Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Victory conditions summary for boardgames/cardgames

For the benefit of my digital game students, I'm trying to summarize/categorize the many victory conditions available in games (especially board and card games).

Achieve a Position
Occupy a location--e.g. Stalingrad, Axis & Allies require occupation of certain cities
Occupy a lot of territory--go, Carcassone, Blokus, many others
Make a pattern of pieces--Tic-Tac-Toe, my Law & Chaos
Move off the other side of board (or the end of the track, as in race games)
There are many other variations...

Wipe out/destroy something
Wipe out everyone--checkers/draughts, Risk [this could be called "last survivor", too]
Take a piece (chess, the King)

Accumulate something or get rid of something (possibly all your assets)
$$$$ (Monopoly)
sets of cards (many card games)
use up all your cards (many card games)

Deduce/find answer
if no deduction is required, this is a form of accumulate (as, sets)

Use up all your assets (be eliminated) either last, or first--can be seen as a form of accumulate something or get rid of something.

Scoring the most points at the end of a set time, or a set number of points, is very common (Settlers of Catan, Brittania), but this is an intermediate step to the achievement of some other goals--money, territory, whatever. Points are used when multiple victory conditions are wanted. For example, Britannia points include holding territory, temporarily occupying territory, killing enemy units, capturing certain locations, and more.

I am going to include "choose own objectives" separately. In the classic game Careers, players secretly allocate 60 points amongst Fame, Happiness, and Money. The first to achieve his objectives wins the game. While it is an "accumulate something" condition, the strategic variability provided by choice is exceptional and notable.

Finally, some games have "Missions" (newer editions of Risk). This is another form of points, that is, each mission is one of the other kinds of victory condition.

I don't consider sports to be a form of boardgame/cardgame, but even sports can be considered in these terms. For example, in baseball, you get points by achieving a position (getting around the diamond to home plate).

Lew Pulsipher

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Checklist/reminder list for gameplay characteristics:

Non-electronic games should reveal the essence of design because they are likely to be simple. But all the comments below apply to electronic games as well.

This is, in a sense, a repeat of some of the things in the playtest notes on the blog, but I fear many have not read those.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face?
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges?
3. What can players to do affect each other (if game for more than one player)
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over?
5. Is the game fair?
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type (consider "take that")?
7. What is the "essence" of the game?

1., 2. and 3. Remember, the essence of gameplay is interesting non-trivial challenges and actions the players can take to meet those challenges. In non-electronic games, which usually involve more than one person, another very desirable element is player interaction, specifically, how can a player affect the other players? A good game is rarely "multiplayer solitaire", or a race where players have no influence on the fortunes of other players.

This amounts to, always ask yourself "what can the player do to influence the outcome of a game?"

4. Replayability. There are other considerations. For example, how replayable is the game? If it plays the same way over and over again, players will rapidly lose interest in it. See my separate piece on Replayability.

5. Fairness. Games should be fair. At some point, if a player feels he was gypped by the rules, he's not going to like the game. He or she should feel that he gets what he earned.

There's a particular mechanism that I'd lump into this category, the "roll a die and move that many" method used in Monopoly and many other traditional family games. I pose it to video game players like this: If you're playing an electronic game, and the maximum speed of your avatar varies periodically and randomly, aren't you going to hate that? That's what happens to a player in a roll-and-move game. And won't you hate it even worse if your opponent varies differently from you? At least, if all slow down at the same time, it's fair, but if one can move twice as fast as another, is that fair?

(I'm writing a separate piece on the flaws of traditional games, so I won't go beyond "roll and move".)

6. "Take that". The mixture of strategies and occurrences in a game must be appropriate to the audience. For example, party games should not require any heavy thinking!

In some games there are plays that pretty drastically change circumstances. These are called "take that" moves. (This often involves playing a card.) If you have a game with lots of "take that" occasions, people may enjoy it as a fun "beer and pretzels" thing, but they won't enjoy it as a strategic challenge. Conversely, if you are designing a strategic game, you probably should leave the "take that" stuff out. In other words, go one way or the other, a "take that" game or one that is not.

Where do you draw the line? Experience and playtesting with a variety of people will tell.

