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May 2011

What I learned about writing games at GameCamp

Photo of Pac Man board gameWhat happens when you get a couple of hundred gamers and game creators in a room and ask them to dream up their own conference?

Last weekend the fourth GameCamp took place in London, a so-called unconference event where attendees were encouraged to set their own agenda on the day. Anyone could propose a talk by writing it on the whiteboard. Anyone else interested could join them in the same room at the proposed time. You might think that's a recipe for chaos, but there were enough people with good topic ideas, and plenty more willing to chip in during the discussions, to create a sparky and fun conference, fizzing with ideas.

The day included sessions dedicated to playtesting a board game created by an oil company to promote environmental awareness (which got a hearty laugh when announced), "lemon jousting" (a game where two players each balance a lemon on a wooden spoon while trying to knock their player's lemon off with another spoon), and several board games, including Pac Man (see my photo, above).

There were lots of ideas and discussions on the day, but here are some of the things I learned about games and game writing:

  • The story is important. Of course, I knew it was important to me, but the consensus seemed to be that good plotting and good characters are essential if the game experience is to ring true. One reason boss levels often seem artificial is that the boss is just landed on you, but if you can foreshadow it earlier in the game, the final confrontation makes sense in the context of the story.
  • People play for different reasons. For many people the story is the primary reason for playing, and they're less interested in exploring the whole game area than they are in just finding out what happens. Some people enjoy the achievement of completing games, others play for social reasons. Graham McAllister from Vertical Slice noted that when you're testing games you need to get people whose motivation to play matches the game design. He recommended Jesse Schell's book The Art of Game Design. People mark their own achievements in many games by which bits they've unlocked or completed, and don't even notice the score.
  • The characters matter. One developer said if he wanted strong characters, he'd read a good novel, but he does expect the characters in a game to be at least as good as a bad novel. Novelist Naomi Alderman ran a session on why game characters typically suck. She said she's often changed as a person by the experiences a game puts her through, so she doesn't understand how some characters can appear completely unchanged by their brutal actions. Someone suggested that a good game might change the choices you have in the game later: if you choose peace over violence repeatedly, the violent choices should drop away because they become increasingly inconsistent with the character. In Monkey Island 2, Guy wants to declare his love to Elaine and you can choose what he says. When he tries to say it, he flubs his lines. Whatever you want him to do, he can't do it, which is an amusing way to assert the character over the player's preferences. Don't set up game choices like "save the baby or eat the baby", because those two thoughts couldn't co-exist in a real person's brain and so shouldn't co-exist in a character's.
  • Respect that the player is emotionally involved. You can't know the emotional response a player has to some of the game's experiences (such as killing a Little Sister in Bioshock), so don't try to second-guess that by adding an ending that might not match the player's emotions.
  • One reason that games fail is that they don't teach you the skills you need in a memorable way. Think about the skills that people will need for each stage of your game, and make sure they're taught in a way that's authentic in the game so that it's memorable. Teaching all the controls in a tutorial at the start of the game means players are likely forget how to use any special powers they don't need until half-way through. Boss levels were seen by some as a good way to consolidate the skills and experience acquired up to that point, although others just found them frustrating.
  • Game shows are heavily edited. David Bodycombe, author of 'How to Devise a Game Show', writes puzzles for quiz shows and said that the crew would go off for dinner, leaving contestants to try to solve the puzzle challenge on the Krypton Factor until it reduced them to tears. The sequence would be edited down to two and a half minutes. On the Crystal Maze, the close-ups are shot by the crew the day after the contestants compete, so you might occasionally see a woman reach for the crystal with a big hairy man's hand. He said that while you can't protect game show ideas, you can write them out in sufficient length that the description becomes a literary work that is protected. If you're creating a skill or knowledge-based game, then make the difficulty self-adjusting. Rather than asking people to set their own expertise level, test them and tailor your challenges accordingly. Bodycombe said it's arrogant to assume that everyone is good or bad at a game, so it's better to see how they perform and adapt accordingly.
  • If you're creating a role-playing game, you can cut the creative work by using books that are out of copyright. Marcus Rowland said it's similar to writing fan fiction, which gives you an opportunity to 'play in someone else's sandbox'. He's created 11 Forgotten Futures role-playing games based on out-of-copyright works or with the consent of the author. He said there's no shortcut to finding good source material: he looks up works referenced by other sci-fi books he's reading to see if and when the author died. "Sometimes it's a happy surprise," he said, half-seriously. "You find the author died young and at the peak of their career." Copyright terms differ across countries, so make sure you use a UK server if you're going to publish games based on material that is public domain in the UK but might be under copyright control in other territories.
  • Game experiences don't necessarily have to be fun. There is satisfaction to be had in mastering a skill (which could be in-game), and some games tackle serious issues. Somebody gave the example of a web game where you have to help a low income family to survive and I've since come across the iHobo app which simulates a homeless person living in your iPhone, both of which help players to understand complex social issues.

Thanks to everyone who shared their ideas on the day. Because of the nature of the event, it isn't possible to credit everyone who contributed with the ideas above, so apologies if I've missed out any important credits. Contact me to let me know if so.

You can play my Javascript games here and if you're into retrogames, you can download my games for the Amstrad CPC here.

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