Have Fun to Make Fun

Something simple I’ve noticed while attending the ETC is that people don’t often go out and experience the world around them. This boggles me because the cities I’ve lived in have played such an integral part of my work’s inspirations - Montreal certainly has a unique flavor to it that bleeds into one’s soul after living there for an extended period of time. I believe that part of experiencing the world around you involves doing things that take you out of your comfort zone and involve the local scene. Wherever I travel, I always try to connect with local dancers and musicians to begin to unravel what’s hiding underground. The underground typically involves the most innovation and disruption before the pressures of commerce taint it after mass adoption.

So what kind of fun should we be having? Well, I think this largely depends on the kind of fun you like. I think the key to making the enjoyment of fun applicable to game design is to be able to afterwards analyze what specific elements of that experience felt fun to you. Was it a specific moment of a concert that peaked your emotions? Was it a scene in an animation that melted your eyes? Was it the group of people that made the situation more exciting? Only by analyzing and defining a specific set of elements that contributed to your emotional enjoyment will you be able to extract learnings from that. Keeping track of them is also essential to add these tips and tricks to your curated toolbox.

That said, it’s important to lose yourself to the thing you are enjoying rather than stay scientifically distant while analyzing. This speaks to the user-centric design of games, because most players do not analyze games while they play but rather let it take a hold of them. Attuning to the pleasures and sensations that the diversity of life will offer allows endless fruit for the smoothie shop that is your creative mind. Breaking down the different buckets relevant to game design let you seek out content that will bring immediate benefit, such as the Elemental Tetrad of Aesthetics, Mechanics, Narrative, and Technology. Additionally, the curation and understanding of one’s evolving taste also allow for a curated way to seek out experiences.

So am I talking mostly about playing more games? Well, that is one obvious way to go about having more fun. This is probably the most direct way and, if time constraints are important, the most efficient to implementing inspiration to your current projects. However, things that aren’t as intuitively connected that are just as important are things like socializing and going to parties, which shed light on social interactions for multiplayer and also for showmanship. Drinking games are an amazing source of inspiration for party games, but even simply observing when the party feels ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ or when the crowd at a show is ‘feeling it’ or not gives you an innate sense of how to work a crowd.

What’s something I personally learned about games that came from a source I didn’t expect? One of my favorite moments was during a D’Angelo concert when his backing band left the stage after an epic first half of the set. The stage lights went off suddenly, leaving only a spotlight on the Fender Rhodes e-piano with a lit cigarette perched on top of the keyboard. D’Angelo gets seated, and after a pregnant pause, begins to play the first few notes of his most famous song ‘Untitled’. At this point and to raucous cheering, he stops and gets up, teasing the crowd. The cheering is deafening at this point, and he slyly sits back down and plays an acoustic rendition of the song. That was pure mastery of his audience, and this moment will forever be burned into my mind. This also spoke to the design of the show experience itself, understanding the audience well enough to pull off a tease like this, and it allowed the artist to deliver a new rendition of the song. He plays so well with the audience’s expectations, and games are largely responsible as well to control the player’s expectations through the entire experience.

My point is that one should actively seek out fun experiences especially when making them. Whenever you create more than you take in, you start to notice that you begin to recycle the same ideas over and over again. In music this is certainly true - as a producer I need to listen to new music I hadn’t previously heard or relisten to old music I had not spent much time with in order to get fresh ears on my next composition. In dance, freestyling forces you to come up with unique moves but without much inspiration, the moves you default to are the ones you’ve done many times before. The same applies to games, which can be good to find a focus but can quickly begin to feel monotonous. This approach is most helpful when you feel like you’re wasting time with unproductive things - if you can find things you enjoy wasting time with that also feed into the creative work you do, then you can kill two birds with one stone. Stop working so hard and go out and enjoy yourselves!

Serious Games lol

The field of serious games has a short history but involves an active and vocal community of game developers, educators, and artists all over the world. There are a number of terms that refer to subtly different branches of the general philosophy and I won’t be getting into the nuances of each, but the overarching goal of these games is the same - to make a difference to the world through the medium of games. Examples of this include games like PeaceMaker, a realistic simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, DEEP, a meditative VR game centered around breathing, or active games like Pokemon Go which encourage players to live active lifestyles. They all tackle some kind of change utilizing the power of games as a vector to deliver a meaningful emotional experience for players in the hope that this change extends beyond the Magic Circle. In this blog post I want to specifically refer to video games trying to make an impact beyond (but perhaps including) knowledge of a topic (educational games), and use my own experiences developing a 1 hour live game experience augmented by iPads for 100 people at the Games For Change Festival in New York City. This journey from idea conception to production was a long and arduous one, meandering in a place somewhere between debating the meaning of art to the value of interactions in provoking emotion. However, on the other side of the nebula, I’ve learned a lot of valuable things about the power of games in changing its players, and how I’d do it again if I had the chance.


