Challenges for Game Designers

Books, Video Games

Challenges for Game Designers

For the last few months I’ve enjoyed following along with Liz England’s Game Design Book Club. Though I’ve only been participating intermittently, it’s been really valuable as motivation to read books that are often cited and highly praised in game development circles. It has also pushed me to explore certain topics that I may not have chosen on my own.

September’s book club selection was Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber. It covers some common ground with other “game design 101” books aimed at a classroom environment, but it has two unique twists. Firstly, it has an emphasis on non-digital games. This affords a greater focus on “pure” mechanical considerations: chance, skill, strategy, social dynamics, etc. Secondly, as the title suggests, the reader is encouraged to explore the topic of each chapter by completing assorted design exercises; it’s equal parts textbook and workbook.

I was very impressed by the variety of exercises presented in the book. The ones that particularly interested me (and, admittedly, took the least time to complete) involved taking an existing game and modifying it to emphasize a different type of skill.

For instance, one of the exercises in chapter 5 was to “modify [Tic-Tac-Toe] by adding one or more chance-based mechanics”; the game should also be “good for adult players”. I thought this challenge was quite interesting, so I took some time to develop a small game called Catalina Tiles for it. The game is played on a nested 3×3 grid, and players use four 4-sided dice to determine which tiles they can claim on their turn.

Rules for Catalina Tiles [PDF]

Another exercise in chapter 8 involved choosing a “non-digital game with no elements of chance at all” to modify by adding fog of war: “your opponent’s pieces are hidden from you (and vice versa) except under certain conditions.” After researching existing chess variants (there are so many), I developed two unique hidden-information chess games. Luft Chess is standard chess played with invisible kings, and Reverse Schrödinger’s Chess has each player secretly deploying their opponent’s back row pieces.

Rules for “Fog of War” chess variants [PDF]

I had a lot of fun completing these exercises (also learning how to use LaTeX to make fancy rulebooks). Even as someone who works on games every day, it’s been valuable to stretch my creative muscles and make games under unfamiliar constraints.

The Game Design Book Club is online and open to everyone, so feel free to follow along if it interests you. The November selection is Shooter, “an anthology of critical essays about first-person shooters” that Clint Hocking has spoken highly of.

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The Golden Compass

Books, Movies

There have been very few mainstream film releases this year that I’ve had any interest in. I think that the last movie I actually saw in the theatres was the brilliant Hot Fuzz. There is, however, one film coming out before the end of the year that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for quite some time now.

The Golden CompassIn my last year of high school, I read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was instantly fascinated by Lyra’s world; its strange combination of steampunk, science, magic and religion was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Her parallel universe had its own language derived in part from archaic words: Oil became Naphtha, Greenlanders became Skraelings and electricity became anbaric power. I have read the series many times since then, and Pullman’s imagination never ceases to astound me.

When I first heard about the film adaption of The Golden Compass, which is arriving in theatres this weekend, I was cautiously optimistic. The thought of Jordan College being filled with Hollywood actors tempered my excitement. If the movie version of my favorite book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes an adaptation ends up being nothing like the vision of the story that you had built up in your head.

That being said, after watching the first five minutes of the film courtesy of the Internet, it seems like they did a great job with the visuals. The little girl playing Lyra seemed appropriately spunky as well. However, the rapid-fire explanation of Dust, Daemons, and Panserbjørne was extremely disappointing. The best part of The Golden Compass was being gradually introduced to the strange things in Lyra’s world, and listing them off right from the start spoils the mystery. It’s also evident from the trailer that the religious tone of the books has been severely diluted. Instead of the bad guys being the alternate universe Catholic Church, they’ve created a quasi-fascist organization to pit against Lyra and her friends. I question how they’re going to deal with intercision and puberty without the religious slant.

I’m sad to say that even if the movie is junk, they’ll be taking my money anyways. Even if they do ruin it, at least I’ll always have the books!

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The Screwfly Solution

Books, Video Games

The Screwfly SolutionIn keeping with my love of excellent short stories, particularly dystopian science fiction, I highly recommend Raccoona Sheldon’s Nebula Award-winning The Screwfly Solution. The title is a reference to the sterile insect technique used to eliminate the Screwfly worm in the USA, Mexico and parts of Centreal America. The story is a shocking one, dealing with themes of sexuality, violence and femicide, and is told in a great disjointed style through a combination of several narratives, letters and newspaper articles.

Read the story first (seriously, do it!), then consider the following: wouldn’t it be great to see a video game set in the middle of an end-of-the-world scenario (not after one)? One where you start out in the near future, in a big city living a normal life. You start to hear dangerous rumours, maybe a deadly manmade pandemic, a militant religious organization, or some other Margaret Atwood storyline. From there you could have branching paths: do you petition the government? create a militia? go into hiding out in the country? Perhaps there could even be an element of randomness, where sometimes the rumours really are just rumours and you end up a paranoid conspiracy theorist!

This idea would definitely need some polishing and refinement (and I may have drawn liberal amounts of inspiration from Indigo Prophecy), but properly executed I think it could be really interesting. Leave a comment if you have any ideas on how this game could be implemented (or just call me crazy! That works too).

