The Game Made in a Decade

Published Jun 18, 2024

Hello! Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Hello everyone! I’m Professor Tracy Fullerton, and I created Walden, a game. I’m an experimental game designer, writer, author and educator, while also being director emeritus of the USC Games program.

Aside from Walden, a game, I’ve worked on several influential independent games with our research center, the Game Innovation Lab. Some of the well-known games we’ve made there are Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Night Journey, with artist Bill Viola, and of course, Walden, a game, a simulation of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond.

Walden, a game is the video game representation of Thoreau’s experiment. It follows the loose narrative of Thoreau's first year in the woods, with each season holding its own challenges for survival and possibilities for inspiration. If you’re looking for a narrative experience with slow, cozy gameplay, then this definitely fits what you’re looking for.

Do you have a favorite game to play?

You know, that’s almost an impossible question to really answer. It’s, like, the same as asking, “What's your favorite movie?”, “What mood are you in?”, “What's your favorite song?” I mean, come on, that's an impossible question to answer! So you kind of have to qualify it by mood, who you're playing it with, what systems you have, etcetera.

So if I'm playing a game with maybe my nieces and nephews, then Super Smash Brothers, right? If I'm playing a game quietly by myself, I think I love sort of beautiful experiences like Journey or The Stanley Parable, right? If I'm thinking about systems, then I would say something like Chess.

If I'm thinking about cozy, you know, sort of make me feel good games, then I'm thinking about Animal Crossing. And if I'm thinking about social experiences, then I'm watching baseball. I don't know. There’s no definitive, singular answer. It's a wide range of moments, emotions and experiences, and I can only answer it in that way. Maybe some people come up with their favorite game of all time, their obsessive favorite game of all time, if you will. But this is my honest answer, at least.

What got you interested in gaming?

It's such a crazy thing. So I'm a bit older than most people who are listening to this. So when I was growing up, there were no video games. The first games that I played were board games. And then they got more and more complicated.

I got more and more into them, like Dungeons & Dragons and things like that. I remember my first experience with digital games was Pong. My parents were very much early adopters, and we stood in line to get that black and white, you know, Sears, Roebuck and Co. pong game. And I was enthralled!

I remember that my dad set it up with an A/B switch. So the television would go between, you know, watching it, and there were like, three channels plus PBS. And then there was this Pong thing. And so this A/B switch was magic to us, and you could flip it into this mode where we would lay on our stomachs for hours and play it. It was magical to me, and I never really thought that I would be a game designer.

I did a lot of things as a kid. We put on plays. I made Super 8 movies. We built a mail system in our neighborhood where we deliver local mail, and we built a telegraph system in our backyard. We would build things.

Building and tinkering

One of the things we got early on was an IBM PCjr, and we started programming. And so we built a game, right? Built Tic Tac Toe. But I had seen the movie WarGames. So we built it around this idea that it was a global thermonuclear war and that if you lost Tic Tac Toe, then it would blow up.

So I think for me, games were part of a spectrum of theater, film and comic books that we were writing… experiences that we were creating… and we had this sort of local group of kids where we were making stuff. We were makers. And there wasn't a lot of opportunity back in the seventies when I was growing up as there wasn't a lot of other media.

There was no internet for us to go on. There were, like I said, only three channels and PBS. We did go in religiously and watch, like, Kimba the White Lion and Speed Racer, but there wasn't a lot of distraction, right? So we were making all the time. I think that's how I became a game designer. 

It was because of making stuff and not because of games. It was because we were constantly making things. Eventually, as I grew up, I actually went to film school. And then after film school, got a job at an interactive laserdisc company.

Games became the most interesting thing you could do. And that's how I got into the most interesting problem-solving, most interesting sort of experience creation. And that was the path, the sort of meandering path that led me to start to understand games as how I could express myself, how I could tell the stories that were important to me, and how I could understand the world in a way that was an inclusive experience.

They weren't just images on a screen. It wasn't just words on a page or images on a page. It was this sort of inclusive, holistic experience that I was creating for other people to engage with and build their own experience around. So that's the long answer, I guess—The meandering answer to the meandering path.

What was Spiderdance?

Okay, so first of all. So Steven Hoffman, Naomi Kokubo… there were several of us who were co-founders of Spiderdance Inc. And we began that company based on a massively multiplayer technology that we had built.

