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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen

Friday Free Game: Fields of Logic

This week's game is a very nice collection of puzzles from Bart Bonte called Fields of Logic. The game here is to discover how to beat each of the sixteen levels. There are no instructions, just subtle clues as you point-and-click your way through sixteen puzzles, most of which require simply clicking on computer monitors to rotate them. There's also a sliding puzzle on level 10. I've never been any good at solving those silly things, but from the sounds of it, I'm not alone.

The challenges are well-designed, if a bit conventional, and the consistent cows-in-a-field theme is fun. It kept me busy for 12 minutes. That's all I want in a Friday Free Game.

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Designers and Design Documents

I read two very interesting blog posts today. The first comes from Brian "Psychochild" Green, entitled "What is a game designer?". He is training a new designer for an MMO he's working on and so has decided to share his thoughts on what a the job is all about. For anyone who's interested in the field, it's a fascinating read, mainly because he comes at the topic from a very pragmatic and sober perspective of someone with the wisdom of experience. For him, a designer, is more of a project manager than anything else, at least in the context he is describing. To paraphrase, a designer is a communicator first and foremost. His job is to communicate ideas about how the various systems that make up a game will work together, and to clearly outline alternatives when he foresees problems with the ideas in place. He researches and documents the systems, trying to keep everything in balance from a game perspective. He's the one focused on the game as a whole while others are focused on code, art, or marketing. At the end of his post, he links to a post by Brandon Reinhart, "The Elements of a System Design Doc". This one is a guide to writing up a game design so that others can understand it. He stresses knowing your audience (primarily, developers and other designers) and maintaining a focus on the abstract without bogging down in implementation details. I highly recommend that any aspiring designer read both of these posts to find out how the job is done in a formal setting.

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We Don't Need No Stinking Copyrights

Many thanks to the inimitable Raph Koster. I present: WoW DDR.

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Friday Free Game: Flash Element TD

Last week I featured a pretty low-tech defend-the-base game called Tower Defense. This week, thanks to Jay from jayisgames, I'm happy to present a more polished and interesting take on the same theme: Flash Element TD.

Just like the other game, the concept is simple: kill the baddies with your towers before they invade your castle. But the execution in this case is significantly better for a number of reasons, including some amusing sound bites, good graphics, and a fair amount of variation in the enemies, including foes that attack by land and by air and the occasional boss. As well, each tower has its own advantages and disadvantages. For instance, arrow towers are cheap and versatile but don't do enough damage to be useful later on. Water towers slow your enemies, and the "combo" tower, while very powerful, shoots so slowly that it's almost useless when the speed rounds come around.

One thing I really liked about Tower Defense was how it managed to keep tension by giving you only twenty seconds per wave to think, build and upgrade. Flash Element TD pauses in between waves and so lacks this same sort of intensity. Other than this one quirk, I think Flash Element has it all over Tower Defense, so if you liked last week's Friday Free Game, then you'll love this one. Now go and defend your castle!


Neverwinter Nights in the Classroom

Raph Koster pointed out this article on BBC News, entitled "Computer game to boost key skills" (emphasis mine):

Computer science teachers at West Nottinghamshire College were struggling to get their teenage students into literacy and numeracy classes.

So they took apart Atari's popular computer game Neverwinter Nights and rebuilt it with educational challenges the player must meet to progress.

Success rates in key skills at the Mansfield college has trebled to 94%.

[Nigel Oldman, one of the people who helped transform the game into a learning tool] said: "The little Herberts had realised that not attending their literacy and numeracy key skills classes was not going to affect their vocational qualifications."

"We would be flushing them out of the canteen, chasing them all over the place and they would just say: 'we did literacy and numeracy at school and we've never had to use it since'.

"We were struggling and we had had enough - so we decided we needed something that would attract them."

... [So,] "We ripped the game apart and rebuilt it to deliver educational content," he added.

Players are invited to pick a character and go on a quest in which they have to make decisions about what to take and how to progress using mathematics and their literacy skills.

Mr. Oldman explained: "For example, before they set off in their galleon they have to fill it with the things they are going to need. This requires them to work out the area of the ship and how much they can manage to bring.

"Some students managed it, others sank on the way and never progressed to the next level.

"They would come knocking on the staff room door and wouldn't let us go until we had taught them how to calculate area."

While this particular incidence may be unusually effective and not necessarily indicative of the power of edu-tainment in general, as anecdotal evidence, this is huge.

Educators often talk about a lack of motivation being one of the biggest obstacles to teaching. And games, after all, are nothing more than organized systems of incentives: if you want to "win the game", then you have to follow the rules. As Mr. Koster himself maintains, all games are educational. The reason they're compelling to the player is because he wants to figure it out, so he can get that feeling of triumph when he masters the system, beats his friend, unlocks the final level.

What I think is most interesting about this point is that it illustrates a number of key factors in maintaining the fun of a game while still achieving an educational goal. The way I see it, the Neverwinter Nights edu-mod succeeded because its creators made certain specific design choices.

First, this was a game the required math to advance. It was not a "math game". Many "educational" games are simply boring games wrapped around a series of math problems. There's not much fun in that. If the game itself is not compelling; if you finish the game and don't say "let's play again!" then it's just not a fun game, and its usefulness as an incentivizing factor disappears. The game in the article was based on a highly successful and well-polished, mass-market video game and then tailored to better suit an educational purpose.

Second, the educational goal of the mod's creators was achieved by putting it on a critical path to the in-game goals. Or, put another way, the story provided some goal (say, that the hero cross an ocean with all of the stuff he needs), and the player needed to use his math skills to figure out how to accomplish it (by figuring out the area of the ship's deck). The in-game goal was compelling enough to incentivize the player to perform this other task. From an in-game perspective, the math itself was a secondary goal, even though this was the designers' purpose all along.

