What are you reading today?
An ongoing component of our game design class involves reading various articles and stories strewn across the internet. These readings on diverse topics breed critical thinking and help to expand the breadth and depth of our ideas while thinking creatively! Some of these were really enlightening and I want to share my thoughts on them.
1. Superbrothers: Less Talk, More Rock
My rating: 3.2
The advice from Jordan Mechner is interesting but I feel the opinions following it have been presented in a very polarizing manner. I also find it funny ‘99% of the videogames I've played’ do not fulfil the criteria of rock over talk but not one specific example was given. The market today is very different from when most of the classic games listed in the hall of fame were released. Back then, there was less competition, less saturation, limited technology and longer attention spans. I’ll accept that some games are guilty of spoon–feeding information but a lot of the modern games are able to maintain the balance between text, voice, cut scenes, instructions and gameplay. There are several other games like the Uncharted 2 & Portal 2 which would deserve to be in the hall of fame even though they are verbose by the author’s standards. Overall, I feel it’s sound advice if a bunch of people from non-gaming backgrounds were collaborating on creating something. However, it cannot apply to all the different styles of game design today.
NB: Superbrothers mentioned in a comment that ‘This feature began as a hastily prepared five minute GDC 'rant' and is not intellectually sound’. I’m sure the opinions were made towards the increasing share of bad games since it’s more accessible than ever to develop games.
2. Gray et al: How to Prototype a Game in Under Seven Days
My rating: 4.5
I really enjoyed reading this article for it put into words some great practices for prototyping. The inclusion of examples, specifically their own projects, lends a lot of merit to their arguments. There were a few points which stuck out for me:
- Gathering concept art and music to create a target. I have been through this several times but I have been guilty of not recording them physically. These days I jot down things down immediately, even from very vague sources like dreams and that has helped me develop a richer library of thoughts that I can refer to at any time.
- The entire development section. Another bad habit I have is to get bogged down by details and remain engrossed in refining small insignificant processes which are not even visible to the audience. There are several tips in the article that I would be following.
Overall, I felt it was a well-balanced article which gave equal importance to every section and provided useful examples for each of them. Such prototyping may not be viable for all projects but it's a great reference for anyone interested in a similar process.
3. Julian Jaynes: The Consciousness of Consciousness
Link: http://books.google.com/books?id=3eQd-x-cxPwC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage (Preview)
My rating: 4.3
I’ll be honest, I was initially put off by the length of the chapter because I thought the topic did not warrant more than a few pages. However, by the end of read, my mind was left buzzing and I had hardly paid any attention to the number of words I had consumed.
I really liked the flow of the chapter. Consciously or not, people like to give importance to being conscious about the things around us. However through examples given by Jaynes it seems that we do not have a clear understanding of consciousness yet. Furthermore, I felt that the various scenarios and experiments put forth a convincing argument that consciousness doesn’t play a major factor in a lot of activities that we consider critical. I feel consciousness does govern high level actions but it’s lack of effect on deeper, faster processes brings up an interesting discussion. I really want to read the next chapter now and will be hunting down the book soon.
4. Salvador Dali: Slumber with a Key
Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=RBPCAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage (Preview)
My rating: 4
As a person who functions at 100% only after 8 hours of sleep, I cannot help but agree with the advice. I have found solutions and discovered new problems with ideas just because I slept on it and tackled them from a new perspective after the break. Also, crazily enough, I have performed the slumber with a key exercise, albeit with different objects and not in the ideal conditions described by Dali. It keeps me going on during hectic periods though I have never noticed any creative breakthroughs due to it. Of course, sleep is so subjective that everyone's mileage would vary.
The text I actually found intriguing was the sidenote on lucid dreaming. I have slowly been able to control dreams and now that I think about it, it's usually right before waking up as described in the text. The idea of using fragrances or music is fascinating and I'll be trying it out soon.
5. Jason Vandenberghe: 4F's of Game Design
My rating: 4
The concept of iteration and failing enough times can be told a million times in different ways and it will always hold true. I got two important takeaways from this article though:
- Failing fast and often is an outlook which must be embraced not just by an individual but by the team itself. That point about people discussing the merits of prototyping and then frowning when something fails rang so true.
- It breeds creativity in unexpected ways such as the rocket-pocalypse and it's heartening to know that such things occur in the professional industry too.
6. Ken Birdwell: The Cabal: Valve's Design Process for Creating Half Life
My rating: 4.3
It was great to read the thought process behind a game that I have cherished since childhood. I still don't understand how they convinced the publishers or how it was financially viable to delay the release and polish the game up to their standards. It feels almost impossible in today's setting and the difference in quality shows. The CABAL process was really interesting to read about. Even as a big fan of the game, I didn't know about it and had never looked up their dev story.
The understated point in this article was trust. It will take a lot of trust within a CABAL-esque group as well as from those outside it to productively churn out ideas. Ken gave out some of the criteria they followed to choose individuals but it still feels like a very difficult yet crucial aspect of this entire process. However, if things do work out, the results can be really impressive and Half Life is a testament to that.
7. Costikyan: "Randomness: Blight or Bane?
My rating: 4.5
Phew! That was a lot of information to take in! I might have to revisit the article again to go through some of the explanations in more detail. Overall, it was a good read and I agreed with most points that Greg put in. Personally, I like luck (randomness) a lot when done in a balanced way. It just has a certain appeal to it and can feel satisfying depending on how it's implemented. Some of the points which stood out to me:
- Aesthetic of wargamers and how different settings make it entirely acceptible to have randomness be an intrinsic part of the game.
- Regression of the Mean helped to explain why I certain games feel balanced even though there are plenty of decision points which could go either way.
- Why breaking the symmetry is essential to make a game interesting. Mirroring moves or having an optimum path usually leads to very disappointing experiences.
- I was thinking about snakes and ladders throughout the presentation and it made sense when it was explained in terms of levelling the playing field. It's such an important practice when designing for kids!
Overall, I knew that the article wouldn't completely bash randomness as it's necessary to complement skill with luck in order to produce interesting gameplay. Thanks to it, the game remains fresh as well as rewarding for new and experienced players alike! Till then praise RNGesus!
8. Costikyan: I Have No Words and I Must Design
My rating: 4
I liked the points made throughout the article. Before I comment on the things that stood out, I must say that Costikyan’s writing was a bit redundant at times and the article could have easily been a few pages shorter. Anyway, I really liked the definition of a game – ‘An interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal’. While most of the points were self-explanatory, I liked the inclusion of structure and endogenous. Having personally experienced a love for monopoly money and RPG items, I could relate to that point very well. The topic of structure and MMORPGs got me thinking about Runescape. MMOs are great for such studies because there are constant changes to a player’s experience of the same game. I remember how the changes in PKing and the Grand Exchange completely changed the dynamic of the game and altered the structure enough to force people to quit. With most games having some sort of multiplayer aspect these days, structure will prove to be a crucial pillar of their design.
Another interesting nugget was the concept of masochism in Leblanc’s taxonomy. Weird choice of words for sure, but they make perfect sense. The reason trolls and hackers ruin an experience is because they destroy the integrity of the game’s structure. On the flip side, the satisfaction or immersion within a game’s world is enhanced if all the participants commit to the structure. This can easily be done while still having fun or being casual with the gameplay – something a lot of current gamers tend to forget.
9. Terence Lee: Designing Game Narrative
My rating: 4.4
There was a lot of food for thought within that article. The first thing which came to my mind after reading the first few paragraphs was presentation. I think most of us are aware of it since we can easily tell when something is off or when things fail to make an impact because there wasn't enough emphasis put on presentation. Terence's thoughts mirrored my opinions here. The examples given later were totally on point. The comparison between Portal and Tomb Raider made a lot of sense since I have played both. As much as I liked the visuals and the new take on Lara's story, the gameplay didn't vary too much from a typical adventure game. The point about reacting to quick time events just to avoid the fatigue from repetition holds very true!
I also liked the comparison between cutscenes and intertitles which makes a lot of sense. This was especially true about a decade back when CGI or real life recordings would be interspersed between gameplay where you couldn't even make out the models very clearly. This has definitely changed over recent years where the engine is also used to render the cinematics and thus there is a very smooth transition. Also, the good games space these cutscenes out to serve as breathing points after intense scenes. Thus, you do not really miss out on a climactic scene and it's actually intended for you to relax a bit during a lull in the story. What I agree with the author about is that this is a stagnating approach. There wouldn't be too many revolutionary mechanisms in this form of storytelling. Emergent gameplay is definitely something with a lot of promise. In addition, I also feel that we, the consumers and audience, are maturing as a whole. This will help us to appreciate games with better narrative and hopefully propel a demand for them in the future.
10. Bob Bates: Designing the Puzzle
My rating: 3.9
The author provides a pretty comprehensive list of different types of puzzles. I have experienced nearly all of them at some point but ‘Excluded middle’ and ‘Gestalt’ are great descriptions which are now added to my vocabulary. The descriptions of the puzzles themselves do not feel very helpful unless they are aimed at complete newcomers. Their relationship with different themes and their strengths and weaknesses could have been explained further.
The other sections were definitely more informative and touched on some good points. A combination of Restore + Trial & error puzzles is often seen in various settings. While they do manage to keep the player occupied they are definitely not satisfying. Quick time events in modern games tend to have this effect on a player if their frequency is not controlled well. The example of the woman in ‘natural to the environment’ was also pretty helpful. Sometimes it’s better to trigger the player’s curiosity and make them dig out the story instead of shoving it down their throat. This will definitely at the back of my mind during the story assignment. Another useful tidbit was related to the Red Herrings. It seems like that can be a common rookie mistake. I definitely agree that it can be superfluous especially in an RPG setting where the player’s mind is already wandering enough.
11. Luban: Designing and Integrating Puzzles
My rating: 3.4
I think I may be bit biased towards the writing in this article because I just read the art of puzzles by Bates where all the information was organized much better. The age of the article also seems to be highlighted by the examples provided in it. And coming to the examples themselves, I felt that their presentation was poor and there was no depth in their analysis. Giving examples is something I always appreciate, but here I felt Luban was just transcribing the scenes for us. Take the last topic of integrating a goal puzzle – it had 5 – 6 paragraphs of what happens in the game and just a one line at the end stating that it was appealing.Of course simple gathering mechanics are boring but if the author had talked more about how to implement alternate routes or directing players towards alternative sources for the items, it would have been a much more intelligent and interesting article.
12. Scott McCloud: The Vocabulary of Comics
My rating: 5
I have always heard a lot of praise for Scott McCloud and Understand Comics and I think I finally understand why. I always enjoy absorbing media that forces me to think deeply about any topic. The core theme of abstraction makes perfect sense to me and I was mentally listing out some of my favorite comics and trying to fit them on the scale. Watchmen, Scott Pilgrim and XKCD (Randall Munroe) have very distinct visual styles but all of them are able to effectively communicate their ideas. It proves that choosing the right fidelity is important in determining whether the emphasis goes on the idea, the theme, the tone or the dialogue.
The examples were really well chosen and provided a lot of insight. I was thinking how we are constantly taught the importance of storyboards and illustrations and these strips drove home that point. I cannot imagine just words having the same impact on me as all these panels. There are so many things that stood out as well. The Japanese style of attention to detail in a single panel? I think that is related to Scott's point of how we try to see ourselves in everything. We just assume that the character must have carefully focused on that object for that frame and hence the detail. ""It makes perfect sense, everything is fine, let's move on"". There were so many other gems that I could go on and on. For now, I'll try to hunt down this book as soon as possible.
13. Jenkins: Transmedia Storytelling
My rating: 3.6
I think the harsh criticism of this article is a bit underserved. It makes a few good points albeit in an incoherent way. The most important line in the article was probably: ""We need a new model for co-creation-rather than adaptation-of content that crosses media."" - which makes sense especially with the star wars examples where the games and novels expanded the universe and told stories not known to the audience. What could be argued is that only the person who created a franchise should be in control. They should definitely be consulted but by no means is one person capable of designing great adaptations for every media.
Also, we must remember that this article came out in Jan 2003. To put this in perspective, Episode 3 of SW hadn't been released. Steam, Reddit and Youtube weren't even a thing. Non franchise games weren't very accessible and they definitely didn't get the kind of publicity they receive now. It's not too far fetched for the author to think that franchise games would be the future. In fact, the big players in this industry are currently notorious for milking out every popular franchise so his prediction wasn't entirely wrong. Some of his opinions regarding preference of gamers and women are definitely off and appear dated much like some other sections of this article.
