Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 2.1: Think of a Game #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of previous exercises.

This week’s exercise: describe a game as if your audience is someone who hasn’t played anything like it before, then do the same with a completely different game. Compare the descriptions.

Chapter 2 is all about the structure of games, and this exercise is meant to get you thinking about what makes a game a game.

Rune Factory and Iota

Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon

I’m playing Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon these days for the Nintendo DS, and since it is so fresh in my mind, I’ll describe it first. It’s a complex game, so brace yourself.

You play the role of a young man who can’t remember who he is or where he comes from, and after stumbling across a woman’s house, she puts you to work tending the farm in return for letting you stay on the land. After fighting a monster off, there’s a hint that perhaps you were a soldier, but for now, you’ll plow the land, plant and water seeds, and clear out weeds and rocks to make room for it all.


Time matters. Each day begins at 6AM, and every 10 real life seconds you are playing, 10 minutes passes in the game. You can’t stay up 24 hours or you’ll collapse, so at some point you need to go to bed. There is a calendar system that is a bit unique: each week is five workdays and one holiday long, each season is five weeks long. The seasons dictate what crops can be grown on the farm. For instance, strawberries are a spring crop, and so they can only be grown during the spring season.

Time only passes when outside or in a cave. If you are inside a building, such as your house or a shop, time stands still, which means you can explore the indoors to your heart’s content. It makes exploring the library very unrealistic. B-)

Your Home
On your farm, you have a house, which is where you sleep and save your game. I’ll describe more about the house later.

Near your house is the shipping bin, which is where you can place harvested crops, fish, or any number of items in order to sell them. On non-holidays, you can expect Rosetta, one of the people from town, to pick up everything, and you’ll get paid the next day.

Near the shipping bin is your well, which allows you to refill your watering can. You can also fill your watering can at the nearby stream, which also allows you to fish if you have a fishing pole.

At the southwestern part of your land, there is a woodshed, which is where you store any chopped wood. You can collect wood to build fences on your fields, or you can save it to expand your house or build monster huts. The monster huts will be built to the east of your house in an area north of your field.

Your field is a large area of land that you’ll use to grow crops. Weeds and branches will appear in untilled areas, and there are large tree stumps and boulders. Some large rocks can be moved, but you’ll need upgraded tools to get rid of the rest to clear the way to maximize the size of your farm.

Farming and Fishing

The land is separated into tiles. You’ll use a hoe to till a tile in your field. It’s suggested you till a 3×3 area, then stand in the middle to plant seeds in all 9 tiles at once. Then, using your watering can, you can water each tile.

Each day you need to water your fields where you planted the seeds until they are mature crops you can harvest. If it is raining, you don’t need to water them. If your plants don’t get water, they stop growing.

It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to mature depending on the type of seed. After they are fully grown, the crops can be picked and placed in your pack, or you can carry them over to the shipping bin.

Seeds can only be planted on your farm during certain seasons. They won’t grow if planted in the wrong season, and you won’t be able to harvest your crops if you enter a new season in the middle of growing the previous season’s plants.

There are caves in the world around your farm, and each one has a different permanent climate. That is, even if it is winter, you can grow summer crops in a cave with a summer climate. The trick, of course, is that you need to water those crops, which takes time.

When you have a fishing pole, you can fish anywhere there is a body of water. The stream near your house is one example, but there is the end of the dock on the beach, or even the water near the ruins.

There is a variety of fish you can catch. Some are more valuable than others, and they come in different sizes which also impacts the amount you can sell them for. Don’t be surprised to find the odd boot mixed in with your prize-winning sardines.

To the north of the farm is the village of Kardia You can find most of the people there. Everyone has their own simulated life. Some people show up in town only on holidays. Stores are open only during certain hours, and people will arrive or leave areas depending on where they work or who they might be talking to.

The village has three streets featuring the shops and homes of the residents. The southern street has:

  • Library
  • Clinic
  • Parts Shop
  • Pub Spring Rabbit
  • Inn
  • Blacksmith

The middle street has:

  • Hot Springs
  • Neumann’s Farm
  • Camus’ Farm
  • Kardia Chapel

The northern street has:

  • Mayor Godwin’s Manor
  • Jasper’s Manor

To the east of the village is the beach, which features the Spearfish Shack, a dock to fish off of, and a giant shell which can be used to transfer screenshots and items to another player’s game using the Nintendo DS WiFi capability.

Each of the buildings has their own hours, which means if you try to go shopping too early or too late, you’ll be out of luck.

To the north of the village is the Town Square, which is where festivals are held.

In a house to the south of your farm is where the young woman who found you lives.


There are 28 people who you can talk to, trade with, and give items to. 10 of them are potential love interests and brides for your character.

There is a Friendliness menu in the game which allows you to see the status of your relationships. You can see how your neighbors like you, as well as how your wooing of potential brides is going.

You can increase the friendliness levels by talking to people and giving them gifts. People have preferences, so giving them gifts they don’t care about has a similar effect as in real life.

Once your love interest cares enough, and if you’ve upgraded your house and bought the right furniture, you’re ready to settle down. In order to propose to her, you have to meet some criteria. Each woman has a different set of criteria you must meet, such as how many monsters you have on your farm or giving a specific gift.

When married, your wife will provide you food each morning to start your day, which you can treat as a snack to replenish your health and stamina after a hard day’s work, or you can sell it.

If you are married long enough, you’ll have a child. As far as I know, the child has no in-game purpose other than to mark the amount of time you’ve spent married.

Health and Stamina
You have two resources: health and rune points. Rune points, or RP, act as your stamina.

Every action you take uses up RP, and when you run out, your health starts to deteriorate.

If you run out of HP in your field, you’ll collapse and wake up in bed the next day, losing a good part of your morning.

If, however, you run out of HP in a cave, the game is over.

You can restore RP and HP by sleeping for the night, by relaxing in a hot spring bath in town, or eating food. RP can be replenished by picking up runes that appear after a crop is harvested, and HP can be restored with potions or medicine.

Tools and Items

Early on, you’ll receive a hoe, a watering can, and some seeds from Mist, the young woman who allowed you to stay on her farm. By talking to people and meeting certain criteria, you can gain access to other tools, such as the ax, fishing rod, and the sickle. Each tool allows you to perform a specific task. An ax lets you cut down the branches you find on your field, which converts to wood in your woodshed, while the Friendship Glove allows you to befriend monsters you find in caves.

There is a wide range of items in the game. Some aren’t very useful, such as the stones and weeds you find in your field. Crops, herbs, fish, and eggs are examples of basic items, and if you have the right machinery or tools, you can turn them into more advanced items. For example, if you have a cookbook and a kitchen, you can turn a fish into sushi, which is more valuable and can be sold or eaten for greater benefit.

You can give items to people, although most of the time you’ll sell items for profit. You can sell items by putting them in your shipping bin on your farm or by talking to shop owners in the village.


You won’t be allowed to enter the caves until you’ve gotten a pass from the mayor, who requires you to have tilled a number of tiles on your field first.

The caves have monsters and monster generators. You’ll be able to fight them with your tools such as the hoe or ax, but you’ll probably want weapons such as swords and spears. You can also defend yourself with shields.

