I’m working on a new zombie survival themed game, inspired by roguelikes and my work on Liberal Crime Squad. It’s a flash game playable in the browser, and I’m doing weekly updates. I’ve been remiss about sharing these weekly updates on my own blog, so I’ll go ahead post the last three weeks’ updates. Each Friday, I’ll post another update.

January 20th, 2012 – This week I fixed a couple of bugs, then got started on the next core gameplay element — melee attacks and zombies hitting you. This went pretty quickly because I’d already implemented it in the earlier build, seen in the latest preview video, so it finished up fairly early, including a completely new weapon (the knife). Once player death was in the game, I added a reset button and tweaked some numbers to play with balance and feel for the game, such as making zombies handle difficult terrain much more slowly than humans, making zombies sturdier, and slowing down your move speed.

I then enabled door opening, and added door closing by holding shift when bumping into the door. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to handle it; maybe clicking the door, or having shift be a global interaction-on-bump key, complete with icons over things you can interact with while holding it (push/pull icon over a piece of furniture, open/close icons over doors, etc). I have to think about that some more. I moved on to flashing the player and zombies when they take damage, which I think is a small thing that really helps the feel of the game. The videos showed zombies flickering briefly when hit, but I prefer this. I then added a minimap in the bottom of the screen, which shows a scrolling view of the local area of the city you’re in, and remembers what tiles you have explored, so you can start filling out your map of the area. The underlying map used by the minimap can later be used in a larger map too.

After serious consideration, I think that point-and-shoot isn’t very compatible with the way I’m physically presenting the world, and the very tile-based gameplay I’m going for, so I started to think about other ways to target enemies of your choice. The last thing I did for the game was put the ability to click a zombie and force all attacks to go for that target. The lock-on is only lost if the zombie dies or drops out of range or view; you can shoot past other zombies to target one in the back.

January 13th, 2012 – I started the week by working to optimize the lighting and field of view calculations, substituting a faster but more restrictive algorithm. Performance gains seem to be good, but I’m still testing on a relatively fast machine, and will need to hear how the game is running on other computers as well. I added zombies, zombie movement and hunting, window breaking, and shooting. I needed a break from just re-implementing old features, so I also added a crosshair that shows on the currently targeted zombie if the attack button is being held.

The previous overlay for bullet trails actually used a map-sized bitmap in memory that was written to and erased from on a frame-by-frame basis, which was forgivably clunky on a small map, but proved completely unfeasible on the huge map I’m currently using. The new tracer fire looks almost the same, but should run much faster — the only major difference is that the layering has the gunshots drawing on top of the player and the zombies, rather than the characters drawing over the gunshots. I liked the other way more, but I’ll need to change how the characters are drawn to support moving them off the map layer.

Of the things in the preview video that aren’t yet re-implemented, the major remaining features are melee attacks, blood, door opening, and items. Weapons are only half-made — they can shoot, and track ammo, but aren’t in the world and don’t interact with the HUD properly.

January 6th, 2012 – I’m in the middle of extending the new engine to support the large open world of the previous engine and integrate the city-generator for the first time. The game is partially disassembled and I’m going through it slowly putting features back in — I’ve done this twice now, because my inexperience with engine architecture keeps catching up with me. Many things, such as enemy AI, combat, and opening doors, are currently inoperable, but can be re-added fairly easily. The city generator is now integrated for the first time, and one sample building is being loaded in. I’m not satisfied with the way the buildings are interacting with the street layout, and have been thinking of different ways to arrange buildings around streets.

Friday Alpha Build – January 20th, 2012
– Click the screen to give it keyboard focus. Click enemies to mark them as a preferred target.
– Use WASD, number pad, or arrow keys to move.
– F to toggle flashlight. No flashlight makes you super stealthy.
– Hold shift when moving into an open doorway to close the door instead.
– Hold space to attack, or bump into enemies to melee them. 1-3 to switch your primary weapon.
– Press escape to reset the game if you die.

