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: