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The Designer's Notebook Turns Five: A Look Back

November 8, 2002
 

The Designer's Notebook is five years old this month, and frankly, I'm delighted it has lasted this long. When I was first asked to write a regular column on game design back in 1997, I was afraid I might not know enough about the subject to keep it up month after month. What I didn’t realize was that writing The Designer’s Notebook would involve learning as much as it does teaching. These articles aren’t wisdom handed down from On High; often they’re about something that I’ve just learned myself and I’m eager to pass on to others. It’s a notebook, not a textbook.

So to celebrate my fifth-year anniversary, I'm going to indulge myself with a retrospective. The game industry has changed a lot in the last half-decade, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. I've chosen a few of my old columns that stand out for one reason or another, and I'll use them as a starting point to talk about some of the changes.

Most Useful

I've never presented a design idea here that was so earth-shattering the whole industry adopted it and held a parade in my honor, but I do occasionally get letters from people saying they might try out some of the things I've suggested just as soon as they figure out how to get out of the straitjacket. But, oddly enough, I think my most useful columns are the ones that tell people what not to do. Some of the Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie articles are now required reading in a few college game design courses, and I get quite a lot of mail about them. It’s funny, because they’re primarily opinion pieces about my own personal gripes rather than how-to discussions about design principles. But they seem to be the ones that make people say, "Yeah, I'm going to remember that when I design a game."

On the whole I think game design has improved considerably over the last five years. You still occasionally see a game with egregious design flaws in it, but the press tends to come down on those things pretty hard. And there's another factor, one that wasn’t so important in 1997: the Internet. The Internet enables gamers to spread the word about a bad game so quickly, much faster than magazine reviews can, that it’s a lot harder for a publisher to get away with shipping garbage-in-a-box the way they could in the old days. Competition and customer scrutiny is driving out the worst of our mistakes.

Most Press Attention

You know you’ve accomplished something as a writer when other writers start writing about you. Two columns in particular garnered attention from outside the game development community. "Dogma 2001: A Challenge to Game Designers" was mentioned on slashdot.org, and this resulted in TV interviews, lecture invitations, and even a short piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was also reprinted in daily newspapers in Canada and India, which was flattering considering that it wasn’t even that comprehensible unless you already knew something about game development.

Nothing much has happened with Dogma 2001 since then. Unlike Dogme 95, on which it was modeled, I didn’t set out to create a new movement in game design; I just wanted to get people talking -- and laughing, if possible. Film has an established status as an artistic medium, so if someone made a Dogme 95 movie, there was a good chance that it would be viewed and discussed somewhere. Games are only just beginning to appear in art exhibitions, and we don’t yet have enough momentum as an art form to launch aesthetic movements. I expect this to change significantly in the next few years, however.

The other column was one of the earliest ones I wrote, a critique of the much-hyped (at the time) category called “games for girls.” In "Games for Girls? Eeeeewwww!" I protested at the idea of the game industry going the same direction that the toy industry has, dividing our products into “boys’ games” and “girls’ games” and creating a pink ghetto in the software store. This, too, garnered some attention from the mainstream press and earned me a TV interview for PBS’ Digital Divide series. It also got a certain amount of disapproval from colleagues who were engaged in making games specifically for the female market. The truth is that I don’t mind games whose content is designed to appeal to girls; what I object to is publishers using the “for girls” label as a marketing gimmick to flog inferior products (as some of them were) to well-intentioned but ignorant parents.

With the failure of Purple Moon, and some of the other “for girls” companies struggling, the hype has largely died down. My favorite quote on the subject comes from my designer friend Sheri Graner-Ray, who said, “Girls are not a genre, they are a market.” The idea that there’s a certain class of games which appeals to all girls just because of its “girlyness” is a bit insulting because it doesn’t take into account their diversity. As consumers, girls are actually more diverse in their tastes than boys are. The early games for girls looked as if some guy had said, “What do girls wear? Dresses! Yeah, dresses with flowers on them!” and proceeded to turn out a whole lot of very similar flowered dresses. If we’re going to make girls’ games, they should have at least as much variety as girls’ clothing does.

Most Controversial

By far the most controversial column, light-years beyond the others, was "Reflections on the Colorado School Massacre" It wasn’t my take on videogames and violence that bothered people so much (I’m against censorship and in favor of self-restraint), as it was my asking one simple question: why it is illegal for children to drive cars, buy alcohol, gamble, or read pornography, but it is entirely legal in many states for them to be in possession of a firearm? There are even places where children can buy shotguns but not spray paint – figure that one out. But judging from the response I got, even asking the question is tantamount to advocating the violent overthrow of the government (although I got the impression that a small minority of my correspondents were in favor of that, too).

Since 1997 games have been unfairly blamed for some truly horrendous events, though not, fortunately, September 11. People seem to be willing to take Osama bin Laden’s stated purpose at face value, but not Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s. Like Mohammed Atta and company, the Columbine murderers committed a ghastly act of suicidal terrorism to make a point; but in their case it was a point that struck at the very heart of our self-conception as nice people who live in a nice country. Rather than really examine their motives and message, it’s safer to conclude that videogames made them do it.

