[Originally posted at http://gambit.mit.edu ]
The Game Design Workshop at GDC 2009 began with a series of lists. During the opening presentation, the 100+ workshop participants received a crash course in the MDA Framework, eight kinds of “fun,” four possible aesthetic goals, and various dynamic models. As a professor here likes to write all over our papers: “Jargon!” Personally, I enjoyed the presentation. Marc LeBlanc et al laid out a solid foundation for the formal approach to game design that would shape the next two days. After reading Rules of Play, a 20 minute lecture was hardly daunting. But not every designer has the same theoretical background. There were plenty of programmers, artists, and others who were just interested in the design exercises and getting their feet wet in another discipline. More than a few participants found the presentation to be too technical and uninteresting. How does this all jargon fit into the actual process of design? Hopefully some of the participants skeptical of the theory discovered the applications along the way.
We spent most of the first day creating variations on Sissyfight. Originally designed by Eric Zimmerman and released on the web (as Sissyfight 2000), a simplified card-based version has become a mainstay of game design exercises. Six players are each assigned distinct colors and have a deck containing a card for every action and a card for every color. Once all the players have placed their selected action and target cards face-down, the cards are flipped and the actions resolved. In the simplified version, the commands are a basic attack (deal 1 point of damage), a team attack (deal 2 damage per team attacker, but fails if there’s only one), and defend (receive half damage, rounded down). The game continues until there two players are left with health tokens.
With our 6-person teams, we discussed and analyzed the game before creating our own variation. One of Sissyfight’s strong points is how its simple mechanics work to convey the theme of schoolyard girls taunting each other. Without the name, it’s still an engaging game, but keeping the theme in mind lends the game a lighter humorous quality. The question we faced was how could we change the mechanics to communicate a different aesthetic. With 20 ideas, from monster trucks to debating, we gradually narrowed down our options. The idea we settled on was a combination of tribal and spiritual warfare. Two distinct conceptions of the theme were playtested. First we split the players into two tribes to make the game 3 vs 3. When that turned out to be too unbalanced without extensive complications, we returned to an earlier idea of converting followers. The result was a pool that all damage went into, which could then be claimed by a player if they were the only one to take that action in a turn. But as we iterated, we focused more on making the new mechanic interesting and balanced than matching the theme.
In contrast, another team did a game about bacteria where every card had a post-it note renaming the actions to things like infect and mutate. Each of their changes also were more geared towards following the theme, though it seemed to have some fairly arbitrary limitations. What was really interesting was how they saw the player interactions during the game. My team generally avoided ganging up on any one person and kept the scheming to a minimum. The other team played with constant discussion of alliances against other players and actually incorporated this as a phase in their game progression. With the same set of rules, the two groups had completely different social dynamics. Maybe this was reflected in our design process too. We tended to listen and discuss every person’s ideas and tried to incorporate all input. But as a result, our prototyping process slowed. The other group seems to have made firmer decisions and then had time to incorporate the theme more fully. On the flipside, our team really polished the changed mechanic. The difference here actually brings to light one of my problems with the MDA framework. The A in MDA refers to aesthetics that result from the mechanics and dynamics, separate from any visual or narrative aesthetics. I don’t disagree, but I worry that MDA overemphasizes the mechanics influence on aesthetics. Simply renaming the cards and describing the gameplay from within the theme added a lot to the bacteria team. Would Braid have been nearly as effective without its elaborate artwork and music? But thats an issue for a different, and much longer, post.
Following our second coffee break of the day (there was no shortage of caffeine during the conference) we began Elective A. We had a choice of three activities and I participated in Robin Hunicke’s Facebook game session. Each team had to come up with an idea for a social Facebook-based game and then present their proposal to a team of producers who assign a sponsorship to the game. The next iteration would then have to somehow incorporate the sponsor. One of my favorite proposals was a collaborative art game where the best results would be printed on Threadless tees. But for such an interesting activity, I left pretty disappointed as did the rest of my team. See, the youngest person at each table was placed onto the producer team. I can see that Robin was trying to give us a special role, but in the end we had very little to do aside from listening to pitches, picking a sponsor, and giving a few suggestions. On top of that, Robin was obviously very excited about the activity and ended up doing a fair amount of the talking for us. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a blast to work with, her enthusiasm was infectious, and she gave great input. Just next time: Can we play too?
For the second elective that spanned the last hour of Monday and all of Tuesday morning, I chose “The Three Musketeers.” Similar to the Sissyfight activity, we were given a simple game that we would make changes to. Three Musketeers is a simple two-player asymmetric board game. Rather than make a thematic change like with Sissyfight, we were asked to preserve the theme while adding a third player (and a fourth if possible). So if you have The Three Musketeers against Cardinal Richelieu’s men, who is the third player? Some teams added d’Artagnan or another third distinct side, though most ended up splitting either the Musketeers or the Cardinal into two. With the asymmetric sides, it was particularly difficult to add a player while maintaining a balance. My team, again using an iterative process (moral of Game Design Workshop: iteration is good), where we had two pairs of Musketeers working independently. But the Cardinal’s win condition was to have any three Musketeers in a line. This meant that the two Musketeer players had to strike a balance with each other. By the way, is there really no flash implementation of Three Musketeers? Someone fix this!
Next up was a short activity where each team chose an existing video game and create a paper version that conveyed the aesthetics (using the MDA definition) rather than the mechanics. Now this is a fascinating thought experiment. My team chose Street Fighter and we quickly developed a rock-paper-scissors style play. The designers on the team revealed very different conceptions of how the game would actually play. One designer was convinced that the game needed to be frantic and fast-paced, with players throwing dice or placing cards as fast as possible. This proved to be impractical, but revealed how players see Street Fighter in different ways. It’s the difference between button-mashing and strategic choice of moves. A less experienced player would throw out whatever moves they could while an expert player would be planning moves in advance. Our version kept a similar distinction by implementing a time limit. Players place three actions (high, medium, low attacks, and directional movement) face-down on the table. Once one player has placed all three cards they count down from three. If the other player hasn’t placed all their cards, they have a missed move. The result is that if the player doesn’t plan ahead and constantly reorganize their cards, they could fall behind. The actions we specified definitely could use some adjustment (jump and crouch gave no advantage, only added a disadvantage), but the idea was so successful that I hope to make a fuller implementation at some point. After we presented our game, a man came up to me and explained that he made the Street Fighter card game, and it was very similar to what we had done. I guess we were on the right track.
And finally, to close out the workshop, I signed up for Iron Game Designer. Each team was given an identical bag of objects to make a game with. Rather than giving us typical game-related objects, we had rubber pencil toppers, elbow braces, plastic two-pronged forks, floss picks, a comb, and a plastic bag. One group made a board game using the objects to replace traditional pieces, but the others mostly grew out of throwing things. It was certainly fun, and a relaxing end to the workshop, but using a floss pick and the forks as bow and arrows isn’t exactly a useful design exercise.
Still, the workshop as a whole was a resounding success, giving us a chance to come up with unique ideas and make some rapid prototypes. I’m not sure how much I learned that could be articulated, but the activities provided plenty of food for thought. Would I recommend the Game Design Workshop for next year’s attendees? Absolutely. Will I attend again? Doubt it. There are other summits those two days that I’d like to attend. As far as the Game Design Workshop, I’d be more interested in a workshop held locally every other month or so; essentially a game jam of exclusively non-digital games where go through a variety of small projects.