Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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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Team Fortress 2
Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Team Fortress 2. “Talent” itself is no different.

Can Valve make bad games? In an interview with Game Informer a couple of years back, Robin Walker said of Team Fortress 2’s extremely long development cycle:

We were building things that were known as TF2 internally. We ended up building probably three to four different games. We didn’t like many of them. The real changes, for example, we were doing the commander mode stuff that we did in the first version, and it just wasn’t fun. It was one of those great things where in theory it sounds fantastic but when it comes down to individual experiences of players like–the guy being told what to do by the commander, or the commander himself, we just never found something we felt was that fun.

That’s pretty pat. Yes, they can. They just don’t release their bad games.

In her post on Cred vs. Influence, Brenda Brathwaite wrote this about the credibility of brilliant people who make mistakes and become dismissed for them:

I want to see our masters explore new mediums. I want to encourage their creativity and support their efforts even when they don’t succeed – especially when they don’t succeed. I want to acknowledge that there is something in their brain that doesn’t work like the something in my brain or your brain, and give that brain the creativity, the room, the respect, the love and the support it needs to make genius, make mediocre and make garbage. We must encourage the free exploration of ideas, of patterns, of play, and not beat our masters into the ground with their own legends. Otherwise, they stop. They just stop and go away, and we don’t learn from them anymore. We blunt them, and that is a tragedy.

I agree. Her post is about smothering criticism and lack of faith directed at successful people who produce inconsistent and experimental work. My post is about smothering fear and lack of courage coming from amateurs and hopefuls who produce poor and formative work. The lesson is the same, but even more so. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to produce garbage. When you’re charting new territory and exploring new ways of working, it’s inevitable. When you’re learning a skill for the first time, it’s universal.

It is much easier to criticize than praise, to the point that constructive criticism is a difficult and trained skill. And though pursuit of praise is shown to be the more driving motivation in humans, the avoidance of this abundant criticism is itself very powerful; we want to make the grade, live up to expectations, and save face. As a result, many people fear trying their hand at an art that interests them because they are afraid of failure. Others will pursue the art, but are afraid to show it to anyone, so that they can avoid criticism. This fear of failure is one of the greatest mistakes a creative person can make.

When I took a writer’s workshop class in high school, the teacher had an agenda for our writing quality: we were to write the worst garbage ever written, every day, at the start of class, for five minutes straight. This would go in our journals. We turned these in, sure — but by folding a page in half, we could signal to him that we wanted him to skip that page when reviewing what we’d written. Thus, we could write anything. Anything at all. No spelling, no grammar, the same word fifty times in a row, personal, inappropriate, whatever we wanted. And then, once we wrote several pages of stream of consciousness garbage, we would write some more. If this was garbage too, that was fine. If it wasn’t garbage, that was great. But it could still be garbage.

We would give feedback to one another’s work — but it would be three things we liked, and one thing we thought could be improved. The first number could increase. The second number could not. Writing at all mattered more than anything when it came to writing well. You didn’t have to try to write well to learn to write well. Nor did someone have to tell you what was wrong with your writing for you to learn to write well. You just had to write a lot of garbage. Soon enough you wouldn’t be able to help but write better, because you were always learning to write, always refining your voice and clarity with every cluster of letters that you rudely shoved onto the paper. It was crazy. But it worked.

When I took a class on level design, and we started to work on real time strategy maps and first person shooter levels, we took a similar approach. The instructor talked of a study in which pottery students were split into two groups. The first was graded entirely on how many pieces they put out, regardless of quality. The second was graded entirely on the quality of their final project. It should come as no surprise that the first group produced far worse work at the beginning — and far better work by the end. They didn’t even have to be told to produce better work. They just could, and they wanted to. Nobody had to push them to do better work. They just had to produce lots of garbage and they couldn’t help but improve. We approached level design from the same angle.

But it was when I took DigiPen’s introductory drawing class from B. J. Becker that this philosophy was taken to a whole new level. Two hundred sketches a week, every week. That was homework. Quite a few more in class. Emphasis on speed and emotion. And then, when we showed our work in class, we threw it on the ground, where everyone could see everything. He walked around the room, criticizing and praising at will, and calling most of it crap. He would walk or draw on drawings, getting his hands dirty, leaving footprints and corrective scribbles all over student work. Then we would start again. For those who entered with their egos held high, he quickly destroyed them. Like the army, he would demolish your old preconceptions, and rebuild you into a machine that serves his purpose — to become an artist. I entered as a mostly straight A student, and exited with a failing grade. Then I came back to take it as a summer class with my full focus, and was proud to walk away with a B-.

