First homework for GDCU module – “I have no works & I must play”

Reading for the first lesson consists of:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 1 (Basics). This is the course text by Ian Schreiber and Brenda Brathwaite
  • I have no words & I must design” by Greg Costikyan.
  • The Understanding Games series of interactive “playings”. Flash games that attempt to explain some basic concepts of games in the form of a game.

Being already familiar with the latter, which are great fun and available from the original source at:
I thought I would tackle the Costikyan online text first, the most recent version of which is available at:

So, here are notes about my reading of Costikyan. The first thing that is apparent is the importance of understanding and deconstructing the term “gameplay”. Teh author contrasts SimCity and SimEarth, stating that the latter was less successful because it had no goal. Having played this game a lot – I keep an old Mac Classic purely to be able to play this game – I would disagree. It seems pretty clear that the author didn’t actually play this game, as it had far more goals than SimCity. Specifically, there WAS an end goal, which was to get the sentient life form to evolve towards space flight, at which point you were rewarded with cities growing domes and taking off for the stars! It was course grained in comparison to SimCity, but look at Spore, which was SimEarth done at a finer grain. What is interesting is that the new version definitely had chunks that appealed to different people. I would say the same was true of SimEarth. It’s just that the monotone offering of SimCity had more widespread appeal. A warning to future game developers: don’t put too many features in your game.

Costikyan’s comment on MUDs and boredom seem a sweeping generalisation. Again, from personal experience – I got to the level of Wizard in a few LPMuds back in the day – the provision of goal was done through the quest mechanism, and was quite sophisticated on the better servers. And these involved a fair degree of Struggle, often involving detective work, gathering of resources, and some grind. I don’t necessarily agree that Puzzles provide the struggle. They are extremely culturally defined obstacles, which can break the player’s experience. No? OK, answer this before reading…

… and don’t cheat!

What can you stand on, sit in and brush your teeth with?

…got it?


OK, hands up if you knew the answer already.
Right, now hands up who worked out the trick.

…OK What was the trick?


Did I say that it was one object? The “correct answer” was:

a) The floor
b) A bath
c) A toothbrush

…Now, hands up if you came up with a really cool answer that was one object.

…Feeling clever?

What if I said it didn’t matter if you DID come up with one object. What if I said that you couldn’t read further UNTIL you got MY answer?

So, puzzles are really important when they are embedded in the player experience. Otherwise they are mere mechanic. An example would be Puzzle Quest’s use of a bejewelled clone for ‘combat’! This the antithesis of Costikyan’s idea.

I like the deconstruction of “Let’s Pretend” as this reminds me of what I call the “last grenade” cheat, where someone accepts they are dead, but want to pea on the bonfire by saying they have also killed their nemisis, thereby discounting the rule completely. Interesting to see this implemented as the “Last Stand” perk in Call of Duty 4. PVP (player versus player) compared with PVE (player versus environment) was interesting, particularly in light of recent developments in EVE-Online, which has a sophisticated real(tm) economy where anything goes. The World is like that, but there are consequences for anti-social behaviour. I miss the local sheriff in early MUDs, who was a really hard bot that would appear if you engaged in player killing. It made the risk associated with PVP that much wider than the obvious one of possibly being killed by your victim. The “endogenous” discussion and the comparison between economics and games – particularly the porn reference – was entertaining, but rather dated. People can reap great benefits from in game actions; there are numerous examples, including pro player pots of prize money, gold farming, as well as the sudden ability to be supremely good with automatic weapons in local schools. Ok, the latter isn’t true, and no-one became a property baron by playing Monopoly, but there are tangible real world effects of playing games.

At this point, however, I cannot see how the essay actually addresses the content implied by the title; my hunch is that Costikyan thought it rather clever, rather than defining the topic for discussion. I’m not adverse to a poetic title – Hell, my last conference paper was entitled “Gamez Meanz Learnz” (the reader is left to discover the inspiration for this as an exercise) – but I’ve lost the plot. Criticism of “Interactive Entertainment” seems irrelevant to a debate about game design. Personally, I prefer the term “immersive” as it applies to the focus required for sport, the sinking into a story, or the encouragement of good games to filter out the temporarily not relevant in order to engage with an activity. A cut scene for Chess… Hmmm… How about the following: the video the transcript

So, regarding Costikyan’s attempt to pin down the concept of gameplay, it starts well, ends with a nice Jung quote, but the middle (the important bit) was, essentially, missing. His quote:
“Game design is ultimately a process of iterative refi nement, continuous adjustment during testing, until, budget and schedule and management willing, we have a polished product that does indeed work beautifully, wonderfully, superbly.” is a cop out.

Now, let’s crack open that Challenges book…

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