Game Design as Expression Pt. 4

“If game design as expression is so cool and useful, why don’t people do it more often?”

In short, there are three major problems that get in the way of Expressive Game Design Utopia.

  1. There are very few approachable tutorials out there.

  2. There are very few tools for easily building games.

  3. There are very few methods for easily sharing games.

It’s a bit of a desert out there, huh? Which is weird, considering how big of a gaming boom we live in. But: consider the ubiquity of games, vs the ubiquity of writing little poems, scribbling a frustrated blob in the corner of a notebook, taking a picture on your phone to capture a sunrise that made you tear up for unknown reasons… we do little expressive gestures with most mediums all the time.

Just not games.

And, in fact, it’s downright silly for most people to imagine assembling a game with any ease that taking a picture or writing a poem has. A few awesome coders are talented enough to toss together some assets and make a cool thing, but that’s more of an exception than norm.

The reason I’m dedicating an entire blog post to complaining is that, if we want game expression to be more common, we have to actually know the details behind the blocked rivers. So here we go!

1. There are very few approachable tutorials out there.

Do you know what a positive feedback loop is? Do you know how to design a level cadence that properly applies an escher-style skillset principal? Do you know how to make use of a Mordin’s Paradox to modify indeterminacy?

If you said yes to all of them, you’re lying because I made up Mordin’s Paradox. But it’s seriously difficult to find normal information on building games, particularly because all existing tutorials focus on programming, making games under the assumption that you’re going to sell it, or focusing on kind of broad concepts without clear applicable takeaways.

2. There are very few tools for easily building games.

i guess ill start with wheel collision

i guess ill start with wheel collision

Yes, there’s Unity, I guess. And yes, there’s playing cards and dice you can get from Walmart. And YES there’s RPGmaker. There are tools for building some kind of game, but almost all existing methods suffer from either being ridiculously narrow (there’s only so many dice games out there you could make) or requiring a moderate buy-in. I’m literally part of a game company and I still don’t really program. In short, game design tools are either so simple that it’s not obviously clear how you could use it to express yourself, or are so complicated that the act of expression gets bogged down in the systems that were clearly designed for something way more polished than what you intended. Furthermore, game engines tend to be heavily biased towards creating certain genres - so even if you learn RPGmaker, a game involving 3d physics simulations may not work so well.

One of the tools that I found is actually somewhat useful for games is Twine. This tool lets you just kind of get typing, and only requires some basic coding-adjacent vocabulary to express certain things in any number of ways. But I’ve been writing essays and short stories since I was in kindergarten, so while it’s great for me, I can’t pretend it’s accessible for everyone. Plus it’s a bit closer to interactive literature than it is to ‘game’ a lot of the time.

3. There are very few methods for easily sharing games.

This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem. But also the one that’s perhaps the easiest to solve to make a positive feedback loop. Consider this: there are zero ways ‘in-house’ to share a game on the top social media platforms. On Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Twitter/etc you can share videos, text, images, sometimes audio (albeit embedded in video)… but there’s no way to easily share a game you’ve made. You pretty much always need to find a third party that’ll host your files like github, dropbox or philome.

That extra step, in my opinion, is a big issue in the way of sharing interactive expression. Imagine if on Facebook you could quickly toss together some kind of interactive expression like, right on your wall? It obviously wouldn’t be that complex, or anything resembling a full game, but I bet if it was easier to share simple games with people, without it being a big production every time, people would be way more inclined to do it.

15 people clicked ‘play’, collected four souls and got bored

15 people clicked ‘play’, collected four souls and got bored

This is also a cultural issue - games are generally expected to be worth the time, and are expected to be polished. Making a little expressive thing just doesn’t happen. If you were to share a game now, it could easily be misinterpreted as your attempt to sell something instead of just a way to describe your feelings or ideas. Hmph.

So what can we do? Well, I’ll get to that in the next blog post! Which I believe will be the last or second last in the series… let’s end with a recap of everything I’ve talked about so far.

  1. You can express yourself by designing games.

  2. Some people don’t have an outlet for properly exploring their self-identity, expressing their feelings, or otherwise producing art. Making games might be the right outlet for those people.

