Game Design

The Top 10 Legend of Zelda Games

It’s hard to imagine video games without The Legend of Zelda. Time and time again, Nintendo uses this iconic series to try and set the action-adventure bar higher than before. Although there’s no perfect list since everyone has their nostalgic and subjective favorites and we’ve all grown to love different Zelda titles in our lives, here’s a Top 10 List of Zelda games you can argue over with your friends:

  1. The Minish Cap
    Game Boy Advance, November 2004

Developed in partnership with Capcom, this mobile Zelda has stood the test of time thanks to its charming visuals and solid gameplay. Instead of going for any big innovations, the developers focused on creating their own colorful take on classic Zelda gameplay. Of course, shrinking down into a tiny version of Link and uncovering new secrets is still one of the most unique abilities of any Zelda game. The quirky cast of characters, including Link’s witty sidekick, also help make The Minish Cap worthy of this list.                                                                                                                                                                                                       

  1. A Link Between Worlds
    Nintendo 3DS, November 2013

Rumors of a remake of A Link to the Past had been swirling for more than a decade by the time this 3DS title arrived. Instead, Nintendo launched a sequel that manages to be both a love letter to the classic SNES title while also giving us a fresh take on the traditional Zelda formula. A Link Between Worlds features an item-rental system that lets players take on its dungeons and areas in any order. Its captivating story, wall-merging ability, and beautiful modern version of Hyrule and its dark counterpart helped remind players why 2D Zelda is just as good as the console ones.

  1. The Legend of Zelda
    NES, February 1986

The first entry in this iconic series arrived in 1986, immediately revolutionizing game design by offering one of the first true nonlinear adventures. In a time when players were used to running from left to right or down a set path, The Legend of Zelda dropped players into a dangerous world with little direction. The thrill of freely exploring Hyrule was unmatched as players learned from their mistakes, collected useful objects, and uncovered all kinds of secrets. To this day it stands as a must-play Zelda for those craving a tough, rewarding journey.

  1. Twilight Princess
    GameCube & Wii, November 2006

After finding success with The Wind Waker’s colorful visuals, Nintendo went back to the dark style of previous Zelda titles. Twilight Princess allowed players to explore the most realistic and expansive Hyrule yet, this time also as a wolf. Looking to Ocarina of Time for inspiration, this 2006 adventure featured some very impressive dungeons and weapons along with a grimmer story. Although there were some pacing problems at the start of in the original, the HD re-release for Wii U fixed most of them.

  1. Link’s Awakening
    Game Boy, June 1993

The dream of fitting a Zelda adventure in our pocket became a reality when Link’s Awakening arrived on the Game Boy in 1993. Doubts that a handheld Zelda could match the acclaimed Link to the Past quickly went away as players got lost exploring the mysterious Koholint Island. Link’s Awakening proved to be everything fans of the series loved while also feeling fresh thanks to its strange story, quirky characters, and challenging dungeons. Despite the technical limitations, this top Zelda game is certainly worth visiting 25 years later.

  1. Majora’s Mask
    Nintendo 64, April 2000

Despite having just completed Ocarina of Time, the Zelda team was challenged with creating another title in less than two years. Forced to come up with unique designs and ideas, Nintendo ended up creating a dark, unforgettable Zelda title experience. Majora’s Mask is brimming with emotion as you meet and help characters dealing with the imminent end of the world. A constant feeling of doom drives the tried-and-true gameplay as Link manipulates time like never before, wields dozens of masks, and takes on various forms to save the day.

  1. The Wind Waker
    GameCube, December 2002

At a time when players had an obsession with realism in games, Nintendo did the opposite by creating a cartoonish Zelda using innovative cel-shading graphics. Their gamble paid off when The Wind Waker immediately captivated players with its combination of gorgeous visuals, addicting gameplay, and memorable cast of characters. Its expansive ocean world and moving story also help make it one of the top Zelda games everyone should play.

  1. A Link to the Past
    A Link to the Past, November 1991

If there’s one Zelda that went on to influence the rest of the series, it’s this one. A Link to the Past was seen as a technological marvel — players couldn’t believe the world’s scale, complete with an entire alternate version that surprises players halfway through the game. Vibrant graphics, thought-provoking gameplay, and incredible music are only a few of the many reasons why this 1991 title is still worth playing nearly three decades later.

  1. Breath of the Wild
    Nintendo Switch, March 2017

The latest Zelda title is also considered by many to be the best. Breath of the Wild arrived when players wanted huge open worlds full of fun things to do and interesting locations to visit. Nintendo delivered by introducing one of the vastest interactive worlds we’ve seen so far in a video game, complete with a design that lets you explore freely with little limitation. Everything from the physics and combat to the breathtaking locales evoke a sense of wonder not many other open world games can provide.

  1. Ocarina of Time
    Nintendo 64, November 1998

One of the most groundbreaking titles in the history of video games, Ocarina of Time‘s achievements resonate even 20 years later. Nintendo’s’ masterpiece pioneered a number of innovations, including being able to lock onto enemies and objects — a mechanic now expected in modern 3D games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption II. Offering a memorable and emotional story, expansive world full of charming characters, engrossing action-adventure gameplay, and much, much more, Ocarina of Time will always stand as a significant leap forward in game technology and design.

Bandersnatch: Are You Ready for Interactive Storytelling? Press ‘Left’ for YES

This December, Netflix anthology series Black Mirror released their first “interactive narrative” episode, entitled Bandersnatch. The critical response was explosive, with some reviewers calling it “groundbreaking” and that the episode “shows what Netflix can do”.

Bandersnatch is not the first interactive narrative that Netflix has created. The media service has already created interactive shows based on Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots, Stretch Armstrong, and the hit video game Minecraft — notably, these were made for younger audiences.

But just what is interactive narrative storytelling and more importantly, what can you do to prepare yourself to design content for it?

Just to clarify, Netflix’s “interactive narrative storytelling” isn’t quite a game or a movie, but an extension of existing interactive stories like the Telltale adventures The Walking Dead or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. These choice-based stories run about 30 minutes long, with (usually) six to twelve decision points over the course of the story.

interactive telltale guardians of the galaxy

Interactive Narrative is based on the concept of branching narrative – a story that resembles a tree of decisions (hence the term “branching”) that moves the stories off in different directions. The hero of a branching narrative can start in a cave in Montana and end up in Medieval Europe or all the way back in prehistoric times!

All branching narratives use two main components to create their stories: a decision point and a bottleneck point.

Decision points are when the protagonist of a story is forced to make a decision between two or more choices. Often one choice furthers the story while the other leads to the end – often death for the character.

You can have more than two decision points, but the more you create, the more story content you will have to create as well. The “branches” of a branching narrative can grow quickly and exponentially, so how do you keep the storylines from getting out of controls? That’s where bottleneck points come in.

Bottleneck points are places in the story where all the branches in the story all lead to the same place. For example, it won’t matter if you are nice to the Knight or insult the King, you still end up in the dungeon.

These bottleneck points keep things on track for the writer and you usually want to introduce a few of these over the course of the story to keep the narrative “under control.”

If you’re thinking of writing an interactive, it helps to be familiar with where they come from and where they might be going:

The Cave of Time (1979)

While experiments in branching narrative date all the way back to the ‘40s (with Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths), the first book of the pivotal Choose Your Own Adventure series was written by Edward Packard and published by Scholastic. The books are written in second-person, talking to its young readers directly.

In The Cave of Time, you are a young boy who wanders into a cave but comes out in a variety of locations and time periods. Some of the paths lead to fame and fortune, others to an untimely end. The book was so popular that over 184 Choose Your Own Adventure titles were published over two decades.

Genres ranged from fantasy to sci-fi to mystery. An amazing visualization of the branching narrative of the Choose Your Own Adventure series can be found at: http://samizdat.cc/cyoa/

Fighting Fantasy (1982)

Over in the UK, Ian Livingstone (who would become one of the co-founders of board game company Games Workshop) wrote his own version of Choose Your Own Adventure books. But Livingstone, being a big RPG gamer, added dice rolls and D&D style stats to his series. These “gamebooks” were a big hit with and over 60 titles were published in the course of the series.

Dragon’s Lair (1983)

The arcade game by Cinematronics and RDI Video Systems was the first to use the then-cutting-edge laser disc technology. Laser disc not only allowed for high-fidelity image and sound, but it allowed the game’s code to access any of the disc’s tracks in any order. Players had to make a choice (usually a direction or a sword attack) within a few seconds’ time; the wrong choice resulted in a humorous death animation.

Under the leadership of ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon’s Lair was a huge success. It was followed by a sequel, Time Warp, and the space-themed game Space Ace. Unfortunately high costs of production shut down Cinematronics in 1984.

HyperCard (1987)

While computer-based Hypertext systems have existed since the 1960s, it was the inclusion of HyperCard on Apple’s Macintosh computers that allowed branching narratives to become easier to create. Coupled with the Macintosh’s drawing programs, designers and authors could write their own interactive novels and distribute them via floppy disc.

Eventually the publishers of text adventure games such as Infocom got into the act; creating interactive fiction games based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and James Clavell’s Shogun, as well as original titles such as 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery and Journey: The Quest Begins.

SCUMM (1987)

The “Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion” or SCUMM for short was created by the game developers at LucasArts for their adventure game series. Rather than using complex word parsers like those found in text adventure games, the LucasArts team eventually migrated their interface to a “point and click” system for making choices, manipulating objects and talking with characters. Some of their games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series to this day are considered classics of the interactive adventure genre.

Mass Effect (2007)

Primarily a third-person action game, Mass Effect different from other shooters by focusing on the story. Inspired by the LucasArts games and the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Mass Effect included a “morality system” that allowed players to make choices that impact the plot and their relationship with the other characters in the game. As a result, players felt the story had an infinite amount of possibilities to where it would lead. (Although in reality, they only had 8 possible endings to the game.)

Chad, Matt & Rob’s Interactive Adventures! (2008)

Creators fired up their creativity when YouTube announced that hyperlink style links that could be placed on videos. Chad, Matt & Rob’s Time Machine was one of the first of these interactive narrative videos on the platform. Since then, not only storytellers but advertisers have utilized the interactive feature for their own videos. A quick guide to learn how to make your own interactive YouTube videos can be found here.

Telltale Games (2010)

Following in the steps of LucasArts, Telltale Games single-handedly resurrected the adventure game genre with the release of Sam and Max: Season One on the iPad. The company has since created several interactive games based on popular intellectual properties including Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Batman and The Walking Dead game.

Ready to make your own Interactive Stories?

Inspired? Here at New York Film Academy, we teach interactive narrative in several of our Game Design and Screenwriting programs. Here are just a few of the tips and tricks we teach to help students create their own interactive narrative games:

  1.    Remember the basics of screenwriting. Even though interactive narratives twist and turn all over the place, they still follow the basic format of all storytelling. Game stories and screenplays are pretty similar in form and format.
  2.    Make sure the choices make sense. When thinking about where you want the story to go, think about the natural choices the reader will have for the character they are playing as. If the protagonist is standing in front of a haunted house, the choices might be a) open the front door or b) walk around to the back of the house. It doesn’t need to be any more complex than that.
  3.    Make sure the results are fair. One of the biggest complaints about interactive narratives is that the effect of an action (as in “cause and effect”) doesn’t make sense, or is even fair. Give your readers/players some sort of foreshadowing to let them know what might happen if they make the right or wrong choice.
  4.    Work backwards if you need to. Sometimes working backwards from the ending you want to have is the best way to keep your storyline from sprawling all over the place.

Good luck on writing those interactive narratives and remember that game design opportunities can come from a variety of places — not just games!

9 Great Games From the Last 12 Months

January and February tend to be a quiet time for game releases, especially following the pre-Holiday season in the Fall. While there’s plenty of new video games coming down the pipeline to get excited later in 2019, we thought we’d look back at some of the best titles released in the last 12 months. Chances are, you haven’t play them all yet, and there’s still time to get 100% completion before highly anticipated sequels to The Division, Psychonauts, and Gears of War come out.

