Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Game design book recommendations

Sometimes people ask me, "What game design book would you recommend?" I received the question today, and in the spirit of sharing knowledge and making the most of each keystroke, I figured I'd make a short blog post about it.

My number one recommendation, with no hesitation, is Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts. It's not technically a book—it was a free online course offered through a blog before the "MOOC" term rose and fell in popularity—but it still has everything you want. Schreiber provides twenty chapters of escalating difficulty, exercises to challenge your knowledge, and plenty of references for those who want more on any particular topic. I participated in the Game Design Concepts project individually when it first came on the scene, treating it as an independent study rather than a community exercise. If you were interested, you could certainly find a cohort to read through it and review each others' work. Huge kudos to Schreiber for keeping the site open and free for so many years.

If you really wanted a book in the traditional sense, then I don't think you can really go wrong with Tracy Fullerton's Game Design Workshop. It is thoughtfully composed and contains many interesting anecdotes to go along with the more formal text. The numerous exercises are also quite good, and they are easily adaptable to individual or group implementation (as I recall). My only criticism of this book is that it too often falls into making generalized claims without acknowledging the underlying philosophy, presenting items as definitive without admitting that these definitions are subjective and arbitrary. If you wanted to illustrate this point—for example, in a game design course—you could easily pull up "MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research" by Hunicke et al. It presents a different formalist notion of what constitutes a game, definitions that conflict with Fullerton's, and this can lead to a healthy recognition of how little is established in the field. (You should read that article anyway, really, if you're interested in teaching or learning game design.)

My next recommendation may be a little controversial, but I really enjoyed reading Keith Burgun's Clockwork Game Design. In contrast to most other game design theorists, Burgun is unabashedly specific about what he means when he says "game." In particular, he is talking about interactive contests of ambiguous decision-making, where the decisions are endogenously meaningful, and there is a quantifiable outcome. So, if you're interested in writing interactive fiction or adventure games, this is probably not your next stop; however, if you are interested in reading a zealot's perspective of how to approach strategy game design, I think it's a thought-provoking piece.

There are several other books that I have read and could comment on, but those are the top three that I recommend. Schreiber is #1 for being comprehensive, thoughtful, and free. Fullerton is #2 for being accessible and action-oriented. Burgun is #3 for being focused and for challenging assumptions.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Painting Descent, Part 1: The Villains

I picked up a second-hand copy of Descent a long time ago while traveling to a conference, but I had it on the back burner while I finished other painting projects. I just finished up painting the villains, but I have not done anything but prep and prime the heroes.

I usually take some pictures of the miniatures as I finish them and post them up to Facebook. My normal approach is to drop a heavy white piece of paper behind them, drop my painting lamp close to the mini, and then take some shots. The white balance is almost always wrong, and as I have written about before, I will use a tool like Snapseed to adjust the white balance and brightness. The result tends to be a photograph that looks good, but the colors are not always true. I have seen some instructions on how to build a lightbox, but I don't have the table space to keep something intricate set up all the time. I searched online a bit and ended up ordering one for about $12 from Amazon. It is collapsible and has a built-in LED light, with black or white backdrops. Here's what it looks like on my rather messy desk (to be cleaned over Spring Break, for real this time).


Here are two images of one of the new batch of villains, the first taken in my usual approach and the second in the lightbox.


As you can see, the old approach looks positively yellow by comparison. The colors on the bottom one are much more "true," meaning that what I see here looks a lot like the critters beside me on my desk. Without the intense painting lamp pulled in front of them, the fronts of the minis are a bit shaded, but again, they do look authentic at least. So, for the rest of this post, I'm going to use the lightbox images. I will continue to tinker with the lights around the lightbox to see if I can improve the photos further.

For this whole set, like the Myth monsters, I was going for speed. I wanted them to look nice of course, but I didn't want to spend inordinate time on them. I have been inspired lately by Sorastro's painting (who isn't?): he usually uses a simple formula of base color, wash, highlight, but he does it with such grace that it looks amazing at the end. I didn't do this for each figure, but the spirit is there.

