PRACTICE is the NYU Game Center’s annual conference that takes a close look at the concrete challenges of game design, creating a context for conversation among game designers of all types. The Game Center documents PRACTICE so that all game designers can benefit from knowledge shared at each event. This page includes videos from each of the talks at PRACTICE 2014 as well as brief interviews between an NYU Game Center MFA and a speaker. Another resource for reference, the Game Center’s Tumblr is updated in real time during the conference, providing a sense of the discourse and excitement from the weekend. Posts from the 2014 live blog are available here.
Holly Gramazio – Almost the Same Game
Jon Blow – On Trying to Make Idea-Rich Games
Zach Gage – Designing Games for Problem Solvers
Drew Murray – Out of Step
Lukas Litzsinger – Crafting the Identity of Android: Netrunner
Asher Vollmer – Minimalist Design
Samantha Kalman – Rapid Failure Theory
Jake Elliot & Tamas Kemenczy – The Half Asleep Moments
Dierdra Kiai – Designing Awkwardness
Salvatore Garozzo & Shawn Snelling – Community Level Design in Counter Strike: Go
David Kanaga – Instrumental Oikos
Game Designer in Detail
Kailin Zhu: Some physical games may share a lot of similarities with team-building exercises (such as sportsmanship, creative collaboration and trust in team). How do you make sure the social relationships and the physical communication between players contribute to the gameplay in a positive way? How do you emphasize that players are playing a game and not just an exercise?
Holly Gramazio: Y’know, I’ve never really found that to be a problem! Sometimes when I try to explain my job, people ask whether the games are intended for teambuilding, but once I have actual players and I’m explaining the rules, it’s usually pretty easy.
I think it’s important that I only really run games in voluntary contexts, and when I’m running an event I try to make sure there’s a social space to hang out in as an alternative to playing – so when people come to play it’s a conscious choice, so that’s already something that sets it aside from teambuilding. I also don’t tend to make games where a number of small teams compete at a variety of tasks, which in my experience is the form the majority of teambuilding game-y things tend to take.
KZ:Unlike most video games, the rules of real-world games are more flexible for players to change when they play. When you design the rules of a real-world game, do you think about how players might behave differently from the rules? If so, how do you leave that space for players, even though they may play the game in ways you are not expecting?
HG: So, yeah, there are a few different issues here:
* People not understanding the rules
* People understanding the rules, but cheating
* People wanting to try out different rules
Not understanding the rules – in this case, I just try as hard as I can to eliminate misunderstandings! This means keeping the basic rules as simple as possible; making them available in multiple formats if they’re not really straightforward (explaining them verbally and having them available on paper as well); and treating the explanation of the rules as being as important a part of the game as the actual design. There are some tricks that work to enable slightly more complicated games – explaining the rules in stages, for example, only adding complications once people have got the hang of it. Or making sure that the games allow opportunities for people to discuss the rules and figure out any confusions together. Or having the game take place in a limited space so that you’re always there, and people can ask for clarifications (or you can spot misunderstandings before anyone even needs to ask, ideally). The basic principle is – remember that if players have misunderstood, and they’re playing it “wrong”, then that’s not their fault, it’s the game’s, and you need to work on the explanation.
Cheating – ahhh, this one’s tricky! I try to minimise cheating – for example, by having people watching the game (or saying that I have people watching the game), by making players very aware of what the rules are – saying “you can’t do X, you can’t do Y” so that if people are going to cheat they have to acknowledge that to themselves rather than going “well I’m just being clever and flexible”.
People wanting to try out different rules – this usually only happens once the game’s over! People come up and say “what if you did this…?” or “did you try such-and-such?”. If there’s time and it’s possible and there are other players around, then usually I encourage them to give it a try – or sometimes I can say “aha, we tried that and it makes the game different in such-and-such a way” or “we tried that and it doesn’t work because of such-and-such, but it’s a neat idea, isn’t it? Maybe if…”
And sometimes suggestions are a sign that the player would be a good game designer, and I should try to coax them into making something…
KZ: Many modern real-world games are inspired by folk games that have been around for thousands of years.In this tech-oriented era, have you thought about bringing technology into real-world games? If so, which kind of technology would you bring and how?
