Getting beaten out by “Environmental Simulations Developer”, Game Designer gets a number two position on this list of top ten hottest it jobs. Looks like the career that I love is actually going to be one that will be economically viable. Take that student loans!
I recently posted a comment on a fellow designer’s blog. She had posted about first amendment rights, and I had commented about the irony of written word censorship over digital medium censorship. To find out if my statement was accurate, I contacted a local nation-wide bookstore to inquire about purchasing a copy of Lolita. I told them that my son (oh god) needed it for a book report and wondered if there would be any problem with him purchasing it since he was sixteen. (Do I sound that old I wonder?) The clerk told me there wouldn’t be.
While I was making this phone call during my work break, one of my coworkers overheard me and wondered what I was talking about. I told him about my statement; how it takes an 18 year old to purchase the movie version of the same book that a 16 year old can purchase. He responded with “Of course, there’s no pictures in the book.”
This, of course, is a common mentality about written word. A book of erotic fiction is never as damaging to one’s sensibilities as a picture of the same content. I pointed out to my coworker that my imagination has an unlimited resolution with far greater detail than any photo could ever have.
All of this lead me to a sort of mini-epiphany. The written word is an abstraction of the spoken word. Written word is just a permanent form of the spoken word, but it loses much of its content during transmission, such as inflection. Spoken word is an abstraction of body language. Before spoken word, our ancestors used grunts and gestures to communicate. Spoken word allows us to express more complex ideas quickly, as long as there is a common denominator (language) amongst communicators.
At SeigeCon this year, I had the fortunate opportunity to listen to a panel, composed of Ian Bogost, Ernest Adams and Dan Greenberg, talk about the idea of Game as Art. To me, Dan stood out on the panel because he didn’t want games to be art. In his explanation, he mentioned a form of communication, what he called the most basic and primal form of communication: mimetic impulse. Mimetic impulse was a method used by our ancestors to communicate. The shaman of the group of tribesmen would setup a ritual of role playing, in which certain members were hunters and the other were prey. By going through these mimetic impulses, the tribe would practice the hunt, allowing the tribe to understand and communicate what would go on in the real world. This is what body language abstracts, the mimetic impulse. And the mimetic impulse is an abstraction of reality.
So what? Well, two things came from this realization. The reason that people aren’t as threatened by written word as they are by pictoral representations is the level of abstraction from reality. Even if the content was the same, such as in Lolita, the abstraction from reality that is given by written word is not as threatening as the pictoral representation. Games are more closely related to the mimetic impulse, the most primal form of communication, which is why it is so powerful at expressing concepts. Because of its interactive instead of passive nature. This is also one of the reasons people fear it, and other digital medium, more than written or even spoken word.
It was a minor revelation, I’m sure, but it was also one of those profound moments that you feel you just need to share with others.
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In the summer of 1990, I played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons with a group of kids that lived in my neighborhood. I’ve played it on and off since then, along with other table-top RPGs. When I switched into digital RPGs something was lost. I never knew how to describe it until I began to study game design in college. The multiplayer aspect, the emergent story line and game play, the group dynamics. All of this was gone when I switched over to the world of digital RPGs. Not to say that digital RPGs aren’t fun in their own right, they just don’t have this aspect.
Then in the summer of 2000, 10 years after starting down to becoming a full fledged RPG nerd, one of my old D&D buddies introduced me to EverQuest. Here was a digital RPG with multiplayer aspects and group dynamics. I was addicted. For the next seven months I explored the world. I finally lost interest after I discovered the repetitive nature of the MMO genre. While I never got to end game content, I felt I had explored enough to get a firm grasp on how the game worked. Many MMOs followed in it’s wake: Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes/Villains, EverQuest 2 and the one I’m still currently playing, World of Warcraft. I’ve stayed with WoW longer than any of the other MMOs because I know more people in game than in any of the other MMOs I’ve played. That group dynamic and multiplayer aspect has me hooked.
