Thursday, 9 May 2013

Midcore Audience - or how I call it: "Bullshit"

Okay, it's been quite a while since my last post. I've been too busy to find the time to write or couldn't come up with interesting topics. But I think I finally found something that's worth talking about, at least from my point of view.

Since I started to work in Browsergames I have often heard the terms like "Midcore"
"Midcore-Audience"... "this game is targeted at Midcore-players" ... "Midcore is our field of expertise" ... Stuff like that.

I started wondering, because I never considered anything a Midcore-Game before, so what defines those games?
Actually it just seems to be a "better-sounding-version" of "a game everybody can play".

So what defines those games?
  • Easy entrance
  • Well made tutorials
  • Simple core mechanics
  • Low depth
  • Low skill requirements
  • Low time invest for progress
Sounds familiar? For me it does. I call those games "Casual-Games".

Midcore, from my point of view, is not a target audience. It is a part of the people who already play your game.
Every game has, at least in my opinion, 3 types of players that can be seperated by their investment in the game:

  • Occasional players
  • Midcore Players
  • Hardcore Players
So, whatdefines those types of players? I think it's the percentage of the game they experience.

But what defines to which degree a player experiences a game? His time invest.

Let's take WoW as an example since everybody probably knows it.
To play WoW truly Hardcore, to raid at the top, to pvp at the top, to have the best possible gear at the earliest possible point of a patch you just need four things:
  • Skill
  • Time
  • Luck
  • A good guild
That's it.
But, the time required to play at this level is probably something like 60-80 hours a week.
7 Days of 4-5 hour raiding, 2-5 hours a week for farming the stuff you need, and at least 15 hours of pvp. Time is probably the most limiting factor of them all, since (sadly) a week only has 7 days, and a day only has 24 hours.

So to play WoW on a true Hardcore-Level, you can't really have a fulltime Job.

For the Casual-Games I mentioned above, you just need on thing to play hardcore:

Some games require more Time than others, some let you pay to reduce the time you have to put in to play at the top.

But in the end, for every game, no matter how complex or simple, the more time you put in the better you get at it.
For casual games this might mean just having one more level in Farmville than your friends.
For complex games like Hearts of Iron this might be knowing every stat of every unit without having to look it up.

I guess you get the Idea.

With the current developement in the market, the time the customer invests in your game has become something highly interesting. People play on their mobile phones, their PCs, their consoles, their tablets, hell soon they might even play on their friggin glasses. Some people play 14 hours a day, others might just play 5 minutes.

So when deciding on your target audience, you should not just go for "Midcore" you should target a timeframe for your midcore-gamers.

A game that requires 4 session with5 minutes to experience about 50% of the daily content is very different from a game that requires 20 minutes in one session.
Even if the time the players have to invest to play on a hardcore level is the same, this still makes the two experiences as different as they could be.

I think a game has a casual-, a midcore, and a hardcore potential.
Casual players generally experience 0-20% of the game. Those are the guys that buy Skyrim and never kill a dragon.
Midcore players are the biggest chunk of your games audience, but are not an audience of their own, they experience 20-80% of your game. They might have beaten skyrim once, but never raised all skills to 100.
Hardcore players experience 80-100% of your game.

So when saying you are targeting a "Midcore"-audience... just don't frigging believe there won't be "hardcore players" in your game. If you forget to design stuff for them to do, you might loose a lot of potential revenue for F2P games.

Always remeber... 5% of your users will generate 99% of your revenues... and those 5% will be really passionate about your game!

That's it for now... I'll try to write more next month.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

2D and why I prefer it over 3D

Took me three months to finally find the time to write something. Not that I didn't try but I couldn't come up with interesting topics. Well now I found one, or at least I hope I did.

So 2D games. First things that come to mind are obviously old Nintendo games that somewhere made the jump from 2D to 3D.
I agree that Mario 64 was one of the best jump and runs of all time.
I also agree that Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask were great Zelda-games.
Metroid Prime also was a great game in it's own right.