Aw, come on guys, don’t burn down the Chantry. What would Andraste think? Combat in Dragon Age II has most of the same tools as in Dragon Age: Origins, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are equally sophisticated.

In an earlier post, I discussed Dragon Age II’s Dialog System, and looked at what it was designed to do and how some frustrated fans interpreted it. Another common complaint about Dragon Age II is that its combat is less tactical than its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, reducing the sequel to just hack and slash, rather than the thoughtful combat tactics of its predecessor. I agree, but only partly; Dragon Age II remains a tactical action RPG, but several design decisions in Dragon Age II have noticeably degraded the depth of combat. Let’s dive right in.

Multiple Waves in Every Battle: Possibly the Single Worst Design Decision in Dragon Age II

In Dragon Age II, in almost every battle, enemies attack in waves. In some battles, having enemies attack in waves makes sense. For example, the game’s introduction involves darkspawn attacking from all sides, and they keep coming as you kill them. That’s great, and in small doses, this frantic disruption in your combat awareness is exciting. But when you’re fighting a street gang at night, having a dozen archers spawn all around the battlefield just as you think the battle is ending is absurd, and the novelty and surprise is wasted when nearly every encounter in the game does this. Having multiple waves to most battles has two severely detrimental effects on combat tactics.

First, it destroys your positioning. You might have your archer and mage standing on a hill, raining destruction on the melee below, only to have four enemies spawn on top them. Enemies often appear from multiple directions simultaneously, including sides that have no logical explanation for how the enemies got there — just because a part of the battlefield looks like it’s a safe high ground or corner against a wall doesn’t mean that your squishy characters won’t suddenly have an enemy assassin on top of them.

Second, it destroys your ability pacing and healing. Most abilities are on cooldown, and with enemies coming in waves, you can’t effectively assess when to use powerful abilities, since the full list of enemies isn’t disclosed at the start of the battle. You can’t judge whether you need to use a healing item or can just finish the enemy off, since it’s never certain if the encounter is going to end after all the visible enemies are killed, or if a bunch of ranged enemies are about to appear and rain death on your weakened tank if you don’t notice quickly enough.

Having waves of enemies is interesting for a few encounters, but having it as the staple is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense and it just cripples your ability to judge a situation and reason about it. Tactical games that make an ever-present threat of enemy reinforcements an interesting challenge invariably give you information about where the reinforcements are likely to appear, so you can take that into account; here you just have to cross your fingers and hope the enemy doesn’t spawn two feet in front of your mages.

Five More Ways Dragon Age II Simplifies Combat

1. Reduced positional incentives for rogues. In Dragon Age: Origins, rogues gained automatic critical hits for attacking enemies from behind, with a different combat animation showing their improved attacking ability. Dragon Age II removes this special backstab bonus in favor of a general increased chance of critical hit to all classes, and unlockable abilities to give rogues automatic critical hits later on. This is nice in the sense that it gives everyone an incentive to get behind the enemy, regardless of class, and rogues still benefit most from it, since they have the highest critical hit bonuses on average. However, on the whole, rogues still benefit less from standing behind enemies than they did before, and the ratio of damage gained by moving to attacks missed while moving is so bad now that it’s rarely worthwhile to walk around an enemy instead of slicing it up from the front. Most enemies just die too fast to make strafing around them for a critical hit chance bonus worthwhile. Later on, rogues can pick up an ability to give them automatic critical hits regardless of where they stand, as long as the enemy is engaging another character.

2. No friendly fire except on the highest difficulty. In Dragon Age: Origins, standard difficulty had area of effect attacks doing half damage to your party, full to the enemy. The lowest difficulty removed friendly fire; the higher difficulties brought friendly fire to full damage. Friendly fire prevents you from spamming your best area effect spells on packs of enemies crowded around the tank, unless you’re willing to maul your tank in the process. By removing it for all but the hardest difficulties, many encounters are solved with a skeleton key tactical formula: 1) Your rogue rushes the enemy mages. 2) Your tank gathers the melee enemies. 3) Your mage spams area effect spells on the tank. 4) Everyone cleans up the archers.

