Sometimes you just have to Sissyfight

Every game needs swords, right?A hard slap. A yelp. Frowns. Betrayal. Consternation. Confusion.


That’s what you get when you turn over the cards in SiSSYFiGHT 3000.  Used as an exercise during the Game Design Workshop at GDC every year, SF3K is a simple card game which is very easy to learn and acts as a hell of an ice breaker. It’s also the perfect platform to teach rapid paper prototyping and in the right hands a great tool to explain the Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics framework. Or you can just crib Marc’s slides wholesale. (What? There’s a reason they’ve evolved over 7 years of the workshop to a finely honed point. I’m not going to even try reinventing that wheel.)

The folks at Media Design School kindly invited me back to meet a new crop of students and to catch up with the Nightfall team I met a few months ago. Chatting with Steffan about what he had already covered with them it was obvious he’d gotten through the nuts and bolts of the industry stuff already so that was some of my previous material out the window. With two 4 hour windows to fill I turned to another project I’m poking at for day 1, and figured that the SF3K exercise would be an excellent day 2.

Over the course of a couple hours of lecturing and about the same again of Q&A I tried to distil down a bunch of lessons I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) from my time in the industry. There’s no such thing as a perfect design doc. Math will save your ass when balancing. Communicating to the player what they need to do is hard. Etc. Illustrated with examples from the games where those points got driven home, often repeatedly and with blunt force trauma.

Channeled Harvey for a bit as well, highlighting how lucky they were to be looking to games and pointing out that working in games means working with Very Clever People who are mostly a lot of fun to be around. Blew the Indie horn as well, regaling them with Derek Yu’s masterful writeup of Petri‘s completely mad 5 minute game stunt. Without video of said event I had to give it a very dramatic reading. Please tell me there’s video somewhere of Petri’s performance.

In the end no-one’s eyes glazed over and they had questions about all the usual stuff. Including, of course, working in Japan. That elicited my standard response: if you’ve got good Japanese language skills and don’t mind low pay it’d be a hell of an experience for a first job. Later one of the guys wandered over to ask more about it and I repeated the question.

“Well, I’ve been studying the language for 9 years and did the Level II JLPT.”

Oh cool, you’ll do fine then.

MDS_Sissyfight-2 He does however need to learn the first rule of networking, if you get a card (like mine) and that person offers to provide you with contacts in a relevant area (like I did) then make sure you follow up.

The afternoon was given over to chatting with the Nightfall crew, who have come a really long way since I last saw them. They’ve got a ways to go, but might just make it. We discussed what their priorities were, and they had found themselves in the trap of every feature seeming to be equally important. The suggestion to focus on their first 10 minutes and prioritize from there got traction quickly and by the next day they had figured out a solid outline for that 10 minute experience.

Day 2 completely rocked my socks. The Game Design Workshop still stands out as one of the most useful and influential two days of my experience, and I wanted to share some of that with the students. After a brief arts and crafts interlude to cut up index cards and make game pieces they played SiSSYFigHT 3000 and I watched it work its magic. First round confusion, figuring out a new set of rules, a fresh game. Second round strategies begin to emerge. Social dynamics take hold again now that the rules are internalized and alliances are formed. Then broken. Laughter all around the room, truly is there any faster way to get to shared glee in large groups than a quick game?

After they had played two full games (I was curious to see how actions in a previous game would carry reputation over to the next. Turns out revenge is high on the list of SF3K priorities.) we broke to do a crash course in MDA theory. A little worried that I rushed it, but I wanted to get them back to the game quickly and figured that doing trumps listening.

Lord of the Flies, The Musical Dance Off? With sticky notes in hand they wrote down all of the fiction and genres they could come up with in 90 seconds and then stuck them to the wall, looking for critical ideamass. Strange thoughts coagulated on the walls of the classroom, settling eventually to:

  • Survival Horror (became serial killer survival)
  • Kamikaze bombers
  • Mafia turf wars
  • Warlords of feudal Japan
    • and
  • Hippo Lasers in Space

Hippo Lasers in Space got my attention. At first I worried that they’d paint themselves in a corner (what’re the emotional responses you’d try to evoke with that?!) but I held my tongue to see what happened. Plus they were just so darn excited about the concept. Especially when said like the old “Pigs in SPAAAAACE!

They came back from a break and were given simple instructions: change the rules to create an experience which uses the mechanics of the game to support the chosen fiction. They also had a hard deadline with a clock ticking down in the background.

Watching the groups work was fascinating, I nudged here and there, encouraged them to Fail Faster, and pushed everyone until they were making quick rule changes and testing them out even more quickly. Everyone’s approach was different, one group got into heavy duty rule changes right off the bat and bogged down a bit, then came flying back out with a ton of iterations. The word Ninja was thrown around by various attendees as both a verb and a noun. Bad wiseguy accents cracked up another group.

I watched totally inexperienced students hammer at one of the hardest things in the biz: collaborative design. For the most part they had excellent back and forth, ideas were tossed in, evaluated, riffed on and tried. Rarely did people come to loggerheads, and when they did another member of the group would step in with “Well let’s try it!” You can’t argue with a prototype.

In the end, lots of awesome. The games they came up with were inventive, colourful and were just as instructive when they failed as when they succeeded. Everyone came away understanding the relationship between a designer’s use of mechanics and how those choices could reinforce, or sap, the fiction/meaning/understanding. Really wish I’d been on the ball enough to bring up the Bioshock narrative/little sister dilemma.

The class wrapped up with huge smiles all around. I think everyone was excited, energized, and actually hand a sense of what game design is like when you get into the nuts and bolts of systems design. It definitely had the same sort of buzz that I remembered from the Game Design Workshop.

A massive thank you to Marc LeBlanc for sharing the workshop materials which made this possible. I took the template and ran with it, changing very little except where necessary to fit the time and space constraints. It’s as inspiring to facilitate one of these workshops as it is to participate in one. Now, to run one back at the studio…

Spreading the Brainjuice

AucklandNightHarbourAfter speaking at the Media Design School in Auckland while I was up there for Semi-Permanent 08 they asked if I’d like to come back in the future. Well of course I would, I really enjoy speaking with students. Last week I returned to Auckland to spend two days with one of the game development classes who are entering the final part of their course.

With 3 weeks used up they’ve got the same again left in a pre-pro phase before moving on to 5 months to finish the whole thing. Like many student groups and first time mod makers they had a massively ambitious project planned which won’t fit in the time available.

So I spent two days talking about Scope.

They’ve actually got a wicked high concept for the game which could make for incredible FPS co-op play, but the  number and variety of assets and systems that have to be built to support it are a bit out of control. The discussions revolved around the design choices they had made thus far and I looked for areas that I know will trip them up in the course of production. We talked about choices like dynamic physics vs. animated destruction, how to ensure silhoutte recognition in night time lighting conditions, and kept coming back to how to ruthlessly evaluate features and specs.

On the second afternoon I ran through the prioritization of Must Have, Should Have, Nice to Have and talked about the onion skin method of visualizing those categories. The group was highly receptive to the idea, and I foresee sticky notes of features and a clustering exercise in their future. The MDS students are a highly motivated bunch, can’t wait to play what they produce. They’re blogging their progress as well, so into Google Reader that goes.

Thanks to Steffan, Stephanie, Kyall, Darius and Brendan at MDS for organizing the trip and getting me in to spend time with some promising students. MDS has a blog as well and Stephanie snuck a couple of pictures and wrote it up.