Sunday, April 20, 2008

Grading student game projects

How do you evaluate and grade student-designed games? It is hard, no doubt, especially as there’s rarely enough time to play all the games enough to properly test them. Still, here are a few pointers. This is aimed primarily at non-electronic games, which are much better tools for teaching game design than electronic games, because a much greater percentage of a student's effort goes into design than prototype production, and they take a lot less time to produce a playable prototype.

Any “review”, whether of a book, a movie, a play, music, software, or a game, must answer three questions: what was the creator trying to do, how well did he do it, and was it worth doing? These questions can help guide a teacher grading a student game project, just as they help a reviewer evaluate a commercial game. However, I am not going to discuss these questions, except insofar as what follows indicates how well the student(s) did it.

If you don't play games, all you can do is try to judge effort and professionalism. If you do play games, but are not accustomed to evaluating games without playing them (perhaps talking with people who have), you’ll have a problem, because you often won’t have enough time to play the game enough to really find out what it’s about. (This is why game reviewers must spend a lot of time playing a game, to avoid being misled by first impressions.) Some games just don’t sound (or look) like much until you play them. Some sound or look really good, but fail in actual play.

Fortunately, if you’re very familiar with games and have some design experience, you can judge the important things fairly easily.

Just as the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, and location, the three most important factors in a game are gameplay, gameplay, and gameplay. There are several aspects which I’ll discuss in the next paragraphs.

The most important question about any game is, what does the player DO? What are the challenges the player(s) face? What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? This is the heart of most games. You can often see quickly, when evaluating a student game, that the player just doesn’t have much to do, or that what he is doing is quite repetitive without compensating factors.

Related to this is player interaction. What can players to do affect each other? There are certainly good games (often “race” games) where a player can do little to affect another player, but most good games have a significant-to-high level of player interaction. Or if it’s a solo game as are many electronic games, interaction between the player and the game becomes the target.

Another question related to what the player does is, is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Perhaps this is less important with electronic games, as players EXPECT such games to become “the same”, and they also don’t mind sameness as much as the non-electronic gamers do. (So many AAA list electronic games are quite derivative of the gameplay of so many predecessors.) Nonetheless, the better a game is, the more replayable it is likely to be.

Some people would add one more thing, is the game fair? Do the rewards seem to match the effort?

So much for gameplay design. What about what we might call the professional aspects of the game? Care of construction (NOT looks--construction of the “rules” or electronic equivalent, game mechanics) is important. Sloppiness leads to imprecision which leads to confusion.

Even more important, how much was the game playtested? Are there records (not necessarily elaborate–I tend to list the date, who played, and anything unusual that occurred, along with changes I decided to make (or decided did not work, so I changed back). That can be just a couple lines of documentation per play.

With very few exceptions, a game with a good basic gameplay design won’t actually play well unless it has been thoroughly playtested to work out the little (or big) obstacles to good gameplay.

While the instructor may not be able to play the game enough to know it well, he can suppose that a poorly playtested game won’t be worth much, and that one that is playtested a lot is more likely to be a decent game. “Playtesting is sovereign”, whether the game is digital or not.

I usually ask students to give me the original playable prototype, and the “final” version. There should be very significant changes in the game, if it has been playtested much. You might even ask students to list what significant changes were made.

Here are some specific comments about what NOT to use as criteria:

"Fun" is not a criterion. We can't generally agree what fun is, and your idea of fun is different from mine. A chess master has a different idea of “fun” than your mother has! Some people like party games, some like silly games, some like perfect information, some like planning ahead (hence tend to like perfect information), some like much that is hidden, some like reaction to circumstances (hence tend to prefer hidden information), etc.

Likely hundreds of thousands of people have played my game Britannia, yet even *I* wouldn't call it "fun". It may be interesting, fascinating, and lots of other things, even educational, but many players would not call it fun.

Story is not a criterion. This is especially important because so many students don't understand this, and think story or something other than gameplay is what's important in a game. People play games, they listen to/watch stories. Yes, you can make the story interactive to an extent, but a great many game players really don't care about story. It is absolutely necessary to pound into students’ heads that story is not important in the design of most games.