7. Finally, ask yourself, what is the essence of this game? What would characterize it in the minds of players or observers? Is this essence Good, is it desirable?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

How to improve replayability in a game

While the "cult of the new" tends to mean that games aren't played many times before players move on to the next game, replayability is still a desirable feature of any game.

Most of the following amounts to "vary the experience", which of course is what provides replayabilty--varied experience:

• "Multiple paths to victory"
• Variable rather than set starting positions
• More than two players
• Asymmetric game
• Use of event cards
• Scenarios
• Optional rules
• Different sets of rules
• Hidden information
• Special abilities

"Multiple paths to victory" will result in much-improved replayability. Drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game

Variable rather than set starting positions (players choose their starting positions). A few games offer both options. Risk offers a random setup and a setup that lets players choose locations. The drawback: this lengthens the game.

More than two players (each player provides variability of himself). The drawback: lengthens the game.

Asymmetric game (standard starting position is not the same for all players). The drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game (i.e., give each player an equal chance of winning).

Use of event cards (especially in symmetric games or games without other chance factors). The drawback: can be seen to increase the influence of chance. But event cards often adds enjoyable color to the game as well.

Scenarios (which amount to differences in positions or victory conditions (or both)). Used primarily in historical games. The drawback: more time-consuming to design.

Optional rules. Again this seems most common in historical games. These are alternative ways to play the game. At some point, many rule choices in a game design are largely arbitrary, that is, one choice leads to just as interesting a game as the other choice, but the designer must choose one. The other can become an optional rule.

The drawback: virtually none, if the optional was tried sufficiently in playtesting.

Different sets of rules (for example Basic, Standard, and Advanced). The drawback: longer rules, and perhaps a feeling from some contemporary players that there's something wrong with the game because there's not "one way to play".

Hidden information. The game can diverge along many different paths when some information is hidden. Event Cards are an example of the use of hidden information, and electronic games typically enjoy the benefit, as the computer tracks the information much more easily than non-computer methods can. The drawback: something/someone has to track the hidden information, and in some cases, cheating may be possible.

Special Abilities. Cosmic Encounter thrives on the variety of special abilities for each side. Role-playing games typically include a vast number of skills, feats, spells, and classes, not all of which can be included in any single game or series of games. The drawback: play balance can suffer; and there's a lot of information to be devised and incorporated into the game.

Finally, people have suggested that, in general, the more chaos in a game, the more replayability it is likely to have. Even Go, which has none of the overt variation I've listed above, is highly replayable because a single move can change circumstances fairly strongly.

Another point of view is that when the number of reasonable choices is maximized, replayability is enhanced. But too many choices can also lead to "analysis paralysis".

Community in a Game Development Curriculum

Millennials (those up to about 27 years of age) thrive on community (myspace, facebook, MMOs, etc.). They expect to work together, and to share experiences, even simple things like the high scores they get on video games. Furthermore, unlike older generations, millennials have no "presumption of virtue" about institutions. We older folk assume that a school exists to educate, or a hospital exists to cure people. Millennials suppose the school (or hospital, or government unit, or other institution) has hidden agendas, that education (or medicine, etc.) is not its primary purpose. Teachers and schools have to earn the trust of Millennials in the way we never did with Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. A lack of community, a lack of effort to build trust, inevitably contributes to poor education and poor retention rates.

Here are some things I try to do to foster community:

Game Club. It would be astonishing that a school that has a thriving game development program has no game club. I got students interested in one when I arrived at my current school, and we have meetings twice a week. Paperwork went in last week to become an officially recognized school club. This is one of the best venues for an instructor to get to know students, of course, and vice versa.

I've found that the best time to schedule a meeting is right after a class full of interested people. The situation would be different at a residential school rather than a community college.

Right now we meet in a classroom without computers, but half the students own laptops, so electronic games are played as well as boardgames (prototypes that I've designed) and collectible card games. We've also met in the lab that is devoted entirely to game development, but it is usually occupied by classes.

Bulletin board. You need a large (4 by 8 feet) *unlocked* bulletin board outside the most commonly used classroom, where students can communicate with one another and faculty can communicate with them.

