My current job/civilian service has given me the unique opportunity to have a look at a variety of therapy games that have been designed for children's neurorehabilitation. Most of those games come with specialised input devices.
As a matter of fact, it's usually the input devices that come with games. Too often, the games seem to have been created as an afterthought of the device, and too often, those games have good intentions, but fail to deliver.
In order to be aware of those problems myself, I decided to make a list of my observations and how they could be mitigated.
The following points do not intend to discredit the work of all the people that designed and programmed the therapy games mentioned, it should merely discuss some problems that can occur and should be addressed when designing new games. Of course, that mostly means me, so I don't fall into those pitfalls myself.
Common Pitfalls and their Resolutions
First of all, it has to be said that if you're tasked with creating a therapy game for children, you have quite a challenge to overcome. Children are one of the most demanding audiences, and they will have no problems picking your game apart at the seams when they feel like it. They will feel most inclined to do so when you give them reasons. Like creating incoherent game worlds. A running dog that has to avoid exploding mushrooms by jumping whenever boing poked in the belly with a huge hand and meanwhile collecting diamonds that hang suspended in thin air?
And as long as we're at the lists for game design students, this one might come in handy as well: A list of 20 game design blogs that students will love:
As video games continue to rise in popularity, game designers are being asked to create even more challenging and satisfying user experiences. Game design students are looking for information on the latest tips, tricks and techniques to help you take your games to the next level. Fortunately, there are several high-quality game design blogs to help guide your studies, skill development and provide you with the latest trends in the field.
Of the many game design blogs in cyberspace, we selected 20 that we think you’ll find useful now and long after you earn a game design degree.
I would, however, add three other blogs worth checking out:
- The Border House Blog: Yes, it has a clearly feminist twang, and don't always agree with them. But the point is: this blog keeps on reminding you that there are female, gay and lesbian players out there that do not constantly have to be reminded of their non-mainstream existence just because you, the game designer, once again designed the game to fit the wet dreams of a heterosexual 13-year old male …
- Robert Yang: Game Designer at the Parsons University in New York – provides thoughtful analysis of games, level design and general out-of-the-box-thinking.
- Terra Nova: This clearly goes into the realm of game studies – as such, the articles are usually rather long and contain convoluted words. Never fear!
Sometimes, as a game designer, you tend to forget how well versed you are in your medium. You tend to think that all people are able to plunge into a virtual world and stroll around. You could not be more wrong.
This weekend, Oli, Käde and me had our parents over for a lengthy Easter brunch. And since recently Portal 2 was released, we figured that we showed them the first Portal as an example of a really well done and funny game. I am not really sure how our parents received the game. In fact, I doubt that they realised much of it, since they were mostly occupied figuring out the controls.
This was the perfect illustration for the generational gap. While modern games tend to write "Use WASD to move around" and leave it at that, assuming that the player will know what to do, because he has used that control scheme so many times before, this was clearly not enough for our parents.
At first, they tended to alternate between intently staring at the mouse and then slowly turning it and swooping over the keyboard with the index finger, trying to find the correct key to ... well, do something.
Since we will have to program a multiplayer game this semester, this presentation (PDF) by Raph Koster could come in handy: Social Mechanics: The Engines Behind Everything Multiplayer.
He held the presentation at the GDC, and it collects different game mechanics present in multiplayer games. Guess we could inspire ourselves with that.
... is, apparently, something Tale of Tales are rather good at. Robert Yang has a neat timeline of the current events. And it is not the first time they make people angry.
Of course, you can debate the value of their provocations, you can debate their contribution to game culture –
Tale of Tales is important and interesting... but also kind of not. Their conception of video games seems really narrow, perhaps out of necessity in order to target it effectively in their crazy dogmatic manifestos.
– the thing is: there is a discussion about what games are and what not. People might consider them to be wrong. But people might also consider Blizzard to be wrong, inasmuch as they pretty much only polish up the games they did ten years ago.1
No matter how aggravating/boring this argument may seem: It is important that it is discussed. Every game designer that plays a Tale of Tales game will either see how games could be made as well – or she or he will realise how games are not to be designed. Either way: everybody learns.
