Game talkGDCNext: Playing with ‘game’

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Oct 112013

I’ll be speaking at GDCNext on this, in the future of gaming track.

Playing with ‘Game’

Raph Koster  |  Designer, Independent
Location: Room 515 B
Date: Tuesday, November 05
Time: 11:15am-12:15pm

Never mind the future – the present of games is quickly carrying us well beyond the classic understandings of what a game is. We’ve got gamified restaurants, psychological self-help tools, immersive narrative experiences, quasi-gambling experiences, political statements and more. Along the way, we’re seeing conflicts between subcultures in our audience, and within our development community as well. Players get mad when a title isn’t what they expected. Developers watch the encroachment of business practices they dislike. Designers try to apply the tools of one genre to another, and find they don’t always work. Is “game” even a thing? And if it is, in what ways do these varied approaches relate to one another? In this lecture, we’ll take a look at a craft-centric approach to the question: what do we make, who do we make it for, and how can we best make what we want?


Attendees will learn about a framework for thinking about varied types of interactive experiences and the four types of problems that make for compelling play. They will also take away practical design checklists and techniques for these different approaches: top five tips for narrative experiences, ludic experiences, coercive experiences and so on.

This isn’t the same thing as the blog post of the same name — though some of that material will be the first few minutes. Instead, it’s an attempt to synthesize understandings coming from different quarters about what games can be and what they can mean, and how they can be and mean. I am sure that there will likely be some stuff in there to annoy people from every faction! :)

Most importantly, though, I want to focus back in on craft. Craft seems like it is often the forgotten root of all these approaches. Whether you are trying to make games that are personal, pure experience, narratively centered, systemically driven, emergent, linear, abstract, or Dadaist, there is always the how underlying it all. And “how” is interesting, because there’s what works for you the creator, and what works for a given audience, and in a very real sense, as creators we don’t get to quarrel with what the audience likes or accepts. It is always up to them whether to listen to what we have to say.

So this talk is going to be about how as much as I can make it… about the raw tools that might help a designer in their goal of making either a polished AAA experience or a raw emotional outpouring.

Hope to see you there!

Game talkToyTalk and The Winston Show

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Sep 062013

00_WelcomeFor the last few months I have been advising a company called ToyTalk, founded by a bunch of super-smart Pixar vets. Right now I am in an interesting and lucky place, where I can pick and choose what to engage with, and what caught my eye about ToyTalk was what they were trying to do.

In short, they are trying to use voice as a primary means of interaction. With toys, games, entertainment in general. It’s very forward looking — think “what if your plushie had Siri!” It’s also very hard.

Well, their first product has come to fruition and is on the App Store now, and FastCompany just wrote this article “Pixar Vets Unveil A Genre-Busting iPad Talk Show That Talks Back.”

This is The Winston Show, and it’s a vaguely muppety kids app featuring goofy characters that talk, branching stories, photo booths, quizzes, etc — and it’s designed for your six year old to yell at it. Seriously. Winston and crew will understand what the kid says (well, some amount of it anyway!) and answer in ways that are contextualized.

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GamemakingA little card game prototype

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Sep 052013

I have been working on four or five 20130905-144728.jpggame projects at once for the last few months, and they are all at various stages of completion. I had been waiting to do an announcement once I had things like, oh, a company name… but this just arrived in the mail today and I couldn’t wait to share it. Shame on me for blowing the “proper” social media marketing plan, but oh well…

This here is a nicely printed copy of a prototype I have been working on. Given the photo, I can’t keep the name secret, so… it’s currently named Rainbow, obviously.

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Game talkTools don’t stifle art!

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Aug 132013

Luke McMillan has a nice article on Gamasutra entitled “An Intro to RLD,” which is about using math to assess the difficulty of jumping puzzles (and by extension, other parts of the content ramp in your game design).

I’m not here to talk about the article. It’s a nice article. I’m here to talk about one of the reactions to it.

The article is a nice, straightforward illustration of how quantitative methods can bring greater clarity to something that designers do every day, usually by “feel.” And of course, the challenge with “feel” is that it only arises from experience. As I have termed it before, the “apprenticeship model” of learning game design: you do it until you develop the feel, and have internalized heuristics of your own for things like difficulty ramps. Then you struggle to communicate those heuristics to others, and they learn it the hard way themselves.

Michael Joseph, in the comments, states the following:

  • that the article shows “a desire to depersonalize game design”
  • that no one has “proved that ‘zen’ style of game design is a significant problem”
  • that these methods are “design encroachment tool by the business side so that any hairless monkey can churn out a game”
  • and that the method “reminds me of the Auto-Tune used by some singers with questionable talent.”

McMillan responded very politely to this comment. I on the other hand… this stuff makes me mad enough to be sarcastic and blunt. I apologize in advance to Joseph, since I know his track record in the industry, and it doesn’t seem reflective of the comments he’s making.

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Game talkWays To Be Right

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Aug 062013

In response to

You can choose an art style that is broadly accessible, or not.
You can have training in your new mechanics, or not.
You can expect to make money at your art, or not.
You can see your art as a business, or not.
You can regard player needs as paramount, or not.
You can require absolute adherence to your own artistic vision, or not.
You can embrace the sordid need for marketing, or not.
You can select a populist price point, or not.
You can wish for many to embrace your work, or not.

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Game talkDishonest opponents

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Jul 082013

Another question from Quora. At issue was whether a game can be successful if it relies on players being honest about what they think. The example given was “what number am I thinking of?” If the player with the secret number lies, then the game can be unwinnable. So the poster wondered if there were any examples of successful games that rely on blind trust.