Listserv. Require all the students to sign up for something like Yahoo Groups (which is what I use). It is sometimes amazingly difficult to get students to actually sign up, even via invitation. Ours is an announcement-only listserv, so there is little traffic compared to a discussion listserv. Some faculty think that posting notices to Blackboard serves this purpose, but that is awkward and unreliable, but most of all, many students never read Blackboard.

Web site. Here teachers are severely constrained by school support, and that support appears to be quite poor in some cases. Often the site is out of date and dysfunctional. The listserv Web site can be an alternative up to a point. And I maintain my own site that is primarily links (school rules prevent more).

Surveys. I use Surveymonkey's free service to create surveys, then show students the results. The free version can only have 10 questions and 100 respondents per survey, but that works OK for my situation (about 100 new students this year). Some questions are just curiosity, many are related to recruitment and retention.

Blog. I like to run a blog for each class that students must check every day. This is much more intimate and immediate than Blackboard (which is poor software in any case that has nothing to do with the real world). School rules may prevent a blog for a specific class that can be seen by people not members of that class. Many schools do not support limited-access blogs. Nonetheless, I maintain this blog, and the general game design blog I've written for some years, and ask students to read this one at least.

Forum. Some people think an online Forum such as one implemented with phpbb is excellent, others think it isn't much help. To me, current information gets lost in the threads, compared with the listserv; but it may be easier for students to find information about common topics in a forum. I have not started one.

School support. Some schools encourage student communication, others don't. As an example, at many schools, if students want to publicize a new club, it is easy to put up some signs and in other ways let people know about it. Yet at other schools there are no such avenues. For example, the bulletin board in the student lounge requires permission from the Dean of Students before you can put a notice on it. Only small bulletin boards exist at doorways, and these are "official" and locked.

Impressions. The impression conveyed by some schools is that they want all the students to shut up, do what they're told, and get out of the way when they're not in class. Yet this doesn't work with millennials. If millennials don't feel that they're a part of something, they're much more likely to quit. The building where the game development classes are held, for example, must provide the right signals. If it reminds one of a prison rather than of a pleasant place to learn, how will students react? It cannot be "antiseptic" and "faceless"; it should be warm and inviting, "homey".

I'd say this is all common sense, but there are many, many schools that do not support, or even prevent, some of this from occurring.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some additional notes about multiplayer games

In a multiplayer boardgame or card game, the focus is on who (which player) you're going against, not on how you're getting there (maneuver). In a two player game, the focus is on how you're getting there, not on who you're going against, because there is no choice of the latter (you have only one).

In general, in non-electronic games, in multiplayer games you're playing the player much more than the "system". In electronic games, even multiplayer, you're playing the system first, then the other players. You can't "look them in the eye", you can't see body language. Yes, you can use Skype or some built-in system to talk to your opponents, but you may not KNOW them, and you won't see them. It makes a difference.

Do people who play as opponents in online multiplayer electronic games become friends? I'm not talking about co-operative games like Everquest, where they're in the same party/guild. I think the answer is no. Do players of multiplayer non-digital games face to face become friends? Often, if they aren't friends already.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Practice Makes Perfect--You don't start out as an expert practitioner

Students typically come into a game development curriculum with many delusions. One (well, really three) is that they're going to have one great idea, quickly turn it into a game, and then bask in adoration.

A subset of these delusions, which I want to concentrate on here, is that the first game they'll make will be excellent ("awesome" is the usual word I hear). It's hard to make students realize that initial failure in game design must be expected, just as in other walks of life.

So they make their first game, or game concept. It's usually terribly derivative of other games. If (as they should be) they're required to design non-electronic games, the result is even worse, because they derive their ideas from Monopoly and worse games, the "Ameritrash" that so annoys "real boardgamers" nowadays.

In the "Age of Instant Gratification" young people just don't understand the requirement to learn how to do something well before you can become really good at it. They're shocked to find out that they've produced wholly inadequate stuff. They've been patted on the back for years in K12 for doing next to nothing, because (with exceptions) K12 is all about false esteem rather than capability.