Here’s to the crazy ones, so to speak.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
Just an example, I am not trying to flame anyone here. Not much, anyway. ↩
Heather returned to the states, her father ill with cancer. Alone and bored, I remained in London to finish my final year at Goldsmiths. From the sleep of childhood and all its aimless memories, an old computer game returned to haunt me.
My first recollection was a flashback at the airport, triggered by a scent: the same carpet deodorizer my mother used to use when I was a kid. Transported away from the echoes of Heathrow's PA system and the hubbub of waiting travelers, I found myself back in my old bedroom. A child sat at at the machine, intent on the controls. Deja vu crept over me.
Pixels shone like gemstones in darkness. Phosphors moved over the face of the deep and formed into random landscapes. Every play was different, a 64Kb window onto a universe of iterations. Music, naked square waves, rang out. I'd forgotten that place for a decade, but it had not forgotten me.
In the blackness of the monitor's glass, I caught my younger self's eye; a chill tightened my skin and I was back in the airport terminal, staring at the contrails of my fiancée's flight home.
Thus begins the beautiful story Nomen Ludi by Rob Beschizza over at BoingBoing – a story about childhood memories, about shattered dreams – but most of all: about how rewards never manage to keep up with the quest that lead to them.
Which poses the question ... do we, as game designers, have to provide a reward for every quest we invent?
Read the story yourself, it is awesome.
Designed by Christophe Berg with artwork by Liselore Goedhart, Game Seeds is a unique meta game:
Game Seeds is a card game designed to spice up your brainstorm sessions on Character and Game Design.
Game Seeds are wild free-spirited tiny creatures that you can play with, combine, hack and get inspired by to bring new characters and game ideas to life.
The object of Game Seeds: design a Hero, design a Sidekick and design a Game by playing with a deck of cards.
Game Seeds has been commissioned by the Utrecht School of Arts. More infos and Pictures can be found on Liselore Goedhardt's website, which is worth a visit on its own – there are beautiful illustrations.
The Graveyard is both beautiful and incredibly irritating -- and it's worth playing, both because it is beautiful, and because the reasons why it's irritating are worth thinking about. [...]
Now here's the thing; by giving the player (if we may call him such) the illusion of agency, by placing control of the character's motions in his hands, an application makes an implicit promise: That your choice of actions matters. Since this is essentially an art project, perhaps it need not matter much -- but it should matter to some degree. The implicit promise is that we can turn down that path to the left or right, or skirt around the chapel; perhaps doing so takes us no where in particular, perhaps the only point at which something interesting happens is that park bench -- but for the application simply to not let you see to left or right, to bar you from moving past the chapel, breaks the illusion of presence, and denies your control of the character.
The character is not in your control, in any meaningful sense.
This is the article that got me into wanting to play Silent Hill 2:
In the ongoing evolution of computer games towards a mature art form, we see many blips on the radar that fade away after some time. But there is one game that never goes away. Silent Hill 2. There’s something about that game that is so intensely inspiring, beautiful and moving that it continues to give hope to everyone on this path.
By creating some of the most important artistic aspects of both Silent Hill 1 and 2, Takayoshi Sato has been one of very few people within the games industry that have been of major importance to our own activity at Tale of Tales. His work demonstrated that there was room in the games industry for subtle art work and complex stories, something which is easy to forget in the ongoing onslaught of infantile entertainment that the industry continues to excrete. Mr. Sato approaches the medium as an art form. A medium that allows us to talk about human stories in a sophisticated and beautiful way. And he does this with impressive commercial success to boot.
Elite, the Metroid series, Dungeon Siege, God of War I and II, Half-Life (but not Half-Life 2), Shadow of the Colossus, the Grand Theft Auto series; some of the best games ever (and Dungeon Siege) have done away with the level mechanic and created uninterrupted game spaces devoid of loading screens and artificial breaks between periods of play. Much like cut scenes, level loads are anathema to enjoyment of game play, and a throwback to the era of the Vic-20 and Commodore 64 when games were stored on cassette tapes, and memory was measured in kilobytes. So in this era of multi-megabyte and gigabyte memory and fast access storage devices why do we continue to have games that are dominated by the level structure, be they commercial (Halo 3, Portal, Team Fortress 2), independent (Darwinia) and amateur (Nethack, Angband)?