A goblin archer
A gaggle of goblins

The goblin archers were not very inspiring. I found the sculpt to be rather poor. For example, the arrow is not separate from the chest: it's extruded back. This can be hidden with clever paint, but combined with the featureless limbs and helmet, they were just kind of dull. Starting with these made me reflect on how Descent was a precursor, or perhaps a herald, of the miniature gaming renaissance. Now, there are more miniature-heavy board games on Kickstarter than anybody has time and money for, and they all look amazing. I bet if Fantasy Flight released a third edition of Descent, it would pick up on this trend, since they understand the market and have the pockets for it. However, Descent is an entire ecosystem, and as I understand it, the cooperative mode app has really helped their sales. It would be folly to jump to a third edition right away, with all the money that people continue to invest in this series.

Each monster group had one that was cast in red, to represent a leader unit of some kind. I haven't carefully read the rules, but folks tell me it's important that this one be visually distinct from the rest. I thought it would be fun to incorporate some red into one of the models, so here, we can see that one goblin has a red loincloth, where the others are grey.

One of the things that this new photography setup tells me is that I should really take those highlights even higher. Like I said, they really do look like this on the table, but they should probably be brighter. It's something I continue to work on. It might be a side-effect of the fact that I paint under a very bright light, or maybe I just need to keep the "more contrast" mantra in mind.

Standard spider

Marked spider

A squad of spiders
The spiders were just a quick base, drybrush, wash, highlight job. Again, they were not very inspiring, so I just wanted them to look OK on the table. The leader unit has red markings on the back, similar to what is shown on the card art. The red markings don't really "pop" and probably could have used more edging to increase the contrast, but it should be sufficient for the table.

I'll mention here that I'm doing some very simple basing on these miniatures. I used my usual mix of model train ballast, about 8:4:1 fine, medium, and coarse. This is painted black, which always takes more than one coat to get into the nooks and crannies. Drybrush this with brown craft paints for a generic earthy surface. I'm using a 50/50 mix of green and black tea leaves from bagged teas as flock to give some organic material.

A zombie

A zumba of zombies
Another quick-and-sufficient paint job here. I'm not sure why the first picture has such poor lighting but the other one looks more lit. It may have to do with where I placed the figure in the lightbox; this will require further experimentation. Clearly, this is a quick two-color paint job: base, wash, highlight. I spent a little more time with the highlighting here, and I think it helps. The sculpt is actually not so bad here, and they could have been given more character with more time (and, of course, a desire to spend more time on them).

A flesh moulder

A falafel of flesh moulders
I'll level with you, I have no idea what a "flesh moulder" is. I mean, it's these guys, but I'm still a little shaky on it. I spent a bit more time on these guys, in part because the sculpt required more brush dexterity. This was again a base, wash, highlight job, but I spent more time on it and I think it shows. For minions that exist only to be destroyed, they're pretty good. I copied the color scheme from the card art, so they were all already dressed in red-orange. To set off the captain, I gave him a red magic energy rather than the purple of his underlings. Again, they could have been gussied up with more variety in the colors or detailing on the robes, and when I have nothing else to paint, I could return to them. In the meantime, I'd like to see this game hit the table before the end of the semester.

A Shadow Dragon

Same Shadow Dragon, Different Angle

Another, higher-ranking Shadow Dragon
From here I moved on to some of the larger figures. There are two shadow dragons, which were painted almost identically. The game art shows them having pale green facial details, so I painted on that way and one with a pale orange, to bring in some redness for the captain. I decided to go with shades of grey and black strictly, given that they are shadow dragons. I mixed just a little purple in to add some interest to the tone. I basecoated the whole miniature and then used the large, plain surfaces to practice two-brush blending. It turned out great in some spaces and a little sloppy in others. I decided to keep the spines pitch black; you probably cannot tell from the photos, but the spines are all also gloss varnished, so although it lacks tonal variety, the figure has some visual interest.

