James W. Morris: Learning to Game, Gaming to Learn
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Four Decembers ago, while browsing Flickr I stumbled over a series of screens from a pair of previously unknown games, apparently designed with Recreational Software Designs' Game-Maker. I contacted the account's owner, and soon found myself in a fascinating discussion with Bionic Commando associate producer James W. Morris. The topic strayed from Game-Maker through a tour of the Shareware era, before fixing on the problems and potential of educational games.
The following interview has sat on my shelf for over three years, waiting for formatting and a sympathetic host. Here I present in full James W. Morris, on learning to game and gaming to learn.
Hi, James! I take it you're the same fellow who posted to Flickr a raft of pictures of a couple of his old Game-Maker games. Could you tell me more about them?
Yes, those are my pictures on Flickr. They're from [Crystal Mania 4 and Super Hamster,] a couple of games that I made using RSD's Game-Maker in the early 90's when I was in middle school and just starting high school. They aren't the only two, but they're the only two that reached a point of completion. They're the only two that I still have any files for.
They're pretty mortifying. I know there's at least one bug that I'd want to fix – a sound file that seems to be corrupted. It emits a long horrifying shriek when it triggers. Also, I think the About text includes my grandparents' address. In retrospect, that was a terrible idea.
What can you tell me about Crystal Mania 4?
If you look at the credits, you'll see that there's a shareware message in there. I think I just threw that in because it was in fashion at the time. I never really expected anyone to pay for it. No one did. So I wouldn't necessarily classify it as a shareware title. The legal stuff is nonsense too.
Also, you may notice that the music and sound effects are somewhat... incongruous with what's going on. I didn't have a sound card on my computer when I was working on this game, so I just downloaded files and assigned them kind of blindly. Same with the main menu images, just random downloads.
The credits promise extra content for registered users. Did you ever finish that content, or were you waiting to see if anyone responded?
I started work on some of the other content that was mentioned, but didn't follow through on it. Crystal Mania 5 was going to be the continuation of 4, but on a jungle planet. Turns out that Bub was in suspended animation for thousands of years. The descendants of the Pygmie People had formed a new civilization in the jungle. Their religion revolves around the crashed ship and an ancient evil sealed away inside it, which of course is Bub. The object of the game was to find stuff to build a space ship out of and get off the planet.
It started out in the crashed ship from Crystal Mania 4 with all your power ups lost, so you had to collect new stuff. It was kind of Gilligan's Island-ish in that all the power ups were going to be fashioned from coconut shells, bamboo, vines, and volcanic power crystals. I had planned to add a jet pack power up, and underwater levels. I only got as far as the first level which reused background blocks from the first game with new character blocks for Bub.
Crystal Mania 6 was going to pick up with Bub returning to his home world thousands of years in the future to find it had been completely conquered by the Pygmie People (in retaliation for stealing one of their ships). The game would have involved finding pieces of the great power crystal and reactivating it so that Bub could go back in time and change the future. The game was going to include flashback levels where you played as the Princess defending the castle during the Pygmie invasion. She was supposed to have different abilities and power ups than Bub, but I can't remember exactly what they were going to be.
So you were planning up to the sixth game. What about the first three Crystal Mania titles? Did they ever exist?
There were three previous games on the C64, made with Brøderbund's Arcade Game Construction Kit. The first two were single screen platform / puzzle games, kind of like Bubble Bobble. I'm sure the dinosaury look of the main character, and the name Bub, were lifted directly. Bub had two forms: one that could jump, but not shoot, and one that could shoot, but not jump. You could only switch forms at certain tiles. Your goal in each level was to collect a crystal that was somewhere on-screen. Sometimes you needed to jump over gaps or obstacles to reach it. Sometimes you'd need to shoot bad guys or obstructions.
The second game added portals, like that portal game, Portal. Unlike Portal, it got really confusing. The third game was a little different. It was trying present an open-ended world like Metroid or Zillion by linking lots of single screen areas together. But, the arcade game engine didn't lend itself to this sort thing. In the end it didn't really work.
Zillion. Right on. I can see how that might have influenced your level design. So you were on top of the Master System?
Yeah. I was a Nintendo console warrior until I played Phantasy Star. Then I got a Master System and found a lot of great games.
So over the six games, the stories got more and more elaborate. Was that a factor of the shift to a more exploration-based design, or did the change in design reflect the more ambitious storylines?
A little of both. Once I started making levels that represented places rather than just "game boards", and included characters, I found myself (over)writing backstories to explain them. And, I was getting more into RPGs and graphic adventure games that focused more on storytelling.
