Game Design in Everyday Writing: Cadence

Game design is all about making things more fun. Turns out you can make reading fun too, even on a “mechanical” level. Here’s one way.

Cadence

The easiest way to discuss cadence is to compare a highway and roller coaster.

While accelerating on a straight empty highway can feel thrilling, once you’ve been the same speed for enough time, you’ll eventually get used to it. It’ll get monotonous, on that empty highway.

Roller coasters aren’t fun because they are fast per se; their fun actually comes from the changes. First is the long, slow climb, building anticipation. Then your stomach lurches as you drop and twist and launch through turns and loops, and your speed fluctuates, too, slowing on some hills, before lurching down again. Etc.

In games you utilize the principle of cadence to make sure that levels are constantly shifting in terms of pace, difficulty or even type of skillset required.

871e9c27-aaa4-4f22-aca0-bc7bdb499d25_rw_600.gif

But you can do this in writing too! It’s somewhat common knowledge to alter the length of your sentences, but are you making sure your paragraphs shift between information and calls to action? Low-energy words and high-energy words? Nouns and verbs? There’s so many things you can play with! Repetition is a useful tool, of course, but do anything for too long - and in the same form for too long - and your reader will lose interest.

If you find that people check out of your conversation… check that you’re not repeating yourself, or continuing on the same thread too long after your audience understands you, or that you’re not calling on someone to give the same ‘style’ of response over and over - ie forcing someone to keep giving you responses like ‘that’s awful/that’s great’, etc.

There’s some other stuff, like challenge and discovery - but that’ll come later. Until then - may your words catch like wind on sails!



Game Design as Expression Pt. 5

Designing games for self-expression is useful! But it’s not very accessible right now.

TL;DR for this post: Here’s some pointers to help you get into it anyway.

—-

We have finally made it to the last piece of this big puzzle that is ‘expressive game design’. (I’m gonna shorten it to EGD from now on, btw). Let’s start with a recap of everything we have learned 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.

And now, it’s time to apply everything we’re explored to guide our search for solutions to making EGD more useful and easy to actually do.

I don’t intend to solve everything with blog posts alone by the way. Instead, today I’ll set out quest markers to guide us from here on out. Even if you don’t immediately jump to your feet to design a game for yourself/others after this, I hope you can glide away with the capacity to at least consider some new possibilities for expression and creation.

Here are some ways to make games right now

Twine

Porpentine was coincidentally one of my inspirations for game design.  (Howling Dogs)

Porpentine was coincidentally one of my inspirations for game design. (Howling Dogs)

The first successful platform for EGD to come to mind for me is Twine. It’s a program that lets you craft (mostly) text-based stories, and lets you employ simple code for hyperlink magic.

Check out Porpentine, for example, right here. (content warning.) Her heavy and powerful games are primarily made through Twine, and these games clearly use game design mechanics to qualify and emphasize expression.

Twine does, admittedly, occupy a strange spot between ‘literature’ and ‘game’. You’ll find with these next few examples that occupying a strange spot is somewhat of a recurring factor.

Custom Server Stuff (Garry’s Mod, Minecraft, Roblox, TF2, Second Life, etc)

artistic.

artistic.

These games let people build and host servers in which they set the parameters for their own domains. You’re making something that is interactable (eg you make rules to navigate through and respect). In the case of many mods and servers, you’re making your own systems that let users/players get a procedural experience. This is expressive game design!

Note 1: building a safe bunker or your deceased grandfather’s neighbourhood in minecraft isn’t quite EGD, as much as it is digital sculpture. While that’s totally valid, it’s not quite the same as EGD.)

Note 2: this is a reminder that ‘serious’ moods like anxiety, depression, anger etc are not the only limits for what EGD can do. Making a utopian server where you fly around and have infinite corn dogs to throw at people is a kind of silliness that is expressive of your yearning for frivolousness, for example. A parody hogwarts RP server is still doing something.

The Classic Game Design Tools

Pen, paper, dice, tokens, flash cards. The ancient tools of the old masters. I always recommend prototyping games with these simple things regardless of why you’re making a game. You may find yourself satisfied with conveying thoughts/feelings/yearnings through paper and ink before you need to spend a few hours debugging what should have been a simple boss fight prototype or whatever.

the green dice represent the jujubes i ate

the green dice represent the jujubes i ate

The problem with these tools is that they look janky, and while infinitely flexible, they’re rather limited in power. You can write out any number of procedures on paper… but we do use computer calculation for a reason. There are, however, also plenty of times where you won’t need to actually do anything that strictly requires computational power.

I recognize that using analogue tools for EGD may sound a little… silly? Can you really capture something like a feeling of lack, an anxiety about decision paralysis, a funny obsession with pepsi ginger, or a sense of triumph over your exams with something like an iridescent d20, a sharpie and a pad of paper?

Well, my counterpoint is this - you’ll get closer to capturing the above feelings by doing literally any amount of EGD than if you do nothing. And, at any rate, you don’t have the pressure of necessarily making something marketable, shareable or even playable when you’re doing EGD. Make it to whatever degree you can make it. When doing something for yourself, a project is only finished at the moment you decide you are done, and only you decide when that is.

RPGMaker, Unity and other open-source game dev software

(Yume Nikki)

(Yume Nikki)

Hey, didn’t we just talk about it being awkward for the average person to yield software like Unity just a few weeks ago? (yes, we did). I’m still adding them to this list because despite their flaws, if you know anything about code, then it’s not too big a deal to actually use these platforms.