And we actually built some original IP on it. But at the time, it was really hard to get a million people together on your original IP, unless it was like Everquest or something. So we built this really interesting technology where we can service all these people at once. What's the best way to get so many people playing all at once? Because co-watching television and playing games at the same time was a real phenomenon. 

Our idea was, “Oh, people are watching and playing at the same time. So what if we synchronized those experiences and we made watching television this massively social activity?” So that was the sort of core for people who aren't familiar with Spiderdance. It was a technology based on a theory of massive social media before Facebook and all that.

So the idea was we would attract people with the television shows and then put up the URL for the game, and people would go and they'd interact with each other, and they'd have this great time. And sometimes there'd be prizes!

Sort of backing off of things like The Weakest Link for a minute, our very first partner in this was MTV. And what was so interesting is that we had built this technology. And then I heard through the grapevine that MTV was making this show with Ahmet Zappa, where they wanted to do exactly the same thing. They wanted to build a television show with virtual contestants. And, you know, it was called WebRiot.

Building WebRiot

And there were, like, these three online on-screen contestants, and then there were millions of other contestants at home who could also win the game. And you just have to understand that this was prior to Zoom and web calls and everything. And so there was this idea that at least one of the people would show up on this fancy webcam. And it was crazy for the time. This is back in 1998, that’s when we started building it.

So I kept calling. I kept calling the MTV office, and as I was calling and calling… they didn't take my call because I was, well, a nobody! And then I went and happened to speak on a panel at CES, and the executive in charge of it was in the audience, he ran up in the line after the talk, and he said, “We need to talk.” And I take his card. I've been calling his office every day.

And so, of course, you know, long story short, we did get the contract to build out the online component to WebRiot, and that was really the way that the company was able to get its legs under it. And then, of course, we were able to secure funding and go on to work with larger partners like The Weakest Link and folks like NBC and stuff like that.

So it's a funny thing. it might be intimidating, and, well, it's also just hard to get the call. And you don't know when. You don't know when as an indie developer, when and where the call might come. So that's a funny story about being ready for the call is, like I did, call 300 times, and then when they come to you, you're ready.

Can you tell us more about Walden, a game?

First of all, it was a long, lengthy labor of love because there was no one to pitch this game to. No one would’ve said, “I'll give you a bunch of money to make a game about Thoreau.” It's just not gonna happen. Although, ironically, almost 20 years later now, survival games are quite popular.

So it's an ironic thing that back in 2007 when I started making this game, it was actually the most outrageous thing I could think of creating. You know, when people say, “Well, what are you working on” at parties? I'm like, “Well, we're working on this game about Henry David Thoreau.” And people were like, “Why?” 

To me, first and foremost, this is a game about time and how we spend our time in life.

It's not a game about survival. It's a game about how we thrive versus how we survive. So it has, as a kind of MacGuffin survival system for those who aren't familiar. It's a red herring, right? So it's, it's a red herring that this is a game about survival.

And if you play it as a game about survival, you will not necessarily thrive in the game. And if you only played it for a few minutes, you might not have experienced anything I'm talking about. So I will tell you that it is a slow burn. Basically, this is a game where you first go out and you survive in the woods, but there are turning points where you start to understand that you are in there for other reasons. Thoreau did not go out to the woods to prove that he could live in the woods.

He knew he could live in the woods; it was only 2 miles from his house. So he went out to the woods to, as he says, reduce life to its sort of simplest form and see what else there was to discover. So, yeah, we're surviving, but if we put all this effort into surviving and then building a bigger cabin and get a fancier fishing pole and all this, like, tacking up, as we do in our survival games, we're gonna miss the point. So it's basically a game about a particular kind of exploration, an exploration of the soul.

You can explore the whole woods. There's a great huge woods to explore in the game. But what you wind up finding if you do that exploration is this connection of the human soul to nature. And our woods change subtly day to day in the game. It changes from season to season.

There are eight seasons in our world because Thoreau didn't believe that four seasons were enough. So it's a subtle change, a shift in mindset over the course of the game. And there are ancillary stories that are being told. His relationships with his family, with his mentor, with other writers, with social moments like the Abolitionist Movement. So there's a lot of other stories that he's related to that are being told throughout these eight seasons, this year that you spend in the woods.

