Friday, September 28, 2007

High school methods won't work in college

In community colleges, the following kind of reminder must be repeated over and over before students "get it", and unfortunately some never do. The latter are usually gone before the second semester starts, sadly. This is roughly the spiel:

"College is not high school. You can't fail to turn in work and expect to get a decent grade; you might not even pass. What you could get away with in high school won't work here, among other things because in high school the teachers and schools get blamed if kids don't learn, whereas in college it's the student's fault. The teacher is there to give you every opportunity to learn, but cannot force you to learn anything.

This is, of course, much more like the real world than high school is.

I'm told that the graduation rate of my entire school is 17% (about 1 in 6). There are lots of ways that statistic can be modified, but it makes the basic point: students have to work at what they're doing in order to get a college degree. That degree will serve them well down the road, but only if they work to get it.

What might have excused you at some high schools will not excuse you in college. 'My computer died' won't work, because there are computers on campus (in open lab, in the library, in ILC/Guided Studies/whatever it might be called at a given school). 'My car died' won't work for long, any more than it will in your job. 'I had to work' is a matter of time management. 'I can't afford the book' is rarely believable. EVERYone can find ways to save time and money if they really want to; virtually no one is right at the edge, though many think they are. It is very difficult to do reasonably well in school, work a lot at a job, play video games or watch TV hours a day, and still make it. Something's got to give, and if school is what gives way, then you'll be one of those who are gone by second semester.

You have to take responsibility for yourselves, folks. School is, in a sense, your job internship. If you miss deadlines when you're making games, it may cost your company large sums of money--and could cost you your job. Get used to deadlines. Don't give excuses, give results."

But this often goes in one ear and out the other. I try to help people get used to this regime as much as I can, but in the end I can't hold 100 hands for months. People have to get with the program and do it themselves.

Millennials (Gen Y) have much different attitudes toward school than earlier generations did, which makes this entire situation much more difficult. Typically (there are of course many exceptions) they want an "easy button", they don't think practice is necessary, they want convenience, they expect to get something for nothing, and they're inclined to quit if the going gets tough. No wonder graduation rates are so low.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What predicts success in class

A couple years ago I listened to a keynote speech at a NC community college system conference (statewide teachers conference) by a gent who had visited 1,600+ colleges to learn how things were done.

One of the things he talked about was the best predictor of success in college classes.
It is not SAT scores or "IQ".
It is not high school grades.
It is not family history.
It is not family income.

It is how well the student attends classes.

This matches my experience. It is worth telling students, who often have the notion that they can miss class and not really miss anything. (Students will thoughtlessly insult the instructor by coming up and saying "am I going to miss anything by leaving an hour early"? Or, "did I miss anything when I wasn't here Tuesday?" What, we often don't do anything important in class?) I tell students at the beginning of a course that I talk about a lot of things that aren't in any textbook, and that we do a lot of hands-on or group activities. These are things that cannot be "made up", especially in our age when students are inattentive and frequently don't write down any notes. In the past I usually included in the tests questions that were easy to answer if you were in class, but not easy if you weren't (and so hadn't participated in the problem-solving sessions). This semester I have "canned" tests (which I strongly dislike, as they tend to be tests about the textbook rather than about the subject), but I intend to work questions about problems we encountered in class, and discussions we had in class, in there some way.

Obviously, I don't teach the way some classes are taught in universities, where the professor walks in, lectures (all one-way) to a few hundred students, and never even learns their names. There the students can get recordings of the lectures and know almost as much as if they had been there, and some schools produce podcasts of lectures for that purpose. I try to discuss things with students, which doesn't translate well to podcasts, though I sometimes record myself using my Sansa MP3 player. Younger students, in particular, strongly prefer interaction during class, rather than "lectures".

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Honesty is the Best Policy

I do not lie to students. "Honesty is the best policy" really applies, and I've always thought that if you're going to lie, it should be about something of near life-and-death importance.

Consequently, I ignore those who say "let them dream", by making sure that students have a chance to understand reality. I think this is especially important with millennials, who have often been told from day one how special they are, and then are shocked to learn in the real world that this isn't so.

The first day I repeat something that famous game developer of olden days Chris Crawford said at an NCCIA conference a few years ago: There are 10 times as many people wanting jobs in the game industry as there are openings. (10 is an illustrative number, of course, who knows the actual numbers--more than 10, I'd bet.) Consequently, even if you're hired, you'll not be treated well, because there are always lots more folks wanting your job. Working conditions are often poor and hours are long. Many people leave the industry within five years. (But often end up in simulations and training industries.) Nonetheless, Chris said, feel free to tell your students this, because they'll still want to "go for it". And that is my experience.

