Second homework for GDCU course – Something for Nothing!

Lesson 2 homework was to read an article on Formal Abstract Design Tools (which I will come to later) and chapter 2 of Schreiber and Brathwaite, which included several end of chapter exercises (subsequently were confirmed as not being necessary, but desirable) that were the topic of some discussion on the forum, and concern over USA bias in content. This was acknowledged as something that had only come up because of the course being international in scope, with previous deliveries only be presented in America. It wasn’t something that I particularly noticed as problematic, but mention of the Civil War in one exercise, was an issue for a few. One respondent put it in context, stating it was likely that many US citizens would know as little as non-residents, but it raises interesting issues regarding distance delivery and the internationalisation agenda. It should also be noted that the GDCUwiki is being used by volunteers to translate the main site lessons into Espiranto, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Bahasa (Indonesia) and French. All done free, because the course is being done free. An important lesson for all!

On to the chapter 2 exercises: The first was actually just the Lesson 1 15 minute game challenge, but Lesson 2 also required that the game be revisited and revised after play testing. I actually found this process (for which I should thank several generations of my family, who I stole from celebrating my mother’s 70 birthday over the weekend) very enlightning as a few issues I thought would arise didn’t. Anyway, the revised version of the rules and comments on the play testing are in the comments section of this post and on the official course wiki So, Challenge 1 was relatively straight forward.

Exercises 2-4 where to repeat the 15 minute process for a territorial acquisition game, an exploration game, and a game with a “pass over/pick up” mechanic respectively. I’m going to revisit these later, but the “must do” for Lesson 3 has been revealed – I am playing catch up with the course, so lessons 2&3 are being done concurrently, and it seems apparent that quite a few other students are in the same position) as being basically the 5th Challenge from chapter 2, called the “Iron Designer Challenge”, but focussing on World War One instead of the American Civil War (see comments above) with three levels of challenge without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic. More on that in a future post.

Getting back to the FADT article. It, like most entries on was well written and informed. Like a few articles, it doesn’t have the peer review that allows generalisations to be made without justification or much evidence. Having said that, it was interesting to see the need to express things more formally than “it was/wasn’t fun!”. Much like the artist’s curse of “I know what I like, and it isn’t…” that is probably at the heart of the same formulaic game clone sequels coming out year in, year out. The deconstruction of Mario 64 was a little generous, but did make the point quite clearly that thought into abstract design principles might have big payoffs down the implementation road. So, a bit rhetorical, but it convinced me. Schreiber and Brathwaite’s “Challenges” book makes use of the concept of “atoms” of game design, which is a similar conceipt, in that they are attempting to provide defined primitives for discussion of games design. This formed the basis of the Lesson 2 discussion as well. I wonder if a similar discussion of pedagogy would be fruitful?

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…

My first “homeplay” assignment – design a game in 15 minutes

Ballpoint Sumo

Ballpoint Sumo is my homework for the 15 minute Board Game Challenge – details at but basically, this is the brief:

“Following the four steps set forth in Level 1 (summarized below), try to create a board game in only 15 minutes, using a sheet of printer paper for the board, and a sheet of notebook paper for the rules. Four Steps:

  • Draw a Path
  • Come up with a theme or objective.
  • Create a set of rules to let the player move from place to place.
  • Create conflict.”

— [Restricted access. Login required]

BallpointSumo is for 2 players, although it could be single player at a push for training. You will need two ballpoint pens (preferrably not the end button retracting kind) or soft leaded pencils (not too sharp) of different colours, and a piece of paper.

The paper should be marked with an odd number of circles (3 for a short game, 5 or more for a challenge) – drawing round a 2p would be about right, but a diameter of 2-3cm and roughly round will do. Circles should have a gap of 2-5cms around them. So, the paper would look roughly like this:

| ( )  ( )  ( )  ( )  ( ) |

Both players play by controlling their pen(cil) with one finger at the blunt end while the point is in contact with the paper; carefully balancing the angle allows players to push the tip to draw a faint line. The skill involves judging the correct angle: too shallow and the pen will fall; too steep and pressure will not draw a line. Both players start in the centre for an evenly matched game, but handicaps can be allowed by starting in circles closer to one end or the other. The goal is to WIN in the last circle nearest to the opponent. It would be expected that some back and forth might occur, so a time penalty could be appointed and a win on points be declared by who was nearest to opponent’s end.


Each balanced pen(cil) is a Sumo wrestler trying to unbalance or push the opponent out of the circle; aka “Fell Mighty Tree”. If a nib moves out of the circle or finger loses control then that player moves back one circle towards their end and prepares to battle again; aka “the short hop of lamentable defeat”. If both pen(cil)s fall or leave the circle at about the same time, the loser is the one with the least distinct or most broken line, or a draw can be declared.

The mechanic is to use your pen(cil) to push/trip/bump the opponent into losing control and falling or leaving the circle.  The winner has to then navigate their Sumo Wrestler from the current circle to the one where their opponent is waiting; it is acceptable for the player to reset their finger before attempting the “Long Walk to Victory” but this allows for and requires the current victor to be at a slight disadvantage because they have to successfully maneuver their Sumo to the next dojo. Once successfully navigated to, but not through or out of, both players can reset their hold on the pen(cil)s before beginning a bout. Bouts basically involve moving your finger to control the pen(cil) into pushing the opponent out of the circle.

