Monday, March 19, 2018

You gotta put down the duckie

It has been an interesting semester in my undergraduate game design & development studio. I am sure I have already forgotten more than one story that I intended to blog about, but that's just how it goes sometimes. My teaching load is actually reduced by one this semester as I work with a small team on a re-release of Collaboration Station. An unexpected result has been that all of my research time (and more) has gone into that project, and so I haven't written as much as I would otherwise like about some of the amazing things happening this semester. However, something happened in my game development studio last week that I thought was particularly notable, and so I want to quickly frame the story and share what happened. [Edit: "Quickly", you know, for my writing. I've been working on this post for some time now...]

This semester's studio follows last semester's collaborative exploration with Minnetrista, and my team is working on a game that is fundamentally about finding fairies on Minnetrista's campus. We're building on a prototype that was created by a student in the Fall: she designed a single-player mobile game in which a player finds characters on the grounds. Her game was based on the theme of imagination and creativity, inviting the player to either accept or reject fantastic elements. I worked with Minnetrista staff and my student team to adapt this into a very different kind of game: we are designing an experience for groups rather than individuals. In particular, we envision groups of explorers led by a facilitator; we are making an app that the facilitator would use to help create a great experience for those they brought to Minnetrista. These visitor roles come from a combination of existing museum theory and the particular psychographic work of our partners at Minnetrista.

We captured some of these ideas in the Spring team's vision statement, which we have hanging on a very large poster in our studio:
We are making a geolocative, narrative-rich mobile app that helps facilitators engage with explorers at Minnetrista—an app that features the varied grounds of Minnetrista's campus and the early 20th-century fairies beloved of Elizabeth Ball. The app will bring people together to be creative and engage the group in imagination and reflection.
The wall-mounted vision statement
I want to take a moment to point out how very strange this design space is. One person has the app, but that person is using it to direct the experience of other people. It has taken my student team weeks to wrap their heads around this, and indeed, I think some still have not. Essentially, the story I want to tell is about how one student finally did.

For essentially the whole semester so far, we have been working on the experience of meeting a single fairy. I explained several times that we can sacrifice scope, but we cannot sacrifice quality: if we cannot make one good fairy-finding experience, then we cannot make three, or five, or ten. The team built a minimum viable product—a proof-of-concept to explore the technology stack, essentially—and we have completed two sprints. Unfortunately, each sprint, the team dropped the ball with respect to end-user playtesting; fortunately, I think they have finally learned their lesson! The point of this is that we had a fundamental design but no authentic testing of it.

This design involved having a group of people sing for the fairy at a particularly fantastic location, and the fairy would emerge in response to the singing to befriend the players. The team has considered using the microphone to respond to singing, using a timer, or relying on self-reported completion in order to know when the group was finished singing. Paper prototyping of this idea worked fairly well, although that's a story for another day (one of the many stories I want to capture if I can push other things off my plate long enough).

On Wednesday of last week, I was sitting with a student who has been actively involved in much of the lightweight prototyping process. He was wrestling with the scenario and whether or not it met our goal that it would "engage the player in meeting" a fairy. This led him to an epiphany. He realized that perhaps the app was more like tabletop roleplaying games than like conventional videogames: the facilitator was the dungeon master, and their group was the party. This gave him a new lens to consider the problems of experience design—a new, useful metaphor for framing the process. It seemed to me he had hit a point where he could now productively move forward. The fact that this took half a semester for the student who has done the most prototyping and design work on the whole team is further feedback about the strangeness of the design space, and it's also based on this that I think many members of the team may still harbor unproductive understandings of what the vision statement actually means.

That brings us to Friday of last week, when I sat with two students as they worked on design—one of them being the student mentioned above, who had been sketching screens based on the "dungeon master" metaphor. For a variety of reasons, we were looking at the fundamental group activity, replacing singing with something more like dancing. We talked about skipping as a whimsical and fun activity, and as we tried to describe the scene, the question came up, "What is the facilitator doing?" One of the students explained that if they were at the park with their mother, and they were skipping but their mother was not, they would stop. How, then, do we get the facilitator to participate in the activity as well, so that the whole group is enaged together?

Hoots knows the answer.

You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.

You gotta put down the smartphone if you wanna facilitate group enjoyment.

Our design space just got even weirder. We are now investigating and designing ways to encourage the facilitator to put their phones away and join their group in fun and creative activities. I pointed out that it was sort of like pulling the trick that Undertale popularized, where the game should react to the fact that it is closed. In fact, we don't just want to react to someone turning off their mobile phone screen: we want to encourage and reward it. We're moving forward on two fronts: incorporating putting away your phone as part of meeting the fairy, and also finding ways to feed-forward the idea that, yes, this app is aware of and responds to its being closed.

Regular readers may remember the end result of last year's game design & development studio was Spirits at Prairie Creek Park [game site, blog post]. That is a game in which groups of people go to different locations at Prairie Creek Park and engage in real-world sensory activities such as touching, listening, or smelling. In that game, we have one person holding the app and directing the others—likely children—in what to do. There is a 30-second countdown during the activity, after which the smartphone-wielder enters the data about what their group found. In our (admittedly-limited) playtesting, we saw that the one with the smartphone would stand and watch the timer go down while their group engaged with the activity. At the time, we didn't talk about what that one person was doing, but you know what? Watching a timer is not really much fun. We didn't recognize this in our design analysis then either, though, that there's an opportunity for the facilitator to improve the overall group activity by pocketing their smartphone and joining in. It is fascinating to me that we never noticed this, but then again, that team also had other problems to deal with, including some significant technical hurdles to overcome.

