Monday, April 11, 2011

Course syllabus: "Game Design and Architecture"

Here at the Design and Technology MFA program at Parsons, the "Game Design 1" course is extremely popular. Like, it's one of the first classes to fill up at registration. In it, you learn about analog game design and make your own board games / card games.

Conversely, "Game Design 2" is about level design, mostly in a digital context, and it is much less popular -- to the extent that this semester, it got canceled from lack of enrollment. (Or at least that's the reason they gave us.)

Why was Game Design 1 so popular, but Game Design 2 (level design) allowed to die? I see them as two very similar, important things for interaction designers to learn, but apparently both the student body and administration disagree with me.

However, I'm the one who's always right about everything.

So in my assignment for a design and education class, I thought I'd try to bridge the gap between the two and make a level design class for people who aren't particularly fond of video games. It focuses on interaction and environment across various types of games.

We deal with fairly simple, basic games and mechanics so we can focus on the levels. Also, keep in mind that the intended audience is middle school / early high school, though I'm sure if you crammed in some readings and essays in there it'd make for a decent college freshman class.

The working draft of the syllabus is pasted below. Feedback is appreciated:

Game Design and Architecture
Robert Yang. E-mail.

Think about the first level of Super Mario Bros. or your favorite map in Halo. Think about a game of Monopoly, when you're leaving jail and you have to brave the minefield of hotels. Think about a game of baseball in Fenway Park, where there's a 36 foot tall wall called the “Green Monster” that prevents easy home runs.

In video games, board games, sports, and anything else: it matters where you play.

Video games call this “level design,” but in this course we'll explore both digital and non-digital representations of the environment and how to build them. If you like board games, video games, sports, playground games, or anything else game-related: we'd love to have you.

Week 1, introduction.
  • Discuss the syllabus, class structure and expectations.
  • Activity: “Rock Paper Scissors Tag.”
    Play RPS Tag in an open space; then, introduce obstacles into the space and play again. Discuss where to place obstacles, which ones we like, etc.
  • Homework: draw a diagram of your ideal RPS Tag arena and be prepared to show and tell next class.

Week 2, foundations.
  • Share RPS Tag levels from homework and discuss.
  • Mini-lecture: “How to play Checkers.”
  • Activity: Play checkers against someone once.
  • Discussion: What's a good strategy in checkers?
  • Activity: Checkers Mods.
    Each pair will modify a checkers board. Do anything you want to the board; the only rule is that it can't involve any new rules and it has to be obvious how to play on your new board. Then, give your board to a different pair and have them play on it. Watch them play, but only take notes and don't say anything.
  • Debrief: In games we make choices; is a level's job to limit those choices in interesting ways? Introduce “Prisoner's Dilemma.”
  • Homework: prepare a report of what happened with your checkers board. Did it “work” or did it not “work”? What could be improved?

Week 3, let's go outside.
  • Share Checkers board reports from homework and discuss.
  • Discussion: What's so fun about tag? When should tag end?
  • Mini-lecture: “The Magic Circle.”
  • Activity: Play tag in a schoolyard or isolated park.
  • Activity: Play tag in a public place. (Not possible with middle school kids?)
  • Activity: Play tag in a library.
  • Debrief: How did tag change between the different places? How did the magic circle change? Did it feel weird to be loud and run in a library? Why?
  • Homework: think about another rule you'd like to add to Tag that would make it more fun to play in a public place or library. Write down that rule, two sentences maximum, on a piece of paper.

Week 4, intro to digital.
  • Post all homework on the board; then we'll vote on our favorite one and actually try to play with the winning rule.
  • Debrief: Why was the winning rule our favorite? Did it work? Why did we think it would work? Was that rule special to that location? How important is it to test our ideas?
  • Mini-lecture: “Tag in a video game.”
  • Activity: My first level.
    Arrange the wooden blocks and prototype a level. Students will get about 15 minutes to do it. At the end, we'll go to each table and give feedback.
  • Activity: My first digital level.
    Transfer the wood block level design into a digital format: move the virtual blocks around until they resemble your level. Or maybe it'll be different in a video game, and your wood block version won't work as well?
  • Homework: Decorate and test your level. We'll playtest them next class.

Week 5, the third dimension.
  • Playtest every level, give feedback. Try to keep playtests short.
  • Mini-lecture: “3D space in games.”
  • Activity: Iteration.
    Now, add a “third dimension” to your level. If you need help with the tools, ask a classmate or the teacher. Try to make maximum use of 3D and height!
  • Homework: Finish adding more to your level. We'll playtest next class.

Week 6, strategy and teamwork.
  • Playtest half the levels, give feedback. Keep playtests short.
  • Debrief: How was working in 3D? Did we like it? What was hard about it? Can you imagine that architects do this for a living?
  • Mini-lecture: “How to play Capture the Flag.”
  • Activity: Play real-life CTF around the school at least twice.
  • Debrief: What was “fun” and what wasn't “fun”? How do we define “fun”? What is teamwork? When were teams working best together?
  • Homework: Draw a map of the “CTF level” we just played. Circle and label at least three spots that were either good or bad.

Week 7, digital teamwork.
  • Share maps and diagrams from last week's homework. If you didn't like one part of the level, why? How do stairs function in real-life, do we run down them at full speed or do they slow us down a lot more than ramps?
  • Mini-lecture: “What makes a level 'fair'?”
  • Activity: My first CTF level.
    Use wooden blocks to prototype a CTF level. Make sure to use the third dimension, and use ramps so players can go up and down! Also, try to make it fair for both teams... does that mean you mirror the layout? At the end, we'll go to each table, discuss and offer feedback.
  • Activity: My first digital CTF level.
    There's a new aspect to the video game level design: team borders. Place borders carefully. Ask a classmate or instructor if you have trouble with it.
  • Homework: Finish and decorate your level. We'll playtest next week.

Week 8 visual impact

Week 9 something analog

Week 10 Start final projects

Week 11 present a milestone / workshop

Week 12 final presentations

Week 13 final presentations

Week 14, the future of level design.
  • Mini-lecture: “How do professional video game developers make levels?”
  • Mini-lecture: “What if a computer made the level instead of people?”
  • Activity: Procedural Generation.
    Separate into groups to play Settlers of Catan. Play at least twice. You may need to use modified victory rules to make the game go quicker.
  • Homework: Invite friends and family to the fiesta.

Week 15, fiesta.
  • Activity: pinata as a “boss level.”
  • Activity: open gallery.
    Walk around and show each other your projects and describe them to friends and family. Play together. Eat tacos.