Term 1 Reflections & Practices

Term 1 is over? … Really?

It’s hard to believe that two months have flown past, and that a new journey in term 2 is about to start. Right away it became clear that this wasn’t just an educational facility teaching game design. It was more like a Colosseum where game designer wannabes are pitted against tough challenges that must be conquered. The school gives you the tools to succeed, but they won’t fight your battles. You and your classmates must unite to overcome what is thrown at you. If you do, then we may have what it takes to be game designers.

I certainly had my fair share of ‘beasts’ to slay in term 1. It wasn’t just the homework that dictated the term’s difficulty. Class dynamic, organization, and changing old habits were all tough walls to climb. Now is a great time to stop and reflect on what challenges term 1 presented, and the practices that were used to overcome those challenges. First off, lets start with the class…

 

The GD33 Team

We quickly discovered that our team’s strength lies in our differences, and that created an interest in each other that brought us together. People truly tried to befriend one another, and that kind of international unity is what aided our progression through term 1. They are my mentors, coworkers, and friends. I’m very fortunate to have a team that I am excited to see everyday.
Our team is small, but the 13 of us represent 8 countries (Canada, America, Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua, India, Russia, South Korea) and speak over 5 languages. I’m honoured to be their class representative, and I’m eager to see what kind of games we’ll make.

Top 3 Practices:

1. Create a calendar: In the first week I made a Google form to share with the rest of the team to keep track of our assignments and the dates they were due. It worked fine, then we discovered we could use the class’s whiteboard. So I created a calendar there, and as a team we all made sure to maintain it. It was incredibly helpful and it felt great when we could erase an assignment off the board.

2. Have playtest parties: Creating your board game in term 1 is the biggest time investment. Two team members, Nicholas Plouffe & Maria Lee, had an excellent idea of hosting playtest parties at their place. They opened their homes and everyone else brought food, drinks and their games. It was not only a great way to get feedback, but it was also a good milestone to make your game playable.

3. Get out of your shell: Okay, this one was tricky. I’m an introvert, so my natural response when I have finished my work is to go home and unwind. Then I noticed I was missing out on some great opportunities to know my team better. After all, I’ll be spending a year with them. I made sure to go out more, even if its just a walk or out to lunch. Every bit helps.

 

The Courses

In term 1 we had 10 courses. Each course was steered by a knowledgeable instructor, and they communicated their thoughts clearly, albeit differently. Some of the lessons were familiar, such as Visual Design Principles, but even then, there were skills I had forgotten or tricks I didn’t know before.
Programming 1 was the most intimidating because I had never touched C#, yet at the end of the term it was one of my favorite classes. Pre-production Techniques was the most challenging because it weaved everything we learned from other classes, but it was also the most rewarding because your ideas were presented to the class each week. All of the courses covered a lot of information, but the assignments reinforced what was taught to make the info stick.

Top 3 Practices:

1. Appreciate narrative. Storytelling may seem out of place to some game design students, but trust me when I say that it is often overlooked. Knowing the three act structure is a great tool to add to your arsenal when designing a level. After all, a level in itself can guide the player through a set-up, confrontation, and resolution. The same can be said for the hero’s journey. The player (and even other characters in the game) have their own journeys, and understanding the natural path of that journey’s progression can dictate how emotionally interested we are.

2. Done is better than perfect. I try to take pride in my work. If I am proud of what I submit, then it is usually the best of what I know, so the feedback I receive is like gaining experience to get to the next level. Sadly, not all things can be done perfectly. Term 1 gives you a large amount of work, and while they give you ample time to complete it, sometimes additions need to be sacrificed in order to get it done. Having it done is better than not having it at all.

3. Ask questions. If you knew all the answers, then you wouldn’t be in school. A practice that my other team members did regularly was get feedback from the teachers before submitting assignments. That not only improved the quality of the work, but also increased their marks. To help with this, there were labs available for some courses, such as Game Theory Practical, Programming, and Visual Design Principles. The instructors are here to help, so use them.

 

The Boardgame

The most intensive, time consuming and biggest ‘beast’ of term 1 was the boardgame assignment from Game Theory Analog. Even in the age of advanced technology, the basic foundations of creating a game can still be applied to a board game. Each individual team member had a game idea they started with, and at the end it had evolved into something else. Mine was certainly not spared the same fate.

I had designed a 2 player cooperative  board game with a 8×8 grid to represent a forest where the player used flashlights to avoid monsters. Monsters gave wounds and were hidden behind tokens on the board, which had a memory component. Certain mechanics didn’t work well, especially the interaction, triggering monsters, and adding less randomness.

Near the end, my board game evolved into a card game. The same mechanics were used but they were now stronger. Flashlights were now represented by fire cards that had various strengths. Monsters came in different varieties and were randomly drawn on your turn, and fended off by fire. The ‘movement’ was no longer a memory mechanic, it became a ‘push your luck’ feature that added more strategy. Finally, for interaction I was able to make card sharing, and shared battles a more common feature. In the end, I had a playable game!

Top 3 Practices:

1. Don’t think, just do it. I like predicting how much time something will take, and then putting time aside to get it done. This kind of time management works great for most things…. but for your first board game it’s tough. I grossly underestimated how much time it would take,  I also didn’t expect to re-create my entire game. I had to learn that any spare time, even if it is just ten minutes between class, can be used to make big improvements. Playtest, playtest, playtest!

2. Don’t be constrained by what you know. I love board games, y’know, the ones with actual boards. Sure I’ve played card games, but mostly with the standard 52 playing cards. So when I was advised by my instructor (Graeme Jahns) to turn my board game into a card game to fix some of my game’s mechanical problems, I was very intimidated. I let the idea simmer in the back of my brain then eventually tried to translate my game into cards. It took a lot of research, but in the end it surprisingly played better and the mechanics I designed were much stronger. Sometimes a solution will require a bit of exploration.

3. Theme can come last. When redesigning my game into cards, I was running into a big problem. Maybe it was because I was a visual thinker, but a lot of time was being wasted by thinking of each card as a specific item or creature. How would a torch work? Where does the fire come from? How does it hurt monsters? These questions were much too specific in relation to the card’s identity, not the card mechanic. These specific identities were soon removed  and replaced with abstract ones to represent a function. I was now able to ask the right questions. What does this card do? How is it used? What is the effect against that card? It may sound silly, but it was a common issue in our team. The main thing is to understand how something works. Theme can be used to dress it up later.

 

To conclude, term 1 was a lot like entering the the previously mentioned Colosseum of game designers for the first time. It’s exciting, intimidating and very fulfilling. Even when sleep deprived or caught in a frantic rush to finish that assignment that’s due at 11:55pm, it was still a moment I was happy to be experiencing. Why? Because I want to design games.

If the purpose of term 1 was to prepare you for an uphill battle, then it has done a great job at introducing the program and it’s expectations. The final game project in term 5 may still be a long ways off, but it is still a looming beast that can heard roaring in the distance. It’s now time to recuperate and then jump back into battle on Monday morning to welcome a brand new term.


Janel Jolly is a VFS Game Design Student, and a winner of the Women in Games Scholarship