But all of them originated in 2D installments before they went 3D.
I don't know how you feel about this but Super Metroid, A Link to the Past, and Super Mario Bros 3 rank pretty high in my personal "best games of all time".
I'm afraid it's partly due to the fact that I was younger when I played them at that I get nostalgic just thinking about them. But in my opinion those games were just amazing. Of course there could have been improvements, and of course there could have been additional features. But I just loved those games.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what mechanics and dynamics are totally impossible to create without 3D graphics. And there is not much I came up with. Most mechanics used in modern games have been around since the 90s. Yeah shooters like COD and BF are probably hard to create only using 2D graphics but it's definitely not impossible. Even the likes of Darksiders, God of War, and even Assasins creed could somehow be ported to 2D. I don't know if that would still be the same though since those games originally were 3D games.

Maybe it's because I grew up with 2D games, but in my opinion no 3D graphics I've seen to this day were much better than the sprites used in the last 2D games.
Suikoden for example was just beautiful. The sprites felt so alive. No 3D game has given me that feeling up to now. 3D games nowadays try to get closer and closer to reality. They get closer and closer to the uncanny valley. In the 2D-era nobody even had to care about stuff like that because it was simply impossible to create sprites that could even come close to looking like the real thing. So instead of improving the realism of their games the artists improved their symbolism. They were able to create emotional characters with so limited tools it would make a 3D artist kill himself.

Also the mechanics in the 2D era seemed much more polished. I don't know how many 3D games I came across in the past years that I just threw away saying "the controls feel stupid". Of course that happened with 2D games too, but not as often.
Most 2D games, no matter if old games from the NES/SNES/megadrive/... or new Indie-Games, have controls that just feel "right". I don't know if it's just me telling myself that 2D games are better, but that's how I feel about it.

2D games also tend to be harder than their 3D competition. Mega Man, Super Meat Boy, Cave story. They all are almost annoyingly difficult. Of course there are a ton of 3D games that are difficult, too. But if I pick up a random 2D game I am pretty sure it's harder to beat than the average 3D game. Maybe it's because 3D has become the mainstream, and many 2D projects come from small indie-devs and only target a smaller audience. But still I prefer challenge over simple entertainment. I guess no 3D games ever made me hate them so much that I just had to beat the crap out of them (I'm still waiting for the PC-version of Dark Souls).

Well that's my opinion on 2D games. They were more beautiful, bigger, had more emotional characters, just great artwork, more epic stories, sometimes a playtime the whole COD-series accumulated can't match, more symbolism, and they generally just did more with less possibilities.

In my opinion the current trend of doing everything 3D has made some studios get lazy when it comes to game design. Back in the day everything looked almost the same and you really had to do something innovative to catch the eye of your audience. But nowadays all you need is a guy that's giving half naked assassin-nuns headshots to create a hype... Or a soldier running through an airport killing innocents... or an assassin that just randomly jumps through a city killing people for the "greater good"...

Not that I don't like those games, but they are flat compared to the likes of Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, FF VI, Mega Man 2, Earthbound, Suikoden II, A Link to the Past, or Mario Bros. 3. Somehow it feels like our games went up one dimension in terms of graphic-design but lost one in terms of game-design and storytelling...

Well that's it... just my thoughts on 2D games and why I think 3D is not really an improvement.
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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Writing a Game-Design-Document

Alright, back to my usual posting-pace.

Since I've just started to write up design documents for some of my game-ideas, I thought it would be nice idea to give you my opinion on how to build such a thing.
Well the most important thing first: You WILL need a design document (unless you know exactly what you are doing).
No matter how much you hate writing one, it is really helpful throughout development. It doesn't have to be a word-document it can also be scribbles in your notbook or even a totally messed up excel sheet, but everybody who wants to see it has to be able to. Also you should make sure that you get that document laid out before anybody (except for the game-designer of course) actually starts working. It can save a great deal of work to let the designer just roam free with his ideas and then make him cut it down to a reasonable scope.

So how to start writing such a document. Well I (and as I said above that's just my opinion) always start with an elevator pitch. Just some short sentences where I try to capture the essence of the game I want to do. After that I add some references to games that are somewhat like my idea and point out why they are working so well and what we could learn (steal) from them.