This is also the first completed figure in the set where you can see my new basing bricks. This was a trick I learned from Atom Smasher at Tabletop Minions, using a rectangular hole punch on craft foam to get great cinder-block-sized bricks. I love it, especially on these big miniatures, where the bases need a little extra something so they're not just grit and leaves. You can also see that I've added some grass flock here, which is roughly a 50/50 mix of medium green fine turf and burnt grass fine turf. I don't think the grassy spots distract from the model, but they give a little bit more flavor to the base.

Merriod

Merriod

More Merriods
What's a merriod? About three hundred pounds.

These guys are pretty cool, really: some kind of land shark with crazy head tentacles. My brother somehow ended up with a spare one and gave it to one of my sons years ago, and he painted it up in red like a demon, which also worked. I decided to go more with the shark theme and card art. It took me a long time to mix a blue color that I really liked, but after several coats, I ended up with this, which I remember to be a mix of dark blue and green to make an aqua tone, then a bit of orange to bring it down. Although the concept of these miniatures is intriguing, the sculpt is basically an undetailed lump of plastic. I used the opportunity again to practice two-brush blending, and I think it turned out quite nice. The transitions on the chest muscles may be a little stark, but then again, contrast! You can't learn to increase contrast without breaking a few eggs, or some idiom like that. 

The higher-ranking of the two has red markings on his tentacles and tail, but like the spider, they don't "pop" so well. I did actually use several layers of paint to make the transition to red more intentional, but it still doesn't really stand out. I think it will be fine at the table, but I think it's a place where I likely needed to go with more intense contrast. I suppose I could even touch that up sometime when painting other things, if it turns out not to stand out at the table well enough.

Once again here, because the figure is hunched over, I think the lighting in the lightbox alone doesn't quite do it justice. Yes, it looks like this on the table, but it's hard to appreciate some of the details.

An Elemental

Same elemental, rear view
The two elementals were fun to paint, being so different from the rest of the set and quite different from classic D&D-style elementals. The bottom of the mini is supposed to represent water, which I transitions to a more grey shade in the tail to suggest wind. Once I drybrushed to pick out the highlights and washed to bring the tones together, the aqua-grey transition was a bit lost. It's subtle, and I think it's fine, although showing it to others they hadn't noticed it at all. Oh well, we paint for ourselves, right? The fire was fun to paint, though there is a lot of it: I don't have anything else for scale here, but this is a big miniature. 

I had finished it up and showed my son or my wife (I don't remember who), and they pointed out how stark the transition was between fire and water. Once they said that, I couldn't un-see it, so that's when I added the fading yellow you can see on the rear view, transitioning down into the water. Previously, the top half was fire and the bottom was water. This is much nicer, really. I don't think I have a good before picture for comparison though.

I couldn't think of any great way to distinguish between the two elementals, so one of them has red bricks on his base. We'll see if that works or not once we get to the table; I can always touch it up later.

Ettin
The two ettins were the the last of the large villains from this set, and I had a lot of fun painting them. I slowed down a little bit and gave these guys more time, though still taking shortcuts where prudent. The flesh was done with two-brush blending, and I am really happy with the transitions around the muscles and the bulging belly. The furry areas got a careful drybrush treatment. The only difference between the two ettins is that the rope that one has a red rope holding up his loincloth, and the other has more of a conventional brown rope color there.

Barghest

Barghest

Barghest Captain

A bevy of barghests
The last of the monsters is the barghests. Once again using simple techniques, I think these might be the best of the bunch. Base, drybrush, wash for the fur, but with slightly different colors for the mane and body. I also took the highlights up pretty high before toning them down with the wash, giving these more effective highlights than some of the others in the set. The gory side was done with a fleshy base color, more blood-hued wash, and then manual highlights. The bones were painted last. Honestly, some of the bones looked really good when they were just grey primer splattered with bits of paint and wash. Once I painted over them, they looked more stark, and I thought about taking them back to a bloody bone rather than a stripped bone look, but truly, these guys are kind of gross, and I had enough of looking at them. 

That's it for the core set villains. I have the heroes all ready to go, and I want to paint enough of them that we can try the game out while I'm painting the others. My brother also bought me a Heroes & Monsters expansion with some great new creatures, so I may move right into that after the heroes.

Tune in next time for the heroes, although you'll probably hear more about story mapping or board games in between. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 3, 2017

In game design, religious equality is still a philosophy

Yesterday at GDC, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley gave a classic game post mortem about the original Civilization. It was an interesting talk, with the two giving honest reflections on what went well and what didn't go well. One of the more interesting concrete data points was that the whole game was made for about $175,000, which is about what it would cost today to hire one good developer for one year.

During the Q&A, someone asked him to reflect on how they represent religion in the Civ games, and particularly, whether there was any real pushback on their design choices. Meier responded that they always tried to treat all religions basically the same, that they would all increase happiness in their own way, and that they avoided things like religious war.

It struck me that this idea—that all religions are basically the same just with slightly different mechanisms—is actually still a philosophy. Choosing this stance doesn't somehow make you neutral. In fact, stretching my understanding of political and philosophical ideology a bit, I think it makes you Marxist.

Can you imagine a variant of Civ where some religions are simply better than others? Christianity has the most followers worldwide according to my Google skills, so does that make them stronger? What if non-evangelizing religions could simply be wiped out? I do not advocate either choice for the representation of religion in games; my point is simply that these are not worse philosophies, even though they may be worse design decisions (e.g. to appeal to the mass market).

I am reminded of a case several years ago where a student in my game design class was modding Risk so that it was about religious influence rather than military might. He drafted some rules that had each player as a different major world religion, and they each had different strengths based on region and special abilities. Players would win the game by converting the most people to their religion. As you may have already guessed, he came from a Christian background. I asked him about his treatment of Jews, given that they don't seek out converts the way that, say, Christianity does. He simply hadn't thought of it. The design was abandoned shortly afterward because it had no teaching value, even though the game systems still ostensibly worked.

I still get students who get excited to make games that teach players about world religions, since a lot of my projects have involved educational games for kids. I tell them the story of the Risk adaptation as a cautionary tale, and this helps them realize how hard it really would be. Any design carries with it a philosophy, and knowing whether a design is good or not requires very careful identification of criteria for success.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Learning that story maps are harder than they look

Some time last semester, my chair asked if I would teach a section of CS691, a new graduate course for my department's Masters of Science in Software Engineering program. The course is titled Software Requirements and Design, so right off the bat I was a little put off by the sheer waterfallness of it. I have been mostly uninvolved in the MSSE program, which struggles to get started for various reasons. Be that as it may, requirements and design are definitely concepts in my bailiwick, so I agreed to put together the best course I could. He told me to expect relatively low enrollment, given the low number of students in the program, but we had to offer it anyway because these students need it to graduate.

As I was procrastinating designing the course, I received a call from my friend Kate who is working with a local non-profit, ecoREHAB. She's leading a team of students who are revising the organization's marketing materials to help ecoREHAB better explain its mission and values. Working with their board, she had some ideas for potential software products to help. This aligned very well with the learning objectives of CS691, so we agreed to a collaboration. I didn't yet know how many students I would have or what their background was, but ecoREHAB was very understanding of this: though I couldn't promise a product, I was sure we could build a prototype, and that would be enough that we could see if it was worth pursuing to production or not.

This brings us to the point of the blog post: yes, once again, it's story maps! I decided to use this technique in CS691 to capture and track high-level requirements, and so I assigned Patton's book as required reading. With my plans in place, I awaited the start of the semester. Turns out, I only have three students in the course, two of whom need it to graduate and one who is taking it as an elective. During the first week of the semester, we read the first few chapters of Patton and completed his "morning routine" story map, where a team builds a story map of what they do in the mornings. The argument in the book is that people already know how to make story maps, they just need to learn how to do it in a disciplined and pragmatic way. This exercise went well, although the students pushed pretty heavily toward making a taxonomy rather than a map. That is, they wanted to classify and make categories rather than focus on discrete stories. I pointed this out, and we moved on. We made a second story map, based on a straightforward problem a friend of mine had last semester: he wanted to know which courses the faculty in his department wanted to teach or did not want to teach, and have that information readily available when scheduling. Here, too, I don't think what we came out qualified as a "story map" as defined in Patton's book, or at best, it was an awkward one. I pushed the students to think about this, but they believed it was satisfactory. We put these "starter" maps aside as we spent the rest of the month in a kind of race through background books, papers, and ideas. According to the schedule I had laid out, by early February, we would be returning to our community partnership; I figured we would come back to these issues then.