What about Super Hamster? Is there a history there?
The game was based on a series of comics I'd been writing. The idea was to complete one of the storylines in a game rather than in comic book format. As a result, the Super Hamster game is pretty sloppy and unfocused. I was more concerned with continuing a story than actually making a good game. There are some really bad decisions in Crystal Mania, but on the whole I think it made better use of the tools and is more playable.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to do differently?
I had almost completed a level for the game where you played as Mindy, but somehow the data got lost. I can't remember if a disk got overwritten or what the deal was, but it was really discouraging. So I didn't go back and finish it. I never got around to the two episodes that were supposed to follow. I ended up doing them as comics instead.
How much do you remember about your other, unfinished games?
One of the little side projects made it into the Super Hamster game as the hoverboard level. I had two different versions of the hoverboard movement mechanic, and couldn't decide which I liked, so I through both in calling one "easy" and the other "hard", though they're both kind of broken in their own ways.
One was an undersea exploration game. I believe it was during a Seaquest phase. I think I tried to cheat the feeling of moving under water by messing with the friction or the force of the tiles (I can't quite remember the parameters). I think I tried to convince myself that the lousy controls and the frustration of constantly colliding with the scenery provided the challenge that made the game fun. They didn't and it wasn't, and I ended up losing interest.
One was a top-down fantasy adventure. The scope I had in mind was way too ambitious. It was a Zelda-like overworld with a variety of dungeons and houses to explore and gadgets to collect. I also thought it absolutely had to have a side-scrolling flying unicorn game linking different areas together. I could never make a sword work quite the way I wanted it to, so I think I had the sword monster die almost immediately and produce a "beam" monster that would circle you, killing anything it touched. The sword popping out, dying, and spawning the beam was all really kludgey. It was also made any monster encounter way too easy because you could just spam the sword button to become invincible. I ended up using this "feature" later in another game which was way too hard. This wasn't necessarily an improvement, but it made it possible to complete.
There were a lot of one-off, just noodling around projects. I don't really remember the details. Mostly just using blocks from other games, and testing stuff out. I think I tried to make a jetpack fun. And there was an attempt to do a top-down view of a superhero flying over a city. I wanted to give the impression of flying over a cityscape. But I couldn't cheat the perspective and it just looked like a really large body slip n' sliding over mat with city a printed on it. Also, I had wanted the superhero to be able to punch, but I ran into problems with the melee attack.
The engine could be a little weird to work with. Were there any designs that it forced you to change or give up on?
I don't think I had the presence of mind to kill ideas that weren't working. I shoehorned them in as best I could. One example I can think of was the fifth level of Super Hamster where you need to find five beacons before you can pass through a barrier to the next level. But, if you collected some beacons then died, the count didn't reset. So I had to make a single tile high tunnel at the start of the level that removed the beacon count as you crawled through. It makes a weird sound, but it's totally unclear why. I probably should have come up with some other format for the level entirely since there was no ready solution for what I was trying to do.
The whole game is pretty confusing, but the fifth level is particularly so. I'm not sure if anyone would be able to get through it without exploiting the engine to pop through blocks or forcing the character the wrong way through one-way backgrounds.
See, you can reset the counters... if you really want to! What do you think was your most clever workaround, to get past the engine's limitations?
For better or worse, I abused the floaty bouncy jump mechanics in level layouts. There are some places on the critical path where you need to hold the jump button down longer than you'd expect to drift over a gap or obstacle. And there are other places where you need to "double jump" to progress.
In Crystal Mania 4 I wanted to have a boss fight. But since you couldn't assign hit points to monsters, I ended up having lots of different forms for the final boss to transition through as you damage him. There were the usual color swaps, but also a few unique forms like a whirlwind and a bouncing ball. While it didn't quite work out as I'd hoped, I think having to swap the monster sprite made it a more interesting because I gave each form a different type of movement.
Was there anything you wished the engine could do?
For the type of game I was working on at the time, I would have asked for the ability to construct multi-tile non-player sprites; the ability to print text to the screen, and define when and where it would appear; the ability to assign hit point values to non-player sprites; the ability to define a player HUD with tweakable parameters such as health bar, currency/points earned, inventory item selected, etc., and light scripting functionality that allows tiles to listen for particular events, and respond with an action.
I'm not sure if I upgraded all the way through the final version, so maybe some of those features were implemented. I'm sure there are a million little UI tweaks that would have been helpful, but I don't remember the specifics well enough to say.
