This is a portion of journal entries I wrote throughout my Theory & Design of Games class at HPU while I was designing a board game and reading “The Game Design Workshop.”

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 1

Who can say how many video games there are that should have been delayed or scrapped? Battlefield 4’s online multiplayer was a mess for months after it was released, which had a significant impact on the reputation of its publisher and developer. Ride to Hell: Retribution is something that shouldn’t even exist in this day and age, being among the most critically panned games of all time. Brink had so much potential and fell flat right out of the gate; Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark was a lazy, soulless follow-up to High Moon Studios’ Transformers games, and Resident Evil 6 was a confused game in its direction that showed Capcom was trying to please everyone and only made things worse. But why am I talking about these games in relation to the game design basics covered in chapter 1? The reason why is that, for some reason or another, the people behind them must have not applied the “playcentric” approach to the development of their games well enough or simply didn’t care to do it.

Before I read the material, I already knew that playtesting, public feedback, revisions, and so forth are necessary for game development. It’s common sense because without the insight of others’ suggestions, a game will not end up as great as it could be if it’s not subject to change. “No one, no matter how smart they are, can conceive and produce a sophisticated game from a blank sheet of paper and perfect it without going through this process” (4). However, I was nevertheless surprised by the amount of testing and prototyping that Tracy Fullerton suggests games should go through, and I enjoyed several other points she brings up.

The importance of playtesters is not understated here. I love on page 3 where she says, “games are not a form of one-way communication. Being a superior game designer isn’t about controlling every aspect of the game design, […] it’s about building a potential experience, setting all the pieces in place so that everything’s ready to unfold when the players begin to participate.”  The game is like a party that you invite guests over to enjoy, she says, asking and gauging them if they like varying aspects of it and what they don’t like. To put this analogy in other words, constantly receiving feedback from playtesters and being open to everyone’s ideas on the team is how you go about making a game; this is a result of the teamwork and communication a studio needs to promote, which bolsters how effectively and how much a game undergoes transformation for the better.

It’s no wonder why we’ve seen an increase in this playcentric approach over time, too, and it’s publicly evident in how some AAA games are being created. Battlefield Hardline and Evolve are two perfect examples that are still being worked on. The former underwent a massive, public multiplayer beta on the day it was addressed by EA at E3 2014, which thousands of gamers participated in for about three weeks. Suggestions came flying in and developer DICE made notable corrections to the beta based on player feedback. After the beta closed, Hardlinewas delayed so that DICE could have adequate time to make changes and improvements to the game for the “ultimate” Battlefield experience. It was a smart move that shows the team learned from Battlefield 4. Revisions may be hard to make and can be costly, but having a better game later is better than having a worse game sooner.

Evolve has also gone through extensive beta testing, been brought to many game conventions for feedback, and was recently delayed to ensure it will be a near-perfect multiplayer experience in early 2015. But what makes Evolve worthy to mention here is how much the development team has mentioned and stressed how they play the game every day in the studio. With Gameinformer’s cover story on it earlier this year, they said they do this because they are not only concerned if players love playing their game, but also if they themselves love it, too. “Would we play this for fun?” is the constant question on their minds. It’s a great way for any developer to be less biased about revising their own game and attempting to test the “player experience goals” to see if they deliver. This also makes way for more communication opportunities during play sessions, the discussion of new ideas, etc.

There are other noteworthy things to highlight, such as maintaining an open mind to find inspiration and creativity not only in other games, but also outside of the medium (i.e. anything in the world can inspire you, which can spawn the ideas for games like Katamari, Yoshi’s Wooly World, etc.). Something in everyday life or a special childhood memory could bring about the next iconic game series, which happened with Shigeru Miyamoto and his childhood inspiration for The Legend of Zelda. Overall, there is a lot of useful information to soak in from this chapter and it made me realize how a strong playcentric approach really echoes the classic phrase “quality over quantity.” It could be a slower, more expensive route to take due to the uncertainty in how many times a game might go through testing, but the pros far outweigh those cons.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 2

I was having a conversation with some friends on the sort of discussions I have with my university classmates and teachers about games, since several of my classes cover the theory and design of games, game development, and so forth. One of the topics I brought up is the famous question, “What exactly is a game?” and I began to mention how video games in particular must have a challenging aspect, an objective(s), etc. However, one of my avid gaming friends quickly chimed in and said something to the effect of, “I believe if a video game is something you can have a lot of fun with, then it’s a video game. That’s what they’re designed for anyway, so if Minecraft is loads of fun for a lot of people, it’s most definitely a video game.” It’s a simple yet compelling argument to be sure, but in regard to my reading of chapter 2, I think it’s still important to make distinctions in what a game is and is not.

