Daniel, author of LostGarden.com, discusses current and emerging game design opportunities
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Interviewer: I’m here at the Casual Connect Conference in Seattle, and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Daniel: Hello, I’m Daniel Cook from LostGarden.com.
Interviewer: What’s LostGarden.com all about?
Daniel: So, I started writing Lost Garden as a series of essays on game design and how game design can both change how we play games but also… Let me start that over.
So, there’s an immense amount of knowledge about game design out there in the world right now; however, it’s sort of trapped in all these little tiny moments of experiential learning that particular game developers have had.
So, it’s very, very difficult for new developers to understand, like, what are the fundamentals of this art that we do. What are the fundamentals of game design? So, I thought, well, these things are out there. Why not start putting them down in writing? So, I started writing, like, just basics. What does a core loop work like? How do reward cycles work like?
People started reading them. They started enjoying it, and I found that there was this immense pool of people who wanted to make games. They played games all their life. They desperately wanted to make games, but they didn’t know how. By putting the knowledge out there, there’s almost this process that goes on.
It’s a little bit like gardening, you know, you’re cultivating this next generation of truly great game developers. And if you can help them out just a little bit with some free graphics or some little insights about – oh, this is how a reward loop works. This is how positive feedback loop works. Then, you’ve saved them years and years and years of learning so that they’re just going to make their masterpiece sooner. So, that’s where the website came from.
Interviewer: So, let’s talk about cultivating this next generation of game designers to come. Where are the opportunities? What do you see as the opportunities for the next generation of game designers?
Daniel: Oh, this is my favorite topic. So, as we were talking about earlier, the cost of tools is dropping dramatically. So, you can pick up flash really inexpensive. You can pick up, you know, just open source engines, open source code editors, and you can just, an individual in their bedroom, can put out a game tomorrow, if they want to.
Even if you don’t know how to program, you can get something like Game Maker or RPG Maker, and you can go and put out a game tomorrow.
Interviewer: And you can even build a community around that game, too.
Daniel: Absolutely. You can have blogs. You can have all sorts of wonderful community stuff where this is all wonderful. So, you can make it. You can get people who are passionate and interested and come and talk about it, but you can also send it out there to millions and millions of people.
I was just working with one indie developer, Andre Spearing, on a game called Bunny. And he wrote me this drunken email one night, and he says, “I really, really, really want to make games.” I’m like, “Well, why don’t you make a game?” And he’s like, “Well, How?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve got a game design on my website and I’ve got some free graphics.”
No one’s really made a good version of it. It’s kind of like a script to a movie, right? You put up a game design, and he’s like, “Well, I made this really crappy version.” I’m like, “Why don’t you make a good version of that?”
So, he did and he worked on it for a few weeks. He released it up on some flash websites, and millions of people played his version of the game. This is a guy who wrote me drunk from Australia, and weeks later he had millions of people playing his game. How amazing is that?
Interviewer: You know, that’s an opportunity that that guy wouldn’t have believed was even possible until he talked to you. Really, what is it that’s going to convince these next young game designers that have the talent because he already had the talent, but he didn’t do it until he talked to you.
Is it wise to get a mentor? Would do you think finally convinced him actually to do it, aside from him seeing it? I mean, maybe, it was that there was a clear design that he could now build off of. That’s something I’ve seen with indie game developers. They have the potential.
First of all, they don’t believe it’s possible for an indie developer to have more plays than Doom or something else. But, also, maybe, it’s working alone versus working with two people.
Daniel: So, I come from an artist background, and one of the things I’ve seen is the same thing happens with painters. People say, oh, I can’t draw. I can’t paint. And then, you put them in an art class, and you actually give them proper training. And there’s this hundreds and hundreds of years of what it means to be an artist. And that’s sort of boiled down into some of these art classes.
And then, I realize, oh, wait, if I practice and do some of these training exercises, then, wait a second, I can paint. By doing it, by getting the help and then practicing and iterating, by the time they’ve done his for several years, they start self-identifying as painters.
And it’s the same exact thing with the indie gamer or being a game developer. You say, “Well, I’m going to try something” and you’ll fail at first because if you paint something it’s going to be ugly at first. That’s just the way of it.