HG: There are a lot of things that are really annoying about real-world games because of limitations like “scoring is a pain”, “you don’t know where players are”, “signalling feedback to players is difficult”, “things that are far away are hard to see”, all of that. And I think technology can be a real help with that! Just practicalities – doing things better or faster or more fairly than we can manage with just people.
But I think there’s a second class of things that’s interesting that’s to do with the affordances of particular pieces of technology. There’ll be a set of THINGS you can do with a piece of tech, stuff it enables. I’ve made a couple of physical games that are – I guess that are run by a Twine game, and that allows particular set of activities, tracking choices and giving tasks and so on in a way that’s depending on what people have done so far, delivering text and sound and images based on where you are and what you’ve done so far.
A great example in real-world games is the Playstation Move controller, which a lot of people have examined and gone “hrrrrm, what can we do with that” and come up with answers based on the very specific details of that controller, what it looks like, how it works etc. Obviously Johann Sebastian Joust is an important work here, but things like Dark Room Sex Game and Edgar Rice Soiree (both also involving Doug Wilson) do very different things from that same set of affordances, and QuickDraw from Greenfly, and a few others.
So in terms of pieces of technology the thing that I’d be most interested in doing is just picking a – a thing, an object or a set of tools – and just playing around and seeing what it makes possible that we can’t do with just bodies. Which is the same way I approach game design in non-tech contexts, really – looking at a place and going “what’s special about this place? What does it let me do?”. Or, like, I want to get a hundred umbrellas in different colours and see what game I can make with those, what they let me do. It’s just about exploring affordances, I guess, whether those are of technology or specific places or specific objects or specific circumstances.
Almost the Same Game
When people start designing games for physical spaces, there are a few mechanics that come up over and over again. Holly Gramazio at a few of those mechanics, examine different ways they’ve been used, and how they’ve evolved over the last ten years of pervasive games.
Game Designer in Detail
Josh Raab: Your games tend to have a strong narrative component. What is your process for creating and revising narrative? Do you seek out feedback in the same way you might playtest a puzzle, or do you prefer to work on narrative design with minimal outside input?
Jonathan Blow: I do narrative stuff with minimal outside input. But I do game design with minimal outside input as well — perhaps a little more than with narrative, but not much. When I playtest a game, I am almost never seeking feedback; it’s more like executing a reality check, so that I see whether the way I think something is is the way it really is.
JR: The core gameplay of Braid is solving puzzles, and this seems to be true for The Witness as well. From your years of experience in puzzle design, what tends to make a puzzle feel clever and interesting as opposed to frustrating and “unfair?”
JB: Puzzles are interesting when they know why they are asking you to solve them, and when they give back to you in proportion to how much effort they were asking you to put in.
JR: Your games are experimental in some ways, while also being grounded in the traditional mechanic of puzzle solving. What is the relationship between the traditional and experimental aspects of your designs? For example, do you feel that puzzles provide a base level of enjoyment for a broad audience, while the experimental elements are there for people who want to explore them? Do these aspects work together to strengthen each other, or do they sometimes conflict?
JB: I use traditional design elements sometimes because those are what I know as a player, and it’s easy to use them. Usually I use them to help form the structure around something I think is new and interesting. If absolutely every part of your ship is untested, you may have a problem sailing to your ambitious destination, or even keeping the ship afloat. I don’t design for a “broad audience” or really any audience. Yes, all else being equal, it is great if as many people as possible can appreciate a game; but when I work on a game, what I do is determined by the subject matter, not a picture of some audience.
On Trying to Make Idea-Rich Games
Jonathan Blow talks about the design process behind his twenty-year game and the design benefits behind time constraints, not reaching your goals, and creating design mechanics in a long-term project
Designing Games for Problem Solvers
Zach Gage discusses different types of problem solvers, and how to design for players with different types of problem solving in games.
Game Designers in Detail
Maria Saint Martin: After your talk at GDC in 2012, you became well known for extensive playtesting. In your experience, there have probably been times when a playtest led you to realize that a feature you loved wasn’t working well yet. How far do you continue pursuing your vision? And how can you tell it’s time to cut one of your “babies?”
Drew Murray: I think it’s a matter of balancing how closely your feature is to your vision for it and the playtest feedback you’re getting, as well as knowing why you’re playtesting. Are you trying to make something better or are you trying to decide whether to cut something? If you have something that approximates your vision for a feature and people think it stinks, you’re probably in trouble. But if you’re in the ugly-and-rough prototype phase, maybe you’re just looking for feedback related to usability.
