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Innovative Game Design Symposium

Monday, February 21, 2005

Last Friday, I attended the Innovative Game Design Symposium in Maastricht, The Netherlands. The symposium was organized by the Jan van Eyck Academy, The Faculty of Arts and Culture at the University of Maastricht and the Nederlands Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research). It was a tremendous experience. All speakers had something interesting to add to the overall theme and presented their work quite well. The involvement of the audience was admirable and the questions asked were of high quality.

It would be a shame if the knowledge exchanged at the symposium would not be shared amongst more people than the hundred or so attendents, so I'll write a series of articles on the event. I hope that my fellow independent game developers and everyone else who is interested in innovating game design will find these articles enjoyable and helpful.

In this article I will give a summary of the presentations that were held at the symposium and of the discussion that followed. In a second article, I'll focus on the lessons this symposium had to teach indie game developers. The third and final article will contain my personal view on innovating game design. The articles are self-contained, so you can read them in any order you like and you don't have to read all of them to understand the contents.

Subject of the symposium

As the title of the symposium suggests, the central question during the day was: how can we innovate the design of computer games? Three of the presentations dealt with narrative in one way or the other, so at times it seemed like the discussion was really about how to tell stories in a computer game. Fortunately, other speakers highlighted other ways to innovate games: social communities, the player as a producer of content, incorporating games into real world environments, physical participation, learning through games.

One of the best aspects about the symposium was the way the presentations complemented each other. Every presentation was interesting by itself, but the synergy between them allowed everyone present to put the given information into a broader perspective.

Chris Crawford - Bridging the two-cultures chasm

Erasmatazz web site

Chris kick-started the symposium by stating that computer games are a failure. If you look at early computer games of about twenty-five years ago, you'll see games where you can shoot each other, puzzle games, resource management games. If you look at computer games now, you see games where you can shoot each other, puzzle games, resource management games. Aside from some technological advancements, mainly resulting in prettier graphics, nothing has changed.

The problem is that computer games are designed by technical people. Technical people might be good at thinking logically, but they have no clue how to think in terms of art. Artists on the other hand, can't think logically. They don't understand the algorithm, which is the artistic unit of a computer and without which you can't express yourself in that medium. Interactive entertainment needs both kinds of people.

The artists and the technological people need to learn to communicate with each other, and they need to understand their role in game development. Programmers should not be involved in the creative process of creating interactive entertainment. They should provide the tools the artists need to express themselves. This doesn't mean that the programmers should become the slaves of the artists. Instead, both kinds of people should strive to understand the other. Only then can every person contribute his or her expertise to the project in the best possible way.

What we need are people who can understand both art and algorithms. These people are a rare breed, but each person involved in developing games needs to straddle the two-cultures chasm. If you're a programmer who wants to design games, you need to learn how to appreciate art. You need to be able to form your own opinion on a piece of art. If you're an artist, you need to learn how to program in a real language, like Java, C++, BASIC, because you need to understand the algorithm. You must understand the way the medium works.

Chris observed that the cultural chasm might by smaller in Europe than it is in the United States. One of the reasons could be that in Europe, you're surrounded by art history, making art better accepted among all people. Use this advantage! Don't try to compete with the Americans on their strong, technological side.

During the questions after the presentation Chris introduced the concept of verbs in games, which would become the most talked about concept of the symposium. You can assess a computer program by the number of verbs it offers you. A shooter allows you only a handful of verbs: go left, go right, go forward, go backward and shoot. The modern-day shooters might add something like jump to that, but they are still pretty limited.

If we want to enable the player to express him- or herself meaningfully, we need hundreds, maybe thousands of verbs. Take a novel and count the number of verbs used. We need just as many verbs for storytelling in interactive entertainment.

Michaël Samyn & Aureia Harvey - In spite of wishing and wanting: Developing a game inside and outside the game industry

Tale Of Tales web site

Michaël and Aureia where pretty successful as designers of multimedia web sites when they decided that they wanted to create a computer game. Although they had no previous experience with game design, they were convinced they could pull it of. They set out to create a game unlike any other that exists today. All went well, until they met the games industry. This is their story, and it is not a happy one.

Modern-day games are mostly violent and shallow, nothing like the games Michaël and Aureia would like to play. They like characters, look and sound, playing with things. So they came up with a game called 8: non-violent, filled with narrative without a strong focus on gameplay and full of exploration and surprise.

8 tells the story of a little girl trapped in a castle where everyone is asleep. It is based on folk tales with stories about sleeping princesses and sleeping castles, like Sleeping Beauty. There is no spoken or written language in 8 and the story, though present, is not of the usual linear kind.

