Paper and Pencil is King (seriously, I tried everything else)
The act of designing games.
…Designing good games.
it can feel kinda like this:
How on earth would I know? Well, I started doing it! And believe me, the opportunity I have right now makes me giggle more than I used to giggle getting new Thomas the Tank Engine toys. Awesome work, awesome people; awesomeness achievement unlocked. So today I’m gonna share a bit of what I’ve learned so far.
I actually can’t share a ton of detailed info here since the game in question is an unreleased product and all, but what I can tell you is that I am currently working on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Gaming Project. Basically, we’re building a mobile app game to exemplify the real life role of the DOE in a fun, engaging way so people understand their government a bit better. Bolster STEM fields. You know, serious games stuff. Except we’re trying really hard to also make the game fun. And we’re doing it with a really really really low budget. Like, revolutionary low as far as building a decent game goes. That’s about all I can tell you about the project itself right now, believe me, there will be updates down the road!
Back to game design. Before the DOE game I had a bit of experience with building games from scratch a la homemade board games I used to make with my brother and, you know, reading about it and that sort of abstract stuff. Turns out, the old homemade stuff is King after all (this is the part where Scott pops his head into my post nodding vigorously; the man knows his tabletop gaming). When I first started diving into this game design stuff, I wanted to be all techy, lay out my levels with mouse firmly grasped in my right hand, left hand poised over my keypad, iPad in lap, and a clear desk cluttered only by my cat’s fuzzy arse for the full evil genius effect. I’m literally looking around my desk right now, and it’s sprawling with jotted notes, printed notes, printed notes with jotted notes, pencils, paper, one of those horrible/wonderful little energy drink-dropper things… the only thing that WAS anticipated is the cat, and she’s really only here for my computer’s hot air vent anyway.
Turns out designing levels with anything BUT pencil and paper, at least initially, is a quick way to get the old bookshelf treatment demonstrated in the above gif. Before I fell humbly back to basics, however, I tried just about everything to layout my designs, and subsequently went through my options faster than Star Wars: The Old Republic could turn it’s Jabba sized rear around and go free to play (in actuality this took almost a year I guess, and I went through my options in a matter of days. Still, the imagery of Jabba The Hutt hauling ass in any direction is an enjoyable one… /end derail).
Now, when I say I tried “everything else”, I basically went tomb raiding to find potential ways of making my job easier via the miracle of technology. My favorite program uncovered was an RPG map builder called autoREALM, which essentially let me lay out my levels with a nice Lord of the Rings feel, and while the dragon-tipped mountains were fun, maybe not so much in line with the whole modern energy problem solving theme. From there I passed through the forests of Google Sketch-Up, the bold mountains of Paint.net, a quick skirmish trying to directly use Unity with me the total loser, poked about the rest of the internet and ended up on plain old windows paint. And let me tell you, crop half a level layout the wrong way and realizing it causes a massive flaw in your design down the road; OMFG NOT FUN.
Pencil and paper friends, the miracle of the eraser.
And really, I should have known better. Back when I went to that Games for Change thing, Nick Fortugno (co-founder of playmatics) did a hands on workshop on game design using nothing more than construction paper and crayons. It was almost a part of the conference I missed, but it was sage advice, friends. Sage advice I didn’t even realize was sage advice. In the workshop we were split into random groups, given our play-time “design tools”, and told to make a game. Dumb. Also brilliant.
My table was at first extremely hesitant to jump in, and things were socially awkward for a few minutes while we twirled crayons in anxious hope for some direction. None came. I tossed an idea out to the table, and thus “Planet Blargonoid” was born; a game that teaches kids about the pros and cons to democracy by plopping them in a space colony in Planet Blargonoid and letting the kiddies have at it for power. I’m kicking myself for not being able to find the design layout we scribbled (and I do mean scribbled) down on our sheet of construction paper, but the game essentially worked by bringing up issues in the colony, and students running for power and convincing others to vote for their solutions. Any solution was viable so long as it had support and the resources to pull it off; open roleplaying if you will. We made a game from crayons and paper, because game design at it’s core, as Nick said, is basic drawable concepts, and at first they will almost always fail horribly. You NEED an eraser. Or fresh crayons, whatever works.
And really, I think that might be the theme of game design, at least the initial part of it: whatever works. Games, even simple ones, are complex under the hood. Like, I’m doing math for this work, I swore I’d never touch math again after High School!!!! (although, strangely, when I’m doing math for something I enjoy, it’s totally awesome… what’s that? Gamify school my brain whispers?). The important thing is doing, not even doing right at first, just getting ideas out, jotting and noting and testing and occasional cat-pettingly reflecting and then doing it all again until it IS getting done right.
When making a game from the ground up; balancing, tweaking, and finding out when things work horribly wrong and go bookshelf crazy on you, a whatever works attitude is necessary . The tech can come later, but first thing is getting it down on paper. Scribbling is bonus points.
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