John Lanchester argues in this essay that the production of games has become so expensive, the democratic effect is vanishing – quite in contrast to the rest of media, where the internet made it simpler and cheaper to produce for.
One of the problems is that the new consoles are difficult and expensive to create games for: no one can create a game for the PS3 or Xbox 360 without access to significant amounts of capital. The next generation of consoles is a long way away, and this will likely be even more the case by the time they’ve grown up. As the tools of filmmaking have got cheaper, those for game making have got more expensive; this might mean that the game industry never gets to move on from the need to create blockbuster equivalents. Already the industry suffers from an excessive proliferation of sequels – always a sign that the moneymen are in charge. Games do a good job of competing with blockbusters, but it would be a pity if that was the summit of their artistic development.
I don't think I agree with this. There have been many initiatives to get young, designers to work for those consoles. Also, I think there is a certain backlash: the more big studios are out there, the more independent developers have a reason to produce a counter-culture. The current economic crisis that is also affecting the game industry is definitely helping in this cause: since game designers are laid off, they might form their own small development studios.
After all, games just don't have the pedigree yet, compared to other media. It is still something in search of its own form.
With a scant 40 minutes to address the gathered masses, former World of Warcraft director Jeffery Kaplan had a lot to cover in his "The Cruise Director of Azeroth" lecture.
The presentation saw an extremely candid Kaplan, now working on Blizzard's next-gen MMO, recognize and address the nine major problems with World of Warcraft.
His major point: Don't write too much text. No one's going to read it anyway.
Or as Raph Koster puts it: Avatars aren't tokens. They are not just playing pieces, they – just because they look human – are being read and interpreted as human. And with that comes all the prejudicial crust we so heavily rely on.
We have a lot of “specialized hardware” around this in our brains, and avatars tend to trigger a lot of it. For example, the fusiform face area or FFA is a part of the brain that seems to be involved in facial recognition, and also seems to fire off when identifying specific objects with fine distinctions (for example, it fires in birdwatchers when identifying birds, and in car aficionados when recognizing specific makes and models). The interesting thing is that the FFA activates even with iconified faces — with stuff that we just think of as a face.
In effect, our tokens have become rich enough to cause us to subconsciously treat them as people, whether or not we intended it. The magic circle here is quite simply shattered, at a fundamental psychological and biological level. In fact, we can even exploit these these even more: we can “hack the users” by exploiting some of these reactions, in the same way that we exploit classical conditioning with tricks like “ding” sounds.
Just another game for Oskar Freysinger who claims that games can't convey philosphical ideas:
Train by Brenda Brathwaite. A board game, it seems, with a mean twist.
Train is not your standard board game. It comes on a full-sized window, not in a cardboard box. There is no company logo on the rules, because there is no publisher. You cannot buy it, because only one copy exists in the world and it is not for sale. You cannot play it, unless you see it in person. If you do see it in person, it will not be at a game store but at an art gallery. And when you do play it, you will only play it once because it was intentionally designed to have no replay value. This goes way beyond the “indie” aesthetic, beyond perhaps where many so-called “art games” have gone, to something that is such uncharted territory for games that we don’t even have a name for it yet.
In terms of mechanics, Train is a relatively conventional roll-and-move, race-to-the-end game. Each turn you roll a die and either add that many passengers to your train car, or move your train car that many spaces forward. The objective is to deliver passengers to a series of locations, the names of which are printed on “terminus” cards. To give the play more of a German-game aesthetic, event cards are introduced that allow you to speed your car forward, switch tracks, block other people’s forward progress, take over other players’ cars, or derail a train car.
As the rule states: The game is over when it ends.
Conveniently, evil already has a visual language. Put another way: I have seen the face of evil, and it is a caricature of gothic construction. There's barely a necromancer in existence whose dark citadel doesn't in some way reflect real-world Romanian landmarks, such as Hunyad or Bran Castle. The visual theme of these games is so heavily dependent on previously pillaged artistic ideas from Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien that evil ambiance is delivered by shorthand. (Of course, World of Warcraft's Lich King gets a Stone UFO to fly around in – but it's still the same old prefab pseudo-Medieval schtick inside). Where the enemy is extra-terrestrial, HR Giger's influence is probably going to be felt instead.