“The Structure of Games” section starts out brilliantly by getting you thinking about how games like Go Fish and Quake can be similar when they are entirely different in many ways. In fact, I was struggling to see the resemblances at first, but as I read on, I realized I was looking at the games from a face value perspective instead of a “big picture” outlook that I should have had in mind. Points like both games having players, objectives, and outcomes made me slap my forehead in frustration since those are the most obvious things to notice. However, more subtle ones such as procedures, resources, and boundaries were aspects I would not have come up with on a whim. I also like how all of these things are defined as the “formal elements” of games, but that there is room for the medium to go beyond these elements to strive for innovation. It’s an important idea to communicate that the definition of a game is flexible and tentative, giving the opportunity for people to challenge it with their own “games,” such as Proteus, Gone Home, and Dear Esther. Speaking of this, saying that something like Minecraft’s creation mode isn’t a game doesn’t diminish its value and worth. It just isn’t a game, and that’s okay. I believe Dear Esther, for example, is not a game, but I still loved the experience I gained from it and how it challenges how we define what games are.

After reading this and the enlightening section “Engaging the Player,” it makes me wonder about what kind of game I would like to create. I would immediately choose to make a video game if I could, but with what little – or lack thereof – artistic and programming skills I have, I think the realm of board games would suit me more. Taking the elements discussed in the Engaging the Player section, there are some I would stress over others with the ideas I have in mind. Challenge would be highlighted since strategy and speed will likely be core pillars of my game’s design and flow. Since I personally enjoy games with a compelling premise and believe they give lasting value to their appeal, I would make sure to have a sci-fi or medieval theme, but this is subject to change, and I might portray either of these themes in a mature or family-friendly way (I’m not sure what my demographic focus will be yet). There’d be a bit of characterization for the figures in my story surrounding the premise, but I don’t think dramatic elements would play a big role. In the end, making sure all these elements work together in a seamless and logical fashion is my goal. I’m sure some of my ideas won’t mesh together in creating a fun, replayable board game, so there will be some compromises and changes along the way (I need to keep things flexible and not set in stone, as chapter 1 addressed).

Other than that, I do have something to say about this line in the book: “When you play a game, you set the rules of life aside and take up the rules of the game instead. Conversely, when you finish playing a game, you set aside the incidents and outcome of that game and return to the trappings of the outside world.” I understand the logic behind this and think it works to an extent, but I imagine there are exceptions to this line of thought. Some people play games and make life a part of it. For example, a group of three friends could make digging a trench a game, with the rules being that they can only use one kind of shovel, you’re only allowed to have two breaks, and so forth until the one who’s done the most work wins. Likewise, I don’t agree that the outcomes of a game are set aside once returning to the “outside world.” A common illustration could be that a person holds resentment against someone else who beat him or her in a game after it’s over, or that some games “end friendships,” which is a joke people make, but who knows? It has probably happened before. The same goes for real consequences to winning or losing, such as with poker. Not only would you feel bad losing in this game by submitting yourself to its rules, but also lose money depending on the stakes of the poker game, which would affect your spending. Perhaps I’m looking at this in the wrong way, but these are my initial thoughts to the claim the author is making. Pages 29-31 of “Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction” get the points I’m trying to make across much better.

Outside The Game Design Workshop: Diversity, Communication, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Gamasutra)

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In chapter 1 of Game Design Workshop, core elements that make a strong development team are covered, such as communication, teamwork, process, inspiration, and becoming better players. In an interview conducted by Christian Nutt, he asked Animal Crossing: New Leaf producer Katsuya Eguchi and co-director Aya Kyogoku how the structure of their studio was formed, why communication is so important, and how their workplace differs from the norm.