  3. You can express yourself by conceptualizing your problems into the metaphorical field of a procedural framework. In other words, you can make the character in a game experience the same things that you are in terms of 'game mechanic’ - what is hard to do in this game? what is easy? what is the solution? what is the problem?

  4. Game design as expression isn’t currently much of a thing because there’s pretty much no information on how to make expressive games, all the systems for game design require a lot of practice and buy-in to get going, and it’s very hard to actually share what you’ve made without being dramatic with third-party sites, big downloads, etc.

Hang tight, we’re almost done! Next week we’ll look at some solutions or alternatives, things that work for you right now to mess around with, as well as some ideas as to how entrepreneurs could shift the landscape of interaction design. Until then I think I have a workaround that will admittedly sound uncool but just might be the trick…

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Design Tips: The 2-Turn Hurdle


I love board games. I’ve always enjoyed sitting down with a group of friends and playing them for hours. But one problem I’ve found with most board games is the harsh learning curve when you’re trying to play them for the first time. Digital games avoid this to some extent with tutorials and on-screen prompts, but often board games have hard time teaching new players everything they need to know quickly and clearly. Eventually most players will pick up on the mechanics and get into the rhythm of the game, but there’s the risk that they’ll get frustrated and quit if it takes too long. But how long is too long? After playing dozens of games, I’ve come up with a simple heuristic:

The 2-Turn Hurdle: By the time they have finished two full rounds of play, players should understand all of the game’s core rules and mechanics.

What this means is that, on average, players should have a good understanding of the core of the game by turn 3. If they get the hang of it faster than that, great! But if they don’t get it by then it means something is wrong, either with the game or the player’s understanding. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that board games can’t be complicated. Games can be as complicated as you want, so long as all the core rules and mechanics are clearly and quickly conveyed to the player.

Why does this matter?

For New Players, this means that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed when you’re playing a game for the first time. The first two turns are going to be rough and it’s alright if you get a bit lost. But by turn 3 or 4 you should be getting the hang of it. If you’re still not getting it by then, it means either you misunderstood something critical or the game is doing a poor job teaching you how to play.

For Veteran Players, this means you need to be patient when teaching people how to play. They are going to make mistakes and get confused and that’s normal. Your main job is to help new players get through the first two turns of the game. After that point they might still need a little help, but it should be mostly smooth sailing.

For Game Designers, this means you have a clear deadline for when your players need to understand your game. Any longer and you risk them giving up and playing something else. If you’re noticing that players are still lost by turn 4, it means that you need to make some changes to help them out. Not sure how? Here’s some simple suggestions of how you can help players understand your game faster:

  • Provide cheat sheets and reference cards

  • Remove unnecessary mechanics

  • Provide important information in multiple places so that it’s less likely to be missed

  • Streamline or simplify complicated mechanics

  • Stagger out the introduction of secondary mechanics

  • Reorganize your rules to make them easier to read

  • Use keywords and/or icons to reduce the amount of text

  • Provide suggestions for new players of what they should be doing for the first fewturns of the game, or what their goals should be at each stage of the game.

TL;DR: The first two turns of any board game are going to be rough, but you should expect to get it by turn 3. If you don’t, something is wrong.

Game Design as Expression Pt. 3

Game design as expression… a weird concept, eh?

- Aristotle

Artboard 1.png

Hey! This is part 3 of a series where I discuss the concept of using game design as a means of self-expression. [Part 1][Part 2]

The most intense and strange discussions are to come. For now we get an easy week in which we’ll look over the unique affordances of game design as expression compared to your other options, such as singing or poetry or drawing.

Games are neat because

  • Players embody avatars, so you can help people feel like they “are” someone

  • Players can understand “invisible” systems and rules by going through those rules themselves

  • Players can see feedback from their own agency in a certain world

I originally had a list saying the strengths of everything else like music and art. But partway through writing it, I realized I was having a lot of trouble pointing out concrete differences between why someone would want to use (for example) music over writing or painting. More or less, it always boiled down to “it’s just what you’re comfortable and good at.”