I also tell students in game design classes that there is virtually no chance they will be hired right out of school to design games. Who is going to spend a lot of money producing a game designed by a person with no industry experience or track record in design? Nobody who stays in business for long! However, at my school it is quite possible for a good level designer to be hired straight out of school for that purpose, because we have many game studios and manufacturers in the local area. Where there are no local companies, I doubt that enough people to say so will be hired in any kind of game or level design capacity straight out of school.

Friday, September 21, 2007


The topic of localization of games will come up in many classes, but beyond the point of "different language" students may not see what there is to do. American students tend to be fairly insular; many have never been in a foreign country, and few outside North America. So I give some examples.

For many years one of Chevy's main vehicles was the "Nova". The name needed to be changed for the Spanish-speaking market, however, because (I'm told) the word means "no go" in Spanish.

IBM for many years sold the very successful "RS6000" mid-range computer system. Unfortunately, Australians use "RS" the way we would use "BS" as a term of denigration or disapproval. So IBM was selling the "RatShit6000" computer in Australia.

Those are examples I've read about. Here are some I've encountered myself. I lived in England for three years in the late 70s . Many people know that the English call a truck a lorry, the hood of a car a bonnet, and the trunk of a car a boot.

However, at one point I was talking with two young ladies (one of whom became my wife) and said something about the pants they were wearing. They both looked at me strangely, and it finally emerged that the outer garment we call pants is called trousers in England. "Pants" refers only to underwear!

Much more recently, I was playing a game with my English nephew and niece, and niece dropped a piece which skittered away. I told her to "shag it", that is, go get it. They looked at me strangely (niece was 12 or 13 at the time) and I remembered (from an Austin Powers movie!) that "shag" means the physical act of making love, in England. Oops.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Helping students understand the importance of grades

So many students coming out of high school think grades are pointless, that I have to do as much as possible to encourage them to recognize the importance of grades. I think it is easier to teach highly-motivated people without using grades (which is how Continuing Education works), but a school has a responsibility to evaluate students so that employers can have an additional way to choose between them. The following illustrates that.

Someone tells me that about 15 years ago, my school fell victim to one of the "education experts" who have gradually ruined K12 schools. This "expert" (who likely never taught at this level) said that if a student wasn't getting an A, it was the fault of the school for not doing the right things. The school swallowed this foolishness, and one year the only grade anyone received was an "A".

When employers found out about this, they came to the school and said they would no longer consider our graduates for jobs. They couldn't tell who had done a good job in school and who had not, because all the grades were A. They wanted the school to give grades that reflected actual achievement.

And the school changed back to the standard way of doing things.

My wife, who hired many, many people when she was chief librarian at Methodist College (17 years), definitely paid attention to grades. I tried to when I hired people. If you aren't doing well in school, why would you be expected to do a good job in the real world? In a sense, school is a job internship for the student.

Getting a good grade requires effort (and capability) from the student. The teacher can only give the opportunity, he or she cannot be a magic pill that enables you to learn without effort (Matrix-style). It may be easier for some people than others, but a student has to EARN an A, or earn a B. A "C" is not "average", it's a poor grade, in most schools. Heck, it's flunking in graduate school.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Game (High) Concept documents

A typical exercise for game design students is to have them write a "High Concept" document for a game.

It's first necessary to make the students understand that this way of approaching game design is absolutely unnatural. Non-electronic game designers do not write formal High Concept documents, which are marketing documents, before they make the game. They may write something like it when it's time to approach publishers, but at that point they have a finished or nearly-finished game.

The reason the document is created, then, is that producing the programming, art, and other assets for a big electronic game is very time-consuming and costs a lot of money. With few exceptions, the development studios do not have that kind of money (any more than movie directors and producers have that kind of money). So they cannot practically produce the game "on speculation", the way a non-electronic game can be inexpensively produced. Hence they have to describe the game to help persuade someone to give them a lot of money to produce it. The game that comes out of this will be almost certainly be significantly different than the game that was described to begin with, if the job is done well.

The "natural" way to design a game used to be pursued in the electronic game industry, and may still be done for small games. A playable prototype is produced as soon as possible. It is played, revised, played, revised, played revised, seemingly forever, until a stable "good game" has been produced. Perhaps the most famous of all electronic game designers, Sid Meier, did this with Civilization. He programmed, he and (mostly) Bruce Shelley played, they decided what needed to be changed, Sid programmed, they played, and so on. In non-electronic games, you don't really have a game until you have a prototype to play, and then "playtesting is sovereign".

Students often are not entirely clear in their ideas until they write them down. When (back in 2004) I had a much smaller class to deal with, I talked with each student about their ideas before they wrote the document, and found that their "brilliant idea" was only half formed. I'd ask fairly elementary questions about their game and they would have no answer, because they'd never thought about it.

I did not have the opportunity to do that with a class of 47 students (SGD111), but I am sending comments back to each one so that they can revise the document and submit it again for grading.