Art is a wildly ambiguous and broad term, and even trying to define it could take up a series of blog posts so I won’t even begin to try. My own experiences in design, animation, music, dance and games have no doubt shaped my philosophy on how to create meaningful change in someone, and I believe that a pivotal moment was in my music education growing up. As a young child in an Asian household, my parents put me through formal piano training in the classical realm and honestly, I hated it. The only joy I remember was when I was able to compose my own pieces or learn pieces that I found enjoyable and interesting (I was too young to appreciate classical music at the time). It wasn’t until later when I took up drums that my new teacher showed me a glimpse of what I had been craving - passion for fun. He learned my taste in music and also evolved my taste my exposing me to so many genres I had never listened to before, and from that foundation I branched out further into understanding my own taste through music library digging to production. I became obsessed with playing/listening to music and the process of learning more about it was fun for me. While I moved away and stopped playing drums as often, this simple teaching philosophy fundamentally changed my life for the better as I continued on in university and grad school incorporating music into my career.

One thing about the passion for fun is that it is undeniably one of the best motivators out there. The social psychological concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are something every game designer has to contend with, and the fact that games have such a widespread base of intrinsically passionate gamers and developers speak to the inherent potential that games have for social change. Every human in the world enjoys play, and tapping into the mental space for what is considered within the boundaries of ‘play’ is an under-appreciated power that game designers have in their arsenal. When players play a game, they enter a mental headspace of pretend and make-belief, immersing themselves in their role in the story. This moment of ‘entering’ into a game provides a safe space for trying out identities and actions, testing actions and consequences, and becoming vulnerable to the game’s emotional arc via empathy. This vulnerability allows game designers to subvert players’ expectations as a way to make them question their understanding of the medium and question their beliefs and perspectives.


For my current project for Games For Change, we started out the semester trying to make a game about arts and civic engagement that was fun and had interesting interactions but we quickly realized the shallowness of a fun game that did not have a clear higher purpose. Given the broad topic, we began our journey of research in search of a clear message we wanted to deliver that might inspire or challenge players, and realized the answer to this question laid within ourselves. Our team went on a path to unravel our team philosophies and beliefs, and looked internally at what stories we had that related to this topic space. In order to communicate a higher purpose, we realized that narrative contained a lot of possibilities for empathy and connection, but upon further iteration, we also realized that narratives that appeal emotionally to players constituted an incredibly hard task. An RPG game felt out of scope with our team’s time and skill set constraints, as well as with our team’s passions, and we began to question our confidence in the process and in our capabilities - a classic arc in game development. A further iteration was realized through hyperfocusing on our target audience to gather commonalities in topic amongst them, making our game even more ‘real’ and connected to their everyday lives beyond our 1 hour session. I ultimately learned that if I can create a game that I personally find fun, the avenues for change open up drastically as does the game’s potential for impact.


In my search for games that allowed players to question themselves and question their surroundings, I’ve categorized some techniques that awesome games use to create meaningful and thought-provoking enjoyment. All things relate to the broader umbrella of subversion as a method. The first, most direct type, is that of choice and consequence like PeaceMaker which put players directly into the decision-making shoes of a politician negotiating peace in the Middle East. These let players test consequence and action and empathize with the complexity of the situation, using factual information on the conflict to inform player decisions. A classic example of this is Undertale, an indie classic that tests player morality and subverts what you think you know about the RPG genre (tropes) to deliver a meaningful message about the consequences of your actions. It utilizes a concept borrowed from legacy board games, meaning that actions you perform in one playthrough result in permanent changes even if you exit the game and try again. This allows the Magic Circle to be broken while the player is still immersed, essentially extending the game’s influence outside of the platform and technology and into the player’s daily life. The second technique involves using the mechanics of the game itself as a way to subvert expectations of social connection - notably Ingress and Journey. The former uses the GPS map mechanics to create a real-life connection, and encourages users to become more active in their quest for (actual and digital) territory. This subverts the understanding that people The latter utilizes the lack of communication to purify and distill what it means to be socially connected, allowing limited communication with musical notes and coloring of game elements and cooperative play. As you play this simple platformer, other players join you and help on your quest towards the mountain, and only at the end do you find out their names. This lends itself to introspection on what it takes to feel connected to another and raises important questions about the lens of games and technology as an isolating force.

