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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review of "The Art of Game Design" by Jesse Schell



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.

take care
Danc.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Book Review: 21st Century Game Design

I recently picked up Chris Bateman and Richard Boon’s new book 21st Century Game Design. Chris is the managing director at the game design consulting group International Hobo (aka ihobo) and has worked on Discworld Noir and Ghost Master. Chris has been kind enough to stop by this website and I’ve always enjoyed his comments.

The major contribution of his book to the dialog on game design is the formulation of a new audience model for game developers and publishers. This is fascinating stuff that certainly got my gears churning.

A more market driven approach
Many of the game design books on the market come are the ruminations of a successful game designer. They are the equivalent of listening to Miles Davis describing in his gravely voice “Sometimes I like to blow the horn like this. And it seems to sound pretty good.” Genius certainly, but such advice is difficult to replicate in any practical fashion.

21st Century Game Design is at its best when it attempts to approach the problem of game design from a perspective that is more familiar to businessman than a creative artist. The fundamental question that the book asks is “how do I make a game design that will sell?”

This is a very different question than “How do I make a good game?” The modern game industry is a Machiavellian place, where naively well-intentioned hard work is not nearly enough to engender success. 21st Century Game Design describes a calculated strategy for getting as many people as possible to play your title. The aim is game designs that are engineered for business success, not ones that succeed through luck alone.

The book provides a thought provoking look at the subject that it tackles. However, it ends up being the start of a much larger discussion. That alone is a worth contribution to the ongoing evolution of the theory and practice of game design.

Whispering sweet cluster analysis nothings in my ear
The backbone of the book is a study intended to provide a better method of categorizing customer wants and needs. A professional statistician would likely take the resulting categories with a grain of salt, but I’m willing to give it all the benefit of the doubt.

The result is a straightforward audience model consisting of four categories that goes beyond the pop concepts of “hardcore” and “casual” that many designers and gamers toss about.

  • Conqueror: The classic goal oriented power gamer, who believes “I win when someone loses”
  • Manager: The more meticulous challenge solver.
  • Wanderer: Someone who treats games like a playground.
  • Participant: Goodness knows, but it involves other people.
Each of these categories is split into a Hardcore and a Casual group. The authors then spend the rest of the book examining the describing how the various groups of game player react to different types of game mechanics and presentations. In essence, the book describes a series of market segments and then discusses how various existing design options serve those segments.
I’ve done a cluster analysis or two in my day and it is worth noting that they are inexact beasts in the best of situations. The Myer-Briggs inventories that underlie much of the books assumptions are based off hundreds of studies using very large populations tracked for many years. The likelihood of the book’s first generation audience model being correct in all its details is approximately nil.
However, that does not limit the value of the attempt. Some of the highlights include:

  • First, it calls out the dark and inbred history of modern game designs. Most of what we consider great games were created by a freakish group of Conqueror miscreants and are poor foundation for serving the needs of the broader population. Publishers, you need to get down on your hands and knees and pay ihobo gobs of money to beat this particular message into your thick, risk averse skulls.
  • Second, by presenting the current audience model, designers are encouraged to think about their target customers and the customer’s needs in a more rigorous fashion that is uncommon in the game industry.
  • Third, a fascinating topic for additional research has been broached. I hope that ihobo and other more academic researchers pursue the topic of audience models vigorously in the coming years.
Is an audience model the right way to go?
As much as I like how an audience model encourages us to think of our target customers, I worry that it only a piece of a much larger puzzle. I’m going to step away from reviewing the book for a moment and look at some of the broader implications.

An audience model is, at its core, an extension of the marketing concepts that drove much of the mass commercialization of music and movies from the 1940’s onward. There are some critical assumptions involved that could be quite dangerous if you are attempting to tap into new opportunities. Some of the implicit assumptions are as follows:
  • There are big broad market segments that are homogeneous and exist (in varying proportions) across territories.
  • These market segments are based on basic human psychology and are therefore quite stable.
  • Game distribution is a one-way push model. If publishers execute in a technically competent fashion, passive gamers will consume it. If a game is sent out and properly promoted, and it meets the generic psychological needs of the target market, then it will do well in the marketplace.
This is a highly defensible perspective on the game industry that fits the classic packaged goods models of entertainment. Within a mature market that requires its participants to play a game of ‘king of the genre’ with highly predictable consumers, the use of such a model is bound to gain a few extra percentage points on the revenue charts.

The book briefly touches upon the economic implications of this model. Each market segment has both an overall revenue and profitability associated with producing product for it. Hardcore gamers might only sell 500,000 copies of a game. This puts limits on the amount of money you should expect from and therefore spend in developing a hardcore title. This is quite reasonable.