Here are some examples I describe to students from well-known practitioners that illustrate the time it takes to learn a craft:

John Creasey, in about 65 years of life, published over 600 books, mostly mysteries. I once read that he received OVER 700 REJECTIONS (presumably mostly for short works) before he sold any writing. He had to learn how to write well, yet look where he went in the end.

Jerry Pournelle, a well-known science fiction and technology writer (two Ph.D.s) says that if you're willing to throw away your first million words, you can become a novelist. In other words, until you learn your craft, what you're writing--that's the equivalent of at least ten normal novels--won't be worth publishing.

Even good stuff gets rejected by publishers. The Lord of the Rings was rejected by publishers. My game Britannia was rejected by the American publishers, who only published it after it was published in Britain! These were products that proved in the end to be quite viable (Brit isn't on the same level of LOTR, of course), yet they still got "thumbs down".

Of course there are exceptions. J. K. Rowling of "Harry Potter" comes to mind. Though she was much older than our typical student.

How did I practice? I designed variants (often amounting to new games) of a game called Diplomacy for years, and made adventures and rules modifications for the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons, long before I designed commercially-viable stand-alone games.

When students find out how much work is required to improve and then polish a game before it can have a chance to be commercially successful, many opt for another, "easier" career. The following quote (about books) from one of the giants of the 20th century illustrates what happens with games as well:

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public." --Sir Winston Churchill

Those who cannot get through these later phases will never be successful in the game design business.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Design Flaws to Watch out for in Multiplayer Games

Digital game development students aren't used to thinking about the consequences of games involving more than two opposing interests, because most electronic games include only two sides, one often a machine opponent. Several problems named by boardgamers can occur when there are three or more sides in a game. Many of these are much more likely to occur when the victory condition amounts to "wipe out the opposition":
• Turtling
• Leader bashing
• Sandbagging
• Kingmaking (petty diplomacy problem)

Turtling occurs when a player sits back and builds up strength while others expend theirs. This can often be seen in multi-player online RTS games. When there are more than two sides, a player can hang back, building up bases and technology, while he lets other players slaughter one another's forces. Then he comes out and cleans up the remainder.

A general solution is to use a different victory condition. E.g., capture of certain locations as the means of victory forces players to come out of their shells. Giving points for destoying the opposition also encourages aggression rather than turtling.

Another solution is to provide economic incentives to be aggressive. This often involves capturing economically valuable areas, so that a successful aggressive player can build up forces faster than the turtle.

Leader bashing tends to happen in games without much hidden information, that is, it must be clear who the leader is. Then the other players gang up on the leader. ("Of course", many would say, why wouldn't one try to weaken the leader?) If it isn't clear who the leader is, this is less likely to occur. If it is hard for some players, at least, to affect the leader in any given situation, then there will be less leader bashing, as those players will distract the ones who can affect the leader.

Sandbagging is often a consequence of leader bashing. A player will try to get himself in second or third place, rather than first, so that when the first place player is bashed, the sandbagger can swoop in for the win. Timing, obviously, is quite important here.

The solution to sandbagging is to reduce leader-bashing to a reasonable level.

Kingmaking is a consequence of what R. Wayne Schmittberger calls the "petty diplomacy problem". Where there are three interests, and one recognizes that they/he cannot win the game, that loser may be able to determine which of the other two wins. Even if the game is being played by more than three, it will often come down to three major interests. More generally, if a losing player can determine who wins, you have kingmaking in play.

One way to avoid this is to structure the game so that a player cannot be sure he is going to lose until it's too late for him to become a kingmaker. Of course, some players believe kingmaking is the "wrong way to play", that every player should try to win no matter what. But designers cannot rely on players to be self-governing in this way.

Another way to avoid kingmaking is to make it too hard for a player to use all his capability against another to prevent that other from winning. As a simple example, in a race it's usually hard for a losing player to have much effect on the leading players.

Now here are some alternatives to a victory condition of "kill everyone else". These help mitigate some of the problems we've been discussing. These are:
• economies (especially zero-sum)
• points
• missions

Economies. Players receive more assets as the game progresses, in accordance with some rules relating to locations or resources, not merely to a table of additional appearances. If a player plays well, he will earn more new assets than if he plays badly.