Because in fact Professor Becker succeeded. He changed the way I looked at not just drawing, but learning in general. You’d make crap. Lots of crap. And you would try to make it good. But you wouldn’t worry too much about it if it wasn’t good. You’d just make some more. And if people criticized your work, and called it crap, and ridiculed it, and literally stepped on and scribbled on your best work, you would just look at it differently and realize if they’re right. In so doing, you would improve. It’s still great when people love your work, but your passion comes from in you.

They say you learn by making mistakes. But when you learn an art, try to train a creative skill, to develop “talent”, you don’t just make mistakes. You make foul, horrific, disgusting trash. Things nobody wants to see because they’re just that bad. The professional isn’t good because they’re blessed and don’t make garbage. They’re good because they keep making garbage, they keep learning. Eventually they have so much experience doing poor work that they develop professional consistency — and then you pay them lots of money to do their art, because you can’t tell when they’re screwing up, since even their mistakes look good to you.

That can be someone else who goes through all that work. Or it can be you. Some of the most brilliant and skilled people have produced more garbage and made more severe mistakes than most amateurs ever will. You just have to accept that and stop expecting yourself to be perfect, instead pursuing the craft because you love the craft, and you can train that brilliance in yourself.

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I just got finished reading from the Popol Vuh, or Sacred Book, of the Quiche Indians. It contains a creation myth, similar to that of Genesis, but it tells of fallible gods that make mistakes in their creations. They are vain and seek creations to celebrate their names and worship them, but their first efforts — the land-based animals and birds — are unable to speak their names, communicate with one another, or worship them. These animals are condemned to be killed for food. Later they try to make humans, but their first attempts fail to hold their forms and are destroyed; the gods must eventually confer and put their efforts together to create the first humans. The result eventually thrives and multiplies, but it is not successful; the first humans forget about the gods, and do not worship them. But these become the ancestors of modern humans.

The idea of a whole group of gods combining their efforts across multiple attempts to try to create people is fascinating to me. The immediate comparison is to science fiction accounts of a creator race. It is natural to imagine that many mistakes and iterations exist in the progression of their development of people. But rather than humans being the final product of this process — as you might see in real-world creation myths that explain the apparently higher intelligence and exclusive religion of the humans — what if humans were just one of a sequence of attempts, discarded on Earth as a merciful disposal site for another failed experiment? The “seeding” of human-like aliens across the nearby stars would make sense in this regard, and cultures that arise with parallels, but with unique racial twists (similar to Star Trek) would make sense.

What values would these creators have? What are they trying to achieve? What differences would humans have with the previous and next iterations of this sequence? Why were we refused? Would the earliest experiments be the most dangerous, or perhaps the most primitive or self-destructively subservient? Would they even have survived? What about the last iteration?

I imagine the final iteration in this sequence to have finally reached the objectives of the creators, and never been abandoned on an alien world, instead to have been taught directly by the creators. Perhaps they serve the creators, or act as equal partners. Perhaps the creators have moved on, and they are left with the keys this part of the galaxy, and advanced knowledge and technology. Would we admire their abilities and values, or find the ideals that they were constructed for too alien, and divorced from our own self-determined ideals and principles? As the myriad old failed creations finally claw their way up from their respective planets and are greeted by the vast and unified empire of the chosen ones, will we find peace, or war? And how do endless creations deal with the ultimate truth that they were not judged acceptable by their own creators?

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I’m enjoying history class, just as I hoped I would. The instructor is dynamic and enjoyable, and the class focuses on the fascinating why and how of history, in addition to the traditional who, what, where and when.

We aren’t even out of the Ice Age yet — yet reading the first chapter of The World: A History by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, and the adjoining lecture on the same time period, I’m already struck by the way of life of hunter-gatherer societies. Working only about 2 to 4 hours a day, they were able to live in nearly every climate with the most stable social model in history. But then — perhaps related to the Toba supervolcano and near-extinction of humanity? — the a Great Leap Forward led to abstract thought, planning, innovation, and symbolic behavior. Humans started to think in new ways, create symbolic art, strategize, and invent more advanced tools. Tens of thousands of years later, they would only then come to begin to specialize and develop unique skills, gathering in larger groups.

And of course, all this is replete with inspiration for game development. Take the image of a disaster or other event nearly wiping out humanity, forcing the rest to learn new ways of adaptation and thinking, and then leaving to few thousand surviving humans an open world with abundant resources. Transplanted from the Ice Age history to a futuristic setting, one could imagine a nuclear holocaust or alien invasion nearly extinguishing humanity, and leaving the rest to develop new concepts of innovation — a great leap forward in thinking that would leave the previous age of humanity nearly unrecognizable to those who came after. Perhaps they practice aggressive genetic engineering, have a psychic awakening, or some other paradigm-changing advance that forms a foundation for gameplay. The world is nearly empty — artifacts and resources from the previous age are seemingly infinite, and civilization is few and far between. With this beginning to the story, there are an infinite number of possibilities, moving forward from there…

I’d like to challenge myself to post something each week reflecting on history class and how it can connect with games. The challenge isn’t in making the connections, that’s something I do automatically. It’s that I want to start recording some of these thoughts on a week by week basis. This record would be interesting to me — and, I hope, to you as well.

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Reading and Discipline

I read a lot of blogs, forums, and news stories, but not so many books. That’s not to say that I mind it, but books tend to be a very large time commitment, and I tend to not have the patience to allocate many hours to sitting and reading on the same subject, by the same author. A good novel may occasionally capture my attention, but I’ve long believed that merely having started reading a book is no excuse to actually finish it.

I take this somewhat shallow and flighty approach to learning in general, when given the freedom. Larger tasks, like learning a new programming language or tool, I will generally not attempt, because I don’t have the patience for them. Smaller ones, like reading Wikipedia articles, I will embrace in endless quantities. While this does not inhibit me from developing an instinct and intelligence, it does limit my ability to develop high levels of competence in fields that I’m not already pretty decent in. For example, while I might continually refine my knowledge of US History or programming in C++, I will probably not freely become anything approaching an expert on the Ming Dynasty, no matter how interesting that may be.

School challenges this. Intense focus on different areas impresses upon me the necessity of learning large chunks of knowledge. This is fine, since it’s usually in small bites, but one thing does burden me somewhat, and that’s all the reading my courses assign. I’m two days into this semester of college, and already I have roughly 110 pages of reading assigned, and a short 1000 word essay. I can and easily will fulfill these requirements (in fact, I’m about 50 pages into the reading already), but I usually don’t read so much from the same couple books in that amount of time. I’m usually just not that focused.

Towards the end of high school, I actually left to homeschool and drove my own education, then got my GED. But as much as I’m able to learn in my free time, the “large” skills I’ve learned that have taken more focus and effort than I usually apply alone have really made the difference between where I am now and where I was then. I am made grateful, and humbled, by the institution of higher education.

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Fall Classes

The fall semester has started here at DigiPen, and I’m taking four classes:

HIS 100 – Introduction to World History I
GAT 211 – Game Mechanics II
GAT 250 – Two Dimensional Level Design – Introduction
ART 310 – Architectural Spaces, Design, and Lighting I

I have a few thoughts on each of these.

HIS 100: To my knowledge, this is the first semester DigiPen has offered a history class. We’ve had study of mythology, but DigiPen is a vocational school, and until recently has offered as little general education as it could get away with. One of the motivations I had in transferring into the design degree was the hopes of getting a broader range of studies, beyond just endless computer science, math, and physics, as much as I enjoyed those subjects. This is a subject I’m interested in, and I’ll be taking history this semester and next semester, so I hope it proves as interesting and thought-provoking as I know history classes have the potential to be.

GAT 211: DigiPen just got two new game design instructors, and this class is being taught by Mike Pondsmith. This is, to my knowledge, his first time teaching a college course, but he’s clearly an experienced and knowledgeable voice in his field. Over the last year, which was the first year that DigiPen offered a game design major, I noticed that each instructor in the department seemed to emphasize different aspects of design depending on what their experience taught them. One goal I’m beginning to think is worthwhile is to simply take at least one class from each person DigiPen brings into the game design department to teach; I think this diversity of influence and exposure to such an extensive base of experience in people with the drive to share their knowledge will do as much or more to further students as designers as the core design curriculum could.

GAT 250: Due to transferring into the program, I’m tacking the design track quite out of order; I’ve already taken two courses on 3D level design and two courses on 3D modeling, yet only now am I getting to 2D level design. Go figure! The assigned book for this class is The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. This book looked interesting when I first saw it, and subsequent to that first impression I’d heard it was very good, perhaps one of the best books on game design written to date. As far as I’m concerned, having it as assigned reading was just an excuse to get it and start reading. I’ve finished three chapters so far, and I’m enjoying it. I love a book that gets me to sit back and reflect at regular intervals — and I love being forced to pick it up again and keep reading, because it’s mandatory. More on that in my next post.

ART 310: I haven’t had my first class in this due to labor day, but this is another class I’m taking out of sequence. Architecture was supposed to come before 3D level design. This is an interesting subject for me, and I’m sure my mom will approve of me taking it, as she’s an architect. I once promised myself I wouldn’t get a desk job or be an architect like her. The irony of my chosen career really came to a head sometime last year when I found myself sitting in front of Valve’s Hammer editor, tweaking a map for Half-Life 2, and I realized that I’m likely to spend a significant chunk of my career sitting at a desk using CAD-like programs to design buildings and environments for people to be in. I’ve merely become the gamer version of an architect. But hey, at least it’s a very broad field, so it’s not like I’ll only be doing that.

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