Will Wright on The Colbert Report!

OH EM GEE!

i heart will

Do I really need to go into why this is an unbelievably awesome turn of events? I’ve been saying for a long time that Will would be a perfect guest for The Daily Show, since well before the Colbert Report existed. So, tune in and watch the magic unfold. I can’t wait for a wide audience to get a load of sweet, tasty Will.

By the by, I’m not espousing a return to the Romero days of game designer rockstardom. Rather, we should be celebrating people – Will especially – who really make our industry look good. Show them off, take im out, parade im ’round. Because, seriously, Will is a goddamn rockstar.

The Teaching Game (2 of 3)

In the first installment, we talked about why one would want to teach. Let’s assume you’re sold on the concept of teaching, have the requisite degrees and experience, have contacted a local school, and have been slotted into the schedule for next quarter.

Now you’re faced with a terrifying, exhilarating question:

What in the hell am I going to teach these people?

This is not an easy question to answer, especially in the two weeks you have before you find yourself standing in front of a room full of students. So what do you do? Well, you make stuff up. Huh? What? Well, yes!

The first step to creating your curriculum is a brain dump of your knowledge about the topic. This is perhaps the most difficult step because it is at this point you must distill your years of knowledge and hard won experience (things which are most likely so intuitive and engrained as to be subconscious) into some kind of external format. This is, as you might expect, a somewhat time-consuming process. Here are some strategies I’ve developed in prepping for classes over the years:

1. Create framing questions to direct your thinking. This is just good brainstorming technique – framing questions are great way to guide your thinking. If you have a clear, concise question like ‘what is the most important thing I know about level design?’, your brain will feed you some answers. The trick is keep going even when you feel you’ve found the ‘right answer’ (a notion which is flawed and will severely limit your creativity if you don’t abandon it.) If you look for twenty right answers to a question, I guarantee you’ll find some answers that are surprising, and, in the case of drawing out knowledge on a subject you know well, surprisingly insightful. Here are some framing questions I’ve had success with:

• What is the most important thing I know about _______?
• What is the first thing I do when I _______?
• What are the different kinds of _______?
• What skills make someone an expert in _______?
• What qualities make someone an expert in _______?
• What knowledge makes someone an expert in _______?
• If I could give someone starting their new job only one piece of advice about _______, what would it be?

You can pretty much just insert the title of your class into the above blanks to get a solid framing question. Level Design, Gameplay and Game Design, Programming for the Artist, and so on.


2. Mine for Metaphors.
One of the best and most common ways to explain something to someone is through metaphor. Take some of the concepts you’ve brainstormed above and look for some powerful metaphors for explaining them to the uninitiated. For example, one of my favorite metaphors for explaining the difference between single and multiplayer level design is that of “playground versus birthday party.” In planning a birthday party for one child, you buy napkins, hats, and a cake with the child’s favorite superhero or character on them. You plan all the activities around them, scheduling a clown, a bouncy castle, a trip to the arcade; their favorite things. All your effort is geared towards maximizing enjoyment for that one child, the birthday girl. In designing a single player level, the designer is creating a tailored, specific experience for one player, much like a birthday party. Multiplayer level design, however, is like designing a playground. Your primary focus is on creating a space in which the children can focus on having pleasurable interactions with one another. You’re designing a space which maximizes the children’s ability to have fun interacting. Most particularly, you must avoid elements which cause distraction from this interaction. In games this is typified by levels where players end up fighting the level more than each other – constantly having to pay attention to avoiding traps or pitfalls that are just as lethal as other players, for example.

Metaphor is extremely effective in conveying ideas and concepts. Take some time to brainstorm some effective metaphors for the concepts you’ve outlined. I often find that I metaphorical representations when thinking about these concepts anyway; all I have to do is identify and record them for later use.

3. Models of excellence. For whatever topic you’re going to teach, there are going to be some amazing examples of how to do it brilliantly out there. Quickly capture a list of your personal “masterworks” in the relevant area – pieces of work that make you step back and go oo-ooo! For example, as I was prepping for my level design class, I started by writing down a list of games that I thought had particularly excellent level design, getting as specific as possible if I could remember exactly where in the game those levels were and what they were called. Metroid Prime, Counterstrike, Super Mario Kart, Half-Life, and so on. If you’re going to be teaching a 3d modeling or art class, crack open images.google.com and start tracking down games you think are particularly beautiful or well executed, gathering a directory of ‘example’ screenshots. And, while you’re at it, write down what you think are your personal best pieces of work in the field. These, besides giving you a nice mental refresher on topical experience, will be extremely useful in establishing credibility, which I’ll get into in Part 3.

