Thursday, March 29, 2012

Game Design? It's still hard.

Here at the VBC, we are rapidly coming to an end of our semester long process. We have a month to go before our final showcase where we will display to our friends, family, and the community what it is we have been working so hard on. This is a terrifying fact, because we still have so much work that needs to be done. In the past two days, I think we have finally realized just how much remains to be completed for us to have a working game that we can be proud of.

This sprint is the first sprint where we were making visible progress to the game. Up until now, we have been working on backend things: deciding on content to our game, programming the architecture that makes our game run, and trying to compile it all together in a design document that we can all easily reference. So progress, and a lot of it, has been being made throughout. But this is the first time that we've been able to really see it on our computer screens. You can now go to the link and play through the first digital iteration of our game. We were completing tasks on our task board at a much faster rate than we had previously experienced. And while there are some issues with this (in our excitement, some of the verification process was ignored), I'd be lying to say that we weren't all excited about how quickly our ideas were coming into being.

In the past two days, we've been shown where the flaws in our process are. Sheltered as we are within our wonderful space, we are incredibly far removed from the people this game is catered towards. While we've had multiple playtests throughout the process, we did not have our first playtest of the digital version of the game until yesterday. So close to the end, it is scary looking at the feedback we received and what must be changed to accommodate the opinions of the potential players of the game. Certainly, not all of the feedback was scary, but there was an overwhelming sense that somehow, we had gotten off track with our user interface - it was not as intuitive as it can be. Of course, all of us here at the VBC know how to play the game and get through it quite easily, but we were the ones to create it, and we have a significantly biased view towards our "baby".

Our second audience are the officials at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. They are not our clients, meaning we do not have to cater our game to them, but we went into this project with the goal that we would produce an artifact that would be used on their website. Receiving their feedback is a reminder of why constructive criticism, though helpful, can be tough to hear when you've put so many hours of work into a project. They put our project in scope for us - we were incredibly ambitious with what we wanted to accomplish. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it hit home when we realized what we would have to change and alter, going through the iteration process all over again.

Today was a long day of meetings and discussion. Our weakness throughout the process has been making decisions, we seem to have a love-hate relationship with commitment. Which makes it even more difficult to being forced into a corner where decisions have to be made. The process we used this morning, of using official motions and voting and going with the simple majority, has been one of the most productive decision-making meetings we've had. It remains to be seen where we go with our decisions, as a lot of new ideas need to be generated, but I am looking forward to seeing where we go from here. Good is the enemy of great, and while it might be hard work, it will be well worth it for us to put the time in to figure out which direction we're going to go as we finish up the semester.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Winning vs. Not Losing

Over Spring Break, I learned how to play a game called Dao, a two person game played on a 4x4 grid. Developed by some incredibly smart people back in 2001, the game is deceptively simple. Each player is given four pieces that are set up diagonally on the board (creating an X with both sets of pieces). Then, each player alternates turns moving pieces. Pieces can move in any direction, but must move all of the spaces they can. The game is over when one of the players completes the winning conditions, which are various alignments of their pieces on the board OR when one player traps the piece of another player in the corner.

My friend and I were playing the game because he is required to develop an AI for the game, and we wanted to figure out the basic mechanics of the game for him to do so. Before he and I started playing, however, I played online against a computer. I lost, every single time I played. That said, when I started playing against my friend, I won far more games than I lost. It sparked an interesting thought that I wanted to raise here: I was not winning because of my own superior strategy, but because my opponent was making mistakes. In essence, I wasn't winning, per say, I was "not losing".

In looking at the difference between playing against the computer and my friend, it is blatantly clear that the obvious difference is that my friend is human and made human errors. There were several times when we would both be a move or two away from winning the game, and sometimes we would lose track of the other person's pieces because we were too focused on our own and would lose the game because of this. We could not see completely the board and the potential moves that our opponents might make.

This was not the case with the computer.

Playing against the computer, it saw the board completely at all times. And while it could not foresee what moves I would make, it could analyze the moves I did make and the best way to respond far better than I could. In terms of a programming challenge, it is interesting to think about what the programmer was trying to accomplish. Did they want their AI to win? Or did they simply want their AI to not lose? I didn't pay close enough attention while I was playing to know for sure, but I'm curious to know if the computer was simply making moves that would prevent me from winning, rather than trying to proactively win. It would be interesting to look at a log of moves and see what it is the computer does.

This got me thinking into how this could relate to Mystery at the Museum, where there are some computer controlled elements. It is different in that our computer controlled elements, the challenges, are not directly competing against the computer, and what moves they can make are being determined by random chance. They are not making their moves based off what the user does at all. I'm curious as to how the dynamic of the game would change if an AI was introduced, one that would respond based off the moves of the user - more interestingly, what would happen if we made an AI that was trying to win and not just exist for the sake of providing challenge?

Game Design is Hard

This is something I said at the very beginning of our first sprint - "Game Design is Hard". Despite having thought about and plotted ideas for potential prototypes for several days, I was still coming up empty handed. It almost seemed misleading - game design during the first week here at the VBC had seemed "doable" (not easy, but something that could be achieved with brain power). Now in the second week, armed with information from our meeting with our partners at the Children's Museum, it seemed like creating several prototypes for each of the domains we were given would be a successful task.

Now almost at the end of our two week sprint and only a few ideas thought out enough to actually make them into a protoype, I'm realizing just how far off the mark I was initially with my assessment of game design. After reading the MDA guidelines and the accompanying blog post, "Game Design Concepts Level 5" by Ian Schreiber, it became clearer to me just how in over my head I was. Having never design a game before and always played it, I had always looked at games from the aesthetic point of view. Did I get that "WOW!" feeling from playing a game, or did I finish a level and feel "meh"? I had never sat down and thought about the basic mechanics of a game: passing a card, moving your piece around the board, running/jumping, etc. These were elements of a game that a designer actually had to think about, even though to the player, they might seem completely trivial.

Given that it is my task to design a game that is based within one of six domains, I attempted to start with the theme and work my way backwards. What was the story of the game I was creating? This has not necessarily been a difficult part of the process for me, thinking in terms of overarching themes is a skill I am used to using. However, I have quickly realized that it does not matter what your theme is or how developed it is, it will not make a successful game if it does not have a corresponding set of successful mechanics behind it. Not having as much experience with playing games as some of the other students here, I did not have near as much background to draw from, and as a result, many of the prototypes that I have created involve very basic mechanics (anything complicated was directly taken from an already existing game). I am going to have to respectfully disagree with Brad King that this does have an impact on designing games. While I agree that we can draw on any experience we considered fun, it is difficult to turn running around outside in the grass into a game mechanic.

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Two months later, looking back at what I wrote, I cannot say that my views have changed very much. Game Design is still hard. Even though we have successfully picked a game idea, everyday we are encountering hurdles that must be overcome before we can progress forward. Up until recently, we were still altering the fundamentals of the game, decisions that need to be nailed down if we want to be able to move ahead with confidence. But, we have learned a lot from our initial couple of weeks of workshops and rapid prototyping. The ability to alter and throw out mechanics is getting better, and we can more easily see beforehand what ideas have merit and which do not. But we are a long way from finished, and it will be an adventure to see what we will accomplish at the end of these 15 weeks. Afterall, game design is hard, and that is a basic mechanic that will never change.