Classic problems with an audience model
However, troubles come into play when smart publishers use this model as a technique for maximizing their revenue. They begin to create titles that appeal across multiple market segments. Marginal titles are culled and the portfolio is optimized for maximum profit. Historically, what happens here is as follows:

  • Marketing dictates ‘required’ elements for success. In order to properly cull your portfolio, you need criteria derived from your audience model. A pop record might have a check list that includes: “Pretty young girl + hip-hop inspired beats + epic vocals + sexual lyrics.” The book takes a stab at identifying common genre mechanics that appeal to different audience segments. This is only a short step away from creating a game specific check list. EA is already working towards such a check list with their latest “1 to 2 elements of original game play + 1 major brand + best in class artwork” formulation.

  • Originality is sacrificed because it does not fit into the ‘winning formula’: Games that are outside of the winning formula are instantly dismissed. Often, there will be a list of acceptable game mechanics that are acceptable. When an original game concept does not have an obvious match either the game mechanics or the buckets available in the audience model, the risk adverse action is to toss it and go with something safer.

  • Small market segments are underserved: If a market is not a major ‘acceptable market within the established audience model, it is unlikely to get much attention. There is no room for the long tail in simplistic audience models.
This model is very new to the game industry, but it has been around in a variety of forms for many decades in other media markets. The results are interesting and predictable. Rigorous application ends up with the majority of the publisher dollars funneled into high profit segments of the market. Consolidation trends are accelerated while low profit segments are starved and eventually die off.

In the short term, this firing of undesirable customers by the entire industry results in dramatic industry growth. In the long term, it leads to stagnation. It turns out that all those little low profit markets are the source of the periodic creative renaissances that the larger market requires to grow its revenue base.

Game specific issues with using an audience model
Complicating the picture is the simple fact that games are not traditional media like movies or music. Ernest Adams makes the telling point in his introduction to the book that there are a dozens of unique classes of games. The part that fascinates me is that these games differ radically terms of functionality, not merely content.

Most music is functionally identical. There are differences in taste, but the core psychological benefits that are derived by Jazz listeners are not so different than those derived by listeners of Metal. A game of Animal Crossing, on the other hand serves a radically different purpose than a game of Risk, not merely a different audience.

Who uses the game, how they use the game, where they use the game and the benefit they derive from the game are unique to the each genre. Of course you can’t play a game of Animal Crossing when you have a group of five friends over. It isn’t a multiplayer game.

I come from a background that deals with the concept of ‘product design’, not media marketing. Product design looks at the specific ecosystem of a class of users and identifies unique gaps or opportunities for creating value in that ecosystem. These opportunities are generally composed of an intricate webs of psychological, economic, relationship based needs.

We need to stop thinking of games as disposable entertainment that, like a faceless porn movie, merely services our generic psychological needs. The reason games are so hard to classify is because they entertainment tools, not merely entertainment experiences. Every tool has a different use within a very specific ecosystem.

Some examples:
  • Pokemon acts as pre-teen social networking devices and lives within the rarified ecosystem of GBA’s portable network.
  • Nintendogs appeals to Japanese consumers and other city dwellers who are unable to own a real dog.
  • Galactic Civilizations serves a niche of passionate players burnt by MOO3, but desperate for the glory of MOO 1 and MOO2. They are older gamers that need an entertainment tool that can be paused both mechanically and psychologically when the wife yells that dinner is ready.
The direct application of audience profiling as a concept formulation technique will never directly result in any of the games above. Such models are too vague, too generic. Where in the spectrum of audience markets would you find ‘dog lover?’

Part of a bigger picture
Games, as entertainment tools, are different products than disposable experiences like movies or music. An audience model is still a useful technique, but it must be applied properly. I see as it a secondary technique the can help refine a game concept that stems from an ethnographic or anthropological study.

In short
  • Identify a unique market opportunity or under served niche within an ecosystem.
  • Use an audience model and other profiling techniques (interviews, observation, etc) to identify critical goals for the final product design.
  • Build your game design around those critical goals.
Designers should avoid using audience models as the only determination of economic feasibility and instead rely on market-sizing techniques specific to their game concept.

Next Steps
Chris and crew have kicked off a wonderful discussion and I’m very excited to see where the book goes in subsequent editions. Some suggestions from the peanut gallery include:
  • Additional studies done with more statistical rigor. I want to trust the model that is put forward as reproducible. Ultimately, I would love to see the research side of this book grow to as compelling as business books like “Good to Great” or “Built to Last” by Jim Collins.
  • Exploration of the applicability of audience models to the game design process. How can it be used to enhance both the creativity and success of a product design process?
  • Exploration of the business implications of an audience model: This model is useful for game designs, but it has serious ramifications for the industry as a whole. What are the positive aspects of its application and what are the pitfalls that should be avoided?
Conclusion
Buy this book. You are doing yourself a serious disfavor as a game designer if you don’t understand the central concepts involved in the proposed audience model. The first few chapters alone are worth the price of admission.