Red Dead Redemption II by Rockstar Games
Play on: PS4, Xbox One

What better way to start the list than with perhaps the most anticipated game of last year. Nearly ten years after the award-winning original landed in 2010, Rockstar delivered another Old West masterpiece. Red Dead Redemption II lets you explore an expansive open world as Arthur Morgan, an outlaw and member of Dutch’s old gang. Boasting incredible visuals, improved gunslinger gameplay, and an interesting prequel story, no wonder so many critics named it Game of the Year.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by Nintendo
Play on: Switch

Super Smash Bros. is the beloved fighting series that needs no introduction. With Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo strove to once again outdo themselves by offering every character that has ever appeared in a previous Smash Bros. title. More than 100 stages and nearly a thousand music tracks were also packed in, not to mention the return of a story mode.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey by Ubisoft Quebec
Play on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

For almost a decade, gamers have counted on Ubisoft to release an Assassin’s Creed game annually. The last notable entry, Origins, was the first to get an extra year of development time as the series’ formula was evolved more than ever before. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey builds off its predecessor with an even bigger world and more emphasis on new RPG elements as players dive into the historic Peloponnesian War fought between Sparta and Athens.

Assassin's Creed

Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games
Play on: PS4

Despite being a uber-popular comic book hero and finding success on the big screen, it’s been years since someone has made a solid game featuring our favorite web-slinger. Insomniac Games didn’t buckle under the pressure of handling their first licensed game and instead delivered a phenomenal superhero adventure. Marvel’s Spider-Man has everything you could want from a Spider-Man game: a huge New York City to swing across, Photo Mode, familiar allies, almost every major villain, dozens of unlockable suits, and much, much more.

Forza Horizon 4 by Turn 10 Studios
Play on: Xbox One, PC

The Forza series has cemented itself in recent years as one of the top sim racing video games and top grossing video game franchises. Forza Horizon 4 raises the bar even more with its excellent gameplay, coupled with gorgeous graphics that now include a dynamic weather system. Each week, all the tracks transform as the next season in the year arrives, introducing new visuals and environmental hazards. A shared online world is another reason why critics and gamers are together praising this entry as arguably the most acclaimed in its series history.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 by Treyarch
Play on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

With Black Ops 4, Treyarch has taken a massive gamble by placing their focus on the multiplayer experience, completely omitting a story-driven single-player campaign. Instead, the team joined the Battle Royale race made famous by PUBG and Fornite — letting 100 players face off against each other until only one remains standing. Also included is ever-popular Zombies mode, as well as shorter Solo Missions that reveal the backstories of certain multiplayer characters.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider by Eidos-Montréal
Play on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

In 2013, the series that helped shape the 3D action-adventure genre received a much-praised reboot. Its follow-up, Rise of the Tomb Raider, also impressed by combining exciting gameplay with captivating storytelling. Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes Lara Croft to yet another exotic location as she tries to stop a group of archaeologists up to no good in an ancient Mayan area. Croft’s latest adventure has been praised for its great writing, strong emphasis on exploration, and beautiful visuals.

Tomb Raider

Mega Man 11 by Capcom
Play on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC

Mega Man fans have long been left out in the cold as Capcom ignored the beloved series since the release of Mega Man 10 in 2010. The wait is finally over as the Blue Bomber returned with a few exciting changes. Although the classic tough-as-nails gameplay is still there, Mega Man 11 features a modern art style as well as two abilities new to the series. Mega Man can now slow down time with the Speed Gear, raise his attack power with the Power Gear, and use a combination of both as he faces Dr. Wily’s latest robot bosses.

Fallout 76 by Bethesda Game Studios
Play on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

The famed shooter-RPG hybrid opened its expansive world even more last year and let players explore its post-apocalyptic landscape alongside friends. Fallout 76 is yet another 2018 game focused on multiplayer by giving players the chance to team up and/or destroy each other in a West Virginia wasteland. The world is many times bigger than that of Fallout 4 and expands on many of its popular gameplay features, including the ability to build a base anywhere. While initial reactions have been mixed, the developers also promise to listen carefully to the community in order to make this Fallout the MMO (massive multiplayer online) fans have dreamed of for years.

Honorable Mentions

 

  • Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!/Let’s Go, Eevee! (Switch)
  • Just Cause 4 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
  • Darksiders III (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
  • Monster Boy & The Cursed Kingdom (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC)
  • Soulcalibur VI (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

 

Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Why AAA Games Still Matter

Last September, Sony released Spider-Man, the 35th video game based on the popular Marvel comic book superhero. The game, developed by Insomniac Games (Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon), retailed for $59.99 and was exclusive to the Sony Playstation 4. It took two years to develop the game and its production is estimated to have cost around 100 million dollars.

Triple-A (AAA) is the classification used for a video game that receives the highest budget from a publisher, both for production and for marketing. An AAA game is expected to be of the highest quality and to earn a high profit to justify its expensive costs. In short, an AAA game is the video game equivalent to a blockbuster film.

AAA games like Spider-Man are expensive and time consuming to make. Their premium retail price can be expensive for the consumer. You might ask, with the decline in console sales, why developers are even making AAA games at all? As it turns out, AAA games are still worth creating, for numerous reasons.

AAA games generate excitement for the industry

At 2018’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Spider-Man gained 37 awards from industry news outlets. It topped dozens of  “most anticipated games of 2018” lists. Despite there being hundreds of games released a year, only AAA games typically get this kind of attention. More media coverage means more gamers paying attention to a game, which leads to more excitement for a game – which can result in big sales on release day.

AAA titles are often used as a vehicle for launching a new intellectual property. When Tomb Raider debuted in 1996, Eidos went all in on their marketing and licensing for the action/adventure game, putting the character on everything from action figures to magazine covers to shower gel bottles.

With commercials that looked more like perfume ads than for video games, Tomb Raider demanded attention. Eidos even hired a real-life actress to play the character for media events. Thanks to Eidos’ media push, Lara Croft appeared all over the news. For a few years in the 90s, Lara was the face of video games. Launching a new IP is always a huge risk, but when it pays off, it pays off big.

Spider-Man Game

AAA games create jobs

As of 2018, there are 22 major publishers who make what can be considered AAA games — employing over 300,000 developers in the industry. The majority of working game developers in the United States are working on AAA games.

AAA games don’t just employ game developers, however. Think of all of the people related to the creation and release of these games – marketing, PR, legal, cutscenes, publicity material, advertising material, commercial directors, and more. There’s a reason why the credits on AAA games are so lengthy.

AAA games influence the public’s perception of gaming

The extraordinary marketing budget for AAA games allows their publishers to reach more consumers through a variety of advertisements. Consumers are bombarded by ads through television, internet, magazine, billboards, and even buses. Thanks to this constant stream of advertising, this means that the majority of games that consumers are exposed to are primarily advertised AAA games. Ask consumers and the media about which upcoming games and they will most likely respond with AAA titles.

Almost half of the top 10 games for 2018 were console exclusives. The truth is, AAA games are what sell consoles for the big three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) and as long as consoles dominate store shelves such as Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy, these will be the games the consumers will be exposed to. While consumers can purchase smaller, independent titles elsewhere, learning about them and finding them in the store can sometimes be difficult.

Spider-Man Game

The AAA single player experience is still a thing

In 2017, EA cancelled their AAA Star Wars game, citing that a “linear adventure game” wasn’t relevant to today’s multiplayer audiences. However, if the success of games such as Spider-Man (3.3 million copies in opening weekend), Red Dead Redemption ($725 million opening weekend), and God of War (5 million copies sold to date) are any indication, the linear adventure game experience is far from dead. According to gamers and game designers alike, linear narrative games are still the best way for game designers to tell a story.

Single-player experiences allow gamers to live out the adventure of a character, which is one of the most exciting aspects in gaming. Have you ever wondered why so many shooters like Fortnite and PUBG display the player in first person? Because it is supposed to be you, the player. However, most story-based narratives will show its character using a third person camera, because it is the best way for the player to see what the character is doing on their adventure and how they carry themselves throughout.

Out of a 2017 survey, 9 out of 10 best known characters were in games that used a third person camera.

While some may complain that AAA games are ruining the industry, the truth is that big-budget titles like Spider-Man keep consumers excited for games, employ game developers, and make the video game industry the highest-earning entertainment industry in the world.

5 Trends in Game Design to Watch Out for in 2019

The video game industry can be a tricky beast to predict. Who could have expected a little sandbox game called Minecraft to dominate pop culture, or for the Nintendo Switch to explode despite its predecessor being a sales failure?

As gaming continues to evolve, developers do their best to design experiences that will make players happy and hopefully even become the next big thing. Below are some game design trends to watch out for in 2019:

1. More Battle Royale

If there’s one trend that dominated 2018 and shows no sign of stopping in 2019, it’s the Battle Royale genre. The tremendous success of PUBG and Fortnite, the latter boasting an incredible 125 million players, has certainly caught the attention of other developers now looking to take a stab at the popular genre. Even the biggest traditional shooter series like Battlefield and Call of Duty are already releasing their own Battle Royale modes in 2018, which means we’re likely to see many more games of this type released (and announced) in 2019.

Interesting data from WePC:

  • More than half of core PC gamers in China play PUBG.
  • Fortnite has dominated Twitch in 2018, averaging 118 million hours viewed across  over 8,000 Twitch channels

2. Devs Will Rethink Loot Boxes

After the fiasco surrounding Star Wars: Battlefront II at the end of 2017, many gamers expected developers to shy away from loot boxes. They have been one of the more controversial subjects in the game industry — countries like China and Japan are even classifying them as gambling.

Of course, developers can’t ignore the fact that microtransactions in free-to-play games raked in $20 billion in 2017. Instead of disappearing, loot boxes will likely still be around in 2019, though developers may take a page out of Epic Games’ book and focus more on cosmetic items that don’t give players a gameplay advantage.

Interesting fact:

  • Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free game, has brought in more than $1.2 billion in revenue entirely from cosmetic purchases like dance moves and character skins.

3. eSport-Focused Design

There was a time when the best place gamers had to show their skills in front of a crowd was at the local arcade. With competitive gaming, today’s top players in the world take the stage as hundreds of live viewers (and thousands more online) watch them compete for prize pools ranging in the millions. The success of eSports already has developers studying popular games while revising their designs in hopes that their title will become a must-play in the competitive scene. At the end of the day, companies know that gaming communities ultimately decide which titles are fun and exciting enough to enter the eSports realm.

Interesting data from WePC:

  • Overwatch is the most talked about game in 2016 with 75,000 online articles mentioning the game. (Statista, 2017)
  • Twitch viewers spent 355 billion hours watching videos on the platform in 2017, that’s 32% up from 241 billion hours in 2015.

esports

4. Rise in Cross-Platform Play

Gamers can be best friends in real life but never play together because one lives in an Xbox household while the other lives in a Playstation one. In 2018, we got our first taste of full cross-platform support as Fortnite allowed mobile, console, and PC gamers to take up arms alongside one another — even Sony eventually buckled under the pressure.

As the mobile market continues skyrocketing in growth, console and PC devs are also realizing the benefits of opening the doors to iPhone and Android gamers. Creating games that are fun (and stable) no matter what device you’re holding is sure to challenge developers in 2019 and beyond, but their efforts may be worth it.

Interesting fact:

  • While Fortnite is currently still the only game you can play cross-platform on any device, there are already dozens of partial cross-platform titles. Some include: Minecraft, Rocket League, Phantasy Star Online 2, and Forza Horizon 4.

5. Focus On Either Single-Player or Multiplayer

Activision turned heads when they announced that Black Ops 4 would not have a story campaign — a first in the iconic Call of Duty series. At the same time, groundbreaking games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption II have shown that players still crave story-driven games.

Judging by the latest trends, it’s possible that devs will continue putting their work into either just single or multiplayer games. Even if it feels like a step backwards to those of us who grew up when almost all triple-A games released with both modes, we’re betting more companies will join the trend in 2019.

Interesting facts:

  • Despite being a multiplayer-only $60 game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 surpassed $500 million worldwide in only three days. (Business Wire)
  • God of War, a single-player only game, sold five million copies in one month, becoming one of the top selling PlayStation 4 games ever.
  • Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, two single-player Nintendo Switch games, were some of the highest rated titles in 2017.