For me, it ends up being intuition and a judgment call – how good can I imagine something being, how good do I actually think we can get it in the time we have to work on it, how central an idea it is to the game we’re working on, and what’s the feedback?
MM: Recently, it seems that you have moved away from creating a strictly linear story for the player. Do you feel that it is more important that the narrative revolves around the game mechanics or that the game mechanics are developed to support the narrative? Why?
DM: I think the most important thing is just that the narrative and game mechanics match up to one another, however you arrive there. I tend to be very mechanically inclined, so as soon as an idea comes up, I’m thinking, “what does that mean to the gameplay?” So my ideas usually originate based on mechanics or thinking of a simple situation or fiction and thinking about how that could be manifested via game mechanics. But different people think in different ways. I think the more common way to think about games is to start with the narrative, since we’re surrounded by narrative – books, movies, the news, our friends’ stories – and that can provide great inspiration for creating something really fresh. I think the danger is getting tied to a complicated narrative too early that’s going to create too many restrictions on mechanics.
MM: How do you find what’s going to be cool and unique about your project? Does it evolve naturally through iteration or do you pursue and iterate over a certain idea you had since the beginning.
DM: It’s almost always found through iteration. We tend to pick a vague idea, make a good first-guess, head in that direction, and turn, shift, and adjust our way towards fun. I think getting something – anything – playable is essential to really judging anything. You can sit in a room and argue endlessly about whether or not a particular idea is good, but those arguments tend to be settled very quickly if you have something playable in front of you.
MM: What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader about enabling and/or encouraging your team to contribute to the vision of the game?
DM: Quit trying to control everything and act more like a curator of ideas. I think the job as a creative / game director is to define the “box” that the game should exist within – what’s the theme, what are the core mechanics – but then let the team invest in their ideas within that box. Step in and course-correct if something doesn’t feel quite right or if ideas are starting to get outside of the box, but the more freedom and empowerment that you can give a team, the better the results you’re going to get.
Out of Step
Crafting the Identity of Android: Netrunner
Game Designer in Detail
Alexander Bevier: Both Threes and Puzzlejuice are memorable for their visual charm. When do you end up deciding on a style? Does this affect the way you make design choices?
Asher Vollmer: Oh good I get to talk about placeholder art! I have a lot of opinions about placeholder art. I know some programmers who go out of their way to make temporary assets as ugly as possible, with the intention of annoying the artist so much that they “get to work.” This process feels backwards and deeply unhelpful to me… it makes the game basically unplayable while that temporary art is in there. Visuals effect the way you feel while playing a game and feelings are pretty much all we have. Especially during playtests.
In an effort to make the game as playtestable as possible along the way, I try to maximize how attractive my placeholder art is while minimizing the amount of effort it takes to make. (It is temporary after all.) This means that I end up with a lot of basic shapes and icons and colors. A fun side effect of using such simple placeholder art is that I can make the game design slightly more complicated. As long as I can communicate the state of the game with basic symbols I am satisfied.
I try to bring on artists as late as possible. Hopefully they come on only after the game design has crystalized to the point where I can give them concrete constraints. In Threes and Puzzlejuice, the final art was created by Greg Wohlwend. It’s been a really good fit because he has found a way to inject massive gobs of personality into my otherwise dry prototypes. It’s always a long back-and-forth to figure out the style that best suits the gameplay and the tone, but he has knocked it out of the park every single time.
AB: Threes was enormously popular. It was also copied and cloned into other popular games. Has experiencing your games being cloned affected the way you design games? How do you feel knowing that your design is loved and resonates with players, despite them not playing your game?
AV: It’s been a long and emotional journey. It started out with pride, honestly, as the first clones started to show up. I was honored that people had chosen to play with the design of my game and a few even used it to learn how to program. Threes was resonating with all sorts of people… including the types who enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together. That felt good. It was something I would totally do as a kid.
But as the clone army grew and Emperor 2048entine came to power as a cultural phenomenon it made me question all my values and decisions. I felt like a putz for not making this game free. I felt like I had failed and that I squandered Threes’ potential.
It was a dark month, but I’ve long since gotten over it. Threes got a big swell of support after Greg and I posted about our feelings and documented our design process. People jumped to the defense of Threes every time 2048 was mentioned, which we are deeply grateful for and has helped us recover.
