Inside Job: Toward the Future of Game Design

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Following this month’s “student series”-final game design degree treatment, this week we have for your review some commentary on the study of game design from three different corners of this issue.

Richard Dansky is a game designer and design manager for Red Storm Entertainment and the central writer for the wildly acclaimed Tom Clancy games. He works on everything from game story to world building to plot progression and beyond – if you’ve played a Tom Clancy game, chances are you’ve been reading or hearing his words. There’s been a lot of brouhaha lately over whether games should have their own writers, and Richard is that rare exception that knocks the argument down: He is a dual-classer, a game designer who is also a published novelist. I asked Richard what he would recommend an aspiring game designer study in college, and also, given the chance, what he might have done differently if he could go back to his years at Wesleyan University (he also has a master’s degree in English from Boston College).

“I’d say take a little bit of everything. Learn some math and statistics – you’ll need it for balancing. Learn to write, or your ideas will never make it out of documentation. Learn some psychology, so you can understand both your characters and your players. Learn a little economics, because on some level, pretty much every game is about resource management. Take some lit theory, so you can understand narrative and have a grounding in the great stories that underpin so many games. Take some history, because it does in fact repeat itself, often at 30fps. Learn some programming and some art, so you can talk to the other members of the team and more importantly, listen to them. In other words, make your base as broad as possible, because sooner or later it all comes into play, and you’ll want as many arrows in your quiver as you can manage.

If I could go back to the Wesleyan days to restructure my schedule, I definitely would have taken the Intro to Psychology section that didn’t meet at 9 AM. Not a lot of uncaffeinated learning going on there, if you know what I mean. Less ‘Rocks for Jocks’, more math and CompSci, certainly. Probably an economics and a statistics course as well, as most of what I know about stats I’ve picked up the hard way from innumerable hours with ten-sided dice and the Baseball Prospectus podcast. I can’t complain too much about what I did, though — it seems to have worked so far.”
– Richard Dansky, Manager of Design/Central Clancy Writer, Red Storm Entertainment

Marc Destefano’s title is “Clinical Assistant Professor of Game Studies” (or Cognitive Science, depending on who you ask) at my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – but there’s really nothing “assistant” about him, unless you consider that he is “assisting” RPI with the ground-up construction of one of the most comprehensive game studies programs in the U.S. He has always been a fascinating (and fun) person to discuss games and game design with, and is a terrific example of why the field of game education has a lot to give to the “applied” field of game development.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no other field of study to which the phrase ‘it’s both an art and a science’ can be taken more literally. Games span everything. Ernest Adams hit the problem right on the head in his ‘Philosophical Roots’ talk – we need to be the Third Culture, and we’ve got hundreds (if not thousands) of years of history working against us. So, it needs to be comprehensive from classical roots to romantic dreams. Then you come to the Chris Crawford problem: ‘being a half-assed programmer and a half-assed artist doesn’t make me a Renaissance man – it makes me a complete ass.’ He’s not wrong – you need to be really good at something in order to be valuable, hence specialization. Then you’ve got Heinlein saying that specialization is for insects. Aiee!

So, in our case, we decided that there would be a central hub of courses that every student would need to take, so that everyone understands everybody else’s role, and that no one is in service to anyone else. These center around design, sociology, mechanics and team-based development. In addition, everyone needs to take at least seven additional courses in one of six concentrations: CS, Arts, HCI, Management, Cognitive Science or Physics. I have no idea whether it’s going to work or not, but it at least seems structurally sound to us.”
– Marc Destefano, Clinical Assistant Professor of Games Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Marc also gave me some extremely interesting feedback on my game design degree prototype, mostly having to do with its focus on concentrations; his argument was, as above, that over-specialization can potentially doom a game designer when she sets out to get a job. This was a weakness I hadn’t considered – what if, for instance, a student were to study game systems through college and then decide that what she really wanted to do was world-build? In that case a game concentration in systems might actually be more misleading than not having a game degree at all.

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I think, ultimately, that game designers will always be judged on their merit – inasmuch as any person applying for a job is judged on merit, as opposed to politics, personal connections or the whim (or desperation) of the interviewer. Someone with a specialization in game systems will not be precluded from practicing world-building if she shows competency in the storytelling and liberal arts involved in building imaginary societies. But there is no question that this issue of concentration is a concern. It is perhaps a reflection of the overall problem in studying game design: Because it incorporates so many disciplines, it usually takes years for a person to develop competency levels in all of the components, and then she only begins to engage creatively with those competencies. This is largely what leads to the industry’s current practice of finding game designers from within, promoting out of pools of veterans in other disciplines and people who have damned the torpedoes and set about designing their own games in defiance of suggestion otherwise. But the concentration question will only continue to be a greater point of contention in the future as the industry continues to specialize.

Finally, Michael John weighs in from a unique transitional standpoint: After years as a design director and independent game design consultant, he now finds himself in the role of creative director, tasked primarily with instructing game designers at EA. Teaching game design, he says, involves its own structure of game design itself: When do you introduce new challenges? How do you keep them interested? How do you present material in a coherent, progressive fashion? With all of these new challenges and his role as an impromptu game design teacher for actual game designers, he’s thought a lot about what gives a person “the right stuff.”

“I got a liberal arts education in school. Nobody from my college left with ‘marketable’ skills in any field. That was the whole point. For me, that was the right choice because I have curiosity and interest across many disciplines. I do think that today however it’s appropriate to have games as an area of study within the liberal arts. When I was in college I did a self-designed minor in jazz music. I could certainly see someone in a liberal arts school doing a similar thing with games today.

So as a believer in liberal education, especially for a ‘soft’ skill like game design, I don’t really recommend anything except to learn critical thinking. Liberal education is all about learning the most skillful and clever way to ask the question ‘why?’ and I still believe that is perhaps the most core capability to being an advanced game designer.

Here’s one thing, though – it’s time to start teaching game history. Yes, that means that I am old enough that there is history. When I start to talk about Richard Bartle and his four player types, and I get blank stares of ‘Who’s Richard Bartle?’ – well, we have a problem. Everyone should play Donkey Kong, Pac Man, should compare Space Invaders to Galaga, and should know that the average play of a coin-op game in the $0.25 era was 90 seconds. None of this is time consuming, but I think it’s important if designers hope to share a common language.”
– Michael John, Creative Director, Electronic Arts; Owner, Method Games

I’d like to thank Richard, Marc, and MJ for taking the time to contribute to Inside Job today, and, as they are already doing, to the future of game design.

All of these perspectives demonstrate the challenges and loose consensus points involved in learning and then practicing game design. Because learning itself is so deeply tied in with what games do, the resonance between instruction and game development itself is very strong. Not only does the field of game studies today give a glimpse of what we will see in game development’s future, but the academic institution itself – for its exploratory freedom, its research budget and its analytical focus – can lend us a new perspective to the way we look at and make games.

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