203: Back to Basics

Back to Basics

After a failed attempt at teaching game design through Counter-Strike mods, one UC Berkeley teacher learned that the best way to engage his students was also the most primitive. Robert Yang recounts how playing outside helped his students learn the fundamentals of game design.

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Where's Berkeley? California?

I'm moving there.

Interesting article. Good writing!

I should read more of these Escapist Magazine articles. So far every one of them has been interesting till the end!

Good call on playing outside. The reproduction and endless proliferation of longstanding game genres (FPS, RTS, yadda yadda) has a lot to do with the fact that the computer science kids who go on to make games are hopelessly tunnel-visioned.

Hmm....

Good article. Good ideas in it. Still, we've never had this problem in our course. The whole class was split into groups of two or three and tasked to create 3 levels in the Quark toolset for Quake II. My level wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. My other two members though did a fantastic job. Excellent lighting, perfect map layout. I was team leader of the project and I must say I definately learned from my team what makes a good map (the map also had to be the general shape of the first letter of our name).

In saying that, perhaps it was the way the class was taught what makes a good map during class? Could also be the toolset you used in modding Counter-Strike?

I LOVED de_piranesi but I'm one of few I guess. I think people don't like it because it "seems" too big. It's really not that big, but when you are on top the wall and want to get down (or vice-versa) you do have to go the long way around. That makes it seems "big."

Anyway, I enjoyed this article. It was interesting.

"Currently, the vast majority of game developers and educational institutions wrongly ghettoize a game design education to a small contingent of computer science students"

This quote I can really get behind. I'm a huge game design hobbyist with a passion for creating and analyzing games, but I'm not a big programmer, and as a result, I'm taking Film+Digital Media instead of Game Design.

Wow, this was a great read on learning game design in a different way, thanks for your insights! I really wish I could take the class... and I discovered my new favorite word: ghettoize :)

mentor07825:
...
In saying that, perhaps it was the way the class was taught what makes a good map during class? Could also be the toolset you used in modding Counter-Strike?

It's likely both. The balance in the tools for making games, or even just modding them, is balanced heavily in favor of technical users. You could teach a class that is all about using the tools, and students might make a playable level with no ability to translate that information into interesting gameplay. You could also teach a class about how to make the gaming experience better, and students might make a phallus so massive that it crashes everyone's client just by looking.

The choice of the instructor is whether to reach a left-brained or right-brained student. No wrong answer there.

CaptainCrunch:

mentor07825:
...
In saying that, perhaps it was the way the class was taught what makes a good map during class? Could also be the toolset you used in modding Counter-Strike?

It's likely both. The balance in the tools for making games, or even just modding them, is balanced heavily in favor of technical users. You could teach a class that is all about using the tools, and students might make a playable level with no ability to translate that information into interesting gameplay. You could also teach a class about how to make the gaming experience better, and students might make a phallus so massive that it crashes everyone's client just by looking.

The choice of the instructor is whether to reach a left-brained or right-brained student. No wrong answer there.

Too true. The balance has to be good. What we were tasked was to re-create existing maps in Game Maker 7, learning more as we re-created different games. In conjunction to that we had our nomal video game class that taught us what makes a good game, what makes a game and how the industry works etc. After we did all the labs we were tasked to create a game (not a fun one, but one that mechanically works). Here is a link to it: http://www.yoyogames.com/games/show/72788#

When we were working on Quark, a toolset that we used for Quake II, we followed the same general learning principles. We had two classes that talked about Quark and Quake. We also had several labs that was concentrated on a few things, each lab. The first one was building a room and connecting it, with lighting. The second and third was creating different doors, enemies and all the basics that should go into the game without it crashing. I must say it was good practice. After those labs we were tasked to create our levels, as I mentioned above.

I think that what my lecturer did struck the right balance. It appealed to both the people learning in class and the people learning through action. We learned what worked and what didn't long before we received our project and because we had the knowledge we didn't feel the stress of creating a good level without it disrupting the rest of our classes and our projects because we were confident.

As for the tools, I must say they were user friendly enough. Twice I went on to their FAQ page for some small guidance for my viewing template, but that was it really. All the programming was done, so the tools were object based, done in simple Vector graphics. A box to represent an object such as the player or enemy and rooms etc, but the text window on the left that allowed us to name each box so we had a better understanding on what we were looking at. Also, before running the level it would debug, allowing it to check for "holes" in the map before executing the level. If there were any "holes" it would simply end the debug and tell us that there was a hole and point in the general direction where it might be.

I also find that interesting gameplay is something that could be checked as you go along making a technically sound game. Play through your level every now and then and see what you can add or get rid off. Everyone on my team, including myself, drew out a simple map of what our level would look like and what it would contain and generally where each object would be. We would then have a visualisation of what the gameplay might be like, such as too many enemies and not enough ammo/health and so on. I personally find such design documents very usefull as they do straighten out my thoughts and they give me a clear direction on what I want to achieve and how to go about it. Although this is just a preference, someone else may prefer using the tools and figure out what the level should look like as they go along.

To finish though, I totally agree with you. There is no wrong answer there. I suppose it just goes down to how the class was taught and what the lecturer deemed as necessary on how to go about teaching the material. Personally, I find that the way my lecturer did it, steps in using the tools while doing it & teaching the basics of what's in the game and how to go about it in class, was done very well and it catered to everyone in the class, including those who find the class difficult.

I think I see the underlying theme here, that more developers and teachers should remember, if one way fails to work, don't try to pound it in like some baboon trying to get a square block in a triangular hole...find a different approach. And on the other hand, if the piece fits in the slot too well, as from constant usage, then its time to find a new piece to fit in. Some game developers just try to stick with what works, and then wonder when sales go down. It's called mediocrity, and it will haunt you if you stay in one place for too long.