That's all a long way to say that this is an impossible game to pitch for funding. And back in 2007, it was a ridiculous idea. So we started paper prototyping and then making small digital prototypes and then making bare-bones 3D prototypes. Once we sort of figured out the system, the underlying system and all the elements, it was about 2013 or 2014…maybe even 2012, when you started seeing grants come out that were speaking to video games.

Getting grants

So, like, the NEA changed the wording of its media artist grants, and we had gotten a media artist grant for The Night Journey with Bill Viola, but he's an established artist, and it was way back in 2004 or 2005. That was one of the first media artist grants that the NEA would have ever given to The Night Journey.

I think it was between 2012 and 2013… somewhere around there, they rewrote the verbiage of the call for media artist grants for the National Endowment for the Arts and included video games. And so of course my team and I were like, “Boom, jump on it!” And we applied and got a grant, and, you know, it was tiny. It's $40,000 if I remember correctly, and that's tiny.

Anyone who makes video games knows that you're not making a fully immersive 3D world with like six hours of content in it for $40,000, even with a small team. But we used it to start getting more interest. We got selected for the Sundance Workshop for New Frontiers and got mentored by a lot of really great other media creators. We also then applied for and got another grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. So that really sort of kickstarted us.

Meeting people and more challenges

We were able to bring some people on, just a couple of people on, not completely full-time, but enough to hit goals. So we weren't just doing it in our spare time kind of a thing, but we were able to bring some people on and able to really start building out the more media-intensive parts of the world as we had a fair idea of the system through paper prototyping and rough digital prototyping.

It was a very incremental experience, producing a game of this scope with limited to no resources and then, you know, just for the TMI part of it. In 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to take some time off. And all these things just started coming in and sort of saying, “Don't make this game.” And yet I persisted. so, you know, eventually we were able to make the game. We were able to talk to some pretty great people into participating with us.

So Emile Hirsch plays the voice of Thoreau. We had Michael Sweet, who's an absolutely brilliant composer and audio designer, do our dynamic audio system. It was composed and then recorded at the Berkeley School of Music. The score, which I think brings the whole thing alive and really makes it emotional, was really integral to the overall experience. So we had some amazing people along the way, including the folks at the NEH, NEA, Sundance and our other supporters.

With Walden, I call it the Tom Sawyer method of producing. It's basically, you make the fence look so cool to paint that people come and like, “I'll give you an apple to paint this part of your fence.” You're like, “Bring it on.” So that's what we did, and we did it for a decade.

What would you have done differently if you could have?

That's so hard to answer because the right answer is the one I give my students at the end of the process—scope it down. Scope it down. However, I'm so happy with the way we were able to articulate Thoreau's world in such a deep, rich way.

Had we scoped it down, I feel that it would not have been a full vision of his world. I think, honestly, we did the best job we could of articulating this, like, 200-page book in this six-hour-long experience. It actually takes about as long to play the game as it does to read the book. And I would say maybe half to a little bit more of the book is in the game represented either as a system, as a piece of media, you know, as a piece of text, like we are representing the book. I feel we did our duty to the book.

We did it. And had I scoped it down, had I made a little thing about just surviving in the woods, which is, quite frankly, when I see other people who've done as people do in Minecraft and stuff like that, that's what they do. They didn't actually translate the philosophy. They just translated: “I’m at a pond fishing!”

Creating a meaningful experience

We wanted to translate the philosophy. And it's hard to scope down the test of a philosophy, which is what this is. I want to test my philosophy about living simply in life through the seasons of a year. How do you test a philosophy if you don't challenge people to live it and discover its nuances? If you don't have them go through an emotional arc of that year?

He was there for two years, two months and two days. But he writes the book over the course of the year, and then he says at the end of it, and the second year was very much like it. So he takes the course of a year as his bookends, and that's what we did, too. And there is an arc in the book. It is not really a story, but it is an arc of how a year goes.

And it begins in the easiest, most lovely part of the year, in the summer, and it gets harder and harder. And then we come to the spring with the rebirth and the recommitment to the theme, and we had to have that arc. And that meant that this game had to represent this whole year. It had to challenge you to respond as nature changed. 

Could you tell us about your monetization scheme?

Okay, so you don't know that this is hilarious because the very first price for the game was $18.45, which is the year that thorough went to the woods. And that was on itch, where they let you price anything. When we went to PlayStation and Xbox, of course, we had to have the .99 ending because they don't allow you to price a game at $18.45. It had to be $18.99. And we're like, well, then our joke doesn't work, right? So I'm being flippant.