14. Richard Garfield: "The Evolution of Magic the Gathering"
Link: http://www.gcugd1.com/tutorials/tut1/Garfield - Evolution of Magic The Gathering.pdf
My rating: 4.5
I have never played Magic before so I was a bit worried that I would not be able to understand any of the references. However, Richard Garfield did an excellent job of explaining his thinking purely as a designer so that it did not end up being an esoteric article. It was really fascinating to read the beginnings of something which is now so vast and iconic. Some points which stood out for me are:
- How you have to sometimes depend on human nature for balance. Garfield let the degenerate decks exist in the system cause he realized that they would die out on their own.
- How human nature can also be extremely frustrating. The 'Opponent loses next turn' example had me smirking because it reminded me how we can never really be prepared for the naivety some people display.
I have only played Hearthstone which I believe is a diluted version of MTG. However, since I played it during the beta, it evolved before me and I noticed a lot of design changes very similar to the ones described in the article. It will be really fascinating to see how card games continue adapting to the virtual environment and balance the game to keep up player engagement!
15. Jamie Griesemer: Design in Detail ... Halo 3 (60 mins)
My rating: 4.3
This was an insightful talk on balance which is an aspect of game-play that I have always been fascinated with. The objective may have been to explain the significance of the change to the sniper rifle, but the discussion of the process leading up to it can really be applied to any other object in a game. Right at the start, I appreciated the point about treating balance as a state and not a process. It helps you visualize the desirable state and work towards it.
I also liked the driving analogy to explain why things must be changed in groups. I have made this mistake before of just tweaking a single variable to find that it has changed the experience for worse in some other way. On a larger scale, this is evident in MOBAs where minor changes to the map or an item have widespread effect on the strength of the players because they were not considered as a whole when planning out the balance changes. The point about nerfs not being a good design choice also holds true here as making a strong object weaker doesn't always guarantee restoration of balance.
Which brings me to the theme that was covered a lot in the talk – the player's experience. I wonder how many modern designers follow Jamie's lead of playing and observing the game for balance instead of relying on all the big data. There is definitely a gut feeling involved and people are able to tell when something doesn't feel right to them even if they cannot provide a concrete reason for the same. This ties in with the 'model in your head' and sometimes you need to use that perception to identify the source of a problem. It was surprising to hear him outright reject any game-play bug reports but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. You don't want the game to be a balanced around a particular player's desires or the way they play their role. This does not mean that their feedback is irrelevant. What you need to do is dig deeper into their words and figure out what part of your world is not letting the player interact with it the way they want to. It's important to restore that intrinsic motivation to make a game appear balanced to everyone."
16. The psychology of play activities: Lehman and Witty
My rating: 3.6
Quite an interesting extract! It was painful at times to read some of the thoughts that the people had to transcribe in order to argue against the postulations. Apart from that, there were plenty of insightful theories. The more I read the article, the more I realized how difficult it was to describe the word 'Play'. We always need to pad it with another descriptor to get a specific definition. And it doesn't help that over the generations, the list of things considered as play and those considered part of regular life have changed constantly. This is probably why my parents were skeptical of me using the computer for anything serious but my education and probably my entire career ahead are entirely dependent on it.
So what stood out? Play definitely sounds like energy which is voluntarily expended. But it’s not always unbridled. Very often, it’s rationed out. We allocate a certain portion of our day / life for these activities. But how do we prioritize? I really liked the point about ‘Play’ being something we engage in once our very basic requirements are satisfied. Once we are sure that our survival isn’t threatened, we can treat our activities as Play. Now sometimes Work overlaps with Play. But it also comes at a cost. The introduction of ‘Work’ tarnishes the ‘Play’ aspect a bit. It’s a common sentiment that game designers seem to have: ‘Oh, I can’t enjoy games like I used to before because I’m more critical about every single element in it’.
The definition can be debated endlessly but the importance of play shouldn’t be ignored. I guess we are lucky to live in an age where society doesn’t have a restrictive outlook towards play like they did at the time of this article. A lot of it has to do with the number and variety of opportunities a person is able to afford. Even with the limitations, children must definitely be encouraged to engage in Play as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t provide them a mastery over a skill they would use as an adult, it gives them the freedom to explore different activities / interactions and that’s how you sometimes stumble onto a thing that you are good at.