Recently I wrote a review for Jesse Schell's new game design book. You can read it up on Gamasutra.
Here's a brief except:
Though the elements of game design are well described, practicing designers won't find a lot of new insights that haven't been covered elsewhere. Luckily, the book also includes some more utilitarian tools in the form of 100 "lenses", or questions that help you iterate on your current design.
A designer's job often consists of asking questions. Almost as soon as you start building a game, you need to ask "what should be improved?" There are nearly an infinite number of questions one could ask and often finding the right question to ask is key to coming up with the right solution.
The 100 Lenses are a set of time-tested questions that you can ask about your game. Are you using your elements elegantly? Could your pacing be made a bit more interesting by using interest curves? What is the balance of long term and short term goals for the player? One of my favorites is Lens #69, The Lens of the Weirdest Thing:
"Having weird things in your story can help give meaning to unusual game mechanics -- it can capture the interest of the player, and it can make your world seem special. Too many things that are too weird, though, will render your story puzzling and inaccessible. To make sure your story is the good kind of weird, ask yourself these questions:
What's the weirdest thing in my story?
How can I make sure that the weirdest thing doesn't confuse or alienate the player?
If there are multiple weird things, should I maybe get rid of, or coalesce some of them?
If there is nothing weird in my story, is the story still interesting?"
These are the sort of questions that get me looking at my game designs from a new perspective and can really jolt the creative juices. Not all of the questions will be useful.
However, somewhere in the list are at least two or three questions that even the most experienced designer wished they had asked sooner. By having the questions at your fingertips, you can ask them earlier.
Thoughtful writing on game design always get my brain churning in interesting new directions. With Jesse's book, I was reminded what a broad ranges of disciplines that game design ultimately includes. I have taken a narrower route and spent the last couple of years focused on a rather specific set of tools related to rapid iteration and skill atoms. Yet there are dozens of fascinating nooks and crevices in our evolving craft that one could profitably invest their life exploring.
Gamasutra posted up an article that has been bouncing around in my documents folder for a little while. The original title was "A Services Strategy for Casual Games", but the new one is a bit more punchy.
One response that I've heard quite a bit is that portals will never allow user data to be released back to developers. This is quite true for most established portals that have traditionally focused on selling packaged goods online. However, middlemen adapt and markets flow around stupidity. More sophisticated variations on sites like http://www.mmoportal.com/ are bound to emerge. If a dozen portals don't want your business, find the one that does. Given time and a exclusive supply of successful games, they'll grow into a bigger fish that can help feed your team.
The portals are engaging in a kneejerk reaction to changing business models. In the long run, do they really think they can keep customer data away from developers when the games that players want are online services? Such companies just end up being a roadbump in the way of progress. A portal that gets irritable about giving up customer data guarantees that their cut of the pie is zero. This is their loss, not yours.
My latest essay on emotion in games is up on Gamasutra. There are pretty pictures about brains. You can read it here.
It asks that simple, innocent question,"What can we do to make games evoke emotions?" The answers are more about applying the lessons of experimental psychology than the 300 hot tricks of screenwriting.
While I was looking into this topic, I read an essay in Scientific American on 'dangerous ideas' and it got me thinking about the sort of 'unthinkable' ideas in game design. This essay contains a smattering of them and I'm curious which ones you find intriguing.
"Games are great at causing emotions."
"You can replicate meaningful religious experiences with a game."
"Most media such as books, movies and poetry are far more about our past experiences than any inherent value of the work. "
"Isolating gamers from the outside world is a highly effective strategy for maintaining service contracts."
"In order to increase the impact of games, we must engage the body as well as the mind." The Wii Fit is just the start, baby. That slack faced hardcore couch potato experience is about to become an experience for dinosaurs (fat, emotionally stunted dinosaurs at that)
Does it hurt to say such things out loud? I have great faith in the ability of science and reality to weed out the ideas that contain no substance. Whether any of these concepts hold water will be directly up to the efforts of talented and innovative game designers. But what if one or two of them held a kernel of truth? My god, what a brilliant future lies ahead.
I am quite looking forward to your thoughts on the essay. Grab a mug of tea, find a comfy chair and dig in.
It has been a bit quiet in the garden this summer as I've been busy working on a set of longer essays. The first, The Chemistry of Game Design, is up on Gamasutra this morning. You can read it here.
A blurb from the article:
'“…it was clear to the alchemists that "something" was generally being conserved in chemical processes, even in the most dramatic changes of physical state and appearance; that is, that substances contained some "principles" that could be hidden under many outer forms, and revealed by proper manipulation.”
I recently happened across a description of alchemy, that delightful pseudo-science of the last millennium that evolved into modern chemistry. For a moment I thought that the authors were instead describing the current state of the art in game design.
Every time I sit down with a finely crafted title such as Tetris or Super Mario Brothers, I catch hints of a concise and clearly defined structure behind the gameplay. It is my belief that a highly mechanical and predictable heart, built on the foundation of basic human psychology, beats at the core of every single successful game.
What would happen if we codified those systems and turned them into a practical technique for designing games?'
The article describes a psychological player model and a system for visually mapping out how skills are mastered throughout a game. There is even a diagram of what Tetris might look like. :-) This essay introduces the basic concepts. In the future, I'd love to explore how these ideas might be used as part of an iterative design process.
I find systems skill atoms and skill chains incredibly exciting since they have the potential to ween us off our over reliance on reuse of existing genres. By understanding the rules behind why games work, we can synthesize new, highly effective game play from the base elements.
Feel free to post any reactions (allergic or otherwise) in the this blog post. :-)
My article introducing folks to the genre life cycle is up on Gamasutra.com. Woot. Gamasutra is a site that I respect quite highly, so I'm honored to see them taking an interest in these esoteric writings of mine. :-)
I've been a game designer, pixel artist, painter, tools designer, product manager and marketing guy. I got my first job while in college working on a shooter called Tyrian at a little company called Epic Megagames. These days, I'm designing games deep in the forests of the North West.
I remain, to this day, not a chickadee plucker. Despite the rumors.