Talking about creativity, you’ve probably already seen this doing the rounds, but there is a lovely quote from Ira Glass on the difficulty one faces as a new artist, when your taste exceeds your capacity to create:
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.
Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a must-read for any aspiring creative, whether in writing, music, visual arts or game design. It contains a brief but profound manifesto:
Danger: Our Quest for Excitement
by Michael J. Apter.
Why do people enjoy dangerous sports like mountaineering or running with the bulls? Why do civillians enjoy playing soldiers and why do ex-soldiers sometimes talk about the dangers and even the suffering of war with nostalgia? Why do we enjoy other’s suffering in stories or movies or the evening news?
In game design there is a commonly made distinction between “emergence” and “scripting”, but the distinction is often poorly explained. Emergence is often treated as some kind of ‘magic’ that just happens (or fails to happen) when a system is complicated enough. Or else is just a term used to explain anything unexpected in a game or unintended by the designer. We are only beginning to understand reliable ways to engineer emergence deliberately, with specific goals in mind.
Rather than speak of ‘emergence’, I see a more useful distinction between ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’ variables in economics. The exogenous variables are those whose value is imposed from outside the system, while the ‘endogenous’ variables arise from the system itself. So, for example, in an economics problem the supply and demand curves are often exogenous (externally imposed) but the price is endogenous (the outcome of balancing supply and demand).
101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick.
This is undoubtably another title to add to my “Secret Books of Game Design” list, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice it. There is a lot of general purpose design wisdom in this book that applies well beyond architecture, and it is presented in delightfully plain and pithy language. The topics range from the profoundly aesthetic (Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition that to the elements themselves) to the immediately practical (Roll your drawings for transport or storage with the image side facing out).
Yesterday I read Brett Gilbert’s article Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory and it helped me crystalise an idea I’ve had for a while.
As Brett explains, there are always a large number of ways of playing any game. The rules place some boundaries on that space but we still need some freedom to provide room for play (“play is the free movement within a more rigid structure” as Salen and Zimmerman have it). So there is a space of play-possibilities fenced off by the rules. Brett draws this as a cicle but I prefer to think of it as a countryside.
Typically that countryside is hilly. Some places (ways of playing) are higher (more fun) than others. The player usually does not come to the game knowing where the peaks are but they can experiment and explore. Starting at any one place in the country they can explore the neighbouring areas to see which way the ground is sloping and start climbing uphill to greater levels of fun.
As anyone with a background in AI or optimisation knows, there are several kinds of problems with this approach. The first is the problem of local maxima. If I am standing at the top of a hill every direction I can travel leads downwards. If I cannot see the higher hills and mountains in the distance, I will not be inclined to move from that spot. If my hill is only a low one, this may mean that I will have a mediocre experience when I could have had a great one.
A second problem is when I find myself in the middle of a flat plane. No matter which way I go, everything is at the same height, so I wander aimlessly and have an unrewarding experience. I might even walk straight past a mountain and not notice it.
A third problem is when there are competing measures of optimality. If a game has a “win” condition then this creates an alternative slope for the player to follow. Some styles of play will be more “winning” than others. Oftentimes the “win” slope will point in a different direction to the “fun” slope and players will sacrifice their enjoyment of the game in order to play more efficiently. This leads to behaviours like grinding which are effective but dull.
The answer is to design your game to always provide a slope for the player to follow and to make every slope lead to the most fun parts of the play-space.
[NOTE: This is the full text of a paper we submitted to FDG'11. It was rejected for being too subjective and not citing enough other work. Fair enough. But poorly referenced subjective rants are just what blogs are for, right? So here it is.]
Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology
By Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan
How do we create engaging ethical scenarios in games? This question has been taken up with seriousness by many designers, wanting to see their work grow beyond pure action and address deeper aspects of our lives. We are making progress, but existing designs are still too simplistic. They neither engage us as strategic gameplay nor as meaningful stories. To answer the question we must look deeper into moral reasoning itself to learn the skills it involves and how to engage them. In this paper we investigate the Four Component model of moral psychology to see what light it can shine on the problem. The result is a pattern for a holistic system of ethical gameplay, incorporating ethical identity, investigation, choices and challenges.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.
As others before me have said, games designers need to know how to write. They don’t need to be master storytellers (although they should definitely consider employing good writers if their game is going to involve narrative or dialog) but they do need to know how to express their ideas clearly and they also need to understand the rudiments of narrative structure. Paul Callaghan opened my eyes to this in a guest lecture for my games class. I thought I understood the basics of writing: Setting, Character and Plot; but he got us thinking about deeper issues such as Theme, Subtext and Symbolism, and how they applied to our work as game designers. A game may not involve any “writing” per se, but can still benefit from the application of these ideas. They are the meat and drink of serious writing and for our games to earn the same level of artistic merit, they need to be our food as well.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee.
To a great game designer there is no useless knowledge.
So You Want To Be A Game Designer
This is not a book on game design. Nor is it a book on any skill you are likely apply to game design. It is, however, a book that has elicited more excited conversation from my fellow game designers than text on graphics or storytelling. It is a book about cooking, but it is not a cook-book. Rather it is a compendium of “science and lore”, a place where the art and craft of the kitchen meet with the science of the laboratory. It short, it is the cooking for geeks.
The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques, by Joseph V. Mascelli.
The camera is a much neglected topic in game design. We think a lot about what we are looking at and less about how we are looking at it. But if 100 years of cinema have taught us anything, it is that the choice of camera influences us as much as the choice of subject. A good game designer needs to know to use all the tools available, including the camera, so we should take some time to learn from those who have most experience with the device. The Five C’s are a good place to start. Yes, the book is getting old and the example shots look dated, but the principles still hold and are clearly and simply stated. To those who argue that the interactivity of games requires us to break all these rules, I quote from Mascelli himself in the prologue:
“It is important, however, that ambitious movie makers first learn the rules before breaking them. … Experiment; be hold; shot in an unorthodox fashion! But, first learn the correct way, don’t simply do it a “new” way – which, very likely, was new thirty years ago! – because of lack of knowledge of proper filiming techniques.”
So what are the rules? (more…)