Six months ago I was introduced to ARGs after being killed by Brenda. Brenda claims that you are “dead to her” if you fail to know something important in the game industry, and I had never heard of an ARG. The mechanics and dynamics behind ARGs intrigue me greatly. The ability for designers to break the “circle” and enter into the real world, instead of just existing inside of the virtual, is one of the keys of ARG mechanics. After a quick read of John W. Gosney’s Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming, I decided that I wanted to make an ARG for my Studio 2 Project. Many different factors lead to this decision: the amount of time we have to create the projects (10 weeks), the type of content that needs to be created and the “newness” of the ARG genre.
One of the biggest factors in wanting to make an ARG is my interest in MMO design. Unfortunately for me, Raph Koster’s Metaplace (which I mistakenly originally associated him with being a part of Multiverse. Sorry Mr. Koster!) is still in closed Alpha and I don’t have the resources to be able to create my own architecture for an MMO. An ARG will allow me to explore some of the mechanics that MMOs offer over traditional digital RPGs without having to setup all of the server and client framework. The ARG will let me create multiuser experiences without the overhead of creating all the technology.
While I can’t wait for Koster’s Metaplace to go public, so that I can create one of the many MMO ideas that I have, the ARG project that I am lead on grants me the ability to explore some of the mechanics that I lost when I switched into digital RPGs.
Part of creating games is getting people interested in making your game. You not only have to have a solid idea, you have to be able to express that idea in a way that grabs people’s attention. While marketing is handled by someone besides the game designer, the designer still has to pitch there ideas to the powers that be to get it green lit. It seems that students don’t understand this concept, especially when they begin to tell others about their ideas.
It all starts with a concept, be it narrative, innovative game mechanic or a combination of the two. When you start to talk about your game, you should let people know why they should listen to you. There have been some pretty atrocious game pitches through out time. I’m assuming this just from the number of ones I’ve had to sit through in classes.
Remember this key point: You are trying to persuade, not inform, the audience that your game is good.
Persuading an audience on a topic involves some key points (taken from Aristotle’s writings on public speaking). First, you have to get the audience’s attention. This is important in any public address. You don’t want your audience falling asleep when you are trying to talk to them. Next, you need to present concepts backed up by facts! Recently I had to pitch a game for my Studio 2 class. For many different reasons, I want to create an ARG. One of the key things I told the audience in my speech was how ARGs are one of the newest genres of games in the industry. I could back up this concept with facts, such as the first ARG, The Beast, being released in 2001, while genres like FPS, RPG and RTS being over 20 years old.
Once you can prove that something is the case, such as ARGs being the newest genre, you can use these facts to try and persuade the audience that your ideas are correct. In the case of game pitches, you want to persuade them that your game is not only good, but worthy of their time/money to invest in.
One of the worst things you can do is tell the entire plot line of your game. This will make everyone tune out. Focus on key points, not the entire plot line. And be sure you focus on new content more than re-used content. If you have to tell them about content they have seen before (”You have to save a princess”), be sure to reference something they are familiar with (”You have to save a princess from a tower, like in Rapunzel”) and add what makes your content new (”You have to save a princess from a tower, like in Rapunzel, but instead of a prince, you play her female love interest”).
It’s also good to know who you are addressing in your presentation. If you are talking to content artist, be sure to point out the type of content they will be creating, etc. It never fails that I have to sit through the entire plot of a game pitch, just to have to ask “What does it do that’s new?” Get to the meat and potatoes of the game, don’t start with how the table is set.
When taking a look at any artistic medium, be it visual, audial or in my case interactive, their comes up the issue of what would be considered “good”. The entire video game review market, from websites to magazines, is based around this concept of good games and bad games. Recently, Mario Galaxy has been released for the Nintendo Wii console and has been getting very positive reviews from most game review outlets. But this brings up the question….What makes a “good” game?
The issue, for me, is that it depends on who is answering the question. Are you asking a player, a content artist, a business person or a game designer?