After that I normally start listing the core mechanics, often this part of the doc gets pretty messed up because I never ever delete an idea I or somebody on the team had. I also try to already define basic mathematical formulas to get the programmers to understand what I want them to do.

Following after the mechanics I try to make a priority list with things the game needs to be great. This is sometimes pretty hard to do because the cool stuff you want to implement in the game will end up way at the bottom of the list. The stuff that's most important is pretty basic most of the time, like working physics, an editor and some basic mathematical stuff you need to make pixels move. Without that most games would just suck to play and suck to build.

After that I add restrictions. As I mentioned in another post, I love working with restrictions so I define some right from the beginning, like session length, level size, controls, what kind of technology do I want to, what is possible with it, how much can my team actually do in a given period of time, is the game casual or core, what audience am I targeting, etc.

Then I look for possible pitfalls. It's always good to know what could go wrong, since most of the time it will. Here I list every question I ask myself about the development. Stuff like "No idea how long building an editor will take" or "the team has never done something like this before", "the programmers have never worked with Ios". But also stuff that still has to be made clear from the upper categories like "I have need X mechanics, which would be the best to create the experience I want?"

Well and finally I add ways of prototyping that come to my mind. Not prototyping like programming but like using paper and some colored pencils, photoshop, or maybe even a board game I own. It's important to show something to a team that will pickup your project and something they can understand and see in motion will make your vision of the game much clearer than most of the stuff you wrote above this section of the document. If you can do some programming feel free to use it, but I'm not capable of writing a prototype on my own so I have to resort to papers and all that creepy real-life stuff.

So that's how I try to build my design documents. Usually I add some Excel sheets full of formulas and fancy math stuff for the programmers and at least some graphics that I think reflect the visual style I want to achieve for the artists. In another document (or a program) I handle tasks and all that stuff you need for planning. Whenever somebody says he will be done with task X in two weeks, it goes in there. And four weeks later I can hopefully mark it as done.

As I mentioned above it's just my way to build a design-document. It's not the holy grail of GDDs or anything. But I think it works out pretty will, since I can easily add sub-categories for everything and if somebody (the game-designer) looks to it that the document stays up to date you can always yell at people "But that's not what we decided to do when you all said yes to that document!".

In the end I guess it's a matter of taste how you build a design document, whatever works for your team is just fine. There is nothing worse than a document nobody ever read.

That's it for now, hope you liked it! If you have a comment on how to improve my document-structure or you think I missed some important (I don't consider art important *cough*) stuff just post it below!

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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Why gamers make a poor audience

All right, it is been over a month since my last post and I'm sorry for that.
But I really had my own school with getting a job, moving to another city and, well you know, somehow getting used to work.

But now to the topic at hand.
I believe gamers make a pretty bad audience for games.
Why you ask? Well gamers know all kinds of stuff about games, like what you can do, and what you cannot do. For them gaming is not just a hobby it's part of their everyday life. So if you are making a game for that audience you always have to consider their knowledge about games.
Whenever a gamer starts up a new game he always sees mechanics that have been used in other games before. Also most are used to the retail model of buying games as a whole. That's why there has been such an uproar when the first DLCs schowed up.

But there is another reasons why gamers are not the best target audience for games:

Generally gamers are broken, complain a lot about changes in the beloved gaming series, and about rusty old mechanics they've seen before, always want something new, and something special, and something that has never been seen before. I guess you can see how that target audience is pretty hard to satisfy.

In my opinion that's the reason why so many social- and browser-games have been showing up lately. They target an altogether different audience: non-gamers.
But why is it that games are starting to target other people than the average gamer? Well first non-gamers don't complain about anything, they are happy if they can just play a game. And another reason is, probably,that those people are actually ready to pay for micro-transactions.
As I have been digging my way through many browser games, I came to realize that most of this games are pretty simple. They require almost no skills, and they reward you for everything you do.
They also prompt you to spend money for pretty, shiny, cute, and all kinds of other features. And many non-gamers are actually ready to pay for those features.
The basic version of most browser-games is completely free so many people can try it out. Browser games are not aiming to get 50 bucks from yo, they are happy with little amounts of money and instantly give you the boost/item/skill/or whatever it was you bought. Some of them have no pvp aspects at all. Nobody can attack you or destroy what you created, but you can compete indirectly by who has the higher score. Some don't even have scores and feel just like multi-player tamagochi.

