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how and why to iterate + a game modification exercise

Iterative design

In the syllabus I shared in my last How I Teach Game Design post, graded assignments are given out on one week, and then one or two or three weeks later, they are due. So what happens in-between, during the actual work time? The answer is: the iterative design process.

Iterative design means a process focused on playtesting. You produce a playable prototype of a game as quickly as possible, then playtest the prototype, and you decide how to evolve the game based on the experience of the playtest. One way of understanding iterative design would be its opposite: a designer who works out all of the details of a game in advance, and creates a final set of rules and other materials without ever actually playing the game.

Of course, this caricature is absurd: no game designer I know has ever released a game without playtesting it. But I do have a particularly strong emphasis on iterative design in my teaching and my creative practice as a designer. The game designer Kevin Cancienne once called me a “playtesting fundamentalist’ – and perhaps he’s right. (So much for my stance against fundamentalism.)

What’s the big deal about iteration? The behavior of complex, interactive systems – like games – is incredibly difficult to predict. You generally cannot know exactly what players are going to do once they start playing your game. The only way to find out is to actually build some primitive version of your game, have people play it, and see what happens. Each time you playtest, you find out what does and doesn’t work, make some adjustments, and then play again. That’s why it is called the iterative process – you create successive versions, or iterations, of your game as you go. Read the rest of this entry »

T163

Nathalie and I have spent this week installing Interference in Track 16 gallery in Culver City. A small army from Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the talents of some amazing riggers have been extremely helpful.

It’s coming along well and we will have everything ready to go by the opening on Wednesday next week. For more information about the opening, the exhibition, and other events related to Interference, see follow this link.

More installation photos below, taken by Sean Meredith of Track 16.

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postcardfront

Interference, the large-scale game installation I created with architect Nathalie Pozzi, is finally coming to the US. Interference was commissioned by la Gaite lyrique in Paris, and over the last year has traveled to Dublin and Moscow. But we’re very pleased to be working with Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) to bring the project to the Track 16 Gallery in LA.

Interference consists of five super-thin hanging steel walls, each less than a millimeter thick. Physically, it’s a gorgeous project – although all of the credit for that goes to Nathalie! The walls act as vertical game boards for a strategy game that occurs between pairs of players. The twist to the game is that each turn, you must steal a game piece from another pair of players. So players end up interfering in each others’ games, and social metagaming often ends up being the best way to win.

The opening on Wed Oct 2 and the exhibition is timed to coincide with the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games happening in Culver City. There are several events happening around Interference, including a lecture at USC, modding workshops, and an opening reception. Here’s the back of the LACE postcard, which includes information about the exhibition and walking directions from IndieCade.

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an introduction, first principles, a rant against design fundamentalism, and a syllabus

Bona fides

Why should you read some blog post about how someone teaches? I started out wanting to write a series of essays in order to share my teaching techniques – syllabi and readings, concepts and methods, exercises and assignments. However, early on in the process I realized that I was not just writing about how to teach game design. These short pieces are really about how to learn game design.

So don’t let the name fool you. These little essays I call How I Teach Game Design are not just for teachers. They are for working game designers, design students, game players, critics and researchers – anyone who wants to better understand the process of game design. And furthermore, you certainly don’t have to be in a classroom to make use of them: nothing is stopping you from applying these concepts to your current project or trying out some of the exercises with your friends or office-mates.

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LCTWEETS

As a follow up to my Manifesto for a Ludic Century, journalist Heather Chaplin posted an article on Kotaku that included many great reactions to the piece, from Frank Lantz’s poetic game narrative to Ian Bogost’s cutting criticism, and other wonderful responses from Leigh Alexander, Robin Hunike, and Tracy Fullerton.

The article is also getting responses across the web, both laudatory and critical. (Of course the critical reactions are the ones that excite me the most.) Perhaps the most detailed answer comes from the sweet and brilliant David Kanaga, a game developer known for his work on Proteus and Dyad. Reading the manifesto line by line, David argues for less of an emphasis on systems and design and more of an emphasis on play. My own feeling is that the deeply paradoxical interdependence of rules and play is one of the great mysteries that we explore every time we play a game.

Not to be outdone by my own critics, I of course have my own misgivings about the manifesto to articulate. Below is a summary of my primary beefs with the essay.

  • It is incredibly self-serving. In the future, games will be the central force in culture, and everyone will be a game designer. Is it really hard to believe that this was written by… a game designer? I do believe in the underlying concepts and predictions of the manifesto, but I think that they are likely to manifest in ways that are stranger than we might be able to imagine in our present moment. One can only hope that the future surprises us – perhaps the ludic century won’t end up being about “games” as we know them at all.
  • It is so damn happy. I love games, and I think the manifesto captures my joy in playing them, designing them, and understanding how they fit into culture at large. However, the last thing I’d ever want to be is a cheerleader, and the manifesto might err on the side of being too cheery about games. It’s at least as important that we be hard on games – as critical about them as possible. Loving games should make you a snob, not a cheerleader. And proper snobs are full of hate about what they love.
  • It is a manifesto. This means it is meant to be short and digestible. And any time complex ideas get summarized, they lose subtlety. So I’m definitely trading in nuance for bombast. In addition, calling anything a “manifesto” these days is a bit like historical cosplay – dressing up in the garb of an earlier era. So I embrace the form of the 20th Century manifesto with full earnestness and irony. That’s one way in which the essay is intended to be playful.

Thanks again to all of my critics. Special gratitude to Heather Chaplin for her generous (and often critical) writing that framed the original article and the follow-up response. Huge thanks to Kotaku Features Editor Kirk Hamilton, who put in the work with Heather to plan and curate the articles that gave the manifesto such a great platform. And thanks to Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totillo for seeing the potential in the first place.

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For the past several years, across a number of essays and talks, I have been kicking around the concept of the “Ludic Century” – the idea that we are living in an era of history that has a special relationship to games.

Kotaku.com has just published my Manifesto for a Ludic Century – a short essay that articulates that notion, along with a discussion of systems, play, design, and why in the future everyone will be a game designer. Heather Chaplin, who has been an important sounding-board for these ideas, has written a wonderfully critical response that appears just after the manifesto itself.

Big thanks to Kirk Hamilton and Stephen Totillo at Kotaku for making this happen! The Manifesto will also appear next year in The Gameful World, a book of essays edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding.

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MIT Press has just published a new edition of Bernie DeKoven’s classic book on play, The Well-Played Game. Bernie is one of my game design heroes, and in 1978 when he wrote this book, he pioneered ideas about the importance and meaning of play, re-imagining games as a social community of players who transform and improvise rules.

Full disclosure: Bernie asked me to write the foreword to this new edition, and I was happy to pen a few pages that connect his concepts to what is going on in games today. You can find a PDF of my forward here (it’s the second essay on the list). It turns out that Bernie’s ideas anticipated many of the debates currently raging in games, from the rise of independent games and alternative player communities to addiction, eSports, and games in education.

It’s hard to convey what is so special about a book like The Well-Played game. It’s more than the brilliant ideas Bernie explores. It’s also the way he explores them. The writing follows his restless, curious mind – telling stories, cracking silly jokes, but always deftly bringing insight to bear on crucial topics around playing games and being human. Bernie doesn’t write about play in a book, he plays – and this book is what resulted.

The Well-Played Game is full of challenging ideas and is a joy to read. My highly biased recommendation: read it.

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