funnier in Ibibio or eavesdrop on my parents.

They would laugh as we mangled sounds that don’t exist in the English language. For example, 'akpan' means first son, a common name for men. The ‘kp’ pops from your lips like a hard bouncy b. My parents wouldn't teach us because they feared discrimination if we spoke with an accent. Assimilation meant survival. Therefore we had to sound white. I’ve gone through cycles of acceptance around this fact – indifference, annoyance, anger, self-pity, resignation and back again. Hungry for power, I ordered books on Ibibio from Amazon. Books suck. They don’t speak to you. You can’t easily learn a language from a book.

Books weren’t the solution. So I created a video game.

What I was trying to accomplish was darn near impossible. I wasn’t a programmer. I didn’t know the language. My parents wouldn’t teach. And we were the first generation to speak full English. Undaunted I opened up Macromedia Flash 8 and designed my first game – Ibibio Hangman.

It was a bilingual hangman game where you selected the mode - Green for Ibibio or Blue for English. If you selected English you saw a blue screen with spaces and letters to guess the secret word. If you clicked the hint button you would see the translated word in Ibibio. When you got the word right in either mode you could hear a pronunciation of Ibibio. One problem – I can’t pronounce these words.

So I cornered my mom and got her to say a couple words into my cheap microphone before she escaped. I felt sorry for my mom. She had a geeky daughter. I was not interested in being in the kitchen learning to cook fufu soup or wearing a lace buba dress. I wanted to code. At my computer, I converted her voice to wav files using Audacity and put them in my game asset folder. In the end my game had an external dictionary of about 10 words. If you failed to guess the word a bomb would explode which somehow made sense as a lose condition for Hangman. It was a game, it worked and it was mine.

Now almost ten years later I make games for a living. Video games can act as a time capsule capturing experiences we can relive again and again. There will be a day I’ll want to hear my mother’s voice. I’ll wish I was able to hear her speak our language. While I no longer have the source code for the original game, I have the memories. Now as I’ve started my own mobile gaming company my wish is to rebuild Ibibio Hangman and invite you too to become an Oreo.

Angel Inokon is a game producer, entrepreneur and a member of the IGDA living in Oakland, CA. She is creating That's My Move!, a mobile game for shy wannabe dancers who want to have fun doing flash mobs with friends. Follow her at @angelinokon or @thatsmymove.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

August 2013: Spotlighting Trends

When I wrote the feature article, The Social Network Game Boom, for Gamasutra, in 2009, I guess it was so early that the editor had to add that the potential of social games to dominate the market was "according to her."  I had been lucky enough to have been there at the beginning of social gaming (even witnessing it firsthand in China!) and I was also there at the debatable end, as social game companies shifted their focus to mobile gaming.

I worked at several social gaming companies.  They all faced inevitable change in the market and strove to make that shift from Facebook/Web to iPhone/tablet games.  Of course, no one wants to be at the tail end of a trend.  After 20 restaurant Diner Dash type games in the marketplace, is the 21st going to be any better?  Even with the short production cycles for social and mobile games, companies wanted to do some trend forecasting so that they didn't end up with last season's now-boring flash-in-the-pan.  The business people had meetings to decide if 9 months from now, would a girl-centered shopping game do any better than a vampire-themed shooter?  They were trying to forecast trends and "likes."

This month, I'd welcome articles about the science or intuition of forecasting trends and also any trends that you've noticed in our industry.  What changes do you think will impact us in the future?

If you would like to submit an article, please read the submission guidelines to the right first.  Thanks!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Narrative Analysis of Way of the Samurai 3

In this video, game researcher Arthur Protasio describes how "narrative reincarnation" in Way of the Samurai 3 represents a series of branching narrative paths.

For an in depth analysis of the game’s narrative structure, click here.

Arthur Protasio is a writer, narrative designer, and game researcher. He runs the Rio de Janeiro IGDA chapter and believes in the equal importance of studying, criticizing, and developing games as means to understanding them as a medium of expression. His essays and games have been internationally praised and you can find him online at LudoBardo, his web series focused on game narratives.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Top Ten Tabletop Kickstarters: How They Do It

In this article, novelist and game designer Matt Forbeck weighs in on why tabletop gaming Kickstarters are outperforming video game crowdfunding campaigns.

