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The Designer's Notebook: The Best of the Game Design Workshops


April 2, 2004
 

For the last several years, in addition to doing design consulting and writing, I have also been giving game design workshops. Most of them last one day, but recently I gave a five-day intensive workshop on narrative games, with the help of Ragnar Tørnquist of The Longest Journey fame. The workshops are set up in such a way that the participants can't just clone existing games; they have to think up something really new--to apply design principles to a game idea that has never been released commercially before. I give them the general topic, and it's up to them to find a way to make it into a computer game.

The participants are sometimes industry professionals, often students, and occasionally people from other fields entirely. Sometimes they've hardly ever played any games at all. Of course, this occasionally means that they have unrealistic expectations about what's possible, but on the other hand, they don't have any preconceived notions about what a computer game should be like, either. As a result, I've heard some pretty amazing ideas over the years, and in this column I'm going to share a few of the best.

Being an Archaeologist

Having grown up as the child of archaeologists, I've had hundreds of people tell me, "That sounds fascinating, I've always wanted to do that." Since it seems to be a common fantasy, I decided to give it out as a game design challenge. The one rule is that you can't be an Indiana Jones archaeologist; you actually have to dig for stuff.

Unfortunately, the reality of being an archaeologist is rather less exciting than the fantasy: it's dirty, painstaking, sometimes tedious work unless you have a particularly rich location to dig in. The design team--students at Michigan State--got around this by creating a fascinating mechanic. You are digging in the ruins of an ancient town, and you have to dig efficiently because excavation costs money. When you find an object, the object itself actually takes you back in time for a brief period, so that you can see how it was being used. (Real archaeologists do this all the time, but only in their imaginations.) Furthermore, if you pay attention while you are in the past, you can observe other objects in use, and get a clue as to where they could be unearthed once you're back in the present. The more you find, the more often you go into the past and the more you learn. The challenge is to use your observation and logic skills to excavate efficiently and find more things. The more you discover, the more money you get to carry on with your work.

In essence, the team had taken the mental processes of an archaeologist--learning about the past by reasoning from excavated objects, buildings, and burials--and made them literal, so that you could actually see the past. Even though it has a fantasy element that real archaeology lacks, I thought it was a great way to approach the subject.

The Princess in Distress

What if you were so empathetic that you could literally see other people's inner emotions, --know what they felt and what they wanted? Suppose you were locked in an insane asylum, and the only way out was by understanding the emotional needs and building the trust of the other inmates? This was the basis of The Princess in Distress, a game from the narrative workshop. Your avatar, Princess Mary, has been locked away as part of a plot to seize the throne of England. But Mary has a special gift that she thinks of as "Emoogles"--emotional goggles--that allow her to see what others are feeling. In order to escape from the asylum, she must learn to understand her fellow inmates and help them emotionally. She also pieces together clues to her own situation by talking to key people. She is, in effect, a combination of therapist and detective.

One of the more interesting ideas in this game was the inventory system. Instead of carrying around the traditional collection of random objects, the princess collects memories: information, emotions, relationships, and other things she learns in her interactions with others. These memories can then be passed on to others, or used in particular situations that call for them. I liked the idea of a memory as a thing-in-itself, an item to be recalled at need.

Being a Child

This is one of the toughest design challenges I give out. The instructions simply say, "Re-live the best things about being a child." Obviously this is pretty vague, and the team has to spend a while deciding what the best parts of being a child really were.

The best response that I ever got came at the first workshop that I held, at the Art Futura art festival in Barcelona. The group--a particularly heterogeneous one, as you might expect at an art festival--decided that the best thing about being a child was playing practical jokes on people. Their design was essentially a sort of puzzle game along the lines of The Incredible Machine, but with more freedom and lateral thinking allowed. You start off as a young adult, 18 or so, with a small number of objects that you can use to play practical jokes: string, tape, coins, and so on. You set up the joke and then run it on AI-driven NPCs. If it's successful, you get more gear to work with and a new mission in a new location. But the real reward is that you also get younger as you play. Every time a joke succeeds, you lose three months off your age. The object of the game is to work your way backwards to being a child again.