During our month working together, I came to truly respect my students. Part of it may be the small class size—there's nowhere to hide, and everyone gets to speak their piece. Regardless, these three are excellent students: they keep up with all the readings, they ask great questions, and they voice and justify their opinions. One has industry experience from overseas, one has local small-team experience, and one comes directly from undergrad and a masters in another discipline. I don't think I could have picked a better mix of students. I say all that in part to qualify my comments below: I have no doubt that these students are doing their very best.

I decided I wanted to give the reins to the students when we did our planning meeting with members of the ecoREHAB board. To bridge our background work to the project, I did another story mapping session. I'm working from memory now, and I don't quite remember the context I picked, but again, I felt like there were pieces that the students just weren't getting, like sliceability and the difference between an activity and a category.

This took us to our big meeting with the community partner. A student volunteer led the session, and he did an admirable job for a first-timer. It's easy to forget that this stuff is hard, just simple things like keeping people on track during a meeting, welcoming different perspectives while being mindful of the time. Also, we have no courses that help students with this kind of process; if I were to teach this course again, I would put some of this into the course description, since where else would students get the chance except when studying requirements gathering?

One of the team could not make this meeting, so we recorded it. This proved to be quite useful, since the team agreed that our one-hour meeting with ecoREHAB could not have possibly produced as rich a story map as we wanted. I challenged each student to make their own story map, reviewing the recorded video as needed, and we came together in our next meeting to share what we had found. I kept my Socratic composure as I pressed the students to evaluate their and their peers' maps. They had differences of course, yet they were still pretty confident... but I was not. In an inspired moment of which I am rather proud, I decided not to tell them what I thought was wrong; instead, I assigned them an essay, to return to Patton's book and then to think and write critically about what they know about story maps and how they know it. This was on a Friday, so I tried to put my own concerns on the back burner until we could get back together.

On Monday, the first student I met in the hallway shook his head and said something like, "That damned essay." He proceeded to tell me how much he disliked it because it forced him to realize how much he didn't know. I tried to turn that ship around and tell him that this means the essay worked! As I was doing this, the second student came in, muttering with half a smile, "That essay..." As you might guess, all three students came in a bit dejected, but I think much smarter than when they had left on Friday. All three wrote brilliant essays about what they thought they knew, and about how they realized that their assumptions were wrong. We had an excellent discussion about this, including trying to think of factors that led them to believe what they now had come to doubt. I was joyful to see them begin to dissect the differences between a story map and a hierarchy. We talked about sliceability not as a requirement of a map but as a property of a well-designed map. Perhaps most critically, a student voiced a real concern: if this technique was so hard to learn, was it worth it? For them, of course, it's an open question. For me, who had also made mistakes in my first attempt to learn the technique, I have already paid the cost of learning and reaped the benefits in my studio class. It will be interesting to see what happens to their skepticism as we move forward with our project.

That led us to the real problem: what do we do about this community partnership, given how much trouble they had already had? We agreed that I would make a story map to the best of my ability and we would start into the project using that one. This would give the team the opportunity to work with a reasonable map (I'm still learning too, of course) and reflect, particularly after an iteration is complete, on the impact of this technique. I made the map, with some student input, on this past Monday. We were sure to include conditions of satisfaction with each story, as I wrote about before. but then I headed out to a conference and, after that, Spring Break week. I expect to write about what happens in the back half of the semester later.