Nowadays I’m back to feeling prideful about the whole situation.
AB: What were some of the design goals you have for Close Castles? What have you learned about RTS design throughout the experience?
AV: I’ve always wanted to make a local multiplayer game, but it took me a while to dip my toe into that world because I had a lot of preconceived notions about what local MP was “supposed to” look like. They were all either fighting games or platformers or sports games or all of the above… and I don’t feel particularly well versed at making any of those types of games. Those types of games are based on reflexes and small timing windows, which are not concepts that I’m very comfortable with as a designer or as a player. I enjoy concrete puzzle games where the relationships between the objects on screen are very clear and simple. When it occurred to me that I could make a local multiplayer game that has the “puzzle mentality” everything clicked into place.
My biggest design challenge with Close Castles is that I want to inject an emotion into RTS’s that isn’t usually present: player joy. I seriously think that the genre and enjoyment are at serious odds with each other. A barebones RTS, at its core, is a math problem. It’s about income and production and economics. Playing an RTS feels like you’re taking a hardcore realtime arithmetic test that gets harder every time you answer a question wrong. Making that a fun experience for all players has been an interesting challenge. I think I’ve made good headway in fixing this problem, but I still have a long way to go.
AB: What’s one of the best experiences you’ve heard of people playing your games?
AV: One of the more controversial design decisions I’ve made with Threes is that it’s designed to stick around a really really long time. It takes months or years to master. A few people in our field believe this decision is disrespectful to people and their time, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that. I deeply value efficiency and I know that time itself is the most precious resource we have, but I also understand that our brains need to relax sometimes. Sometimes we need to distract ourselves and just… turn off. Threes has turned out to be really good at helping people do that. I am the most deeply touched when people come up to me and tell me that they’ve used Threes to help them cope with difficult times in their lives. I still can’t believe I actually made a thing that helps.
Game Designer in Detail
Charles George: Music games generally fall into two distinct camps. One type of game allows for personal expression but, at the cost of goals and structure (eg: Electroplankton). The other generally uses the rhythm aspects of music to create structure but players never participate in the creation of music (eg: Guitair Hero). Sentris attempts to meld the well defined structure of Rhythm games, with the creative freedom of musical toys. How did you approach bringing those two disparate styles of game together?
Samantha Kalman: One of the reasons Rez was so good was I felt like I had some control over the music from the very first moments. It left me wanting more; more influence over the music, more decisions about instrument choice, more manipulation of every kind. I also found through playing it obsessively that attempting to achieve the highest scores meant restricting the variation of musical output in some very frustrating ways. I wanted to play a game where mastery over the game would afford greater control of musical variation, not less. This was basically the starting point.
In my experiences playing music with others, I learned that song structures emerge in a loose fashion. Each musician might have A, B, C, and D parts that they play in a song, but the order in which they progress (e.g. ABABCBCBDBABA) probably changes from person to person. There are also smaller variations within each part, such as A1 or A2 where a particular rhythm or chord are different. This revealed the fundamental building blocks to any given part of a song as a collection of notes. It can be fun to come up with variations and rhythms when playing within these confines. In other words, to give the player a relatively small sandbox of sounds to play with in whatever way they choose. That seems to scratch the itch – enough – for freedom of personal expression.
The other part of what makes a song feel complete is a sense of progression, or movement through a sonic landscape. A melody has to end before a chorus can begin. I saw a parallel between musical progression and level progression – players need a sense of completion to enjoy what they’re doing and reinforcing they’re doing it “right”. So I tried to define a couple of very loose requirements to satisfy any given section of a song/level:
1) Areas in which to place a pre-defined note or notes
2) Areas in which to place a pre-defined instrument
3) Areas to fill with a freeform collection of any instrument or note
These rules seem to work — they give the player a goal to work toward, to try different things, and to see how the systems of the game transform their actions. The entire point is to allow the player to actually BE a musician, not just pretend to be one. Maintaining this philosophy helped evolve the rule set to allow for a high degree of musical freedom.
CG: Games that rely on musical or artistic skills often run into issues where users without creative skills feel left out. What did you do to draw those users in?