Finally, make a list of people in the field who you consider expert. Who created these pieces you’ve listed? Is it possible to get in contact with them? Is there anyone local who might be interested in guest speaking?

4. Research existing ideas. I’ve put this last because I’ve found it to be the most frustrating aspect of prepping to teach game classes. There simply isn’t that much out there that’s useful, especially if you’re teaching game design and related disciplines. There are lots of neat, specific, topical articles on Gamasutra, Escapist, and others, but there is most certainly a dearth of cohesive theories and practices to work from when prepping a curriculum. So, find stuff that’s out there, integrate it into what you have, and use it, but don’t just grab articles that have your topic in the title and hand them on to students: read them, figure out what they have to teach, and reconcile it with your own experience. I see far too many teachers defaulting to simple handing out articles from Gamasutra and saying ‘read it’ because they don’t know what else to teach.

Organization

So now you have your thoughts on paper. If you’ve done this correctly (and haven’t let your logical/analytical brain interfere with the brainstorming process) your thoughts should be scrawled all over the page, a jumbled mess. Now it is time to engage your logic circuits, to organize this stuff into ordered, bite-sized chunks, each of which builds on the ones before, and which culminate into some sort of complete, cohesive knowledge base.

A lot of times, this sort of ordering becomes self evident: you need to know Photoshop before you learn about UVW unwrapping, and so on. One strategy is to look over your topics and start by rating them 1-5 in terms of complexity or difficulty, then arrange them accordingly. Another way is to group ideas and concepts by “knowledge chains” – simply figure out concepts and skills that have others as prerequisites, draw out little chains between them, and then organize the chains by difficulty. Go with whatever makes the most sense to you.

In my level design class, I organize lessons according to specific games. I start by having students create levels for Excitebike, a simple, easy to understand game, and one of the first games released with a proper level editor. I lecture about iteration, which is what I’ve identified as the core skill of level design. Design, Test, Record, Revise, and Repeat – the more iterations of this cycle you can get, the better your levels will be. I introduce the basics of running a playtest (don’t talk, answer questions, or interrupt in any way, just watch and record) and get into spacing, timing, and creating flow for the player by removing pieces which consistently trip playtesters up without providing a rewarding challenge to master. Next week is Chu Chu Rocket, before which I lecture on puzzle games and the challenges involved in balancing frustration (too difficult) against boredom (too easy) to create ‘aha!’ moments in players, and make them feel clever. After that, it’s a lecture about multiplayer level design and creating Battle Mode maps for the original Super Mario Kart. And so on. As the quarter goes on, the games get increasingly complex, and the concepts layer on top of one another, eventually culminating in the creation of a level for Tony Hawk’s Underground (a game I worked on) and a special “design test” and interview in which I directly gauge the students’ designs (and writing) on the scale I would apply if I were looking to hire a level design to work on Tony Hawk. Obviously, the structure of your class will be dictated by the subject you’re teaching and your experience; just make sure you diagram out a logical, ordered map to guide your lesson planning.

Also, note that some structure is imposed by the format of your classes. As I said, at AIPX the classes are four hours long. More precisely, classes begin ten minutes after their scheduled start time (so 6:10 for a 6:00pm class), and there is a twenty minute break halfway through the class. In addition, the AIPX quarter consists of 11 weeks, and there is usually at least one week where class is not held due to school vacation. So, this means that you’re going to want to break this stuff up into about 20 chunks of learning, one for each ~ 2hr sub-period of each class.

Not unlike a good level, I try to design my class periods with a nice mix of stimulus: lectures, group activities, tool learning, and in class “work time” where the students work individually and I move around helping each in turn with their specific projects. I find that having a structured in-class goal to work towards – a peer critique of levels at 3pm, for example – is the best way to keep work time from devolving into ‘screw around online time’ (more on the ‘how’ of teaching in the next installment.)

At this point, you can break down your lessons and map them directly to specific class periods. At AIPX, you’re actually required to file this weekly plan with the school for each class, each quarter you teach. I usually print out a version of this to give to students on the first day of class. Also, I maintain a shorthand version for my own in-class use.

Weekly Plan for Level Design
“In Class” Weekly Plan for Level Design

And there you have it! Your class is locked and loaded. In the next and final installment we’ll look at the how – how exactly to keep a classroom full of eager, ADD game students, each of whom is sitting in front of a computer loaded with games, on task.

