Monday, November 17, 2008

Evaluation of Student Game Projects

I wrote the following for my current students, and thought it worth posting here.

We’ve all seen movies where we can say “that movie was well-made,” that is, the directors, photographers, sound people, and so on are good professionals who did their jobs well. It could still be a bad movie owing to having the wrong actors (not necessarily bad ones, just ones not suitable for the part) or a bad story. Some people would say that ALL fantastic adventure stories (Mummy, Indiana Jones, Spider Man, etc.) are bad stories, but those movies were generally quite well-made. (This is as opposed to “the old days” when fantasy and science fiction movies tended to be cheap junk.)

When you start designing games, you’re no more likely to be very good at it than Beethoven was when he started composing music, or Rembrandt was when he started to paint, or John Steinbeck was when he started to write. If we hear early Beethoven nowadays, it’s usually because it’s by Beethoven, not because it’s good. Creative endeavors take lots of practice, it is very rare that someone is outstandingly good to begin with.

Further, I am not going to arrogate to myself the idea that I, unlike anyone else in the world, can easily recognize what games are really good, outstanding, just OK, etc. I can tell when games are bad, I can tell when they need to be improved, but at some point I don’t know. If nothing else, I won’t have the time to play the games many times myself, so how am I going to know exactly how good it is? (Again, I can tell when there are bad aspects.) Reiner Knizia makes over a million dollars a year as a freelance game designer, and has had over 200 games published, yet he is sometimes surprised by sales of his games; not even he knows how good a game will be, though he can likely tell the poorest ones from the rest.

So I am not going to grade you on “how good” your game is, or “how much fun” it is. Only people who don’t design games think they can do that.

What I’m interested in is whether the game is well-made, even if it isn’t particularly good. If you do the right things, especially playtesting the game and recognizing that changes can be made to improve it, implementing those changes where time permits, then you’ve got the essence of proper game production. I give you milestones when certain things are due, not only to try to help you stay on track, but to see if you’re doing the right thing.

You won’t have time to “finish” the game or even come close to “perfecting” it. (In a sense a game is never finished, you just finally can’t afford to spend more time for the minimal benefit you can achieve: it’s the law of diminishing returns.)

One of the best, if not the best, games students have made was in my very first game class, fall 2004. The group of students liked their game so much they kept working on it through the following spring and summer, making an electronic version as well. (Notice it was a group project; which means more could potentially get done in a given amount of time, as more people were involved.)

Quoting myself :-)

Being a teacher:
The goal of a teacher is that students gain the confidence to do well in their lives and their jobs, and to "be all they can be".
The satisfaction comes from seeing the students get jobs in their field, or go on to succeed at higher levels of education.
The fascination comes from watching how the students--people who are often still in formative stages--behave, and work with one another.
The fun comes from talking with the students.
(And the frustration comes when the students are their own worst enemies.)

Teaching is not about “delivering content” or “covering the material”. Teaching is about influencing students to think and solve problems, to understand how to behave in the workplace, to take responsibility for their work and their behavior.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who owns student work--the school or the student?

This is a comment I made on a Gamasutra article about schools claiming to own student work (click the title of this post):

Many people misunderstand copyright. I've had to research copyright law extensively because of games and articles I've had published, but I am not a lawyer. For a more authoritative opinion (which matches mine, as it happens) read what Jim Charne, the lawyer who writes the legal advice column for IGDA, has to say. See for his take on this question, which in my words is "these schools have no basis in copyright law for claiming any ownership, and I don't understand why they'd even think of trying." The notion that a school owns the copyright because their equipment/software was used is ridiculous, in my view. The idea that students attend a school to find cut-rate ways to make games is laughable. Doesn't attending school cost the students a lot of money?

All of my game-related work other than teaching has been on a freelance basis, and in my view no self-respecting freelance author/creator EVER allows his IP to be transferred permanently to someone else unless there is absolutely no alternative--or the lump-sum payment is ridiculously high. "Assurances" often don't matter when money is actually on the line.

I strongly advise prospective students to avoid any school that claims to own the student's work. Always carefully read what you're asked to sign, but better yet, ascertain beforehand what the school's policy is and don't attend one with a doubtful policy. Anytime you attend a school that is owned by one or several individuals, you need to be especially careful, about *everything*. If you sign away your rights, it's your fault.

However, there is a reason for a school to be cautious. Publishers routinely require creators, who pitch a game to the publisher, to sign an agreement protecting the publisher if the publisher should later publish a game that might be construed as similar in any way. This protects the publisher from frivolous lawsuits by game creators who don't understand that game ideas cannot be protected by copyright in any case. ( While a school doesn't publish games, there might be occasions when a student or former student would sue a school for use of his or her game for other purposes. So the school would be wise to require students to sign a document equivalent in some ways to the document creators must sign before submitting a game/game concept to a publisher. That is what the IDGA should work on.

Nonetheless, like Tom Buscaglia I feel IP ownership is a moral issue, and my gut feeling is that most of these schools are just hoping to steal something from their students, to gain control of something they didn't earn by their own efforts. Digi-pen overriding the creators of Toblo appears to be just one of those cases.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Educational videos that come with UT III

Two videos come with the Deluxe edition of Unreal Tournament III. The shorter one is in some sense an advertisement about UT, while the longer one (25 minutes?) is about making the game.

The latter is the best video I've seen about making games. It is not only well-made, it emphasizes the importance of playing the game as soon as possible (in little more than a month from starting, in this case), the iterative nature of production, and way that new ideas are discovered along the way, the importance of getting rid of what doesn't work. It also clearly shows that level design is a part of game design, with the art important to the end product but added after the game design is tuned to perfection.

The short video is good for making a point, as Cliff Bleszinski says early on that a designer's best resort is to put things into a game that he likes/thinks are cool. This is dead wrong, of course, if you design a variety of games, but is correct if you only design shooters (which is what CB and Epic make). More than any other genre, shooters are all "the same" in the end, so what one fan of shooters really likes, another is likely to like. Even so, he says in speaking of UT I, that they threw lots of things into the game to see what stuck, which again is a reference to the importance of testing, testing, testing. No matter what you think, not matter how cool something seems to be, you have to test it and see what a variety of people think.

UT III Deluxe is also good for the UT editor and many tutorials for the editor.
"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