If you know of other games that explore this design space, please share in the comments. My team and I would be glad to see how others have approached it.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Painting Gloomhaven: Six Characters, No Spoilers

I vaguely remember my brother pointing me toward the first Gloomhaven Kickstarter. I looked at it, thought it looked a bit grim for me, and passed. No need to get the Kickstarter if there's any doubt, since if it's good, I can get a copy at retail, right? Several months later, it was gaining a lot of hype, and I looked around for it. In theory there were some retail copies; in practice, none could be found. The designer ran a second, wildly-successful Kickstarter, which I happily backed. My order was unfortunately one of a small set that was mishandled, so I didn't get my copy until several weeks after everyone else. Now, though, I have a painted set, and we've had it to the table a handful of times. More on the game later; for now, let's talk about painting the six starting characters. There are no spoilers here: these are just the six you have access to from the get-go.

For those who don't know this story, I will quickly share. Gloomhaven's designer is Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games, which is based in Lafayette, Indiana, about two hours' drive from here. I reached out to Dr. Childres (yes, he has his PhD) and he agreed to give the closing presentation at the 2017 Symposium on Games in Academia which I chaired. He was a gracious guest, his talk centered around what he learned about running Kickstarter campaigns. A few of us had dinner following, and he was great company.

OK, back to the painting. My wife, my eldest son, and I each picked a character—Cragheart, Spellweaver, and Tinkerer, respectively—and so I started by painting these three.


I believe we can reach the morning light
I started with the spellweaver. As usual, I based my color schemes for this project on the fantastic card art. The blue magic aura at her feet ended rather precipitously, so I added a little bit of heavy gel and sculpted it out a bit. It's subtle, but it does make the edges of the aura more attractive. There were no great tricks here, just applying and practicing techniques I've learned. As I described in my previous painting post, I have been using Vallejo Glaze Medium to do rough wet blending of base coats, followed by a wash, followed by layered highlights. I think I did a fair job here capturing the otherworldy skin pallor and the energetic crystals and magic waves. For all of these characters, I was not going for competition-quality painting—as if I ever do!—I was really just trying to get something that looked good and would get us into playing this game soon.


Next up is the Cragheart, who was the easiest to paint, with his limited color palette. I mixed some yellow into the grey to keep it from being neutral, and while highlighting the cracked, rocky skin was a little tedious, it was straightforward. There is some purple ink in the recesses to give some color to the shadows, but it's faint and doesn't really show up in the photos. I wish I could remember what I did for the gold, but I can tell you for sure it was frustrating. More on that later.


More Tinker Yet
This little guy was frustrating to paint. He would be my character, and so of course I wanted to do a nice job on him. I don't know how long I spent looking at the sculpt and just trying to puzzle out what on earth was going on. I ended up using my metallic medium to mix up some moderately-shiny underlayer of armor with the leather cloak on top of that. There were several parts that I ended up repainting as the colors evolved; I didn't write them down, though, so I'm afraid all I have is a vague memory. It's hard to tell with the incredibly small detail, but I also used several layers of glazing to make the bright blue areas appear to be glowing.

He clearly has a potion in his hand, and there were other baubles on the character that I thought could be potions as well. I cannot remember now where I last did fluid-filled vials, but I was able to dig up some of the tutorials I followed back then, particularly this one from Fantasy Games. I didn't go to that level of detail, but the result is decent for the one in his hand. I did the same thing for the one on top of his backpack, seen in the second picture above, but in retrospect that probably wasn't the best way to go about it: I probably should have tinted that one toward the leather color of the backpack rather than pale purple, since from almost every angle, you would be looking at the back of his head or his backpack. In the end, you cannot paint plastic to be clear, so there's no perfect answer.

Those were the initial party of three, although when I first painted them, they looked like this:

Original outdoors basing

I had decided before starting that I wanted scenic bases, particularly after my last several painting projects that had none. I wanted the Gloomhaven figures to look good on the table without undue process, so I even picked up some Vallejo Earth Texture after having seen Sorastro get quick and easy results with it. As I was working on it, though, I had flashbacks to working on my original Imperial Assault set years ago, when I tried scenic basing and then realized it wouldn't fit all the environments, and ended up stripping it all off. With our starting Gloomhaven party, the bases turned out quite well. However, the game doesn't take place on free wilderness areas: it's primarily dungeon-crawling on hexes. I decided to change tactics, so despite the potential danger to the painted miniatures and their bases, I scraped away all the earth texture and flock.

Naked bases. Take that, SEO.
You can see here the Spellweaver base pre-modification as well.
I remembered watching Brant "Ghool" Benoit's video about his Massive Darkness basing technique, and I decided to try something similar. In a rare moment of clarity and foresight, I decided to work on a test piece rather than one of the existing guys. I was terrified I would muck it up and have to repaint a part or, worse, the whole thing. I grabbed a spare base and set to it.

Close-up of a Tiny Base
Test piece next to Cragheart, for scale
The flagstones are all painted on with cheap craft paints, and the mounds are construction sand with an ink wash and drybrush. I think the flagstones look pretty good, but the mounds I was not sure about. Perhaps I used too much glue, because the edges pulled in, making it look like sculpted mounds rather than piles of scrap. I decided to move forward with the rebasing, but without Ghool-style debris—just classic flagstone dungeon base.