In a zero-sum game, each player's gain is another player's loss. The classic game Diplomacy is the best example of this. There are 34 "supply center" locations on the board. A player gets one unit (army or fleet) per center. If a player takes another's center, the first is going to increase his forces, while the second will lose forces, at the next building period.

Points. Players earn points for certain events or achievements. This could be capture of certain locations, destruction of enemy assets, holding certain places at given times, and so forth. In a wargame, a player could be wiped out, yet if he's done enough beforehand he can still have the most points to win the game. In general, where points are concerned the game does not continue until all but one player is wiped out. Either there will be a time limit or a point limit.

E.g., in my "light wargame" Britannia, players receive points for holding areas, occupying areas during a certain period, for dominating regions (king of England), for forcing nations to submit, and even for killing enemy units. A nation may be wiped out in the course of the game, but each player controls several, and the points that defunct nation earned still count. Points are based on historical performance, and are accumulated at different paces, so the current score is not a good gauge of who is actually winning the game.

Missions. This is a form of points because the mission involves completion of particular goals, but when a mission is completed the game is over, so no point record is needed. A mission can be as simple as capturing certain cities, or much more complex. Occasionally the missions are hidden, that is, you don't know which mission your opponent is trying to fulfill.

Now let's take Risk as an example. Risk is not a particularly good game, but a great many people have played it, and it exhibits most of our design flaws.

In Risk the object is to completely wipe out all competition. It uses economy to try to avoid the four problems. You get extra armies at the start of your turn if you hold an entire continent, to provide an economic incentive to attack. There is also card acquisition: you must take a territory in a turn in order to get a card, and matched sets of three cards gain you large numbers of armies. You also get armies according to the number of territories you hold. If you turtle or sandbag you get fewer new armies than your competitors. In fact, it's typical for players to attack as much as they can until they're out of spare armies, in order to limit how many territories their opponents control (and consequently how many new armies the opponents get).

There is certainly leader-bashing, but some players may not have forces near enough to the leader to do any damage. You are often better off wiping out a weak power rather than attacking the strongest, because when you wipe out an opponent, you get his cards, and if you can make another set you get more armies (in increasing numbers) with which to immediately continue attacking.

Kingmaking is also quite limited, as by the time a player realizes he's a goner, he doesn't have enough force to do much damage to one of the leaders.

Despite all this, a couple decades after the original English edition of Risk was published, "Mission Cards" were added to the mix. Each player receives one with a mission unknown to his opponents. A mission might be something like "Control Asia" (the largest continent). Hence a player can win the game, by completing his mission, long before he wipes out all opposition. Unfortunately, the mission cards aren't modified by the number of players, so some may be much easier to achieve than others in certain situations.

(Another well-known board wargame, Axis&Allies, is two sides even when there are five players (Germany and Japan on one side, Britain, US, and Russia on the other), hence not subject to these problems.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What makes a game great?

In some classes we tried to make a brief list of what makes a game great. I have my own ideas (which I briefly discussed in my contribution to Hobby Games: the 100 Best), and I intend to write a separate article about that, so I'll just list what we came up with in class in no particular order.

Innovation--it's good to be first


Improving realism (e.g. destructible environments Red Faction) (bullet time) (scars) (camera movement) etc.

Really good gameplay (playability)

PvP, team play--something other than person vs. computer

Variety of modes of play (online, pvp, MMO)



Verisimilitude of the environment--when you’re there, it feels like you’re really there


The music

Your character can grow and change (skills, attributes)

Non-linear gameplay

Good interface and tight game controls


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

History and History Classes

All of our game development students must take a history class or two. This requirement comes directly from the local game developers and manufacturers, who want their employees to know something more about history than the average person. This is of particular interest to me insofar as I have a Ph.D. in history.

I'm told that the history classes at my school have proved to be particularly hard for the SGD students, if we can judge from the grades they get. I'm afraid an awful lot depends on the teacher in cases like this: some history teachers think history is a succession of dates and events, whereas history is really a story (the word "story" is in the word "history"). It's a story of how individuals and groups coped with the challenges and opportunities of their time and their physical location. This is why history fascinated me when I was young, and I always wanted to know "what happens next", the same way I do when I read a fictional story.