Featured on Gamasutra

So, looks like my Principles of Virtual Sensation article went up as a feature on Gamasutra. Coolness.

Principles of Virtual Sensation

This was actually a draft that got posted; I’m in the process of revising and cleaning up the language. But, hey, neat that they wanted to post it as-is and great motivation to write more neat stuff :). Also, I realized now I never actually posed on my blog proper about the article itself, even though it’s been linked from the sidebar for weeks.

Whee!

Eat cow root bird duck!

My friend drew this. I felt compelled to share it.

The Teaching Game (1 of 3)

I’ve had a request for an article! The reader in question writes:

I’ve been in the game industry for almost 6 years now, about the average burn-out time I believe, and my attitude towards the commercial game industry has gone pretty much on a straight slope from “amazing” and “so much to learn” territory to where I am at now, “I can’t believe I’m working on this” and “I guess it pays the bills” land. I would love to quit my job tomorrow and work on game prototypes in my garage, but alas I believe I am going to require some intermediary step to get to that goal.

I have friend who migrated from industry to teacher, and after meeting your online persona, my interests in that direction have been doubly piqued. I am born and bred from the mod community, so self teaching and helping others to learn is part of my deeper character.

What is teaching like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities? How’s the pay? Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers? What kind of qualifications are required to teach?

I would like to give teaching some serious consideration, I believe it might give me some sort of satisfaction that has been on the decline for me for years. I hope you can find the time to shine some light on the subject for me, I know you would have some resourceful and well written advice on the subject.

I empathize with this position, especially having come from a ‘yearly grind’ style development house (I was a cog in the Tony-Hawk-a-year machine at Neversoft.) I found it to be a thankless, dreary existence, lacking any definable conclusion or sense of hope (I’m ceaselessly amazed by the stamina of the guys who have been there since day one and have continued through eight iterations of the same game.) Plainly put, working at Neversoft wore me down. I was worn down physically (I gained over thirty pounds, stopped shaving or getting haircuts, wore the same tattered rags, and rarely exercised), socially (interacting with two or fewer persons per day leads to anti-social behavior and agoraphobic tendencies), and emotionally (by the end I was having erratic mood swings and pseudo-breakdowns.) Clearly, this position was no longer tenable.

So I left Neversoft, moved to Arizona, and took up off-road mountain unicycling. This was (and continues to be) the greatest decision I’ve ever made. I’m happy, well adjusted, have lost all the weight (and then some), am fitter than I’ve ever been, live with my amazing girlfriend, and, perhaps most importantly, believe in what I’m doing. Currently, I’m working as a game designer (and artist, and programmer, and bizdev dweeb, and producer) at Flashbang Studios.

The reason for relocating to AZ was to join up with my good friends, who had recently founded Flashbang. Flashbang is our realization of the common and naïve game student dream. As in ‘once we get out of college we’re going to start a game company together it-will-be-aweshome!!!11!One!!’ Well, yes and no.

What is exciting about working at a small, independent company is the sense that I’m in the driver’s seat. If I’m working on a project, it’s my dream. I’m not toiling away in a dank quarry, hauling blocks across miles of boiling sand to build someone else’s pyramid. If you’re going to grind your life away in a masochistic profession – and make no mistake, game development is unadulterated masochism – I say to you this: make it mean something. Spend your life making meaning. Create things which excite you, which get you out of bed early in the morning and keep you up late at night. Create experiences which will set minds on fire and inspire, in turn, to create experiences for others. We all have a reason for wanting to create games and, at some level, it boils down to an experience we had playing someone else’s creation, their dream. What was that game for you? Think of that experience. Now, imagine giving that experience to someone else. There’s just no excuse for hunching over a keyboard 80 hours a week, forgoing health, hygiene, socialization, and everything else a balanced life needs, to squeeze out something you don’t believe in. A paycheck is not a paycheck. Don’t drink the Koolaid. Eject!

So, Flashbang’s original plan was to create a hit casual game which would leave us bathing in cashmonies, opening our ‘tech tree’ to interesting, innovative, physics-based projects. As it turns out, this was and is much more difficult than one might suspect. We’ve done much better picking up small contract projects (we recently did a teaching game for Cisco Systems – for their internal sales staff) and cranking them out quickly than we have spending months fretting over the minutia of our casual titles. That said, up next for us is something interesting, something truly ‘indie,’ which I’m exceedingly excited about. Anyhow, I realized quickly that Flashbang was going to need some bootstrapping, so I started looking around for teaching jobs, which is how I found the Art Institute of Phoenix.