All your rebase are belong ... Hey, I think I made that joke a few posts ago.
Here is the semi-final attempt. I took this photo to share online, and at first I was really happy with it. The more I looked at the figures, though, I worried that there was too much contrast on the bases as compared to the figures themselves. I went back in and lightened the spaces between the stones. You can see the lightened Spellweaver next to the original Tinkerer below.
Original on left; lightened on right
Convinced this was the right move, I fixed up all three:
Less contrast on the base, more attention to the miniature.
Now in this case, I did actually take some notes about how I did the bases, since I knew I'd want to match future characters as well as I could. Unfortunately, I cannot remember if I took the notes of what I did on the original approach or the lightened approach. What I'm sharing here is my interpreted notes, in how I did the next set of three:

I used Americana paints that I had on hand from other basing and craft projects. The basecoat is a mix of lamp black and slate grey; I started 50/50, but that was a bit too dark, so it needs a hair more grey. I added just a hint of burnt umber as well. Then I painted the lines, originally using a roughly 2:3 mix of lamp black and burnt umber, which gave me the overly-dark version; it was softened with some slate grey. The first stone highlight was done in a 1:3 mix of lamp black and slate grey, and the second was done in straight slate grey. I mixed a 50/50 very thin wash of brown and sepia inks, splotching some down on the stones and feathering it around with a damp brush. (For the record, on the test piece, I used that same wash, less diluted. Then I drybrushed first with a 3:1 mix of desert sand and burnt umber and then with straight desert sand.)

We played the introductory scenario and had fun, but it had all the rockiness of a new game. There were a few things we got wrong, some only coming to light after re-reading rules afterwards. This kind of thing drives my wife crazy, and after trying the scenario again (but with most of the rules right), she decided to back out. This left a Tinkerer and Spellweaver, which my son and I didn't think sounded like a viable team. We busted out the rest of the starting characters and decided to continue our adventure with a Mindthief and a Scoundrel. However, I painted the Brute first, so here he is:


The gold elements were among the last I painted on the Brute, and I sent my brother a message along the lines of, "I am not happy painting gold." I was tempted to go try some other brand or type of paint to see if I could find something to alleviate my pain, but I ended up taking a different tack. Regular readers may recall that I've been mixing metallics and non-metallics for a while to reduce the shine and control the tone of the metals. I did something different here, taking plain old Vallejo Model Color Gold—one of the first paints I bought when I got back into painting—and I added a bit of the metallic medium as a thinner, with maybe a touch of matte medium. This made it a bit less gloopy, so I applied it to the Brute. It was mostly OK for a start, except for the shield: the paint left a roughness behind what had been a smooth plastic surface. It was aggravating, but I really didn't want to strip the whole miniature, and there's a sense in which the roughness added unintentional weathering to the shield, so I decided to try moving forward.

Here's where I hit struck gold. Ha!


Rather than do anything extraordinary here, I just went back to the old classic of mixing my Model Color Silver in with my Gold, except I was more intentional about using some metallic and matte mediums to control the consistency. This really worked fine for a highlight, and it's basically my old way of highlighting gold, before I was trying anything fancy. Wat really made it work was controlled application of an ink wash, a mix of brown and purple ink (which I don't have, so it was actually brown and blue and red ink). Many thin layers of this added depth to the shadows in a way that I am quite pleased with. You can see it most directly in the bottom side of the shield. I really think this adds more flavor to the gold than the highlights did.

The rest of the Brute is pretty standard fare, really. An overall wash followed by some spot washes helped bring out the texture of the muscles and the fur. The cloak highlights are primarily from the wet-blended base coat followed by a wash, but I did also paint on some of the brightest ones by hand.


This is the Mindthief, who my son was interested in playing. The card art is awash in glowing runes and magical symbols, which gave me pause as I was planning out my colors. I decided to go with a straight-up light blue for the outfit, accenting the shadows with some purples. I will also point out that I suspect vermlings suffer from identity problems because of their cat ears and rat tails.

In the card art, the runes on the knife are glowing blue and purple, and I wanted to capture something like that. I know the general approach for this is to lay down a mid tone slightly wider than the runes, then trace inside of that a brighter tone. My first attempt was flubbed and painted entirely over, but once I switched to my finest brush—the one I use only for pupils, and only then sometimes—I was able to get something that I was happy with.

The other story behind the Mindthief is about the base. Like some of my Myth figures, the Mindthief was cast on a narrow plastic "surfboard" and then affixed to the base; unlike the Myth figures, he has a small rat at his feet, which meant that I could not cut the mindthief off of the bizarre plastic mini-stand without almost certainly mangling the little rat's tail.  When I prepped and primed the miniatures, I was thinking about the outdoors theme, and I decided to cover the plastic strip by making it appear the Mindthief is standing on a hill: a bit of Milliput on the base, and presto. (Sorry, no historic pics of this.) With the switch to an indoor theme, I knew I couldn't take that mound and make it a believable pile of rubble. I also was not sure I wanted one of them on rubble while the rest of the characters were on "neat" bases. I knew I could make it look like it was standing on a loose flagstone, but I was worried that would also look goofy: why is this one character standing on the one loose piece of stone? I showed it to my wife and asked about it, and she suggested I could make it look less out of place by adding more stones. Brilliant! I ended up extending the bit under the Mindthief to more triangular, less oblong, and worked out a few different Milliput "stones" to try in place. Painting it all up, I think it is fit for purpose: the Mindthief just ended up standing in an area that had a few extra stones laying around, and being of diminutive stature, it leapt onto one of the larger ones, you know, to stab somebody or reach the plates or something.


