Final Reflection: David Ryan

Although I’d made some games previously, especially in CS 146, and in some half-hearted attempts at game jams, I’d always thought they were very difficult to start. When I tried to make them independently, I’d find an engine that seemed promising – Godot, or something in Javascript that promised to be easier to implement  – and then go through all of the set-up steps. I’d peruse tutorials, and start laboriously setting up my editing environment. And then I’d quickly lose steam. Maybe my initial plan was too ambitious, or there was just too much friction learning a new toolkit. It turns out, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I think the biggest thing I took away from this class was that making games doesn’t have to be hard. You can make a paper prototype quickly: draft a twine game with notecards, or make a few paper cut-out tiles and try your board game idea. This flexibility with the specific medium, and willingness to make something very rough, was very freeing and made it much easier to just start creating.

 Prior to this class, I had had an idea that it was good to make a rough prototype, or a minimum viable product, or what have you. However, I didn’t have a good sense of how to get that initial product to something more final. One of the most helpful things I learned throughout the course of the class was how to playtest and iterate in an intentional way. Getting that early feedback from game nights and playing the game with classmates was invaluable. The mix of readings on the topic and practical experience worked very well.

Being on the other side of playtesting was very helpful as well. There’s a quote that’s along the lines of ‘good criticism examines how well an author met their goal’. Playtesting – and keeping the real system, or the serious message, as a north star – helped me get into this mindset. When I get stuck playing games, I often think ‘what would the designer intend for me to do here?’ Being able to go through that empathetic process with the designers themselves, and having the back and forth, has really helped me develop that skill.

Developing this critical lens towards games in general was one of my main takeaways from the class. Understanding the formal elements, and then applying them to a range of games – both ones I was familiar with and ones I’d never encountered before – was extremely helpful. Now that I’ve gotten the framework, I’ve started looking for it when I play other games, or think about other designs I’m thinking about.

Although I’ve been consuming game design media – podcasts, videos, articles, and so on – for a long time, and worked at a studio for a while, I still had the impression coming into the course that more of game design was learned in these more informal ways, rather than via academic writing. Happily, this course proved me very wrong – doing the sketchnotes and mind maps of the various readings was very helpful. On that note, those modalities for note taking were new – or at least, unused recently – and were very helpful to learn. Moving away from thinking about notes as a complete record to a useful tool for structuring my thinking and actively reading was extremely helpful. Often techniques like those end up being confined to the classroom for me, but I’ve already brought those out into my life in general.

On that note, this class has also been a valuable inroad into design thinking in general. Although I’ve always been interested in graphic design, HCI, and similar, I haven’t felt like I had a good context to learn about and try it. Previously, I was a product manager at a start-up, and was put in charge of designing an app – UI, aesthetics, etc. During that period, I felt fairly lost, and was never really sure how to approach the work in any formal way. That hasn’t been the case in this class. Game design was a wonderful way to encapsulate a lot of these lessons, and helped me feel empowered to wrestle with these decisions. Even though I haven’t gone through the rest of the design or HCI curriculum, I still felt I could understand the concepts, and had a good grasp of them.

Those have been the main lessons for me in terms of my personal practice, and how I engage with games for myself. However, I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about the lessons from this class in terms of the work that I’m going to be doing after graduation. There I’ll be working on a much larger team, on a substantial, established product. My role is applying data to help the design team make decisions – in terms of game balance, but also to try and understand how new additions to the game will mesh with the overall vision, and how players will engage with them.

I’m comfortable with the data side of things, and interpreting statistics and models, but I wasn’t as sure of myself working on the design side. Although I have my own intuitive ideas and philosophies, I wasn’t always confident in them, or sure of how I was interpreting the overall goals. This class has been really empowering in that regard. I feel like I have a coherent framework for approaching design as a whole, and am better-versed in the language and ideas that the designers use.

I think when working on the data side of a project it can be easy to get focused on optimization, and lose track of the bigger picture. For example, with matchmaking for a 60-player Battle Royale game. Do you try and make sure that the players are as equal in skill as possible? In theory, optimizing for exact matches in ability could mean that a game where every single encounter was a 50-50, life or death struggle would be the best. However, thinking about the larger goals and design of the game, where variance and giving players a feeling of competence and mastery is valuable, shows that that isn’t necessarily the best outcome. Bringing in that design-focused thinking is very valuable, and I feel much better equipped to do so now.

More generally, I’ve been interested in possibly exploring more design-heavy roles in the future. Having actually made games, informed by theory and put through playtesting, has made me much more confident doing that. One of the roles data people in particular tend to transfer to is systems design, and having gone through the design of an actual systems game, and becoming acquainted with the theory behind it, has made that seem like a much more approachable, possible prospect.

I think maybe the biggest thing I took away from this class is feeling competent enough to be unafraid to fail, and keep failing, until I end up with something I’m happy with. I’m excited to keep making things, even if they’re bad at first!

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