While the work on 8 was progressing, Michaël and Aureia had to become familiar with the gaming scene in order to find funding for their project and someone who could publish the game when it was finished. So, they went to the GDCE where they met other game makers.

They found out that game makers are annoying people with serious problems communicating. It seems like all they can do is whine. Game makers are a negative bunch, who talk about problems that seem mundane and that Michaël and Aureia had already solved. Michaël and Aureia are way ahead of the game makers.

At EGN, Michaël and Aureia talked to a lot of publishers. They learned that publishers like to think in existing game genres. At GDCE they were told that 8 belongs in the genre of the adventure games. Even though 8 doesn't really fit in that genre entirely, the publishers of adventure games at EGN were really enthousiastic. When the conference was over, however, the enthousiasm waned. The publishers never called back and when Michaël and Aureia tried to call them, they were out to lunch, in a meeting, out of town.

What Michaël and Aureia discovered, was that all the horror stories about publishers in the game industry are basicly true; the good publishers are the ones that say 'no'. There is a mismatch between game publishers and game makers: game publishers think game makers care about economics, game makers think game publishers care about games.

However, there is a market for innovative games. There are also people who want to make them. What we need is serious research on innovation in game design, but the game industry is not the place where this is going to happen.

Celia Pearce - Playing ethnography: CyberEthnography as performance and game

Celia Pearce's web site

In February 2004 the Myst-based MMOG (massively multi-player online game) Uru Live closed down because of insufficient subscriptions, leaving hundreds of players in a void. A group of more than 300 former Uru players decides to create a new home for themselves in the virtual world. They move their community to other virtual environments, carrying over their culture and identity from the Uru-game. As part of her research on understanding the social aspect of MMOGs, Celia studied this group of people by creating an avatar for herself and entering their world.

The players in the group welcomed Celia in their midst and were open to her research. They were helpful and happy to talk to her. At first, Celia kept a bit of distance to the group, talking with them for her research without actually becoming a member of their society. In time, the group encouraged her to participate more as a regular member. By taking their advice, Celia discovered that you have to be active in the community in order to really understand it.

Most of these former Uru players are fifty years of age or older and have been playing Myst for over ten years. Uru Live had been their first online game. They feel that their shared values is what creates such a strong bond between them. When Celia asked what those values were, she noticed that the answers given were remarkably similar: the players are not competative, they're puzzle solvers and they like to help new-comers. In addition to the stated values, Celia also noted that the players are all prolific builders.

The strong bonding of the Uru group shows an aspect of game design that is often overlooked. Most creators of MMOGs don't have a proper grasp of the social aspect of their game; they don't really understand why a community does or does not work. How did Uru create such a bonded group? Celia's research project is still in progress. Hopefully, here findings will lead to a better understanding of the social aspect of online games.

Ian Bogost - At this very moment: Representations of events in video games

Water Cooler Games web site

Ian addressed the problem of how to represent a certain event in a computer game. This can be either an historic event or a fictional event, but it is a specific, singular happening with a final outcome. The purpose of such a game is to engage the event, to explore it in a way that goes beyond mere examination of the facts.

Traditionally, games don't engage events very well. A game like Civilization provides a system in which to re-enact a history, but that history has nothing to do with the history as we know it. It might borrow some references from it, but it doesn't deal with a specific event. The game Medal of Honor does have a single event at its basis, but it uses it as a general story without paying much attention to the event per se. The game JFK Reloaded let's the player take a shot at president Kennedy, trying to re-enact that specific historic event. JFK Reloaded engages the event of the assassination of president Kennedy, but only from the point of view of ballistics. That doesn't provide a very interesting message.

If a game wants to engage an event, it must create a rupture in the situation and help constitute the subject matter. This means that the game designer needs to think about the relation of the player to the game. The designer should not just put the real world into a game, but he should take a personal stand.

Henk van Zeijts & Aske Hopman - Creative Learning

Waag Society web site

Henk and Aske presented their project Frequency 1550, in which twelve year old school children learned about the history of Amsterdam. When the children arive at the Waag Society, they are told that experiments with GPS frequencies have led to a strange event: using frequency 1550 they got in contact with somebody from the year 1550. The story that follows has the children complete different tasks throughout modern day Amsterdam that are related to events in Amsterdam of 1550.

The children use a video phone to play the game. The phone shows their assignments and gives them access to a map of Amsterdam of 1550. Using GPS, the childrens' location is indicated on this medieval map. This way the children can see the changes and similarities between Amsterdam in two different time periods.

When you create games of this kind, you need to look beyond the virtual world and include the entire context into your game. This way, the digital media become tools in a much larger environment. Using the real world as the backdrop for your game allows you to give the player a more active role. Of course, you don't have complete control over the real world, so you should rely on strengthening the imagination of the player and using the player's own fantasy to create an engaging world. This can be much more powerful than just prettier graphics.