Don't trust humans
The last figure to paint was the one that I chose for our revised, smaller adventuring party: the Scoundrel. I'll point out here that the card art for Gloomhaven is quite good, but many of the portraits have questionable lighting. The Scoundrel takes the cake: she is backlit by some kind of green glow, or something. There was a lot of room for interpretation on the color palette, that's for sure. I ended up going with different brown tones: the innermost one is green toned down with red, while the medium brown is VMC Flat Earth, and the lightest one is a mix of Medium Fleshtone and brown. The shoulders, chestpiece, and sword hilts are done in gold, similar to how I painted the Brute's gold, but starting with Game Color Glorious Gold mixed with a little Flat Brown; this gives it more of an orange or copper cast. The hair was done with Flat Brown, and I think the slight red of the hair gives a good subtle contrast against the green and yellow tones of the brown.

Originally, I painted her eyes dimly under her domino mask, despite the fact that the card art gives her glowing green eyes, like her sword and throwing knives. "Why would she have glowing eyes?", I thought to myself. When I showed my wife, however, she pointed out that the glowing eyes on the card art have a more important purpose: since she is backlit and, hence, standing in her own shadow, the glowing eyes serve as a focal point for what is otherwise a low-contrast, slightly drab drawing. From this artistic rather than fantastic perspective, it made me realize that I should copy the aesthetic of the card art and not just the colors.
Turn around
Bright eyes
Every now and then I make an art. Note that in the photo, the glazed-on glow effect around the eyes looks a little splotchy, but that's not visible to my eyes even in the best light on the miniature itself. In fact, it surprised me when I zoomed on the photo just now!

Seeking Fame and Fortune
I want to record a note here about airbrushing. Once again, I was very happy with zenithal priming from the airbrush. For the varnish, I decided to order larger, 60mL bottles of the Vallejo acrylic varnishes that I use. However, I was surprised to find that the consistency of the "Matt" acrylic varnish from the large container is very different from that of the 17mL bottle I picked up locally. In fact, when I put it straight into the airbrush, it didn't go anywhere. For the first three figures, then, I varnished them in the old, thinner, easily-airbrushable matte varnish from the smaller bottle. When I got the second set of three complete, I decided to just brush on some gloss varnish for protection's sake, and then I returned to the airbrush to lay down a coat or two of matte. I had read some more about pressure control, so I dropped the compressor to about 15psi, and I was able to force some varnish—barely—out of the airbrush. What was interesting to me is that it came out "dry" and immediately reduced the shine of the gloss layer underneath. However, after about two figures, no more would come out, so it was disassembly and cleaning time. Now, I cut the varnish with about 25% airbrush thinner, mixing it in a small cup and pouring it into the airbrush. This came through the brush with no trouble at all, although it came out "wet", more like when I brush on the matte varnish. As expected, once it dried, and with a few extra touches as necessary, it took the shine off with no trouble. I think next time I will try doing the gloss and matte through the airbrush, but I'll have to remember to thin them both, and hence this note to myself.

Back to Gloomhaven. My son and I have played several times, although that's only going through two more scenarios. The new party has two wins and three losses, which is a bit frustrating. The first loss was because we misplayed some critical cards, as we kind of expected to happen. Without giving any spoilers, the second scenario we did had our two characters in a position where we had to dish out an incomprehensible amount of damage across a large number of figures, with none of us having any area-of-effect powers. It was disheartening, since we felt like we played it well, but still had no chance of hitting the required kill count. We dropped the scenario level to zero, which I felt a bit guilty about, but then we were able to manage the scenario. Turns out, the only difference in reward between level 1 and level 2 was two experience points per player. Two! That's like one good XP-generating card. For the creatures we were fighting, though, it turns out we only had to dish out approximately 25 points of damage each instead of 40, which is obviously a huge difference for a tankless party. He just leveled up, so we may go back to the recommended difficulty next time, but it was definitely good to know we could scale the difficulty back if something looked out of our league, while only suffering minor setbacks. I am curious whether the difference between scenario level 1 and 2 is the same scale as the difference between 0 and 1, but I haven't looked into that yet.

That little bit of complaint or criticism aside, we are absolutely loving the game. The atmosphere is amazing, the unlockables are rewarding, and the tactics are engaging. It's possible that the game runs better for two players than for three; it is certainly faster, which means we can fail faster and try again without running out of time and having to put this giant game away. The flexible nature of the campaign and scenarios are such that my wife could always join in again if she wanted to, which is also fantastic: more multiplayer games could consider baking this right into the campaign. In a sense, Gloomhaven can get away with it since it's more about the world changing than the party changing. I look forward to many happy returns to the dark and gritty world of Gloomhaven.

Next up should be a series of more serious, work-related posts. I don't even have my next project primed yet, so don't expect more painting notes for some time. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

SIGCSE 2018 Talk: Design and evaluation of an undergraduate course on software development practices

For many years I have been saying to myself, "I should write a paper about CS222." Well, I did, and I just finished giving the oral presentation at SIGCSE 2018. Check it out, standing room only!

(The empty seat in the front row is my own.)

I was the third speaker in a post-lunch session, and I enjoyed the other two talks. Nicole Herbert from Tanzania was especially interesting, as she was describing a capstone structure very much like where I think we could take ours at Ball State with a bit of curricular and potentially administrative revision.

My paper can be found on the ACM Digital Library. I think the talk was well received, and a few attendees asked for a copy of my slides. I prepared all the slides using Google Slides—which I've never done before—andthat makes it very easy to generate a public link. You can find all the slides here.

Thanks to all the attendees, especially to those who came up to ask questions and share stories afterward. I'm truly heartened to hear how much this message resonates with you. If you are new to the blog and want to read more about the Advanced Programming course, search for the "cs222" label. My most recent post on the topic is in my "What we learned" series, in which I share the outcome of the somewhat unconventional final exam format that I use.