In a sense, studying history is like watching a gigantic game: games consist of challenges and the actions players take to overcome them, history consists of challenges and the actions people try to take to try to cope with those challenges.

Many games contain stories, and some people (including me) like to play games partly to see "what happens next". The difference, in history, is that "it really happened", it's not made up.

Young people tend to be very uninterested in anything that happened before they were born. For those, I hope they think of history as a kind of (serious) game, and maybe that will make it more interesting. What could people have done differently, how could they have "improved their score"?

I hope students will have teachers who teach history as stories, but if not, please try to treat it as stories and "grin and bear it". Don't let a history class mess you up, because history isn't inherently difficult.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where Degrees Matter

Sometimes big companies--game companies are rarely big companies--will have a hard-and-fast degree requirement. Why? Because they leave hiring to the Human Resources department (usually a big mistake), and the HR people frequently don't have a clue about the job they're hiring for. Their main interest is simplifying their task by setting absolute rules. An easy way to do this is to require a certain degree. This puts off many potential applicants, and enables the HR person to easily weed out other applications because the required degree isn't there.

But you don't want to work for a company like that, not if you're creative and imaginative and self-motivated. When HR takes over hiring, you have a company that's already crippled. (Yes, a great many companies are crippled. And it shows.)

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Virtues of Cards in "boardgames"

I am going to try to summarize the virtues of using cards in boardgames--or perhaps in boardgame-card hybrids. I'm doing this primarily for the benefit of my students, but I thought it might be worth contributing to others as well.

• Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing ("put the rules on the cards")
• Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game (as opposed to expensive 3D sculptured pieces)
• Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game (chrome usually involves rule exceptions)
• Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" game information
• Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game (which usually increases replayability as well)
• Cards can be used as a substitute "board"
• Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance, as many people now dislike dice rolling

Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing

"Put the rules on the cards". This is the easiest way to simplify the difficulties of learning a game, especially for those teaching it to others. A player only needs to consider/understand the card-rules when they hold or draw the card. Well-known collectible card game designers introduced me to the "seven line rule": players won't read more than seven lines of rules on a card, so don't put more on them. For millennials the rule is certainly "the less text the better".

This is also a good way to reduce the size of the rulebook. Big rulebooks are daunting even if the game itself is fairly simple.

Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game

Cards often host attractive color graphics, much larger than you can put on tiles or counters. They are cheaper than sculptured three dimensional figures. 3D figures are seldom multi-colored, too.

Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game

"Chrome" is the term for special rules that often reflect special historical or personal circumstances. Hence chrome usually involves rule exceptions. And where "chrome" includes a visual, a card is the best way to illustrate/introduce it. This relates also to the first point, putting rules on the cards rather than in the rulebook.

If I designed Britannia today I might include cards to add "chrome" to the game. A variant using "Nation Specialty Cards" already exists (my design, not released).

Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" information

When players need to keep track of what items or spells or capabilities they possess, cards are an excellent choice. They're familiar, easy to organize, and have both text and graphics. For example, spells are tracked in EL:the Card Game (see below) via cards.

Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game

"Event cards" are quite common in games these days. Lots of different scnearios/situations can be introduced in a small deck of cards.

The variety of the cards usually increases replayability as well. More possibilities equals more paths that the game can follow. Players can play many times and still be able to say "I never saw that happen before".

Cards can be used as a substitute "board"

I've devised several prototype games that use cards in place of a board. From a commercial point of view, this results in a much less expensive package that is easier to ship and to find shelfspace for.

In Battle of Hastings some of the cards represent Saxon and Norman units; the play area is so crowded until late in the game that the cards can be arranged in a 7 by 6 array of "spaces", though I also have two strips, one to either side, to help orient the rows.

In Enchanted Labyrinth: the Card Game (derived from EL the boardgame) some of the cards represent the "dungeon" being explored by wizards and their minions. As creatures move into new areas, the cards are turned face up to reveal the contents of the area.

In Zombie Escape, face-down cards represent the building (a reform school) that the players try to escape from in the face of zombie infestation. Once again, discovery occurs when players move onto the card areas.

Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance

Many people now dislike dice rolling, if only as a reaction against the random "roll and move" mechanic so infamous in older American family games. People believe (and sometimes it's true) that they can manage cards in a way they cannot manage dice rolls.

Lew Pulsipher

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Game Industry Wants "Educated People"

Before you react, let me hasten to say that "educated" refers to an attitude, not to earned degrees. Fortunately for us, the game industry does not yet have the "degree-itis" that is invading all walks of American life, as though the only way you can learn something is to get a degree in it. The industry is a "meritocracy", where you are valued and hired for what you can do and what you can create. "Educated people" doesn't necessarily imply academic degrees, it implies a certain attitude toward life. It's that attitude that the game companies want and need to succeed. So I am not talking about the classic idea of the "well-educated" person, which relates to particular things like knowledge of the classics.

Nonetheless, if you read good advice about breaking into the game industry, that advice will include "read as much as you can" and "educate yourself as much as possible", even as the advisors suggest that a bachelor's degree is a good idea. For example, everyone interested in "breaking in" should read the wealth of advice on Tom Sloper's Web site (sloperama.com) and his monthly IGDA column. I used to use a book by Ernest Adams, Break into the Game Industry (http://ernestadams.com/), now a bit long in the tooth (2003) but still available from Amazon. His advice is well worth reading (especially about getting a job and how to keep a job), and amounts to the same as Tom's.

No, an "educated person" is a person with a certain attitude toward life, not necessarily one who has a degree. There are people with legitimate Ph.D.s who could be called uneducated (though this is very unlikely). There are certainly many people with bachelors degrees who are essentially uneducated. And there are 17 and 18 and 19 year-olds who clearly are educated people, though they haven't had the time to accumulate a wealth of experience and knowledge that is associated with being educated.

So what makes someone "educated"? An educated person wants to KNOW, and will make an effort to find out things. An uneducated person will tend not to bother. Here's a simple example. An educated person, confronted with a word he doesn't know, is likely to look it up. He wants to improve his understanding (of language, of the world). An uneducated person isn't going to bother.

Further, an educated person teaches himself or herself when necessary, from books or otherwise, rather than wait for a class. The uneducated ones will frequently whine "I haven't been sent to training for that".

Not surprisingly, educated people read a lot, and uneducated ones don't.

This year at my school we had a speaker who helped epitomize this attitude. Bruce Shankle worked at Red Storm at the time (now, Microsoft). He had no degree, but had six years of schooling. He'd taught himself a great deal to help himself as a programmer, and said (IIRC) that 20% of his work time was spent learning new things, and he also frequently studied at home. He paid his way to GDC even in years when he wasn't working in the game industry, because he wanted to know about the industry. This is clearly an educated man in the sense the industry wants, though he has no degree.

I am another example. As some readers know, I worked for many years in computer support at Womack Medical Center on Ft. Bragg, and before that as a dBase programmer. For much of that time I was chief of PCs and networking, supporting up to 900 PCs--and I was the first Webmaster there as well. Almost everything I knew that got me that job and helped me do that job I taught myself, because a Ph.D. in History doesn't help with computing, nor does any degree you got in 1981! I have never actually taken a "real college class" in computing, though I've taken many training classes through the years at Womack. Similarly, everything I've learned about games and game design I taught myself, of course. I read a lot, I experimented a lot, I made a lot of mistakes, too. It does not hurt to have a Ph.D., for sure, but that's not what moved me forward.

Good classes help you learn much quicker, as you take advantage of the experience of teachers and authors. I'd have had an easier time if I'd had classes to take, but such classes rarely existed in the early 80s. Bruce Shankle benefited from many classes, though he had no degree.

Now how does this contrast with typical K12 "education"? There are many exceptions, but generally students in K12 are trained, not educated. The teachers' success, their very job, depends on the students' performance on end-of-class tests in many cases. So the teachers, naturally, try to get students to memorize all the material that is on those wretched tests. The students are trained to parrot material, not to think.

Even good students learn that they can get by just fine by doing exactly what they're assigned and no more. They'll ask what the minimum is, and that's all they'll do. Worse, they think if they do the minimum they should get an "A", though no one in the real world wants an employee who thinks that way.