We did do research at the time when we first came out. So we first launched in 2017. There's life before COVID and there's life now. And you can't really remember the years before. So we did our research about what a six-hour indie game should cost, and most of them were around between sort of $14.99 and $19.99.

So around $15 to $20. We thought, okay, we'll be $18.45 because it sounded so right to us. So that's what we launched at, $18.45, and. And that was great for us. And then, of course, we would go on sale, and we'd see these bumps and listen.

There's no marketing math behind our strategy. It's literally us going, let's cut the price so more people can have it. So our strategy literally is completely shooting from the hip. We're like, oh, now all those same games are, you know, $9.99, so let's be that. And it's a few years old, so let's give people a break.

And then if it's $9.99, we can go on sale all the time, and it can be $4.99. And so now you'll find us on sale a lot at $4.99. So most people who buy the game will probably get it at $4.99. And also, it just, like, allows us to be a little bit viable in terms of bringing some money and keep supporting the game.

We kept building. So there's the commercial version of the game, and then what you may or may not have noticed is on the website, there's a section for teachers, and we kept building, and so we made web-based versions called “modules”. There are five modules that are free for teachers that take excerpts from the game, and some of them actually extend. So there's like a whole civil disobedience module that is content.

Some of it is in the game, but we took it a lot further. So there are modules for teachers that have associated curriculum, which was a whole different development process we did. After we launched the indie game, we wanted to have some revenue, so we kept putting it back into this educational version, and then just supporting the website for teachers. Teachers hit our website a lot, but we give it away for free. So we just need some money to pay for our website so teachers can continue to use the games.

And so that's the entire theory. You know, upkeep. We just need a cycle of upkeep so we can keep casting our spells.

Can you share your current numbers?

I mean, it's actually a pretty evergreen game, to be honest with you. We didn't launch on all our platforms all at once. That's the other thing. So we launched on, then we launched on Steam, then we launched on PlayStation, then we launched on Xbox during COVID. And every time we launch a new platform, it's a whole new set of players. So we actually had a huge response to the Xbox launch during COVID. It was our biggest launch to date, frankly. Which was the right time for a game about living in the woods.

So our biggest launch was Xbox during COVID, but because we've taken, you know, we took so long to launch on each platform, there's, like, a whole new batch of players there who haven't had the game. Xbox was our first worldwide. Well, I guess you count Steam and, but it was our first worldwide console launch, so there are a ton of international players.

We get all these letters saying, when will you be porting the game to German? You know, and I'm overwhelmed, like, guys, it’s just me here!

I have all the sheets, and I've never had time to add them up. But, I mean, during COVID we also were part of all these free packs that millions have downloaded. So the answer is millions. I just don't know how many exactly. In fact, that's one of the reasons I freaked out recently. There was that whole thing about Unity and back paying and for units possibly having to back pay for units per download. I was like, no! Fortunately, they backpedaled it. So it's all okay now.

I gave them away to teachers and everyone for free. We made the game completely free to teachers and parents educating at home during COVID and that was the commercial game we gave away for free. Then during that time, we were making the modules. So now they're free.

And we still offer a discount to classrooms for the indie game. But now we just basically say, here are the modules for you. If you're teaching with it, that's easier. It's usually easier in a classroom to not have to download and install anything. But, yeah, millions of players, honestly.

Public reception

And we get letters, I swear to God, the range of letters is hilarious. Everything from really older players who are like, “I have never played a game like this since Myst…” and “I've never been so interested in playing a game.” and “This game was so interesting to me and I now come home every night and look forward to chasing rabbits through the forest and basically living my life in the woods.”

And that's so beautiful. I've gotten letters from people. It's their first, first-person POV game that they've ever played. It’s so interesting to teach people how to be in an immersive first-person experience. We think, of course, as gamers that it's completely natural. But it's absurd to think that it's completely natural to be moving one's feet with four keys and moving one's head around with a mouse. That is not natural.

When you're walking around the world, you don't think like this as you walk. You just… walk. But of course, in 3D worlds, one can move one's head all the way around when walking forward and backward. And then you have to break that down and teach it to people who've never done it before. And it's just fascinating.