In all, I’ve learned so many things about how I’d like to personally continue making work in this space. As a socially conscious individual with a strong desire to better the world around me, I think one thing I’ve realized is that games that start first as awesome games and engage the players a real way, not as a pretension for some higher cause, truly utilize the power of games both its form and its everyday context to allow players to reflect upon themselves in relation to the external world. Self-reflection is one of the first steps to be able to challenge players’ beliefs and perspectives, which can be done by subverting game tropes popular in conventional genres (like RPGs, dating sims, and platformers). Getting people to questioning their surroundings involves challenging player’s initial perspectives going into your game, which itself requires a deeper understanding of the target audience. Once within the magic circle of the game, you can subvert expectations to realize your message and take your game beyond the confines of the code and computer - which is the goal of all serious games. We need real change, not just a celebration of how great our games are, and real-life is the place to do it.

Originality - The Remix Approach

The thing every creative searches for is originality, but everyone also acknowledges that there is no such thing as something truly original. I believe that the difference between copying someone else’s work and doing something truly original is if you are able to be inspired by another person’s idea in concept, but in application, execute something that is uniquely from your own perspective. Drawing from the philosophies of music production and hip hop sampling, as well as the big business of remixes in the EDM markets, we see this repurposing or re-celebration of older works that give new life and meaning previously unheard of before. My favorite example of this concept is the Grammy Award-winning producer 9th Wonder’s beat Let Me Down Easy wherein he samples Bettye Lavette played at the beginning of the song and then injects his own spin on it, utilizing sampling as a creative technology to create a palette of sounds from the source material.


As you can hear, the second half of the song (when the beat comes in) does not resemble the original sample much because of the innovative way that 9th Wonder has reorganized and recontextualized the space. Recently I’ve been examining my own taste in games as I continue to reflect on my game design ‘style’, and I’ve realized that my favorite games have always been ones that have innovated on something that is out there already usually by combining it with another flavor or mechanic. It’s here that I begin my reflection on the games that I believe embody what I’ll call the Remix Approach, games that use this method to achieve something truly memorable.

The game Grim Joggers is perhaps not a household name, but in my personal view, the weirdness and humor combine together in such a unique way. It’s a basic 2D pixelated infinite runner over a hostile alien terrain in which the player controls a team of joggers (that run in a snake-like formation) to dodge obstacles, traps, and monsters. The remix is that they added a whole team of individuals to the running game model (usually players control one character at a time) and this allows for a more gory, hilarious time because the focus is not on precision survival but on strategic loss. When there’s only one runner left, it turns back into traditional runner mode and you gain extra points. This creates a toy that is endlessly fun to return to as you learn the physics of the train of joggers you control. The juxtaposition of alien landscape and track and field is an amazing mash-up that lends a lot to making this game stand out.

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A more classic example of the remix approach lies in Super Smash Bros. I’ll say it again and again - it is one of the best games ever released. Character mash-ups aside, this game is so much more than just the diverse moves and interesting items/maps. The combination of accessible game design with the ability to get really good create such a great learning curve (easy to pick up, hard to master) which hooks many players into it. My favorite part about SSB is that it’s unlike any other combat game, relying on percentage of damage mapped to knock-back distance and a platform mechanic rather than HP. There are almost no combination moves like in Street Fighter (with the maximum combos being two buttons pressed at the same time, or a couple A buttons in a row). This results in a fighting game that feels much more realistic and fast-twitch, reliant on predictions of the opponent and their position, resembling real-life combat better in my humble opinion.

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The idea of the remix can also dwell in the narrative/format. WarioWare Inc. stands out to me because of its innovative meta-story. This Game Boy Advance game about launching a video game on the Game Boy Advance, strung together only by one tap mini-games all crazily different from another, feels like a complete story in spite of all the zany elements. The fact that the game was about making games allowed players to really get into the world, and I was impressed by how cohesive the narrative design was in light of the weird UI elements that put you both in the game developers shoes and also in Wario’s shoes. This is embodied by the menu screens, where it pretends to be a cell phone that you use with apps loaded onto it. The mini-game format also innovates the development in an interesting way, undoubtedly making production easier because of it’s focus on super tiny experiences that can be quickly prototyped without difficult physics or rendering code. This format itself allowed a focus later on for interesting quick-tap interaction designs on the Gameboy DS version of WarioWare, utilizing the mic and other features now especially embodied with 1,2 Switch on the Nintendo Switch. This focus on mini-games as the entire game remixes the idea of what it means to have a complete game experience.