It’s more backend work, sure, but if you do get comfortable with these platforms you are indeed in a good spot and can start implementing more powerful procedures than you could with the analogue stuff. It just takes time, and the onboarding process is just bit worse than it could be.

Mods and knockoffs of existing games

Mods, or drafts of alternate rules, are a great way to get something tangible if you’re the type who really needs to see your art ‘in action’. Because you have the starting point of something that already exists, in exchange for the flexibility of working from ground zero you get to enjoy the starting momentum of an existing framework to mess with. And at any rate, maybe it’s easier for you to conceptualize things as a modification of a game you’re familiar with.

Making a knockoff is also known as plagiarism when money and reputation are on the line. But if/when you’re doing this just for yourself or a few close friends, feel free to mix and match and pay homage to and take from whatever you want. Like I said above with mods, sometimes playing a particular game is already cathartic for you, so you only need a few adjustments to get something cathartic, joyful, distressing, hilarious etc off your chest.

Here are some suggestions and prompts to help you

Don’t be afraid of partial games

(I turned a line from Sonnet 74 into a game for one of my courses the other day.)

(I turned a line from Sonnet 74 into a game for one of my courses the other day.)

You don’t need to actually make a complete game from start to finish, and you don’t need all the assets. This is especially true if you are just practicing or exploring a particular specific idea. Think of it like the way poets write random lines, writers make characters or snapshots, artists do hand studies, musicians have jam sessions…

The act of game design, the verb, is technically what we seek rather than the noun of a finished game. As such, any time you’re engaged with the process you’re basically doing it right already. Of course, sometimes you’ll only feel right when you’ve made something complete, but don’t feel obligated to go all-out if you are just craving a final boss fight or inventory system or something.

(Note: there is obviously value in practicing the boring stuff, including making a cohesive whole, if you want to get better at game design of any kind. But you don’t have to build an  entire house every time.)

Let yourself go abstract

While it’s fine if you want to take your thoughts/feelings and directly translate them into the same art assets / representations in a game, it may be difficult and/or awkward to directly turn something into a game form. Instead, focus on the underlying process or system. For example, think about how fantasy books often explore very human themes through the lens of nonhuman characters, or how instrumental music can carry a mood without needing to outright say anything specific.

I realized right after finishing this drawing that I could have just put in a screenshot of Getting Over It

I realized right after finishing this drawing that I could have just put in a screenshot of Getting Over It

Design at whatever level you are comfortable with

There’s different levels of design: you could work on just a concept or rulebook, you could make a simple prototype of one salient system, you could make a prototype of a game in its near-entirety, skip to the halfway point of the plot (if there is one), make an entirely polished game…

...your focus can be on making something to share with others, in which you’d be focusing on the process of playing the thing, or your focus can be on the design process, in which the act of crafting can perhaps help you navigate the design challenges and affordances of your life. There’s options here.

You don’t have to make it balanced, fun, or even winnable

It may sound like I’m playing Calvinball with the definition of a game, but my argument is that a lot of the most common associations with what makes a game come from its narrow current incarnations as purchasable products that you expect to make you feel good. There’s plenty of games that subvert those expectations nowadays (mostly in the form of ‘walking simulator’ type games), but there’s no reason you shouldn’t follow suit.

Here’s some smaller tips at actually implementing mechanics now

  • Unless subverted, health indicators on enemies imply they are defeatable. Are yours?

  • The difficulty of the game simultaneously demonstrates the power/ability of the player and the power/ability of whatever obstacles are in the way of the goal. How easy is it to succeed at what you want to do? Is it even winnable?

  • How do the obstacles get in the way of the player specifically? Are there even any ‘obstacles’ directly against the player, or is it just a matter of making the most out of limited resources/time/money?

  • What stuff can you interact with? What stuff can you not interact with? What does it mean if you can interact/be interacted with some things, but not others? (imagine if a player can interact with the environment but never with NPCs.)

  • What stats are relevant to you? What stuff is easy to manage, and what is difficult?

  • After completing a difficult task, whatever the player receives is typically considered to be a reward and thus viewed in a positive light. What does the protagonist obtain as a reward for a difficult task?

  • What type of skill is required to succeed? Quick thinking, resource management, empathy, endurance, the ability to disregard (in-game representations of) moral behaviour? The ability to break the rules of the game itself?

Etc.

Prophecies

An entrepreneur could change the landscape of expressive game design, theoretically, if they could ever craft a way to extremely-easily create and share digital interactive systems. If one could easily share self-made digital games without sending zip files, dropbox links, or any other external hosting service… digital designers would have the chance to actually share their stuff organically without all of the hoops (and the subsequent necessity of making something polished).

I am actually fairly optimistic about the future for expressive game design. There’s three main things that I think should be changed, but I think they’re all somewhat reasonable to happen within a few years:
1) Better tutorials or more accessible information on how specific mechanics can influence expression in a game
2) Better tools for easily putting things together and sharing them
3) More people out there doing it to inspire more people to also do it, etc.

And honestly? All three of these things are already happening. If you live above the soil you’ll know that games are being viewed increasingly more as a form of art. There’s neighborhoods around the internet where you can find expressive game designers, people who do this stuff as a means of catharsis and emotional/spiritual exploration all the time. With more inertia in this perspective, I look forward to seeing expressive game design happening with more support, more frequently, and in more places. I look forward to seeing you there.

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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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