Design: what it is, and how to teach and learn it

XV.2 March + April 2008
Page: 42
Digital Citation

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENTPlaycentric design

Tracy Fullerton

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It's my pleasure to introduce a guest columnist this month: Professor Tracy Fullerton of the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The program is one of the first game-design curriculums in the nation and is already producing promising designers and exciting innovations. —Dennis Wixon

"Play has a tendency to be beautiful." —Johann Huizinga

Game designers create systems that contain opportunities for play. As the quote from Johann Huizinga suggests, play is a beautiful and important part of human culture. Teaching the art of designing satisfying play is a challenging and new discipline. The study of game design is still evolving and as yet is unheralded among the more "serious" arts such as music, dance, literature, or theater. However, experimental programs in this field are being established in some of the most prestigious universities in the world, and these programs seek to produce a new breed of designers—not fans or hackers, engineers, or executives, but artists of play.

As a professor of game design, I take this challenge seriously. My goal is to prepare students not merely to work in the game industry of today, but also to be the voices of change and innovation. Whether it is subject-matter innovation, such as "serious games" or gameplay innovation, I encourage my students to ask provocative questions about the nature of games and to set difficult design challenges for themselves.

I teach a process of design that is adapted from best practices in usability and design research. Called "playcentric" design, it involves setting interesting player-experience goals, building a rough paper or digital prototype that attempts to achieve those goals, testing the prototype with players, evaluating the results and integrating feedback, and then doing it again.

While iterative processes are widely used for productivity applications, conventional wisdom has been that game designers know good design when they play it and they don't need anyone telling them how to design good games. That attitude is changing as the industry matures; today's designers realize that they are expected to design for players within a broad range of ages, backgrounds, gender, and skill levels. To do so designers need to be adept at merging the science of usability with the art of play. This merger is the heart of playcentric design.

Back in 1995 I was designing a game for the launch of the Microsoft Network when I had an epiphany about user-centered design. I had come up with the idea for what was, at that time, an entirely new type of game: a casual online game. In the mid '90s the Internet was still only for early adopters, but with the launch of Windows 95 and the promise of millions of new potential players coming online, the plan was to make a suite of easy-to-learn, fun-to-master, multiplayer games. To help us make the games accessible to the nascent Internet audience, Microsoft assigned a usability expert to the project.

As a young designer, I felt threatened by this. Who was this expert? Did he have the authority to change my game? It was with some trepidation that I first met with Kevin Keeker from the Microsoft user research group. Kevin showed up with a dog-eared copy of the spec, a list of questions, and a heuristic evaluation. He had clearly done his homework. The games were in a very early state, and I was hesitant to put them in front of users yet. Like most designers, I felt that if I could just get all of my ideas implemented, the tests would "go better." Kevin assured me that it was actually better to test early and identify any issues while there was still time to make changes to gameplay. So he created a test plan, and I took the first set of prototypes out to Seattle.

What we found imploded my view of the design process. Things which were completely self-evident to me were lost on the new players. Interface design, clarity of rules, game balance, overall premise—I came back with notes on all of this and more. On the way to the airport, I realized that I wanted to do another set of tests as soon as possible—just as soon as we could implement changes based on this initial feedback. I started thinking about how I might work more tests into the design schedule. What if we started earlier? What if we started with paper models of the gameplay and interface? I had become an addict. I realized that user tests were the way to game-design nirvana. Before, it had just been me and my idea. Now I was engaged in a dialogue with my players, and with Kevin, who helped me learn how to integrate player feedback with discretion.

Later when I began to teach game design, I remembered that epiphany, and I knew there was no way to explain to my students how important user testing is to the design process—they would have to experience that moment of insight themselves. But I could build it into their training. I could force them to sit behind that glass and watch players try to use their game. I could teach students methodologies for involving players in their design process, creating test scenarios, really listening to feedback, evaluating results, and learning how to productively integrate changes into their designs.

This is exactly what we do in the games programs at USC Interactive Media. At every level of design instruction, playtesting is part of the process. From informal tests of paper prototypes, to more structured tests in our state-of-the-art lab for digital projects, students are taught to embrace player feedback. My hope is to train a generation of designers who use solid, repeatable methodologies in their design process, ones that allow them to take greater risks in their work, expand the boundaries of play, and explore its innate beauty.

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Tracy Fullerton
USC School of Cinematic Arts

About the Author

Tracy Fullerton has been a game designer for 15 years, developing projects for companies including Microsoft, Sony, Disney, Intel, MTV, and NBC. Currently, she is co-director of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC, where she has worked on experimental games such as Cloud, flow, and The Night Journey. She is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide whose second edition is scheduled for release in early 2008.

Dennis Wixon

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UF1Figure. flOw is a uniquely beautiful PlayStation 3 game that began as a student research project at USC. The design goals were to create player-controlled difficulty adjustment in a relaxing, casual game style.

UF2Figure. Intermediate students test their game prototypes in the state-of-the-art testing lab at USC. Class projects at all levels of instruction go through multiple playtests over the course of development.

back to top  Sidebar: The Interactive Entertainment Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts

The project-based curriculum at the USC School of Cinematic Arts offers students an education in design fundamentals, production skills, and leadership in a collaborative, creative environment. The goal of the program is to produce students who have the technical, creative, and critical skills to bring to life the next generation of interactive entertainment.

The "gateway" class for matriculating students is Introduction to Interactive Entertainment, which exposes students to foundational works in game design and gives them critical vocabulary and historical perspective. Additionally, students take introductory cinema courses covering technique, aesthetics, criticism, and social implications of cinema.

The program's beginning game-design course, Game Design Workshop, introduces students to core concepts such as the analysis of game mechanics, defining player-experience goals, brainstorming and ideation, paper prototyping, playtesting, and the iterative design process. Game Design Workshop treats game design not as technical practice, but as a participatory art form and provokes students' imaginations with questions about the nature of games, the process of design, and the aesthetics of play.

The beginning game design course is accompanied by an introductory technology class, Programming for Interactivity. This class takes students from various levels of expertise through an exploration of the basics of programming for games. Students are introduced to object-oriented computer programming and complete several small 2D game prototypes by the end of the semester. Like the complementary design class, Programming for Interactivity teaches technology implementation in support of the player experience.

Intermediate and advanced project classes follow this same structure, bringing design and technology closer together in service of the overall experience. In joint projects at the intermediate level and larger teams at the advanced level, students learn to form successful collaborations, to become articulate and skillful team members, and to earn the right to lead others by gaining the respect of their fellow students.

In addition to these core project classes, students round out their game education by taking elective courses in visual arts, interface design, programming, audio, writing, business and management, experimental hardware, mobile technologies, motion capture, and cultural game studies.

It has become clear to us as we have developed and expanded this program that the future growth of the game industry lies in the expansion of the expressive palette of games. Academic institutions can play a part in this evolution of the medium by understanding that the purpose of an education in games is not to train people to fill the ranks of the game industry—though this may be one effect, as it has been with film studies, for example. The purpose of an education in games is to explore the nature of the medium, to learn by practice and by exposure what its potential might be, and to help students to articulate their own unique ideas in this powerful aesthetic form.

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