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I’m currently working on a PC game called Homecoming 3000 - a prototype is available to play on my portfolio. But the main premise is that it’s a rhythm game and a platform game combined, inspired by DDR and Super Smash Bros/Crash Bash, and thematically we’re trying to combine Teen Prom tropes with Disco Alien tropes. I believe that this is something pretty original not because any of these ideas are new, but the way in which it was combined created something unlike other games out there. I’m excited to add additional characters to choose from, as well as refine both the tutorial/title screens, and the background animations as well. I’d like to playtest it so I can determine if there are additional mechanics/features that I’d like to add in, but seeing as this is my first time attempting to program a 3D game, I know this is an uphill battle.

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In summary, the next time you’re stuck or out of ideas on what to make, consider the remix approach in all its flavors to help spice up your game!






How to Make The Best Game

When starting out with designing games (as with any art), the tendency is to think that you should make the best game possible. At first, this is a fairly narrow spectrum of possibilities when the hard skills required to make art assets, write cohesive stories, and code game logic limit the scope and complexity of your work. The thought may be that the most pertinent thing to do then for game designers beginning their careers is to increase their skills and network with potential collaborators with a similar vision. But in a fast-moving world with an ever-expanding list of democratized tools available for anyone with an internet connection, it seems that technical skills become less relevant as technology itself improves. AI, game engine developments, new software/SaaS, cloud computing, and things like Visual Programming Languages remove the barrier of entry for anyone to get into creating games, in addition to providing efficient collaborative workflows. Additionally, you inevitably improve your skills over time until you reach a point where you could theoretically do anything. In both situations, the options increase and yet it becomes harder to narrow down a good starting point for the next project - I’ve certainly experienced this a little bit in my pursuits in music. So after all that, what’s left? I would like to propose a different focus, one that fundamentally fleshes out the word ‘best’ in a way that makes that label irrelevant: self-investigation.

When discussing the ‘best’ game design, the criteria often used are engagement (fun) over time, appeal/aesthetics, originality, and intuitiveness. From the various roles responsible for the game design’s various components, one could make the argument that any of the elements are integral to the final piece. UX designers will probably say the most important thing is the player’s experience in the game. Writers may say the most important thing is a meaningful story. Artists may say that visual cohesion and appeal is the most important thing, and programmers may argue that functional code is the key element. I think that this line of thinking limits the ability to think innovatively, and perhaps asks the wrong question. One can spend a lifetime on any one of these crafts, but the true crucible of your ability is what you produce, NOT what you CAN produce. As such, idealized understandings of the ‘best’ game are almost irrelevant at this point given that they have not yet been brought into reality.


So what do you do? If not working on your skills, and if not paying attention to the criteria with which games are often judged, what else is left? This is going to sound super corny, but as many wise people have said before, the thing you do best is you. Deconstructing yourself is, in my opinion, the best way forward, as you analyze the types of things you like or dislike (or the curation process) and begin to ascertain the limits of your taste or style. As you begin to internalize and synthesize your inspirations, the different origins realign to something uniquely your own (which differentiates plagiarism from inspiration), but perhaps still feel like a pool of disconnected pieces you like. Looking within towards your personal journey and story can help a lot with respect to understanding your opinions and your angle.


The benefit of multidisciplinary art practice is you begin to draw parallels in all the different arts you learn. In my time as a musician, dancer, artist/animator, and writer, the thing everyone asks themselves throughout their careers is: what is my unique voice? Vocalists and writers certainly understand this struggle. Many songwriters start by writing songs about things external to them, but that can feel shallow and to a songwriter, emotional impact is the critical differentiator. They then begin to unravel the realms within to search for more meaning, and hopefully, more potency in their work. As a game designer, you can become someone who can do everything, but in a world full of people who can do everything, what separates you from the rest? What message or angle do you have that adds something fresh to the conversation? That is fundamentally a question of style - which relates to the criterion of originality. The other piece of this is the personal story - what experiences have shaped you and your philosophies today? What are your philosophies on games? What skills do you uniquely do best, and what styles define your spirit?

Now I did not write this article to bash on technical skills or disciplines, nor to criticize the well-thought out criteria often used to evaluate games and game design. The truth is that to make the ideal ‘best’ game, you need to consider all of these things and improve your working design through multiple iterations. However, I think that taste and style are a little overlooked sometimes in broader discussions of how to make a good game, and that this takes a lot of work over a lot of time to figure out. I encourage all ambitious game designers to look within for their own story and synthesize that with the skills they can currently contribute to create the ideal intersection of originality and function. This is what I believe to be the answer to the question of how to make the best game: simply make a game that only you could.