The violence debate ebbs and flows depending on how busy the politicians are with more important things. Juvenile crime statistics have gone down; that’s good. Judge Stephen Limbaugh of St. Louis, Missouri has determined that video games are not protected by the First Amendment because they are incapable of expressing ideas; that’s bad. Actually, it’s beyond bad, it’s breathtakingly stupid. Judge Limbaugh will probably get overturned; that’s good. Acclaim Entertainment, which really ought to know better, has turned to selling cheesy soft porn in a desperate bid to revive its flagging fortunes, thereby handing the censors another stick to beat us with; that’s bad. And so it goes. What people don’t seem to realize is that this is a political problem as well as a legal one, and that means managing public perceptions. Unless we want to go on fighting this battle until we’re filing amicus briefs from the nursing home, we really need to stop taking two steps backwards for every one step forward. Even Doug Lowenstein, Executive Director of IDSA and our most tireless defender, has been heard at game conferences pleading with developers to use a little common sense.

Funniest

Laughing at one’s own jokes is bad form, but my E-mail bears me out: A Letter From A Dungeon is definitely the funniest of all my columns. There’s something about RPG’s that makes them ripe for parody. I think it’s because they take themselves so everlastingly seriously, and at the same time the gameplay is full of ludicrous conventions that we’re just supposed to accept without question. Why is it that I can slaughter legions of stone trolls effortlessly with my Seriously Butt-kickin’ Fire Axe of Destruction, but a locked wooden door has me completely stymied?

RPGs have gotten bigger, richer, and longer in the last five years, and a few of them, like Planescape: Torment, have aspired to serious themes. This is much to be applauded, and allows us to see a glimmer of their real potential. But for the most part, they’re still silly sword-n-sorcery romps about whacking anything that moves and picking up and selling anything that sits still. If we want to see creative advancement in this area, we’re going to have to abandon that model.

Most Prophetic

Two of my early columns, Why ‘Online Community’ is an Oxymoron and Implementing God in the Online World were about cheating and various other forms of misbehavior in on-line games. Ultima Online was in the worst throes of its player-killing problems at the time, and had they not dealt with it decisively, the whole genre might have died a-borning. (In fairness it has to be said that the MUD community already had the answer, or part of it, but if the bigwigs at Origin had experienced a significant loss of faith, MMORPGs could have been tainted for years with the deadly label “unprofitable.”)

While no one could claim that the social problems of MMORPGs have been completely solved, there have been advancements, and I'm happy to see that some of the things I advocated at the time have been adopted. I suggested that we needed some flatfoots on the infobeat, and nowadays communities that want to maintain a certain standard of conduct are routinely moderated to keep the griefers out or at least stifle them every time they open their mouths. Ultima Online now confines player-killers to areas where they can pound on each other to their heart’s content; and those who get their jollies beating up helpless newcomers would be better advised to see a therapist. Likewise, in “Implementing God” I suggested that an automated “God” responsible for administering justice could curse misbehaving players with weakness and other maladies; this has since been implemented in some games under the general name of “stat loss.” I don’t by any means claim credit for having been the first to propose these things, but it’s nice to see that they proved to be sound.

What Next?

Well, I'm still having fun learning about cool new ideas to put in computer games (or sometimes cool old ideas), so I’m still scribbling in the notebook. Art, architecture, music, literature, science, mathematics, engineering -- it's all grist for the mill. The potential and infinite flexibility of this amazing medium are an excellent excuse for educating myself about all kinds of things, and that's why I keep writing it down. Thank you for reading it. And a special thanks to those of you who have read it, and believed in it, ever since the beginning.


1997
Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?
Why 'On-Line Community' is an Oxymoron

1998
Not Just Another Scary Face
Games for Girls? Eeeeewwww!
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!
Implementing God in the On-Line World
Gulliver and Game Design
Cartographic Cartwheels
In Memoriam: Danielle Berry
The VR Gorilla-Rhino Test
A Symmetry Lesson
Creating Opponents for Wargames
How to Get Started in the Game Industry: Part I
How to Get Started in the Game Industry: Part II

1999
Interstate'76 and the Principles of Harmony
How To Be Weird
Let’s Put the Magic Back in Magic
Shut Up and Design!
The Slippery Slope of Advertising
Tolkien, Beethoven, Vision
Simplification
Reflections on the Colorado School Massacre
Designing and Developing Sports Games
I Can't Keep Up!
It's Time to Bring Back Adventure Games
Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers

2000
A Letter from a Dungeon
Some Thoughts on Archaic Language
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! II
Death (and Planescape: Torment)
Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)
Casual versus Core
Sex in Videogames, Part 1: Seduction
Sex in Videogames, Part 2: Explicit Sex
Sex in Videogames, Part 3: Dramatic Significance
Designing Need-based AI for Virtual Gorillas

2001
Dogma 2001: A Challenge to Game Designers
Brian Moriarty on Text RPGs and Skotos Tech
Replayability, Part One: Narrative
Replayability, Part 2: Game Mechanics
My "Next" Games: Families, Psychology, and Murder
The Day the "Fun" Became Real

2002
Designer's Notebook: Positive Feedback
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! III
Technology Inspires Creativity: Indie Game Jam Inverts Dogma 2001!
Stop Calling Games "Addictive"!
The Role of Architecture in Videogames


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