3. No traps. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could lay traps in strategic positions before initiating combat. Combining this with rogues scouting ahead was often a significant tactical advantage. Traps were never a huge part of the game, and I don’t completely disagree with the decision to remove them, but it definitely contributes to an inability to control the flow of battle.

4. No ability to detect enemies that use stealth. In Dragon Age: Origins, characters in stealth had a chance to be detected. Now you just have to sit around after the enemy assassin vanishes and hope they try to backstab your tank instead of your mage. The only tactical consideration stealth has for you is that you should stun enemy assassins so they don’t vanish while you’re trying to focus them down. Enemies with stealth would be far more interesting if you could throw down detection fields or otherwise burn abilities trying to compensate for the fact that the enemies have stealth.

5. Low camera angle. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could pull the camera back to get a bird’s eye view of the action. In Dragon Age II, this ability has been greatly reduced, to the point where it’s difficult to quickly assess the battlefield from a high angle unless everyone is clumped up. This even makes it hard to give characters instructions to run to a raised platform unless they’re standing near it. It’s not clear to me why they chose to do this; it seems more likely that it’s a technical issue with level design or graphics, rather than a gameplay decision.

But It’s Still Pretty Fun

There are nuts and bolts reasons for combat’s tactical simplicity, but they don’t make Dragon Age II a simple hack and slash. The meat of the game’s tactical combat is still there, it’s just… hampered. If you want to play a tougher tactical game than the normal difficulty provides, you can also crank the difficulty up. I don’t do this because I find the waves of enemies completely destroy my ability to play on high difficulty levels, since I can’t plan ahead. Some people make it work.

The faster pace of Dragon Age II’s combat also doesn’t hamper the tactical complexity of combat. It has faster attack animations and rapid closing attacks that have characters literally leaping several meters across the battlefield to almost instantly close distance and slam into enemies, dealing bonus damage before they open up into rapid combos. Warriors swing their large weapons and hit multiple enemies with every blow, rogues hit several times per second, and mages get a workout as they literally dance in place, blasting their autoattack spells at the enemy with flair. It certainly has a breakneck pace that seems out of place in a tactical RPG, and most of the complaints I’ve seen cite this as the biggest flaw of combat, the one thing that ruins the game’s tactical complexity. I think that’s nonsense.

Faster combat and more exciting animations doesn’t strip out the tactics, it just streamlines the action. There’s still plenty of time to react to changing situations, and your combat performance will improve dramatically if you make use of frequent pausing to direct and coordinate your party members and their abilities. Abilities still have specific areas of effect, with lots of positional modifiers and aggression management abilities, and many higher-level abilities can make use of coordinated cross-class ability combinations to deal massive damage. All the ingredients of a tactical game are still there, and they balance the difficulty such that playing without making use of good combat tactics will make it harder, and impossible on higher difficulties. The speed of combat is exciting and interesting, and I prefer it to the measured pace of its predecessor.

Finally, even if you do agree with those dramatic fans who argue the game’s combat is just ruined, try completely altering your expectations by turning the difficulty down to casual and rocking your way through the game as a hack and slash. Maybe even drop down to two or three people in your party to balance it out a bit. You might find the game is fun when you change the pace of combat, even if it’s not the same game you were expecting. Most players shouldn’t have to do this, but if the things I outlined above drive you completely crazy, give it a shot.

Final Fantasy IV
One game, many playstyles. I want to give players the power to express themselves in pursuit of their goals, to do what they want, when they want, and to empower them to create beautiful and original experiences in the process.