Game Design and Dance

This is meant to be a spiritual sequel to my last blog post about what game designers can learn from the art and process of music production. Similar to music production, I got into dance at around the same time in high school after watching a busking performance in downtown Toronto. I initially forayed into breakdancing but found my lanky frame unable to perform even the most basic of moves (it took me 8 months to realize I couldn’t do a handstand). After this rather disheartening entry into dance, a video online caught my eye. It was a Japanese popping crew that specialized in a sub-style known as animation. They blew what I understood to be possible with the human body out of the water with their incredible illusions performed only with contortion and impeccable timing, and I was obsessed. I’ve since gone on to start street dance clubs, teach, participate in battles in Toronto and Montreal (which, by the way, has an incredible street dance scene) and perform on stage in front of thousands of people. I’m by no means an expert at what I do (rather, I’m embarrassingly mediocre when considering the length of time I’ve been practicing for), and in part I’m writing this to learn more about myself and how I can infuse my later works with my past experience. In this entry, I examine this other lifelong love of mine, street dance, with an eye towards transferable concepts that I can draw on from my own experience with popping and hip hop as well as more broadly from other styles like bboying and locking.

Let’s start by first establishing the core components of street dance. There are a variety of styles (popping, locking, krumping, bboying, turfing, jooking, hip hop, etc.) and all of them have their own unique movement systems, but the common element is freestyling. All of these are essentially exercises in design under constraints, occasionally breaking those constraints for more options. This can be seen in a style like Tutting, which emphasizes utilizing the body to convey complex patterns and moves within a right angle and grid-like structure. The criteria that judges often use at battles are musicality, flow, originality and technique. In freestyle, there are no limits on what you can and cannot do - the only real barrier is thinking fast enough to look like you’re not thinking at all, eventually reaching an optimal state of flow where there is almost zero lag in how you interpret input (music) and output (dance moves). I’m of the opinion that dance is the first interactive art medium where the audience must move their bodies in tandem with the musical signals they process. This is why musicality is listed first. The body is an incredibly articulate structure of connected joints and limbs and the way in which we utilize the constraints of the body to convey illusions and meaning are central to the song that we are interpreting.

The best dancers have almost no blood-brain barrier between the music and their body - while cliche it’s true that their instinct is to simply let their body take over and become the conduit. This centers the body as the ‘controller’ that you must command with your mind to move within the rules of the music. In some sense, the game of music production in a funk context is to create music that both motivates people to dance, and also give people the opportunity within the song to go off a little. The game for dancers is to interpret that music and translate its ephemeral qualities like pacing, emotion, timbre, tone, and tension to moves they perform with their body. Repetition and motifs are often used in both dance and game design to reinforce audience expectations (and to surprise by breaking them) and to get a sense of the pacing.  If the music is central to dance, then the same core concepts I wrote about in the last blog post stand true here: these qualities help the practitioner understand on an intuitive level what it takes to keep an audience’s attention understanding that the audience’s job is to understand the creative ways the dancer is connecting to the music. This is analogous to a game designer designing for oneself. At the end of the day, while designing or dancing alone is therapeutic to the soul, publishing or performance repositions the importance of playtesting to better understand how to improve that communication. Essentially this broaches the topic of user feedback and optimization - the tendency for younger dancers is to start off dancing in their room where they feel most comfortable (or alone in front of a mirror), and that actually stunts your growth as a dancer because it’s hard to view what you’ve created impartially. A better practice is to grow accustomed to the pressure of performing in front of others so that you can more easily slip into flow.

This segues into the next topic that battles are typically judged on. Flow is the perception that everything in a dancer’s freestyle is purposeful and cohesively flows into one another. This is typically accomplished only when the dancer can reach an optimal state of flow where they don’t overthink anything or hesitate at all (something the practice of technique and foundation can help achieve) and simply interpret. This takes rest, and this takes comfort in front of an audience, and any performer will understand the feeling of forgetting what just occurred on stage. The common structure for a freestyle set is some sort of introduction, the meat of the dance itself (where musicality and technique are heavily considered), and ideally, a striking conclusion to the set. It’s the same for any interest curve, and the peaks are the moves performed spontaneously on important beats that seasoned dancers inexplicably know are coming. This ties into the narrative aspect of game design, as well as user experience. The introduction serves to level-set the audience on what to expect, what the visual style of the dancer (or game) is, and what the emotion and attitude they are trying to convey are. As the set progresses, the dancer will play with expectations and hopefully leave off on an impactful climax that is built up through a variety of moves prior to. The connection between these parts is just as important as the parts themselves, as a good dancer with bad flow will look unpolished and sloppy. I am reminded of one game design experience wherein our team of 5 had to create a storytelling VR game that ambitiously tried to tackle the subtle feeling of sentimentality. What we found was that, in response to lukewarm reception, we developed a much more exciting climax that ultimately destroyed the cohesion that would have made it effective because the two parts were jarringly disparate in tone.

