Archive for October, 2010

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.

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A trap I’m tempted to fall into when I design games for something other than my own enjoyment is to start designing levels for the game. It’s not that I’m bad at designing levels, or that levels are inherently bad, but it’s just too easy to let your games degenerate into static, linear puzzles. I mean this very broadly. It may be a blast to play through Half-Life 2, but eventually every fight has been puzzled through, consumed, solved, and exhausted. After I finish a game like that, I rarely come back.

I want to make games that will stay on people’s hard drives long past its expiration date, and still make sales to nostalgic gamers after they’re discounted to a dollar on Steam a decade later. These types of games inspire me as a designer, and drive me to analyze them and ask what makes them tick. Most seem to have at least three things in common — I’ll discuss them, then give examples of how Civilization V, Starcraft 2, and Team Fortress 2 meet them. These three examples are chosen because they are all games with the potential to consume hundreds of hours of play time.

The challenges change continually, both within the game and between sessions.

Multiplayer, procedural content, and artificial intelligence are all ways of continuously transforming the challenges so that no two games are exactly the same. There is some element of chaos and unpredictability in the system. This isn’t just the flavor of the challenges either, or the color of the textures — it’s a recombination of the fundamental elements of the game in ways that totally change the game. Most games are about solving some kind of problem. In these games, the problems are infinite.

In Civilization V, the randomly generated terrain and layout for the world, alongside the AI opponents, means that every game tells a different story. In Starcraft 2, each online opponent will play a different strategy against you, and the real time nature of the game means even the same two strategies will play out differently every time. In Team Fortress 2, every recombination of players, classes, positioning, and timing makes each game unique.

The player is rewarded for applying new, creative solutions to the challenges.

The games that grab me are the ones that let me use my head. That doesn’t mean figure out how to solve a see-saw physics puzzle the designer put in (another loving Half-Life 2 reference), that means there were many ways to solve the problem, and you are free to find the best one you can. The rewards for a better solution may be efficiency, aesthetics, preparation for future challenges, or radically changing the direction of the story.

In Civilization V, I can try out different build orders, diplomacy strategies, and military tactics, finding degrees of success along different axes. In Starcraft 2, every situation has multiple viable solutions with different outcomes, and even at the highest level of play, players have distinct and recognizable playing styles, and often work to discover new tactics. In Team Fortress 2, every skirmish and shootout is a puzzle to outwit and outplay your opponents, and winning faster or taking less damage requires quick, creative play.

The game is almost impossible to completely master.

As soon as a player has developed a mental algorithm for successfully solving every problem the game can throw at them, the game tends to be less interesting. This may not be true for all players and all games, but the ability of a game to never lose its challenge will help it to be spared the shelf for a longer period of time. Golden paths, unstoppable strategies, and permanent “god mode” abilities kill games.

In Civilization V, even if a game-breaking strategy exists with one civilization on one map type, it may be totally non-viable when playing with a slightly different setup. In Starcraft 2, there’s no way to anticipate every possible response and counter to any strategy, and even complete mastery of the mechanics leaves a rich depth of gameplay in strategy and thinking on your feet. In Team Fortress 2, the dynamism of multiplayer is bolstered by new maps and metagame-changing patches on a regular basis, continually altering and adding challenges whenever older ones seem mastered.

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