SK: Honestly I think the current version of Sentris still suffers from this problem to a high degree. During the kickstarter I tried to use the buzzphrase “unleash your inner musician”, hoping that people would interpret that message as “everyone has a musician sitting inside of them that is dormant to some degree and this will stimulate them from slumber”. I don’t think that message really caught on. Instead what’s happened is existing music game enthusiasts have really become attached to the game. Even now when I ask random people to play test it, I regularly receive a response of “I’m not musical at all”. So there’s still some work to be done in an effort to communicate that this is a game as simple as Tetris that will enable musical expression in everyone.
Probably the best decision I’ve made to make the game accessible to more people is the rejection of a game over state. I did this for a couple of reasons. People who are interested in making music are probably highly self-conscious about it. To have a game that’s designed to help you make music suddenly tell you YOU FAIL START OVER could be extremely discouraging. I’m working under the assumption that people who are musically inclined but not confident are very likely in a pretty vulnerable state. My secret mission is to help people feel good about making music so they’ll want to do it more. Early on I made the decision to exclude any kind of direct negative feedback from the game. Now, people are still highly self-critical and sometimes they still manage to perceive negative feedback from the game if they don’t like the music they’re hearing. But the game itself never judges what they make or applies pressure to do better or go faster. It gives everyone space to go at their own pace. It turns failure into a self-imposed state. In watching people play, I’ve been surprised at how quickly and harshly they can judge themselves. I’m still trying to figure out the right shape of ramp-up/reward curve to keep the game fun and interesting to people who don’t think they’re musical. I haven’t solved this problem yet.
CG: Did you find that the abstract visuals hindered or assisted in getting players to understand the core systems, and how did that change how you tutorialized players?
SK: The abstract nature of the game has definitely been a huge barrier for many. A small percentage of players are immediately engaged and really proactive in figuring out what each of the visual elements are. Many more will begin and continue to play without fully understanding what’s happening.
The current tutorial introduces each part of the UI and controls one element at a time. I try to give the player plenty of space to learn about each new element as it’s presented. Players spend about 3-4 minutes just becoming comfortable with the UI , the three buttons, and the musical systems before they are introduced to the puzzle elements. Feedback has revealed that it’s an extremely dense tutorial and I could spread it out even longer. I’m working on a new approach that minimizes text and gives the player an entire song to just learn about one UI element at a time.
I’ve also been allowing myself to continue changing the UI in an attempt to make it more self-explanatory. I’d love players to understand the game just by looking at it, and I’m working in that direction.
There’s another thing I’m compelled to share: the abstract visual structure of the game is completely new. Players don’t have any kind of grounding in memories of past, similar systems to rely on when trying to understand the game. I’ve seen that some people’s brains just need a little extra time to process and understand what’s happening. At GDC, a handful of times I watched players come try the game and fail to understand it. They would leave, but they would come back the next day and immediately understand everything that’s going on. It’s almost as if they needed to sleep on it and let their subconscious process the first experience they’d had before they became able to read everything that’s going on. It’s fascinating from a psychological perspective. I have no idea how to use this to improve the game experience, though.
Rapid Failure Theory
Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy
The Half Asleep Moments
Game Designer in Detail
Owen Bell: Your talk at PRACTICE is going to be about awkwardness in design. It is a common theme throughout much of your work, particularly regarding queer identity. What makes designing awkwardness so interesting to you?
Deirdra Kiai: Many mainstream games are designed to make the player feel competent at surmounting challenges. They’re all about mastery and keeping the player in a flow state. Real life, particularly as experienced by those of us of marginalized groups, doesn’t necessarily work that way; we encounter a lot of resistance and bumps in the road even when we try to follow the rules and “play the game correctly”. Awkwardness is a part of life, and I want my work to be about life, and not just be a distraction from it, like a lot of games are. To meaningfully capture what it means to live and exist, a story must convey negative emotions as well as positive ones, and I think an interactive story should aim to express these emotions in play in addition to in text.
The challenge, of course, is that to many players and developers, deliberately awkward design can be indistinguishable from bad design, and many people do see games as pure escapism and will walk away as soon as a game is uncomfortable. This is a challenge that fascinates me, and I suspect that surmounting it will require a radical change in the way games are seen in society.
OB: How has your design process changed as you take the themes from your past work and translate them to Coffee’s multiplayer experience? What is different about asking the players to actually embody awkwardness in front of others rather than just observe it through a computer screen?