But all of those games you can see on Facebook or when you google browser-games have one thing in common: They make enough money to fill the stomaches of the guys who made them (most of the time). They generate more Money than you would think at first. And they do something else. They convert normal people into gamers. Even though they won't call them selfs gamers, they play a game, often every day of the week. And that is what I'd call a gamer.

The only thing that worries me right now is this: What will happen if all those browser-gamers out there are suddenly fed up and want to play something more... sophisticated. They'd probably go and play FTP-MMOs. Some of them might go play EvE, some might pick up WoW. And then we'd have to teach tons of noobs what real gaming is... MOORPG are not really known for having super-helpful communities or being very nice when asked questions by newbies... well we all went through it once.

Browser-games generate tons of revenue with really simple designs. They are more about being easy to learn then about being deep and challenging. They don't want you to smack your keyboard through your monitor in frustration (dark souls will finally come out for pc!), they just want you to lean back and click around a bit.
Also they don't require special hardware or installations. Most of them can be directly accessed via browser and don't even have a loading screen. They might feel like child's play to a seasoned gamer, but titles like Travian and other monsters out there can easily hook you to spend many an hour on a browser-game.

So lets sum why non-gamers a better better audience than gamers:
Gamers hate everything new, while wanting something new all the time.
Gamers are cheapskates.
Gamers can easily flood forums with bad comments about your game.
Gamers hate DLC/Microtransactions, basically anything that costs extra money.
Players hate new features while complaining about old features.
Players will notice every tiny little mistake you made, and will complain (again).
Gamers would have made that game a hundred times better than you.

Non-gamers on the other hand...
Don't know much about games and will experience many of your features as "new".
Are often ready to spent money for stuff gamers would never even consider giving you one cent for.
Have more money than gamers (because they don't buy 50 buck retail games)
Don't complain about stupid features, because many of them don't know that it could be done better/different
Don't notice mistakes you made in the design
Are just happy they can play your game

Now, if asked for which of those groups you would want to design if you had a fixed budget and timeframe, which would it be?

Unlike a few months ago I no longer think browser-games are evil and will kill everything in gaming I like. Now I feel they are an opportunity for the gaming industry to convert more people into dedicated gamers. Also they are interesting to monitor, there are no retail games out there we have nearly that much numbers and  fancy graphs on. You can learn a great deal from analyzing browser games and I guess everybody should at least take a look at them from time to time, since some of them seem to draw closer and closer to real games, with real challenges and, most important, the kind of "fun" gamers want to have while playing.

Well that's it for now. I hope I will fall back to my old pace of posting again, but I really got my hands full with work and almost had to force myself to write this right now.

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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27

Friday, 16 March 2012

Why you should not go on the Hero's Journey

I'm finished with my studies and currently looking for a job. So I have lots of time to play games and read books.

Currently I'm reading a lot about Storytelling and general narrative mechanics. As I mentioned in the Interactive Storytelling post from January I don't think that games are taking the right approach to storytelling. Many writers of game stories are people that come from classical backgrounds, most of them have a bestseller out there and many have a degree on writing, language, or whatever it is you study when you want to become a writer.

I don't think it's a bad thing to let those people write the stories we play through in our games. But I think they could give us more freedom.

Freedom of choice is something the Hero's Journey never included. But it is something incremental to games.

Games are a series of meaningful choices made in a controlled environment. That's what makes them so intriguing.

The Hero's Journey is not about freedom. It's about what needs to be done, about results and not about choice. Most movies and literature I came across are at least partially based on the work of Campbell and the Monomyth. But movies and literature are completely passive media. They do not require us to actually make a choice (apart from the one of reading/watching them). They tell a story and they are amazingly good at it. But games are totally different from a book or a movie:

They require the player to decide what to do next. 