Fighting happens in real time. Monsters will attack you, and you can either attack back or use the Friendship Glove to try to pet them until they like you. Befriended monsters teleport to your farm if you have a hut for them to live in, and depending on the type of monster, they can work your fields, allow you to harvest items from them, or help you fight in the caves.

You’ll learn magic to teleport yourself to safety, to heal yourself, and to attack monsters. Your monsters may use magic to fight for you as well. Magic costs rune points, even if your monsters are the ones casting the spells.

Caves also have fields, and since their climate is so stable, you can plant crops you normally couldn’t at any time of the year.

You can also use a hammer against certain rocks to collect ore, which allows you to upgrade your tools and weapons.


There are a lot more details to explain, but I think this post is getting long enough. Let’s move on, and to a smaller and quicker to describe game, please.


Iota by Gamewright, “the great big game in the teeny-weeny tin,” is a card game for 2 to 4 players. The objective of the game is to score the most points by adding cards in lines connected to a grid.

A line is defined as 2, 3, or 4 cards in a straight row or column. There are specific rules for how such cards can be placed in lines.

There are 66 square cards. 64 cards have three properties:

  • color
  • shape
  • number

Each of these cards are unique. Two cards are wild and can substitute for any other card.


Each player is dealt four cards which can be looked at but should be kept a secret from other players. The other cards are stacked face-down to create a draw pile.

One card from the draw pile is placed face up in the center to act as the start of the grid.


Each player takes turns and can either:

  • add cards in a single line, then record your score
  • pass

When passing, a player may discard any number of cards to the bottom of the draw pile.

At the end of your turn, you replenish your hand back to four cards.

Game Over

The game ends when the draw pile is empty and a player has played his or her last card, which gives double points for that turn.

The player with the highest score wins.

Adding Cards and Scoring

When adding cards to a line, there are certain rules to follow:

  • Cards must be added in a straight line. You can’t place cards anywhere you choose, and you can’t make right angles.
  • Added cards must connect to the grid.
  • In each line, all cards must either be the same or different in each property. You can’t have a 3-card line with two circles and a triangle because the shapes must be all different or all the same, for example, but you can have a 3-card line with three circles so long as the colors and/or numbers are different.
  • Creating a 4-card line forms a lot, which doubles your score for the turn.
  • Lines can only be four cards long.

After you place your cards, you add up the numbers on the face of all of the cards in the lines you either created or extended, counting cards twice if they are part of two lines.

Then double the points earned for each lot created.

If you used all four of your cards, double your points again.

Wild Cards

The wild cards can be used in place of any other card and are worth 0 points.

Before your turn, you can replace a played wild card with a card from your hand that matches. That is, if the wild card is part of a line of three green circles and is acting as a green circle with a value of 4, you would need a green circle with a value of 4 to replace it.

You can then play it on any turn.

Wild cards that are part of two lines must represent the same value on both lines.

Comparing Rune Factory and Iota

One is an involved story-based, single-player, farming simulation and role-playing game. The other is a family-friendly card game that can be played in about half an hour.

There are clearly a lot of differences, but what similarities are there?

While it wasn’t called out above, Rune Factory does have a setup. The player is initially told that his or her character is a young man with amnesia. He is given his first tools and an explanation of how to work the field. Combat ensues immediately to introduce the concept of monsters. Afterwards, the real game starts.

They both have rules. Iota says how cards can be placed, how scores can be tallied, and what can’t be done.

In Rune Factory, the rules are more complex and are enforced by the programming of the game. How time passes, and how various events occur based on the time, are just some of the interlocking rules.

They each have dynamics that occur as a result of playing. If you can’t place more than four cards in a line in Iota, and if you can’t place certain cards together in a line, then sometimes gaps will occur in the grid that cannot be filled. Sometimes a player will place a card on a line that prevents another player from placing his or hers.

In Rune Factory, seeds get planted in a 3×3 grid. If you till a 3×3 grid, all will get seeds, but if you till only part of it, either due to weeds or rocks being in the way or some other reason, then you are wasting some of the potential return on the cost of seeds. If radish seeds cost 200 gold, and you can sell each harvested radish for 60 gold, then you need to sell at least four radishes to make back your investment. If you can’t, you lose money, which prevents you from purchasing other supplies.

Each has a designed look and feel to it. Iota is colorful, and the cards are of a certain quality. The cards are all you need to play, which allows you to focus on them as the main elements. Rune Factory has a lot of music, sound effects, story, illustrated graphics and animations, and more to immerse the player in the game.

Iota has a very clear ending with a victor, but what about Rune Factory? Can you win it? While Rune Factory lets you play forever, the storyline can be completed.

Exercise Complete

I am sure I can compare them in many other ways, and chapter 2 does go into the structure of games for quite a bit, but we’ll consider this exercise finished. I already found enough accidental spoilers for Rune Factory during my research, and this post is way too long now.

If you participated in exercise 2.1 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, we’ll compare how players start games of two seemingly different games.

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.5: Childhood Games #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

In the four previous exercises, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game, I critically analyzed a game that was “dead on arrival”, I listed and described areas of my life that could be games, and I kept a game journal.

This week, the exercise is to list 10 games you played as a child and briefly describe what made each game compelling.

Your childhood memories might provide inspiration for new game designs today. Children imagine and create games all the time.

Game lines

Freeze Tag

Tag is a very common game for children to play, but my favorite variation was freeze tag.

In regular tag, the player who is “It” tries to touch another player, transferring “It” to that player. Sometimes the “no tag-backs” rule was applied, giving the original “It” immunity until the next player is tagged. The game never ended, as there was always a new “It” and people to chase.

In freeze tag, however, the goal is for “It” to freeze all of the other players. A tagged player was frozen and had to stand in place until unfrozen by another player, usually just by touching the frozen player’s hand.

While regular tag is “every man for himself”, freeze tag encouraged everyone who wasn’t “It” to work together. The more unfrozen players running around, the less likely “It” will win. Of course, the more frozen players around, the easier it is for a player to unfreeze them. “It” had a lot of work to do, but I enjoyed the tactics that freezing and unfreezing players allowed for.

Pirate Ship

In a box of Cap’n Crunch, I once found a map.

A treasure map.

I brought it to school, and during recess, I recall holding the map out in front of me while a train of children followed behind, all of us teetering and rolling as if on a ship in search of wealth beyond our wildest dreams.

I don’t remember much to the game. We made it up as we went. We pointed out hazards on the horizon, and we searched for land. We pretended to dig on islands based on where X was on the map.

At one point we excitedly found gold. When we presented our amazing find to the teacher, she looked unamused and said flatly, “That’s not gold. That’s broken glass.”

Well, she was no fun.

Red Light Green Light

Apparently this game is called “Statues” in some places, but the idea is that one person stands across the room or field. When he or she turns around and yells “Green light!”, everyone else tries to move all the way to the other side. Every so often, the one person turns back and yells, “Red light!” and everyone must stop moving. Anyone caught moving during this time is out. Play continues until either someone makes it across or everyone is out.

I liked how it simultaneously encouraged caution and haste. If you sprinted, it’s harder to stop moving when “Red light!” is called out. If you inched forward, you’d likely never get to the other side before the other players.

