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LittleBigClass volume 1: Write it up!

Hi, I’m Danielle, and I’m going to be your teach… er, writer for a series I’m doing on my game design fundamentals class. Each week, I’ll be writing updates and impressions from the perspective of a teacher using LittleBigPlanet as a tool/gateway drug into the mad world of game design, so get your console fired up and your notebook at the ready.

It’s Monday night, and we’re in week 5 of our journey across time, space, and LittleBigPlanet. After a little pow-wow regarding changes to the syllabus, we’re off and running on a lecture about game design documents (sort of like the blueprints for a game). We take a look at David Jaffe’s spec for Calling All Cars. We browse through the original BioShock pitch document and marvel at the (ridiculously early) art and original story premise. We take a peek at the Grim Fandango puzzle design document. Then, I send them off to work in groups on a design document expedition.

This gives me a few minutes to catch my breath and plan the next steps. This is my first semester teaching game design specifically, though last spring I taught a game-y course in interactive storytelling. The difference here is that once my students have the basic concepts down, they’re actually going to build everything. Instead of going the more traditional route and designing a bunch of paper games, we’re going to make everything in LittleBigPlanet.

I actually designed this entire course around the toolset in LBP – partially because I want to really unleash them in a deep, accessible, creativity-friendly world that won’t discourage them, and partially because I want them to have something truly portfolio-worthy coming out of the class. They’ll have two fully fleshed out design documents, pitching experience, and at least two solid LBP levels to their names upon getting out.

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These are grad students in their first leg of the game design track, which is evolving at NEU at a dizzying speed, so I needed to give them some “portable” skills that they can take with them no matter what side of production they’re going for, or what engine/operating system/what have you they’ll be designing on. LBP is, in my opinion, the very best non-technical design tool you can get your paws on. Media Molecule’s hiring of promising designers from the community only proves that point, as does the fact that they make all of their on-disc stages with the packaged toolset. It’s amazing stuff – and I’m genuinely excited to be able to use it in a classroom setting.

Teaching is…

a weird balance between organizing and improvising (there’s plenty of communication in there too). The last month has taught me a little bit about that, since equipment issues and scheduling problems have messed with my grand vision for the class. I’ve made lots of changes to the syllabus since we began – and I’m sure I’ll make a few more by the time we’re done. But I have no time to worry about that now, because it’s presentation time.

In order to prep for their first project (which consists of a full design document and level sketch for a complete “game” in LBP, as well as a formal pitch presentation for their work), I’ve had them do a little research in their groups. They each found two design docs, which they’re critiquing and presenting to the rest of us.

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It’s a pretty great mix – both groups picked an example of an awesome, complete design doc and an abysmal failure, so the critiques are going well. Hilariously, one group even picked the design doc for an earlier version of Duke Nukem Forever, and they go through the entire (incredibly colorful) description of the level at hand, a trek through Vegas that includes shrink rays, unborn alien babies, a splash in the pool, and a bizarrely placed inflatable dinosaur.

I surprise them all by making them pitch the game based on their good design doc on-the-fly, just to get them used to talking on their feet. It’s a huge part of their first and third projects, and presentation skills are an absolute must for any successful designer, so I don’t feel too bad about putting them on the spot. It’s a pretty informal atmosphere, so that helps as well. They all do remarkably well, which is comforting, since it means they really got into the assignment and are ready for their next step (actually writing and pitching for themselves).

My students, it must be said, are awesome. I have six, which is perfect, since we can really go one-on-one and talk games all evening long. We can talk about what each person is playing in each session, and we’ve come up with at least three commercially viable, amazing-sounding game ideas since the beginning of the semester. Tonight, we even talk about the handling of sexual relationships in Mass Effect, which, if you listen to Jumping The Shark, you’ll know is a favorite subject of mine. This job would be a complete slog if they weren’t involved, funny, interesting people, and I really can’t wait to see their creations.

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Next week, we’ll be spending a few hours with LBP tutorials, and I’m sure I’ll be asked a few questions about how to do things I’ve never tried in game before. That’s the fun part of teaching – thinking on your feet. Or, in this case, thinking on your controller.

Check out every installment of LittleBigClass here!

Danielle Riendeau

What I do for work: spend my days as the ACLU design/code/video ninja, write about games, make (tiny) games, teach digital media at Northeastern University. What I do for fun: all of the above, plus lots of running, fitness fun, filmmaking, outdoor exploration, world travel, sci-fi everything.

3 thoughts to “LittleBigClass volume 1: Write it up!”

  1. I’m curious if the groups went looking for good and bad design documents, or if they started by looking at the quality of the games and then went back to critique their design docs. I mean, if basic names and locations were changed, would the Duke Nukem Forever doc still set off alarms as a doomed project?

    The reason I ask is that Bruce Geryk once wrote an interesting column on Quarter to Three about how drastically Master of Orion 3 had veered from its original design. That first concept actually sounded pretty neat, but when one critical component was dropped partway through development, the remaining pieces just plain didn’t work right.

    It would be interesting to know how well the class would do at predicting the quality of games based solely on their original design docs…minus any easy identifiers, of course….

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