What is teaching at the art institute like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities?

I must say, it’s been one of the most rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable experiences of my life. There is Yiddish word, naches, “pride from the accomplishment of a child or mentee” which synopsizes the feeling nicely. Many of my students have graduated and gotten awesome jobs. This fills me with a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and meaning I’ve rarely known. Two were recently hired (out of school, mind you) to work on Warhammer Online (one as character artist, no less!) There’s nothing quite like the feeling of watching them get their dream job, of having helped them on their way to that success. I think that no matter what I do or where I go, I’ll always want to be teaching.

As for the particulars, the classes at AIPX are four hours long, which means that you really need to plan well to fill the time with content and keep the energy level high. Honestly, though, once you’ve meticulously planned a class out week by week and run it a few times it takes little effort to maintain. And if you’re teaching an art centric class it tends to boil down to a lot of one-on-one time spent helping individual students. I’ve convinced them to put all three of my classes on one day, which is something they don’t normally do (3 classes * 4 hours + travel time = 16 hour day), but which I’m very happy with. This means I can work full time on Flashbang and fun prototypes while having my bills and expenses handled in one day of teaching.

As far as responsibilities, you’re required to show up for each period of each of your classes. If you cannot make it to class on a particular day, you’re responsible for finding a substitute teacher, prepping her, and informing your academic director of the change. If you cannot find a substitute, there is a list ten tiers deep of phone numbers and contact information you must go through until you can find someone to be in your classroom during your allotted teaching time. Past that it’s up to you to decide what’s important to teach and how to teach it. You must provide students with syllabi and weekly plans, create any handouts or exercises needed for your classes, and keep detailed grading records. This ‘paper trail’ is especially important as any student can, after receiving a grade in your class, “challenge” this grade, which leads to a formal inquiry. If you can’t provide substantive proof that the grades issued in your class are the result of fastidious bookkeeping, meticulous grading, and some kind of underlying scale or system, there are problems. Essentially, you can’t arbitrarily assign grades because a student makes you feel icky. This may sound a bit daunting, but the answer is to create a “rubric” for each and every assessment you give. Here are some of my rubrics:

For the Board Game final in my Game Design class
For the ChuChuRocket assignment in my Level Design class
For playtesting Soldat maps in my Advanced Level Design class

…and a weekly plan (to be thorough):

Weely Plan for Level Design

The students are, for the most part, bright, excited, and naïve; the way we all were. Occasionally you get stinkers. Sometimes you get kids who you like personally but who you have to fail because they don’t show up or have problems getting their work done. Sometimes you have to give people A’s who you simply cannot stand on a personal level because they show up and do good work. Occasionally, someone will sit there looking at filthy tentacle porn during class (the preceding sentence contains zero hyperbole, btw.) It’s the Law of Averages, really – you’ll see the gamut, from brilliant to…not so much.

It takes a little while to get used to having the sort of responsibility one has as an instructor and to feel comfortable wielding it, but it seems very natural to me now (after two and a half years teaching.)

Hows the pay?

The pay is reasonable [email if you’re interested in exact figures – sswink (at) flashbangstudios (dot) com]. Really, it’s about how little effort goes into a class once you’ve already prepped and taught it. I barely think about my classes during the week. Some occasional grading and emails – little else. It’s not like having two jobs, it’s getting paid to hang out, help people learn, and share the experience of working in the game industry for one day each week.

Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers?

Yeah, totally. The major at all Art Institutes that carry it (there’s one in San Diego) is “Game Art and Design.” The emphasis is primarily on the art, though. Obviously, I represent the voice of design here in Phoenix, but the final output of the major is a high quality demo reel and portfolio web page, so most classes are geared towards art. I can’t speak for other AI schools, but here at AIPX we always need additional qualified instructors.

What kind of qualifications are required to teach at a place like the art institute?

Because it is required by their accrediting body, you must have a Bachelor’s or equivalent to teach at an Art Institute. This is somewhat unfortunate, honestly. Schools deny themselves the benefit of quality game instructors because of it, as many of the best and brightest simply didn’t go to college, or found it wasn’t for them. My partner at Flashbang, Matthew Wegner, an amazingly brilliant guy, dropped out of college. It simply wasn’t for him. I looked at getting him in at AI – there’s just no way to get around the accreditation thing. But, hey, you should look at the colleges in your area. They might be more open. Never know till you try. Matthew ended up teaching an online course which paid well and didn’t require he have a degree.