This cohesion can be achieved through practicing the art of body communication. The challenge is to communicate a cohesive ‘story’ (defined in the loosest sense) that conveys who you are as a dancer and what you are interested in investigating (your specialty styles). In popping, the main elements are illusions - essentially magic tricks with the body like gliding, waving, or robotting. There are obvious analogies to the animation industry right in the techniques themselves, such as the way dancers direct viewers’ eyes towards a focal point in tracing waves on a body, or rigging and splining as understood from the perspective of robotting and articulation points. To create original moves you must first internalize the limits of the body and work around those to trick the eyes of anyone viewing, and then synthesize multiple approaches and techniques from past into one cohesive move. This requires a deep knowledge of fundamentals in street dance, as fundamentals teach you limits and also structures by which to default on. As mentioned, repetition of motifs set expectations that you can then break, and with illusions (as any magician will attest) and street dance in general, it’s all about breaking expectations of possibility. That said, too much repetition will lead to a boring set as well, so a core part of technique is understanding the dimensions of dance as it relates to space (the X, Y, and Z coordinates of your movement, as well as intensity and size of the move). This is integral to VR game design as well, given that the player is situated physically inside the space you provide. Originality comes from internalizing foundations and structures, and then breaking them through synthesis of other styles, moves, or concepts. The same can be said for any creative process, and especially of original gameplay design.

Ultimately, dance is about communicating the emotional qualities of music through the body and I believe many insights can be derived from how dancers go about achieving that. In all my years in dance and music, I truly believe that ultimately it’s not about the ability for you to execute technique flawlessly, but more so about the ability to present a unique style understanding and playing with the current tropes that the majority of the community recognize as technique. There is no ‘best’ dancer, but the ‘best’ dancers are simply the ones with the most recognizable and unique style. Those are the same ones that add to the broader discourse of dance, redefining and investigating the definitions, in an attempt to create something truly original. This is the essence of art in general - filtering your experiences through your lens (of interest and passion) to create something almost inimitable. In game design, I challenge all of us to find our unique ‘style’, as I believe there are enough games with the same mechanics and stories out there that leaves room for innovation through a multidisciplinary thinking approach. And also I challenge game designers to learn a little about how to dance! The physicality of it really connects to those of us working on emerging technologies and sensor-based games with alternative controls, as it puts you in tune with what the fun ‘movements’ are and what the limits of the human body mean when using it as a interface.

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Game designers should think like musicians

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WHAT CAN MUSIC COMPOSITION TEACH US ABOUT GAME DESIGN?


As an independent musician working in animation/design, I often think about the relationship between the different art forms in terms of the creative process. There are an incredible amount of similarities across disciplines, and as I learn more and more about game design with each semester at the Entertainment Technology Center, I notice some overarching patterns emerge. Especially after taking the Building Virtual Worlds course, there are a number of transferable concepts from popular song compositions that I think are worth exploring for their insights into creation in general, and specifically towards making video games. Hopefully through exploration I can better synthesize the two disciplines as they are so innately connected (especially in the digital streaming era of the music industry and with the influence of video game music in popular genres like EDM and hip hop). In doing so, I attempt to analyze and extrapolate learnings to better understand how to score video games, to better understand how to make video games, and to perhaps lay down a framework around designing games with music in mind from the beginning to optimize the game experience for all players.

Iteration

I remember my very first composition made by programming notes into my Sony Ericsson cellphone on the train to class in grade 7. It was the Super Mario theme song and got me looking for better tools to try producing songs. I was an ambitious child, trying to compose pieces and write songs on the piano, guitar, and drums without having much experience nor talent in playing, but I realized early on that I wanted to create. The first thing I noticed when composing for instruments was that all of my compositions seemed to be lacking in comparison to the songs I was trying to emulate on the radio, and that musical notation and nomenclature acted as a barrier to putting my ideas into musical form. Not only did I lack enough knowledge of music theory, I lacked the skill required to play multiple instruments (one instrument never sounded complete enough), and most importantly, I lacked the ability to listen to sections of my composition because my playing skills were far behind my vision. The cell phone introduced me to a new concept - digital programming allowed instant replay of the sections, allowing me to make my ideas tangible and therefore iterate on the idea simply by listening and comparing the result to what I had in mind. This holds true across any discipline, and is especially important in video game development with its focus on iteration. The sooner one can directly put their ideas into form, the sooner one can tackle problems crop up you could never have anticipated without going through the experience once yourself. The sooner you have something tangible, the sooner other people can listen to your song or playtest your game, and the quicker you can improve your product based on their feedback.

