Friday, May 12, 2006

Educating Games

In some places, some people are actually seeking to improve their public education systems. Shocking isn't it? In some of these cases the people in question are turing to games to bridge the usually desolate chasm between learning and fun.

That deserves a general shout out all by itself: When something is fun, you want to do it. This is triply true when you are under the age of 20. When you want to get someone else to do something, one of the best ways to encourage them is to make it fun for them.

In making educational games there are a lot of things to consider above and beyond making a leisure game. It might be helpful to being by examining a game you are familiar with and ask yourself what the game could be used to teach. What do you need to do to win the game? Are the multiple winning strategies? What styles of play lead to these winning strategies? What styles and strategies is the game teaching the players?

Chess might be a simple example (I am not a master, so...). To do well in chess you need to plan ahead. Furthermore, you often want to trade resources (pieces) for position. So chess teaches you to plan ahead, and that position can be much more valuable than a simple total of resources. Learning that second lesson can be very powerful in real life, but I'm not convinced chess puts it into your head in such a way that you'll apply it outside the game. This is as opposed to the planning ahead, which is highly transparent (and in pop reference this is the central aspect of chess that is referenced) and easily transferred into life. If you wanted to use chess more educationally you would want to spend more effort on the emphasis and discussion of the resource for position lesson, as it's not as clear.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Licensing woes

Many products these days, games included, use an existing, popular, intellectual property as a selling point. "If you like the IP, this game's for you!" The major advantage to licensing an IP is getting an established customer base. There are, however, also many pitfalls.

Communicating with the property owner can be a big problem if you don't have a clear direct channel. An easy way to get into a low-communication situation is to license an anime property.

If you want to make a game for an anime property in the USA, you get the license from the American distributor of that anime, who gets the license from the Japansese distributor. That's at least one "unnecessary" level of communication. If you work as a game designer for a game company, you might have another layer to go though - the marketing or licensing department in your own company.

Recently, I wanted to get something from an anime IP owner, and I have to go through at least this many layers. I wrote a nice e-mail, explaining what I needed. Prior to this, I had demonstrated directly for the American licensor the game's concept. They found it most pleasing, and at the time verbally assured me they could get this thing I needed for me. Well months later and I still don't have it so I'm writing this e-mail. I remain very polite and professional in my request.

After going through my people, the American licensor, the Japanese company, and back again, all I get is: "No." Not even the slightest explanation. I press my company people and then get a slightly bigger no, with basically a "we're not interested in helping you with that, don't do it that way." Which is nice, after I've spent 4 months of work operating under the assumption that I would be helped to do it this way.

I'm confident in my design, it's a perfect fit to the property. I want to use some images that are from an associated work. That work is not owned by the same people, and aparrently "they hate each other" - the anime IP owners and the owners of this other thing I need. That's all I get though: "they hate each other." Which can't be simply true. I press again, and finally people in my own company actually show me the e-mail they recieved from the American licensor. This e-mail tells me the American licensor is on my side and wants what I want, but the Japanese people are saying they want the anime and the thing I need to be kept separate. This is ludicrous, but there is nothing I can do about it.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Taking Turns

When you and your friends or family eat at restraunt, do you take turns? Does each of you eat a certain amount of food, or a certain number of forkfulls, or for a certain number of seconds and then wait for each other person to do the same?

When your company's product is in competition with the products of other companies, does each company spend an equal amount on advertising, or have the same number of commercials? Does every product get equal materials or equal design time?

Real life doesn't have turns.

Is the concept of a "turn" the difference between a game and real life?

Turns are used as a system of fairness, they hold certain things constant. Most often these are things like resources and opportunity. Games do this to focus attention on decisions. Players can see very clearly what results come from the decisions they make. This structure also allows you to compare the results if you play a game multiple times but make different decisions.

Games are a test arena for strategy and decision making. Players can experiment inside a game with their own decision making process and learn without risking their real-life resources what impact their decision will have in various circumstances.

I wonder if the first person to invent the concept of a turn was a parent trying to get their children to play together without fighting so much...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


While games are primarily seen as fun diversions from work, I find most of them to be excellent simulations for "real life." Games are filled with situations and decision points that mirror things you might encounter everyday. It's easy to learn about efficiency, long-term planning, investing, the value of hidden information, compromise, and lots of small business techniques while playing games.

It's becoming almost common to see games used in classrooms to teach math, social skills, politics, history, and other subjects. I think the easiest applications are math, logistics/efficiency, and a sort of social-business savvy, because a lot of the best games feature these things prominently.

For example: A game like Settlers of Catan is a solid choice for teaching probability and small business savvy. In this game players have access to 5 resource types in varying amounts. If one player finds they have a dominance in a particular resource they can apply supply-and-demand economics to get ahead of the others via trading.

Ticket to Ride is another popular game right now, to win you often must learn to spot the best moment to strike. There are a fixed number of opportunities in this game, but you can't take them without a buildup of resources. If you take one early, you give away your plan and make it easy for others to block you. If you collect resources for too long, or overplan every detail, you might run out of time or another player might block your path.

Learning to adjust strategy dynamically, in response to the actions of others or chance occurances could be costly if done with your first business. If you learn to do so while playing games growing up, on the other hand...

When designing games it can be useful to think about what the game teaches its players. At the extreme end, there are games designed for an industry to teach workers and managers in that industry how to work together and how to avoid common pitfalls. Companies that provide games training give their employees hands-on experience in what not to do without demeaning lectures and without risking their actual business.

Back to the expected realm of games, as a designer you should consider what you can teach players through your game. As a parent, when playing games with your children or choosing one in a store, think about what the child (and even what you) will learn from it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Here goes something...

My grand aspiration with this blog is to start along the path of creating for games what Scott McCloud has created for comics ( Ambitious, I realize, but someone ought to do it and I'd like to be that someone. This won't be simply a scratchpad for that project, it is still a blog and so my intent is to journal my career in game design here. It will naturally include a great deal of material suitable for a future Understanding Games website / book / feature length film starring Steve Buscemi, and so I chose that title for it.

Point of View

My professional experience is largely in the field of collectible card game design, though as you'd expect I enjoy a very wide variety of games and would be happy to work in any number of game subfields. You can expect many of the experiences-based entries here to relate to CCG design work, especially the products of Score Entertainment, where I am currently employed. While I'm at it: the opinions expressed herein are my own, and in no way reflect the position of Score Entertainment or anyone else, and so forth.

I have also worked for Wizards of the Coast, and very briefly for Upper Deck. I put in 9 months as a video game tester as well. Perhaps more importantly, I've played a lot of time playing games... you could say it was my major in college.