I’m a nut for beauty in myriad forms. My entire life is devoted to creating it, whether it’s beautiful music, beautiful emotions, beautiful pictures, even a beautiful life. It’s not just visuals, but the aesthetics of absolutely everything.

Most games are showcases of the efforts of people making beautiful things. Designers teach each other about how to make rewarding feedback loops and plan difficulty curves, level layouts, cutscenes. They make games that give you tasks and challenge you to learn skills that will let you accomplish them, or provide puzzles and challenge you to tease out a solution. These games create beautiful experiences, and give you chance to immerse yourself in them. They take your ticket, hold your hand, and take you on a guided tour of the museum of amazing gameplay.

It would be easy for me to get carried away by the current, and design games like that. I tell myself (tut tut, I say) that not everyone loves making things as much as I do, and games that lead people along by the nose are the most mass-market games, the way games have to be. Secretly, when I find the need to tell myself these things, I know it’s because I’m suppressing my passion with false pragmatism. Then someone makes The Sims, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, Little Big Planet. BAM. It’s not about difficulty curves anymore. It’s not about cutscenes. It’s not about story, or building a flow channel. It’s about you, the player, doing whatever you want to do, when you want to do it. The world salivates over freedom, and I keep living as a dreamer in denial.

Everyone loves making, customizing, living on their own terms. We play with legos, dolls, action figures. We draw cartoons, write rap lyrics, photograph architecture. We raise children, record videos, tell jokes, plant gardens, dance, sing, pick out clothing, cook food, cheer others up, laugh at jokes, fall in love, build sand castles, play Will Wright games, and in endless other ways, love to make wonderful things, wonderful moments, wonderful relationships, wonderful life. Even when we watch television, we’re appreciating the output of thousands of other creative people, and then we get up and do something amazing of our own.

I’ve devoted my life to creating beauty, and I don’t want to stop with what I can create with my own pen. I don’t just want to make levels, I want to make algorithms that can generate thousands of beautiful levels in the space of a single breath. I don’t just want to create games, I want to create games that empower you to do beautiful things and create beautiful experiences for yourself. I want to empower you to do things I never imagined and have a wonderful time doing it. I don’t want to show off what I did. I want to let you play.

Dragon Age 2
There are a severe shortage of good dialog system screenshots on the web that aren’t photoshopped mockeries by angry fans.

BioWare has been trying to add interesting player choices into their RPGs for a long time, and each game they release has a new refinement on their systems. They’ve increasingly streamlined alignment in the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age games have abandoned it entirely in favor of your companions developing personal opinions about your hero. Dragon Age II breaks from its predecessor by implementing a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel and full voice acting for the main character. This doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics of how its dialog work — but even so, it has angered a lot of players.

Dragon Age II’s New Dialog System

Dragon Age II stars a main character named Hawke, fully voice acted, and it keeps track of your dialog choices on Hawke’s behalf in two ways. The most visible way is that your companions gain friendship or rivalry points depending on how they approve. Different party members react differently to the same situation, so you may have difficulty pleasing both the magic-hating Fenris and the radical mage Anders at the same time. Maximizing either scale gains you bonuses to that party member’s abilities, and developing rivalry with them won’t, in and of itself, make them leave. There are gameplay and plot ramifications of your party members’ feelings.

The second way Dragon Age II tracks your dialog choices is by an invisible metric that assesses your main character’s personality over time. There are three personality types: Diplomatic, Aggressive, and Humorous. The personality type currently considered dominant in the game colors various involuntary dialog reactions the main character makes, and determines the kinds of comments your character makes in combat. A humorous character may initiate a sensitive conversation in a cut-scene with a joke to lighten the mood, while a diplomatic character will avoid implying any hostile assumptions, and an aggressive character gets right to the point. The combat voice overs work similarly, with different clips available based on the personality the player established for Hawke. The second effect this personality type has is that it unlocks different responses in some conversations. Sometimes a diplomatic solution to a particularly difficult situation isn’t available to habitually aggressive characters. This is rare, barely communicated, and the fact that all personality types get these bonuses at different times helps to avoid any incentive to power-game.