What about the marketing palaver–the game concept and treatment and so on? These are not even written for non-digital games, though when the game is “finished” and the designer is trying to persuade a publisher to look at it, and then only sometimes, a description of the game will be written that is something like the game concept.

These documents in the electronic game world are marketing documents that have NOTHING to do with the quality of the game, NOTHING. They represent a simple plan for what the game will be.

Consequently, does it even make sense for a teacher to require students to produce these documents? I would say, it makes sense only insofar as the document might help the instructor evaluate the game, or help the students create the game. In that context, the two to three page game concept is useful, but something longer such as a game treatment may not be.

At the least you might ask the student(s) to briefly characterize the “essence” of their game–and let them decide what “essence” means.

Looks of the Game–not a criterion. This counts for virtually nothing; in fact, for non-electronic games I definitely do not want students to spend a lot of time on looks. As long as the physical components of the game are clear, not confusing, that's what counts. (There's a rule of thumb in the boardgame world, that the better a prototype looks, the less likely it is to be a good game, because novice designers spend far too much effort on the looks of the prototype.) I want students to understand that gameplay is what counts, not graphics, even though in the AAA list electronic world graphics become quite important simply because of the youthful audience.

I heard of a “game design teacher” who severely downgraded a student’s non-electronic game project because the box he supplied wasn’t large enough for the game. “The BOX?” That’s completely irrelevant to design; most experienced designers don’t make a box for their prototypes (I *never* have). This is something only novices who don’t understand what they’re doing think is important.

For electronic games, looks only matter near the end of development. And students will rarely have the time to do the playtesting and incremental, iterative modification necessary to “complete” a game and get to the true end of development.

So what else do you evaluate? Appropriateness for the audience. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? If it’s a party game (whether “Apples to Apples” or a Wii party game, is it relatively easy and does it promote interaction amongst the players? Here we might actually ask if it’s “fun” in a party sense.

I am not a person who lists exact grade points and values, because I don’t think you can consistently judge this carefully, nor am I confident that my “rubric” would take everything into account. But I can judge an “A”, or a “B”, or a “C”, or something in between, based on these criteria, without assigning specific percentage numbers.

It's very difficult for anyone to "grade" these games without playing them several times, for which there is no time. My main criterion, aside from what I can see about the gameplay, is whether the students playtested the games and benefitted from that.

For groups, I also give them a peer evaluation sheet to fill out. The idea is that I may find out which people in the group actually contributed most, or least. It has its flaws, but is better than nothing.


Ian Schreiber said...

Great post, and a necessary one. Although I think you should specify that this is aimed primarily at grading student-designed NON-DIGITAL games (something that's clear to me from your advice, but not from your writing). For digital games, usually you only have one per student team (say, 6 to 12 people) and the game usually has its mechanics in place but isn't full of content, so playing and evaluating a digital project actually goes pretty quickly.

Additionally, you probably DO want to evaluate a digital game on the quality of its programming and graphics, assuming that you have students who are dedicated to art and others who are specifically programmers. Why reward or punish an entire team of a dozen students for the work of the designers alone?

Lastly, you say that it's hard to judge games if you don't play them. I would add that it's hard to TEACH GAME DESIGN if you don't play games, and what business do you have teaching something that you haven't even experienced, and will you PLEASE stop it and hire an actual GAME DESIGNER to do the job, so that you don't make the rest of us look bad? (Not you, Lewis, but those other people.)

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Yes, it is primarily for non-digital, perhaps I'll edit it a bit.

In a game PRODUCTION class, then I don't judge purely on the design, but also on the graphics and programming. But too many game design classes become game production classes instead (another reason to teach design using non-digital games, so that students will concentrate on the design). If it's a game design class, then game design is what counts.

Part of my philosophical disagreements with my former school was about people with no design experience teaching (online!) game design. So now they have a second year student with no design experience (other than classes) teaching (seated) Game Design II. The online teacher isn't even a game *player*, let alone a designer! They seemed to find nothing wrong with this.

At that school, experience of actually doing what you're teaching is not regarded as important, in general. They would rather retrain someone to teach something else than get someone who actually knows how to do it. Of course, it's not important to accreditation agencies, either, who primarily recognize classes/degrees as the criterion of expertise. But the entire education system is going in that direction, no wonder our students tend to be unable to DO.

"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