Representing Epic Events In Games

Next Monday, August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the continental U.S. for the first time since 1918. It is predicted to be one of the busiest travel days of 2017 as millions of people flock to the fourteen states across the United States in the path of the total solar eclipse to witness this magnificent spectacle. Many school districts have even purchased thousands of eclipse glasses so that students can observe this rare astronomical event without causing damage to their eyes.

It is fascinating to see how excited people are by this alignment of the sun, moon and Earth, which produces a shadow that moves across our planet. For some people, experiencing that gradual turn into total darkness is often uncomfortable, bringing out our childhood fears that bad things lurk in the dark. For some extremists, an eclipse is a sign of impending apocalypse, heralding the end of the world as we know it. However, for most of us, it is an epic spectacle that inspires more wonder than fear.

As a game designer, I certainly would like for epic events in my games to feel as epic as a total eclipse to the player.  What qualifies as an epic event?  It is significant event resulting in a change in the game state or story and which, once started, cannot be affected by the player’s actions.  Such an epic event might be part of the game’s environment and beyond the player’s control, such as the celestial mechanics that result in a total eclipse.  However, others might be irreversible actions initiated by players, such as the pressing of a button that detonates a nuclear bomb.

Such epic events can be foretold to players before they occur indirectly through clues or directly through narrative.  Depending on the tone of the communication, it can inspire wondrous anticipation or fearful tension in players, particularly if the potential consequences of the event are carefully unveiled over time to the player.  Knowledge of the event can take on even more important for players if it somehow provides strategic information to them, particularly if player have the ability to initiate the epic event.

Epics events in your game do not always need to be announced or hinted at before they occur. In the ancient past, people organized their lives by the order of the world around them, half of which was the sky. When surprising events like an eclipse occurred, they were an intrusion of chaos into that order and induced fear in the populace.  To cope with such an event, many ancient cultures undertook ritualistic activity to try to control it.  As a game designer, you can introduce surprise epic events to shake up your players and perhaps get them to try new play strategies in the game in an attempt to gain more control of their chances of success.

For the player to see epic events as fair, they must either have no impact on the player’s success in the game or the impact must be predictable (or consistent with the rules of the game world, at least). With an eclipse, for example, most players would find it sensible that the resulting darkness might have consequences associated with such darkness, such as shutting down all machinery powered by solar cells within the game. If, however, an oncoming eclipse might have some unpredictable effect, such as causing the stones in castles to melt, and it sets players back in their progress, they might see such an epic event as unfair.

The game designer must be careful that any epic events does not make players feel that their freedom of choice or chances of success in the game are diminished, but rather sets the stage for an exciting adventure. They should not be the end of the world as we know it (unless they truly come at the end of the game), but support the player’s feeling that such epic events can allow the player opportunities to do something epic themselves.



Teaching Game Design Virtually At The National Boy Scout Jamboree

If you follow my blog, you know that I was part of the team that created the Game Design Merit Badge for the Boy Scouts of America. It became the scouting organization’s 131st merit badge, each of which introduces scouts to such hobbies and occupations as archeology, chemistry, stamp collecting, and robotics, as well as such scouting skills as camping and orienteering. Several years ago, two scouters and game enthusiasts, Tom Miller and David Radue, proposed that the Boy Scouts introduce a merit badge for game design, and after a year of studies to gauge interest and two years of development from a team that included myself, the new merit badge was unveiled at the 2013 South by Southwest conference.

To earn the badge, a scout must analyze different types of games; describe play value, content, and theme; and understand the significance of intellectual property as it relates to the game industry. However, analyzing a game is only the first step. A scout must then propose three rule changes to an existing game and observe how the players’ action and emotional experiences are affected by the rule changes. After that,scouts then design, build, and blind test a game of their own design. The Game Design merit badge is not limited to video games; scouts can also choose to develop board, card, and pen-and-paper role-playing games too.

Since helping to create the requirements and instruction manual for this merit badge, I’ve stayed involved with it by serving as a merit badge counsellor to assist scouts with the requirements, and I also run game design workshops at local merit badge midways. However, right now I am counseling scouts at even bigger event that’s thousands of miles from my home. The National Boy Scout Jamboree is a gathering of over 40,000 Scouts held at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia to do activities like zip-lining, scuba diving, BMX biking, patch trading, whitewater rafting…. and game design.

Game Design Merit Badge Team leader Tom Miller is stationed at a tent for assisting scouts to earn the Game Design merit badge, and he asked me to assist him by allowing scouts to interview me about my work in game design to fulfill one of the merit badge requirements about careers in the game industry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the trip to West Virginia this year, so I’ve been attending virtually via Google Hangouts.  While the acoustics in the tent weren’t the greatest due to all the scouts having fun making and playing games, we managed to communicate via a combination of gestures, texting, and shouting.

I did attend a Boy Scout National Jamboree in person many years ago. In 1985, my business partner, Pam Pollack, and I were there to demonstrate our company’s wilderness survival simulation, Wilderness: A Survival Adventure. We had been in discussions with the Boy Scouts of America’s National Office about allowing scouts to use our game to satisfy one of the requirements of the Wilderness Survival merit badge, and the BSA invited us up be in the Apple Computer booth. Although we were never successful to get the BSA’s endorsement of our game (they were rightly concerned that the technology would become obsolete too quickly), we had a great time at the Jamboree, meeting all the scouts.

Never would I have imagine that I’d return some three decades later, but do so through technology I would not have imagined possible back then. So this year, I’ve been talking to scouts in groups of three about careers in game development. I’ve often done virtual lectures to school classrooms located throughout the country, but I have to say, the scouts ask the best questions. Instead of “Did you work on Game X or Y?”, the scouts have asked me, “What hands-on education do you need to supplement your college courses to get into game development?”, “What is the process for balancing a game?”, and “How does your average workday change from prep-roduction to post-production?”

So far, the scouts haven’t stumped me. And as long as they don’t ask me to remember how to tie two half-hitches for a game involving knot tying, I should make it through the week just fine.