Dialog options in Dragon Age II are provided using a dialog wheel, adapted from Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you select a thought, and the character says something along those lines, but never exactly what you chose. Unlike Mass Effect, the dialog options aren’t just implicitly ordered based on their position in the wheel, they’re also given an associated icon. The icons communicate to the player what the tone of the chosen thought is. For example, a laurel represents a diplomatic response, and a gemstone represents a charming reply. These icons are color-coded according to what personality type they align with. A few icons are special, like crossed swords to represent cutting the conversation off to kill the person you’re talking to or initiate combat, and diverging arrows to represent a substantive choice with more serious ramifications than just picking how the character delivers the line. Overall, the system is pretty intuitive.

…And Those That Hate It

Early reviews tend to like the direction BioWare has taken the dialog, but some players deplore it. I’ve seen many frustrated players complain that the dialog in the game is dumbed down, simplified, bad. Most concerning to me from a design perspective is that a huge proportion of players see the dialog options as “good/evil/funny”. They get that the middle option is meant to be humorous, but they don’t get that the top and bottom aren’t good and evil. Part of this stems from the fact that we like nice people more than aggressive people, and good people are traditionally shown as nice and trying to find a peaceful solution to everything. However, the “evil” choices aren’t evil, they’re mostly just angry, which is a time-honored response to slavery and blood magic. Then, in Dragon Age 2, when you get to substantive moral choices, they pull out the diplomatic/aggressive/humorous choices entirely and assign everything the same diverging arrows icon. Your choices about what to do, who to side with, who to kill and who to let live, these have no impact on your personality and don’t use the personality icons.

Despite all this, some players think that their dialog choices are boiled down to essentially choosing a character class, picking from a trinary good/evil/doofus choice, and executing on that strategy through the whole game. This is how games with bad alignment systems do it, like Knights of the Old Republic and InFAMOUS, but BioWare has been trying to avoid that since they made Mass Effect, and Dragon Age abandoned it entirely by lacking an alignment system. BioWare has gotten extremely sophisticated in trying to build compelling choices into their games, and Dragon Age II is loaded with situations where the humorous and aggressive choices are situationally better responses than the diplomatic option.

When alignment systems were relatively uncommon in electronic RPGs, they were great, because they showed the game was responsive to your choices. As player tastes matured, alignment systems became too simple, too obvious, for discerning role-players. With Dragon Age, BioWare abandoned alignment entirely, trying to give meaningful outcomes of your actions without relying on a global judgment. Dragon Age II continues that tradition, while trying to merge the best of Mass Effect’s dialog into it. Personally, I love it. But for some players, these almost cosmetic changes are enough to bring the delicate role-playing immersion tumbling down. It’s amazing to see how easy it is to make the game look like the dialog has been simplified, and crush any sense of freedom.

There’s a way to fix this, and make everyone happy without moving backward. As Dragon Age II shows, we haven’t found it yet. Of course, once the problem is solved, then they’ll complain about something else instead of dialog choices. But that’s a good thing — game designers would get bored if we were always solving the same problems!


The guy on the right has a daughter too, Sam. Did you ever think about that?

For me, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about being Sam Fisher, Modern American Ninja, and fighting the battle for his soul as he walked the line between hero and monster. The game kept careful records of how you dealt with guards; you could sneak by, incapacitate them, or kill them, but violence reduced your score. Most enemies could be interrogated for more information by grabbing them from behind and making vague threats. You had separate buttons for lethal and non-lethal melee attacks, extremely limited ammo (you could have up to three clips for your assault rifle on each mission), and a wide variety of less-lethal projectiles to experiment with.