And if you were “It” and calling out the light colors, it’s hard not to call red immediately after green when the nearest player is mere feet away from you. The game gets very intense, very quickly.


Kickball is like baseball, only you get a giant rubber ball. Pitching it was like bowling, and batting was like soccer.

You didn’t need to be able to throw a small baseball well or swing a bat with accuracy. It was easy for almost everyone to play.

Plus, we had the added rule that allowed you to throw the ball at someone to tag them out, so we also incorporated dodgeball into it. Of course, missing the player meant that the ball needed to be collected and thrown, allowing the runner to advance to another base more easily, so there were some exciting plays involving good dodges.


Speaking of dodgeball, I never understood why this game had such a bad rap in popular culture. I loved it.

We played a number of variations during gym class. One was similar to freeze tag in that players who were hit by the ball would have to sit down, and in order to reenter play, the player designated as “Doctor” would need to come out from the safe area known as the “Hospital” and bring the sitting player back.

However, no one can heal the doctor, who can be hit by the ball as any other player once out of the hospital area. Losing the doctor was a huge blow to the team, and it wasn’t unheard of for players to sacrifice themselves to protect such a critical resource.

Another variation had a different resource to protect: a tennis ball sitting on top of a cone. Normal dodgeball rules applied, but if your team’s tennis ball fell off the cone, your team automatically lost. Sometimes during an intense game it wouldn’t be noticed that a ball was rolled slowly towards your cone. You had to keep your eyes open.

What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?

This game was very similar to Red Light, Green Light. One person was the Fox at the front of the room, and the rest of the players were the Hens, or something like that. The hens would ask, “Mr. Fox, Mr. Fox, what time is it?” and the fox would respond with an hour, such as, “It’s 5 o’clock” or “It’s 3 o’clock.”

The hens would then take that many steps towards the fox. If it was 3 o’clock, you could take 3 steps forward.

The goal was…you know what? I don’t think we ever found out. Looking online, the goal was to cross past the fox’s location, but no self-respecting fox ever let that happen.

Because one of the responses was “It’s midnight!” and at that time, the fox could chase the hens back to their starting area. If someone is caught, then that person becomes the fox.

We had a variation we would play occasionally in which the fox converted hens to his/her side. That is, if a hen was caught, now you had two foxes to contend with at midnight, and the goal of the foxes was to convert all of the hens to foxes.

Initially the times called out allowed hens to walk nine, 10, or 11 steps, but once hens got closer to the fox, the game inched along with single steps, and everyone anticipated midnight to come at any moment.

Wall Ball

While I’m sure there were official rules to wall ball somewhere, I remember taking a small rubber ball and hitting it down into the ground towards a wall. When the ball bounced back from the wall, it was someone else’s turn to hit it. It had to bounce on the ground once before hitting the wall, and if you let it bounce before you hit it back or if your hit results in anything other than one bounce before it hits the wall, you were out. I recall getting punished by getting pelted with the ball, but I don’t remember how it was determined who did the pelting.

The rhythm of the game needed to remain unbroken: bounce, rebound, hit, repeat. You could hear it when someone messed up.

This game was a bit fuzzy in terms of who exactly was responsible for hitting the ball if you had more than two players. There were a number of times in which fingers were pointed and the debates about who was closest raged.

But the game was fast-paced, and every so often someone would make a hit that required players to scramble and dive to avoid going out.


My sister and cousins would play this made-up game of ours. In my parents’ basement in the evenings, there weren’t many windows, so if you turned off the lights, it could be very, very dark. So we basically played a game of hide-and-seek which started by turning off the lights.

Not only did people have to find a place to hide in the dark, but once the seeker finished counting, he or she had to navigate around all manner of things being stored in the basement, such as exercise equipment or laundry baskets, and try to find the other players.

What was amazing about this game was that it gave you a much larger useful play area in the same space. Why? You could hide in a place that would otherwise be incredibly obvious if the the lights were on and the seeker could see. Standing flat against the wall or even in the middle of the room were surprisingly effective.

My favorite hiding spot? Jumping up and grabbing onto the metal I-beam that crossed the ceiling, then pulling my legs up to it. So long as I didn’t breathe too loudly from the strain of hanging up there and the seeker didn’t raise his or her hands up when walking past, I couldn’t be found.

At least until the lights turned on and everyone saw me. Then the I-beam was checked regularly.

Kings vs Queens

I don’t know if this game had a different name anywhere else in the world, but we played it in gym class in elementary school.

Everyone sat on the floor in rows, which created corridors for the players to walk down. One boy and one girl each would get a bean bag to place on their heads, and they would stand at opposite corners. The gym teacher would periodically call out, “King chases Queen!” or “Queen chases King!”, and then it was like tag in which It was whoever was doing the chasing.

The trick was that if the bean bag fell off your head, you lost, and you couldn’t use your hands to keep it on. As a result, it wasn’t an incredibly fast-paced game, and as bean bags started to slip, kings and queens started walking with their heads tilted at bizarre angles.

Sometimes the gym teacher would switch who was doing the chasing right before someone was about to be caught. I noticed it seemed to happen more often whenever a girl was about to lose, or maybe I’m remembering it wrong. When a king was closing the gap, and then suddenly had to reverse course to run away from the queen, you can feel the energy in the room as everyone started cheering or jeering.

My favorite variation got the rest of the class involved. Everyone would sit in a grid with their arms out to their sides. Not only would the kings and queens change roles as chaser and chasee, but the grid would periodically switch corridors so that instead of only being able to walk through rows, you had to walk through columns instead. If queen was chasing king, and the king was safely in the next row, and the signal was given to switch from rows to columns, the king might find he is suddenly much closer to danger.

Between worrying about role changes, chasing and evading, and balancing bean bags, it was probably the most intricate game we played as children.

Heads Up Seven Up

In this game, seven players would be at the front of the classroom. Everyone else would put their heads down on their desks with a hand outstretched and a thumb sticking in the air. The seven standing players would each pick one sitting participant, pushing down the thumb to indicate that the choice has been made, and return to the front. Then “Heads up, seven up!” would be called out, and the people who had their thumbs pressed would stand. Each would then attempt to guess which of the players picked him or her. If you guessed wrong, you sat back down. If you guessed correctly, you replaced him or her at the front.

I think this was one of the first games that had us thinking about social dynamics. Was it the person you never talk to? Was it a girl or a boy? Did your best friend pick you? Did your best friend purposefully NOT pick you because you would expect that he did? Or, knowing you know that he knows that you know, he picked you?

Ostensibly, you had a one in seven chance of being right, but depending on who was up there, you had a sense that you being chosen wasn’t random, that there was some calculation involved, and so if you could reverse engineer the decision-making process, perhaps you easily identify the person who chose you and beat the odds.

Exercise Complete

Searching online, I learned that some of the games we played were unique variants, or at least not documented anywhere that I could easily find. I guess it shows how creative children can be, which is obvious to anyone who was ever given a child a giant box.

If you participated in exercise 1.5 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’m moving on to Chapter 2 and will attempt to describe two games in detail as if you haven’t heard of them before.

