Nov 062013

Slide20Here are the slides for the talk I gave yesterday, entitled “Playing with ‘Game.'”

The talk starts out with some basic semiotic theory — basically, the difference between a thing, the name we give a thing, and what the thing actually means. This serves as an entry point into talking about not only the way the word “game” is incredibly overloaded with different people’s interpretations, but also as a way to start discussing the way games themselves can mean things.

Slide14This leads to exploring the notion of “play” as space — free movement within a system, which is not a new idea at all, ranging from Derrida to Salen & Zimmerman. And then to looking at the two big sorts of play I see: the play of the possibility space of a set of rules, and the possibility space of a set of symbols or signs, which we might be more used to calling the thematic depth of a literary work. Along the way I break down writing techniques, game design techniques, and more, trying to find the ways in which these tools can be applied to games of different intents — which tools work best for a given craftsperson’s purpose?

I was really stuck on this talk. I had it conceptually all worked out, and could ot figure out a good way to convey it at all. My first several drafts were dry and jargony and a mess. And then I saw Daniel Benmergui give a talk at EVA in Argentina about the difference between “sense” and “meaning,” using David Lynch and Braid as examples, and it unlocked everything for me.

So if you want to know why I think a six-word story is like Journey and how Howling Dogs is like Super Mario Brothers, this is the talk for you. And if the above sounds incredibly intimidating and way too much like grad school in literary theory, the good news is that the talk is full of waffles.


Nov 052013

Here are the slides for my talk at EVA ’13 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. They are in Spanish, of course.

If I had to summarize the talk, I would say that it covered a lot of the same sort of ground I have touched on before in terms of the ways in which games teach systems thinking. I open with some discussion of the wide range of stuff that we call “games” — something that is also discussed in the GDCNext talk I am posting shortly. I talk about what a ludic structure looks like (something that folks who read the blog will probably find familiar), and the way in which ludic structures arise naturally in the world, and thereby are playable even though they are not designed games.

And then I move into anecdotes on exploits and loopholes and other ways in which we didn’t grasp everything about the systems we ourselves had designed, in games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. The talk ends on speculation on what we’re doing to the world, as we create systems that break outside of games. Are we the most qualified to do this? We might be.

It likely loses a lot without the actual speech, compared to most of my slideshows, but hopefully the video will go up at some point. In the meantime, the PDF is here.


Game talkOn getting criticism

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Oct 142013

Lately I have been working on multiple new games. And whenever you are working on games, of course, you get people to try them, and a lot of them don’t like what they see.

I’ve gotten a lot of criticism over the years, and I haven’t always taken it the right way. These days, criticism comes from all directions, and work is often shared before it’s really done. It can be hard to know what to listen to and when to stick to your guns.

Ultima Online is a Hall of Fame game. It averaged 6/10 in reviews. Star Wars Galaxies got a famously mixed reception, and closed down a while back; I still get fan mail.

So here’s my takeaways from all those years of being told that my work sucks:

Everyone who dislikes your work is right.

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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.