Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why we use non-electronic games to teach (and learn) electronic game design

The following appeared (in slightly different form) on

Why we use non-electronic games to teach (and learn) electronic game design


Teaching game design with non-electronic games is a much more efficient use of the students' (and the instructor's) time that also teaches students more about game design than if they struggle with programming and art to produce electronic games. Learning game design with non-electronic games is much more effective for beginners than trying to produce electronic games. I’m here to explain why.

I'll summarize the reasons first, then discuss each in turn. Then I'll describe what happens when beginners learn using electronic games. (Henceforth I’ll use “students” and “beginners” interchangeably.)

! It's much more practical for beginners to make non-electronic prototypes--specialized skills such as programming and digital artistry are not needed.

! Much of successful game design is iterative and incremental; this is much easier for students to understand when they can quickly make and modify playable prototypes.

! Non-electronic games force students to concentrate on gameplay, not looks/slickness/coolness that have no staying power.

! Much less time is wasted on poor ideas–and most ideas are poor ideas.

! The greater simplicity of non-electronic games forces concentration on good gameplay.

! Students cannot "hide behind the computer" (the "easy button").

It's much more practical for beginning students to make non-electronic prototypes--specialized skills such as programming and digital artistry are not needed.

Less time is required for preliminary design of the non-electronic game. By their nature, non-electronic games are simpler than most video games, if only because there is no computer to control complexity. Moreover, you can reach the point of playing a paper prototype when you haven't figured out all the details, while an electronic game requires more detail before a playable prototype can be constructed. With a non-electronic game, if the designer is present he can make a ruling anytime a question arises that isn’t covered in the rules–the rules may not even be written, yet. This cannot be done with electronic games, the program must be fully functional, which means the "rules" must be complete and detailed.

A usable playable prototype of a non-electronic game can be made in an hour or two. A playable electronic prototype, even a simple one, will take new game design students dozens of hours on average for relatively simple video games.

If you’re familiar with how movies are made in the 21st century, think of the storyboards and “pre-viz” electronic versions of the movie that are made before actual filming. These are all prototypes, in effect. But it is much easier, cheaper, quicker, to make storyboards or even the pre-viz, than to shoot the actual movie. The same is true for non-electronic games, they are much easier, cheaper, and quicker to make. (Many designers recommend making non-electronic prototypes to test ideas for electronic games, just as storyboards test ideas for films.)

For tips for making paper prototypes read:

Much of game design is iterative and incremental; this is much easier for students to understand when they can quickly make and modify playable prototypes.

The playable prototype is what really counts; I tell students, “playtesting is Sovereign." The problem with any electronic production of a game is that it takes SO long, compared to making a non-electronic prototype, that students fail to do the most important part of design: repeated testing, and modification in light of that testing. They get a working prototype, play it a few times, and think they're done, instead of just getting started. Unfortunately, the emphasis in the video game industry, and in video game design books, is on planning a video game, in order to obtain funding to produce the prototype. This obscures the primacy of testing once you have that prototype. NO prototype is a really good game when it is first played.

The refinement process mainly consists of playtesting for modifications, not for bug finding. It’s important to “lose” any feature of a game that doesn’t contribute to good gameplay. A non-electronic game designer can simply wave his hand and change a rule, or remove a feature, of a game, whereas the video game designer faces a lengthy period of software modification–and tends to be reluctant to make changes.

The "natural" way to design a game used to be pursued in the video game industry, and may still be done for small games. A playable prototype is produced as soon as possible. It is played, revised, played, revised, played, revised, seemingly forever, until a stable "good game" has been produced. Sid Meier did this with Civilization. He programmed, he and (mostly) Bruce Shelley played, they decided what needed to be changed, Sid programmed, they played, and so on.

More recently, Sid Meier said on slashdot, "My whole approach to making games revolves around first creating a solid prototype and then playing and improving the game over the course of the 2-3 year development cycle . . . until we think it's ready for prime time. My experience in this area helps me to know what to do and where to start. I definitely spend a lot of time playing the game before I let anyone else look at it."

In a classroom we don't have the time (or the skills, usually) to create video games rapidly. But it's easy to create non-video games rapidly.

Furthermore, in a classroom context, it's easy for students to "redesign" traditional games like chess, perhaps one feature at a time. Because the games are quite simple, it's easier to discuss and predict the actual result of the changes. Most important, you can actually play the changed versions and see what happens.

You can "redesign" electronic games, but you can't put the redesigns into practice to see the results--it would take too long even if it was otherwise practical. Students tend to miss the point that design almost never turns out the way you intended, when you actually play the game.

Non-electronic games let students start out with small steps rather than attempt a big project that may fail for many reasons other than poor design.

For more about iteration see this recent article:

Non-electronic games force students to concentrate on gameplay, not looks/slickness/coolness that have no staying power.

Many students equate good looks with a good game. If they’re making electronic games, they’ll spend a lot of time trying to make them look good, trying to reach AAA list quality even though that’s impossible in any reasonable amount of time.

With non-electronic games students quickly see that there’s no point in wasting time worrying about slick looks until the game is actually “done.” Paper game designs are, by their nature, utilitarian, though published paper games can be full of eye-candy and slick parts.