One of the first remarks made by Eguchi is that the studio has been around for a while, benefitting from having original and brand new team members that offer different insights. Women also make up a nice part of the team as well. However, the interesting thing he says puts a spin on the idea that having a team that focuses on “being better players” is always good. Eguchi remarks on how the newer team members have far more experience with smart devices and how important they are to the game design process (despite their lack in proficiency with games), showing older team members how to design the game in ways that mimic the simplicity and style of smart device features, interfaces, etc. “Likewise, there are people who are very adept and experienced in using game devices…for a gamer to make a game and have it make sense for them,” he said, “that explanation may not make a lot of sense for people who aren’t used to it. In that sense, again, it’s great to have a diverse team comprising people who play games and people who don’t.” It’s a viewpoint that some would disagree with, but with the success of New Leaf, perhaps Eguchi is on to something.

Kyogoku also points out how necessary ongoing communication is before, during, and even after development. “Communication is really at the core of Animal Crossing, as we’ve mentioned,” she said. “There’s not really a finite end to what we call ‘communication.’ There’s not an end goal where once you reach this goal, you finish it. Like communication, it doesn’t end.” Eguchi extends this idea to reveal that the team’s extraordinary communication helped in massively relieving stress and conflict. One of the main reasons for this stress and conflict is when “you have ideas or concepts that you want to share, but you can’t, because you know that even if you share them, nobody is going to listen; that kind of stress.” However, Eguchi says the team is encouraged to share their opinions and thoughts on anything at any point during the development process, which really helps everyone be open, trustworthy, and better friends with one another. As Tracy Fullerton said on page 6 of GDW, this allows everyone to become better listeners and compromisers.

In addition, Kyogoku realized the importance of constant playtesting not just with outside players, but also with people on the team. “…[This] wasn’t just for the purpose of discovering and finding bugs, but really to able to play the game from a player’s perspective, and to really think about what would make playing the game even more enjoyable.” This results in the perfect back-and-forth conversation between a developer and playtesters. The playtesters give their feedback to the developer, the developer plays the game to see where the problems and issues are, the necessary adjustments are implemented to the game, and the process is repeated until the developer has a solid game to continue building upon.

Overall, this is an incredible article that offers a fascinating look into the creation of New Leaf that primarily highlights how communication and teamwork are essential to get right in game development.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 3

This is the meatiest chapter yet without contest, and the main reason for this is that every element discussed is essential in what makes a game, well, a game. It was an informative read as I am continually thinking about how all the rules and structure of my own board game will work together to create a cohesive whole. I have basic ideas, such as that the game will be a 4-player multilateral competition; you’ll be able to move around the board with a 20-sided die; the pathways across the board will crisscross and allow players to move in any direction; a “monster” will occupy the center of the board that takes away a player’s life if 1) a rare card is drawn that forces all players to go to the center and roll the die, with the one who has the lowest roll losing his/her life or 2) if a player takes a chance and goes through the center to avoid a lethal confrontation with another player (he/she would need to roll the die in the center and if it’s below 5, they lose a life). Many questions are left unanswered and problems can be found in these handful of examples already, like how player encounters will be balanced, what will be done to keep everybody from avoiding or running into each other too much, how cards will come into play, how many lives players will have, etc. There’s a lot that needs to be worked out and refined, so for this chapter, I’ll simply be pointing out a couple things that piqued my interest in regard to what I want to do with my own game and how I’ve seen these things in other games I’ve played.

The “invitation to play” is like your first impression of somebody. It’s important and sticks with you, so everyone should make it count with every person they meet. When I consider the invitation to play for games, it’s general in that it can last from the first time you see it in a trailer to the opening moments of gameplay. The Unfinished Swan, as a random example, got me to play it due to the children’s book-esque story and unique music. However, the intro to gameplay is what really pulled me into it. All you see is a white screen after a cutscene and nothing happens. Only until you experiment with the controller do you find that you can send globs of black paint out that give form to the blank environment around you. It’s a clever way of introducing players to the game without giving an explicit tutorial.
For my board game, I want to invite players in with a mysterious story premise and characters, bolstered by an unexpected art style and an interesting, balanced battle system that immerses them in the experience as they play more and more.