For the player, replay ability seems to be the number one factor when determining a good game. Of course, game play and graphics are also placed into consideration, but money invested into the game needs to be rewarded with replay value. This is why online, multiplayer functionality is one of the top features gamers look for in games. Halo 3, for example, has a small, single player campaign. The $59.99 is viable for gamers, though, because of online capabilities. The console market has taken this to heart, with most games now featuring at least some aspect of online capability, be it purchasing extra content or featuring extra content. Of course, the PC market has taken advantage of this feature for many years, which is why you can see people still playing more computer games than console games for multiple years. Since online content changes the game (just look at any ESRB rating on an online game) and provides interaction with other players, the replay factor of the game increases.
The multimedia aspect of the game is probably the largest consideration for a good game from a content artists perspective. Content artist, such as modelers and animators, check out how the game “looks and feels” from a visual and audial aspect. This does affect some of the player’s judging of a good game. You can hear people talking about the “killer graphics” in games like Crysis, when they have not even played the game yet. The multimedia aspect will wear thin over time, as it becomes part of the game. One such game I’ve been playing recently which is very appealing to the content artist side of me is Team Fortress 2. The game’s ability to create a cartoonish reality, reminiscent of Pixar’s animation style, makes the characters in the game more lifelike and personable.
Profit. End of story. Good games are games which allow investors to make back the money they have invested into the game. This is not a bad thing, by any means. Without money, games of the caliber we have seen in the past decade could not be made. Of course, Greg Costikyan’s Death to the Game Industry (Part I and II) does have valid points to be made about the current business model of the industry. But, the good game for a business person is the one that will make a profit. Profit allows the company to continue and make more games, which can never be seen as a bad thing. I do, however, want to point out that horrible games can be “good” from this perspective. I’ve been looking around for the sales figures on “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing” to prove my point
Finally, the lowly designer. The person not interested in how a game looks, but the experience that you walk away from the game with. For the designer, good games are ones that bring innovation to the market. If you look at the key figures in the industry (Miyamoto, Wright, Meiers, Molyneux, etc), they are key because they brought innovative design to the industry. They also think and design in innovative ways. None of these designers have ever released something that wasn’t accepted as great by the industry, and the reason for this is their innovation. When I pick up a game for the first time, I always wonder what’s going to be different about this game than the others in the genre. That’s what designers do. They create new experiences to differentiate themselves from the rest of the plethora of games out there.
Like any other medium, the definition of good varies from person to person and year to year. Other mediums have developed a way for us to judge their work through a common vocabulary to be able to accurately discuss this with others. (Brenda has posted a topic about this on her blog). Any medium has the ability to place a price tag based off of whether a the art is good or not (A Picasso vs a Paint by Numbers). Because of the interactive nature of our medium, we are forced to compete on many levels, so it really does depend on who you ask.
Advice for Design Students from a Design Student
A lot of people wonder where to get ideas for game design. Most students, it seem, use the same method: starting with narrative (I’ve got this idea about a game involving the fall of the roman empire). While these methods are certainly fine, they usually are more geared towards the creation of content over design. The fall of the roman empire is certainly a fine narrative basis for a game, but I believe it’s not because the student is thinking of what sort of mechanics (political systems, health of the populace, defending against barbarian hordes (Go Celts!)) can be used in the game but more what the visual style of the game will be. Certainly they can model all sorts of Roman Centurions, Senate Members, along with all of the various architectural elements, but what sort of game experience do you offer the player? This, I feel, is the number one overlooked aspect of game development when it comes to student design.Students seem to be under the impression that complexity equals fun. I know I’ve been guilty of this designer drug. The more complex the system is, the more fun it is for me to create.However, it is one of the biggest things you can do to make your player put your game down and walk away. Intuitive interaction should be your goal, not “Let’s make the player read 20 pages in the manual to figure out how to combine game items together”.There’s a mantra I try to make everyone I talk to at the school follow: No Zombies, No Ninjas, No Pirates, No Prostitutes. It seems that most student designers try to put one of these four stereotypes into their game. If your goal is to create a unique experience, how are you going to do that when you are releasing Zombie Shooter # 176? The best means for creating a unique game play experience is to combine two design methods: Core Design philosophy and Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek’s MDA approach.
