Category Archives: Game Design

Game Design Behind The Fun Of Trick-Or-Treating

Halloween is just around the creepy corner, and I’ve been decorating the front lawn with cobwebs and tombstones, stockpiling candy to give out, and making sure my schedule is clear so that I can man the front door when the trick-or-treaters arrive. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. Why is this, when Christmas has a much wider variety of traditions and much deeper meaning behind it? Since I enjoy games so much, I figure there must be a gaming explanation behind my love of Halloween.

Of course, the activity of trick-or-treating can be thought of a game with the goal of collecting the most (or better yet, your favorite, candy within a given amount of time (when your parents are tired and want to go home, or if you’re older, when homeowners are tired an stop giving out candy).  In this game, there are a couple. rules to follow: the activity does not start until dusk, and players are expected to were a costume.

It’s a simple game, so let’s dig a bit deeper into what makes it so appealing. In Jason Vandenbergh’s “Domains of Play” presentation at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, he described five distinct motivations for people to play games, and trick-or-treating delivers the goods on all five.

Novelty describes how much a game provides the player with imaginative, new, or unexpected experiences.  Trick-or-treating is an experience that is a bag full of novelty surprises: what other trick-or-treaters are wearing,what candy you will receive, and how the neighbors houses are decorated.  Players who have a strong affinity for the costumed element of the game may also engage in a bit of role-playing or even storytelling before, during, and after trick-or-treating.  Other players who like to make their own costumes also engage in constructive play during the costume’s design and fabrication.

Challenge is meaningful work that the player is happy to do in order to progress through the game.  The work that is involved in trick-or-treating involves several easy-to-achieve goals:

  • Traverse the neighborhood by walking down streets or other paths to reach neighbor’s doors.
  • Gain information about which neighbors are participating in the game by whether their front lights are on and have decorated their house with Halloween decorations.
  • Gain ownership of candy from the participating neighbors by knocking on their door and saying, “Trick or treat.”
  • Collect as much candy as you can in the time available before you have to return home or the neighbors stop giving out candy.
  • Make strategic decisions about investment of time and effort with respect to diminishing returns on candy as neighbors run out or decide to stop participating in the game.

Stimulation deals with the emotional element of play.  Halloween has traditionally been based on scary imagery, such as the Jack-o’-lanterns that were originally carried on All Hallows’ Eve to frighten evil spirits.  Houses that are particularly well-decorated with this scary imagery may provide some players with a strong feeling of emotional immersion as they brush aside cobwebs and steer their way clear of animated ghosts and monsters on the front porch. However, many costumes and masks worn by trick-or-treaters are intended to elicit laughter rather than fear.  And as nighttime approaches, many trick-or-treaters will feel excitement about the nighttime festivities.

Harmony reflects the rules of player-to-player interaction.  These rules govern not only the behavior between trick-or-treaters and participating neighbors but also influence the social behavior between individual players. Trick-or-treaters may choose to collaborate with each other as they rove in groups around the neighborhood, or they may later compete over how much candy each player has received.  Often trick-or-treaters may then engage in trading for their favorite candy with each other or their parents.

Threat is the real or perceived danger of loss.  It is not necessarily restricted to loss of the game, but possibly loss of dignity or even loss of health or life.  Unlike Christmas, Halloween is full of symbols of danger and death: skeletons and graveyards, monsters and serial killers.  The dark environment in which the game is played limits the player’s information about what lies around the corner, who is behind the door, or more seriously, when a car is driving down the street, and so there is both a perceived and real physical threat to the game (public service announcement: wear light or reflective costumes and carry a flashlight with you when you trick-or-treat).

It’s been said that Halloween has increased in popularity so much that it falls second to only Christmas in terms of total consumer retail spending, and I think the rise in popularity of Halloween has to do in part with the holiday’s satisfaction for our need to experience threat.  After all, Christmas satisfies our desire for novelty, challenge (decorating, shopping, and wrapping!), stimulation, and harmony.  However, Christmas is ideally a time of good cheer, whereas Halloween focuses on the spooky.

We tend to play it very safe today, especially with regard to our kids — we are mindful about what they eat, we regulate their activities, we try to know where they are — and as we have grown very protective and more risk-adverse as a society, Halloween is our opportunity to play a game that at least feels risky, donning a costume and role-play as someone more daring, venturing out into the darkness and cavorting among evil spirits, which allows us to exorcise the evil spirits within us, through play.

 

 

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Falling In Love With Game Development Again At IndieCade 2017

Last weekend IndieCade – or more formally, the International Festival of Independent Games – celebrated its tenth anniversary at a new venue: the Japanese American National Museum, the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. IndieCade CEO Stephanie Barish and Co-chair for IndieCade West GameU Chris DeLeon were kind enough to invite my Los Angeles Film School Game Production students to join other game student groups for free admission to the event on Friday.