Marnix de Nijs - Physical engagement in the virtual representation of a city

Marnix de Nijs' web site

During his presentation Marnix gave us a behind-the-scenes look of his artistic piece Run Motherfucker Run. He invites people to participate physically in his art. In the case of Run Motherfucker Run the player stands on a big treadmill. In front of the player, a big screen shows scenes from the city of Rotterdam. By running on the treadmill, the player runs through the presented scene. From time to time the scene changes. Getting to the next scene is part of the motivation to keep running.

Marnix constructed the treadmill in such a way that it always keeps you in the middle. The effect is that the harder you run, the more you have the feeling that you need to accelerate in order to move forward. This has led quite a few people to overexert themselves, resulting in them being flung off the treadmill.


After all the presentations were done, the speakers sat around together to answer questions from the audience. Many insightful questions led to interesting discussions and the speakers took the trouble of complementing and contradicting each other. All the points of view given in the presentations got together in this discussion, making the whole symposium worth a lot more than the sum of its parts.

In response to a question from the audience, Chris said that there is no such thing as an interactive story. It's just not possible to take an exisiting story and make it interactive. There is such a thing as interactive storytelling, though. The difference is that storytelling is a proces where you create a story world for the player to interact with. It's harder to create than a linear story, because it requires a higher level of abstraction.

Celia said that we shouldn't look at traditional stories, like the ones we know from books and movies, if we want to design games. Something like improvisational theatre forms a much better point of reference . Think of the player as a producer in the game world instead of as a consumer of the game world. Aureia added that as a designer we put things in the world to create an atmosphere and to make you curious. The experience itself should be non-linear. Celia calls this spatial storytelling. You use the environment to tell the story, instead of words. Learning from the discipline of architecture could be valuable in this respect.

There was a strong emphasis on narrative throughout the symposium. Michaël pointed out that narrative just happened to be a common interest among some of the speakers, but that doesn't mean it's the only place innovation can come from. Other forms of innovations were shown during the symposium by Celia (social interaction), Henk and Aske (using a real world setting) and Marnix (physical engagement).

It's not easy for a designer to take a player's motivation for playing a game into account, because, as Michaël said, motivation is different for everybody. Aureia said that you try to pull people in, like Marnix does, but you don't know for sure how it's going to work out. Storytelling itself is probably motivation enough, according to Chris. If you look at the forms of entertainment that are based on storytelling - books, movies, theatre - then you see that storytelling is big. Storytelling could very well be the largest entertainment industry.

Chris measures the freedom a player has to express himself in a computer game in terms of the number of verbs the game offers the player. Freedom means that the player is able to do whatever he wants. If you have five verbs, you can only do five things. We need thousands of verbs if we want to give the player real power to express himself.

A member of the audience pointed out that poetry often uses very few verbs. Aureia added that by getting rid of spoken and written words entirely, like she and Michaël had done in 8, you get down to the poetic essence of a story. Michaël said that the power of simplicity in poetry is to invoke things that aren't there.

Chris responded that poetry was actually the worst possible metaphor. Poets always expend the vocabulary. They achieve low word count by stretching the meaning of words as far as they can. Poets constantly invent new words to be able to express themselves. Denying the player verbs does not give them more freedom.

Not everybody was convinced that we need so many verbs. Ian said that it isn't enough to just add verbs, the verbs need to be meaningful. The medium allows a lot of possibilities and if we can find four new verbs then that might be enough. Celia brought up the point that much traditional games, like chess, don't allow for many verbs, but what happens between the verbs is of great importance. Players tend to put a game within a context of their own and use their imagination to fill in what the game itself doesn't directly provide. This is what makes a game worthwhile to the individual player.

Celia also pointed out that what you can't do in a game is sometimes just as interesting as what you can do. You need to strike a balance. Michaël added that some verbs just don't fit your game. In that case, opting for just a few verbs might be preferable. There is beauty in minimalism.

In conclusion

The symposium was a huge success and I learned a lot. I'd like to thank everybody at he Jan van Eyck Acadamy who helped organize the symposium. You've done a great job. I also like the thank all to speakers for taking the trouble to come all the way to Maastricht to share their views.

Although my summary cannot do justice to the wealth of inspiration given by the speakers at the symposium, I hope that it gives you food for thought and helps you to find a direction when you look for your own way to innovate computer games.

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Annemie Moesen says:

Thank you very much for the compliment. I helped organize the symposium and to me it was also a tremendous experience. I would like to add that you did a very nice job summarizing the lectures and panel discussion. Annemie

Tuesday, February 22, 2005 11:48 AM

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