Core Design Philosophy
Endorsed by Miyamoto of Nintendo God-Status, the Core Design philosophy involves the creation of a single “nugget” of game design goodness. If you look at any of the Mario Brothers game series, for instance, they have a core of “jumping”. Everything in the game involves jumping. You jump on things, into things, over things, etc. This creates a great game play experience for many reasons. First, by understanding one simple mechanic (Pressing A makes my character jump), the player is able to go through a discovery of all of the different things they can now do with this one mechanic. This allows for a minimal amount of tutorial time. By starting with a core, the designer can develop the rest of the game based all around that core. If it doesn’t use the core, then cut it (another thing students don’t seem to like doing). Get rid of it. It doesn’t go with the core.But what core should I start with? Should I take another game’s core and try to use it in a new way? Certainly. The probability of you coming up with something 100% original is very minimal, at least in your early design process. Start with something you think is a good core and try to improve upon it. What if you had zero gravity jumping in Mario? Or perhaps the world was spherical, and so jumping wasn’t a straight up and down process? This seems to be what the designers at Nintendo have implemented in the upcoming Mario Galaxy.
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics
This leads to the second thing that students usually overlook: certain mechanics will cause the player to have a certain experience. If Mario couldn’t hop on enemies to squash them, the game play experience changes completely. Now, instead of feeling empowered over the enemies in the world, the player has to avoid them, dodging around and over them as much as possible. This is an example of the MDA concept: Mechanics lead to Dynamics which lead to Aesthetics. The Aesthetic of a game has nothing to do with the visual components in a pure design sense. It has to do with the experience that the player will have. Is the game scary? happy? silly? All of these come from the mechanics of the game.So, say the student wants to make a game about the fall of the Roman Empire. Does the player need to feel a sense of impending doom? What mechanics can be placed in the game for the player to feel this? Even if we visually create the world with this in mind (dirty, unkempt populace, broken and destroyed buildings, dark and ominous music), if the player has complete control of the world and nothing goes wrong, then the game will be a failure at instilling the aesthetic. A mechanic in which the player has no control over certain elements, and those elements are always a negative (senate members being assassinated or corrupted easily, things that decrease the populations belief in their government) then their will be a much greater effect on the gaming experience than any visual element will.In the end, I think something that most students forget is that games are an interactive medium. Unlike film, television or stage, gaming involves creating a connection between the player and the world in which their avatar exist. Without this connection, the player is simply an observer. Of course, in the world of an observer, visual style is a major factor in creating the experience. But in the world of a participant, it is only part of the gestalt.
When in academics, one of the things that gets crammed down your throat on an almost daily basis is “focus on what you are good at for your portfolio”. Well, the problem is that out of all of the different job possibilities in the field (modeler, concept artist, texture artists, sound designer, etc), the area that I feel is my strongest is also the one that there is about a 0.001% of getting a starting job in: Game Design. Now obviously, the title of “Game Designer” is as varied as that of “Lawyer”. There are many different specific types of game designer, from content design, system design and level design, that could be qualified with the all inclusive game design title.
The big problem with even attempting to enter the industry in this position is what do you show potential employers? “Hey, look at this awesome spreadsheet I built to simulate a combat system for an RTS” “Well, you should really check out the 200 page design document I wrote on the leveling system for an RPG” These things don’t work well in a design portfolio. What are we to do?
Brenda Brathwaite, a professor and industry veteran, has posted a great topic about this on her blog, which can be read here. If you don’t know who Brenda is, she’s one of the leading design professors at our school (SCAD). I’ve been studying (read that as annoying the bejesus out of) under her for about two years now, and I feel that through this I have increased my chances of getting a job to a whopping 0.01%. Take that probability!
I’ve also been telling Brenda that she needs to give a lecture for the school entitled “The Top 100 Questions that all students ask guests”. Number one on that list,: “I’m a(n) <enter job desired here>. What should I do?” This is probably the number one question I hear undergraduates ask people from the industry, and the answer is always the same. “Build a portfolio”. Hrm…looks like I’m back to my original enigma…