An alternative strategy exists, because a player might simply plant their pen(cil) vertically with a strong downward pressure; aka “Stand like Tall Oak”. As this could lead to a stalemate and be rather boring, an opponent can “Bend like Gentle Willow” by drawing a controlled line – nib does not leave paper, finger does not drop, with a continuously drawn line into next circle, stopping to show control of the nib. If achieved successfully, the opponent will have to move back to join the currently winning player. Again, both players then have the chance to reset their grip before the bout begins again. This option would not be possible as a victory condition in the final edge circle, as there would be nowhere to ‘bend’ to. So, at least one proper bout will be needed to win.

Clearly, this second strategy is risky, as it involves (potentially deliberate) leaving the current circle, but it allows for greater variety. The super risky third approach, “Flow like Running River” would be to draw an uninterrupted line from the start circle through all the intermediate circles, with a pause in each to show continued mastery, to the opponents end, with no jumps or loss of control. However, one bout in the final circle would still be needed, and I think that this should only be a tie break option.

This is a non-contact sport with only pen(cils) and controlling finger able to contact the opponent. Hand contact with opponent’s body, finger or pen(cil) will receive a first warning, then concede a point by moving back one circle. If this occurs in the last circle a foul will be awarded as a victory against the fouling player.

A victory in the circle nearest the opponent’s end, either by getting there first with Willow or River, then winning a bout, by opponent fouling, or by simple Sumo wrestling –  “Dig up Stump!” – in each circle one at a time.


Playtesting and Version 2 modification

Post Lesson 2 post-mortem: After playtesting three things became apparent. The first was that the winner of a bout guiding their pen forward to the next circle was just too hard for most people. It was, therefore, decided to scrap/simplify this constraint. Subsequently, the ability to side-step combat by drawing a line to the next circle was also removed, due to the difficulty spike. It had been originally put in to provide an alternative strategy, because it was thought that a conflict only game would be too samey; actually, this was not necessary as play testing never highlighted bout only play as a problem. This was an example of over-complicating things unnecessarily. The third issue from gameplay testing with young children, young adults and seniors – ages ranged from 8-70 – was the rule that the clearer line wins when both pens leave the circle at the same time. When people of different strengths played together it was quite common for there to be bouts where both pens shot out of the circle. Clearly, when only one pen skidded out there was an obvious winner. When both left, but one was measurably before the other, again a winner was straightforward. However, the rule of clearer line was expected to be seen as a mistake prior to testing. In fact, the surprise of testing was what seemed to be an inconsistency, was a perfect way to balance game play. When a 9 year old girl played with a 17 year old sporty boy, the latter’s attempts to force his opponent out of circles, consisting of brute force, frequently resulted in both pens falling, but his making a fainter line, resulting in a loss. This was an unexpected bonus in playtesting. therefore, the anticipated removal/reversal of this rule was not justified. The only caveat being that after extended play – think Roddick v Federer! – the paper gets rather marked up, making calls difficult/easier to contest. In playtesting, we just called draws more often than expected. When the paper gets scuffed up, new paper or circles drawn in different places might be necessary. So, some changes, some justified non-changes. A simpler game.

Can you catch a cold off Twitter?

Ok this is a quick and dirty experiment: if you came here from my tweet – a tweet is a micro blog post from Twitter – then reblog the link to your followers; the twitter equivalent of sneezing. THEN when you see people you are following “sneezing” make a count for 1-7 days and email me at or tweet or leave a comment here. For those of you who have no idea what Twitter is, Michael Webb blogged on it a while back. My Twitter account is:

Little Big Planet == Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”?

I got sent the following link by a good friend, Richard Sewell, who is a mobile app developer: which is commenting on the following youttube video:

What is incredible really, is not that someone has made an electronic calculator in the virtual “sandbox” game (Game? Maybe “toy” is a better word for it) that is “Little Big Planet” coming soon to the PS3 (That’s Playstation 3, a game console, your honour). The amazing fact is that the simulations that have been possible on cheap hardware for several years now – decades even if you consider some titles as being complex enough – are no longer the creations of the developers, but of ourselves. All the developers do is provide tools, some case studies and a few resources. Then it’s “light the blue touch paper and retire!”

Herman Hesse wrote “The Glass Bead Game” as a futuristic look at the obsession that such a simulation can have; the reality that the simulation is mimicing takes second place to the cleverness of what the simulation can do that goes beyond reality, forging a newer reality that cannot exist in Reality. I wonder if (or should that be when?) Little Big Planet 2 (or 3 or 4…) will achieve such “realitence” (reality + sentience) or if we will fall foul of “virtality” by placing greater store on a simulation than the thing that inspired it?

I have hands… hands that can heal… Well Games hardware anyway!

I have a few XBox 360 controllers that have – due to work in case you ask – not been used over the Summer. They have rechargeable battery packs that have hardly been used. However, leaving them uncharged for such a long time – we are talking months – appeared to have been too much loneliness. They decided to die from neglect. That is three of the four did, as one apparently must have been left fully charged and did not expire.

Doing a quick google confirmed that these battery packs, while costing a lot of money, are perhaps not the top end cells you might imagine. Oh well. I plugged in the charging cables a few weeks ago and got the “Oh I am charged” green light almost immediately, but pulling out the cable resulted in the controllers turning off. Buggered batteries. Oh well.

But… today I noticed that one of the three bust packs didn’t quite turn off straight away. There was a tiny bit of charge! So, I plugged the cable back in… Red (charging) light comes on… then turns green. I repeat. The red time is longer. The controller takes a few seconds more before it is dead again. I repeat. And again. And…

…now the charging cable is staying red. The battery has been healed!!!

So, if you have a dead XBox 360 rechargeable battery pack and the plug and play charging cable, it might be worth your while trying this fix. Alternatively, I can pass my healing hands over it for a fee!

Dr. Mike Reddy