Students nowadays often have only played "traditional" non-electronic games such as Monopoly and Game of Life that are, in fact, somewhere between mediocre and downright bad game designs. Discussion of traditional games opens their eyes to what good design really is, and helps them think critically about gameplay.

Much less time is wasted on poor ideas–and most ideas are poor ideas.

Students tend to think their first idea will be "the best game ever." And if that doesn't pan out, the next one will be "great." Experienced designers know that they should have many, many designs "in the works" at any time. And they know that to get a few really good ideas you need to generate a great many ideas altogether.

Furthermore, there's no reason to expect students to come up with excellent game designs when they're starting out, any more than writers or artists or composers start out with excellent ideas or results. John Creasey, who ultimately published more than 600 novels (mostly mysteries), was rejected more than 700 times before he made a sale. Science fiction novelist (and Byte magazine computer pundit) Jerry Pournelle says you must be willing to throw away your first million words (about 10 novels) if you want to become a good novelist.

Why let students waste huge amounts of time producing an electronic game that is a fundamentally bad design? When they design non-electronic games and very soon thereafter play their prototypes, they quickly discover that their "great ideas" are not very good, in practice. This helps them learn to critique their ideas at an early stage, and discard the obviously bad ones before spending a lot of time on them. In a sense, it teaches them humility, something that every designer must learn.

These are especially important lessons for the "millennial" generation in the “age of instant gratification.” Some people think they’re in “The Matrix,” where a quick pill is all they need to be an expert. Starting out with electronic games obscures the nature of these illusions.

The greater simplicity of non-electronic games forces concentration on good gameplay.

Students tend to identify "games" with AAA list games, rather than with much simpler casual games or games of 20 years ago (e.g., Tetris, Space Invaders). These AAA games are often terrifically complex. This is the kind of game most students want to produce, though as a practical matter most of them actually won't work for companies producing AAA list games, nor in an educational setting can they make such complex games requiring dozens of man-years of professional effort.

All this complexity obscures the actual game design in the games. That obscuring complexity rarely exists in non-electronic games; furthermore, the students aren't likely to design complex non-electronic games because they cannot expect the computer to take care of the details. Gameplay is a much more obvious element of non-electronic games than it is of video games. The result: the student is forced to concentrate on the most important part of the game, gameplay.

For example, beginners designing electronic games tend to concentrate on story rather than gameplay, usually a big mistake. When there's no computer, they're less likely to do this, because they don't have a computer to "describe and depict the world" for them.

Students cannot "hide behind the computer" (the "easy button").

Students tend to design an overly-complex electronic game and assume "the computer will take care of" problems that are, in fact, game design problems. I call this "hiding behind the computer." Unfortunately this is easy to do, because only at the end of a very long design and modification cycle will it become obvious that the computer cannot solve the problem, that it's a design problem.

People make computer games complex . . . because they can, because the "computer will take care of" things that would never be possible or tolerable in a non-electronic game. Often, the resulting game is too complex despite the computer.

Designers, especially novices, should live by the following: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery (French engineer and early airman).)

It's much easier to learn to do this effectively with non-electronic games.

With non-electronic games, there's clearly no "easy button"; when there's no computer, there's nowhere to hide. When you design something that results in a crappy electronic game prototype, you can blame it on the programming, or the art, or the sound, or something else. When you make a crappy non-electronic game prototype, you're out there on your own, it's your fault, so you are forced to figure out what you need to do to get better.

Designing non-electronic games is actually more challenging, for most people. And more educational for beginners.

Having described these reasons, now let's consider two important questions.

What happens when you start to teach (or learn) with electronic games?

If you begin with electronic games, in the end, you never actually teach or learn game design, you teach or learn game production, which is quite another thing, and you teach or learn it in an exceptionally half-baked way.

If the class uses a simple game engine, even something as simple as Gamemaker, this not only severely limits what games can be made, most of the effort goes into making the prototype work, not into the design and testing/iteration phases.

When you create electronic games for learning purposes, you’ll spend almost all of your time on game production elements that are not game design.

How IS electronic and non-electronic game design different?

Many video game experts say "game design is game design" whether electronic or not (e.g. Adams and Rollings, Game Design Fundamentals). This is a topic for another article, but I can point out the most important difference.

The obvious difference is scale, but this isn’t so much a design difference as a marketing difference. “Big time” video games are produced by dozens of people, cost millions of dollars, and in rare cases sell many millions of copies. “Big time” non-video games are produced by a few people with budgets in the thousands, with only a few titles such as Settlers of Catan and Risk selling as many as a million copies.

More important from a design perspective, electronic games tend to be one person (or group) versus the computer; non-electronic games tend to be two or more people playing against one another. “Multi-sided” games–more than one conflicting human entity (individual or group)–are the norm in the non-electronic world, the exception in the video game world. (Except where PvP is allowed, even an MMO is not multi-sided even if there are 70 people in a raid.) We are seeing more multi-sided video games, and there is a lot to be learned from board and card games. I’ll address that another time.

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