I felt like a real hero. I could work hard to avoid killing people as I achieved my objectives, and the game not only enabled that, it supported it. You’re the kind of person who prevents wars, stops trouble, and does so with the lightest touch possible. You could be an unstoppable assassin, but you aren’t. You’re better than that. You know you’re a hero because you go out of your way to do no evil. I would kill in self-defense, and then feel regret afterwards, wondering if Sam’s surrender would have been more ethical than killing innocent soldiers and grunts. I was given the luxury of thinking like that, whether I was up against naive South American revolutionaries, conscripted North Korean soldiers, or US veterans turned civilian contractors.

It hasn’t stayed that way. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, some people have talked about the inability to move bodies as indicative of the series’ turn toward action over stealth; personally, I’m more disturbed by the inability to complete the game without a huge body count. You can sneak through some areas, but others are unabashed action sequences in which you must systematically kill everyone in the room. Or a whole series of rooms. Or basically kill everyone in a multistory office building. They don’t count your kills and deduct them from your score anymore; quite on the contrary, they give you special tools so you can kill more people faster.

In Splinter Cell: Conviction, I wade through the corpses of my fallen enemies, and interrogate people by smashing their faces into concrete. I don’t feel like a good person. I’m not Batman, Dark Knight, doing what has to be done to protect the people from evil. I’m John Rambo, the empty male power fantasy. It’s kind of sad; like Rambo before him, Sam Fisher has been transformed over time into an empty, unstoppable killing machine.

The battle over Sam’s soul used to be mine to fight. But this time, the writers decided the outcome for me. He lost. He slid down the slippery slope and became a butcher.

So much for conviction.

Childhood Passion

Final Fantasy Tactics

As a kid, I used to read about games only because I wasn’t playing them. My love for games was desperate — my gut would ache, I would feel heat in my stomach, shortness of breath in my longing for other worlds, escapism, power, love, and wonder. When I encountered great gameplay, I basked in it. I loved games so much that it hurt my ability to function in the real world.

One time I took screenshots of Final Fantasy Tactics, at that time released only in Japan, and used the photoshop clone tool to edit out all the Japanese text, replacing it with my own. I visualized what the scenes were about, what the menu options were, how the characters moved across the screen. I wished I could manipulate the placement of characters as well, but the clone tool wouldn’t replace background art. I spent hours crafting and polishing something that nobody would see, just the product of my pining for something that didn’t even exist.

I never look forward to games that way anymore. There’s far greater happiness in my contentment, but there’s a spark I’ve missed. I’ve lost something. Now I read about games because I’m studying my craft. It’s a different kind of passion. It’s like saying I’m passionate about mathematics. I don’t stay up late at night, forgetting to breathe. When I encounter good gameplay, my brain doesn’t explode in joy. The gears turn and I analyze it.

Sometimes I want to experience that wide-eyed childhood passion, and stop thinking so hard about games. Sometimes I want to immerse myself in other worlds and other ways of thinking, to learn new things I’ve never learned before, and be continually amazed. Sometimes I want to lose sleep in anticipation of christmas and birthday presents, and be heartbroken by the difficulty of following social graces instead of rushing to a computer or console to play.

If you make games, and have loved them the way I have, channel some of that raw childhood passion into making the kind of games that would take your inner child’s breath away. It’s not enough to have smart design, precise balance, and clever execution — lose sleep with love of the thing you’re doing. Do the first thing that comes to mind, fly, and at least for a time, let yourself break free of second-guessing, sanity checks, and doubt.

A Game Designer’s Foundations: Pencil Drawing, C Programming, and the ancient Egyptian game of Senet.

Defining Classicism vs. Romanticism

There’s an idea about art and music throughout eras, that it moves back and forth between a classical style (defined here as formal, technically triumphant, ordered, and intelligent) and a romantic style (defined here as loose, powerfully creative, inspired, and emotional). Masters tend to have their styles fit the stylistic bent of their era, especially when they are formally trained in their field. Naturally, their style will be unique from other artists of the same era, and the best will be immortal, but there are very few artists that will truly break away from the tastes that define their time and meet any amount of critical success, contemporary or otherwise. The trends carved out by this pendulum swing between classicism and romanticism can take decades or even centuries before it reverses direction, and ultimately, its arc is just an observation to be argued out by art histories many years after the style of the era is set into history.

