Category Archives: Game Design

Learning Foundational Game Design Skills: Research, Sketching, Process

How Things Work

I just accepted a teaching position at the ArtCenter College of Design, a very well regarded college in Pasadena, California offering undergraduate and graduate programs in a wide variety of art and design fields. Many of the game artists I’ve hired are ArtCenter graduates, and the school has just launched a Game Design track within its Entertainment Design program, which is why they asked me to join their faculty. I won’t be teaching my first class, Game Design Fundamentals, until next month, but I am well into the onboarding process of filling out paperwork and learning about the school and its curriculum.

Everyone is very welcoming, and one of the other instructors invited me to attend his class on the final day of the semester last week to watch his student’s final presentation. The name of the class is “How Things Work”, where each student is required to select a product, take it apart and analyze its constituents, record this information, and then reassemble the product. They examine a wide range of products to gain a useful understanding of things from motors to materials. The goal of the class is to provide students with an intuitive understanding of how products function in various ways, in order that design solutions be intelligent.

For their final presentation, students were allowed to invent their own object to analyze — a weapon, a vehicle, an article of clothing or even an alchemic potion. Their presentation was broken into the following parts:

  • Story: The (fictional) circumstances that prompted this object to be invented.
  • Requirements: What problems the invention must solve.
  • Limitations: Restrictions to which the invention must adhere.
  • Research: An examination of the (real-life) science and technology on which the invention depends.
  • Initial Design: A first pass at describing with rough sketches and bullet points an invention that fulfills the requirements and adheres to the limitations.
  • Final Design: A more polished illustration and description of the invention, informed by what the student learned in doing the initial design.

At first I thought this class seemed more appropriate for industrial design than game design, but as I watched the presentations for ray guns, space ships, and magic spells, I appreciated how the students were developing the introductory skills required to become a professional game designer: research, sketching, and process. This, I realized, was a much more effective start to a game design curriculum than, say, learning about the history of games. Knowledge is a great thing, but its even better when built on a foundation of skills.

I look forward to putting those skills to the test when the students take my Game Design Fundamentals class next month.

 

 

Nobody Knows Anything: Why Skipping Playtesting Is Inconceivable

Last week plagued us with at least three deaths of figures in the entertainment industry.  The death of beloved Marvel Comics editor and Marvel film cameo star Stan Lee made front page news around the world. A less publicized death was that of actor Douglas Rain, who provided the voice of the murderous computer HAL 9000 in my favorite film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But another death that was significant to me and many others was that of screenwriter, novelist, and playwright William Goldman.  If you are not familiar with his name, you certainly are with his work: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, to name but a few.

In addition to his works of fiction, he is also famous in the film industry for his memoir about his career in Hollywood, Adventures In The Screen Trade, and particularly for this quote:

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

That observation is as true in the game industry as it is in Hollywood.  I’ve experienced first-hand from both sides of the fence how game publishers will push developers in certain directions or to make other concessions in the belief that the publisher knows what will sell to the game-buying public.  In many cases, I’m sure it is a sincere belief, but in others, I’m certain its merely the publisher representative trying to demonstrate and justify their value to the project.  But sincere or not, what is going to work in a game is just an educated guess at best.

However, I’m not going to point my finger only at the publisher. Remember, nobody knows anything.  That includes game developers.  Even a developer with years of success may discover that when his or her game is first played by gamers, that what the developer was sure was easy is actually difficult, what was understandable was confusing, or what was fun was boring.  As developers are working on a game, it is essential that they get it out in front of potential players to verify their assumptions about the game.  To not do so is, as The Princess Brides’ Vizinni would say, inconceivable!

Not game developer gets it right the first time they show their game to players.  It may take dozens, hundreds, even thousands of adjustments to games before they deliver the right play experience.  This is the called iterative process of game design, a design methodology based on a cyclic process of designing your game, making a prototype, testing the prototype with users, and then learning what changes need to be made to the design.  The cycle continues until the game is good enough to launch (or you run out of time and money for more iterations).

Usually developers will find it to be a very humbling experience, because everything they thought they knew about how people would react to their game will prove to be wrong.  But they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves.  After all, nobody knows anything.