You can find the most recent course site, with assignments and evaluation schemes, at I actually have a break from teaching the course this semester—the first such break in many years!

My CS222 YouTube channel is publicly available. It is a collection of tips and tutorials. Some videos are extensions of in-class activities, particularly the earlier ones; I've tried to transition to more encapsulated presentations for improved modularity.

This is a quick after-presentation post. I will try to share some more about the talk later, but I wanted to get this up for any visitors who come looking for the slides and links. I am happy to share my course materials, instructional videos, and reflections. If you do end up using them in your courses and designs, I'd love to know about it. Consider the material something like CC BY-NC-SA.

If you came for the miniature painting, search for the "painting" label instead :) Cheers!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Empathy, Listening, and Hearing

I have more stories I want to share here than I have made time to share them, but here's one that I find my idle mind keep returning to. I want to capture it here to make sure I don't forget it.

We are reading Design of Everyday Things in my HCI class (CS345/545), and several meetings ago, the students read Norman's presentation of the UK Design Council's double diamond model for design. After some thinking and Googling, I developed a series of in-class exercises to help students understand the model. Particularly helpful was Heffernan's overview of activities associated with various stages of design. I decided that an exercise on empathy mapping might be just the right way to start.

Of course, to build empathy, you need a focus and a context. I decided to use, as a running example, students' experience dealing with the triage grading system that I use. This is a brilliant grading system that I learned from William Rapaport at University at Buffalo when I worked as a TA with him. It is coherent, philosophically-sound, and unfamiliar to almost everybody. I get the occasional question about it and the student whinging in course evaluations, but by and large, student experience with it is unrecorded: it happens in the shadows or in passing conversations. It's also something that all of my current HCI students are experiencing, and practically all of them have either experienced it before in one of my other classes or know someone who has.

I introduced the context in class and asked students to work in small groups to develop a map, writing them on the classroom whiteboards. We used the conventional map labels as shown in Heffernan's overview: what do students think & feel, hear, see, and say & do in their experience with triage grading.

It's helpful to have just a passing understanding of triage grading before we move on. Whereas conventional grading is based on percentage correct, triage grading is based on discretely measured quanta. For example, if you assume that 90% is an A, then as a test designer, you would design the exercise so that A-level work is attained by completing 90% of the prompts correctly. Notice that this is the tail wagging the dog: the fact that you are using conventional grading determines your test structure. With triage grading, any given item is scored out of three points: essentially correct (3 points), essentially incorrect (1 point), or somewhere in between (2 points). The letter grade is determined by weighted linear interpolation across scores, assuming that "A" means correct, "D" means incorrect, and "C" means middling.

Almost every group wrote down that they see percentages when they first encounter triage grading. That is, they see "1/3 points" as 33%, which they interpret as "Low Failing Grade" even though in triage grading it is a low passing grade. (You might consider 33% in triage grading as having a qualitative interpretation like 65% in conventional grading, right on the border of poor and failing.) There was broad consensus about this in the class.

I pointed out that the maps appeared to come from initial experiences with triage grading, but one of my bright students—who has taken my classes before—noted that his was more of a mid-semester view. He had recorded in his map that he became able to see the feedback as qualitative, as coarse-grained values that drove him to change his behaviors. I do not remember exactly the words he wrote on his empathy map, and indeed I didn't understand what he meant by the words he chose, but our conversation came back to the concept "seeing quanta" rather than "seeing percentages."

That was pretty interesting in itself, but here's where it kicks up a notch. A student in the back chimed in, saying essentially, "But it's still a percent." The first student acknowledged that mathematically it was, but that's not what he saw, and the one in the back insisted more strongly, essentially, "But it's some number of points out of a total, and so it's a percent, and so you're still seeing it as a percent."

Wow! What a teachable moment for empathy! I pointed out, treading carefully, that this was an example of the second student showing no empathy for the first student. The second student saw the world in his way, insisted that it was the right way, and that everyone else must also see it that way. I introduced the idea that whether or not there is an objective reality, perception drives a person's lived reality, and perception is subjective. Two people can look at the same thing and "see" two completely different things. The expression on the second student's face told me that he understood what I was saying, but he was still working on the implication; of course, maybe I observed this wrong.

We are continuing to work with this example, and I am finding it a rich context for discussion. I hope to share a few more stories here on the blog, but for now, it's time to head off to class. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Open Letter to Fifth-Grade Game Designers

I was recently contacted by an old friend of mine who teaches fifth grade. His students became interested in designing their own card game, and he reached out to me to see if I could give them some feedback. With his agreement, I decided to post my feedback in an open letter on my blog, following the philosophy that if it's worth typing, it's worth sharing.


I was very excited to hear from Mr. Dietzen that he has a group of students who are eager to design games. Mr. Dietzen and I met in high school, and we are from the same small city in Western New York. I am now a Computer Science Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana; I was drawn into Computer Science in part because it gave me the tools to transform my creative ideas into real working systems.

Shortly after becoming a professor, I started looking for ways to use my love of games—and my students’ love of games—in my classes. I was able to teach a few courses on game design in addition to my Computer Science courses, and for several years I have been able to mentor teams of college students in designing and developing original educational games with local museums and schools. You can play some of my students’ games online, such as Travelers’ Notebook: Monster Tales ( and Social Startup Game ( You may enjoy some of the ideas and experimental gameplay that my students have developed, even if the games don’t have the graphical pizzazz that comes with a multi-million-dollar budget.

Game Design is Hard

By now you have realized that game design is hard. There is a world of difference between having an idea for a game and making an actual game that people can play and enjoy. Just like making a movie or writing a book, making games involves a lot of time, patience, and effort. Kudos to you for not just sitting on your ideas and actually making something out of them! I always tell my students, “Ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the execution that matters.”

#1 Rule: Make Decisions Interesting

The number one rule of game design is this: make decisions interesting. Think about games you enjoy, including video games or card games or sports. They involve a series of interesting decisions. A game where there’s an obvious next best move is not a very interesting game. A game where your choices don’t matter at all is also not interesting. The decisions your players make need to be interesting and meaningful. If you stopped reading now, but you made all of your decisions meaningful, then you would be improving as a game designer!

Game Design is a Process

I was glad to review some of the artifacts that your teacher shared with me. One thing I’ve learned about game design, though, is that the artifacts are only part of the picture: it’s the process of making them that is even more important. Obviously, I cannot see your process, so instead I will share with you some of what I have learned.

I always teach my students that game design an iterative process. That means that you work in cycles or loops. Here is a common way to describe this loop:

Let’s break down what kind of thing you might do at each of these phases. During design, you develop the ideas you have about the rules, the art, the stories, and the systems of the game. It’s a good thing if you throw away more than you keep, so that only the strongest design ideas remain. To implement, you create a model or a prototype that you can test. The purpose of building a prototype is to test it. How do you know if the prototype is any good? You playtest it, of course! Next, you need to take serious time to evaluate your playtesting. Every playtest can teach you something, but that “something” can be… well, anything! The evaluation helps you make decisions as you return to the design step. You are back where you started in the process, except now you are smarter! You know more about your goals and your players from going through the loop, and so you are ready to go through the loop again.

The more often and the faster you can go through the loop, the better your design will be. Designing a game is a learning process, where you are learning to design that game. Going through the loop gives you the feedback you need to improve, in the same way that a good teacher or a good coach will give you feedback on your work so that you can always get better. One of the best ways to go quickly through the loop is to keep the design materials as lightweight as possible for as long as possible. I like using index cards and sticky notes as my primary tools of prototyping. I can quickly build and modify prototypes since it’s very fast to scratch out new notes on paper. These “low-fidelity prototypes” are just simple enough to be played.

Prevent Players from Doing it Wrong

A more specific tip came to mind as I was reading through the material you shared with me. I noticed that there were some card effects that said, “You can only use this once.” This kind of rule means that players have to remember a little bit of knowledge each time they play, but relying on players’ memories is dangerous. Memory plays tricks on you, and you want to avoid cases where players might remember things differently and get into an argument. It’s better to take this kind of “knowledge in the head” and turn it into “knowledge in the world.” How could you design the game to prevent someone from doing it wrong? For example, perhaps the player has to discard the card to do that action: if the card is discarded, they clearly cannot do that ability more than once! You can do similar things with tokens: using an ability may require you to spend some resources, and if you don’t have those resources, you cannot use the ability.

A Moment to Hear; A Lifetime to Master

What I have shared above are some of the most important things I have learned about game design, and they are the core lessons I teach in my game design courses. It’s the kind of advice that’s easy to hear and hard to follow, like “Speak only the truth” or “Practice your guitar daily.” After a semester of working with me, my college students begin to understand it, but I think it takes much more time to really understand it and longer yet to make it a habit. 

Wrapping Up

In closing, I want to say again how glad I am to see fifth-graders excited about game design. Game design draws on so many different areas: math, business, computer science, art, philosophy, language, history, psychology, and more! Who knows, maybe your interest in game design will lead you to being a Computer Science Professor in the American Midwest someday---stranger things have happened, or at least things exactly as strange.

I hope that you found this to be useful and that it will inspire you. If you’re interested, please feel free to write back over email or in the comments. We could also set up a video call if you wanted to follow up on some of the points I’ve shared here.

Happy designing!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Painting Imperial Assault: Jabba's Realm

Like many fans of Imperial Assault, I was glad to hear that Fantasy Flight Games was planning to release an app to allow purely cooperative play. After all, I had already painted and enjoyed the core set (part 1, part 2) and the Twin Shadows expansion. Having heard that the release was imminent, I bought myself an early Christmas present: the Jabba's Realm expansion. Now normally I go through my miniatures in the order I painted them, but for the sake of telling a good story, let me start with the big cheese.


Return of the Jedi was one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater. Not the first, which was The Fox and the Hound, but certainly among the first. I remember going to my grandparents' house afterward and telling my grandfather all about it. Let me state clearly, I am not certain that any of these memories really happened: they emerge from a kind of mental haze where sometimes they seem more true than others. Be that as it may, I definitely did see Return of the Jedi, I definitely did play Ewoks with my grandparents' neighbors, and my brother and I definitely had a whole bunch of Star Wars merchandise.

Let me tell you a story about my family. My dad has always loved monsters and creatures of all kinds. My brother and I used to sit next to him while he read old monster comics from the Kirby & Ditko era, stuff like Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish. The first word I learned to read was "Doom," which featured prominently in many of these stories. The fact that the stories' protagonists were geeky scientists who saved the world from danger may have had an impact on us, given that we are both now professors and scientists.

When we saw Return of the Jedi, of course my dad loved the Rancor. Who wouldn't? He either bought or was gifted the classic Mattel Rancor figure. Dad did not give us the Rancor to play with—much to the confusion of my young mind, which thought of toys as being for kids, so of course he should let us play with it. Instead, he painted it and set it on display on the big desk in the front room. You can find images of the generic Rancor toy online, but to me they look so plain, not like the one that watched us from his perch on the desk.

Fast forward some thirty-some years, and Sorastro produces a wonderful video in which he paints the Rancor miniature from the Jabba's Realm expansion to Imperial Assault. This put the expansion on my radar, and the release date of the Imperial Assault co-op app was enough to push me over the edge.

That's my story, now let's get into the miniatures. I'll come back to the Rancor in chronological order, since I started with these other classics from Episode VI.
Gamorrean Guards
I decided to keep the Gamorrean Guards in fairly traditional RotJ colors, but I needed to distinguish the elites from the normal units. The elites are on the right, with a red sash and copper-colored spears. These guys were fun to paint. I didn't do anything too crazy with them, but I am really happy with the amount of contrast.

All the figures in this set except for the Jet Troopers were zenithally primed from my airbrush in three layers: black, grey, and white. I am really enjoying this technique, mostly because it's so much easier to see the model details, and also because it clarifies where shade can be. For the Gamorrean Guards, it made painting their ... pants? ... quite straightforward: thinned paint to get the base tone, with the highlights showing through, then just a little wash and highlight for increased contrast.

Jet Troopers
The stripes on the jet troopers give them a little more pizzazz than the regular or heavy Storm Troopers. The downside is that they are kind of goofy. The card art leaves room for interpretation, and I had fun looking around the Web to see how others approached painting them. I saw some very nice custom sculpted flame effects on the jets, and I considered doing something similar. By the time I got the bulk of them done, though, I felt like moving on, so even the jet backpacks are really just perfunctory. Good enough for tabletop. It's hard to imagine that we'd really miss the detail, when Storm Troopers are rarely on the table for long.

Weequay Pirates
I was least excited about these guys, but I think they turned out well. That's a good thing, since they took ages: so many shades of brown, with lots of overlapping bits. While I was working on the skin for these guys, I had one of those moments where they looked good under my painting lamp, but I thought, "Is that really enough contrast?" I took it one step further and got a little panicked, but when I held them out at arm's length, it was really needed for the extra pop.

As with the Gamorrean guards, and unlike my Trandoshans, I wanted to keep with the color schemes seen in the movie. The differences between the regular (left) and elite (right) are the colors of the knife and of some of the leatherwork, notably the pauldrons. Time will tell if that was sufficient or if I should go in and change something more dramatic, such as the weapon or hair.


As Sorastro promised in his video, the Rancor was not too difficult and lots of fun to paint. I more or less followed the steps from Sorastro's video, starting with a wet-blending of the base coats. I was having so much fun, I actually forgot a step: I didn't drybrush highlights on before washing as I intended; a combination of light drybrushing and manual highlights later seemed to cover for the mistake.

What might not be so evident from the photos above is the difference between the lit and unlit portions of the model. Take a look at this:
I've fallen, and I can't stop making 1980s references
That picture makes it easier to see the darker underbelly. Actually, the picture is too bright I think; the difference is more stark. It's kind of a neat trick that I remember reading about when I was first getting into painting and trying to understand highlights and shades: holding the model upright, it looks normal; flip it upside-down and it looks goofy because of the shades on top.

I did some subtle tinting of the model, though more subtly than Sorastro's. The back and top have a greenish hue, and the face and neck have an orange tint. Unlike most of my subtle moves which, in retrospect, look too subtle, I think this worked out OK, preserving the overall brown color of the figure.

Somewhere in the middle of working on these miniatures, I made a trip to Hobby Lobby to pick up a model kit for my son's birthday. While there, I figured I'd spend a few bucks and try Vallejo's Glaze Medium—something that good ol' Sorastro uses all the time.
Wow, this stuff is amazing. A drop or two in some paint gives it a wonderful creamy texture and lots of open time for blending. If adding a little water as well, then the transparency starts to come through, for when underlying zenithal highlights should be shown. I've been using Liquitex Glaze Medium for several years for my glazes. It is thick and gloopy, where Vallejo's is quite thin. The Liquitex is definitely good for adding body and performance back to paint that has been aggressively thinned with water for traditional glazing. I haven't tried this with Vallejo's, but aside from idle curiosity, I cannot think of a particular reason to when I have the Liquitex. It's more of the texture and open time that I'm enjoying from the Vallejo product than anything I would call "glazing."

Enough fun with giant monsters and additives: time to move on to the heroes.

Here is Onar Koma, the furious bodyguard. It can be hard to tell if an aqualish is furious, but if you asked him, he would tell you he is furious, I'm sure. The hazard stripes on his shoulder were freehanded, dark grey over a yellow gradient. They came out perhaps a bit wider than the card art suggests, but I think they look fine for what they are. The weapon on his back is nothing special, but I spent a little time trying to get the two-tone colors of his handgun.

I continued to experiment with wet-blending base colors for many of the figures in this set, but I certainly spent more time on the uniques. For Onar Koma, I think I got a very nice transition from lit to shaded skin, using selective washing to emphasize his musculature. Again, the glaze medium was quite helpful here in giving a little extra time to get smooth blends in place; follow this with a wash to bring the tones together and then brushed highlights, and it turns out effective and fairly quick.

Onar Koma seems like an interesting character to play, since he has a lot of health but no defense dice. That's different enough to be intriguing.

Vinto Hreeda has the most dynamic pose of the set, and he was fun to paint. I think the eyes turned out quite nice: that's all painted effect, not gloss varnish. The little red accents on his shoulders were freehanded to match the card art and broke up otherwise dull metal ribbing.