The concepts tend to be highly derivative of other games, not only because the entire "big electronic game" industry is highly derivative in its offering, but because the students have played games virtually their entire lives, know games that they like (or love), and think of ways that they can improve those games. These are the ideas they are going to present first, of course.

Then the difficulty is showing that their version is going to be better than those well-known games they like.

The High Concept is not about mechanics, but in many cases it is the mechanics of a game that the student says will sell it--better battle methods, for example. In some cases they describe the method, but in some they don't.

Another common theme is "our story is better, deeper, etc." I told one student that unless he had a well-known game writer or novelist on his staff, there was no reason to think his game's story would be better than any other. So this isn't a selling point, unless you can back it up.

Another common theme is "better graphics than" such-and-such. I have to tell the students that almost every "A-list" game strives for great graphics, but few succeed. What will make the publishers think your game will for some reason have truly great graphics? Only a track record for your studio of great graphics, unfortunately. So it isn't a selling point.

Sometimes students will say in their document, "I think this will be a really solid game, so it should be produced". I have to tell them that their belief means little to the marketers and publishers. Yes, they want to know that you believe the game will be really good, rather than something just to put food on your table, but they should be able to tell that from your demeanor and discussion when you talk with them--having it in writing is nothing.

Students sometimes don't understand how important it is to express themselves clearly and confidently. Also, students need to have impressed upon them at some point that grammatical problems may be the "kiss of death" for concept papers. If I'm a publisher, do I want to risk my money with someone who can't even get the spelling and grammar in a short paper right? Maybe not.

In general, designing non-electronic games is actually a better exercise, and much more practical, but I'll have to talk about that another time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"And a miracle occurs"

I saw a cartoon once that showed a professorial type writing on a blackboard. The blackboard was covered with minuscule equations, except in the middle, where it said "and a miracle occurs". We can always feel like that about math and science occasionally.

My experience is that novice game designers tend to do the same thing, when conceptualizing a game, without thinking about it. They figure out most of the details of a game, but in at least one important part they kind of ignore the difficulties and just figure it will work out somehow ("and a miracle occurs"). Unfortunately, that may be the part of the game that just isn't possible, or practical, that renders the entire thing pointless.

Students have got to face the details, not gloss over them, at least to the point of figuring out what's practical.

I'm going to give an example from one class, because it happens to stand out in my mind.

The idea, originally expressed by one of the students well before the conceptualization exercise, was a game (say chess) in which mirrors are placed on the pieces to reflect at angles a laser. The pieces must be placed so as to reflect the laser to hit the enemy king.

I said at the time that this game is commercially impossible, because no publisher could risk selling a game containing a laser (dangerous to the eyes) that reflects around, no matter how many warnings and disclaimers were included in the game. But that's not the "miracle" part. The question is, how do you get the laser to bounce around the pieces? The laser can come from any of 8, or perhaps 4, directions, yet the mirrors need to bounce it in another direction, not back toward the source. How is that going to work?

It needs to be diagrammed in detail to make sure that it can work. I convinced the group to diagram, and we began to get somewhere. I tried to get them to make diagrams of individual pieces so that you could follow the trail of a virtual laser as it moved "through" (reflected from) each piece, but that didn't happen that day.

This is a very difficult thing to achieve, but the designers felt that somehow it would just work out--that "a miracle would occur".

The next week the students discovered that there is already a boardgame using lasers bounced off mirrors. See It is self-published using a National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance grant; I'd still say that no commercial publisher would risk it.

This is in fact a game that would work best on computer, perhaps as a flashy-looking "casual game", but that's not what "the boss" in the conceptualization exercise wanted to achieve--he was looking for a non-video game.

Boardgames, cardgames, role-playing games, and video games all do different things well, and some things not so well. Sometimes the nature of the game will force you to a particular method, and that may force you to abandon the game in order to move toward your commercial goal.

My situation

I've come into a "Simulation and Game Development" two year degree program founded by Walter Rotenberry et. al. at Wake Tech. This term I have about a hundred students, mostly in "Game Design One", some in "Introduction to SGD". The department head (SGD is part of the programming department, though most of the students aren't likely to become progammers) tells me my students are really different, and maybe that's true, though they don't seem all that different from the CIT students I have at CCCC. They are certainly millennials (average age 20, only a couple more than 30 years old), with all that entails and implies. Several already have bachelors or associates degrees. If we had more labs and more teachers we could have more than 100 students (in fact, we have about 120 in the five Intro classes, but there are only four design classes). The student demand is certainly there, and fortunately we have many game companies in the Triangle, so students actually have good prospects of getting jobs in the industry.

What this is

This blog contains comments about teaching game design at Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh NC, by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher. (There is also a blog called Teaching Game Design on blogspot, by a teacher of game design in Ohio.) It complements my general game design blog, Pulsipher Boardgame Design ( That blog and some of this one are repeated on myspace (boardgamedesigner).
"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