The Architecture of Fear: Level Design Lessons from Haunted Houses

 

Los Angeles celebrates Halloween better than any other city on Earth. Maybe it’s because so many Hollywood special effects artists live here, or because there are so many theme park enthusiasts who create their own home-made attractions. Or perhaps it’s because LA is home to many famous Halloween-o-philes including Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Guillermo Del Toro. Whatever the reason, there is something special about Los Angeles at Halloween time.

Every year at Halloween, instructors from the New York Film Academy (NYFA) Game Design school give the same advice: If students really want to learn some great lessons about level design, they should visit a haunted house. Not a real haunted house, but one of the dozens of fabricated haunted houses that can be found around the greater Los Angeles area during the Halloween season.

It doesn’t matter if it is an elaborate one like Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, one of the many walk-through mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm, or a neighborhood haunt, there is a lot to learn from these haunted houses.

Here are seven scary hints from Halloween Haunts to make the most out of your spooky video game levels:

  1. The three S’s.

While an amateur horror level designer might only concentrate on creating scares for their haunted level, there are actually three ways to engage a player: Story, Scares, and Spectacle. Use story to capture the player’s curiosity. A strong story will make the player want to see “what happens next” and continue their way through a level. Spectacle are those epic moments that will dazzle and impress the player, making the player say “That was amazing! I wonder what’s next?”

Scale often plays a big part in epic-ness. The bigger, the better! Scares actually slow down the player as they creep their way through a level, especially if they think a scare is coming. However, if you can engage your player with story or distract them with spectacle, they won’t see the scares coming!

  1.   Foreshadowing.

While many horror movies and games rely on jump scares and shocks, the best scares come when the player is actually expecting them. The horror game demo P.T. on the Playstation 4 might be the scariest game ever made, but it isn’t frightening just because the game looks and sounds scary.

It’s scary because the player knows they have to pass by that stupid bathroom door yet again and something horrible is going to happen when they do. The anticipation is what makes the game terrifying.

  1.   Sound is your ally.

Nothing unsettles a player like sound. Blowing wind, the creak of an old house, the scrape of a foot along the floor. Use sound effects to not only to set the mood and augment scares, but also to foreshadow them. Think of how sound is used in the Friday the 13th video game to announce the presence of the murderous Jason. Once the player associates a music cue or sound effect with an upcoming scare, watch them start to panic!

  1.   Use sense.

Players can’t use their sense of smell or touch when playing a video game. Horrific environments like filthy or blood-splattered rooms lose its impact if the player can’t smell or feel it. Limit these types of locations to maximize their impact, or at least have the player character react to them to help cue the player that this is a gross place to be.

  1.  Limit the field of view.

Players get nervous when they can’t see what’s ahead of them. Use darkness and dense fog to obscure players’ field of view. Or if you are inside, corners are a great way to hide what’s coming next. There might be something horrible lurking right around the corner…

  1.   Spread out your scares.

Fight the temptation to fill your level with wall-to-wall scares. The anticipation of a scare is much more frightening to a player. However, avoid predictability with your spacing.

For example, you might want to have a player move through two empty rooms before encountering a scare. Then switch it up to frighten them after three rooms, and then change it and frighten them in the next room. Your player will be expecting to get scared, but they will still be surprised when it happens.

Rhythm is the key to good scares. At the end of the level, you should ramp up your horror to a frightening conclusion; either let the player escape or lure them to their doom!

  1.   Scares come from diagonals.

Haunted house experts have revealed that a guest is more frightened when a scare comes from an angle rather than straight on. The reason? Evolution has honed a human’s peripheral vision to watch for danger that comes from behind and the sides of a person. When a danger “appears” from out of nowhere, the result is much more startling!

The best way to learn more from a Halloween Haunt is to experience one for yourself! If you can overcome your fear long enough to take note on how these fear-masters use psychology to maximize their scares, you too will be making scary levels like a pro!

How To Pitch to Game Developers

Are you wondering how to pitch to game developers?

In 2009, twenty-nine year old Markus “Notch” Persson started work on RubyDung, a procedurally generated construction sim that was a mash-up of Dwarf Fortress, Dungeon Keeper, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. By the time he had reached Alpha with his game, Notch had changed the game’s name to MineCraft and decided that he needed to monetize his efforts.

In June of 2009, he sold over 1,000 copies at 10.00 € apiece. As the game gained over 20,000 registered players, Notch was able to cut his day-job’s hours back and dedicate his time to finishing the game. By 2010, MineCraft had won game of the year, and Notch had quit his day job. By 2014, he sold his company to Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars.

But Notch’s story is an unusual one. Most game developers will have to pitch their game to someone – be it a publisher, a developer, or a crowdfunding audience – before it reaches market.

What is a pitch? A pitch is a presentation created by a game developer in order to obtain a publishing contract or financing. Pitches contain information about your game, how it plays, what it is about, what is special about it, what platform is it for, who is its audience, and more.

While there is no hard and fast rule to the format of your pitch presentation, (you can find a pitch presentation outline in my book Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design) there are several guidelines you can follow to make sure your pitch goes as smoothly as possible.

Set the tone from the beginning; you are entertaining, not just selling.

A pitch is an opportunity to make a publisher excited about your game. This means showing your game in the best possible light. Showcase whatever is most exciting about your game using images and examples. A little humor doesn’t hurt either. However, a pitch is not a talent show. Save extreme activities like singing, impersonations, and jokes for the talent show.

A powerpoint presentation is the most common method of pitching. However, be aware that your audience can lose interest quickly – never linger too long on one slide and never show a slide that only shows words. Have at least one compelling image per slide and make sure that image is related to whatever you are talking about. Use concept art, screenshots, or even inspirational images from other games. If an image looks good and gets your point across – show it!

How you present yourself is just as important as what you are presenting. Treat a pitch presentation as if it were a job interview. Dress nicely. Make eye contact while speaking. Speak clearly and not too fast. Be mindful of your body language – avoid crossing your arms and alternate who you are looking at as you give your presentation.

If public speaking isn’t your strongest trait, consider pitching with a partner. Recruit another member of your team to help you out with the pitch. Take turns describing the game, the story, the features, and gameplay. You’ll feel much more confident with a backup.

Know your USPs

USP stands for Unique Selling Propositions. These are the most unique and exciting features of your game. It’s what makes your game stand apart from all of the others. There should be three to five USPs in your pitch presentation. Even if your game has more, try to limit it down to no more than five or six – otherwise you start to “muddy the waters”.

USPs are the backbone of your marketing plan. If you need ideas to generate USPs, try looking at the back of a videogame box. USPs are almost always used to sell a game to a consumer. However, many amateur game developers don’t use the right USPs in their presentation.

Often “beautiful art” and “engaging storylines” are mentioned as USPs. Don’t use these. EVERY GAME should have beautiful art and an engaging storyline. Focus on what makes your game unique. Is it a novel control system? Is it a brand-new style of gameplay? Is it a powerful engine that can handle a lot of detail? Is a famous artist creating your characters? These are the type of USPs you will want to include in your presentation.

Know who you are pitching to

Everyone in the pitch meeting is there for a different reason. The head of production wants to know if your team has “what it takes” to make a game. The marketing director wants to know what the “X” and the “Y” of your game – what makes your game “X-citing” and “Y” should I care? The technologist wants to know how you are going to make your game. The project manager wants to know how much your game costs. The creative type wants to know what is cool about your game and how it will play.

Make sure your pitch addresses at least a little bit about all of these issues. When entering a pitch meeting, try to meet everyone at the table and find out a little bit about what they do, then cater your pitch accordingly. A good tip is to collect business cards and then lay them out on a table in relation to everyone in the room. That way, you can address everyone by name and have a reminder of what job position they hold.

Don’t be afraid to share your ideas

While you are presenting, don’t be afraid to go “off-script”, especially if someone in your audience asks questions. Questions will arise during your pitch and often they will be questions that you don’t know the answers to. Instead of making something up, it’s ok to say “I don’t know” or “we are still considering that” and move on.

Publishers know that things change over the course of a game’s production, so it’s ok to have a few issues that you haven’t addressed yet. That said, it’s always better to have firm answers than incomplete ones.

The pitch for BioShock changed radically after receiving feedback from publishers. If audience members start to offer ideas, it means that they are interested in your game. That’s a good thing! Make sure to write them down, as they will often be good suggestions. However, if someone offers an idea or suggestion that just doesn’t align with your game, don’t argue or tell the person that it is a bad idea – instead thank them for their idea and move past it. There’s no need to be rude or disrespectful during the pitch.

Be prepared for the worst

No matter how prepared you are for your pitch, problems can arise. When problems happen (and they will happen) try not to sweat it too hard. Try not to make excuses or downplay your game when it does. Instead, try your best to resolve the issue and continue with your pitch.

Technical issues will happen. I have experienced many pitches where the game didn’t work, the camera was broken, the controls were unstable, or the AI didn’t function properly. But that’s OK. You are pitching to people who experience technical issues in prototypes and games in development all of the time. If something doesn’t go right with your demo, just remind them that you are showing off a work-in-progress. Your audience will generally understand and be patient with you.

Try to resolve your technical issues quickly, but even if the situation is unsalvageable, don’t give up hope. The best pitch I ever experienced was for the game that became Evolve. The Turtle Rock team brought in their playable demo and of course, it didn’t work. Their Powerpoint presentation wouldn’t load. But they didn’t let that phase them and because they were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their game, they managed convince THQ’s management to sign the game!

Just remember to be prepared, be flexible, and remember to have fun. With some practice, you too will soon be pitching like a pro! Good luck with all your pitches!

How to Design Your Game to Tell a Story

You don’t need to be a gamer to recognize the incredible success of Fortnite: Battle Royale and Overwatch — two of the most popular games in recent years that also happen to be multiplayer-only. As these types of games continue raking in millions of players (and dollars), whispers of shrinking interest in story-driven experiences have spread throughout the industry.

“Amazing gameplay can survive s*** storytelling, it’s true, but I believe it’s poorer for it. Great gameplay, infused with a strong narrative and story world, is the ideal.”

But several single-player games like God of War and Detroit: Become Human continue to capture the hearts of modern gamers. This includes Red Dead Redemption II, an upcoming game surrounded by incredible hype for its promise of a thrilling Wild West tale. It’s clear that whether they make the most money or not, games that tell good stories are as desired and beloved as ever before, if not more.

Fantastic games like these don’t just happen. It takes tremendous effort from start to finish in order to marry good game design with memorable storytelling.

It all starts with a fun, promising design…

The debate of what comes first — story or gameplay — has been argued for years. Everyone has different preferences — some of us are drawn to games mostly for their strong narratives, while others deciding what adventure to invest hours into look to enticing mechanics. Both are integral when it comes to designing a game that tells an unforgettable story, but games are different compared to other forms of entertainment because they are based on a unique foundation — interactivity.

“The question the developers of the Legend of Zelda series asked themselves before starting a game was, ‘What kind of game play should we focus on?’ rather than ‘What kind of story should we write?'”

-Eiji Aonuma, series producer of Legend of Zelda

This core of gaming comes with the challenge of having to create characters, stories and worlds where players make decisions. Whether you’re developing a complex 3D action-RPG like The Witcher 3, or a simpler 2D adventure like Blossom Tales, it’s arguably better to begin by piecing together fun gameplay elements that you will add story to along the way. No matter how great your characters or dialogue are, or that amazing plot twist you know will blow people’s’ minds, it will take engaging gameplay to keep your average player going long enough to see your story through the end.

Link Zelda

…Followed by flexible, captivating narrative elements…

Games have proven themselves to be a powerful storytelling medium thanks to titles that not only provide enjoyable gameplay but also leave an emotional impact via compelling stories. One way to help your game hook players is by hammering out the key story elements early on: a cool central premise, strong characters that evolve, an interesting world, and stirring conflict.

Of course, games are unpredictable beasts that almost always change throughout development, thus the best stories are flexible ones. Certainly do your best to protect your vision, especially if it was your primary inspiration in the first place, but you also have to be willing to change (or entirely axe) precious ideas. Whether it’s a boring boss that needs to be reworked, or a crucial playable flashback that needs to be cut due to lack of time or resources, you’ll always be ready to come up with another good idea if you maintain an adaptable and creative state of mind.