DK: In a single player screen-based game, every player experiences it similarly — I won’t say exactly the same way, but still relatively similarly — but in Coffee, there are several different ways to play. You can be a puppet, who performs as the character; you can be a driver, who selects decisions from a dialogue tree; you can be part of the band; or you can be in the audience, spectating. Being a puppet involves the most embodiment of awkwardness, since you have to act in front of an audience, unrehearsed — understandably, not everyone wants to play this role, particularly if they’re uncomfortable reading aloud in front of an audience. Fortunately, having other roles available allows for different levels of participation depending on individual comfort levels, and knowing one has a choice in the matter actually seems to increase said comfort levels.
OB: In your games and past talks, you have discussed your falling out with triple-A development. What impact has your past experience in the industry had on your work since then?
DK: Even before working in the industry, I knew AAA companies were a bad fit for me; I had read a number of horror stories about crunch time (the ea_spouse blog being a particular example), but also simply didn’t want to be relegated to doing the kind of inconsequential grunt work they usually have junior programmers do at big companies. So, I worked for smaller, independent studios that were more single-A than triple-A, hoping that would give me more creativity and flexibility while still granting me the security of a paycheck. The studios I worked for were full of people open to new ideas for interactive storytelling, and were all about exploring alternative means of game publishing, such as digital distribution and episodic content.
When the recession hit, there was this greater sense of conservatism that took hold, not just of the company where I was working, but also everywhere else in the industry. People didn’t want to innovate if it cost them sales, and my ideas were becoming less and less valued. At the same time, I got more and more into feminism and social justice, and became vocal and impatient with how slowly the world was changing. I wanted to work on things I was passionate about, and it became clear that I could not do so in a traditional industry job.
As a kid in school, I was always the one who liked to work alone on group projects, and that still persists today. It’s the only way I know to have complete creative freedom, and given that voices like mine have been silenced for so long, this is the best way I know to make mine heard. I can create stories that are as personal as I want them to be, because I have nothing to lose. I can work with much lower budgets than other games, because I only need to take care of my own expenses. I don’t have to make games the way a studio does, and it’s liberating. Sure, I have to hustle a lot more when it comes to funding and marketing, but these are struggles I’d rather deal with than the ones I faced in industry. And the reason I know that is because I did work in the industry, so I’d say it was a valuable experience overall.
Squinky discusses how to create awkwardness in games through looking at their own body of work and the expressive and uncomfortable feelings we can get out of game mechanics.
For Squinky’s talk, skip to 27:35
Salvatore Garozzo & Shawn Snelling
Game Designer in Detail
Allen Yu: As a map designer, do you usually create a map first, and then get the feedback from players?
Or is it the other way around? Do you design the map based on what the community seems to want?
Shawn & Sal: As a map designer, I create the map first but I make iterations on the map design through feedback and community playtesting throughout the design process. I have a unique perspective when it comes to level design for Counter-Strike since I have also been a professional player of the game for over a decade so a lot of that community input is directly baked into my work.
AY: Steam Workshop is very successful and has a very active community. With the collective intelligence of fans in the community, do you think level designers in game companies are getting less important? And, taking Counter Strike Go for example, what’s the difference between the work of level designers in a AAA company and in a fan community?
S&S: Most companies don’t have anything similar to Steam Workshop quite yet. Even with the Steam Workshop, the level designers at Valve still maintain the overall vision and direction of their game with the levels they choose to include in each map operation. Valve is also actively working on their own map projects as well.
One difference of work between level designers in AAA companies as opposed to a fan community is that the fan community can spend a ton of time on a project on every last detail with no pressure of when the map needs to be released. The fan community can also more easily playtest the map with their audience prior to release and incorporate feedback directly into the final product. There is also a massive amount of fan work being produced each day by so many talented people that there are bound to be some very successful maps.
AY: As the level designers who have created many classic maps, do you try to avoid using the same successful elements you utilized in the previous maps? Or do you think re-using successful elements from previous designs is the right way to create a successful map?
S&S: As level designers who have created many classic maps, we try to utilize successful techniques and elements from previous maps in our new works. However, any new map should bring something new to the table as well so that the maps are sufficiently different from each other. If the maps are too similar to one another, it won’t give players a compelling enough reason to play the new map.
Community Level Design in Counter Strike: Go
Game Designer in Detail
Pierre Depaz: In your opinion, what are the common features shared by musical improvisation and play?