This article was great in many ways. Very interesting and quite poignant. However, there was one point I have to disagree with strongly.

Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

It just seemed unfair to regress one medium and not the others, wording it in that way. But I liked the enthusiasm.

Silva:
Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

I think that's a remnant from a larger point (but kind of irrelevant to this article) that I wanted to make which is core to my personal game development philosophy - how people always shoehorn video games into some progression of narrative / depiction of reality (e.g. epic verse > novel > film > video games!) but really games are on a separate track, in my mind, a progression of abstraction (e.g. hunting and gathering > Tag > Basketball > Monopoly > video games!)

From my own limited knowledge about the history of narrative, I'd argue the verbal saga was almost more of a performance (with the bard improvising, changing stuff around for the audience) than a written text. I'm kind of taking a page from Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens" with my perspective - though I think he goes a little far in saying it's older than culture, and I'd rather make a distinction between simply "play" and a "game," and now I feel I'm rambling so I'll stop now.

... and Mentor: that sounds like a pretty good class. Unfortunately I have to spend half the semester here (class is less than 2 hours a week, and that's pushing attention spans already) on basic workflow stuff (these were students with no game development experience, remember) - skills like building in 3D space, navigating the editor, troubleshooting errors... Stuff that is generally assumed of the paradigmatic game dev student (CompSci background, skilled with computers in general). So maybe the answer is easier, though less professional, tools, which is what I'm looking into for a future level design class. Right now I'm thinking Sauerbraten.

Ah, DeCal... Good to see it's still going strong despite all the controversy it has had over the years. When I was at Berkeley I always wanted to do a "gaming appreciation" course, but I never got around to putting it together.

Anyway, great idea on your part with taking the game design course outside. It's much easier to focus on game play when you are working abstractly like that (IE without all the shiny graphics and "I wanna make a pirate level!" getting in the way). Though if you decide to return to computer levels next semester, might I suggest forbidding students from adding textures/environmental details to their levels? It seems to me that doing so might encourage more students to make a level that's fun to play rather than one that just "looks cool".

Robert Yang:

Silva:
Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

I think that's a remnant from a larger point (but kind of irrelevant to this article) that I wanted to make which is core to my personal game development philosophy - how people always shoehorn video games into some progression of narrative / depiction of reality (e.g. epic verse > novel > film > video games!) but really games are on a separate track, in my mind, a progression of abstraction (e.g. hunting and gathering > Tag > Basketball > Monopoly > video games!)

From my own limited knowledge about the history of narrative, I'd argue the verbal saga was almost more of a performance (with the bard improvising, changing stuff around for the audience) than a written text. I'm kind of taking a page from Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens" with my perspective - though I think he goes a little far in saying it's older than culture, and I'd rather make a distinction between simply "play" and a "game," and now I feel I'm rambling so I'll stop now.

I don't think you're wrong, Robert. Play (though not necessarily with a rule set that would form a distinguishable "game") was likely part of our lives before we split off from the other apes, as most social mammals partake in various forms of play. I'd imagine the first rule-sets were derived from basic codes of ethics, whether or not they were explicitly described in words.

The novel may be part of a storytelling tradition that goes back nearly as far as spoken language, but each step in that journey (from oral to written verse, from epic to personal, from poetry to prose) was considerably more revolutionary and controversial than the move from games to video games.

Interesting article.
Wish UCR was doing something like this...

Silva:
This article was great in many ways. Very interesting and quite poignant. However, there was one point I have to disagree with strongly.

Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

It just seemed unfair to regress one medium and not the others, wording it in that way. But I liked the enthusiasm.

You really think early man weren't playing games before they were well versed?

I'd like to imagine that they challenged one another to who could bring home the most kill or some other feat or contest.

jsnfloyd:

Silva:
This article was great in many ways. Very interesting and quite poignant. However, there was one point I have to disagree with strongly.

Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

It just seemed unfair to regress one medium and not the others, wording it in that way. But I liked the enthusiasm.

You really think early man weren't playing games before they were well versed?

I'd like to imagine that they challenged one another to who could bring home the most kill or some other feat or contest.

I said a verbal saga. Verbal.

Your "games" include a story in them by involving telling the others about their contrasting "score" or achievement to measure against. A saga or story, as a way of communicating the rules of your game, is a part of what makes a game what it is.

"I killed a wild deer today and brought it home, I bet you didn't kill more" is still a story, just not a very elegant one.

Silva:

jsnfloyd:

Silva:
This article was great in many ways. Very interesting and quite poignant. However, there was one point I have to disagree with strongly.

Games are NOT older than novels. They are older than film in the non-computer sense. If you allow a regression from your subject of computer gaming to just gaming, then you have to regress on film and novels too. In that case, novels are the oldest, because their ancient form, the verbal saga, is far older. I'm talking thousands of years older, here.

It just seemed unfair to regress one medium and not the others, wording it in that way. But I liked the enthusiasm.

You really think early man weren't playing games before they were well versed?

I'd like to imagine that they challenged one another to who could bring home the most kill or some other feat or contest.

I said a verbal saga. Verbal.

Your "games" include a story in them by involving telling the others about their contrasting "score" or achievement to measure against. A saga or story, as a way of communicating the rules of your game, is a part of what makes a game what it is.

"I killed a wild deer today and brought it home, I bet you didn't kill more" is still a story, just not a very elegant one.

I think a child plays before it speaks. This argument, while interesting in a what came first sort of way, is entirely fruitless. I certainly don't think the author meant any dis-respect to any media outside of games.

As for the article itself. I found it to be a very enjoyable read. That's a class I would love to take, but it's too bad I live on the East Coast. I like that the class is about problem-solving for the sake of fun.

 

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