Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 2.9: Applying the Lessons #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of previous exercises.

This week, I’ll be applying what we’ve learned so far by playing a simple game and then identifying the major elements of it.

Sprouts

The exercise first asks us to play a game of 3-dot Sprouts.

I’ve never played it, but it reminded me of a game I used to play in school, which was apparently called Dots and Boxes. It felt like a more challenging Tic-Tac-Toe in that there was always an expectation that I could figure out the trick to winning consistently.

In Sprouts, you connect dots with lines, taking care that no dot has more than three connections coming out of it and that no lines cross each other.

So, my first attempt at playing the game was a failure because I didn’t realize I had four lines connecting to a dot. Whoops.

My second time, I created a loop, connecting dots with a line that circled another dot. I found that even though I had a dot with only one connection outside of that circle, I couldn’t connect it to any other dots due to the limitation on connections and the inability to create crossing lines.

My third session, I started with a triangle, and then I started bisecting the triangle. Eventually, I found I had one point within the triangle that couldn’t connect to any other points, and one point outside of the triangle in a network of arcs I had to create to try to match up free points.

Sprouts

Applying the Lessons Learned

Ok, so I’ve played Sprouts, a game created by John Conway of Game of Life fame and Mike Paterson, one of the people who recognized computer science as a science. The exercise now asks me to identify the formal elements and the dramatic elements of the game.

First, let’s look at the formal elements.

  • Players: There are two players. Each needs access to a pen or pencil and the ability to count.
  • Objective: To be the last player to make a valid move.
  • Procedures: One player needs to be designated as first, and three initial dots need to be drawn on the paper. After that, each player takes turns drawing a line and then putting a new dot in the middle of that line.
  • Rules: The actual rules are described as part of the game. Players cannot connect lines involving a dot that has three existing connections, which limits the potential lines that can be drawn. A new dot can only be placed on a newly drawn line. A player can only take his or her turn when the previous player has finished a turn. The rules must be followed; otherwise, the players aren’t playing the game anymore. Similarly, if players drew their lines and dots whenever they felt like it, or added more than one dot on a line, it would be a different game.
  • Conflict: The act of drawing the lines between dots reduces the number of potential lines that can be drawn. Any new dots drawn already have two connections, which means they only allow one more connection.
  • Boundaries: While the exercise mentions a piece of paper, the play area is fairly abstract in that it consists of wherever the dots and lines are. The assumption is that the dots and lines are on a single plane. That is, if the game was three dimensional, it would be trivial to draw arcs from one dot to another without crossing previous lines.
  • Outcome: Either the first player or the second player will win. There can be no draw.

Now, let’s look at the dramatic elements.

  • Challenge: Sprouts is a solved game. That is, it is possible to play a perfect game, resulting in a win for the first player or for the second player depending on the number of initial dots. With three dots, the first player can always win. There is no challenge once you know how to solve it, similar to Tic-Tac-Toe. In that absence of such knowledge and pattern recognition, the challenge could come from the limiting of choices as turns are taken.
  • Play: As turns are taken and dots are eliminated from consideration, it can get quite limiting. There might be some choice at the beginning, but a given turn will eventually eliminate two dots at once while adding only one back, and so eventually there is only one choice to make. There isn’t much room for play.
  • Premise/Character/Story: There isn’t anything inherent in the rules that provide a story. It’s a fairly abstract game. The name itself might imply something that is up to interpretation by the players.

Now the exercise asks me to identify types of dramatic elements that might add to the experience.

I’ll take them in turn.