Shyla Varad also has a bit of freehanding: that colored divot in the middle of her chestplate is all painted on top of a flat panel to match the card art. The real challenge with her was the skin tone. Her card art gives her a medium dark flesh tone of uncertain ethnic heritage, but I thought the sculpt made her look distinctly South American. Her eyes are squinting so as to be nearly closed, so I decided not to paint them in, although searching around the Web, you find plenty of other interpretations.

Her armor—and practically all of the metals in the set—were painted by mixing my Vallejo Air Metallics with regular acrylics in about 50/50 proportions. This means the weapons of this set are a bit more muted than my base game characters, but I think the effect is good.
Mandatory Heroes vs. Rancor Shot
I gave all these miniatures flat black bases to match the rest of my Imperial Assault miniatures. However, I read something in the past few weeks that stuck in my head: a talented painter explained that he doesn't like black bases because he wants the highest contrast of the model to be on the figure, not between the figure and the base. (I'll add a link if I can remember where I saw that or stumble across it again; drop it in the comments if you know.) I'm not sure it's worth my going back and repainting all the Imperial Assault bases to something like medium gray, but it is something I am considering moving forward. Also, I think I prefer flocked bases generally speaking, but I also like finishing projects, so these guys will just have to live with it.

Regular readers may recall my periodic frustration with my miniature photography process; astute and regular readers may have noticed that these pictures all have clear colors and consistent temperatures. It was my third batch of photos of this set, the first two having been taken in my lightbox using a combination of apps and settings. In a fit of frustration, I decided to just go back to my old standby: curl a piece of copier paper, set it on my desk under my painting lamp, and take a photo. This got me very close to what I wanted using the default camera app on my phone, and it was moderately better with manual exposure settings. I switched to OpenCamera, where I could modify additional settings. For this shoot, I used ISO 100 with 1/100s exposure time. For the record, I shot them around noon when the sun was behind some clouds. I swear, one of these days I'll have a predictable configuration.

My sons and I already played through the Imperial Assault app campaign, when it only supported the enemies from the base set. It was recently upgraded to include all the expansion enemies, but as far as I can tell, it's still the same campaign. Looks like I'll probably sit on these miniatures until the next major update to the app. While we had fun with the mini-campaign of the Twin Shadows expansion, I'm not sure I want to run the longer campaign from Jabba's Realm with them, not when we have so many other exciting games waiting to get to the table.

One last note for anyone who might want to leave a comment, and it's the same warning I gave my students this semester: no discussion of Star Wars movies made after 1983. We don't want any spoilers, after all, or to acknowledge that some of them are ridiculously bad.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Why students want to learn HCI

In the first day of my HCI course yesterday, I decided to pull out a simple exercise that I learned from my friend Joyce Huff, a faculty member in the English department.  Around a year ago or so, she told me about how on the first day of class, she likes to ask her literature students what they hope to learn in the course, and how this helps her engage with them in a conversation about the course topics and goals. I did something similar, asking my students what they hoped to learn by studying Human-Computer Interaction.

I joked at the opening that I didn't want to hear, "I am in the course only because it fits my schedule," and I suggested that this would probably be a good reason to take a different course. The first student was a friendly chap who had taken my Game Programming course last semester, and he introduced himself saying that he was only there because it fit his schedule. I assume he was being honest with me, and I responded with something like, "Well, even if that's true, it's not really what I want to hear." Again, I was speaking half in jest, but in retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have; it might have actually been good to let students acknowledge that they had no goals besides three credits of elective. Whether it was a missed opportunity or an instance of forcing reflection, I suppose I cannot now know.

Many students mentioned that they want to learn make GUIs and to make them well. A few admitted that their own UI design skills were not very good and that they hoped the course would improve these. Only one student that I can recall expressed explicit interest in programming GUIs; the others whose expected outcomes went in this direction were talking more about design. No one mentioned evaluation explicitly, although it seems any undergraduate who went through CS222 should know that some kind of acceptance testing would be part of this process. It may simply not have been worth mentioning to them, or they have not considered usability evaluation as something that can be extracted and studied on its own.

A few students talked about wanting to know more about design philosophy, and I suspect these students might be the happiest with my course plans. One described his goal as being to approach the "bridge" between the technical artifact and human psychology. He was wary of using that metaphor, but I encouraged him. I did ask a clarification about whether he meant a bridge as might be found in software architecture, but he confirmed that he was talking about the divide between the technical and the human.

The only time a specific technology came up was when a student mentioned interest in PLCs. One other student explicitly said he was interested in HCI design beyond simply screen-based interactions. I was a little surprised that this only came up once, given the popularity of VR and AR, but I was glad to hear it come up once.

A few students said that they were inspired by experiences with bad user-interfaces, and that they wanted to be able to critique more effectively, justify their critiques, and create something better. Games came up once, and so did medical technology, as particular domains of interest.

Two students mentioned their capstone projects specifically. All of our undergraduates have to complete a two-semester capstone sequence, which means that these students are taking the HCI elective while completing their capstone projects. That may prove to be challenging for them, as teams are perennially cramming for these projects at the end of Spring. At least they see the opportunity to apply knowledge between classes; I will have to remind them to manage their time wisely.

One student said that she simply likes design, which I think is a great honest answer. If we had the benefit of time, I could have asked her how she defines "design" and used that as a springboard into a broader conversation, but this was really an end-of-class discussion.

That's everything I can pull out of my notebook and my memory. I thought it might be interesting to share here, and for me to have for reference later in the semester. I already wish the class were 75 instead of 50 minutes, since the short time really cramps our conversations, but I'm hoping to hit stride soon enough.