This observation does have practical use through the idea that art isn’t created in a vacuum; it responds to its time. Artists react to the work of other artists, then try break away from burdensome restrictions to explore their field, or to formalize their work into tremendous technical mastery. There are always artists on both sides, but it’s like the stock market; purely emergent from thousands of individual artists all pushing the field this way and that, reacting to their surroundings, the flow of cultural norms shifts, and everyone rides with it.

The reason I’m talking about this abstract theory is to apply it to games. Video game fans adore legendary designers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright as they explore new territory for games, then worship studios like Blizzard that eschew exploration in favor of refining and perfecting the existing art. This is logical; we get better games both ways, and Blizzard and Nintendo both deserve the loyalty of their fans.

One direction to explore this line of thought is to try to chart a miniature pendulum path through the industry’s short history; at first, games were necessarily romantic, as we tried to find what made games work. By the 80s arcade game crash, the nascent industry was already formalized into endless clones of one another. This was commercially inviable, but Nintendo pushed new concepts and new games, swinging back to romantic development. Once stronger technical and artistic foundations were formed, and we had a foundation of early first person shooters, turn based and real time strategy games, fighters, and other classic genres, the industry became much more focused on technical improvements and iterative refinements on the existing games. With the current wave of indie game development, the balance has swung to more romantic model.

How Do You Teach Game Design?

What strikes me as most interesting, though, is to reflect on the way my school handles its game design program. DigiPen is a technical school designed to train its students to be excellent game developers, artists, and designers from their first day on the job. It is widely respected as successful for art and programming. Its design program is unproven; it is still only three years old, and game design is a much less traditional field, one where DigiPen needed to decide what it meant to teach that subject.

Some would say that design should be a romantic discipline, devoted to creativity and exploring the bounds of games. But this is a little naive; we’re not all geniuses, and it can and should involve both. Art taken to the extremes of classical training is often more spectacular than any amount of romantic impulse could conjure, because it builds on the brilliance of previous artists to construct a extremely valuable basis of theory as to what good art is. The pendulum swings to classicism because the quality of art is increasing while the rigors of theory are being discovered, then swings away again when the classical theory is refined to the point where the benefits of theory are found, and the limits need to be loosened to further improve. You could say that an ideal practice would be to train designers in the best practices and rules that guide the industry now, then encourage creativity and rule-breaking once those rules are mastered.

On the balance, DigiPen errs on the side of classical education for designers, formalizing theories built from the experiences of faculty, and training designers to follow rigid structures to improve their work. Again, though it sounds uncreative, this is not a bad thing; it’s often true that the more restrictions an artist is under, the more spectacular the output. Given the youth of our industry, I’m very sympathetic to the decision. How do you teach people to break the rules more effectively if we haven’t yet determined what the classical rules of game design are yet? Without a mastery of the rules to break, the amateur artist is a rebel without a cause, and is just going to flail about unnoticed while the classical theorists produce great work.

DigiPen is striving to develop and refine a curriculum that trains state-of-the-art professionals with a classical education in modern video game design. That’s a tall order, and from my time there, I’ve seen classes be restructured more than once in an effort to accomplish this more successfully. It’s been an iterative process that is very similar to one of the classical views of how good games are made — we start from a theory or design, implement and test this design, then go back and revise it, repeating to the point of brilliance. Just as game development is literal research and development, the school is engaged in research and development on what it means to teach game design.

If this post seems overly praising of the direction of DigiPen’s program, it’s because I agree with them, and would put my money on the same approach. Whether it bears out or not — that is to be determined.