This is probably one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken, full stop. As a lifelong fan of one-person passion project indie games, I’ve always wanted to develop games myself — if not as a career then at least as a hobby — and have always had a great interest in media on the fringe of what people typically think of when they think of video games, things such as walking sims, visual novels, and interactive fiction. As such, I was delighted that this class both framed those formats as respectable types of games and framed games (and “fun”) as a whole as a subject worthy of serious study.
My favorite games have always been those set apart by their story rather than their gameplay, so it was interesting to dive into the initial lectures on types of fun and the definitional difference between a toy, a game, a puzzle, and a story, and see that breakdown on what makes games and stories different in both structure and appeal. It gave me both an increased appreciation for games that truly have no story and instead create fun through other types of learning, and an increased drive to challenge that boundary between story and game.
The concepts that I expect will stick with me the most are the Kinds of Fun, the discussion of effective onboarding methods, and the discussion of Cursed Problems. The concept of Kinds of Fun, as well as the idea that “fun” in games is specifically the process of learning and gaining mastery, provided a helpful framework (where I previously lacked one) for approaching the design process in general, and one that my groupmates and I repeatedly consulted to keep our vision focused. The biggest design challenge I faced throughout this class was the struggle to maintain a focus and not get swept away in combining so many ideas that they drown each other out. This also ties into the Cursed Problems discussion, because while this topic was not discussed until the end of the class, looking back, I see that my first project group faced the Quantified Creativity problem with our first game iteration and it was this problem — the conflict between playing to win (which required stat optimization) and playing to self-express (which required creative, but perhaps sub-optimal, use of in-game items) — that caused our design to be unsatisfying for players. We solved it by compromising on our promises and removing most quantified elements from the game so that creativity could take center stage (and in the process really focusing on Expression above all other types of fun). Now that I’ve internalized the concept of Cursed Problems, I expect I’ll be able to recognize such a situation earlier in the future and catch it before the game makes it to the playtesting phase.
I also faced the challenge of learning development with Unity alongside the design concepts taught by the class. I and my project team had to learn to adjust our scope to make something small and well-designed rather than large and haphazard, and in the end, we still somewhat felt as if the limitations of our implementation ability had prevented us from fully realizing the design we envisioned. However, it was a valuable exercise in finding ways to improve a design and make a game easier to learn (especially when it came to onboarding) without necessarily adding complexity to the implementation, which is a skill I’m sure will come in handy in my future indie development endeavors.
Aside from learning Unity, I think my biggest area of growth in this class was the internalization of clear mental frameworks for thinking about games and an expanded vocabulary for game design elements that I perhaps had some previous intuition for but never knew how to concretely talk about. When I work on games in the future, I’m going to approach them methodically through the lenses of types of fun, loops and arcs, and objectives and experiences. I’m also going to be intentional about focusing my vision and implementing those specific methods of onboarding and pacing that keep the player learning and engaged from the moment they start (while hiding the fact that learning is happening at all). Overall, this class has vastly improved my ability to think in concrete terms about game design and reignited a childhood passion for game development that had fallen dormant. With this new set of skills in both design and development, I hope (and plan) to put these design principles to use in personal projects in the near future! Thank you all for a fantastic quarter, and I hope to be able to share my work with you someday!