By the way, this is a part with The Night Journey as well, teaching folks at art galleries who may or may not have ever played a first-person experience how to navigate in a world. And in that case, in The Night Journey, it's a very surreal world with very few visual landmarks. So that one was crazy to have to teach new players how to navigate a 3D immersive experience, right? So we get letters that keep saying, “This is the first game I've played since Myst and I love it!”

And I just reach out and tell you how much I love it. I love the letters from students, younger people who are like, “We read this book in class and I hated it, but then we played the game and now I get it.” And that speaks to me. Because I think this book is about the same things we're wrestling with today. He was writing at a time when life, the speed of life was increasing due to technologies that were taking over, right?

So they were dealing with the telegraph, which is like the internet of its time, right? They call it the Victorian Internet, right? They were dealing with the telegraph and the train. And cables across the ocean being able to tell you what was happening in Europe. And to those people, the speed of information was accelerating so fast.

It's the same way we feel today, that with, you know, with social media it's just everyone knows everything all at once. Boom. Our pods of learning are intersecting from all around the world, and we are influencing each other and changing and learning and growing as a species so much faster.

Understanding Thoreau’s message

Well, that's what he's writing about, and he's writing about, if I slowed it down for a minute, what could I learn? What is essential in this world where things are speeding up so quickly? And I think that's really important for us to think about.

We have slow games. We have slow music. We have slow architecture. We have slow food, and people want to understand, like, what does it mean to slow our lives down a bit? Where are the essentials? How do we judge? How do we value the essentials? One way to do that is to just strip away the things that are complicating our lives and begin to understand a little bit better what we really need versus what we think we need. 

So, to me, when kids are reading this book in classrooms, you know, they're sort of put off by his, you know, archaic long sentences. He has, like, paragraphs that are sentences, and it's weird because he has paragraphs that are sentences.

He's also one of the most pithy quoted guys out there. Right? So here he is saying, simplicity, simplicity, simplicity… And then he's got a paragraph of a sentence. There’s a stark contrast, and kids are put off by that. But then this game allows them to simply drop into his world and feel it, feel it all slow down.

Could you tell us a bit about The Night Journey?

That game is one that I made with the artist Bill Viola. The idea for that game was created by Bill, and he kind of got this media arts grant, and he went around and talked to a lot of game designers to try to find a group to collaborate with. He originally collaborated with a group at Intel, and they kind of wrote a spec for it. 

When I got the spec, I thought it was like, Myst with Buddhism. And when I had a meeting with Bill, I brought some games and my PlayStation. And I wanted to show him, I was so passionate when we met, and I wanted to show him that games could be this beautiful art form and that we didn't need to just have it be sort of puzzles, visual puzzles… that the experience of the game itself could be expressive, the system could be expressive.

When I look back on now, I just kind of laugh at myself. But at the end of the conversation, I'll always remember. And he's a really beautiful thinker. And Bill came up to me and he grabbed my shoulders and he said, “I love the way you think.” And I don't know if this is visual, but sparklers just went off behind me. And that's how I felt. When Bill said that to me, he got it through my naive sort of young passion. He got what I was trying to say, and he related it to his experiences as a young artist working in video, when video, as a medium, was snotted upon by the sort of traditional art institution.

And the idea of showing video art in a museum was ridiculous. He told me at one point, they used to put the video art back by the bathrooms. So for him, what he saw was a young artist. I got emotional because, you know, when you're seen, you feel that way.

A young artist trying to express themselves in a field that is not respected. So we worked together for a long time. Actually, when you're seen, it's very emotional and working with Bill. So this is before Walden. I had actually had the idea to make Walden before this.

Being inspired to do Walden, a game

Back in 2002, when I was traveling, I had written in my journal, and I'd been visiting the pond, and I said, “I want to make a game about this experience, but I don't know how.” I'd written that line in my journal. Then I met Bill in 2005, and then we started working on The Night Journey and then also taught Jenova Chen and worked with him on his games and working on Cloud and flOw. And so all those experiences, by the way, are what built up my confidence to go try to do Walden.

But going back to the experience with Bill, it was so interesting because as a game designer, we often start with our goals. He would say, we would like the game to be this. And that's why I would try to have those conversations with him. And he would always sort of gently steer the conversation off to these beautiful philosophical discussions and stories and expressions. And I realized that he was teaching me about his process.