Games give us the freedom to actually do whatever we want in a given world. They should not limit this power of choice they give us by a story we have to play through. Games should be the medium that lets us write our own stories. They should be a way to express oneself rather than a tool for reflexion and interpretation like books and movies are.

Some old definitions of game actually say that a game does not have a goal. They describe games as non-directional. They also say that a game does not need to reward the player with anything. A game is a game and therefor needs no interior or exterior motivation. We play because we want to.

So what does all that have to do with storytelling in games. Well from my point of view many current games are missing the opportunity to give the player some story of his own by deciding for him what to do next without him noticing. It's an art to design levels in a way the player does not notice he is being directed and level designers are basically paid for this. A great amount of work has been put into finding out how to control people in games without them noticing. It's just a way of suggesting freedom where actually is none. The way worlds are built controls how the player will move through them.
Again, I'm not saying this is a bad thing and it's something you can easily break through as a player.

But you can't break free from the chains of a story. You will at one point in the game hit a wall you can only overcome in one or two particular ways throughout the story. And that is something that shouldn't happen, at least in my opinion.

The player is more important for a game than the story. Without the player the game is nothing. It's not more than a book nobody has ever read or a movie nobody saw.
Games exist to create memories of great experiences. And if the story of a game hinders the player in the way he wants to experience things it cannot be a good thing.

Story has become incremental to games on the other hand. If people open up a Bioware game they want a great and epic tale of war, loss, and victory. If they play a God of War they want bloodlust, vengeance, and chaos.

Those types of games underlie their stories with gameplay that creates similar emotions the story generates.

So if we improve those mechanics, if we become better at making people experience something only through gameplay (and Kinect, the Wii and many many Indie-games suggest that's the way we are going), shouldn't we, at some point, be able to drop out the story and make the player create emotions without reinforcing them through dramatic stories? I hope we can.
Of course mechanics alone will never create an emotion (at least for people different from me). It will need carefully designed levels, a setting that hints enough for the player to start imagining what happened around him and what is happening right now. You will still have dialogues and many, many choices in your games. But the stories will be different. The stories will be something unique. They will differ from player to player. They will affect us like nothing in a game ever affected us before. The joy of being able to write your own story while having a controlled environment is the most intriguing part of games. And this is the part we should work to improve. And a strict guideline on how to write up stories won't get us anywhere if we really want games to be "Interactive Experiences".

The only game I can think of that comes with enough freedom to be called that up until now is Dwarf Fortress and some roguelikes that are quite similar to it.
The degree of interaction is the one thing that differentiates games from movies or literature, yet shooters and even the newest RPGs seem to strive to become interactive movies. They want to tell a story to the player, rather than offering him an opportunity to write his own one within the game.

This is just my own opinion on the topic, as always.

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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Working with constraints

If you had to choose between making a game of your choice or working on a pretty much laid out design with all it's constraints and requirements, what would you do?

I think this is an important question every game-designer should ask himself.

I would probably go for the latter. Throughout the projects I worked on so far the most fun part was working out how I can create mechanics that exactly fit to the constraints I was given.
And the games I designed while working with constraints turned out to be much better than the ones where I could just do what I wanted (at least I think so).
If I just sit down and start designing something, most of the time it will turn out to be an RPG of sorts, because I just love the combat mechanics and the possibilities the genre offers me. But the design will always end up too huge to be done by me alone. There always are too many things at once.

When I sit down with some restraints or goals on how the game should work on the other hand, I feel this is completely inverted. I start thinking about how I can achieve the goal with only one or two mechanics.
This is actually more fun for me than just doing something I want. And it's important to know this for myself, because I can use other patterns to work this way.

When I was younger and designed my first card and board games I would just design something, without spending a thought on the consequences, the dynamics, I would create with that decision.
Nowadays when I want to design something I first sit down and write up a list of dynamics I think to be fun to play around with. I might actually be limiting my creativity by doing that, but I am also limiting the number of wrong decisions I can make during the design process. I rather have a framework to look at for reference than to start designing into the blue.

