So this year Mark Leblanc invited me to join the faculty of the Game Design Workshop. The GDW is the 2-day Tutorial that runs on the Monday and Tuesday prior to 'GDC-proper' where we conduct a series of design excercises to familiarize designers (or anyone) with important design concepts like paper prototyping, fast iteration, and the MDA framework as a model for looking at, thinking and talking about design.
I attended the GDW for the first time back in 2006 and loved it. I swore up and down I would go every year, but of course I was super busy come 2007 and couldn't. I was planning on attending this year when I got got asked on board the faculty and jumped at the chance.
Ultimately, as much as I got out of it as an attendee (which was a LOT) I honestly think I got even more out of it as a faculty member. Seeing so many people wrestle with challenging design problems was not only enlightening and will certainly make me better at my job, it was also very inspiring. Some of the excercises are HARD and I frequently found myself thinking - "fuck that's really difficult - they're all gonna give up before they get half-way" - but not only do the participants rise to the challenge, they typically output very impressive results. And they do so with a positive attitude. They work together. They challenge one another. They put the team and their ego's aside. They listen and communicate critically and effectively.
Why can't school be like that?
Speaking of challenges I didn't expect anyone to rise up to, my own elective was (I think) particularly brutal. Here's how it went.
The Seven Deadly Sins
Participants were broken into groups of about 4-7 people. Each group was given 1 standard deck of playing cards (52 cards plus 2 jokers). Included in each deck was a slip of paper with one of the Seven Deadly Sins written on it and a brief definition (ripped more or less from Wikipedia) of the sin. The Seven Deadly Sins are Greed, Wrath, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth and Pride.
The excercise was to use only the cards, and to design a game that enabled the players of the game to experience - through the mechanics and dynamics of the game - the sin in question. In an hour.
To be honest, I expected only a couple teams would even come up with a game at all, and that exactly zero of them would succeed in making a game that captured the essence of the sin they were going for. In fact, almost every team came up with a working game, and I would say about half of them had a game that made a significant step toward reaching the experience they were shooting for. A couple of them had very compelling designs. One in paticular has stuck with me, and I will share it (as I understood it).
I think there were two gluttony teams, but one of them in particular came up with a game that really surprised me. The rules as I remember them were this:
- The game supports about 2-6 players. I think 4 is probably ideal.
- Deal each player 3 cards.
- Place the remainder of the deck face down in the center of the table.
- The first player flips a card face up from the deck.
- Any player who has a matching number in his hand can slap the card down on top of the flipped pile. If he is first to do so, he gets that card (and every card underneath).
- The next player flips a card from the deck.
- Repeat until the deck is gone.
- The winner is the player with the most cards in his hand when the deck is gone.
Some kind of timer or a way to put pressure for a pace seems to be necessary (they were still wrestling with this as they wrapped up the excercise). Another option would be to have an independant 'referee' flip over one card from the deck every 2-3 seconds to enforce a pace.
Why does this game work?
Well, in my opinion, any game in which you are rewarded for getting as much of something as possible could be a game about gluttony (or greed for that matter). What I felt was important - and shocking - about this game is that the dynamics of the game are in conflict with the mechanics of the game in a way that makes players feel the 'sin' of gluttony. The dynamics, in a sense, make a moral statement about the mechanics.
When I have 3 cards, and a card that matches one of my cards is flipped, it is very easy for me to parse my three cards, and slap a matching card down on the pile. I am quick because I am 'light'. As I accumulate cards, it takes longer for me to parse my hand and find a card that matches the card just flipped. My reactions are slowed, and consequently my ability to compete with the other players is reduced as I get 'fat'.
Essentially they used a negative feedback loop where the mechanics feed back into the dynamics to cause players in the lead to have a harder time maintaining their lead. The dynamics (players parsing their accumulating hands, finding a match, and slapping it down on the table) are being 'leveraged against the mechanics' to give the game a meaning that speaks to our common moral understanding of gluttony.
The timer they were trying to impose was a response to a weakness in the design they were wrestling with. Without a timer to keep the pressure on they observed players sorting their collected cards - effectively allowing the fatter players to continue to parse their hands as quickly as the thinner players. This had the consequence of working against the meaning. So the team was working to impose a mechanic (forced tempo of play) that would ensure the accumulation of cards became a handicap for the fat players instead of an advantage (messy disordered cards in a chaotic arrangement are signifcantly harder to parse for matches than are ordered cards).
Anyway - as simple as the game is, I think it was a beautiful and elegant solution to a problem that I didn't think anyone would solve.
I think it also provides insight into some of the questions people have asked me regarding my rant thesis - that "the mechanics of trust are not harder to model than the mechanics of rope". Lots of people have lots of qood questions about that. The answer to the vast majority of questions is simply - go and make a game about trust using only a deck of cards and you will find a mountain of fascinating insights into what trust means and how it can be modelled mechanically - then, if you want, you can make a AAA FPS where trust of your squadmates is an actual mechanic in the game.
The GDW teaches us (at least it taught me) that in games more than anywhere else, we learn by doing. Try it, fail. Fix it a bunch of times. Strive to reach a testable aesthetic goal. After a while, you may find your approach sucks. Start again. In a matter of days you can iterate through dozens, even hundreds of mechanical models of whatever you are trying to say with your game. This will help you understand what you are trying to say about trust, duty, honor, gluttony or whatever the fuck you think is important. Once you have a handle on what you want to say, and you are familiar with some mechanics that can lead toward delivering it, you can wrestle with the slower and harder-to-iterate problems of building computer-based dynamics that work with those mechanics to make the player experience those feelings.
Anyway - the GDW was a big, big highlight of the conference for me. To those who were there, I hope you found it rewarding. To those considering attending, I hope to see you next year whether I am invited back on the faculty or whether I am participating myself.