I was trying to teach him about my process. Which I did. But he was teaching me about his process as an artist. And the design of the game was this sort of meandering experience where we would make a paper prototype and then come and have a philosophical discussion, and then we would make a digital prototype, and then we'd come and have a philosophical, and then we come back and forth between the two processes. And then the day that we, what I would call, “found it”, I was sitting.

I remember just sitting in my office, and we had been trying to make this sort of explorable video moment. And the mistake we were making, was like keeping with the idea that “a equals a”. It was very logical that the video would be the thing that you were looking at in the 3D world. And I made a mistake. I typed the wrong thing.

Instead of a tree and a tree, these birds came out of a tree, and my heart stopped. And I realized it's not “a equals a”. It's not logic. Poetry is about the collision of ideas. And so this was visual poetry, these birds coming out of this tree.

And then I went wild, and we started making all these combinations of things, right? And when Bill came the next time, he hugged me again and he said, “We got it!” And this was after a long time of discussions. And then we went and we started building out the world. We had this huge map of the world and all the ideas that he put in on poets that he'd given us to read.

And we started making these moments of these collisions between these two worlds, this 3D world that you're walking through, which is a kind of representation of sort of the edge of night in our lives. And then these video worlds, these reflections, which are the memories and the kind of the visions and the sort of spiritual world seeping through the “real world of our lives.”

And so, yeah, once we had the mechanic, then we could build the, you know, the stanzas of the poem if you will.

Could you share your experience as an educator?

So I was the founding director of USC Games, which is a cross-disciplinary sort of meta-program across a number of schools at USC. But I recently, several years ago, passed that on to Danny Bilson. And so I'm director emeritus of USC games, and I very gratefully have passed it on to Danny, who's done a fabulous job with the program. I am focused on the Game Innovation Lab, but also, kind of more focused on mentoring. I recently sort of retook the core undergraduate game design class, which is called Game Design Workshop.

So I recently retook over that class after a number of years teaching other classes and kind of becoming reinvested in teaching new young designers the bare bones craft of game design and how to really put yourself into the mindset of designing rather than the mindset of being a player, which I think are both extraordinarily valuable, by the way. And I think that becoming a better player, which we could talk about if we had a lot of time, is also a real passion of mine.

I actually am just completing a book with Matt Farber about how we play games. It's called the Well-Read Game, and it'll be coming out next year from MIT Press. But that's a real passion, how we become better players.

But in my class, it's really a focus on how we begin to learn to think like a designer and become a designer, both individually, but also importantly within teams. How we value the contribution of others and work well with others on this really wonderful, complex process.

It is that designing an experience for others, designing the potential for others to become playful, is so beautiful, it's so rich. I think the best designers are very generous people, and so it's almost like teaching generosity to young people who are coming to college. They're usually freshmen and sophomores who come into this class, and teaching them about that sense of generosity is really fun for me. It's really great. I love it.

Lesson for other creators

What I would reiterate for aspirants and learners is what I’ve said before—Scope. I'm trying to come up with a way to word it, but you must focus on the experience. And many young designers have a passion for a particular game or type of game, and they want to remake that game. But they want to add a feature or change features, and they're very, very focused on kind of recreating the experience that they had, but they're doing it by looking at the paint job.

Try to look at it beyond that, deeper than that. My point is, look at the experience. Look at what happened in your mind, in your heart, what unfolded to make you love it so much, what twists and turns and moments of epiphany unfolded to make you love that experience so much. 

And if you can articulate that, then you don't need to focus on someone else's paint job. You can get down to the bones of the game. You can get down to what were the rules, what were the sort of elements that led you to have those epiphanies that led you to have that experience. And once you can start to articulate your experience, then you can start to deconstruct those bones.

And that's what I'm trying to teach them. I'm trying to teach them that it is all about the experience, and that understanding your own experience will lead you to understand better how systems create experiences.

How does someone choose what to work on?

That's such an interesting problem for all of us, right? First and foremost, I don't know if you should say no to work or tasks or guidance. So especially when you're young, I feel like you should say yes a lot.

I had some of my best experiences by saying yes to things that I was hesitant about. I, for example, said yes to a game show. I was never a fan of game shows. I said yes to a game show and wound up making one of the projects I'm most proud of in my career called NetWits, which was a really early, online multiplayer casual game. Like, really early.