I enjoyed the illustrations on the player interactions patterns on page 52, and there were plenty of games that come to mind for each kind listed. The Free-For-All mode in Call of Duty is great multilateral competition, Borderlands is well known for cooperative play, and even the kid’s game Red Light, Green Light is classic unilateral competition. For my board game, I would like something in particular to be akin to Destiny. What I mean by this is that the multiplayer in this game pits different classes against each other that have their pros and cons in a balanced way, which is what I would like to accomplish with the four characters in my game. However, I don’t know if it will be possible to do with less than three players, which is something I’m working out.

Lastly, I’ll mention the section on resources. While board games are pretty good at handling this, video games still struggle with balancing this aspect of game design. Mass Effect gets to the point where you are overflowing with so many credits and equipment that there’s no sense of reward in collecting either things mid-way through the game. The same goes for New Super Mario Bros. 2, which is way too easy compared to the rest of its predecessors since you are overflowing with lives by the time you’re only two hours into it. Some shooters are notorious for having missions where ammo is absolutely needed but unrealistically scarce, making players frustrated and stuck. However, games like The Last of Us, Super Metroid, and Dark Souls are games that force players to make meaningful decisions with their resources since they’re challenging to find and valued for that. On a side note, games that make use of special terrain and time resources are an interesting bunch that should be explored more by game developers.

I hope to accomplish the same thing with my game. Health, inventory, power-ups, and special terrain will be the highlighted resources, but finding the methods to making all of them mesh together will prove challenging.

There’s much more to be said (especially since I haven’t said anything of much depth here), so I think I’ll write a short second part to this post in the next few days to be more theoretical about some of the other intriguing topics developed in this chapter.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 3 – Part 2

In continuation of chapter 3, I’ll provide my thoughts on a couple other topics that the author discussed here, or rather – in the case of what I’m about to comment on – what she included from other game scholars. What I’m alluding to is the two-page contribution by Ian Bogost on “Persuasive Games.” Although he comes off as pretentious due to his unnecessarily convoluted way of conveying his ideas and thoughts, I think there’s something of great value to glean from what he said, particularly about how we – if I understand him – bring our preconceived ideas about and subjective experiences to procedural models (that represent source systems like NFL football) represented in games. Because of this, how we interact with the game is in contest with the developers’ ideas for how the procedural system should work, which forces players to “reconcile their own models of the world with the models presented in a game.” Papers, Please is an excellent example of this in how it’s a procedural model of the source system of occupying the role of an immigration officer. I don’t intend for my board game to be that “persuasive,” but there are certainly a lot of them that are in compelling ways (like Monopoly).

The section on objectives was also thought provoking for me in how I want to establish them for my board game. Yes, “them” meaning multiple objectives. There will definitely be a capture element, chase element, and construction element. In respective order, players will attempt to kill other players’ characters in one-on-one matches; players will fluctuate in pursuing and running away from each other on the board; and players will attempt to gather cards by landing on certain spots on the board that could give them cards that boost the power of a single move, rare “Special” cards that grant the use of using a “Special” once, etc. Cards are drawn by chance, but using them requires a bit of strategic planning. Anyway, all of the objectives will need to be balanced in that everyone is constantly trying to capture, chase, and construct while playing, and perhaps other elements will come into play as smaller objectives, but this remains to be seen.

For the sake of discussion, one game that presents multiple objectives very well is Dishonored. You can be killing enemies off one by one in a stealthy manner (capture element) to running for your life out of a mansion after being discovered (escape and chase). You are constantly looking around every environment for resources as well (construction and exploration), sometimes having to use your special abilities to cleverly obtain them or get past enemies that are blocking something you need (outwit). Of course, all of these objectives aren’t in play all at once, but they can switch on the fly and vary in importance depending on what you’re doing in the game.

Although there’s more to cover, I’ll stop there. As I said last week, this is one of the meatiest chapters so far since there’s a lot of rich material to draw from in the formal elements discussed.