Don’t expect the book to answer all your questions. Instead treat it as one of the first vigorous discussions about designing for the modern business-centric game industry. The basic attitude of measuring and asking real customers about their preferences needs to infect the entire industry.

Equally important is that you question the basic assumptions behind the proposed theory. Is it the right philosophy to inform the industry’s future investment strategy? EA is already following, if not the specifics of this book, the general spirit of an audience model driven strategy. They are quite successful. The simple market-based approach has worked for movies and music and seems to also work for games. Is there a better path for the game industry? Or is this good enough?

Our young industry is at the beginning of a very lucrative discussion of how to make game and why games should be made. When books like 21st Century Game Design promote a seductive message of profitability that sparks the interest of both the money men and the creative visionaries, they can shape the future of the entire industry.

I’ll leave you with this delightful quote from a recent article on the radio industry:
“[Lee] Abrams pioneered systematic audience research and "psychographics," connecting people's lifestyles to their listening habits. He invented a music format called album-oriented rock, or AOR, which in the 1970s shifted the music industry's focus from singles to albums and showed radio execs how to hold listeners and attract advertisers - to make money in the new, boundary-free
world of FM.

But his success had a cost. The rise of AOR was the beginning of the end for the brief, storied era of free-form radio and iconoclastic DJs - "some guy in a basement in Brooklyn, burning incense and playing whatever he pleased," as Abrams describes the late-'60s scene. The format ushered in such airwave dreck as classic rock, teen pop, and … there's no easy way to say this …
smooth jazz.”[1]

The good folks a ihobo are not the first to implement the concept of an audience model in the game industry. That honor belongs to the larger game publishers of the world. However, by writing a book on the subject, they are encouraging all of us to discuss the concept and its ramification in a public manner. Perhaps we can improve on the theories that drive the decisions that occur behind closed doors.

Take care
Danc.

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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Book: Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun for Game Design"

My charming (and tall) friend Lennart turned me onto Raph Koster's book "Theory of Fun for Game Design" and I must say it was a delightful read. This book fills the 'game apologist' niche in my bookshelf. Every game designers, at some point in his career, feels the urge to justify his work to the broader community. We need more such writing that talks about what is good in games.

Games as learning activities
Koster discusses the concept of games as learning activities. This ties in remarkably well with the idea of psychological risk / reward systems that underlies many of my essays. The question must be asked, "What are these systems?" We know they have a risk activity that the player must perform and we know that they have a reward system. We even know some aspects of what makes an 'elegant' risk activity.

Koster claims that these risk activities tie into the natural learning systems of the brain. When a player first encounters an activity, they try to understand it and grok it so completely that it can be turned into a simple rote pattern. If the pattern is too difficult to understand, we dismiss it as noise. If it is too simple, we immediately understand it and file it away as a solved problem.

Dance, Dance, Revolution
Great stuff and it makes me want to measure brain activity when someone is learning a task vs. when they are playing a game. However, though it may be nice to go to sleep thinking of our profession as 'teachers of the future' we are not completely off the hook. I can buy that there exist primitive structures inside our brains to encourage mastering patterns of activities in the presence of rewards. However, what we learn (and Koster makes a similar point), may not always be useful.

In effect, game designers are hijacking the learning systems of the brain. Think of it as the same as when a doctor hits your knee with a little rubber mallet and your leg jumps. A talented doctor can make a person dance by hitting them in the correct spots or jolting certain nerves with electricity. A macabre image to say the least. Often times, the same thing occurs with games. Designers are applying carefully constructed stimuli to our learning systems and getting people to react in a desired fashion.

With Simon (or any fighting / dancing game for that matter) I can train you to become delightfully skilled at pushing a set of buttons in an intricate pattern. The pure game apologist would claim that this activity trains general timing skills, a clearly valuable evolutionary skill. I share this view. But I am also struck the obvious thought that what specifically is happening is that user is being trained on timing within the context of the game. Do those timing skills translate to other activities? What are factors involved that make them transfer more easily? I am curious.

Serious Games
Where all this become really quite fascinating is when you start applying it to Serious Games. Military trainers claim that the shooting ability of kids trained on video games is on average higher than people who have not trained on video games. Even such a broad statement opens a can of worms both good and bad.

As game designers, we are just beginning to tap the practical and theoretical implications of games as learning devices. As the traditional game industry moves towards consolidation, many decry the stagnation of innovation. Poppycock. We are at the beginning of a new stage of modern gaming's remarkable market explosion: the application of game design beyond entertainment to real world problems. Exciting times. :-)

take care
Danc.

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