“It’s the easiest thing to change, to some degree. You can be much more adaptive. You have a scene that’s already written and recorded and animated and then something needs to change. The easiest thing to change is something in the story.”

-Ken Levine, creative director of BioShock series (PC Gamer)

Game Controller

And finally, the two become one.

Not all game types and genres depend on storytelling in the same way. Role-playing games will normally have a bigger spotlight on narrative than, say, a racing simulator. But whether you believe story or gameplay is more important, there is a middle ground that most game developers will accept. In other words, a game whose creators worked hard to find harmony between mechanics and narrative is a game that players will not want to put down — and when they do, they’ll be talking about it.

“Amazing gameplay can survive s*** storytelling, it’s true, but I believe it’s poorer for it. Great gameplay, infused with a strong narrative and story world, is the ideal.”

-Rhianna Pratchett, award-winning video game writer (Gamespot)

Some developers make the mistake of tacking on story elements toward the end of the process. For them, narrative is an afterthought that’s eventually integrated, poorly, when the need for dialogue, cutscenes, etc. arrives.

Similarly, there are also many examples of games where the story was so important and untouchable that gameplay suffered for it. There’s a reason why many game development positions today require applicants to understand the intricacies of weaving story with gameplay: when done well, you design a game that people won’t soon forget.

5 Things Old School Games Mastered

Today’s video games offer some of the most captivating worlds and stories one can experience. From incredibly realistic environments to impressive artificial intelligence, games have evolved at a faster rate than perhaps any other entertainment medium.

It’s hard to believe that, a little over two decades ago, the gaming industry was just transitioning from 2D to 3D. Of course, games couldn’t have gotten to where they are today without the old-school classics and the innovations they contributed to the field, still used by game designers today.

Here are five notable contributions the retro games mastered, that made lifelong gamers out of us:

Rewarding Skill

Game development was a different beast back in the ‘80s and ‘90s; teams didn’t have millions of dollars and years of development. Instead, you were required to create a game — sometimes in less than a year — that would convince people to drop their hard-earned cash. This meant crafting worlds and gameplay that was not only captivating but also challenging. Otherwise, gamers would fly through in a few hours and want their money back.

Thus, many retro games are masterpieces when it comes to providing a satisfying level of difficulty that, rather than frustrating players, made them want to get better. Instead of having to get through thoughtless quick-time events, players were pushed to memorize enemy spawn locations, boss patterns, and power-up locations, increasing their skill through gameplay to unlock rewards and advance.

Providing Unique Experiences

There’s a reason why many of the most popular gaming franchises today got their start back in the “golden age” of video games; although there have always been copycats and clones, developers making old school games had comparably less time and money riding on one project, which meant they could take more risks. Those risks led to lots of creativity, with games within the same genre full of variety. For example, if you wanted a change from your favorite beat-’em-up, you had everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Golden Axe to Battletoads and Streets of Rage 2.

In contrast, you can take several of today’s first-person shooters and find that they look remarkably similar. If you don’t agree, consider how every developer is at the moment scrambling to cash in on the very popular “battle royale” style game after the success of Fortnite.

Immediate Attraction

Game developers were limited in a number of ways in the ‘80s and ‘90s, compared to today’s studios. Visuals, of course, could only handle so many pixels, as devs also had to create fun experiences with controllers and arcade machines with far fewer buttons. Because of this, old-school games feel like compact, thrilling bursts of fun that you can pick up and play without the need for tutorials or getting used to complicated control schemes, etc.

Even a complete gaming novice can pick up an NES controller, boot up Mega Man and have a great time. Compare that experience to Assassin’s Creed, where novice players must familiarize themselves with lengthy story scenes and tutorial segments before they can get to the meat of the gameplay.

Old-school games also didn’t require signing into an account or having an online connection to play — just another way these games remain accessible and simple to enjoy, no matter your level of expertise.

Offering Fun With Friends

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that many of the multiplayer games we enjoy now let us do things we could only dream of in our wildest imagination, back in the day. Fortnite, for example, lets you play against a whopping 99 other players in a world where you can destroy almost everything in the environment — all while building massive towers and bridges. The only downside is that if you want to play on the couch with a friend, they’ll need to bring their own TV screen and console; like most modern big-budget titles, there’s no local multiplayer.

Before the advent of high-speed internet, devs were almost obligated to make fun games that friends could play together. Arcade cabinets were surrounded by teens watching players duke it out in Mortal Kombat or unite to tear a city apart in Rampage.

As most of today’s developers realize the ever-existent hunger for couch co-op games, we can’t help but recall the hours of enjoyment old-school games gave us alongside friends and family.

You Could Play ASAP!

Remember when you could play a game without having to wait for console boot-up times, long loading screens, or new patch updates to download? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Learn more about Game Design at the New York Film Academy.

The Right Concept Art Will Save You Money: 4 Steps to Develop

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

A good piece of concept art can be used as a prototype to test one of the essential elements that your game will need to succeed: You’ll need to connect emotionally to your player. Spending on concept art is sometimes viewed as a luxury or even a distraction, but if done correctly, concept art will save you money and put you in the right direction towards developing a successful experience. In this article, I’ll dive into the significance of art, and four steps to develop effective concepts.

We all have game ideas; some good, some bad. But having an idea is far from having a concept. A concept is something more concrete and more developed, and when it is done right, it is practically a prototype that will help you validate the foundation of your game or experience: the emotional connection with your players.

Finding an Emotional Connection

One of the most important qualities of a successful game is the ability to connect emotionally with players. If you are able to connect with players and involve them emotionally through your game, you are practically on the other side. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many hurdles that can take your project off track, but you have achieved a fundamental requirement: the ability to connect and be relevant.

In a previous article I talked about the 4-step sequence that successful games follow: stand out, connect, engage, and grow. In this article, I am going to talk about how, by doing concept development the right way, you can figure out and validate early on if your game concept has the potential to stand out and connect with your target players.

The Role of Art in Your Game

The art of a game is the window to all its other elements. You access the mechanics, stories, and social features through characters, environments, and user interfaces. The right art style will help you engage your players and communicate the humor and fun of your game mechanics, or the drama of your story. The wrong one will be more of a hurdle than a helpful connector and amplifier. The right art style will also help you stand out and connect with players by communicating the mood, emotions, and theme of your game.

Concept Art as a Prototype to Validate Emotional Connection

The right concept art will reflect all the good qualities of your game: the emotions it creates, its core story, and its theme. Even if the core mechanics or story details are not represented in your concept art, the emotions resulting from them will be present. This is why the development of concept art can be a great tool to test if players connect with the basic theme and emotions of your game. Developing concept art can be a faster and cheaper way to test and validate one of the foundations of a successful game: emotional connection.

4 Steps to Create the Right Concept Art

  1. The first step is defining who is your target player, what are your goals, and what is your point of view (or the reason you care about making this game).
  2. The second step is to define a theme that your players resonate with. The only way to know if your theme resonates with an audience is by testing: pick a few members of your audience and talk to them about your theme, see if they relate with it. Remember that theme is not a topic, but rather an opinion about a topic. People don’t resonate with a topic by itself like “zombies in a post-apocalyptic world.” People resonate with views about the world that those topics make easy to represent — and that they agree with. For example, in the case of the topic “zombies in a post-apocalyptic world,” a possible theme would be “only the cut-throat can survive in the world.”
  3. Once you have defined your theme, pick an art style that also resonates with your audience, and brainstorm some ideas about possible mechanics, stories, and social interactions. I am not arguing for being a copycat regarding the art style. It is about narrowing down possibilities and starting from solid concrete examples pointing in the right direction. Once you have those, you can innovate within clear parameters. As with theme, the only way to know if your art style will resonate with your audience is by showing them pictures of similar art styles.
  4. Finally, with a clear theme, a ballpark idea about the art style, and ideas about story, mechanics, and social interactions; create a piece of concept art. This piece should represent your main activity or conflict, and your theme. Once you have something concrete, get feedback from your audience and iterate from what you learn.

If you follow these four simple steps, you will end up with a concrete piece of concept art that connects with your audience and can help you as a guide or compass throughout development. You will not have a game yet, but you will have a good foundation to build one and something concrete that can guide your decisions for the rest of the development process.

Ready to learn more about game design? Find more info about New York Film Academy Game Design including student work here.

How to Be a Star in Game Industry Design Meetings

For aspiring game designers, we have created three tips to help you excel in design meetings in the game industry. Check it out:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

 Make It About the Player

Your job as game designer is firstly to be an advocate for the player. You make decisions based on what will be best for the experience of the person playing your game.

The primary way you know what the player wants is by playtesting with your actual players (the target audience for your game). Playtesting with your teammates and friends is nice, but you really want to test with people who don’t know you to get real feedback.

When in design meetings, frame your statements through the lens of what the player wants rather than what you think is cool or what is trending on Gamasutra.

Under the category of not-widely-known, check out the Gamer Motivation Survey by Quantic Foundry. You can use this to understand yourself as a gamer and get recommendations for games you might like to play.

You can also read this article about “7 Things [Quantic Foundry] Learned About Primary Gaming Motivations From Over 250,000 Gamers.”

Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO

… That is, if you document what you observe in playtests as objectively as possible.

Some companies, like Microsoft Games, have dedicated user researchers, whose job it is to create playtest reports for the team to follow. Regardless of how you get the notes in design meetings, you want to reference them — as opposed to your own opinion — when talking about how to solve a design problem.

This means you would say things like, “Players keep getting stuck at this point on the map. I think we should provide a weapon drop here for them to keep it moving,” instead of, “I think it would be cool to have more weapons.”

This technique is not only professional-grade, but it is also important when dealing with the “HIPPO” in the room — the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” Solid info from your playtests makes it easier for everyone to get on the same page.

Know the Canon

The word “canon” means “a collection of sacred works.” You hear the word used to describe the canon of great literature and film and music, but there is also a canon of great games.

As an aspiring game designer it is important that you know the great games, and play as many as possible. When you are in game industry design meetings, your colleagues will be mixing and matching points about game mechanics, art direction, story arcs, and other elements of a variety of different games. You want to understand what they are saying and be able to contribute.

Most of the games that come up will either be in the canon or were heavily influenced by the canon. Importantly, the canon includes great video games but also a diversity of lesser-known games that broke important ground — e.g. “Atari Adventure” is a simple game that influences the entire action-adventure genre, including all the Zelda games.

What is the canon, you ask?

While there is no definitive list, here are some good sources to read:

  1. 25 Video Games Every Game Design Student Should Play Before They Graduate
  2. Time Magazine’s “The 50 Best Video Games of All Time
  3. Metacritc’s “Best Video Games of All Time”

Finally, related to the canon: two titans of gaming education, design, and writing, NYFA Game Design Chair Chris Swain and Jeremy Bernstein recently took NYFA’s Twitch show “Schooled” to give their list of “10 Games You Should Play Before You Graduate from Game School.”

We highly encourage that you catch the episode here:

The two created their best games list because, as Swain puts it, “Designers are constantly brainstorming and incorporating bits of mechanics from other games. So it’s important to play and understand lots of different kinds of games so you can hang tough in these meetings. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather food for thought for a variety of different kinds of games and genres. You actually need to play lots more than what we talk about in the Twitch episode, but those games are a great foundation.”

Throughout the episode, two themes emerged: “innovation” and “gameplay over graphics.” The show kicks off with Swain introducing “Adventure” for the Atari 2600, the game that invented action adventure, top-down scrolling, fog of war, and easter eggs. He shows how it provides “primitives” for the whole action adventure genre including the “Zelda” series, “Uncharted” series, and even the “Grand Theft Auto” series.

Bernstein underscores the value of playing tabletop games as game design student, making the point that playing board games forces aspiring designers to get hands-on with rules, procedures, mechanics, and adjudication, intimately and in ways that are not accessible when playing digital games.

We have included their list of games below and encourage you to play them all.

# Title Platform Video Link
1 Adventure Atari 2600 https://youtu.be/LQZDRELOqoI
2 Dungeons and Dragons Tabletop https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FeiNEsLElA
3 Tetris Soviet DVK-2 https://youtu.be/O0gAgQQHFcQ
4 Blokus Tabletop https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LDM0xFDCFY
5 You Don’t Know Jack PC https://youtu.be/VheFU03JqAY
6 Sim City PC https://youtu.be/A54blk-ojA4
7 Dune 2 PC https://youtu.be/EiJLOjeyDxs
8 Magic the Gathering Online Tabletop https://youtu.be/GIlS4WwXoSM
9 Wii Sports Wii https://youtu.be/zqaPFAZS1K8
10 Pokemon Go Android https://youtu.be/vvFVBXLsBcE

To recap, here are three things you can do to be a star in game industry design meetings:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

All of them take a lifetime to fully master, so just jump right in by making games, playtesting games, and playing lots and lots of games.

Ready to learn more about game design? Study at the New York Film Academy’s Game Design School.

What Beginners Should Know About Ethics in Game Design

One of the most debated topics in the video game industry is one that may surprise you: not graphics or gameplay, but ethics. People, whether they are gamers or not, often ask themselves if developers have an ethical obligation when creating their next title. Just like the people behind your favorite movies or TV shows, game developers are asked to consider how their work will influence people.

Sometimes it seems public opinion likes to focus on the ethics of video games even more than that of films and TV shows, perhaps because it’s a newer medium. It also doesn’t help that, unlike even Hollywood’s most controversial films, video games allow the player make choices and essentially become a character in their game experience. Many argue that the immersive, experiential nature of this form of entertainment raises unique ethical issues.

At the same time, the game industry wants games to be seen not just as entertainment, but also as an art form. Many argue that this means video games should be held to higher standards when it comes to what they depict, and how.

At the end of the day, many agree it’s up to each person to decide what makes a game “unethical.” But what do you think? Read on for some food for thought in this popular and important debate on the ethics of game design.

The Hottest Topics of Discussion

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Below we’ve listed the three major areas where ethics play a role in how game designers create their virtual experiences:

Violence is perhaps the biggest talking point when talking about controversial games. Although violence has existed in games almost as long as the game industry itself, those desiring to censor games have focused on a number of infamous titles.

One of the first was the original “Mortal Kombat,” which led to several court cases and played a role in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Today, violence is everywhere in games. Games have also been accused of having a negative effect on players and desensitizing people to violence. However, game developers continue featuring violence in their games, arguing they do so only at a level that fits the context of the game’s world.

Nudity

Nudity is another sensitive topic when discussing ethics in games. While the number of adult gamers has grown exponentially over the years, younger players are still the biggest demographic for games, and likely to play any given game. This means that even if ESRB gives a Mature rating, plenty of gamers under 17 years of age will probably still play.

The evolution of graphics and realism in game art has sparked fresh debate on the topic of nudity in games, even if the developers only intend adults to play them. Many game designers feel they should have the same artistic freedom as Hollywood to depict mature content in their projects, and argue that it is every individual parent’s responsibility to keep M-rated titles out of their children’s hands.

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Some games let player participate as a hero looking to bring the bad guys to justice, and feature villains committing acts of crime, from theft and arson to battery and homicide. But what about the opposite situation, where the player participates as a criminal? The issue a lot of people have with certain games is that they consist of gameplay where the player must commit crimes to advance.

Of all the titles out there to use as an example, none is better than “Grand Theft Auto,” arguably one of the most controversial series of all time, where players play as criminals. When it comes to crime in games, designers tend to leverage a little more freedom but are still careful. Knowing that not everyone approves of committing crimes in games, the many top game designers find ways to put the choice in the player’s hands. Most developers agree there should be rewards and consequences to influence the player’s decisions in a fun, engaging way.

Today, many people don’t have a problem with games featuring profanity and references to substances like alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. However, many others aren’t comfortable with this content, especially when thinking of letting younger gamers play titles littered with profanity. Unfortunately, the games that allow the player to censor cuss words are few and far between.

Some people also argue against showing characters, especially the protagonist/hero, using illegal drugs, tobacco, or any substance known to be harmful to your health — as is the case, for example, in The Saints Row series.

Responsibility vs. Artistic Freedom

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Game developers feel they should have the same freedom as filmmakers, authors, and other artists. As an artform, games have the power to tell incredible stories, and many game designers argue that sometimes this requires including sensitive content. To the average game developer, censoring game content is equivalent to limiting their artistic freedom.

At the same time, designers should always consider that what they’re adding to their projects will be seen by people of all ages. Many consumers argue that, aside from protecting underage gamers, censoring game content provides a more positive game space that can still be creative and compelling. It also doesn’t help that many developers have been known to add controversial content not for storytelling purposes or artistic decisions, but simply to make the game more commercially appealing.

In the end, it’s still up to gamers and parents to consider the ESRB rating before venturing into their next virtual adventure. But what do you think about the debate on the ethics in game design?

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Interested in learning more about game design? Study at the New York Film Academy.

Game Storytelling – 3 Rules of Thumb that Work

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become a bit of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

Screenshot 2017-10-11 12.06.01

Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story, and social connection.

storypexels-photo-256546

Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are 3 rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

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There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict — says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places; it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the sooner the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The first conflict you show your players doesn’t need to be the only conflict. It doesn’t even need to be the main conflict, but it should be the conflict that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

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There is an old axiom in Hollywood: “Show, don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it; instead, show the character doing something courageous. In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to “Do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option. Only use dialogue or text if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

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The right story makes the game more intuitive, but it needs to start simple. Story can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but focus on utilizing story to make your game’s goals and rules easier for players to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story introduction should also be minimal. One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate all the background to the players at the beginning of the game. Players do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense. The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain. Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into 3 categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do. As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

chesspexels-photo-260024

Let’s look at Chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals.

You know whom your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color. You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes. You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive — like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but it does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

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Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience, but the wrong story could turn into an annoyance for the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game: 1) Introduce a clear and easy-to-understand conflict as soon as you can, 2) Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration, and 3) Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

Learn more about Game Design at the New York Film Academy.

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4 Steps Every Successful Game and VR Experience Needs to Go Through

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

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What is a successful game?

Defining game success in terms of profits is the easiest and simplest route: we can easily say that if game profits are higher than our investment, the game is successful. However, this view does not help us understand how to make a successful game, what ingredients to use and what processes to follow. Profitability depends on your game’s business model, which can vary widely from a free-to-play casual game to a premium VR experience. And in some cases, success might not even be about profit, but about teaching something or about creating a change in behavior — like in the case of many educational games.

If you are trying to make a “successful” game it is much more useful to define success in terms of player engagement. In most cases, there is a strong correlation between player long-term engagement and profitability. But if you understand more clearly how player engagement works, you can map the engagement sequence to the ingredients you need to add to your game and the decisions you need to make during game development.

What Does a Successful Game Look Like In Terms of Player Engagement?

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Image by Felipe Lara

A successful game needs to do 4 things in a sequential order:

  • STAND OUT: First, the game needs to stand out. If nobody is aware of your game, nobody will play it. Standing out is about the first impression. The challenge is finding a balance between familiarity and novelty, offering something the player understands but that is different enough from all the other apps to stand out.
  • CONNECT: Second, the game needs to connect with players and make them interested in finding out more. Somebody yelling in the middle of the street will get noticed, but the act of yelling itself won’t get people interested; people will only respond if they connect or resonate with what they hear. The same happens with games that get your attention in the app store or in the first couple of minutes of free-to-play game.
  • ENGAGE: Third, the game needs to engage players and keep them playing for a while. In most cases, the longer players stick around the more profitable the game is: this gives you more chances to monetize, more chances to get subscriptions, more chances to get recommended to friends, etc.
  • GROW: Finally, the game needs to find a way to scale or grow its player base. The best way to do that is by keeping your existing players, and adding features that make them want to invite their friends and promote your game.

Knowing that you need your game to go through the sequence above will help you choose the right ingredients to fulfill each of the steps. For example, one of the best ingredients for standing out in the crowd is having unique art; and one of the best ingredients for growing your game organically is by adding social mechanics that form a community around your game. There are in fact a few key ingredients that can be combined to fulfill the sequence above and create long-term engagement.
But First Clarify the Why and the Who

Business Colleagues Together Teamwork Working Office

Your Goals

Of course, none of the previous stuff matters if you are not reaching the goals you were trying to achieve with your game in the first place. You might be attracting players and keeping them around, but if you are trying to make an educational game and your game fails to educate, you are not succeeding even if you have tons of players sticking around. The same goes about monetization: if you have hundreds of thousands of players but you are not monetizing or reaching the profit you were looking to make, you are failing. You need to make sure that as your game connects and engages it is also teaching and/or monetizing. That is a big part of the trick, but for now let’s stick to the basics: you need to have a very clear idea of what are your goals and make sure that everything revolves around that.

Your Target Players

Just as important is to have a clear idea of your target player. The things that I need to do to stand out and connect to kids are very different from the things I need to do to stand out and connect to young adults. One of the main mistakes I’ve seen in my years developing games is trying to make something that is appealing to everybody, or to a very wide range of people. Trying to please all usually ends with not really pleasing or connecting with anyone.
Conclusion

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A good first step towards creating a successful game or a successful VR experience is defining how it looks  in terms of player engagement. Player engagement usually follows a specific path with specific steps: stand out and be noticed by your target audience, connect with them, engage them to continue playing for a while, and finally make them want to share your game with their friends so they stick around and help you grow.

Once you have a clear idea of what the game needs to do, you can look for the right combination of ingredients — art, game mechanics, story, and community building — that can take the players through the engagement sequence. In another article I will talk more about how these ingredients relate to the engagement sequence.

Ready to learn more about game and VR experiences? Check out NYFA’s VR and Game Design programs.

Best Free Game Engines and Development Software

Is the only thing keeping you from transforming your great game idea from dream to reality your wallet? Well then, you will be happy to hear that there are excellent free / open source software packages in every discipline you need to build a great game. Sections include game engines, 2D art, 3D art and animation, sound design, and project management. Everything on the list below is used by professional game developers.

Best Free Game Engines – Unity and Unreal

One of your first key decisions as a game developer is which game engine you will use. Game engines provide you ways to quickly implement core game functions like physics, rendering, scripting, collision detection, and much more without the need to custom code them. They provide tested, reusable components that allow you to build more quickly and focus on making a great player experience.

The most prevalent platforms used by professional game studios today are Unity and Unreal. Amazingly, both platforms are now free to develop in. Both are great and do many of the same things, so deciding between the two comes down to user preference.

#1: Unity 

Our platform at NYFA Games is Unity for two reasons.

Firstly, Unity gives developers to build functioning games with little coding — e.g. through use of drag and drop features. However, it also has the full power of object oriented programming through scripting languages with the most prevalent choice being C# (pronounced “C sharp”).

Secondly, Unity allows developers to write their programs once and output to the top 25 game platforms including Windows, Mac, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Oculus Rift, and many more. Have a look at Gamblingapps.com to find out which gambling apps make most money and developed on which software. Games made with Unity include: “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,” “Deus Ex: The Fall,” “Assassin’s Creed: Identity,” “Temple Run Trilogy,” “Battlestar Galactica Online,” and many more.

#2 Unreal 

Unreal was created for it namesake (the Unreal franchise) and is a top of the line game engine through and through. When using this tool you are given the full force of a AAA tool. Games developed with Unreal include “Gears of War,” “Borderlands 2,” “Batman Arkham City,” “Bioshock,” “Mass Effect 2,” and more.

Honorable Mention: Amazon Lumberyard

Lumberyard is a relative newcomer to the game engine space. It is a free AAA engine that is deeply integrated with the Amazon Web Server (AWS) platform and Twitch.

All of the engines we recommend are fully documented and come with a slew of tutorials online.

Best Free 2D Art Software – GIMP

Compelling art is the make-or-break point on whether a new player will be willing to try a new game.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the open source version of the industry standard graphic design program, Adobe Photoshop. GIMP is a freely distributed program for image authoring, graphic design, and photo manipulation. Use GIMP to start your game art. Check out a world of tutorials on the web.

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Best Free 3D Art and Animation Software – Blender

MAYA, MAYA, MAYA — is all everyone says these days when it comes to 3D asset creation, and for good reason! Yet Maya’s price tag of $180 / month leads some developers to the great, functional open source alternative, Blender.

What GIMP is to Photoshop, Blender is Maya. It is your one stop shop for 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, and more.

Special note for those who have a .edu email address: MAYA reduces its price tag to $0 for three years! All you need is a .edu email and you can hang with the best of them. More info here.

Best Free Sound Design Software – Audacity

With the emergence of virtual reality and augmented reality, the demand for great sound design is stronger than ever. This is especially true because of the need to communicate location in VR and AR to create an immersive experience. The open source leader today is Audacity

This software is being used by game developers, musicians, podcasters, filmmakers, and other creative people. It is approaching its year 10 anniversary and going strong, so you know it isn’t going to disappear any time soon.

Best Free Project Management Software – Trello

There are many free online collaboration tools. Trello is our current favorite because of it’s ease of use, flexibility, and ability to integrate other platforms such as Dropbox and Google Drive. Trello also lets you run AGILE development and SCRUM with a little know how. Check it out here.

Game Storytelling: 3 Rules of Thumb That Work

By NYFA Instructor Felipe Lara

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become more of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

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Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story and social connection.

Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are three rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.06.40

There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict, says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places, it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The conflict you show your players first doesn’t need to be the only one. It doesn’t even need to be the main one, but it should be the one that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

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There is an old axiom in Hollywood that says: “show don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it: Instead, show the character doing something courageous.

In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to: “do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option — and only if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing, say it through dialogue or text.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

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The right story makes the game more intuitive, but to do that it needs to be simple. It can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but the primary goal is to make your game’s goals and rules easier to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story should also be kept to a minimum.

One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate at the beginning of the game all the background of the story to the players. Players generally do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense.

The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain.

Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into three categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do.

As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

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Let’s look at chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals:

  • You know who your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color.
  • You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes.
  • You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story in chess is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive; like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but the game does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience. But the wrong story could turn into an annoyance to the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game:

  1. Introduce a clear and easy to understand conflict as soon as you can.
  2. Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration.
  3. Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

The Table-Top Gaming Revolution: Just 40 Years in the Making

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by NYFA Instructor Andy Ashcraft

So, as some of you may have noticed, table-top games — board-games and card games — are really popular right now. You can find dozens of new games in the big box stores like Target, Walmart and Toys-R-Us, and even find well-stocked selections in the big bookstores. Local specialty retail shops are everywhere, and always have people inside playing a game or two. Board-game cafes are springing up in cities around the world, where you can enjoy a beverage and a snack and borrow a game to play from some pretty extensive libraries. In Glendale, my favorite local game café called GameHaus boasts a library with about 1500 games, and is packed full of people on a Friday and Saturday night. What is happening here? When did this start?

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Even though it seems to have sprung up overnight, our seemingly newfound love of table-top games has a history going back about 40 years.  In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll outline a timeline that shows how this hobby has grown to what it is now.

Pre-1974:  Wargames, Family Games and Abstract Strategy Games.

Prior to, say, 1976, the world of tabletop gaming could be split into these three reasonably distinct categories:

Family Games

Family games were those that you could easily find in a Toy-R-Us or in a small area near the toys in a department store. These are titles I’m sure you’ll recognize: Monopoly, Candyland, Stratego, Clue (or Cluedo), Trouble, and Scrabble. You would be hard-pressed to find any suburban home in the U.S. that didn’t include at least one of these games.  (My grandfather was a huge Scrabble fan, and taught me to play just as soon as I could read. Perhaps I come to my love of games through him!)

Abstract Strategy Games / Traditional Games

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Abstract strategy games are much older than many of the family games above, like many card games using a traditional deck of cards. They include games like chess, checkers, dominoes, backgammon, Pente, and Othello. Many of these games are old enough to not require a license, and therefore different manufacturers could make games for different market segments: kid’s versions, travel versions, or expensive, hand-crafted versions that are left out as objets d’art. Similarly, anyone can publish a standard deck of playing cards, with which literally hundreds of games can be played. You can buy decks of cards at dollar stores, or find very expensive and beautifully illustrated decks, depending on your taste and budget.  

Wargames

This last type of game is the lesser-known cousin of the other two, and in many ways, the predecessor of the gaming boom we’re experiencing today. Wargames were a niche hobby for adult men (generally white) who enjoyed strategy and history. Many of these games were set in a particular historical battle. Avalon Hill was a major publisher of many of these strategy games like Tactics, Blitzkrieg, Gettysburg, and a railroad game called Dispatcher. These games typically used tiny cardboard tokens on a map to illustrate the action.

Wargaming with these tokens led to using miniatures (usually cast in lead or pewter) as nicer-looking replacement game pieces. In 1970, medieval wargame enthusiasts Gary Gygax, Jeff Perrin and Don Lowry teamed up to create a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail. As “an afterthought,” Gygax added a section at the end dealing with fantastic and mythological creatures, notably elves, goblins, wizards and dragons. This turned out to be quite popular and lead to the first big breakout hit for this industry.   

1974-1994:  D&D, Hobby Games and Game Stores

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In 1974, Gygax (and some others) created a company called TSR and released Dungeons & Dragons, an expansion of Chainmail where each player played as just one hero character instead of as the commander of an army. It was the first role-playing game (RPG) and was enormously influential and innovative. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of table-top RPG’s published since then, and an equally vast number of computer RPGs. A great deal has been written about Dungeons & Dragons so I won’t get into too much detail, except to point to this moment as a big expansion in the hobby.

At this point, game conventions began to grow from small gatherings where groups of friends spent the weekend playing games together to the 90,000+ people that are expected to attend GenCon Indy this year, it’s 40th anniversary. Gen-Con, the “best five days in gaming,” brings more money into Indianapolis each year than any other event outside the Indianapolis 500. Los Angeles alone hosts three much smaller game conventions each year.

These game conventions became fertile fields for design-oriented players to start making and sharing their own games, and some cult classics first appeared in these venues, often as self-published packages sold in ziplock bags: Wiz-War, Talisman, Cosmic Encounters, Battle Stations, and Insecta are examples of these “early” hobby games.

Another direct spin-off of Dungeons & Dragons is the British company named Games Workshop. Early on, this company had the license to publish D&D (and other American games) in Europe. They were both a publisher and a brick-and-mortar retailer, with a rapid growth during these 20 years. Games Workshop also published their own games, like Fury of Dracula and, more importantly to them, Warhammer and Warhammer 40K.

Warhammer (and the 40k variant) are a return to miniatures-based war-gaming, with players commanding large armies of elves, orcs, and other fantasy creatures. They teamed up with a miniatures manufacturer named Citadel Miniatures to create a line of figures that were a requirement to play the game. These fantasy tabletop wargames became their core business.  

During this time, the hobby began to acknowledge the best games for their excellence. The Germans were the first to start awarding prizes in the field of game-design. The Spiel de Jahres was awarded in 1979, and two other awards started in 1989/1990: the Kinderspiel de Jahres (for children’s games) and the Deutscher Spiele Pries. That same year, the American Mensa organization would also begin awarding the Mensa Select to games that promote thinking and learning. In 1991, Games Magazine gave their first Game of the Year award.

1994-1999:  The Years of Magical Thinking

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In the mid-’90s, the industry saw two big shifts that would help swing this niche hobby into the mainstream — Magic: The Gathering, and a simultaneous surge in creativity from Europe.

Magic: The Gathering debuted at Gen-Con in 1994. At the heart of this game was a then-revolutionary idea: what if there was a game you could play with trading cards? Instead of buying the entire game at once, players would buy smaller packs of cards, trade individual cards with each other, and play with the cards that they had collected. Each “booster pack” of 15 cards included one rare card, three uncommon cards, and 11 common cards. It was a huge hit, selling out their first few print runs, and ultimately changing the business of tabletop gaming across the U.S.

The game’s setting was a fantasy world, much like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. Each card had a beautiful illustration, and the game itself could be played in 15-30 minutes. It took the company, Wizards of the Coast, a year or so to come to grips with their nigh-instant popularity and get their production pipeline flowing. The game — colloquially called “Magic” or shortened even more to “MtG” — was inherently open-ended so that Wizards of the Coast could release new sets of cards that could be added to each player’s collection. The growing community of players created a rich secondary market for the most useful cards, and some of these cards would be instantly worth 10 times the cost of the booster pack they’d be found in.  

Within two years, most tabletop game retailers were making the lion’s share of their income selling only these card packs. I remember hearing stories of game shops that were burglarized during this time where the thieves took nothing except boxes of unopened Magic cards.   

The market for this game was typically young men, and Wizards of the Coast realized something important: they were bringing new people into the hobby. They followed this success in 1996 by publishing a similar trading card game, slightly simpler, and based on a video game series popular among both boys and girls: Pokémon. The game’s slogan told you exactly what they wanted you to do: “You gotta catch ‘em all.”  

There were many other collectible trading card games that followed these two, but none as popular.   Wizards of the Coast created a rich and stable platform for a brand new generation of gamers. By 1999, Wizards of Coast had purchased the flagging Dungeons & Dragons publisher, TSR, and released a new version of that game, too. Wizards of the Coast has since been purchased by Hasbro, and now you can purchase Magic and Pokémon cards in very mainstream retailers like Toys-R-Us and Target.

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Meanwhile, in Europe, an explosion of creativity was also happening around board games. The story I heard, which may be apocryphal, is that a German marketing company did a survey asking young adults what they liked to do best on a Friday night. They expected to get answers regarding drinking and night-life, and were surprised to find out that a very large number of people liked to stay home and play games with the friends and family. It’s not clear from the story whether this caused publishers to pour money into tabletop games, or was the result of publisher money spent. What I do know is that by the late 1990s, a tidal wave of European board and card games were showing up in my local game stores, and they were wildly different than anything we had seen before.  

Some of these early “euro-games” were Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassonne, Bohnanza, and Tigris & Euphrates.  These games were richly detailed, beautifully made, and introduced us to entirely new game mechanics. These were games made for people who liked deep strategy but with brand new themes: you could play as a tribe of people settling an island, or a plantation owner, or a city planner, and have that same strategic experience that had been mostly relegated to war-games.

1999 – Present:  The Mainstreaming of Games

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And so we come to what I consider the current era of gaming, a golden age for sure! I think it is also important to make two small digressions:  

  1. Gaming has grown in prominence in parallel with the popularity of manga, science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural genres on TV and at the box office.  
  2. Globalism (and the internet) has made it much easier for a small game publisher to make a much more high-quality product than was possible even in the 1980s.  

But let’s talk about the games themselves, the kinds of fun they create, and the affect they have had on the hobby.

Cooperative games have had a resurgence in popularity. There were a few early games (Dungeon! and Arkham Horror) that fit this description; games in which players work together to win or lose the game collectively. The title that really broke this type of game out is Pandemic, where the players are CDC (Center of Disease Control) Agents racing around the world attempting to find cures for rapidly growing, and thankfully abstracted, diseases. One of my other favorites is Red November, where you play as the grog-drinking Gnomish crew on a sinking submarine.  The fun of these games is intensely social, and their steep challenge — the players frequently lose these games — creates their delicious tension.  

Werewolf (and the similar game called Mafia) originated as party games that you could play with a group of people and a few normal playing cards. These are called social deduction games, where the players attempt to figure out which one (or more) of them are secretly playing against the rest. In the case of Werewolf, most players play as villagers, but among them are also secretly werewolves. Each round, the entire group of villagers can eliminate one player in the hopes of getting rid of the werewolf, then, while everyone else’s eyes are closed, the secret werewolf eliminates one other player. The popularity of Werewolf spawned a multitude of other social deduction games in a wide variety of themes. These games are meant to be played as party games, and are fun as purely social events.

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Magic: The Gathering is still going strong, of course, and the publisher of that game has refined its approach to the community of players. They have defined a suite of tournament types to appeal to different types of players. The truly hard-core players can play in “Unlimited” tournaments, which allow almost every card ever published to be used in the game. This appeals to those collector/players who have spent years and/or fortunes collecting the rarest and best cards. The “Standard” format only allows cards published within the last two years, basically, which means that newer collector/players can compete. “Booster Draft” tournaments are the most casual; players do not need to own any cards at all to play because they will “draft” cards from a brand-new booster pack before passing the remainder to the next player. Afterwards, they use these cards create their decks and play. They also created a world-wide database of players and track their wins and losses, ultimately leading to world championship tournaments that only the best players are invited to.

A few other new genres of games spun out of the collectible card games, like MtG. 7 Wonders is an example of a “card-drafting” game, where the entire game is just “drafting” cards — players choose cards from sets being passed around. Another game, Dominion, was the first of many “deck-building” games, where you start with a small set of cards and acquire more cards to add to your deck as the game progresses. Both of these game mechanics are part of the larger Magic game, but as these clever game designers realized, could be fun experiences on their own.  

One of the most recent innovations in game design is the Legacy game. The first Legacy game was Risk Legacy, developed in-house at Hasbro by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis and published in 2011. Risk Legacy takes the classic Risk strategy game-play and adds elements that persist from one game to the next. For example, a faction might gain an ability, or a territory space on the board could be modified in the first game, and that change would persist through the games that followed. These games are meant to change and evolve as they are played, and generally have a limited number of plays in them before the game once again becomes static and unchanging. This idea of persistent changes is at the heart of most tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but had never been applied to board games before.  

As a counterpoint to that, some tabletop games are role-playing games reimagined as board games, card games or dice games. These experiences have pre-made player characters, pre-written adventures, little (or no) persistence, and tons of interchangeable tiles and miniatures. Good examples are the traditional fantasy-themed Descent and Thunderstone, or the adorably anthropomorphic Mice & Mystics.  

All this innovation brought new players to the table and the hobby continued to grow. In 2000, a website called Board Game Geek was founded and hosts a vast, user-edited database of table-top games, reviews of games (and an important game-rating system), tutorials on how to play and/or make games, pictures of games, and discussion forums.  Gamers can share their game collections and their experiences with others around the world.   

Now: The State of the Union

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Finally, since we’re talking about the internet, we must include Kickstarter. Kickstarter, launched in 2009, is a popular crowdfunding site that, has really clicked for the hobby games community. The first tabletop game sold on Kickstarter (Alien Frontier, I think) funded in April of 2010 for about $15k. As of this writing, the largest amount of money raised for a complete game was $8,782,571 for a game called Exploding Kittens. There are, as of this writing, 245 different table-top game projects with active Kickstarter campaigns.

$8.7 million is an outlier of course, but it does show how big the market for a game can be. Typically, the budgets for games are much, much smaller. The average publishing deal, in which a game designer licenses a game to a publisher to publish, is for five years. That publisher will print maybe 3000 copies of the game, which is just enough to get a few copies into most specialty retail shops and sell a handful at conventions.

An average MSRP for a game is around $40, so math tells us that an average game is expected to earn about $120,000 over five years, which must cover the cost of goods (and shipping) and also pay the retailer, the distributor, the publisher and the inventor/designer. That is to say, no one is making a lot of money on these games. This is still a hobby market, even if the entire industry earned $1.2 billion in 2016 (according to this article), a 40 percent increase over 2015.

The biggest change over the last 30 years has been the cultural change: where games are played and who is playing.

I’ve already hinted at this, but to be more explicit, this hobby is now multi-generational. The kids who are playing games now have parents who still play those same games. My friend has a boy, who at 6 years old was a fanatic about trains. He couldn’t have cared any less about games until he saw us playing Ticket to Ride, and now at 14, he is a gamer. This also illustrates that there are games themed for everyone now, from war-games to gardening-themed games.

Because more kids are playing more games as they grow up, and because the parents of these kids are still playing games now, the biggest change has been in the gender-balance of the players. In short, more females are playing games now than ever before. Thirty years ago, games not for kids/families games were made for and by men. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. There has been an active push by the community to make the hobby more accepting of, and attractive to, women. As a result, the places we play have become more open, cleaner and friendlier spaces to be in. Gone are the dimly lit retail stores stacked to the ceiling with games. Gone are the dank basements where mom never wanted to go.

Further, because of the immense popularity of Magic, these retail stores have had to change their business models. A store that only sells games is not competitive anymore; your store must also have space to play games. On Friday nights, you need to have space for Friday Night Magic, the weekly MtG “booster draft” tournament. During the rest of the week, you want to have people in your store playing games, or painting miniatures. In short, retail spaces have become the gathering spaces for gamers.  

A recent game prototyping event I attended, called Protospiel, was held in a retail shop in Mountain View, CA. It was a little crowded, but the store had enough space to hold 50 tables, each with room for 6 players. The amount of space this store dedicated to play-space was much larger than the amount of space dedicated to selling games (and snacks).  

And in conclusion…

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I wanted to provide an overview of why this hobby has suddenly (over the last 35+ years) exploded in popularity. I’ve given you the long answer, but the shorter answer is this: The time was right for innovation along multiple fronts — creative, business and technological — to turn a very niche hobby into a much more mainstream hobby. New games are being made, and the best games (and designers) are praised for their excellence, which raises the challenge to the next game designers to make even better games, which then attract even more people to the hobby.  

This is also a good place to add that many of us spend much of our day slaving over a hot keyboard or staring deeply into the soul of a computer screen. Perhaps tabletop gaming provides exactly what we need right now: fun, safe, human interaction.

3 Questions That Will Help You Make a More Engaging Experience

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Game Design

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How can you make your game more engaging and effective? In a nutshell, by making engagement stronger at the different levels of the experience and by making engagement connect to your ultimate goals: monetizing, teaching, or changing behavior.

There are three questions that can help you figure out how to best do that and they can be applied not only to games, but also to education, VR experiences, and other software that needs to engage users. Let me elaborate.

In this article we talked about how successful games and experiences share certain features. First, they stand out so that target players notice, then they connect with target players at an emotional level, so players are willing to give a few minutes of attention. Finally, successful games engage players and keep them for longer time, which in turn helps the game grow.

To do that, games can use different ingredients like compelling art, fun game mechanics, resonating themes, etc. Some ingredients (like art) are better at helping a game stand out, while others (like mechanics) are better at keeping engagement going. The challenge is how to mix and match these ingredients to take players to full long-term engagement.

Game design is an art and a craft that can take years to master, so I don’t want to oversimplify the art of engagement. That said, these three questions can often help you figure out what is missing and find possible solutions to make your game more successful at reaching your goals.

Question 1: Do You Have a Compelling Core Loop?

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All games have a core set of activities that the player repeats over and over to advance through the game. These core repeatable activities are usually called loops. Clarifying and analyzing the core loop in your game can be very enlightening and can help you specify why your game works — or doesn’t.

Games like “Clash of Clans” have perfected the use of loops to keep players engaged for a long time. At a basic level the loop is pretty simple:

You complete rewarding activities that compel you to come back and do more rewarding activities. Game designer and start-up consultant Amy Jo Kim identifies three rules that core loops need to follow to drive re-engagement:

  1. “They have a set of compelling activities. In “Clash of Clans” these activities are all related to building up your village and battling other villages.
  2. “Those activities give you positive feedback that make the completion of activities much more satisfying. This feedback makes you feel that you are getting better at something, and getting rewarded for it. In “Clash of Clans,” as your village grows and as you defeat other villages you get access to more resources and better troops.
  3. “Built into this cycle there are triggers and incentives to keep you going back to the game. In “Clash of Clans” all the building up, collecting resources, and troop training takes time, so there is an incentive to keep coming back to reap the benefits of what you have already done. Also, as you put more time into developing and customizing your village and improving your troops, you feel more invested in the experience, which makes you want to go back again.”

Amy Jo Kim’s analysis is very useful and provides interesting sub-questions to help identify potential problems and opportunities with your core activity loop:

  1. “Are the activities in your core loop compelling enough? How can you make them more compelling?
  2. “Are you giving your players enough positive feedback about the activities they completed? Do they feel they are progressing and mastering a new skill? How can you amplify that positive feedback?
  3. “Does your loop have triggers that pull players back into the game? As they go through the loop, do players feel more invested in the game? Can something be added to lure players back? Can something be added to make players feel more invested?”

If you want to go a little deeper on how these 3 rules work in different loops, take a look Amy Jo Kim’s full article here.

Question 2: Is Your Core Loop Tightly Connected to Your Goals?

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Connecting your core activity loop tightly to your goals is key to making a successful game. There are many for-profit, free-to-play games that don’t sell enough items to be sustainable, and many educational games that are not very good at teaching what they were suppose to teach. Some of these games are even fun, using proven fun mechanics copied from other successful games, but still, they are unsuccessful at connecting those mechanics to their goals in any meaningful way.

If you are trying to sell items, those items should enhance your core loop experience.

A successful example of connecting your loop to your goals is “Pokemon Go.” In “Pokemon Go” your beginner core activities are basically three:

  1. Walking around searching for Pokemon.
  2. Catching the Pokemon you find by throwing PokeBalls at them.
  3. Walking to PokeStops to get more PokeBalls and other items that will make it easier to catch Pokemons.

At first you have enough PokeBalls and catching Pokemons is very easy, but as you level up you will find it harder to catch Pokemons. You will need many more PokeBalls and will run out of your supply faster. You can always walk to a PokeStop and get more PokeBalls, but since you are already somewhat invested, spending $1 to get extra PokeBalls doesn’t sound bad. You could keep playing for free by continue walking around to different PokeStops, but by spending $1 here and there you can make your play much more convenient and increase your chances of catching rare Pokemon faster. The items that you can buy directly make your core loop easier, so even if the game does not force you to buy anything, many players end up spending a few dollars here and there to improve their experience.

In the case of an educational game, the set of core activities should produce learning. In her article “Why Games Don’t Teach,” Ruth Colvin Clark talks about some examples where the game activities do not align with the educational objectives — which makes the games very ineffective.

Clarke presents some experimental evidence that concludes that narrative educational games lead to poorer learning and take longer to complete than simply displaying the lesson contents in a slide presentation.

One of the games she tested is a game called “Cache 17,” an adventure game designed to teach how electromagnetic devices work. The problem with this game and the other games she mentions in her study is that core loops are only vaguely related to the topics they are supposed to teach. In the case of “Cache 17,” the players need to solve a mystery about some missing paintings that disappeared during World War II by searching through an underground bunker. The link to the topic is that players occasionally need to build an electromechanical device to open some doors and vaults in the bunker. The core loop is about exploring a bunker and finding clues, not about experimenting with electromechanical devices.

Not surprisingly, Clarke’s study found that reading a slide about electromagnetic principles was quicker and much more effective at teaching the topic than playing the game.

When the educational objectives are more aligned to the core loop the results are very different. Using a resource strategy game like Sid Meier’s “Civilization” as a supporting tool to teach the relationships between military, technological, political, and socioeconomic development has been so successful for educators that a purely educational version of the game was announced for 2017. Here, the core loop is closely aligned to the educational objectives: The core play is all about figuring out the right combinations economic development, exploration, government, diplomacy, and military conquest to create a successful civilization.

Question 3: Is Your Core Loop Connected to All the Ingredients of an Engaging Experience?

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The ingredients of engagement go beyond game mechanics; they include other things like art, theme, story, and community building. When you are able to connect your loop to these other ingredients the engagement is much more powerful.

For example, “Toontown Online” is a game developed by Disney. It’s overall goal was to defend a cartoony world from invading business robots. Designers wanted to make sure that the core loop reinforced the overall theme of the game. This theme was something like: “Work is always trying to take over our play time, but play most prevail.” So, the need to play was built in as an essential part of the core loop.

Without playing arcade-like mini-games, “Toontown Online” players could not earn jelly beans — the main currency that was essential to buy gags that would help players stop the business robot invasion. So even when the story and main conflict was about defending Toontown and battling business robots, players couldn’t do it without playing and having care-free fun. The result was a core game loop that reinforced the theme of the game: The conflict between work and play. Because the theme resonated with many players beyond the original target audience (kids ages 6 to 12), the game ended up being very popular with players well beyond the target demographic.

As players repeated the loop, the game prompted them to explore other parts of the world, team up with other players and make friends, and unfold new stories. In other words, the loop pushed players to discover new art and stories, build community, and master the mechanics, which made the game much more engaging. The result was an average player lifespan much higher than most other family-oriented games at the time, which made the game very profitable for over 10 years.

The more you are able to connect your core loop of activities to the ingredients that make a game engaging, the stronger and longer engagement you will have.