By “light scripting functionality” and “listening for events” are you talking about persistent changes -- so that when you leave a level, the things you did stay done?
Yeah, exactly. I'm sure there were workarounds you could use in Game-Maker to get these effects, but it would have been nice if there was support out of the box. I think I did try setting up multiple versions of levels to make it seem like something you did had an effect elsewhere.
So how did you distribute your games? Through a local BBS?
I think I did upload them to a couple of local BBSes. But, I can't remember for sure whether or not I did, and if so which ones. If I had, they would have been around Lowell and Chelmsford, MA. I guess the closest I really got to distribution would have been trading disks with kids on the school bus. I think I got a copy of Civilization for one of my Game-Maker games. Sometimes I'd end up with extremely dithered nudie pictures. The exchanges were pretty random.
Did you ever dial up the Game-Maker BBS, or interact with other users?
I did use the BBS. If I recall correctly, it was in Maine, which was a long distance call for me. Downloads took forever, so I'd start a download and leave it running overnight. I got in some trouble for running up the phone bill, so my access ended up being kind of limited. I don't recall much direct communication with other users. I didn't know any in my area. But, I seem to remember the BBS having a good message board.
And you played a few of their games?
Not in a long time. I remember downloading some from the BBS, and I believe RSD offered sampler disks with some of the later editions of the software. I remember a paper airplane game that had a really clever movement mechanic and great level design.
I think there was a platformer involving a bear character that was quite good. I remember it felt really polished and complete for a Game-Maker game.
I stole the hedgehog companion mechanic for one of the games I never finished. Having limited online access made it difficult to find new stuff. I think it's great that kids today have portals like Newgrounds that make it incredibly easy to check out each other's work, share tips, and find friends who are interested in making games.
Your game with the companion mechanic -- is it one that you mentioned earlier?
It was the Mindy level in Super Hamster. Her sidekick was a butterfly with spinning ninja stars, who'd fly around and protect her. Originally the character was going to follow Super Hamster around. But, for some reason I thought it would be better to have happy face bombs that launched tiny Hillary Clintons.
Do you recall when you first encountered Game-Maker?
First encounter was probably an ad in the back of VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine. Though it may have been EGM. I had spent a lot of time with the Arcade Game Construction Kit, and wasn't able to find anything quite like it on my new IBM-compatible PC. Based on the ad, Game-Maker seemed like a perfect fit. Once I decided that I needed to have it, I probably harassed my parents constantly until they ordered it.
And once you had it, did it make any kind of a lasting impression on you, personally, professionally?
I suppose it did. I've worked in game development since 2003.
As a kid I was always interested in making my own games, but I've never been very good at picking up programming languages. Aside from noodling in BASIC, my ability to execute on a computer was quite limited. When I found packages like the Arcade Game Construction Kit and Game-Maker, that let you create the assets and "rules" for the game without having to manage the code under the hood, it felt really liberating.
Working in Game-Maker I sort of stumbled upon a lot of useful concepts like trying things out on paper before sinking a lot of time into getting them running on screen, keeping a list of bugs and then developing strategies to find out what's causing them, and accounting for the fact that everything is going to take way longer than you think it will.
Can you tell me what games you've worked on?
A bunch of Star Wars stuff; the Battlefront series, Empire at War, Knights of the Old Republic, Episode III, etc. Some of the more obscure original IP games at LucasArts, like Gladius. Bionic Commando. I'm working on educational games now.
Your MobyGames profile looks like someone crossed a few wires. I'm assuming you didn't do PR in 1994 for the UK version of Dragon Lore: The Legend Begins.
Yeah, it looks like there's at least two people mashed up in the profile. I'm Knights of the Old Republic and up. Though I would have gone for some hot UK junket action if it had gotten me out of gym class.
How did you get involved with LucasArts?
I got started in LucasArts QA after interviewing with them at GDC. I switched from QA to production and worked on a few titles, mostly with external partners. Through those partnerships I had the opportunity to work overseas, which I really enjoyed. My role at Capcom was a continuation of that.
I enjoyed working in production, but wanted to refocus on design which had been my first interest. I also wanted to try projects that could be completed with smaller groups in a shorter timeframe.
With Bionic Commando you're listed as Associate Producer. What did that entail?
I joined Capcom's Bionic Commando team fairly late in development. I spent most of my time on the project in Stockholm working out the GRIN office. I was primarily there to support the GRIN team with finalizing tasks and first party submissions.
I don't suppose you were around for Mike Patton's contributions to the game?
No, his stuff was pretty much done when I started.
