Gamasutra: Matt Smith’s Blog – The Rapid Prototyping Game
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The Rapid Prototyping Game
I am a teacher. I make a living helping others. So when I began to adjunct at my local university, it was only natural that I, like any of you, would want the students to succeed in their scholarly endeavors. My task as an employee in the School of Digital Animation and Game Design was to take my passion, game-based learning and game design, and instruct first year students in the basics of game development.
No problem, right?
Well…it turns out that knowing game design and teaching game design are two very different skills and I am humble enough to admit that I had a lot to learn in that first year when it came to both.
Luckily another instructor, and a friend of mine, Andrew Peterson was willing to spend the time answering my many questions and I felt that each iteration of the class was continuing to improve. While I knew the content and delivery was getting better, I still had this nagging feeling in my stomach.
You see, the students were still struggling. They were afraid of failing. They were unoriginal. They made games like Chutes and Ladders or Monopoly. They didn’t see any value in board games and they told me quite honestly that they really only wanted to make video games.
As you can see, this was going to be quite the challenge. Each student came to class with a diverse gaming background. Some had taken a programming or game design class in high school, others had families who valued game night, a few took the course because it sounded better than a humanities credit, and many loved to play video games and wanted to make a career of it.
If I was going to teach game design well, I needed to create a plan that would take account of all of these factors.
What I really needed to do was create a way to increase the students exposure to game mechanics and also teach them how the elements of game design exist within a game. I thought of it like training a chef. What they really needed was time in the kitchen–to understand major flavor profiles and to recognize that adding certain combinations worked well. They needed experience and they needed it crammed into one semester.
It was at this time I remember mentioning to Andrew that it would be amazing to have a repository of game mechanics that that students could access. A resource where they could go to see the mechanic, have it explained, see it in a game, a dictionary of sorts for them to reference–aside from an online database. Call me old school, but I find value in holding a physical book in my hands and lovingly turning the dog-eared pages looking for untold answers.
Not long after our conversation, we attended Gencon and found out that, like many good ideas, someone had accomplished it. We immediately purchased Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev‘s book Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms and instantly fell in love with it. It was exactly what we needed as a reference book for our students.
Armed with this book, it was time to take the next step. As an instructional designer, I knew that I had the content that I needed for the course, now it was time to work on the delivery method. Playing games is tactile, it’s community, it’s strategy and critical thinking. The delivery method had to mimic those qualities. This had to be done as group work. The students had to manipulate a game board, work with the pieces, and think about how the elements worked together. Most importantly, they needed to understand the iterative process of game design.
Understanding these teaching strategies, I began to categorize the game mechanics for the students. My goal was to create a user-friendly delivery system which grouped the elements into manageable categories which would allow the students to isolate specific components. In doing so they would be able to analyze how adding, subtracting or combining these elements would create dynamic changes in a game. What I found was that many times students would focus on the entertainment when they were play testing–without ever thinking analytically about why they were having fun. This new system, which I called The Rapid Prototyping Game, taught them how to make meaningful choices as they learned the iterative process through game play.
The first rendition of the RPG game consisted of dice, index cards, and tool box stocked with gaming pieces, markers, pens, and other tools of a game designer.
Loaded down with my prototype, I unleashed my creation on the students in five phases. I described that they were going to build a game, but many of the elements would be decided for them. There job as game designers was to “make it work”. There were many open variables that they could include in the game design, but I did warn them not to fall in love with their initial design because it was assuredly going to change.
The first phase was to divide the students into teams and then have them roll a dice to determine the first of what I called the “core elements” of their game.
- Game Medium (board game, card game, etc.)
- Game Format (competitive, cooperative, etc.)
- Game Objective (exploration, building, etc.)
After a short period of group discussion, I then had them begin to pull from the card decks I had created.
- Mechanics Deck (nine categories)
- Theme Deck
- Victory Condition Deck
- Turn Order Deck
The students took this information and ran with it. They absolutely loved the challenge of designing a game under these parameters and I watched as teams sketched, discussed, referenced the Tabletop book and used their phones and whatever resources they could to craft their game. Numbers were exchanged and I had found in our meeting the next week that many teams met on their own and spent many hours working on their first game. They had went down the rabbit hole on their own.
Good teaching comes from reflection and effective educators value the time they can allow their students to engage in what I call “directed reflection”. This is where a moderator, usually the teacher, can help the students transform into self-directed critical thinkers through group talk. Reflection is a key component in improvement, which is why I knew I had to include this element in the Rapid Prototyping Game. So the students came back to class with another deck waiting for them, the Reflection deck. It asked them pointed questions about the game design process. Questions like: Do players care when other players are taking their turn? A simple question that started a conversation about player agency and player choices.
After the reflection, it was time to remind the students that there were more challenges ahead. This was a bit of a game, right? They made their way to the front and pulled from the Iteration deck. This was where their best laid plans were thwarted by the other teams. They drew cards from the deck that forced them to make changes to their game–getting a new mechanic, an additional victory condition, or changing the way they took their turns. While initially this was incredibly frustrating, it changed the atmosphere of the room. Students were talking about how a new theme completely changed the way a mechanic worked.
It was the best time to be a teacher. You see, we revel in light bulb moments and you could see the fog of uncertainty lifting as students began to “get it”. The students began to understand that board games do have something to them that creates a feeling. How you introduce these elements does matter. They found out that game design wasn’t an intimidating experience and most importantly they began to see themselves as game designers.
Well, as luck would have it, when I reached out to Geoffrey Engelstein and the folks at Taylor and Francis publishing company, they loved the idea as much as we did and they agreed to publish the game. What that meant was Andrew and I had to put some polish on my tattered prototype and put together something educators, game designers, and hobbyists could use. Along with our graphic artist friend, Mel Danes, we created and agreed to terms with the publishing company for our official Rapid Prototyping Game. I hope to update any of you with the release date information which we anticipate happening in the Fall.
I am ridiculously excited by the prospect that this game might inspire a reader in some way or help a student. If any of you would be interested in another excerpt concerning the curriculum I use, or strategies for implementing the game, I would be more than happy to create another post. In fact, if you have specific questions I can be reached at [email protected]