After distributing the admission wristbands to my students and allowing them to enjoy the festival independently, I was drawn to a session called “Fall In Love With Game Development Again,” presented by Brett Taylor, founder (and lone game developer) of My Dog Zorro.  The focus of his talk was to give attendees a toolbox of enjoyable, low-commitment strategies to try out at home to increase their happiness and productivity; and empower them to define their happiness goals with intention and take more control of their lives.

Here are some of the actionable strategies and practices Brett shared with us:

  • Have a weekly kick-off of what you plan to accomplish, and a week-end reflection on what you actually did accomplish, to keep yourself aligned.
  • Write down something for which you are grateful, every hour. It doesn’t have to be anything profound; it can be as simple as, “I’m grateful for the two sandwiches I packed for lunch.
  • Filter your vocabulary to eliminate negative thoughts like, “I should have…”, “It was hard,” “I am poor”.
  • Take a mandatory 30 second dance three times during the day to rejuvenate your body and spirit.
  • If you find yourself getting too stressed about your work, go home and relax.
  • Schedule loving reminder alerts to yourself on your phone or computer: “Do it anyway,” “Finish that task”, “Tell someone you love them,” and most importantly, “Write more loving reminders to yourself.”

Finding easy-to-implement techniques for maintaining a positive attitude can be very important in the stressful and often lonely life of a indie game developer, but what makes me fall in love with game development again is looking at the innovative games that these developers are making. IndieCade is an opportunity to see more than two hundred of the latest innovative indie games of all types and from around the world.

Having developed games for close to four decades, I’ve seen the same ideas recycled over and over again, so the more unusual a game is, the more I like it.  Here are some of my favorites.

Feast

Maybe it was because I was famished, but the first game I gravitated toward was Feast, a storytelling/role-playing game for five players about power and memory, that’s played during a communal meal and uses eating and tasting as game mechanics. Players take on the role of entities (ghosts, aliens, parasitic fungi, whatever they wish) possessing and eating the personalities of ordinary people. Prior to the game, players each prepare one food item with one dominant taste (sweet, umami, salty, sour or bitter), to be shared among the others. Each round, players eat a morsel of food and describe a memory or thought that they consume from their host. The specific memory they eat is determined both by the dominant taste of the food they eat, and the round in the game. When all the food has been eaten, the players have subsumed their hosts’ personalities and the game is over.

You can find out more about this game, developed by Sharang Biswas and Sweta Mohapatra at Feast.

Keyboard Sports

In this puzzle game developed by Triband, you play as the young apprentice to Master QWERTY who takes you on a wild adventure across oceans, through temples and into dreams in the search for your inner key using the entire keyboard as your controller.  Now, a keyboard may not be the coolest interface there is, but as someone who learned touch typing in high school, I appreciated a game that had me racing around the keyboard, often using the keys in very punny ways.

You can learn more about this game at Keyboard Sports.

Santiago

This multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) installation developed by Team Santiago that explores the idea of escapism through psychedelic visuals and music. The experience revolves around a physical sculpture of Santiago, an ancient fish god, that transforms into a living, breathing musical instrument that can be played through touch. The music created by the player affects objects and visualizations in the virtual environment, giving each player the agency to shape his or her experience. The piece is built for the HTC Vive and uses Leap Motion technology, allowing users to move freely around the sculpture and physically interact with Santiago.

You can learn more about this game at Santiago VR Experience.

Vignettes

As someone who usually develops story-based games, I really appreciated Vignettes as being the opposite of what I normally play.  Developed by Skeleton Business, Vignettes is a casual and whimsical exploration game without text or characters, where objects shapeshift as you spin them around in a kaleidoscope of different moods and orientations.  Your only hints about what to do are in the form of icons that suggest how to manipulate the object.  Vignettes is a game of surprise and discovery, in which players wander through a silent but colorful narrative.

You can learn more about this game at Vignettes.

Emotional Fugitive Detector

This is a two-player cooperative game which uses the human face as both its primary controller and screen. One player is instructed to give an expression of emotion — anger, happiness, sadness — and the second player must guess what that emotion is being conveyed.  But here’s the trick: the firs player’s face is also scanned for emotions by the installation robot’s face tracking technology, and if the robot detects emotion, the two player’s lose. Players must find a difficult middle ground in this emotional Turing test: expressive enough for a human, too subtle for a computer.

I asked the developers– Sam Von Ehren, Alexander King, and Noca Wu — how they came up with this idea behind Emotional Fugitive Detector.  They told me that initially they tried to come up with a facial expression input interface for a fighting game, but when they couldn’t get it to work properly, they turned decided to lemons into lemonade by changing directions and developing a game that took advantage of the technical problem. They also said that while showing the game at IndieCade, they received feedback that this game might be good for helping autistic children to learn to interpret emotion.

Turning a flaw into a feature and possibly benefiting society at the same time — now that’s a story to make me fall in love with game development again!