As I mentioned in an earlier post, at the end of the week before last I drove across the boring part of Minnesota to visit Dakota State University in Madison, Wisconsin, to attend Nanocon and speak to the students of their game design program—and other interested students—about game design.
The game design program at DSU is interesting. It’s very new, and is growing up out of their computer science and graphic design departments, with faculty coming from both areas (as well as one lone mathematician, Glenn Berman, who’s a long-time gamer, the campus game club’s faculty advisor, and the power behind the Nanocon throne).
The game design curriculum at DSU is relatively technical, given its roots. That gave me a great opportunity to touch on subjects outside the norm for them. I was worried that my largely non-technical background might make what I had to say less interesting to that mix of students and faculty, but their game club is very active in card, board, and tabletop roleplaying, and there were lots of fans of Magic, Diplomacy, and D&D in the audience. (When I mentioned Diplomacy, it triggered a short round of good-natured shouting across the auditorium among two pods of people who’re apparently involved in an ongoing play-by-email game.) To make my presentation as useful as possible, I tried to highlight the broad applicability of tabletop game design strategies to computer games, and it seemed to go over well.
I had been asked to talk a fair bit about process, which I did, but the portion of my presentation that garnered the most active audience participation was my assertion about the importance of determining, and knowing, what the core one minute of gameplay is for any game project you work on.
To introduce the subject, I proposed these “core one minute” examples:
- In D&D, the core one minute is to kill a monster.
- In Diplomacy, the core one minute is to convince another player to help you win.
- In Chess, the core one minute is to see into the future.
A member of the audience asked about Rock Band; we eventually decided that to rock out on a given verse or chorus was its core one minute of gameplay. There was some concern that the one-minute duration was too slavishly adhered to in that proposal—isn’t “to rock out to a whole song” a more obvious gameplay unit, there?—but I maintain that apparently longer building blocks are almost always composed of the repetition of shorter activities.
There was also discussion about whether the variety of different activities in, say, World of Warcraft constituted different games, and so different core minutes. Harvesting resources is different from killing monsters is different from traveling, and so on. I found it difficult to speak directly to that question due to my lack of personal experience doing the WoW thing, but I think that the same answer I gave to the question of other activities in D&D, and in certain resource management games, speaks to the same issue. Even if the gameplay cycle of D&D goes “kick door, kill monster, steal treasure, level up,” I think that the critical functions of kick, steal, and level always point back to kill as the main thing that’s fun about playing D&D.
We more or less ran out of time after the extended interest in the core-one-minute paradigm, but I dutifully sped through a short bit about the critical nature of stories in not only making games interesting, but in understanding how humans understand their very existence, and I recommended that they all read The War of Art, so that they will not stop working on their dream projects midway through for no good reason, but you knew I’d do that, because as habitual readers of Gameplaywright, you’re already aware that it’s a book about which I will not shut up.
To wrap this up, I thought I’d put up some of my thoughts about the questions that Paul, John, and Brad boldly threw out in response to my call for process questions.
How do you deal with the inevitable moment when you realize your brilliant idea/theme/mechanic that you labored over just got tossed out the window because it’s too expensive/you didn’t explain it right/the world hates you?
If my cherished what-have-you gets thrown out because I didn’t explain it right, I sometimes leap back into the breach with a better explanation. There’s no sense letting a good idea die because the decider—whoever it is—failed to grasp it.
In other cases (too expensive, world hates you, decider is batshit crazy), if the idea’s really good, I hold on to it. There are always other projects. The danger of that, though, is that you spend the rest of your creative life trying to shoehorn beloved-but-old ideas into every new project that comes along. Sometimes perspective confirms the correctness of having tossed the idea.
Which produces the better game: the drive and vision of an individual, or the collaboration of many?
Collaboration. No one’s smart enough to design a standout game in a vacuum.
If a driven visionary can be suitably humble so as to accept the input of collaborators, and to seriously consider the lessons of his playtesting (and the suggestions of his playtesters), a combination approach—that is, the vision of one implemented by a team of collaborators—can yield really fine results.
But I don’t think we see the singular vision of, say, a visionary novelist reflected in the field of game design. Also, the auteur theory in film is bullshit, but that’s an argument for another day.
How does an approaching deadline affect the end product that finally goes out the door?
In my experience, it usually cuts the playtesting cycle short. This is sometimes not a problem at all, sometimes a trivial problem (leading only to, say, card interactions that could have been streamlined or better explained), and sometimes results in the entire project’s critical failure. Spammers is a fine example of the latter. I told a lengthy cautionary tale at DSU about Spammers, on the subject of making sure to also playtest the changes you make to your design based on earlier playtesting.
That said, you can’t playtest forever. A product succeeds or fails in the real world, not on the playtesting table. Also, a creative work is always abandoned rather than finished.
How much time and effort do game designers spend pitching and/or defending their ideas to management?
Not all that much time. Moments of pitching and defending are critical points in a product’s design-cycle, but the amount of time spent doing those activities is dwarfed by the amount of time it takes to do the actual design, writing, testing, re-design, and so forth.