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GDC 2012:  Loom  creator Brian Moriarty's 'sinister' school of game design
GDC 2012: Loom creator Brian Moriarty's 'sinister' school of game design
March 5, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

March 5, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Student/Education, GDC, Design, Programming

In an Education Summit talk at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, Infocom and LucasArts veteran Brian Moriarty outlined some key principles of game design education, arguing that the best way to teach students is to force them to figure it out on their own.

Moriarty, who previously created titles such as Beyond Zork and Loom, now works as a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and in his talk he detailed his demanding strategy for "hurling students into the crucible of game design."

When planning his curriculum, Moriarty explained that he considered teaching students with tabletop "piecepacks," using dice, boards, markers, and the like. He soon realized, however, that digital games rely on their own unique set of building blocks.

"To me, digital games are made of code," he said. Therefore, "the fundamental activity students must be doing [for class] is assembling games in code."

The only problem was that Moriarty's introductory course had no programming requisite classes, so students didn't necessarily have any coding experience.

To create a solution, Moriarty drew inspiration from the 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, which describes a game in which the rules and mechanics are not explained in detail. Using that concept, Moriarty set out to create a game engine that would teach students about coding with minimal guidance.

His eventual solution was a simple, Javascript-based engine dubbed Perlenspiel, which could create games using a mosaic-like grid (with a resolution of a medium-sized windows con), colored pixels (or "beads"), and a text-based status box.

Moriarty explained that Javascript became his language of choice because it is currently one of the most versatile and useful languages in nearly all realms of game development.

"Javascript is as real as programming languages get," he said. With the Perlenspiel engine, he hoped that students would learn "to finger out [game] ideas like notes on a piano."

He wanted the engine to become what he called a "gameclavier," or an inherently useful tool for designing, experimenting, and ultimately, creating games.

Thus, Moriarty introduced his Perlenspiel engine at the beginning of his seven-week design course, and tasked students with creating a total of six titles within that limited period. Moriarty himself described the workload as "sinister," but said that the short time between projects (and the limited engine) helped students strip down game design to its essentials.

As Moriarty described it, students could do little more with the Perlenspiel engine than "change the appearance of the beads, the grid, or the status line," meaning their games couldn't have characters, backstories, or any superfluous elements -- everything came down to the mechanics.

One additional caveat in the course was that students had to create games that fell into several categories. First, they had to create a toy, or "something that elicits play," followed by a "game" proper, or a toy with rules and a goal, and finally, they had to create puzzles, or games with a solution.

With these guidelines in place, students came up with a wide variety of concepts as the course progressed, spanning drawing tools, virtual mazes, and eventually basic adventure games.

By the end of the course, Moriarty said that "course evaluations were unanimously positive," and students clearly appreciated all they learned. Moriarty, however, realized that he course had taught him quite a bit as well.

"Looking back on the experiment… I realized that I had not built the gameclavier I was looking for… I thought I was building a game engine for teaching game design, but I really built an engine that taught me how to teach game design."

Moriarty admitted that throughout his course, he only used his own Perlenspiel engine to make simple tech demos -- he had never made a game of his own. He decided therefore, that he would design his own game and use it as a tool for the following term.

Once he began crafting it, he realized exactly what he had been asking of his students.

"I had completely forgotten how difficult it was to code for bare pixels!" he said. He struggled for three weeks to create his game, and gained an even better understanding of exactly what his students went through.

Moriarty recalled, "Perlenspiel demonstrated to this old professor how hard students will work if they are playfully and firmly challenged."

In his latest term, Moriarty used his game as part of his final exam to test students on the essential elements and principles of game design. He welcomed other educators to use the Perlenspiel engine in their own courses, as it has proven a useful tool for picking apart game design -- for both students and professors alike.

The Perlenspiel engine is now available as an open source tool, and more information is available at its official website.

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Jonathan Jennings
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I support this I graduated about 4 months ago and my group learned more about coding and really the time effort/ energy and planning that goes into developement in that 4 month period then we did in the rest of the education .

not to knock my school at all but the knowledge you gain from a " trial by fire" where you produce results or fail is something you hold onto for a much longer period of time in my experience . Still I really like Brians approach because it challenges the students to truly think but still have an instructor there to facilitate and keep them on the right track .

I feel like the difficulty of game developement courses really is finding that perfect blend of student application but still trying to create a curriculum or course that covers various aspects of the course . in my experience either the courses hold your hand or they give you very little direction and starting point .

However this course sounds like it owuld not only be extremely educational but a lot of fun !

Michael Metzer
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I took this course when it was in its infancy, still an experimental class in the department. I could have taken anything I wanted that term, and I chose this class because of the experience I had with Professor Moriarty (I'm sure he laughs on the inside everytime anyone calls him this) in the introductory IMGD class.

One of the most important things about this course that I feel is missing from the article above was the large focus he placed on playtesting. He took advantage of a large number of students being in the same room during his class, and had us playtest the other teams games while still being developed. No time in class was used to write new code; it was used only to see how our peers interacted with our games.

We were told to sit them down at the computer, and just watch them play. We weren't allowed to instruct them or answer any questions. We looked at how they tried to interact with the games, and what caused them to struggle. Nothing is more frustrating than watching someone play something you made, only to have them not solve the puzzle. They were not difficult puzzles, but they couldn't be solved because the playtester didn't realize they could click on certain beads. You realize that you didn't give them enough information to solve the puzzle. Things that are obvious to you are not always as obvious to someone who didn't make the game.

This by far has been my favorite class so far, so much so that I'm taking his new experimental class, the sequel to this one, just to see what else I could learn from the way he teaches.