David Kanaga: I think music improvisation is a kind of play, so any consistent features of ‘play’ generally are going to apply to music improvisation. Free movement.. chase games (canon), dialogues, meditations, singing, laughing, dancing in general is the main quality of music improv, i think, and its a very open and non-judgmental thing, or can be. But it’s also possible to have competitive/tactical/strategic improvisation, features of the more ‘gamey’ end of the spectrum, tending toward conflict rather than pure cooperation. You can imagine a rap battle, now scrap the verbal content, and its still a competitive form, now allow the rappers to make sounds simultaneously, and the combat is now ‘hands on’ (sound-on-sound) and approaching melee form (where the classic rap battle is turn-based). It is maybe like a fighting game? But one which can turn its head on a dime to become a ballet or whatever else it might like, scrapping competition, or amplifying it at will.. I think this points toward some more interesting questions, e.g. what are the common features of music improv and more massive playspaces, like political or financial process or geological process, or weather patterns, fluid dynamics and so on. The point of music broadly, I think, is to make connections, whether between tones or textures or senses or disparate materials or whatever, and to treat these as units or concepts and to ‘harmonize’ them. So, for instance, a conductor’s control of the orchestra harmonizes with the concept of a benevolent dictator or military commander, a totally undirected free improv group’s emergent dynamics harmonizes with the concept of an anarchic ‘state of nature’ of sorts, and even in conflict there are harmonies, poles of harmonic grounds (tonics and pseudo-tonics) tugging with and against one another, the play impulse existing somewhere in the latent potential being held by the tautness resulting from all this.
PD: I really appreciate your “Let’s Score” videos, providing alternative sound environments to existing games. How do you go about developing these projects? Do you have any particular inspirations/goals in mind when you start? Here are two examples that we will put on the website along with the interview. If you feel that there are other videos that might be relevant, please feel free to point it out!
Let’s Score Oregon vs. USC
(here’s another: Mario Galaxy Ballet )
These are improvised/composed in Ableton with the film footage (which can be loaded into ableton) as a kind of ‘score’ to perform along time to. The video is like the conductor, it provides the rhythmic information, but it doesn’t provide any strict info as to what tones to use, so i can select those myself, informed by the moods/intensities of the clip. I think about the movie as if it were the output of a computer game, but a movie feels much easier to score than a computer game, since it’s only one path rather than many. In computer games we have to make a general theory of how a soundtrack works in various possible and actual configurations. With the movie, it’s just ‘mickey-mousing’ its called, and we only have to ask– Where are the events, the points of contact, sudden motions, etc? What are the flows and gradual processes, and continuous movements, etc? all of these movements can be mapped to analogous movements in the play of musical parameters, which are either discrete or continuous, so i improvise an idea roughly, and then tidy it up to line up the events, to make it sound more realistic. And this whole process, since it’s fairly simple, can proceed with almost no thinking whatever, just letting the intuition guide the ‘decisions,’ and this is a good workout to get ready for computer games which require way too much thinking, to bring a competitor into that process, something vs. thought.
PD: Do you think there are only particular genres of games or particular aesthetics which can greatly benefit from great video game music, or is it something that should always be pushed to the maximum, independently of the particular game design?
DK: First, let me differentiate between two kinds of video game music– the first is the soundtrack, the second is as the ‘formal cause’ of the game’s structure in time, which can be considered a musical composition even prior to adding any sounds (like a ballet).
The soundtrack should not always be pushed to the maximum, only if you want to make a melodrama. All AAA games should probably max it out though, as they seem to want to be melodramas. All genres can benefit, provided they’re willing to become melodramatic. There Will Be Blood is a melodrama, too, a chilling one…. in case the word brings to mind only gushy musics.
Musical structure, on the other hand, is something I think just about any game will benefit from accentuating/embracing (pushing may cause prolapse). “Game Feel’ is a totally musical concept, it is the game trying to become a musical instrument (whether sonic or not). Even any non-instrumental numerical aspects of games have a musical side to them as well, and I think tuning into the feel of raw number not as an instrumental ‘end’, but as a connective tissue, this is also musical and is applicable to all games.
Finally, the two kinds of music can be woven together, which is the kind of work I am interested in doing, and I don’t suspect this is always a good idea, but I am fairly certain that it is always possible.
David Kanaga presents an alternative to game theory by looking at how video games derived from Formal Logic, and pulling from math, philosophy, and logic theorists.
For David’s talk, skip to 32:35