Archive for the ‘game design’ category

Games, fun, engagement, art, and (of course) systems — all on a podcast

April 11, 2018

I was recently interviewed for our local public radio station (WFIU!) for their show “Profiles” to talk about games, game design, systems thinking, and the future of games. On the same podcast are Alex and Kate Burch, who run The Code and Key Escape Rooms in my town (tons of fun, and I think I was part of a team — the weak link, for sure — who hold the current record for solving it the fastest), and Marco Arnaudo, another professor at Indiana University who specializes in tabletop games.

The host Aaron Cain and I had a fun and wide-ranging conversation including topics like game design, the future of games in society, collaborative storytelling, systems and systems thinking, different kinds of attention and interaction, the question of whether games are (or can be) art, and even the place of “fun” in games.

My part begins at about -42:43 on the site’s counter (a little less than 20 minutes in), but the whole podcast is worth a listen.

 

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Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach – published!

January 29, 2018

I’ve been encouraging (requiring) my students to post regularly on their accomplishments, difficulties they’ve gotten through, and things they’ve learned on their development teams. Naturally enough, I should be doing the same.

So here’s my first post in awhile, which also acts as a partial explanation for the long absence: last month my new textbook, Game Design: A Systems Approach, was published by Pearson Education!

This book is intended to be a guide for anyone interested in game design, especially at the university level. I wanted to dig deeper into the foundations of game design (in terms of game design theory, not history), but without neglecting the day-to-day practical elements, so the book is divided into three sections: Foundations, Principles, and Practice.

As discussed in detail in the first section, the root of this is really systems thinking and how it informs (and is informed by) game design. This is something I believe will lead us to be able to design better games, and puts the book on a more secure foundation, rather than being a bunch of ad hoc practices (which, admittedly, still describes a lot of game design). This section also covers the “what is a game?” question in a new way, given the basis of systems thinking. This framework also allows an approach to interactivity, engagement, and even the thorny question of “fun” in what I think are new and fruitful ways.

The second section gets to the heart of game design, again using the systems thinking perspective. I’ve found it useful to separate the whole experience, the systemic loops supporting it, and the parts and their behaviors that create these loops into three separate areas — and to likewise separate game designers into storytellers, inventors, and toymakers based on their individual inclination. We all seem to have a “home” that we start from — the “nouns and verbs,” the dynamic system, or the eventual player experience. Recognizing this and building the design process around it heads off a lot of arguments and helps designers with different talents and focus areas to work together.

The final section has two chapters on game balance (methods and practice), followed by a chapter devoted to what it means to work effectively as part of a diverse game development team, and a final about all that goes into making a game idea real — from pitching to prototyping to the phases of production.

My hope in writing this is that it serves two complementary purposes: that it provides real, tested, practical game design guidance, and that it does so within a useful, systemic framework. My belief is that “systemic games” win out over “content games” in terms of engagement and long-term replayability, a subject I’ll return to here in later posts.

This has been a long project – about 18 months of serious writing, plus a good six months of deep research before that. I’ve been poking at systems design and the confluence of systems thinking and game design for some time, starting many years ago with engaging conversations with Charles Cameron, reading Christopher Alexander, and leading to some wonderful group-work that resulted in a 2014 report from Project Horseshoe, followed by a lot more in-depth reading (Meadows, Capra, Luhmann, etc.). All of that, plus a great deal more than I’m leaving out, led to me writing this book. I hope that others find it useful in digging deeper into game design.

What Makes Game Design Unique?

May 1, 2015

I want to test a pair of assertions: I’ve said for a long time that there are two main things that make games different from anything else that’s “designed.”

The first is that no one has to play a game.

The second is that unlike any other device or software, games are entirely autotelic: the goal of a game is the goal set within the game (or within the player’s head). Games don’t exist to extend, assist, or support some external goal.

Those may not seem like much, but they create conditions that set games wholly apart from any other kind of human creation, and game design apart from any other kind of design. I think this leads in useful directions, but first I want to explore and test these assertions.

First, no one has to play a game. By contrast, if your company adopts new software for accounting or travel, you pretty much have to use it. If your bank changes how their ATMs work, you’re going to get used to it (or switch banks). But with a game, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you can drop it — the game is entirely optional.

This means that game designers are constantly on the knife-edge in ways that other designers aren’t. Games have to attract a potential player’s attention. They have to draw the player in, help them build a mental model of what the game presents, and make that engaging enough that the player will stick with it and want to put in the energy needed to gain some level of mastery. This means that games are under immense pressure to evolve as fast as possible. There are always other games (now, hundreds of new ones appearing every day for mobile devices) that players can turn to, aside from anything in the player’s life that they have to do.

As a result, game designers spend a lot of time playing games designed by others to learn from them and apply their lessons to their own games. It’s no wonder that games change so rapidly and continuously, or that they consistently lead other forms of technology in the use of graphics, hardware, engagement, narrative, and interaction design.

The second point may be even more important: games are autotelic. Spreadsheets and word processors exist to support an external goal; so do paint programs, flight and process control software, etc. Even in the physical world, hammers, saws, drills, backhoes, scalpels, door handles and everything else you interact with on a daily basis that has been designed exists to further some goal that is external to the artifact themselves. Art, in the sense of paintings, literature, and sculpture, are, like games, concerned only with the goal that the artist sets for them. But unlike games they stand on their own; they are not truly interactive (a statement some will take issue with, but this is a different and longer argument). An artwork may engage someone mentally and emotionally, but it does not create a set of goals and tasks for the viewer. Since only games are both autotelic and interactive, only they enable the player to fulfill some set of goals, changing as the player changes, continually leading them to new internally defined goals.

In the realm of software in particular, only games (and toy-like games in which the player sets their own goals) escape serving some external and pre-existing set of goals and tasks. As a result, there is no “task analysis” that can yield a set of requirements for a game; part of the game designer’s job is to create the player’s tasks and goals out of thin air. Sometimes these may refer to some approximation of the real world (as in a flight simulator), but in some of the most charming examples they have only a tenuous connection to anything like our world, as in Ida’s curious journey in Monument Valley.

If these assertions are accurate, they have huge consequences for how we think about and practice game design, and for the place of game design in the overall sphere of design as practice and as a way of thinking. Games may, I believe, provide us a window into a kind of pure design, unencumbered by pre-defined external goals and tasks. If so, they also illuminate some important aspects of design and how we structure our thinking far beyond games and about the world in general. This is a point I’ll pick up later.

What do you think? Are these assertions accurate? Are there examples of non-game artifacts that are optional and autotelic? Are there other important differences between games and non-game artifacts, or between game design and other kinds of design? Or, are these statements correct as far as they go, but they miss something essential?

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.