Wednesday, February 6, 2013

One and a half days of rules design

On Monday, the as-of-yet-unnamed Spring 2013 Game Development Studio approved a concept document   that will serve as a spike in the ground. Tuesday morning, we started with detailed rule design. Aside from a few afternoon meetings, I was able to spend the day with the team, from about 9:30 to 4:30, working on rules articulations. They kept on going in the early evening, and when I came in this morning, we picked up the process and finished the core rules articulation by around 2:00 P.M.

Game rules, one of four
I should be clear about who "we" are. The team has a shared space, thanks to the generosity of the Computer Science Department. However, we don't have a shared time that everyone is there. Rather, people come and work for a few hours when they can. Over the last few weeks, we've seen a "morning crew" and "afternoon crew" emerge, but that's a very rough description: many students come to parts of both, or even put in evening hours. As a result, much of what I do is help facilitate communication across these groups. A few times in the last two days, I've been the only person who was present in a morning conversation when a later group is looking at the rules.

Game rules, two of four
The team has done a laudable job. This is hard work, made logistically difficult by the lack of shared time, but I see that the team has grown to trust each other, and to evaluate design artifacts on their own merits. In a sense, there may be some value to the chronological distribution, since an artifact has to be evaluated by itself rather than defended in person. As the team worked on the rules, a cogent game design emerged. Several modifications and clarifications were made along the way, and some rather major revisions as design "holes" were found. There was a little bit of confrontation, but it was all very healthy and led to great outcomes in terms of both the design and the learning.

Game rules, three of four
Here are a few one-paragraph highlights:

Yesterday, we were dealing with the nature of warfare among the Middle Mississippians. In particular, we were looking for information on the palisades they built and the reasons they may have raided. At one point, I was in the room with four Computer Science Majors, and each one of them had his nose buried in an academic book—yes, a book—about archaeology, anthropology, and Middle Mississippian culture. I wish I had thought to take a picture. When I told my collaborator, History professor Ronald Morris, about this, I think it brought a tear to his eye.
Game rules, four of four
Mid-morning, we were trying to tackle the problem of the scale of the game world and the distribution of resources. I encouraged the team to use the whiteboard or one of the tables to physically lay out pieces, in such a way that they could be easily moved around. One of the students went almost-immediately to the "prototype" drawer of the file cabinet, pulled out another student's prototype that involved lots of paper chits, and dumped them on the table. This strikes me as significant evidence of learning and team work: the student remembered his teammate's prototype, realized it met our immediate need, knew where it was filed, and brought it to bear to solve the immediate design need. Another student went to the box o' stuff and pulled out a VGA cable, which became the river. In doing this, the team realized that while we had talked about having rivers on the map, we had never discussed the river with respect to villagers' travel. This opened an important new avenue for discussion, both of the Middle Mississippian culture and of game balance.

Sketch of the game world. The two named players, Stan and Barbara, are nascent user personas.
At the very beginning of the rules articulation, one of the students pulled out her laptop and began transcribing everything that was being written on the board. In retrospect, I should have stopped her, encouraging her instead to be completely present with the process at hand. It was a good instinct she had to want to capture the physical writing in a digital archive, but it was premature. In past projects, I have seen students get confused about conflicting information, especially regarding whether things in physical space or digital space are current and up-to-date. I have a strong preference for analog information radiators, which is the main reason I advised the team toward a physical task board over, say, a shared spreadsheet or digital project management software. I mention this here to help me remember, next time, to make sure everyone is fully present in what I consider to be the critical part of the task at hand, since I think the students are still learning to distinguish critical from ancillary.

As I walked to work Tuesday, I was reminded of how useful it was at the VBC to have concept and production art pasted all over the walls. We did this relatively late in the process, but that team identified it as a key element for both helping the atmosphere and facilitating communication between technical production and art production. So, I contacted the primary artist for this semester and asked her to post a few concept art pieces on the wall. I was pleased to see some excellent sketches, annotated with her commentary, right out of the sketchbook. When Ron came and hang out in the studio today for a bit, he had some questions about it, so I encouraged him to just put his questions right up on sticky notes, and they are captured in this picture as well.
Concept art is hung on the wall, with some author and team annotations
Today's last step was for the Wednesday Afternoon Crew to look over the rules, identify missing pieces, and then start striking anything that didn't contribute to the core game design. They ended up patching three holes in the design and cutting one feature that didn't clearly tie to the design objectives. Now, they are off and running with a few related tasks:
  • Digitally prototyping the production/consumption rates in a spreadsheet to see if our mental math produces the balance and scarcity of resources desired.
  • Physically prototyping the essential game rules so that we can playtest with upper-elementary school children to see if the dynamics we desire arise from the mechanics we defined.
  • Craft a one-page design document that can be posted on the wall

Author's note: I realize as I am about to publish this that I never actually finished my post saying what we're doing this semester. I guess I'll have to get to that another time. To make a long story short, we're making a game for fourth-graders about the Middle Mississippians. You probably inferred that from the story above.

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