February 28, 2008

Suddenly, Games Industry

Did you know that I am a game designer? In fact, I have a design credit on a title which attracted top-shelf designers from SCEE and IO Interactive, and had no less than Clint Hocking on board as a consultant. That's going on my resume. Right after "Writes obnoxiously cute and patronising intros for blog posts."

I was completely the wrong audience for the Games Design Workshop, and arguably for the conference in general. Fully aware of this, I would have likely blown it off if everyone I talked to about GDC hadn't urged me to take part. Predictably, it was great. Absolutely a GDC highlight.

Still, I'm not sure that it made me think any differently about game design. I learnt all about the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetic framework and Marc LeBlanc's Eight Kinds of Fun, both of which were immediately understandable and illuminating. But I haven't given them any further thought after seeing them on those Powerpoint slides. Maybe the workshop, which is all about visceral game experiences and high-pressure re-designs, isn't the best forum for an academic discussion on design codification. Or maybe I'm just an idiot. You never know; I might write a post about MDA and how that's reshaped my design philosophy. I'm sure I won't, though.

Frank Lantz (who I initially confused with Frank Luntz, and was terrified) taught us SissyFight 3000 (or, as they called it for no reason, SiSSYFiGHT 3000) which was based on a web game co-designed by Eric Zimmerman. It's a turn-based game where six players use a variety of attacks and prisoner's-dilemma mechanics to take down each other's hit points, and that has to do with school girls or something. Why am I telling you the rules when you could play it yourself? Who do I think I am, Frank Luntz? Actually, the "hit points" are "self-esteem points" and the attacks are things like teasing and bullying. The game reminded me strongly of Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble. Nobody I spoke to had heard of that game, giving me a gratifying infusion of indie cred.

Split into groups of six, our task was to adapt this game's mechanics and competitive dynamic to an entirely different setting. The turn-based attack/defend structure of the game lent itself most obviously to something along the lines of DEFCON, an idea which naturally everyone came up with. We finally decided on a celebrity-themed game, which unfortunately lacked the catchy title of my suggestion, Prison Bitch. (It came a close second.)

In our excited, frantic discussions, we breathlessly conceived of an amazing game wherein players represented celebrities, and used tools such as slander, lawsuits and the fabled "do lunch" card to manage their client's reputation points (hit points.) We came up with more concepts than we could handle, including a fame-infamy meter and a mechanic through which players could stage their comeback (i.e. return to the game after losing.) Eventually Clint Hocking told us to shut up and try to play the thing.

It didn't work very well and we went back to talking. Because we had a ton of features and no clue how to implement them, the level designer from IO got us to focus on the core rules of our game. We looked at our ideas for revised attack cards and, celebrity theme aside, thought about what would make for a cool game. The conversation zeroed in on the lawsuit card, which had been developed from a simple +1 damage attack to a hyper-complicated and intentionally frustrating legal maneuver whose gameplay effects were contingent on other players' moves and what alliances were in effect and so on.

I am at a loss to explain how this one card consumed our entire design. We mercifully simplified it so that the card's use would nullify the action of another player, shutting them out for that round. We called it the "lockdown" card. I hope it's clear that we entirely lost sight of what our game was supposed to be about. I pointed out that we could ditch that now non-existent celebrity theme since we had devised a pretty good game about lawyers, but no one went for it. Nonetheless, everything was working okay until we realised that with the lockdown card this was now a game about people not actually getting to play the game.

We regrouped and introduced one cool mechanic after another until we ran out of time and had to present our "celebrity" game. We were forced to admit that we had lost sight of that fun, sexy aesthetic and instead had produced an intensely rules-focused game which would have to be marketed to the hardcore SiSSYFiGHT fans.

What was the lesson of "Lockdown"? Nothing, I stubbornly refused to learn anything. But I did take something from the Design Workshop, and that was through getting to work with programmers, engineers, CEOs, producers, students, teachers, designers of military simulations for the Soviet Union (!) and finding out that they know an incredible amount about games and are not only enthusiastic about making good games, but are surprisingly talented at doing so. It was genuinely inspiring. We typically think of developers as the sole creative collective and everyone else is interference but maybe that isn't strictly the case. And I have to admit to a satisfying degree of smugness in knowing how a certain snot-nosed reporter completely held his own in those design meetings. Frankly, I killed.

Ultimately it is all about me.


Michael Abbott said...

You're right. Ultimately it *is* all about you. It could have been all about me, but I unwisely missed the Games Design Workshop thinking they'd laugh at my application to attend. Me not being a designer and all. Looks like I blew it big time.

I certainly enjoyed reading your account of it though. Even if it is all about you. :-)

By the way, Frank Luntz terrifies me too.

Duncan said...

Yeah, I have to say, even though the technical stuff kind of sat there for me (it sounded right-on but it's not something I'll ever use or even think about for much longer) the workshop as a whole does come with my highest recommendation. It's really a lot of fun and leaves you feeling good about games. When I say the course is "fun" by the way I of course mean it is #2, 4, 6 and 7 of Marc LeBlanc's 8 Kinds of Fun.

I just realised that Michael, you are the only person who writes comments anymore. You and me until the end, man.