Original question is here. The poster has since updated it to ask “opponents” rather than “players.” Before the edit, I posted that I was unsure if I understood the question, because of course there are so many examples of games that rely in blind trust in other players:

  • A player in a team sport relies on his teammates’ cognition all the time. As just one example, passes are executed with the faith that the receiver will be where he is supposed to be, as previously practiced.
  • Team sports rely especially on the coach’s cognition, and there’s a good case to be made that many team games are actually coach vs coach, using the players as poorly controlled tokens. The players often cannot perceive the overall strategic situation very well
  • Bridge and many other cooperative games are about building up trust in partner’s capabilities even though they do not share equal access to information.
  • The classic Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theory example of blind trust.

I could go on. Which led me to conclude that what was being asked was really about whether the opponent is trusted, and specifically as regards the feedback they give to an action in the game. In a game like this, the player makes a move (uses a verb), it feeds into the black box of rules, and the opponent is supposed to be honest about the way in which the game state is updated, and feed back to the player the results of the action.

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Jul 012013

I answered a whole lot of questions on Quora in the last few days, and thought I would share some of them here on the blog over the next little while, since I have been pretty quiet.

The question on this occasion was, what programming languages should an aspiring game designer learn? And the answers tended to be around things like “C++.” But I suggest a different approach to the problem.

Learning new things is hard. Programming calls for a new mindset, if you have never done it before.

Therefore, you should learn whichever one you will stick with. And that means, the one that is easiest for you to learn first. The one that will give you positive feedback quickly.

Don’t jump to C++ because you are “supposed to,” even if you are aiming at working in AAA console. Don’t jump to C# because it’s the current hotness or what Unity uses. Pick the one that you feel like you personally can make progress in.

Any good programmer will learn many languages over the course of their career. Heck, I am not a good programmer, and I have worked with BASIC, C, C++, Python, Lua, modern BASICs like Blitz (three members of that family so far), three homegrown scripting lnaguages, JavaScript, PHP, and Java.

Pick one that is easy and cheap to get started in. It doesn’t need to be powerful, because you don’t know how to use that power yet. Instead, what you want is something that will let you get a picture on screen very quickly. When you are starting out, positive feedback is the hardest thing to come by, because you suck. So you want a language that will make iteration fast and your failures obvious, and your success gratifying to you.

Don’t worry, you may graduate to a language with greater complexity and power. (You may not… designers don’t need to be great programmers. They need to be able to try ideas out).

So high level languages will work best for a beginner. I would try out things like

  • Gamemaker
  • Flash
  • One of the versions of Lua with a simple graphics library. I used to use one for PSP homebrew development that had a simple API like “screen:draw(“picture,jpg”). That is the level of complexity you want.
  • Same goes for one of the versions of python with a graphics libray.
  • One of the many BASIC variants aimed at indie game developers: BlitzMax, DarkBasic, whatever. I am currently using Monkey, a cross-platform language by the maker of Blitz.
  • If you have an iPad, a neat Lua variant is Codea — you can code right on the iPad! I’ve used it for a couple of prototypes. There are similar apps for Python, and other languages.

Remember, your first game is going to be on the order of Hangman, Pong, guess the number, not Uncharted. You want a “toy” language, as the pros will derisively call these., because you want to play around.

A lot of your game development heroes started out with MS BASIC.

Game talkOn personal games

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May 092013

I don’t have any tales of games saving me from depression.

I mean, I did go through a period where I was depressed. I dropped out of high school while living overseas and basically just didn’t go anywhere. I slept for 23 hours straight. I woke up to eat something and read. It was listlessness, pointlessness, it was like a blank. I didn’t feel sad. I felt… absent. Eventually I was dragged to a doctor who basically prescribed sunshine and a lot of vitamins, and a swift kick in the ass.

The terror of reintegrating into life was enormous. I was shaking and trembling as I caught the bus to downtown. Walking onto the campus had me breathless. And the perfunctory disbelief as I tried to explain to the school administrators what had happened was shocking: idle curiosity married to not caring. Their response to my terror was to say “well, just go back. It’ll be hard.” It was. And it comes back, every once in a while, though never as bad.

But games didn’t save me from that.

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Apr 262013

This video by Matthias Worch is superb, an explanation of the communication gap that was exposed so sharply by “A Letter to Leigh.

“Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design” | You Got Red On You.

In short, after seeing this, it feels like I have been arguing very much from a combination of the oral tradition and the digital culture — likely because of my background in online games. And the aesthetics of print culture are pretty much exactly the things I was commenting on seeing.

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Game talkOn choice architectures

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Apr 242013

Yesterday Andrew Vanden Bossche posted a great article called The Tyranny of Choice in response to the formal questions about narrative that were in my post A Letter to Leigh.

In the article, Andrew argues that every system by its very nature is a statement, not a dialogue. After all, if we artificially control the boundaries of the system, then every system imposes a worldview. (This is the same argument made about how the original SimCity espoused liberal politics through its simulation).

There are not some games that subvert player agency, and others that grant it. Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways. The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayability” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.

…I question whether there is a difference at all between this games that subvert and refuse player agency and those that encourage and celebrate it. I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion. Koster implies that games are capable of create dialogue with their systems; I believe games can only make statements.

This led to a great little discussion with Andrew and also with Andrew Doull, which I have captured as a Storify post here.

It led me to think a bit about architectures of choice. As Andrew Vanden Bossche put it, “if a ‘fake’ choice is as meaningful as a ‘real’ one, is there a difference?”

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