(Photo: Game Lines by Boris Anthony | CC-BY-2.0)

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.4: Game Journal #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

So far, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game, I critically analyzed a game that was “dead on arrival”, and last week I listed and described areas of my life that could be games. For this week’s exercise, I had some homework to do: keep a game journal.

This exercise comes from a section about becoming a better player. Fullerton argues that, much as an artist learns about drawing by learning about what makes for a good visual composition, a game designer learns about games by learning what makes for good game play.

In keeping a game journal, I’ll have a log of games I have played, as well as a deep analysis of specific experiences and how the mechanics of the game allowed for them.

One challenge I had with this experience is that I found I didn’t have anything to log each day. I don’t play games often enough, it seems, and I’m always surprised to read about indie game developers with day jobs who make time to not only play games but finish them. How are they not struggling with the choice of playing games as opposed to making them?

But I’m not completely isolated from games.

4-Point Pitch

This past weekend I went to visit my wife’s grandmother, who is a really good 4-Point Pitch player. Pitch is a trick-taking card game, and it turns out that there are many variations. I can’t seem to find the specific variation my in-laws play, so I’ll try to describe it here. The game is played with a standard 52-card deck with the 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s removed. There are a few variations depending on how many players you have. We played with four players, which means we split into two teams of a pair of partners. My wife was on my team, and my sister-in-law played on her grandmother’s team.

The goal of a round of pitch is to win your bid. Bids aren’t based on the number of tricks, but on four criteria: High, Low, Jack, and Game. High is when you win the highest card in the trump suit. Low is for playing the lowest, which means you can still get it even if you don’t win it in a trick. Jack is winning the Jack of of the trump suit. Game is for ending the round with more points from the tricks you took, and points are assigned as follows:

  • A: 4
  • K: 3
  • Q: 2
  • J: 1
  • 10: 10

No other cards count towards game.

For a given round, there are up to four points your team can earn; however, since there are six cards in a hand, with four players, it means only 24 cards are dealt, leaving 12 cards no one knows aren’t in play. While there will always be a highest, lowest, and most points taken in a trick, there might not always be a jack in the trump suit dealt. Bidding four is a rare enough occurrence in a six-player version of the game in which all of the cards are dealt, but it almost never happens in the four-player variant.

Typically, a safe bid is made when your hand has enough cards in one suit that guarantee you’ll win. For instance, having the Ace and 2 of hearts, you know you’ll have High and Low, so you might bid two.

If you have the Jack and 10 of spades, however, you might not want to bid. Why? If you throw the Jack out, someone else might have the Ace, King, or Queen of spades and take the trick, and if it isn’t your partner, you’ve just lost a point, and possibly two or three if the other team played the highest and lowest spades. If you play the 10, and your partner can’t win the trick, you’ve just given a huge advantage to your opponents for winning Game this round. It’s probably safer to pass on bidding with these cards.

Most of my wife’s family seems to play fairly conservatively. My wife’s grandmother likes playing with me, however, as I make riskier bids to make the game interesting. I’m told that when her husband was alive that he would make four bids consistently with the most surprising hands.

As I said, there are 12 cards not dealt in a 4-player game. You might want to think about the odds that anyone else has the cards to beat yours, much as I did in one round.

I had three hearts: a Queen, a 9, and an 8. Normally, this is not a strong hand. There are potentially two higher cards than my Queen, and there are potentially two lower cards than my 8. What’s more, there are four cards that can beat my 9 that I don’t have, and if my 8 isn’t Low, they can beat that card, too.

And yet, I bid two. And since no one bid three, I won the bid, which means I get to play the first card, which indicates which suit is trump for this hand.

I played my Queen, and my partner played her Ace, which means we won the trick and have High. Later, I played my 9 to win a trick that was going in favor of our opponents in an off-suit, which allowed me to play my 8. Once again, my partner had the better card in a 2, and we made our bid. In fact, we also won Game as we took enough tricks to have more than enough points.

It was at the end of the round in which it was noticed that I bid two on such a terrible collection of cards. My wife pointed out that we were lucky she had the Ace and 2, although I was quick to point out that if she didn’t have those cards, our opponents did not have anything to beat the cards in my hand so we would have won anyway.

And this is how it goes for me when I play Pitch with my in-laws. I make risky bids, and while sometimes they go badly, often I’m able to pull it off, and yet I still get scolded for it. B-)

I get scolded because of those incredibly rare (My wife: “Hah!”) times when I don’t make my bid. In this same game, I bid three on a Jack, 10, and 7. As I mentioned above, the Jack is at risk here because someone else might have a higher card and win the trick I play it in. I played the 7 first, and luckily, it was Low. However, the rest of the round went badly for our team as it turned out that our opponents had better trump cards. I knew it was a risk, yet I bid anyway because I thought there was a chance I could pull it off since the big unknown was if anyone else had the cards to beat my hand. Sometimes there are no Aces, but to have no Aces, Kings, and Queens in play of a particular suit is a bit more unlikely.

The thing about this game that always intrigued me was that there were multiple ways to earn a point. While High and Jack can be treated similarly in that you win the hand the appropriate cards are played in, and Game requires counting points in the tricks you won in the round, Low is different. You win Low by merely having the lowest trump card in your hand. You don’t need to win the trick you play it in.

Why was it designed in this way?

In my research, I learned that I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way. You always win the hand when you play the high card, but that fact is incidental. The real way to get High is merely playing the highest value trump card, much like getting Low is done by playing the lowest value trump card. There’s symmetry there that I didn’t recognize before.

I’ve seen variations of Pitch in which the way to get High and Low is to win the trick that has those cards played. I haven’t played it that way, but it seems to me that it would change how often Low would be won by the team that played it since it isn’t a guaranteed point anymore. Someone on the other team might take it if they have a higher trump card.

Instead of getting Low based on the luck of the draw, you would need skill as Low is nothing more than yet another card that happens to be in the trump suit. This change has the benefit of making the rules easier to remember for a new player, yet tilts the odds in favor of veteran players.


My wife’s grandmother lives in a small town, with a population of 60. At its peak it had 220 residents in 1910. It has a rich history, including the fact that Bonnie and Clyde came through and robbed a few of the buildings back in the 1930s.

This weekend, there was an annual town reunion, and attendees were able to participate in a slow-pitch baseball game in the park between the soy beans, the corn field, and the railroad tracks. The teams were a mix of grown-ups and children, and there were way more than 9 players on the field at any given time. It was a friendly game with the goal of having fun as opposed to winning (yes, my team lost).

I don’t think I’ve played baseball since Little League, but I picked up a glove and ran out to center field, and as soon as the first ball was hit, I realized that I still remembered what to do.

Knierim Baseball

Even if the ball is going out to left field, I ran in that direction to support the fielder there. If he or she dropped a fly ball, I could immediately pick it up and throw it in, which reduces the time to threaten the runners with getting tagged out. A few seconds can make a huge difference.

Depending on the skill of the batter, the fielders would move in or out. While I get why it makes sense tactically, I always felt bad about doing so. Imagine being the kid batting after the power hitter and seeing all these fielders walking towards you, knowing that they think you can’t hit the ball very well. That’s not great for their confidence.