But, if you can find a mentor, if you can find someone who has had years of experience and has done it, he’ll point you out in the right direction. He’ll say, “Try this or try that, or have you thought about this before?” Talk to a lot of people, and eventually over iterating game after game after game years on end, maybe, like, two or three years, you’ll start saying, “Wait a second. I’m no longer flubbing about. It was painful at first, but I had the grits to continue. And I’ve made games and now, heck, I self-identify as a game developer.”
Interviewer: I think another interesting thing to point out is the concept of the fact that he was able to make this game in a couple weeks. So, even if you’re an indie developer, you can make an awesome game in a week or two weeks and just iterate from that. It doesn’t have to be a two year or three year life cycle.
Maybe, you’re iterating a ton of games during that two or three years, but I think that quick feedback does open the doors for a lot.
Daniel: Oh, absolutely, to continue the drawing metaphor, one of the things is they give us these quick sketches. They do these quick, five minute sketches. It’s like, “All right. there’s a naked model in front of you. Have you ever drawn a naked model before? Nope? Well, you’re going to going to do something, and you’ve got five seconds to draw it.
That’s impossible. That’s no way I can draw this exquisite human form in five seconds. Well, try it. And now, you’re going to do 300 of those. Now after 300, you start getting a general idea of what’s going on for that person.
Having those short, tiny little game cycles like some of the Game Jams that happen, they allow new developers to use their skills. What does it mean to start a game, to balance it, to finish it, all in 24 hours? Critical skills.
Interviewer: Now, let’s transition into where you see game design going. You kind of had something on your website about game design in Microsoft Word or something else like that. Can you talk about the opportunities for these next generation of game developers? Should they be focusing on pure, like, the traditional games, or what are the new designs that they can look at?
Daniel: So, this is one of the things that excites me the most about game development at the moment. So, game design is really applied psychology. It’s like, how do we create these reproducible systems that cause people to interact in a way that they feel like self-motivation, they feel like I’m choosing, I’m doing this, I’m improving my life. I’ve a mastery over what’s going on. I’ve involvement in this higher purpose. I feel like I’m doing this for a good reason.
And that’s really what games do. They leverage these systems of psychology. Now, that’s great and that’s wonderful. But, those same systems exist outside of Mario Brothers. And now, they’re being extended to multi-player games. So, now you have these multi-player systems of politics and raidings and how people care about one another. And take those wonderful systems that we’re seeing in multi-player games, that we’re seeing in cooperative experiences and apply them to the broader world.
What happens when suddenly you’re managing your money, based on a game? So, you want to save money. What happens if you’re learning to use a software application, we did one with Ribbon Hero, it’s called, from Microsoft Office. Twenty year old, ancient application, and suddenly people are smiling when they use it because they’re having fun and learning how to use Microsoft Word. That’s a shocking thing to do, and it’s delightful. And that’s sort of the future that those systems of psychology, that’s where they can take you to the future, to improve activities throughout the human experience.
Interviewer: Would you say that this upcoming decade is the decade of gaming compared to saying the last decade being digital software?
Daniel: I think what you’ll find is this next century is going to be the century of gaming, and there’s going to be applied psychology through computer systems under the broader class of game mechanics is an extremely powerful tool. And it will be used for good, and it will be used for evil.
As game designers, we need to be involved in shaping it for good. We affect hundreds of millions of people, hundreds of millions of people. As a game designer, you can change the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
What are you going to do with that power? I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to think about very deeply, then do whatever you can to make a difference using that craft and those skills for good.
Interviewer: You know, aside from making games, is there anything else you would suggest the next generation of game designers and game developers to look into to make sure that they’re going to be making an awesome contribution to the space?
Daniel: Oh, goodness, there’s all sorts of things. To be a good game designer, you have to be well rounded. Psychology is a good one. Politics is a good one. Government is actually, if you’re looking at multi-player systems, that’s a great one. Economics is critical.
Another area that I really focus on in my blog a lot is the combination between the art of game design and the business of game design. They’re very tightly tied together. So, be a broad-minded, well rounded individual because we’re ultimately dealing with the breadth of human experience.
Our tools are game mechanics, but ultimately we’re dealing with human players. You have to understand people to make great games.
Interviewer: And where can people find out more about your blog writings? What’s the site again?
Daniel: The website is www.LostGarden.com.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.