To sum up: I can’t recommend teaching highly enough. The extrinsic rewards, though somewhat sparse by certain standards, are far outstripped by the intrinsic rewards. Naches, ahh…

Stick around for part two: “What should I teach these people?”
..and part three: “How should I teach these people?”

Happy Guy Fawkes day!

It is said of Guy Fawkes that he was the only man ever to enter Parliament with noble intentions. You know what this country needs? More holiday burnings-in-effigy. I tell you what!

Amateur Auteur Designs

While browsing the burgeoning and alltogether laudible Devbump I came across the following article:

The 6 Indie Mistakes

“Nobody knows how to make games… being in the game industry has made that abundantly clear.”

Goddamn right. Preach it, brotherman!

Occasionally, while wandering the Intertubes, you find yourself reading something that, you feel, could have come directly out of your own mouth. Or fingers. This is such a case. This is exactly what I didactically hit my Game Design students over the head with again and again and again. Every rash, intelligent young wants-to-be-a-designer commits these foibles. I certainly did. I think a better title for the article would have been “The 6 Sins of Naïve Game Designers.”

So, while I greatly enjoyed this article, I have a few small gripes. To enumerate:

1. He’s actually talking about student projects and the naïve mentality of those who’ve never created a game before, not indies per se. There is nice some crossover – such as warnings about scope, (tacit) warnings about project management, and the superfluousness of excessive documentation – but in a few cases he’s a bit out of line. Some successful indies do program, create art, write music, handle bizdev, and market their games themselves. Jake from Rabidlab comes to mind, as does Jonathan Mak from Queasygames, Pixel, Hampa, Kenta Cho, Mark Heatley and numerous others.

Some things are self-evident. Some things are so self-evident that you feel you needn’t describe them ahead of time… How your revolutionary natural-language parser is going to work, how “getting an education” will effect your character’s stats, or how role playing elements in a multiplayer game will affect actual gameplay. “Clearly it will work.” Yes, but how exactly? If you can’t answer that question about fundamental or key gameplay properties, you’re not ready to start making your game.

This is a perfect example. Cliff Harris doesn’t need this advice, but the bright-eyed students in my Gameplay and Game Design class who want to start their own game studio right out of college do. This is fantastic advice, by the way, and exactly what I push upon my unwitting students. I have them come up with some crazy, wacky idea for gameplay, then force them to create a board game version. Their cries of anguish are musical; a cacophony of epiphany.

2. I strongly disagree with the following statement:

“The really stand out games, like Half-Life or Zelda, take teams of a hundred people 3 years to make. Anything remotely close to that, or beyond that, is way out of scope for your first project.”

Perhaps I’m waxing semantics Nazi, but I bristle at the notion that “stand out” games can only be made by huge teams and over many years. Tetris, his scope example, was made by one man, Alexi Pajitnov. The original Legend of Zelda was created by four people. Now, perhaps these are unfair comparisons, coming as they do from the ‘golden age’ of game creation. More recently (and from the list of ‘noteworthy games’ on Chris’ own site) the Katamari Damacy team was remarkably small, around 25 at its height. Gish, without which Loco Roco could never have existed, was created by three people. Flow and Cloud were created by tiny teams. And so on. The points about scope are well taken, but we’re re-entering an era where one person or one small team can make a game that changes the face of gaming. The channels are being primed – on the Wii, the 360, the PS3 – and developers are getting wise. It’s only a matter of time.

I think a vital part of being truly “indie” is ‘making the game I want to make.’ Unfortunately, in many cases this is either a game that nobody but you wants to play, or a game that is a direct clone or derivate of another game, often a “SHMUP” or hackneyed Furry RPG. One could make a whole list of indie ‘sins’ along these same lines, but they would be different than this list (usability, interface design etc…) Cheers, though, I will have my students read this.

By the way, this gentleman is a badass: “Have I mentioned what I’ve been working on? Right now I’m polishing up Guitar Hero 2, trying to get it ready and out the door. Which leaves me little time to do anything else at the moment… sorry friends.” No worries, buddy. I’m sure it’s taking a long time to put all those Dragonforce songs in there. If that’s not what you’re doing, I’ll stab all of you with sharpened toothbrushes and push you, collectively, into a pit of rattlesnakes. While wearing rocket skates.

Love,

Swink