The habit of students to ask for a test "review"--which usually means, they want to be told exactly what will be on the test--is a consequence. In K12 they're told exactly what's on the test, then they regurgitate it on the test, and fools call this "education". I call it memorization, the same kind of thing that blights computer certification. This year I have told students there will be no review, because it's up to them to decide what's important. That's the way the real world is--there's no review from the great Cosmic All, just as we can say that life is an essay test, not a multiple choice test. Of course, many of the smarter students pay attention to what I say in class each day (a few even write it down), and figure that's what I think is important. How sensible, and yet rare!

This year I assigned students the "task"--though it's a habit they should get into on their own--of maintaining a notebook or other "data store" in which they record game-related ideas as they get them. The "uneducated" attitude surfaced soon after: "how much do I have to include in this?" The student wanted to know the minimum, rather than take the educated attitude that this was something he should do anyway, that was worth doing, and he should put some time into it. (That student has since dropped out, unsurprisingly.)

We show videos of guest speakers, such as Bruce Shankle. Students often don't pay attention, or half pay attention, fooling themselves into thinking they can remember a lot while doing something else, when in fact memories seem to be really poor nowadays. Once again, instead of making the most of listening to an expert talk about what happens in the real world, they try to "just get by". An "old man" (me) probably listens better the fourth time he hears one of these lectures, than many of the students do the first time.

Similarly, I see the uneducated attitude toward this blog. It doesn't appear to immediately affect the student, it's not obviously part of a specific task, so many tend to ignore it, even though I ask questions on tests to see if the students actually read it. The same happens when I ask the students to read a web site. Worst of all, though perhaps more understandable, most students don't bother to read the textbook, though there's a wealth of good advice in it despite its flaws.

Educated people like to use their brains in top gear; uneducated people prefer to run in "idle". The old-fashioned "thirst for knowledge" is what I'm talking about, in a sense; something I still see in older students, but rarely in younger ones.

After I talked about this in a class, one student observed that his generation has been told that the only way to learn is to take a class. I've taught graduate school for 20 years at night, and something like 17,000 classroom hours in my life, and I KNOW that people can get through classes and get degrees and still not know a whole lot about what's important in the topics they've studied.

What's important is what you know and what you can do, not what classes you took or what degrees you have. Unfortunately, this attitude is being squeezed out of American life . Thank heaven the game industry still sees it this way.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Analogy: Level Design

I'm trying to describe to my students what level designers do. The first thing to say, of course, is "it depends"--depends on what the company expects the level designer to do, and what is "farmed out" to someone else.

Nonetheless, the analogy to a Dungeons and Dragons or other paper RPG referee is good, though a great many younger people don't seem to be familiar with (non-video) D&D these days.

Fundamentally, level design is a limited, concentrated form of game design. The core mechanics of the game are already determined. The level designer is using them to create an episode that will have good gameplay, that will entertain in various ways. Gameplay always involves challenges and actions to meet those challenges, of course. This also involves goals, ways to achieve the goals, paths (such as corridors and rooms), appearances, and behavior of NPC's and opposition (scripts to do better than the game AI can do on its own).

In D&D the "DM" or DungeonMaster starts with the "core mechanics" of D&D and fleshes out adventures. The adventure, analagous to a video game level, usually involves a goal of some kind, if only to "wipe out the badguys". The DM may have particular methods in mind whereby the players can achieve the goal, or he may simply set up a situation and trust the players to creatively find ways to achieve the goal. In level design, playtesting will show whether creativity can prevail; in home-made D&D adventures there is no playtesting, so the DM must be more careful. But D&D adventures that are published are certainly playtested.

A published D&D adventure includes all--well, most--of the information a referee needs to run the adventure. The video game level includes everything needed for the player(s) to play the adventure--er, level.

So the level designer must specify and perhaps place (though probably not make) the graphics, map out all the paths and alternatives the player(s) can pursue, place the opposition (monsters or otherwise), script the conversations, specify the goal and how player(s) find out what that goal is, specify exceptions to the normal core mechanics, and all the other things that are required for the "adventure" episode.
"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