When the ball did come to me out in center field, I had to throw it towards the infield, but to whom? 2nd base was usually a good bet, as it would prevent the batter from attempting to run there, but what if someone is running for third? And if someone is running home, you better have a good arm to get it there, and I…I do not. So my default was to throw to 2nd base, or to shortstop if the fielder came out to help relay the passes.

But as I said, it was a game for mixed ages, and the rules and winning weren’t everything. I wasn’t the only center fielder, and if a young child got to the ball first, I resisted asking for it despite the fact that I would throw it much faster. This is his or her moment of glory on the field, after all, and whether the child threw the ball or ran it allllll the way to the infield, there was the delight they had for participating that you didn’t want to take away. And the parents and grandparents in attendance got a thrill, too.

I think a favorite moment for many people there was the very small child who ran the bases in a creative way, managing to run from 1st to 2nd to home, despite the existence of a runner standing on third. I’m sure we could have enforced the rules there, but you try telling that kid he didn’t actually score a homerun off of his 8th swing which barely touch the ball.

Speaking of running, when I hit the ball, I remembered the coaching I received as a child: run all out to first base, run through first base, and turn right if you don’t plan to run to second. In baseball, you can run through 1st base and still be considered safe because…well, I never looked into it, but it’s special. If you turn left, however, it means intent to run to second base, and you can be tagged out in that case, but turning right means you are staying at 1st and just need to slow down.

It’s an interesting rule, because running through first means you get to run at full speed all the way to the base. If you had to stay on the base in order to be safe, it would mean needing to slow down somehow, which makes it easier for the fielders to get the ball to first to tag the base and force you out. It also reduces the risk of injury, as being able to run in a consistent manner seems safer than running all out, then trying to stop on a dime.

Exercise Complete

Despite not playing many games, I was able to journal a bit about the few I did play. In one game, I finally had an excuse to look into a rule that interested me for some time, and in another rules were broken in the interest of having fun.

I’ll continue the game play journal as it definitely seems like a good idea for me to practice identifying what mechanics seem to help or hinder the player’s experience.

If you participated in exercise 1.4 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll describe 10 compelling aspects of childhood games I remember playing.

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.3: Your Life as a Game #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

In the last two weeks, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game, then I critically analyzed a game that was “dead on arrival”. Today’s exercise in the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series asks me to list and describe areas of my life that could be games.

Many creative individuals will give the advice that you need to learn to take inspiration from everywhere to create great works, and the making of games is no exception.

I remember hearing that Shigeru Miyamoto created The Legend of Zelda inspired partly by his childhood exploration of the hills and forests near his home. Will Wright talked about his Montessori-based education as an inspiration for the digital toys he creates. Colossal Cave Adventure was partly based on Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system.

Fullerton asks you to look for the underlying systems, goals, and obstacles that exist in the world. Inspiration can come from other games, but you’re less likely to design a clone if you look elsewhere.

I thought about a number of areas of my life for this exercise. Some seemed too easy, such as the idea that taking care of my cats is like a virtual pet simulator…only real. I noticed a number of areas seemed to make use of the same resources, namely time and money, so in a way, life itself was a game of resource management and goals, with goal-setting being one of the activities you can participate in, and it became quite meta.

Sierra Road


Like many people, I want to be healthy. For me, it means more than dropping a few pounds and wearing my belt a little tighter, although weight is a very easy metric to track. I do have a goal weight, which is 20 lbs less than I started the year with.

We’re now halfway through 2014, so how am I doing with this goal? I’ve lost about 5 lbs. I haven’t been paying too much attention to this goal, clearly, but what’s the game here? You know, besides Fitocracy.

Let’s look at the components of weight. Obviously you aren’t just weighing your muscles and fat, as your body is made up of blood, water, bones, and other things that you aren’t trying to change when you talk about weight loss. Dehydrating yourself to have the bathroom scale indicate you weigh a few pounds less isn’t healthy or desirable.

The components you want to change are muscle mass and body fat.

Without going into too much detail about the different kinds of fat and how some fat is beneficial, when it comes to weight loss, people generally want to lose fat.

What is fat? It’s stored energy. It provides insulation and protection, and there is research that indicates it helps with a healthy immune system. Still, losing some of it isn’t a problem for most people.

Muscle, on the other hand, isn’t something you want to lose. Your muscles are what you use to move, and moving uses energy. If you are trying to lose weight, your movements will result in your fat stores getting used up while you maintain your muscle mass.

Occasionally I’ll run across the fact that about 3,500 calories are stored in a pound of fat. In order to lose it, you need to consume 3,500 calories less than your body needs, or you need to exercise and use up 3,500 calories.

So, if weight loss was a game, the goal is to reduce the amount of fat calories stored in your body.

The rules are that eating less means fat gets used up by your body to make up for the caloric deficit, and exercising more burns up more fat.

So we have a goal, and we have some rules. What’s the challenge?

The challenge is that the rules aren’t that simple. It’s not just a simple matter of “calories in and calories out.”

If you starve yourself, your body responds by storing more fat. Oops.

And if you exercise the wrong way, your body ends up losing not just fat but also your muscles, which makes you less effective at burning calories. Oops again.

Neither option is very healthy in the long run. So you need to eat well, and you need to exercise safely. The former requires you to learn how to make a habit out of cooking healthy and nutritious meals, and the latter requires a time investment.

And both require discipline. If you have a day job like mine, you are probably familiar with the challenge of resisting the free donuts or pizza brought in for meetings. Each day feels like a challenge to remember that as good as the junk food might smell and taste, I don’t want to add the extra empty calories to increase the difficulty of being healthier.

And making time for a walk, let alone weight training or biking, similarly requires a routine that you set and follow, which can be hard if you don’t have a routine already and live in a town which has multiple locations where the sidewalk ends, almost discouraging your efforts.

Other challenges? The weather might impact your motivation to exercise. You might eat to make you feel better if your mood is down. You might drink a lot of juice or soft drinks or beer, all of which contribute plenty of calories to your diet without you realizing it. Healthy foods take more time to prepare and cost more money than chips and pre-packaged, pre-processed food. You might get hurt or sick, making exercise counter-productive.

Ultimately, weight loss shouldn’t be the real goal. Being healthy should be, and it’s not something you can diet your way to temporarily. It requires a lifestyle change.


I love learning new things. The more you know, the more capable you are to handle a situation. Years ago, I learned how to boil water without hurting myself. Today, that knowledge enables me to create a pasta dinner for my lovely wife. It also allows for steamed vegetables, cooked rice, hardboiled eggs, and more. My cooking abilities expanded greatly from making nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and pouring myself a bowl of cereal when I learned how to boil water on the stove.

Being more capable is the goal, but what does it take? Just as Fullerton advises you to practice making games to learn how to be a game designer, any new learning requires the application of the new knowledge in order for you to really know it. It’s why you had homework in school.

Practice requires an investment of time, and it might even require money. Whether you teach yourself from a book or by taking formal classes, it requires time to be set aside for the practice.

Most people dance by figuring it out on their own, and for the most part, it’s passable for the occasional wedding reception or flailing about at a club.

My wife and I took dancing lessons, and it turns out that there is a lot more to dancing than shifting your feet from side to side and turning in some random direction once in awhile. How you hold your partner, how you signal which way to turn using slight pressure of your hands and arms, and how you step all need to be coordinated to dance well.

It took a few weeks of dance lessons, but we increased our stats in Coordination and Dexterity. We’re not world class dancers, but I remember receiving the compliment on our wedding day that our first dance looked very elegant. Success!

Practice also requires discipline and conscious effort. When learning a new skill, you will mess up. Rather than see it as a frustration, see it as part of the learning experience. If you’re learning how to juggle, you’re going to drop a ball. If you’re learning how to draw, your circles will come out misshapen. If you’re learning how to make games, you’re going to add a mechanic that makes playing worse. I’m pretty sure I tripped my wife more than once when we were learning how to dance, but you know what? We still got married and still danced. B-)

After practicing for awhile, the skill becomes part of your repertoire. You no longer need to look up when to add a semicolon to the end of a line of code or how to draw a person’s head so that it is in proportion to his/her body. Whereas learning to a ride a bike meant thinking about the mechanics of riding a bike at first, you now know how to do so without being conscious about balancing yourself anymore.

And the nature of learning a little is that you are now at the point where you can learn a little more. Learning to program a computer leads you to learning how to design software which leads to learning how to architect an entire system of software components.

Incremental improvement in your knowledge and skills opens up possibilities in your life. It’s why education and finishing school is so highly emphasized for troubled youth.

Home Ownership

Last year, my wife and I bought a house. For the first time, we’re living in a building with no one else. Yes, that means playing music as loud as we want, but it also means we’re responsible for all of the maintenance.

One of the goals of having a house is being comfortable living there, which means cleaning regularly and taking care of it. Everything goes to entropy, and you need to make an effort to fight it.

With a house comes a lawn, and growing grass requires mowing. Otherwise, you risk being embarrassed by being “those” neighbors. You can’t control when it rains, but when it does, you need to mow more often. If you don’t want to spend time mowing, you need to pay someone else to do it for you. There’s only so long you can pretend that you’re encouraging the wild grasses of the plains to grow before you need to cut it back. And don’t forget about raking leaves in the fall.

Things break. Spackle and paint can fix minor holes in walls. The flushing mechanism in toilets might malfunction and need to be replaced. Cupboard door handles might need their screws tightened.

Once again, I find my tools are time, money, and effort. Weekends used to be for relaxing from a workweek. Now weekends are seen as big blocks of time used to install closet doors or deal with weeds in the yard. Sometimes bigger jobs demand expertise from paid professionals, and sometimes you just need some elbow grease.

And sometimes the bigger challenge is to remember to make time to enjoy the house rather than see it as nothing but a source of unending work. B-)

Wealth Accumulation

There’s a difference between wealth and income. Someone making $40,000/year can become a millionaire over a lifetime, while someone making $200,000/year can live paycheck to paycheck. The difference is in the expenses. As described in The Millionaire Next Door, the wealthy tend to be people who live below their means, who prefer financial independence to living a lavish lifestyle. They get used cars rather than new ones, have household budgets, and clip coupons. They don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. They don’t look like what people think millionaires should look like.

My parents opened a savings account for me when I was very young, and ever since I’ve been a saver. I’ve since read books such as The Richest Man in Babylon that indicate people should save at least 10% of their income, and I’ve found that my parents already gave me the lesson.

Also, don’t put your savings in a so-called “rainy day fund” because one day it will rain. This 10% should go into savings that for the most part you never touch.

With savings account interest rates so low these days, however, your investments should probably be in something with a potentially greater return. Of course, such investments tend to have requirements that you don’t touch the money for a period of time, such as a 5-year Certificate of Deposit, although you shouldn’t touch that money anyway so there’s no problem with the lack of liquidity.

The key is to spend less than you earn, then invest some of your earnings somewhere. Starting earlier rather than later is better because of compound interest. If you invest for 10 years and stop, leaving the investment to sit, and someone else starts investing the day you stopped and continues to invest for 20 years, you’ll have dramatically more in your investment than the other person.

While there are various things that can happen to adversely affect your process, such as a housing bubble burst, a medical crisis, or a lost job, the rules of wealth are simple: over the long term, save some of your earnings, and spend less than you earn.

Winning the wealth accumulation game? That’s a personal question, but not worrying and stressing about money seems like winning to me.

Game Development

I have a day job these days, one in which I don’t do game development.

My game development business ends up being very part-time as a result, which means a lot less time to do the things a business needs to do to be successful: business planning, market research, and of course, product development.

I realized this year that I haven’t been doing much active game development as I’ve been spending most of the little time spent on my business working on exploring the market for educational games. Since I don’t have a lot of time to spend on market research, it is taking me longer than I would like.

But I don’t want to ignore game development, so I started focusing on doing at least 20 minutes a day. If I sit down and work for at least 20 minutes on game development, whether it is designing or programming, I put a little ‘X’ on that day on my wall calendar.

The idea is to keep a chain of these days going for as long as I can without breaking it. If I break it, I start over again and see if I can keep the chain going longer this time.

I learned this game from Bob Nystrom’s article about what it took to write his Game Programming Patterns book, which he learned from an article about Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity.

Sometimes I’m able to dedicate way more than 20 minutes, but I should always be able to make time for at least 20 minutes.

I started in early July and broke the chain after only one day. That’s not a chain, that’s a link.

But the next day I started a new chain that broke after three days. Still not great, but better.

Then I had one chain going for 13 days. Much better.

And now I’m in the middle of a chain going for nine days, and I want to keep it going. Can I get two weeks worth of days? A month’s worth? A year’s worth?

What’s more, even with just 20 minutes of game development, I’m seeing some progress on my toy project on the side, plus I’m able to dedicate time to writing blog posts such as this one and doing market research.

Exercise Complete

These examples might not seem like games on the surface, but they all have rules and constraints, with interconnected relationships between various components. Identifying this structure was good practice for game design, but it also helped me see that game design inspiration might come from anywhere.

If you participated in exercise 1.3 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll report on my daily game journal.

(Photo: Sierra Road | CC-BY-2.0)

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.2: D.O.A. #GDWW

Welcome back! Last week, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game. This week, the second exercise of the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series makes me nervous: writing down what I didn’t like about a game.

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

This section of the first chapter discusses what it takes to make a game. Good communication skills, teamwork, and a good dose of process are all needed.

Exercise 1.2 asks you to think about a game that was dead on arrival, then write down what you didn’t like about it and identify how the game could have been improved.

As I said, I’m nervous about this exercise.

Nervous about writing that I didn’t like a game? This is the Internet! People do it all the time!

I’m nervous because I don’t like raining on someone’s parade. Even if a game was flawed, there are people behind it who put their livelihoods on the line, who may have struggled and fought to get this game out the door. It’s easy to complain about the quality of something when you don’t have an idea of what went on behind the scenes.

In this case, I have some idea. I attended the post-mortem of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 2005, hosted by the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes, with tight schedule pressures, lots of stakeholders, and a team that managed to pull it off despite having to throw away a lot of development effort more than once throughout the project.

I can’t find any information for how well it sold, but reviewers weren’t impressed with the game. I remember reading that it bombed in the market, although even poorly made licensed games tend to sell fairly well so it’s hard to say.

I met a developer who worked on it, and he had mentioned what a frustrating experience it was…to put it nicely.

I purchased the Gamecube version when I saw it discounted and put in the impulse-buy section of the checkout line at the store. My thought at the time was that playing bad games means I’ll better appreciate what it takes to design a good game.


I haven’t played it since I got it, and even then I didn’t get too far before giving up. When I started a new game recently for this exercise, I was experiencing it almost as if it was the first time.

Starting The Game

The first thing that struck me is the music loop on the title screen. Most of the time, music loops are seamless, as if you couldn’t tell that it stops and starts. Instead, there’s a noticeable cut. Now, this might be a minor thing, but I started noticing quite a few areas that felt similarly unpolished.

The game starts with a pre-rendered movie introducing the story, including the other children finding the golden tickets and Charlie feeling poor, until a $10 bill appears at his foot. Then the game starts, with you chasing the bill as it flies improbably around town.

Whenever you get close to the money, wind blows it somewhere else, and so you go chase it. When the money gets caught on a chain-link fence, some help text appears and says, “You have the knock the money off the fence.”

Now, what comes immediately to mind is that I need to perform a specific action, such as throwing something at the fence, or walking up to the fence and pressing an action button of some kind. But no sooner did I have this thought when I found out that walking up to the fence is all that is required. The fence shakes as you near it, and the money flies away. Now, why the heck did I need help text to tell me to do something if the most natural thing to do, walking towards the bill like I’ve been doing the entire time, works just fine?

Later I found myself frustrated because I didn’t know what to do and there was no such needed help appearing.

Ah, I can pick up boxes, which means I can put them down and climb on them to get to higher places. The help text tells me what button to press, which is fine as I’ve never done it before and so wouldn’t know what to do to pick a box up.

When the bill ends up flying onto a roof, I noticed the cutscene was not pre-rendered and seemed to use in-game graphics. Charlie slides down a roof for about a second, and then I can play again. Uh, ok. So I walk over to the bill, which is stuck on a chimney, and…another cutscene.

This one is another example of a lack of polish. Charlie screams “Oh, no!” yet doesn’t look like he is doing anything that matches. It’s as if they recorded the audio and made the scene separately, then never put them together until the last moment. It takes a few seconds after the scream before Charlie starts to fall.

Ok, so Charlie falls. He lands on a garbage can lid, apparently at the highest point of the town, and now you’re chasing the bill while sliding through the icy streets. You can knock over snowmen and garbage cans, and trucks pull out from side streets, but nothing actually hurts you and there’s no point but to get to the end of the sliding, where Charlie lands in front of a candy shop with his new treasure.

The Cutscenes and Augustus Gloop

If the introduction was a pre-rendered cutscene, and the other cutscenes were using the in-game engine to render them, Chapter 1 starts now, with page-turning transitions and…suddenly everything is hand-drawn? Oh, and Chapter 2 starts right after without any game play in between. These inconsistencies contribute to the feeling of a lack of polish, as if the game wasn’t finished or was rushed.

When I finally can play, I’m supposed to find two Oompa-Loompas to work on some machines to pump Augustus Gloop out of the tube he is stuck in. Now, the bellows are hidden under the meadow, which was a neat way that the level designers were able to work around the fact that they were required to use the movie sets, which normally aren’t created to make for good game play.

Once Gloop is freed, you are told to find some Wonka-Vite for energy in a quick cutscene. You are also given Ever-Lasting Gobstoppers, which function as a projectile weapon. You can throw them at trees and objects to knock candy down.

So, using some gobstoppers and an Oompa-Loompa’s help, I manage to procure some Wonka-Vite. Now what? Grandpa Joe’s advice to find Wonka-Vite when I already found some didn’t help matters. I must have walked around that meadow a half dozen times trying to find an exit before I discovered I had to find multiple Wonka-Vites before I could proceed.

Why couldn’t there be a mission objective to indicate how many I had to get? Also, it wasn’t clear what “energy” it was giving me, as I didn’t notice I was using any energy in the first place. The HUD shows some tubes on the top right, but the game gives no context for them and they didn’t seem to matter, so I ignored them. Plus, the controls felt a bit awkward, as it was difficult to aim the gobstoppers, jumping around felt sloppy, and occasionally the camera would end up in an bad angle. All of these things combined made me feel confused and frustrated as I played.

The Jelly Beanstalk Level

The next level shows that Gloop is still stuck in the pipe, only this time in the jelly beanstalk room. You can now use Jelly Beanstalk Candy, which you can throw to create vines which snare the unwary. Oompa-Loompas seem unaffected, and they don’t seem to do anything to Charlie, either. Oh, I see. Once I get the Wonkabots to appear, I can trap them into a ball of vines, then throw those balls into the vents to help increase the pressure to get Gloop through the tube.

The vine balls appear near where the robot and the vines are, but they never seem connected quite right. The vents are in a thorny patch I can’t walk on, and it took me some time before I realized I could throw a vine ball into the area to try to get them into the vents.

The entire level is geared around multiple floors of vents arranged in various angles in a patch of thorns, with nearby Oompa-Loompas who I charge with fixing the machine to create Wonkabots so I can create vine balls and throw them at the vents over and over until I succeed in getting them all. Oh, and between each floor, I need to jump from leaf to leaf of the giant jelly bean plant, which is not very easy to do. Haven’t enough people complained about jumping puzzles over the last few decades? And the target audience has to be children who may or may not be as dexterous with the controls, right?

So after saving the jelly beanstalk plant, I find that Chapter 3 starts, and I end my play session.

Summarized Thoughts

Again, I feel bad about writing about all of the bad things about this game, knowing what the development team went through. And perhaps it isn’t fair to call it “dead on arrival.” I’m leaving out the bits of delight I experienced because I’m focusing on what was wrong for this exercise. Considering how rushed it was and the constraints they were under, they managed to put together something. It just never felt cohesive or polished, and the few times I was pleasantly surprised by the game were marred by the confusion and frustration and tediousness of the rest of it.

For instance, why was I allowed to hit the Wonkabot with a gobstopper and see an animation of it falling down if there wasn’t supposed to be combat? Or why was candy allowed to get stuck on top of trees, resulting in Oompa-Loompas tasked with collecting the candy running in place? Why were some cutscenes pre-rendered, some in-game engine, and some illustrated, and why were there so many of them?

Possible Improvements

Some consistency would have helped, and I think if they had more time to playtest, they would have found areas which were confusing to new players. Letting the player know that Willy Wonka wants you to find five Wonka-Vites, for instance, would have meant that after finding the first one, I wouldn’t have felt lost. Perhaps the controls could have been tightened up, although I wonder if part of the problem is how Charlie was animated. I recall picking up a vine ball next to the thorny patch, only to be surprised that Charlie’s pick-up animation moved him forward into the patch, which forced him to drop the ball. I also wonder if the game could have been improved if there were fewer cutscenes, allowing more of the story to be revealed during game play instead.