I think this is a fascinating story. It would be interesting to determine whether other examples of particularly successful educational games follow this formula, as well. Please post suggestions in the comments if you know of any.

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A Victim of Guitar Hero, Astoria, and Fear

Since gnomie asked, I figured I'd briefly post about where Space Avenger is at the moment.

The short answer is: much further along but still not ready due to a number of real-life distractions. Between my move, my new job, my travels, the holidays and the like, Space Avenger has had to go to the back-burner.

And, lest you think that I have all good reasons for delaying the release of Space Avenger Beta 3, my girlfriend also bought me several new games for Christmas that have been sucking away my free time like never before:

Yes, they're all old games, but they're new to me, since I had foolishly jettisoned my PS2 in favor of an XBox. The PlayStation 2 still has the best games for any platform — hands down. There's no contest. I kept hearing about these great, innovative games coming out and they were all for the PS2. The XBox hasn't, IMHO, had a great game come out for it in a good while. Sorry, Microsoft. You've lost a customer due to your ridiculous assumption that the only games that people want to play are first-person shooters and GTA clones.

Space Avenger has a lot of work left before I can release it. The new version is far more complicated than previous versions and has required rewriting a good number of core game objects in order to make it work. Now that ship customization is becoming a core game element, I'm touching on a number of areas of Flash development that I haven't dealt with yet, so the learning curve has been pretty steep. This has also required a large number of new 3D models, which take a long time to create. I'm slowly improving in this area, but it's not easy.

At this point I think it would have been faster to start over from scratch, but then again, I didn't know that when I had first started the enhancements. C'est la vie. Now, of course, I'm staring down the myriad reasons that I will never finish the game. I am doing my best to ignore all of these fears and get back to doing development, but when I have all of these distractions and excuses, it's easy to let it fall by the wayside.

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Friday Free Game: Tower Defense

This week's game exemplifies all of the virtues of the perfect Friday Free Game: it's free, web-based, easy to learn, and it's a ton of fun for about 10-20 minutes at a time. It's called Tower Defense, and I surprised myself by coming back to play this one again and again after I found it. It's definitely a low-tech game, and I feel that I will be hard-pressed to convince you via descriptive prose that it's fun. But for some odd reason, it is. And I'm still not sure why.

For me, Tower Defense evokes memories of StarCraft Flash Action III (FFG 07/21/06) in that the premise is familiar to everyone who's ever played a real-time strategy game: defend your base from a steady stream of invaders by strategically placing towers that attack them. In this game, rather than Hydralisks and Zerglings, you have black dots as your enemies. And instead of Photon Cannons and Rail Guns, you have different colored cylinders that swivel and jerk, looking for those dastardly dots.

The game begins, giving you twenty seconds to set up some towers for the first wave of enemies. Click on a tower type and then click somewhere outside the path to place a tower. There are five types of towers: fire, water, nature, storm and flower. Each has a different cost, a different range, and different damage potential, and most of them can be upgraded over the course of the game. For example, at the basic level, the storm tower does the most damage. But it's not upgradeable. The flower tower is very expensive and one strategy is to try to save up enough cash just to buy one, though I haven't had much success with this approach. The fire tower does good damage in the early game, but can't keep up with the range and power of the nature tower later on.

When ten dots have run your gauntlet of towers, the game is over, and your score is equal to the number of waves of enemies you survived. I've gotten as far as wave 67. What I've learned is that the placement of the towers is just as important as their types. For example, if you place a nature tower close to the center of the board, it can hammer away at your enemies for a long portion of their trip. This seems to be the key to getting to the higher levels, but the right balance and combination of quantity and quality is still a process of trial and error. The creator of the game says that he made it to level 90 and challenges you to beat his score. I haven't gotten there yet, but I've had fun trying. Check it out and let me know what you discover along the way.


Miss Video Game 2007

Via The Average Gamer, I've been reading about the tragically misguided Miss Video Game 2007, a beauty-pageant-cum-gaming-tournament that purports to be trying to find the "voice of female gaming". This sounds well and good until you dig into the details. Oh boy. You know it's trouble when one of the requirements for contestants is that they "love the beach". Um... hello? The beach? Sand in your keyboard and sun glare? That beach? Right. That's what female gamers are all about.

Alihja, an actual gamer chick, calls the endeavor "sexism in the name of equality", pointing out that the pageant's website is with mixed messages, and blogger gamingangel wrote to the organization to find out just who was behind this fiasco. The conclusion reached by many who have researched Miss Video Game is that this is a simple appropriation of the popularity of video games in order to turn a profit.

As we all know, women are entering the once-male-dominated video game space in huge numbers, and this shift in the market is affecting the way games are made and marketed. Women need to let the industry know what they want and the industry needs to take stock and ask how they can respond to the shifting market. Sure, we all like to ogle a "gorgeous gamer" now and then. But let's not denigrate women with a meaningless pageant in the name of representing their voice. You can photograph some hot chick holding a joystick and call her "Miss Video Game," but this farce helps neither women nor gaming. Instead, let's celebrate the real women geeks who are bucking the stereotypes. Let's give women equal consideration when making games. Let's offer some diversity in perspective.

At the end of her post, Alihja advises:

On a serious note to my fellow ladies of gaming, if you want to "be the voice of female gaming" then use that voice. Strive to be more than just eye candy, or a beauty queen who is advertising fodder for the male majority. Speak out, game to your heart’s content, and be opinionated.
And I couldn't agree more. Speak out, lady gamers. The smart game-makers will be listening.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.