But if I break apart the process of working with restraints it turns out to be just as creative as working without them, if not more so. Working with constraints makes you solve the problems with creativity instead of creating them. If you can do what you want you will always end up in a mess. If you have a framework of sorts you can always look at it for reference and will kick out mechanics that don't fit the framework. But if you really want a mechanic in the game even though it does not fit your framework you might actually come up with a different mechanic that results in the same dynamic or aesthetic for the gameplay.

And that is, in my opinion, the sort of creativity you need as a game designer. The ability to create a mechanic tailored to be the solution to your design problem. You don't face this problem when you are just designing aimlessly, since you can just alter things that are in your way, but if you work with strange combinations of constraints you will find yourself thinking about mechanics you have never seen or heard of, you will truly create something new.
Those mechanics might not be funny as standalone, but if you think they might work for your problem why not try them out?

I was recently asked by a friend what kind of Mobile-Game I would advise him to make. He did not have any idea what he wanted to do. I asked him for maybe twenty minutes what the game should be like, so I would get at least two or three constraints for my design-rambling out of him. But he wouldn't give me any.
So I started to write a list once again, thinking about what mobile devices are capable of and what not. I don't own a smart-phone, so I borrowed his to get a feeling for the size of the screen, how big a sprite has to be to etc.
I made a list from all the things I could imagine that might somehow influence how games for the smart-phones might work. Then I made another list of the possible gestures you can enter into those devices. And then another list of conventions for mobile-games I know about, like short play-sessions and such things.

Putting all lists together I thought about what kinds of games would be fun to play. And I ended up with a small list of core mechanics the games could be build around.
Stuff like "point to destroy" (shooters) or  "hold to charge" (racers, tiny wings).

Basically none of the core mechanics I came up with seemed to be something new and fun. But I started mixing up genres and dynamics a bit and had a great time thinking about the weirdest concepts. I really enjoyed coming up with stuff I never thought doable, when I looked at my list of constraints.
By the end of the day I had a list for that friend with some very rough concepts I thought to be doable with his team size and programming skills. The concepts were really really rough because I didn't want to lay out the full design for them, but with the few words I used I think I conveyed the basic ideas of the concepts. Here are two of them, just as examples:

Reverse defend your Base ("point to create"):
  • Fight one big boss ship by sending out waves of small ones
  • Upgrade your ships after each boss
  • 3-4 Types of ships (maybe more, but make sure buttons are big enough and the action is visible)
  • Different tactics for bosses

Fall Down-game ("slide to control"):
  • Sprite falls downwards and has to be protected by drawing "slides"
  • Short levels
  • Variety of obstacles, some killable some have to be evaded, some collide with slices...
Yeah I'm aware that both has been done before, but I haven't seen it on phones yet.
I was able to come up with such small and relatively simple concepts that still could be funny because I knew the constraints I was working with. If I hadn't wrote that two lists he would just have gotten a Dragon Quest clone for smart-phones from me.

So in the end I think working with clearly defined constraints is better for creativity than just starting to design something without any goal or plan.

It's just an experience I made over the last year:
Design a rough concept with clear goals, constraints, and core mechanics, after that is done and has been tested you can start adding the fancy stuff.
Especially when designing board or simple video games there are tons of tools to prototype your concepts, even if you don't know heck about programming. Just do it on paper. Or get a friend to program it for you. There is always a way to test your stuff without a computer!

Well that's it for now, just my opinion on the topic. I don't think good game designs fall from the sky into the brains of the designer, but are created through creative problem solving, testing, and iteration.

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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Serious Games...

This has bothered me for quite some time now, so here are my thoughts on the subject.

Serious games are made to teach people something.
Wait, what?
Exactly that is their purpose, nothing else. They want to teach you something. Teachers and other highly educated parts of society seem pretty amazed by the idea.

I... Well...I just hate the idea that my favorite waste of time could turn into something used in school. I mean I slept through some hours in school so I could get more time for gaming. And now they will allow me to play during the sessions?
There has to be a catch somewhere...
The catch is, those games are just not fun to play!