Engine

Later that year, I found a computer program designed for creating songs with realistic instrument sounds and textures (FL Studio). I was obsessed. Every day I would think about lyrics I could write with interesting rhyme structures, and melodies I could add into the beat I was producing. The interface allowed me to learn more about the multiple processes and disciplines involved in music production like recording, mixing, and mastering, and allowed me to use interfaces I had previously used (piano keys and drum pads as compared with using the mouse to program notes). This reminds me of my experience designing VR/AR/XR video games last semester - Unity is a similar multidisciplinary engine with many processes built in for artists and programmers alike, and tools like Tilt Brush allow me to use interfaces I feel familiar with (like sculpting or painting) to create assets for Unity. As my music career grew, I started working with others to help create songs and through an amateur experience with a professional music mastering engineer, I realized the importance of file management when collaborating across artistic and technical disciplines.

Interface

Playing an instrument itself is akin to playing games - one can think of instruments as the controller of the ‘game’ of music production. There are specific ‘buttons’ to press in different locations that have different effects on the composition (whether they are variations in pitch, tone, and/or timbre), and you often use or abuse knowledge of theoretical frameworks (popular tropes, musical theory, or game design principles/best practices) to create micro and macro patterns that feel or sound engaging. In my time as a drummer, I’ve learned that the simple snare has infinite potential and all it takes is understanding the instrument innately to be able to play expressively, even if just on a triangle. Some of the best disco in my opinion utilize amazing triangle percussionists. It’s all about getting into the flow - if there is a strong flow state that your gameplay allows through its pacing, the experience will be that much more addictive. It’s through those colors and accents that the character of your piece shines through.

Core Loop

Over the years I’ve been making music, I’ve learned that the fastest way to ensure a good final song is the idea of the core loop. Pop songs often repeat bars in 4/4 time and change structure slightly every 4 or 8 bars. The key building block usually includes the chord progression, bass line and drums, and ensuring that the most repetitive aspect of the song sounds amazing is priority number one. Creating that is like the minimum viable product that focuses on ensuring the core loop of gameplay feels satisfying and engaging. This is the bare bones of your final game, but requires at least some aspect of both art and programming to accomplish it. Recently I attended the Global Game Jam in Pittsburgh and created a dancing-platform pusher game about disco aliens strutting their stuff. We found that the core loop - that is, the part of the gameplay with no goal (known as the toy) was fun enough. We could dance around endlessly without knowing how to win, and so we were confident in our direction after that proof-of-concept.

Humanization

This segues into the concept of layering and variation, going back to the aforementioned ‘colors’. The idea of creating something ‘good’ involves multiple iterations to see what’s missing and additional layers (like shaders for game aesthetics and humor in narrative/design) all serve to keep the ‘guest’ interested. After getting the core loop for the instrumental, additional instruments or change-ups in melody/rhythm are added to keep things fresh as the human mind has an immense ability to identify patterns. Some repetition is required for both game and music experiences, but too much repetition feels robotic. In creating sound effects for the games in BVW, I realized the need to create multiple samples to reduce repetition fatigue for the same interaction type as the player will encounter that sound effect many times throughout gameplay. This allows NPC dialogue, for example, to feel more convincing and ‘human’, and that humanizing quality of variation and subtle errors helps drum and instrument programming sound like they’re being played by real musicians (instead of clicked in with a mouse). Many genres of music use a strict grid for note rhythm (called quantization) but many hip hop producers that program the grooviest beats go ‘off-grid’ to add soul to otherwise stiff, robotic drums. J Dilla is an amazing example of an artist that programs drums in that way. I think this applies to the uncanny valley - the repulsion we experience when we spot the robo-clone fakery. A little touch of intentional human ‘error’ goes a long way to add that touch of empathy and humanity to a work.

Tension

With variation comes the elements of tension, pacing, and surprise. This is essentially the interest curve of the song, and arises from setting up and playing with audience expectations. Building up towards something is key in games, both for player skill acquisition to the emotional arc of the game’s narrative, and creating tension and surprise are both good principles to increase engagement of games. EDM is built on the idea of a build and release, with the release corresponding with an emotional catharsis - often subverting expectations resulting in innovative ‘drops’ that break traditional EDM tropes (Bassnectar is a great example of a DJ that produces mind-blowing surprises in his songs). Tension is built through challenge in the game, ambiance of the sound/visual style, and flow in the narrative framing the game’s objective, and pacing is about balancing the game mechanics via playtesting and testing the story’s narrative arcs in their emotional impact. Usually aligning both the pacing of the song and game, from core loop to overall song/game structure, will lead to best results and maximize the emotional impact of the gameplay experience.

