Sunday, December 16, 2007

A second game design class

In the community college system SGD curriculum there are two game design classes and two level design classes. In the first game design class, much effort is spent learning Gamemaker, so that students can produce simple electronic games.

The most recent syllabus for "Game Design Two" that I have seen states that students will make eight electronic games, two weeks per game, using different genres, and different student groups, during the class. In practice this apparently means the students will spend a great deal of time on games, probably get to a more-or-less working prototype, then move on to the next game.

This promotes the idea that the designer has succeeded when he arrives at a working prototype of a game. In fact, this is blatantly untrue. 80% of the designer's time is spent testing and altering the prototype in order to get a really good game from it (the prototype is NEVER a really good game). This is just another instance of the "80/20" rule, in this case the first 80% of the work (getting a working prototype) takes 20% of the designer's time, and getting it right (the last 20%) takes 80% of the time. (Perhaps in the electronic world the percentages are more 70/30 or even 60/40, but the point is nonetheless the same.)

This also encourages the idea that highly-derivative games--the ones practical to make in Gamemaker--are good games.

Moreover, this turns the class into a game-production exercise rather than a game design exercise. The students will spend most of their time worrying about getting graphics made (art, not design), about writing marketing documents that have nothing to do with actual design, and about producing a working prototype (which is programming, not design). They cannot concentrate on gameplay, the heart of design, nor do they have the time to adjust gameplay after testing, which is the mechanism that can make a game acceptably good.

So most of their time will be spent on subjects other than game design. Game design is in large part a practical skill ("10% inspiration, 90% perspiration"), something that requires efficient practice. That cannot happen in the "Eight Gamemaker games a term" format.

In comparison to time spent, students learn much more about game design from non-digital games than from digital ones. Gamemaker is a fine simple tool, but not something that will be used in the real world to make commercially-viable games. And even when students use Gamemaker, getting to a working prototype of an electronic game that amounts to anything takes a long time. Already in one Game Design One class, one group tried to make a game that Gamemaker Pro simply could not cope with. They tried many tricks, but found that the only hope they had was to write code that loaded and unloaded graphics and other auxiliaries, for which they had no time nor much expertise.

Finally, as one student also said, Gamemaker is not something you will ever put on your resume.

Consequently, in "Game Design Two" the objective should be to "finish" games or mods, more or less, and that means lots of time-consuming testing of prototypes.

This is not exactly "quality over quantity". This is a case of "completion" (a relative term!) rather than doing half a job. And completion is where the men are separated from the boys. I've already said this, but this time I'll quote from a gent who came from the game industry to teaching (Ian Schrieber): "One of the hardest things when dealing with students is to convince them to work on small games and complete them, rather than working on a single huge sprawling mess that dies under its own weight. It's also hard to convey the 80/20 rule, that 20% of the work gets you the first 80% of the game... but getting that last 20% of the game (which is the polish factor) takes a lot of time after the game already feels like it "should" be done, and pressing on when you're sick of working on the game already is what separates the developers from the wannabes."
(http://teachingdesign.blogspot.com/)

The testing generally will not occur in class, except insofar as the instructor wants to comment on what is happening in the game. The instructor will probably play all the games at some point during testing.

If students are to get jobs as designers, their practical path for classes is to make non-digital games, and to make mods of existing games. The non-digital games will teach them far more about game design and provide games for their portfolios, while the mods will give them experience to make further mods that might get them noticed.

Those who do not wish to be designers will still benefit from working through the entire process, understanding the entire process. And they'll have more time to polish their contributions, whether art, programming, sound, or something else.

So in this class I would have student groups alternate non-digital games and mods of electronic games, perhaps three non-digital and two electronic, perhaps even fewer depending on how this works out in practice. They would FINISH the games, as best can be done in that environment (which is to say, not really finished at all). I'd want a minimum 10 tests for non-digital games, and hours of testing and modification for electronic games. I'd require extensive documentation of testing and of the modifications resulting from testing. In other words I'd want to see clearly the progress of the students after they produce the initial playable prototype.

My first assignment, in such a class, would be to give students individually (or possibly in groups) the task to report on one game engine or moddable game. This report would be presented orally in class, to benefit all the other students. In other words, the students will help each other become familiar with the methods of producing simple electronic games or mods, so that they can decide what to pursue.

Then when the students do their electronic projects, the students will have to provide the game to be modded, or get the game engine to use, since the school won't have those resources and may not be able to install such on the computers being used in most Game Design Two classes.

3 comments:

Joel said...

"pressing on when you're sick of working on the game already is what separates the developers from the wannabes."
---
My favorite quote of the week =)
Keep the posts coming, great reading for all of us.
/ Joel Hakalax
Digital Games - Game Design
BTH - Blekinge Institute of Technology
Sweden

Unbroken said...

"pressing on when you're sick of working on the game already is what separates the developers from the wannabes."

From our electronic game we made in your class, I can say this is VERY true. Even without testing and changing as much as most games (very limited time)most of the people in our group hated the game we had made by the end just from playing it so much.

Unbroken said...

"pressing on when you're sick of working on the game already is what separates the developers from the wannabes."

From our electronic game we made in your class, I can say this is VERY true. Even without testing and changing as much as most games (very limited time)most of the people in our group hated the game we had made by the end just from playing it so much.

"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle