Games + Learning + Society Liveblogging 2

I’m at the second morning panel, this one focused our design, with three presentations from designers and developers.

One of the issues that often comes up at games-related conferences and meetings is the supposed divide between academic researchers and developers in the industry. Developers will sometimes talk about how they don’t find most academic work on digital games very useful, and academic researchers will sometimes complain about how developers are anti-intellectual, needlessly hostile to collaboration with academic researchers, or too narrow in their perspectives.

But you know, there aren’t very many meetings of film theorists, film critics or even academic artists who make films where there are representatives from film studios, directors and screenwriters present in significant numbers. Most meetings of literary critics don’t include significant participation from novelists except for those also happen to be academic literary critics. The very fact that the conversation often happens at games-related conferences is itself kind of unusual and interesting.


First presentation: Patrick Lipo, in the industry since 1993 (worked on X-Men Legends, Lord of the Rings Online) speaking on “Battling the Curse of More”.

1st question: “Why do large projects sometimes create weak experiences?” A: developer and programmers pulling in different directions, fear of player expectations, poor control over resources, an excess of ideas, no limitations on the development process.

Argues for constraint early in the development process, however it is imposed.

Argues GTA’s open-world design is a very bad precedent that is driving feature creep in a lot of games.

[Me: I’d argue that a lot of open-world design would be a lot better if it was conceived as a platform with tools and capacity for players to add content over time rather than a fully ‘authored’ design as GTA IV. Like Second Life if Second Life weren’t so clunky and amorphous.]

Observes that many gamers love feature creep as a concept; that they want games to be ‘total’, so it can be unpopular to say ‘This game has X and not Y”.

Takes God of War as a good example of constraint: simple combat, highly polished look and feel, very light RPG levelling up mechanism.

[Me: Lipo suddenly got worried that some people in the audience don’t know God of War or his other examples. This is a problem that really comes up again and again in presentations on games: they are really hard to describe verbally for people who haven’t played them.]

Takes Bioshock as another example that controls feature creep. [Me: I really disagree with this, that was the main problem with Bioshock, that it was *so much locked into a ‘ride on the rails’*. So I guess I’m a gamer wanting feature creep, then. At least with a game that’s as visually lavish as Bioshock.]

“Pillar verbs”: figure out a small number that describe what the player will be doing 90% most of the time, use this to prioritize feature development. “What will impact your players the most” is Lipo’s defining question. Suggests that people are not going to remember playing darts or bowling in GTA IV, and I’m not sure I agree with that, it’s kind of the point of GTA IV, that everyone’s GTA IV is a different one.

Argues you can have “secondary verbs”, a level or section or form of gameplay that gives you a different kind of gameplay, a different activity, for variety. [Me: I’d say that’s more or less where the danger comes in, where you get some completely lame ‘variant’ activity that’s poorly done. If that’s voluntary like crafting, ok, if it’s mandatory for progression in the game, that’s a design failure.]

[Me: I don’t think any designer or developer would disagree in principle with Lipo’s presentation. So to me at least the real question is: why doesn’t this conventional wisdom get followed more often? Why does feature creep actually happen? This is kind of what I want to hear from developers most, a detailed ‘anatomy’ of design processes that pinpoint why certain kinds of outcomes are most common. But there are two reasons why developers mostly can’t or don’t: first, because that kind of dissection of process can get you into professional trouble the more specific and tangible it gets; second, because I don’t think very many developers themselves have enough of a bird’s eye view or overall perspective that gives them generalizable insights in development process.]


“Ubisoft: From Pure Entertainment to Playful Learning” Group of Ubisoft developers presenting on the “Games for Everyone” division at Ubisoft, goal to design educational/casual games.

3 types of behavior towards learning: “have to learn, want to learn, enjoy learning”. Says Ubisoft is only just figuring out how to approach learning games with these in mind. My Word Coach.

Fairly standard developer-side argument for moving towards a “mass market” in gaming (they don’t like the term ‘casual games’ but they embrace the basic celebratory argument about casual gaming as it has developed in the aftermath of the Wii.)

Argues that ‘mass market’ games are misperceived as being easy to make, cheap to make, when they actually take a lot of work and thought.

[Me: I agree with this, and you can see some of the worst consequences of this in learning games and games for kids, which is one of the absolute development sewers where most publishers don’t hesitate to dump buggy, cheap crap on the market.]

They describe the process for making Word Coach. They went looking for academic consultants to help make the game “legitimate” [their term]. [Me: this is really common in learning software, educational culture, etc.: you go get an academic to help reassure parents that what they’re buying is ‘genuinely’ educational. I’m not sure this is going to help a designer figure out what’s playable, but that’s more or less the central issue at GLS meetings in general.]

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