Corporate Camera

At the narrative games workshop, one of the design teams included a French artist, Pascal Delage. Pascal was interested in a moral conundrum: in the face of tyranny, do you quit (leave), or resist? Fight, or flight? We've been raised on tales of the American Revolution, and of the Resistance under the Nazis, to think that resistance is honorable--the right choice. But what if you have a family to protect? Don't you owe it to them to flee? A child can't fight, and needs you in order to survive. But on the other hand, isn't running away just leaving the problem for someone else to deal with?

This dilemma formed the basis of the Corporate Camera narrative. In their story, the player's avatar--an employee of a security company with a pregnant wife and a young child--discovers that the CCTV cameras his company uses to protect property and deter crime actually have a much more nefarious purpose: political control. The surveillance system is being used to track dissenters. Our hero is determined to put a stop to this, but he is afraid of the consequences for his family.

The game takes place in three acts. Act One sets up the problem, but then the storyline branches. The player is forced to decide whether to fight or flee. In Act Two, the story moves along parallel tracks depending on which choice the player made. In Act Three, the two stories actually merge into one again--but the player's understanding of the situation, and his opportunities for dealing with it, are different depending on which choice he made. In effect, although Act Three has only one narrative, the player's experience of that narrative will depend on his earlier resolution to the moral dilemma. This is not a new idea, of course, but I had never seen it implemented in quite this way, with a storyline that branches and then rejoins.

Be a Viking

I gave this challenge to a group of Swedes: be a Viking! Naturally, they knew quite a lot about the subject. But the game they designed surprised me extremely, and was one of the most fascinating I've ever heard about.

The object of the game was to develop and maintain a strong Norse community, and in that respect, it resembled a construction and management simulation, --Sim Viking, in effect. You build a village, raise grain and pigs, and go on raiding expeditions to other countries for loot and slaves. (I never realized Vikings had slaves, but apparently they did.) You also have an avatar, a Viking chieftain who leads the raiding expeditions. Your avatar must engage in fierce personal combat while on these raids--that increases your honor and strengthens the village. Honor is a critical resource. It pleases the gods in Valhalla, who bestow their favors on you.

The most interesting thing about the game is that it is multi-generational. One of the objects of the game is actually to die--to die in as bloody and violent a manner as possible, with your avatar surrounded by the bodies of the enemies he has slain. He'll be buried in a wooden longship, and his soul will go to Valhalla, where his honor creates more strength and support for the Viking people.

When your avatar dies, you take on a new avatar, one of his children. It is imperative, therefore, that you find a mate and have children before you die. If you don't have a child, then you can't go on to the next generation when your avatar dies. The game just ends. Similarly, if you play conservatively, and hang on to your avatar until he's old and feeble, eventually he'll be killed without much honor, and the village will suffer. So for maximum benefit, you should die in the prime of life, in true berserker fashion.

The game has one more twist. Christians keep coming to your village and trying to baptize people. If someone is baptized, they're no longer a Viking, and are lost to the community. If the Christians baptize your own children, you can no longer carry on the game when your avatar dies. And finally, the Christians bring influenza, which kills your population and can even kill you--a most dishonorable death. So part of the challenge is to kill off the Christians whenever they appear. The problem is that, like an old arcade game, it's unwinnable. More and more Christians keep coming into the village. In the end, the Viking way of life is doomed.

As indeed it was.

Conclusion

It's a truism of the game industry that ideas are a dime a dozen--everybody's got a brilliant game idea, and no publisher or developer will pay you for an idea alone. Execution, not innovation, matters most if you want to get your game published.

And yet... in spite of the vast number of ideas swirling around, we do see an awful lot of them over and over again. The same gameplay mechanics. The same plots. The same victory conditions: drive the fastest, shoot the best, accumulate the most. I've never heard of a game in which the object was to die in glory, or to soothe the troubles of the mentally ill. That's one of the reasons that giving these design workshops is such fun. I find it exhilarating and inspiring. And I really hope, for the sake of the industry and even the medium itself, that some of the people I've taught can get into the business and bring some of these ideas to life.


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