There were five people on the Internet, so we made a game for them. And I love it. I love its style. I love the team. There are still, every once in a while, prizes that I run across, and these were prizes that we gave away on eBay. It was set in the 1950s, so we gave, like, party lampshades away because you were the life of the party. So you wore it home. It just was a pleasure, an absolute pleasure. 

And if I had been in my snotty art student mode, I would have said, like, I don't want to make a game show. And I never would have had that experience. So from that, I actually learned. Say yes. Say yes to things that may be foreign to you. And then once you say yes, throw yourself into it 150%, like, 300%. Throw yourself, your whole commitment and every piece of yourself into it and make it full of you.

So, that's what I say to young people, saying yes a lot. And then as you get older, I think you start to realize you have less time. That's when it's important to start saying no because you have all these opportunities. And I don't know about you, but I'm a person to whom everything sounds good.

I'm like, “Oh, that's such a good idea, I want to work on it!” So I get overwhelmed because I say yes to too many things, and that's when you have to decide what your heart is set to. And then what's your heart project? What's the project that you need to make?, like, for example, Walden was a project I needed to make at the time that I said yes to Walden.

I also was saying yes to a whole bunch of other projects, you’d see them on my website that I did, which were great, but they weren't my heart projects. And I probably should have said no to some of them, because I really burned myself out by trying to do a bunch of projects all at once. And so that's a lesson that you learn as you get older, which is to do the thing that when your time is limited, you don't want to say you didn't do it. If somebody said, okay, you've got until tomorrow to make games. What are the games that you wish, you know, you really want to have made?

Do those. Don't just do the one.

Do you have anything to share about Game Design Workshop?

Yeah, so Game Design Workshop was first released in 2004, which is an eternity ago in terms of game design. This year, we have just released the 20th anniversary, the fifth edition of the book, which is the core textbook for many introductory game design classes. And for this version, what I really wanted to do was dig into some of the things that I see are difficult for young designers. So similar to what I was talking about before, this idea of the experience goals and specifically the emotional experience goals, I have found that over the years it is difficult for young people to articulate emotional experience goals.

So, you know, rather than saying it will be an immersive world, it'd be better to say that they will feel and be a part of the world. Immersion is a goal, but it's a kind of a technical goal in a way, So rather than saying that, you might say, for example, players will feel that they are part of an evolving culture, that their choices change the culture of the world. Now, this is an artistic goal. We have to figure out, what does that mean? 

Another example is, like, player-generated content. So you could say, my pillar is that there will be player-generated content. Okay, great. Check it off the box. Technical. The folks in technology come to me and they say, “We've made it possible for people to upload their pictures, whatever. Of penises, probably.

But you know, what if we articulated that differently? What if we said players would feel appreciated for their contributions to the game world? Right now, that basically implies that there's player-generated content we're going to contribute, but that there's a sort of a systemic element to how we appreciate that content. And I think it's important to articulate our goals in that way because otherwise they just become checkboxes

If we say I'm going to feel a sense of wonder around every corner of the world, that's different than saying there's going to be a lot of cool stuff in the world to find. So one of the things I've done in the book is really dive into this idea of setting emotional experience goals and testing. How do you test against those emotional experience goals? So I really sort of blew out that section a lot. I also got contributors who I think are particularly good at this.

So I have, like, for example, a whole article by Bruce Straley that's new about designing the emotional experience goals of The Last of Us and how that game was designed to meet a particular moment, right? I'm not, you know, for the two people who haven't either seen it or played it, I'm not going to say it, but we all know what it is, right? There's this moment where everything changes in the game, and the entire game was designed so that you feel a certain way until that moment happens. And when that moment happens, you feel completely differently. And you wouldn't feel completely differently if the entire game hadn't been mindfully designed to make you feel one way so that the twist creates that particular moment.

So that's what I mean when I say, you know, designing for emotional goals. So I've included examples in the book and also a host of new, more diverse design voices. I always take some of the older interviews. I have a lot of interviews with designers. I put them on the website, make those available for everybody, and then I bring in new voices. And so I brought in a lot of new voices and I'm really pleased with that. 

So the book is out, and I really hope that classes who use the book will upgrade to it because I feel like it does a better job articulating this core idea of setting emotional experience goals and designing your game flow to meet it.

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1151 Walker Rd #310, Dover DE 19904

© 2023-2024 Hey Good Game, Inc.

1151 Walker Rd #310, Dover DE 19904

© 2023-2024 Hey Good Game, Inc.