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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.



How Game Mascots Can Add Character To Your Brand

One of my former Game Production students, Jerry McClellen, stopped by my classroom at The Los Angeles Film School to show me the latest version of an platform he is developing, Rocket Brown. Wait, did I write “a platform game”? Rocket Brown is actually the star of a video game series. Jerry has been developing it as homage to retro gaming and anime through the lens of urban culture. Rocket Brown follows the adventure of an 80’s nerd that becomes a street fighter who defends his community from various existential threats.

What impresses me about Jerry’s work is that, unlike most of my students who focus on a genre and the typical mechanics associated with that genre, Jerry is focus on his brand and the mascot representing his brand. Such an approach worked famously for Nintendo when game designer Shigeru Miyamoto developed a video game series around his Jumpman character from Donkey Kong, and the portly Italian plumber, who was renamed Mario, eventually became Nintendo’s mascot and a pop culture icon.

When discussing the use of characters in games to my students, I explain that they are not just agents through which the player’s actions are represented in the game, they are potentially object of the player’ empathy in the game. A properly designed character provides players the potential to develop an emotional attachment to that character, to identify with their goals, and consequently, with the game’s objectives.

So, how do you properly design a character? To start, you need to understand the four ways a character is defined:

  • How they appear. A character’s body type, posture, hairstyle, clothing, and possessions can reveal a lot about the character’s background, personality, physical abilities, and goals.
  • What they do. While players usually control a character’s actions, sometimes game designers have characters perform actions on their own while in a wait state. For example, Sonic the Hedgehog taps his foot to indicate his impatience.
  • What they say. Game dialog can not only be used to convey story exposition but also to reveal the character’s personality.
  • What other characters say about them. Of course, people are not always honest about themselves, and what other characters have to say about the main character often is more impactful in defining who that main character is.

A rounded character with well-defined traits and a realistic personality or undergoes a significant change of personality during the game story. If these traits and personality are appealing enough to players, this may be a character that you can use in multiple games, and if you use the character often enough, it can become so associated with your company that it is considered to be your company’s mascot.

Of course, you can start your company with such a mascot already in place, along with the plan to have that character be the protagonist of all of your games, as my student Jerry has done. Something you do need to consider is how that mascot brands your company.

Branding is the unique identity, personality, and characteristics identifying loyal customers. It is the “who”, “what”, and most importantly “why” of you and your games. For Jerry, his brand is retro-gaming, anime, and urban environments, and if you are nostalgic about old school video games, are a fan of anime, and identify with urban culture, you have a very good reason for looking at his games.

Building a good brand requires repetitive exposure and coordinate usage across multiple channels (both product channels and marketing channels), as well as time and patience. So, he features Rocket Brown not just in his games, but also on his logos, company website and social media channels. Only time will tell whether his patience will pay off with success, but I have my fingers crossed that it will.