Saturday, February 18, 2023

Notes from the inaugural Game Preproduction class: Divergence followed by Divergence

This is a follow-up to my previous post, in which I focused on particular problems that arose in the prototyping process from the inaugural offering of CS390. Here, I want to take a different perspective on the last few weeks and share some thoughts about the course itself.

The preproduction approach described by Mark Cerny and codified in Richard Lemarchand's book maps well to the Double Diamond model: diverge, converge, diverge, converge. The first diamond is ideation and the second results in the vertical slice. Yesterday, my students got together for our first big convergence meeting... and we got nowhere. What happened?

As laid out in the course plan, we spent January getting started by framing our work with the first several chapters of Lemarchand. February included some reading but mostly a major brainstorming session followed by the development of prototypes: first paper prototypes, then digital, then a 2-week period that was supposed to be intensive, variable-mode prototypes, leading up to the big convergence on February 16th.

Even while we were in the middle of the prototyping, I noticed that we weren't converging. I mentioned it to the class, and I got a general consensus that they understood what I meant, but it wasn't obvious that behavior was changing. The students' work that I observed from their prototyping fell into two categories. One group of students went head-down into one idea and never came out of it. Some got locked into a theme and others into implementation details, but in either case, they didn't explore the design space—they never diverged. The other group of students continued to diverge: each prototype picked up a completely different idea, some not even related to the original brainstorming session. This meant that at our Feb 16 meeting, when I asked them to share what directions they had in mind, some of them were still locked into a single concept while others became enamored of something that we had just seen the previous day. 

It should be clear why that first group is carrying risk: they have not explored the design space. The reason the second group carries similar risk is that they are hooked on an idea. Keep in mind what I wrote about yesterday, that the ostensible prototypes were not actually answering important design questions themselves. While I could be wrong, and more careful research would be required to prove it, I have strong faith in my hypothesis that students were still getting caught up in ideas rather than findings. They had not found the fun in a concept but imagined that a concept must be fun. 

At the end of our 75-minute conversation (which I myself derailed at least once, and which I had to pull back from the students several times), we ended up deciding to do another round of digital protoyping, this time in pairs. In order to help them proceed, I'm requiring them to answer Lemarchand's seven questions. I am hopeful that this will help us move forward, even though we've already passed the 15% of project budget that Lemarchand recommends for ideation.

What makes me hopeful? After our meeting on Thursday, I wrote an announcement to the students trying to give a little more basis for what we ought to be seeing. This prompted a student to reach out to me, to share with me a possible design question for a prototype to answer, and to ask whether it was a good question. It turns out it was not a good question... not yet. It showed that the student was moving in a fruitful direction, though, and so after a lot of typing, I was able to explain why that question was not good yet, but how it could be modified. I took this asynchronous conversation, removed the particulars, and reposted the essence of it for all the students. Some of it felt like hard love, but I held out hope that it was what they needed. This hope was validated later in the evening, when a pair of students reached out to talk about their design question. It turns out that their question, which they explained came after spending 1.5 hours reviewing the messages I had sent and the framing from the reading, was excellent. It was not just good; it was qualitatively better than anything that had been shown or discussed in class up to this point. I hammered that point home in our conversation, and I think they understood me.

My point, as ever, is not just to share stories, but to use the stories to reflect on my experience so that I can improve. Here are a few things that I need to think about doing differently in the future.
  • Collectively reduce the brainstorming output. Retaining all ~100 concepts throughout ideation pushed students toward continued divergence. One of the students pointed out that we could have had some kind of elimination strategy to help us see the space reducing. For example, simple voting could identify top contenders, and prototypes would answer the specific design questions.
  • Encourage working in pairs or small groups. The way I framed the problem, it sounded like students had to work alone, but I would have accepted group development. Working together would mean more fruitful discussion and more shared ownership: it's not Bob's idea, it's our idea. This also means students with less production skill could pair up with someone who could show them the ropes.
  • Spend more time on the problem of question identification, as previously mentioned. This could be done by workshopping questions together such as when returning to the big list of concepts, and it could also be done by requiring students to use Lemarchand's seven questions.

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