  • Premise: instead of connecting dots with lines, you could be engineers tasked with building roads between settlements, or you are plumbers laying pipes between houses, or miners digging tunnels between veins of gold. Maybe you’re digging trenches to try to capture the opposing mole in a garden. I’m sure ideas can be spitballed indefinitely here.
  • Character: Each of the premises had some characters associated with them, but what if we started with the players as dinosaurs? They could be competing for scarce food resources. Thieves? You can only rob a bank so many times before it becomes too risky. As above, more ideas can always be generated here. Names and biographies could be created for characters, and even though there are only two players, perhaps giving the players a choice of more than two characters to play might provide some flavor, even if the choice doesn’t impact the game in any more meaningful way. For instance, one of my nieces likes the color pink, and I’m sure she would be very happy to play this game as a character who dresses in pink who has the same name as a favorite cartoon character. Each character might have a uniquely colored pen, allowing each turn to alternate colors. Princess Fiona provides a pink pen, Prince Bob gets a green pen, and Sir Erdrick gets a purple pen.
  • Story: I can see coming up with a traditional story involving the characters above, but what if each turn required the player to give a line of dialogue explaining the turn? Suddenly it can be a party game, in which wackier explanations are better. “I drove this herd of meerkats to the Statue of Liberty, avoiding the Pit of Despair on the way.” “Well, I drove a meerkat from the Statue of Liberty to Chicago in a taxi, dropping off a hitchhiker at the Outhouse of Tomorrow.” “And now I shut down the Statue of Liberty and forced everyone to go to Florida, and I launched a space station.”

Sprouts

Wow, this story-based one gets ridiculous pretty quickly.

Exercise Complete

I learned quite a bit about Sprouts, and I had some fun with thinking about the dramatic elements that could be applied to what is otherwise an abstract math game. It makes me wonder how much I underappreciate a good theme and story in games.

If you participated in this exercise on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll skip ahead to Chapter 7 and work on a prototype.

GOG Galaxy: The DRM-Free Online Gaming Platform

I haven’t been following much of the news, but apparently GOG has an optional client to use that will automatically update your games and allow you to play online with friends.

They call it GOG Galaxy:

I found out about it because I just got an email offering me a free copy of Alien vs Predator Classic in exchange for joining their beta-test program. Oddly, for such a huge service, I am surprised I only just learned about it from them.

I’ve been a big fan of GOG’s DRM-free approach. I know Steam is now available for GNU/Linux, but I haven’t found myself too compelled to run it regularly. Most of the games I have purchased online came from the Humble Bundle or GOG, partly because they are DRM-free offerings I can play on my preferred system.

I know people like the convenience of Steam, but the concept of DRM, the idea that what I can do with the games I purchased is restricted in arbitrary ways, still bothers me. Single player games which require you to be online to play, or games that complain that I’ve installed them one too many times or on too many of my own systems? No thanks.

I’m interested in what GOG is offering, if only because it is optional and still allows me to play my games no matter what. I just wish that Alien vs Predator was available for GNU/Linux. As it is, I apparently signed up for the beta-test of the Windows version.

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 2.8: Gripping Stories #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of previous exercises.

This week’s exercise asks me to explain why any specific games might have moved me emotionally.

Story

I’ve written about the importance of stories years ago, arguing that games don’t need to dictate the story the way a book or a movie would. Games are interactive and allow for a variety of responses and developments, so I’m sometimes disappointed by games that can be reduced down to “Press the button to advance to the next page” because they don’t live up to the potential of the medium.

That said, story can be quite engaging. Like premise, it can give you context for what you do in a game, and discovering what happens next can be a motivating factor. I want to know how the Prince of Persia managed to stop the Sands of Time from spreading everywhere and consuming everything. I want to know if the Terran or the Protoss dominate. I want to know if this is finally the castle that Bowser has locked away the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom.

The exercise this week asks me if any stories within a game ever gripped me, moved me emotionally, or sparked my imagination.

In the past, I’ve written about great gaming moments, such as the Illusion of Gaia raft scene and the time I sent 30 pilots to their horrific deaths in Homeworld: Cataclysm. The second one is one of my favorite stories, which is a mixture of the story the game was telling and the story I created by playing it.