Maybe with music, you have way more freedom to collaborate with other people, or you get the ability to improvise more freely among the temporal plane since it’s something you actively express ‘over time’.

And, maybe writing feels best for some people because it’s the perfect amount of structure and freedom to have pre-existing meaning-markers (words) to play with.

But then, painting lets anyone who thinks visually do a 1:1 conversion of their feelings onto a page. Or something close to it, anyway.

My point is this: I don’t think I can make a concrete list of what affordances each medium brings, because everyone kinda has different reasons for using their medium of choice.

But if I were to generalize, I think game design can be useful if you happen to be the type of person who expresses things better through procedures/rules rather than the other media you have available.

So, instead of speculating about a person choosing media, I’m going to speculate about the medium choosing people. Here are some things that make you a good candidate to make games for expression.

portal (2).gif

1) If you play a lot of games.

This sounds obvious - you like them, so you’ll recreate them, right? What I mean though, is that the #1 way to get better at writing is to read. And the main way to get better at filmmaking is to watch movies. And so on.

So in that regard, if you enjoy playing a lot of games, and you start to think about them critically, then you’re already kind of set up for success with actually doing game design yourself. You already have an instinct for how games can express one feeling or another. Aside from just knowing some design tips, playing games also gives you a good idea of tropes and figures for you to mess around with for one effect or another.

2) If you’re good at thinking about frameworks.

This is a bit modified from Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric. What I mean is that, if expressing yourself through gameplay is creating rules and reactions and feedback to demonstrate a certain mood, then it helps if you already happen to approach your identity/emotions from a systems perspective.

That sounded a little abstract, huh? To generalize (a lot), we could maybe make a theoretical scenario in which four people all feel the same mood.

  • The painter makes an abstract image involving spikes, bold dark blotches, but also a daub of yellow in the center.

  • The writer weaves a metaphor of a flower pushing through asphalt on the side of a highway.

  • The musician jams out a tune with slow sweeping beats in D minor featuring a few cello tracks as the main melody. Near the end of the song, the key shifts and the cello picks up. Hard to type out but I hope you get the idea.

  • The game designer makes a cramped room with a host of un-interactible elements, even though you have so many actions that you can do. Eventually you find, in a hidden corner, a spirit that has a unique reaction to each of the actions you do.

I typed this up on the spot so it’s a little trite… don’t @me pls. But I hope that conveys the idea of how you can express some kind of meaning in a ton of different ways. Game design is a little funny because you often need to combine visual+auditory+procedural elements to make something work. But then again, rappers combine poetry with samples and instrumentalization. And I haven’t even brought up all the weird stuff that film needs to think about, like acting and set design. So it goes. But let’s get back to the main point - no shame if you forgot, I did too - we’re looking at what kind of person should seriously consider game design as a medium for expression. And if you think in systems, maybe that’s you.

wizr (1).gif

3) If you’re competent, or willing to become competent, at game design tools.

This sounds self-fulfilling, right? Or at least, a repetition of the second point (if you’re good at thinking about frameworks). Well, the difference is that it’s one thing to have a natural propensity imagining things as particular medium, and another to have the physical, mechanical and logical competency to get that internal storm out of your body and into the world.

At some point you have to either be good at, or be willing to learn, how to actually implement your cool thoughts.

...And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

ARC Sitting (1).png

It’s not easy making a game. Even card games or dice games are difficult in the sense that they’re kind of limiting objects to think with. Which can be good for starting designers but… good luck easily expressing your feelings for someone with a pair of dice and some blue tokens from Wal-Mart. What are you gonna do, have people read your rulebook for 30 minutes to discover how to play a 10-minute procedure that expresses a warm and fuzzy feeling?

(Personally I am so down for that, but that’s not exactly accessible.)

I’m getting too heated too soon, though! Next time we meet, we’ll look at the problems that get in the way of actually using games for self-expression. We know that it’s possible to express oneself through games, and that it has its own strengths. But we’re also going to know how difficult it is to make a game. There are a ton of problems, and it’s not easy to fix this system, but I honestly believe someone’s gotta clear the way for expressive games. I’m going to do my best to be one of them - and I hope we’ll have you, too.

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