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Short Stories

Books
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream - Harlan Ellison

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem writing essays with an assigned word length. I like to say as much as I can with as few words as possible, because to me good writing is concise and to the point. When I’m required to artificially lengthen my work, the result is always weak and diluted.

I think that this paradigm can be applied to all media. For instance, the film Strange Days had some interesting ideas, but as a two hour long feature film they were lost in a sea of pointless action and terrible drawn-out dialogue. Done right, it could have made a great 20 minute short film. Consider the last 80 hour RPG you played: could it have been an even better 50 hour RPG by removing a tedious dungeon crawl or two?

It’s perhaps my inclination towards succinctness that makes me a fan of short stories. A novel based on an idea will usually explore every facet of this idea and all of its implications. While this works well for some concepts, there are certainly others that are perhaps too experimental and strange. These quirky ideas would likely fall apart or become lost in a novel, but they can easily become the central theme of a short story.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite short stories below. Where applicable, I’ve linked to sites I’ve found that host them; otherwise, a little Googling will usually do the trick.

  • Eight O’Clock in the Morning – Ray Nelson
    An alien race controls humanity through subliminal messages in television, advertisements and billboards.
  • A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbudy
    Published in 1952, it was one of the first short stories to deal with what would later be called The Butterfly Effect; the idea that one small change in the past could completely rewrite the present.
  • The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
    One of the most chilling short stories I’ve ever read, it deals with the evils that are permitted in the name of tradition and crowd mentality.
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
    An insane omnipotent computer tortures the last five humans on Earth.
  • We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick
    The story that inspired the film Total Recall, it deals with the implications of memory replacement.
  • Little Lost Robot – Isaac Asimov
    This is my favorite short story from I, Robot. Dr. Susan Calvin must use logic to expose the one robot among an identical hundred that has had its programming altered and is now a threat to humans.
  • Harrison Bergeron – Kurt Vonnegut
    To finally achieve societal equality, the government forcefully handicaps those whose beauty, intelligence or athletic abilities give them an “unfair advantage” over everyone else.
  • How To Talk To Girls At Parties – Neil Gaiman [link]
    This story is a nominee for the 2007 Hugo Award. An awkward young man is dragged along to a party, but all is not as it seems.

I’m always on the lookout for more great short stories, so please comment with your favorites.

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Dune Messiah

Books

Dune MessiahI was on vacation earlier this summer at a friend’s cottage near Parry Sound, Ontario. While in town one day, we walked over to Bearly Used Books, a terrific used book store where, along with about eight other books, I picked up a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was vaguely familiar with the general plot, having seen parts of the televised miniseries years ago, and knowing that it was considered a classic among sci-fi fans I was eager to read it.

Needless to say I read it ravenously. Frank Herbert crafted the world of Dune with loving detail and a passion akin to Tolkien, with appendices, maps and a glossary at the end of the book. It was not a typical sci-fi world either; I found the idea of mentats, human supercomputers necessary since the ban of thinking machines, especially interesting.

I quickly went out to a used book store back home in Montreal and picked up the first two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I just finished the former and, while it was still very good, it didn’t feel nearly as polished or as cohesive as the first book. I’d like to address what I felt were weaknesses in the plot, so be warned that there are spoilers ahead, although nothing that would really ruin the book for you.

Dune gave me the impression that Frank Herbert had every aspect of the universe figured out beforehand, and was gradually revealing them to the reader. However, in this book, we are suddenly presented with the Bene Tleilaxu, who are apparently a very important group of gene manipulators and have as much clout as one of the Great Houses. They can revive the dead, give people new eyes, and even apparently made their own Kwisatz Haderach! Yet, they go from unmentioned in the first book to common knowledge among the populace in the second. I can appreciate that the author wanted to introduce a new faction, but it really hurt the feeling of cohesiveness of the Dune universe.

In the first book we were told about how very secretive the Spacing Guild is. Their methods are only hinted at, and they send only low-ranking navigators to meet even Emperor Corrino. In Dune Messiah, however, Edric the Guild Navigator appears in front of the entire royal court and seemed to have no problem discussing prescience and spice. Is it completely unreasonable? Of course not, Paul is the Emperor and it makes sense that the Guild would send a high-ranking Navigator as an ambassador. It is, however, a complete turnaround from how they were presented in the first book.

Finally, I don’t know why the Fremen Jihad was allowed to happen. I could be wrong, but wasn’t avoiding a Jihad the whole point of the first book? Everything Paul did in Dune was in an effort to stop the bloody rampage that his prescience predicted; that was his greatest motivation. Whether or not he had succeeded was left ambiguous at the end of the first book, but within the first chapter of Dune Messiah we learn that the Jihad had been raging for twelve years.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Dune Messiah was a bad book; it was a great read, and it set up the next book very well. The fact that I even care about these nerdy little details is proof of what a great writer Frank Herbert is. Dune presented an entirely cohesive sci-fi universe, but unfortunately that universe is starting to show some seams.

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