Throughout the war with The Beast, I never forgot those 30 ships. Technically, they weren’t more than digital bits running through memory on my computer, but the screams were terrible. The drama was real. The details of the names or types of ships involved in the above story might be remembered incorrectly, but the feeling of dread when I realized that I had just caused the deaths of 30 good people will stay with me. It wasn’t a cut-scene or a FMV movie to watch passively. I participated in it. Logically, it wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t have known what was going to happen without cheating. Technically I could have restarted the mission and tried again. I normally prefer the challenge in similar situations, but the reason for not restarting this time was different. I didn’t want to dishonor the memory of the loss. Oddly, those 30 fighters were identical clones of each other. It wasn’t like you normally would have a tie to any one of them.

Still, I had made a bad decision, and the consequences were very real to me. My fight wasn’t just to play a game anymore. It was for honor. It was for redemption. Neither of these ideals were communicated directly by the game. There was no “Honor Meter”, for instance. I simply had a strong desire to make things right again.

Ok, Past Self, you’re a little dramatic, but the point remains that the story in the game was a very engaging aspect of it. I internalized the story so that it was my own, and playing the game had new meaning for me.

Exercise Complete

Now I want to go back and play through all of the Homeworld games. I never did finish them. How does the fight with the Beast end in Cataclysm? And how do the original game and the sequel work out?

And how did I just find out that Gearbox Software has had the rights to the franchise and is working on Homeworld Remastered? I hope it is ported to Linux-based systems.

If you participated in this exercise on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll wrap up chapter 2 by playing a simple game, then analyzing its formal and dramatic elements.

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 2.7: Premise #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of previous exercises.

This week, I’ll be identifying the premise of a handful of games.

Premise

This section of the book continues identifying ways to engage the player. Premise provides the context for the other elements in the game.

You can touch or avoid arbitrary positions in an area, or you can eat all the pellets while chasing or evading ghosts in a maze.

No one says, “I almost fulfilled the victory condition before I triggered the loss condition.” They say, “I almost ate all of the dots, but then the ghosts killed me.”

As games involve submitting yourself to constraints and trying to achieve some goal, the premise gives you the reason why.

This week’s exercise tasks us with identifying the premise of a few popular games.

  • Risk: each player is in charge of an army and fighting for world conquest.
  • Clue: each player is suspected of a murder and trying to identify who really did it.
  • Pit: it’s all about cornering the market in commodities
  • Guitar Hero: you’re struggling to become the next big rock star

Exercise Complete

You can see how a premise could make for a good starting point when trying to create a game, as it gives you a focus in terms of the player experience. The premise also lets your players know what to expect.

If you’re making a golf simulation, you want to mimic it as best as you can with wind speed and silence, but if you want to make a strange fighting golf game, you might have zany music and fast-paced action, with golf carts used as a means to quickly close in on opponents to strike them with your unrealistic and mechanized clubs in order to get the ball in the hole first. A fan of the first could be disappointed with the second.

If you participated in this exercise on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll talk about games with gripping stories.

RIP Saturday Morning Cartoons

This past week, there has been talk about how the Saturday Morning Cartoon is dead. See NPR’s sendoff at ‘That’s All Folks:’ Saturday Morning Cartoons Bid Farewell. Last weekend was the first time in 50 years in which there wasn’t a block of cartoons broadcast on television.

Saturday Morning Cartoons Officially Dead

While cartoons were used to sell sugary cereal and toys to children, they were a great opportunity to teach a receptive audience.

Many of those shows were some of the only stories children heard, and they often featured public service announcements afterwards, which were little nuggets of education.

Popeye told you to wear your seatbelt even on short car rides. G.I. Joe told you that swimming during a thunderstorm is a bad idea. Inspector Gadget even demonstrated how to get a foreign particle out of your eye by allowing your own tears to wash it away. There were often anti-drug PSAs during the commercials.

Often the stories themselves were packaged lessons, a modern day Aesop’s fables. Even if you weren’t fighting ghosts with Slimer or writing home from Camp Candy, Saturday morning cartoons were arming us for life.

That said, I suppose when your cellphone is for all intents and purposes a Junior Woodchucks Guidebook, you might not need them anymore.

But I think we have a question to answer: what stories are today’s children hearing instead?

(Photo: Saturday Morning Cartoons Officially Dead | CC-BY-2.0)

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