And from there you leapt to educational software?
As for why... it's kind of cheesy. I was reading the book Street Gang about the creation of Sesame Street. It got me wondering why video games haven't had a Sesame Street yet. (Sort of a riff on the old, "Why haven't video games had their Citizen Kane?" question.) Obviously it's an unfair comparison to a different medium, but it got me thinking that there's a lot of opportunity to do something cool with educational games.
What do you think they've been lacking?
I think educational games have a higher bar to clear than games that are purely entertaining. I don't think you can expect a player to choose an educational game over an alternative title that's more fun just because it's "good for them". So I'd like to see educational games focus on building in really solid gameplay, and folding the learning into it in a way that feels organic so that the educational content and the mechanics support each other. Which is easier said than done...
All games are fundamentally learning experiences. You don't come into Pokemon knowing that ghost type is super effective against psychic but weak against steel. But if you want to be successful, you learn. And you do want to be successful, because the game is really interesting and compelling.
I think the breakthrough in educational games would be gameplay as engaging as Pokemon (or World of Warcraft, or The Sims, or what have you), but with content that's transferable to real life. Though I am sure to keep lots of steel around, in case of ghost attacks.
So instead of using the structure of a game to gloss over education, you'd rather find a useful subject to explore and then just build a good game out of that. Are there any games that you think had the right idea?
The Quest to Learn school is a really interesting fusion of game design and education. It's really clever how they divide assignments into missions and levels culminating in boss events, and award experience points and loot for doing well. It's also cool how they encourage students to look at complex problems in terms of systems and processes, rather than chunks of facts.
I think there's an interesting game to be made from the guts of the New York Times budget puzzle. It could use consequences and trade-offs for your choices, an element of randomness, and interesting victory conditions (like balancing the budget while keeping your party in power, or while trying to win a war). But it seems like there's an entertaining and informative sim that could be crafted from data like that, and the Times got part of the way there.
I liked Cellcraft quite a lot. I think the game mechanics and the curriculum are very complementary. I'm curious how much, if any, of the biology lessons players retain after completing it.
The Civilization series does a great job of exposing players to all sorts of concepts. Of course the design choices are all about making a fun game rather than a historically accurate one, so you end up with prehistoric Abe Lincoln invading Cleopatra's Sistine Chapel, but in the course of a game you do get a taste of all sorts of intriguing ideas. Some of the Civ IV mods that attempted to recreate actual historic scenarios are pretty impressive, when viewed as a "what-if" simulation rather than playing actual events.
Though they're long in the tooth, I still have a soft spot for Logo, Carmen Sandiego, and Oregon Trail. If I remember anything from third grade it's that spelunking means exploring caves, towheads are blonde, and if you break an axle someone is going to die.
You mention that the best games are less about rote knowledge, and more about understanding how and why things work. How would you approach subjects usually taught by brute force, like mathematics and language? Games like Donkey Kong Jr. Math seem to miss the point, by making games feel like work rather than teaching the subject subversively.
I think games lend themselves to teaching through simulation and experimentation, so math and science are both well suited. But I think you can also encourage experimentation in things like language. For instance you have a scenario where you have a fixed syllable like "AN" and let the player collect different consonants to stick around the syllable to create words (PAN, CAN, ANT.) I think you can also take subjects like math and language and make them work organically in a game by choosing appropriate contexts, for instance codebreaking, solving mysteries, sequencing, activities that you often see in game puzzles.
What sorts of subjects and concepts do you think that videogames are best positioned to teach, on one level or another?
I think many games naturally reinforce pattern recognition, reading/listening comprehension, problem solving, following directions, number sense, vocabulary, and fine motor control. Some do a really good job of introducing logic and reasoning, and basic scientific method. For example boss fights in modern Zelda games or just about anything in Minecraft require players to observe what they have to work with, make a guess about what's going on, and experiment until they find a solution (or go on GameFAQs).
That stuff is just embedded in the nature of the games. With regard to explicitly teaching a subject, I think games are good at introducing foundational concepts and their applications. For instance, you could use a game to teach addition and subtraction and then apply those skills to money concepts in a simple game economy. Geography concepts like reading a map, using a compass, and identifying cardinal directions are also good fits. And as I mentioned above, I think simulation is something that games do particularly well and can't be replicated on a worksheet or video.
EJR Tairne is a freelance writer and editor, sometime game theorist, and general grump. He has written lots of stuff for the Gamasutra family of publications. Most if it is pretty grumpy. You can read more grumpy things on his grumpy blog, that he updates whenever he feels like it.