Conclusion

Your core activity loop is a powerful tool to make your game or experience more engaging. Once you clarify your loop, these three sets of questions will help you shortcomings and opportunities to make your game more engaging and successful:

  1. Are the activities in your loop compelling enough? Do you provide enough positive feedback when players complete the activities? As players complete a loop do they get something that makes them feel invested?
  2. Is the loop directly linked to your objectives? If you are selling something, does that make the loop more satisfying? If you are teaching something are the core activities directly linked to the topics the player needs to learn?
  3. Does your loop reinforce the different ingredients of an engaging experience? As players go through the loop, can you provide more things to discover and get mesmerized by? Can you add more interesting pieces of a story? Can you guide the player into forming a tighter community?

Do these questions trigger for you new ideas on how to improve the game you are working on? Let us know in the comments below! And, if you’re ready to learn more about game design, check out NYFA’s game design programs.

 

On Game Literacy

By Andrew Ashcraft, NYFA Game Design

One of the biggest benefits of playing games, whether we’re playing for fun or to learn how to design, is that we learn a kind game literacy. We learn the language of games, and we can learn to “hear” or read the intentions of the designers. Other people have written more about game literacy.  In fact, here’s a very good academic primer on the subject by Eric Zimmerman. Here, I’ll give some concrete examples of exactly how useful game literacy will be in the 21st century, when so many of us have grown up gaming our entire lives.  

Games are central to our culture: we live and eat and breathe games every day. I’m not only talking about games we play for fun, although there are more of them now than ever. I’m talking about games that are played for real-world stakes. Once I started to think about games, I realized how many games are being played with me, whether I’m a willing participant or not.  

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Johan Huizinga wrote about the magic circle (in his book, “Homo Ludens”) that separates the world of the game and the game’s actions from our real world. When we choose to play a game, we step into this magic circle, and everything we do inside is for the game. When we’re done, we step back out into our real lives. (Read more about Huizinga here.)

For many games, the magic circle is completely true. But there are many, many games that blur the distinction between game-life and real-life. Certainly, winning or losing a game can have long-lasting ramifications to your real-life: an obvious example is the state lottery. Here in California, you can buy a $1 lottery ticket which gives you a very, very, very small chance of becoming an instant millionaire. This is a game, obviously, that you enter into with a $1 purchase at your local bodega or supermarket. But when you step back out of that magic circle, the game may have changed your life very profoundly!  (Much more likely, though, the only change will be that you are $1 poorer.)

Similarly, you’re at a stoplight in your fancy sports car when another driver pulls up beside you and revs his engine, peering over his sunglasses at you. You’ve been invited to a street race! You can step into this magic circle and pit your sports car and driving skills against his … but I don’t recommend it.  In this case, a failure can have epically disastrous effects on the rest of your life.  

(As a side note, I feel that the entry for “Earthling” in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” should be updated to read “Most harmless and REALLY BAD at risk assessment.” Doing crazy and risky things in the safety of a video game does NOT prepare you for doing the same thing in real life.)

But the goal of this article Is not to make you a saner driver. The goal is to help you recognize when you are in a game, because the magic circle is not always easy to spot.

But let’s start with some basic ideas about games in general.

Games have players. Games result in, as defined in “Game Design Workshop” (by Tracy Fullerton), “unequal outcomes.”  More specifically, players can do well or they do poorly, and doing well in a game is not equal to doing poorly.  

Winning and losing mean different things in different games. For example, in an Olympic marathon, winning means running faster than your competition. Your reward is to stand on the tallest platform wearing a gold medal while your national anthem plays — and, you get some cash! I didn’t know this until recently, but you also get cash! But winning might also mean breaking a world record (racing against previous fastest runners), or beating your own personal best time. The time on the clock for each racer is the “unequal outcome.” Everything else is just comparing that outcome with other outcomes: other runners (past or present) or your own.

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The players are the other runners (and their support teams) in the same race, or they are all the runners in Olympic history, or they are your past selves.

Let’s look at an example of something that is less obviously a game, but has real-world consequences (i.ei: stakes): an airline-sponsored mileage-earning credit card. The players are the credit-card holder (me, for example), the bank issuing the credit card, and the airline. The next step is to think about how each player wins this game:

  • I win (or do well) by using and paying off this convenient line of credit: I gain mileage points toward free travel or free upgrades. However, I lose (do poorly) if I spend more than I can easily pay back, because…
  • The bank wins (or does well) by charging me high interest on this line of credit, and by charging me a yearly fee for having this line of credit. They also get financial data about me: they know what I purchase and know how likely I am to pay off this credit.  
  • The airline does well when I choose them over another airline because either I have enough points to travel, or I need to buy a few more, which they are happy to sell to me. (This is why these are called loyalty programs. They gain my loyalty to them over their competition.) The airlines also gain some financial data about me because (at the very least), they know how many points I earn by using that credit card, if not exactly what I purchase.     

Every time I use this card, I’m making another move in this game that the three of us are playing. I must decide if the move is a good one to take at this moment. The bank and the airline are always happy to see me use the credit card: The bank may get to charge me money, and the airline gains more of my loyalty.  Given all that, you can see that this game is semi-cooperative: everyone is happy for me to use the card. But at the same time, you can also see that neither the bank nor the airline actually want what is best for me. What is best for me is to use the card and pay it off completely every month. To them, I am less a player and more of a resource to be harvested.  

This analysis is only possible because of the way I understand games. Even the language I use — “semi-cooperative,” “resources,” “players” — is common game terminology. Game literacy allows me to see that games have players and that players can win or lose in different ways.

Let’s look at a social game that we all play: how we dress. I bring this up because my sister-in-law just had this conversation with her daughter. My niece, at 10 years old, is just starting to realize that there are social rules regarding how she dresses. She has begun to understand that other people (other kids mainly) care about the way she dresses and that she can do well or do poorly. But sadly, she doesn’t know what these rules are, so choosing clothing in the morning is really stressful! She knows she’s making a play in a game and she senses that the stakes are high, but she doesn’t know how to make the best choices. Of course, these rules probably change from day to day and are created by the group mind of all the other 10-year-olds in her class. So, God help her, because we adults cannot.

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However, we can offer insight to her about the game we adults play when we choose our attire. When we dress ourselves, we choose based on two criteria:  

  1. Are the clothes appropriate to the weather and activity? This is usually pretty easy: wear a jacket when it’s chilly; don’t wear sandals in the snow; ice-skates are prohibited on wood floors.   
  2. What do we want to say about who we are? For example, I wear red leather lace-up shoes as often as I can because I want to say that I take a little extra effort to stand out from the crowd. I like to say that I think differently, perhaps even more creatively than the average guy. Of course, my red shoes are an affectation. The jury is still out on whether any of what I want to say is true. But I dress the way I do because I want to say it. I get compliments on these shoes, too, and each time I feel like my statement is being understood. That feels like a win to me.

And so the advice to my niece is this: the dressing game is about telling people about yourself through your clothing. You win when you dress in such a way that people understand something about you that you want them to understand. You lose when they think something about you, based on how you dress, that you don’t like. That simple rule is true for 10-year-old girls, and also true for 40-year-old game designers.

Again, I bring this up because getting dressed in the morning is not usually considered a game. However, if viewed as a game, and thought about as a game, using the terminology of games and our understanding of games, we can make moves that allow us to do well in that game.   

There are other games that get played at us, too. How many of us have been targeted by someone playing Outrage? Outrage is a game played through conversation against an opponent who does not realize that they are in a game. To play Outrage, wait for your opponent to make some tiny error or offence and then attack with it! Blow it way up! Be as outraged as you can be about this small gaff. Use your opponent’s surprise to gain some small social advantage, like a confused apology. You win! You are now better than they are. (Not really. In fact, this is an awful thing to do to someone.)

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a game of Outrage, you know that it can feel pretty horrible. However, once you see it as the game it is, you have a say in the outcome. You can mount a defense. You can say, “I don’t wish to play this game,” and walk away, or ignore the outburst and continue the conversation as if it didn’t happen. When the other person asks why you ignored their outrage, you can say, “I’m game-literate!”

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

 

The 5 Ingredients of Successful Games and VR Experiences

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Game Design

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Image by Felipe Lara

What makes a game successful? The answer depends on your goals. Sometimes it is revenue, sometimes it is number of downloads, impact on your players, etc. However, focusing on these outcomes is usually not very helpful as a developer. It is much more helpful to define success in terms of engagement, because engagement can be linked directly to the kinds of decisions we need to make during development.

In a previous article (link to “A Roadmap…” article) we talked about how engagement follows a 4-step sequence: stand out, connect, engage, and grow. The next layer is to figure out which ingredients in a game can help you do that. In this article, we’ll look at five ingredients that will help your game or VR experience become more engaging in the long-term.

Your Ingredients

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Image by Felipe Lara

In the many years I spent developing MMOs for casual gamers (kids and families), I saw how there are four basic elements that can be combined very effectively to get the attention of players and make them want to stick around: art, fun mechanics, story, and community building:

  • ART: Art is what first catches your players’ eye and makes them want to take a closer look at your game. At first, players won’t know much about the specific mechanics and stories in your game. They decide to pay more attention after experiencing visuals that resonate with them.
  • FUN: Art by itself, no matter how cool it is, won’t keep your players for long. Finding fun stuff to do that is easy to understand, with clear goals, is what makes players want to stay more than a few seconds.
  • STORY: Even fun activities get repetitive unless there is a larger meaning and purpose behind them. Having a longer-term purpose or story that players can relate to is what makes them want to keep coming back. Shooting hoops is fun, but doing it everyday for hours can get boring quickly unless the activity is part of a larger story — like training to defeat an old rival team.
  • COMMUNITY: All good stories need an ending, but the meaning and purpose that you get from being part of a community can last for years. The games that we keep going back to over and over are the ones that let us form connections with people that we care about.

All these four elements are important to create a successful game that follows the sequence:

  1. Stand Out
  2. Connect
  3. Engage
  4. Grow

The importance of art, fun, story, and community may shift from one step of this sequence to another. For example, standing out depends much more on the art and how things look like than on the details of the story. Then again, engagement depends much more on the mechanics and story than the art, and growing depends heavily on the community building aspect. I’ve seen many good games that don’t succeed because they lacked one or more of these important elements.

Power Up With a Theme

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Image by Felipe Lara

What I’ve noticed through the years is that games are much more powerful and effective at engaging players when all the elements mentioned above (art, mechanics, story, and community) work together and reinforce each other.

Having a strong theme will help tie together the elements of your game and will make it much easier to connect emotionally with your players. But for a theme to do that, you need to have the right understanding of what a theme is.

Theme is not topic. Saying you want to do a pirate game is not enough. There are many different potential approaches to a pirate game: is it about gathering treasure? Is it about fighting the law? Is it about ship battles?

Theme is not about a conflict, either. Defining your theme as the conflict between pirates and the Spanish Armada is not enough. You need to pick a side, you need to have an opinion about the topic or conflict you are talking about, for example, “A pirate’s life is a wonderful life, because it is more free and exciting.”

When you state your theme as a clear point of view you get a much clearer idea of what you need from your mechanics and story. In this case, the elements would all need to revolve around the excitement of being a pirate and feeling free of responsibilities and commitments.

In his book “The Art of Game Design,” Jesse Schell relates an example from when we worked on a pirate’s virtual reality ride for Walt Disney Imagineering and DisneyQuest. In his book, he writes that as soon as they nailed down a theme for the ride, many of the design decisions about art style, game mechanics, story, and even technology became clear. As a result of clarifying the theme, all these ingredients ended up supporting each other to create a much more powerful and award-winning VR experience.

Conclusion

There are five ingredients that combine to help your game become much more engaging and successful: art, mechanics, story, community, and theme. When you put these ingredients together in a game or VR experience — art that resonates with your audience, mechanics that are fun and have clear goals, a story that adds meaning and context, a community makes you feel part of something larger than yourself, and a theme that ties it all together and connects to points of view with which your target audience can resonate — you get a much more engaging experience, and your chances of success grow exponentially.

Ready to learn more about virtual reality and game design? Check out NYFA’s VR programs and game design programs!