Over at ICv2, they’ve posted a list of the top ten tabletop gaming Kickstarters of all time (um, four years now, in Kickstarter terms). They don’t offer up much in the way of analysis there, though, other than to say “tabletop game projects are among Kickstarter’s most successful categories, with five projects at over $1 million, and three over $2 million.”

All true, but why is that? Why are tabletop games outdoing even video games, which are far more popular in general?
It has to do with the economies of scale of plastic miniatures.

(If that sentence put you to sleep, move on. Now. I’m going deep here.)

Every one of those games on ICv2′s list is a game or product that features lots and lots of plastic figures or terrain. Most of them started out with a decent amount of plastic in their boxes, but as each Kickstarter grew, the producers tossed in more and more plastic bits until the drives went from “cool stuff” to “awesome bargain on cool stuff!”

The Reaper drive for their Bones figures line is a perfect example of this — and was also the top-grossing drive, raking in more than $3.4 million. Their most popular reward came if you backed them at their $100 Vampire level. At the start of the drive, that got you a total of 67 figures. By the end, you racked up 240 figures, plus a number of other neat things, like a copy of my Hard Times in Dragon City novel, which unlocked at the $3 million mark.

So how did Reaper manage to nearly quadruple the number of figures they offered while keeping the price the same? The secret’s in the plastic.

Casting metal miniatures is a labor-intensive process that involves pouring molten metal into a spin-casting machine that distributes the metal into hollow cavities cut into a vulcanized rubber mold. The molds wear out after a while, and you have to make new ones. The metal’s a little pricey, but the rubber’s cheap, so it’s a great way to make miniatures if you’re making a few thousand or less.

However, if you can sell more than that many miniatures, you should make your figures in plastic instead, as the molds for these last virtually forever and the figures only cost pennies apiece. The trouble is that the injection molds for plastic figures are cut from steel, a process that costs thousands of dollars per figure rather than dozens. A small company can’t afford to make hundreds of these molds at once, at least not without a huge cash influx.

And that’s where Kickstarter comes in. If you can get your backers to pledge enough money to cover your steel molds, then you can give them lots of figures for their money. Better yet, if you bust through your initial funding goals, you can set stretch goals for new figures and toss them into the mix for either little cost (as low-cost add-on options) or bundle them in for free.

When the Reaper drive started, the per-figure price of their Vampire level was $1.49 each, shipped to your door. That’s a phenomenal bargain when you consider that most metal fantasy gaming figures cost around $5 each — or much more if you’re into a game like Warhammer. By the time the drive was over, the per-figure price fell to under 42¢ each.

Every time Reaper’s backers broke another stretch goal, the bargain got better and better for them. That gave them lots of incentive to tell their friends about the deal and rope them into joining the drive, and the effect snowballed with each stretch goal knocked down. By the time the drive ended, it was such a fantastic deal for anyone who’d ever pushed figures around a table that it became nearly irresistible.

All of the other miniatures-based triumphs follow this same kind of model. The recent Dwarven Forge Game Tiles drive, for instance, (on which I did a little consulting) followed this to the letter, and it brought in over $1.9 million.

Most other types of Kickstarter ventures cannot pull this sort of thing off. If you’re Kickstarting a novel, for instance, it’s hard to offer lots more novels in a time frame that makes sense for most readers. Evil Hat managed something close to this by bringing in lots of authors for its Spirit of the Century novel line Kickstarter, and the strategy made that the #5 fiction drive ever. (By my count, it’s actually the #1 straight novel drive, but that’s a separate post.)

The nature of minis, though, means you want to have as many of them to play with as once as you can manage, and with enough money a producer can manage this in a reasonable amount of time. It makes it a natural niche for a top Kickstarter — if it’s run well. It’s not something just any company can pull off though. There’s a lot of hard-won knowledge, skill, and expertise that goes into running and producing a successful line of plastic figures, and Kickstarter makes for the perfect way for the people who have that particular combination of things to capitalize on it.

[This article originally appeared on Matt Forbeck's blog,] 

Matt Forbeck has been a full-time creator of award-winning games and fiction since 1989. He has twenty-six novels published to date, including the award-nominated Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon and the critically acclaimed Amortals and Vegas Knights. His latest work includes the Magic: The Gathering comic book, the MMOs Marvel Heroes and Ghost Recon Online, his novel The Con Job, based on the TV show Leverage, and the Dangerous Games trilogy of thriller novels set at Gen Con. For more about him and his work, visit