I don't know if some of you came across some of the teaching games out there. The ones that want to be a game rather than a tool for teaching. Math Blaster and the likes.

The idea to teach through games is great and I support it from deep within. But the way the creators of those games go about it is, in my opinion, just plain wrong.
They have teachers, psychologists and who knows who else come around to help them make their games. Of course they have a game designer (at least I assume they have) but that guy probably has as much to say as I had in school when I yelled out that the lesson was boring (by sleeping on the table *cough*).

The games I came across up until now that call themselves "Serious Games" all were pretty annoying. They were boring, had deep flaws in their game design, and ,above all else, just felt like being taught something, like sitting in one of those white plain classrooms again.

Games can teach us a great deal, but not with conventional classes that are just dressed up as games.
To teach somebody something you have to spark his imagination and inborn curiosity. If you manage to do that they will look for more information on their own. Isn't that what teachers are probably dreaming about? Just telling a part of their wisdom and igniting their disciples with curiosity so they wander off and learn on their own?
I never felt that from a real "Serious Game". They always felt like they were limiting me rather than expanding my knowledge or getting me curious on the topic.
At least the commercial software seems to be anything but a games. Those things are lessons you can experience in an environment that looks like a game.
There are many games out there that can teach you a great deal about many things, but it always depends on the one who's playing them.

So how would I go about making a serious game?
I wouldn't, it's as simple as that.
If the product should still be a game then you can't focus on teaching through it, because games have to be fun and learning is work. What I would do is give the player the opportunity to learn something while playing, and only if he wants to.
Most of my historical knowledge comes from playing too much Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Total War and Empire Earth. The campaigns in AoE had their main characters stories told to the player while he would wait for the next scenario to load. Nobody forced me to listen. But as a deep voice told of Jeanne D'arc, William Wallace, El Cid, and all the other characters that had their own campaigns built around their story I became curious and read about them because a game offered me a different approach than school did. I could experience their hardships and battles together with them, and as I did I learned something about history. The same Goes for AoM. ALL I know about mythology I learned from that game. Sure I read up on stuff that really interested me, but without the game I would only have learned the basic stuff in school and just forgot about it after the test. I would never have picked up a book to read up on the stories of that certain northern god, or the Egyptian view on the afterlife.

If you want somebody to really learn something don't make them do it, don't just tell it to them. Humans learn by doing, by exploring, by researching things they are interested in.
If you want to teach something, show enough to get them curious.
And make it possible for them to feed their curiosity. Don't just throw facts at them.

And that's why I can't take "Serious Games" serious. They don't account for the fact that everybody is different. Many people have played the games I mentioned above but I doubt many have learned from it like I did.

Before everything else, games have to be fun to play for everyone.
Include a small wiki in your game (like Shogun and many others did) on some related topics and there will surely be someone reading it, and that one person is interested in the stuff he is reading. And that one person will probably learn something new from it.

Apart from those valued skills we are taught in school games are good at teaching other things that are just as important to live as math.
And games even teach you math.
They teach you the understanding of systems.
They give you the skills to analyze situations.
They give you models for the real world.
All that in an environment you can choose! There are games about almost everything, so choose what you want to play and learn about!

Games are already teaching so many things to young people, I don't think we have to kill their desire to play games when school is over by making them play poorly designed games during their lessons. Every game teaches something, even the ones being badmouthed by society. If you take them apart you will always find patterns you could actually use in the real world if you alter them ever so slightly.

I don't disrespect people who make serious games or want them to stop doing it. I just think they will hit a roadblock sometime soon.

Every game out there can teach valuable lessons to the correct people. And the bigger your audience the higher the chances your game reaches someone who can learn something from it, maybe even without realizing it. And if just one person learns something new from your game, or has an experience he can be found of, all the work you put into the game paid off (not with money but... you know what I mean).

Well that's it. Hope I didn't rant to much on school and learning, I actually quite like learning something new nowadays... But in my way.

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Thanks for reading
Vaizard 27