But of course, these things take time, and when your deadline is the release date of the movie with a quick production schedule, things can slip. It’s hard not to imagine what the game could have been with a little bit more polish, as the people who worked on it loved the story and probably feel terrible for every flaw they know about that I might not have noticed.

Exercise Complete. Pencils Down.

That’s it for this week’s exercise. If you participated in exercise 1.2 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll describe five areas of my life that could be games.

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.1: Become a Tester #GDWW

Welcome to the first exercise of the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series!

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

The first chapter explains that the role of the game designer is to be an advocate for the player. Playtesters are essential for the feedback they provide because otherwise you are designing games in a vacuum. If you don’t bring in playtesters early in the design process, you will have no idea how your game will be received when other people finally do play it.

And so exercise 1.1 challenges you to take on the role of a tester. Play a game, and document what you are doing and how you are feeling.

I chose to play FTL: Faster Than Light, the space-based roguelike from Subset Games. I purchased it a couple of years ago, but I saw people mentioning online that it had some updates, so I fired the game up again.

My First FTL Game Over

I started a new game, and I noticed that there was an option to enable Advanced Edition Content. I opted to leave it disabled for this playtesting session. I left the difficulty on Normal, and I hit Start.

I read the brief text telling me that I’m trying to get data to the remaining Federation fleet before the Rebels can catch up to me. It occurs to me that I’m the kind of person who roots for the underdog, and I wondered about the design choice of being on the side of the presumably better-equipped and much larger Federation.

I remember I preferred to have one member of the crew in the shield room, so I reassigned the one from the engine room. I found that a good part of the game was spent moving crew around to repair damage, put out fires, fight off invaders, and enhance capabilities such as those shields. I don’t remember if the hotkey to assign people to specific stations was there in the original game before the updates, but I just noticed them this playthrough and really appreciated it. When new crew members joined the ship, I found myself assigning them to their strengths, juggling responsibilities if needed.

Rather than risk the lives of my crew to out-of-control fires, I found I liked the idea of venting the air out into space by opening the doors and waiting. I lost too many good people in multiple playsessions before I learned that lesson.

When it came to jumping from one beacon to another, I thought about how I made the decision of which one to choose. While I kept the approaching rebels in mind to make sure I didn’t dawdle, I found that I preferred circuitous routes in order to get more opportunities to answer distress calls and collect supplies. I only took more direct routes to the exit beacon when I was my hull was badly damaged and I wanted to avoid as much interaction with the locals as I could.

After arriving at a beacon, there would be a random encounter. Sometimes it was a fight with a pirate or rebel scout. If I had a choice, I found myself coming to the rescue of another ship or attacking slave drivers. It seemed that despite the main mission, I made choices based on principle and morals. Well, most of the time, at least. I needed to ensure I survived, so the times I chose not to enter a fight were the times I couldn’t.

Sometimes I jumped instead of fighting so I could live to fight another day. Sometimes I fought rather than surrender needed supplies.

Often, I died. So much dying. If I was juggling crew members at the start, it’s nothing compared to frantically trying to move the lone surviving member of the crew from one fire to another while the ship has been boarded and the enemy ship is still attacking while your own weapons are down. He or she could not repair anything fast enough before the lack of oxygen or lack of hull ended the game mercifully.

During a fight, I had to choose which room of the enemy ship to attack. I liked knocking down their weapons, which saved my hull while I continued the attack with impunity. If it was a scout ship revving up its FTL drive to alert the rebel fleet, I would try to attack the engines to stop it. Sometimes I found that I couldn’t get a missile past the drone defending the ship, so I started striking at the drone control room to disable the drone. I sometimes attacked shields, but often I found that my multi-shot lasers would knock them down and still get some hits in, so early in a game I focus on weapons instead.

If I collected enough scrap, I could upgrade the ship. Did I improve shields? Weapons? Engines? Do I improve them now, or wait a little longer in case the scrap could be used on better purchases and upgrades later? If I waited too long, I would fight stronger and stronger ships until they badly outclassed me, but if I upgrade too soon, I might not be able to afford new crew members or better weaponry if I find a store.

When I did get new weaponry, I found new attack options opened up. Attacking empty rooms means bonus damage? Well, ok then. Also, if I upgraded my sensors, I could see the enemy crew on their ship, so I could purposefully try to attack them if I see they are weak. Fewer of them means less opportunities to board my ship or repair theirs.

Every so often, I come across a quest marker. For instance, I was asked if I was willing to defend a space dock from a rebel assault. Well, why not? The fight was easy, and I get a reward. Or I would have, had the rebel fleet not overtaken the area where I would go get my reward. Oh, well.

When I find myself in rebel fleet space, the battle is intense. There’s no quarter given or taken, and I find myself frantically trying to repair hull breaches and engines to jump away to safety, but I rarely succeed.

When I do lose the ship and the total score is tallied, I see how this session compared to previous sessions. I want to get a higher score, and I also want to make it past the latest sector I’ve arrived at. It’s enough to make me want to replay each time.

So there you have it. I documented my experience playing FTL, and I gained an appreciation for just how much is going on in this game. If you participated in exercise 1.1 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll be writing about a game that was “dead on arrival”, talking about what I didn’t like about it and how the game could be improved.

Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Introducing Game Design Workshop Wednesdays #GDWW

Recently I was sent a review copy of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition by Tracy Fullerton. Fullerton is the Chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and won the IndieCade 2013 Trailblazer award, which is an award given annually “to a working game creator who has both made great contributions to the field of games and captures the independent spirit.”

I’ll have a review of the book itself published at a later time, but I’ll quickly highlight the vitals.

The book is split into three parts. The first part is all about game design basics. Terminology is defined, and games are broken down into formal elements, dramatic elements, and system dynamics.

The second part is about taking what you learned in the first part and putting it into practice. You’ll learn how to generate ideas, prototype them, conduct playtests, and refine the design until it is functional, complete, and balanced.

The third part focuses on working as a game designer in the industry, both in terms of job descriptions as well as what life is like working on a team. I note that going independent was given roughly a page in a 10-page chapter on getting you and your ideas into the industry.

I think the book overall covers a lot of ground, provides lessons as well as examples, and even features the wisdom and advice of many prominent game designers such as Richard Garfield, Josh Holmes, Jenova Chen, and Will Wright. I think this book is a great addition to my game design library.

Of course, merely reading a game design book won’t teach you game design anymore than reading an art book will teach you to be a painter.

You need to DO game design to become a game designer.

This book has plenty of exercises throughout its chapters to guide you through creating your own playable game designs. As Fullerton says in the introduction, “If you think of this book as a tool to lead you through the process of design, and not just a text to read, you’ll find the experience much more valuable.”

On that note, I’d like to introduce Game Design Workshop Wednesdays. Each Wednesday, I’ll take an exercise from the book and go through it myself, sharing what I’m doing. If you’d like to follow along at home, you can click on the link above to get your own copy through Amazon.

So join me next week as we learn and create games together. I’d love it if you left comments to share how you did on your exercises as well. Alternatively, if you would like to write your own blog posts, or tweet or otherwise participate on your own, use the hashtag #GDWW so we can all keep in touch.

UPDATE: Here are the links to exercises completed so far.