Movement

As I evolved as a musician, I started to realize the importance not just of the singular song you’re currently working on, but the style of your body of work. This also was something my dance and music pursuits pointed me towards - it’s not about what you can do, but what you add to the conversation through a number of pieces strung together. Through this introspective lens, I began to think beyond the core loop, and beyond the individual song, towards sets and albums and mixes and scores. This would be the macro or holistic part of music - how different pieces transition and create a narrative in the listener (even if there was no explicit narrative in the lyrics). The overall emotional arc of a longer experience lends to a deeper understanding on how to design one’s narrative or gameplay to move the audience energy up or down based upon the feeling or energy the creator is trying to paint. This broader sensibility has allowed me in my own work to understand narrative design better, tying in both interest curves and structures like the Hero’s Journey to the pacing of music and the physical body. Performing shows at live venues creates a deeper empathetic response in the performer towards audience members or guests of the experience, keying in on when the audience would like to dance, drink, or take a break, and I believe a lot of untapped experience design inspiration lays in this realm.

Curation

Another facet of style is knowing what sounds good, and what vision you have for the final result. Learning processes like scrum and agile, I’ve come to understand that while you can reasonably estimate a vision for the end product, you must acknowledge the change that will come as you iterate and playtest. Creating an initial vision for the song, and informing my decisions to pivot often come from the important act of self-curation. While the end song may not sound at all like what you had in mind, having that flash of initial inspiration provides the momentum needed to kick off the creative juices, and relating your work to additional existing works as you progress maintains that inertia when you alter or edit your composition. When deciding what to make next, a good strategy is to look within for inspiration as many wise people state there is no such thing as an original idea. Sampling (taking cuts of audio from other recordings) and remixing (using the stems of a source song to create an alternate version) are two musical art forms that play on this idea and utilize what’s already been ‘built’ in the world within their own experiences, often changing the source material so drastically that there is almost no resemblance. This is akin to the resourcefulness needed by game developers when searching for APIs and open-source code snippets on GitHub, or artists when they look on Mixamo or Sketchfab for animation cycles or pre-built models.

Experience

No experience is wasted, and all of those years spent listening to music on the subway or playing games in the basement have all filtered through my ears (and eyes) and distilled into what people have remarked as ‘my sound’. The resulting style is influenced by the collection of things you hold onto as interesting, and as we embark on fleshing out 100 games we’ve played over the course of our lifetime in this Game Design course, I’m excited to document and categorize my curated nuggets of inspiration. Like in music, there is no such thing as a ‘best’ game. You can have technically innovative games, but you can also have simple games that are amazing - in my opinion the most important thing is having a unique style to a good game.

Vocabulary

An interesting point was brought up in discussion of how to make this post more actionable for people less familiar with music, theory, and terminology. I think that in addition to curating your own library of sounds and contexts (essentially playing a mental exercise of placing different music in a hypothetical game context), the next step is to start describing pieces of music you like and what adjectives can communicate a musical concept to another most easily. This will streamline the output and reduce mismatched assumptions on what each collaborator means - but this takes a lot of practice via conversation. It can help to read up on the basics of musical theory and the nuanced definitions of musical descriptors like timbre, tone, texture, tension, groove, and momentum. On a more technical level, it can help to understand the difference between the mixing and mastering process, what’s involved in recording audio, and the technical flow of DAWs like FL Studio, Logic, or Ableton. All of this knowledge will carry forward in your work no matter what area you focus on, and serve to create a backdrop for setting an aligned vision for any team.

Challenge

Anyone can create great music. Many people say that they don’t have the talent or know-how (which can be learned), but all they need (like in game design) is to have a vision of what they want to hear in their heads and to tweak what they’ve programmed until it sounds right. I have noticed that in the Entertainment Technology program, not a lot of courses are dedicated to video game music and not a lot of focus is given to innovating on this topic. I believe that not only is there a lot to be learned from music making as applied to video game design, but that having an understanding of the principles of music production and composition can help improve the musical choices within games. Even simply curating a list of your favorite songs will help in selecting the right type of music or musician for the game moment, and I hope that more video game developers take risks when it comes to including innovative and underground music in their game. I encourage artists, designers, and programmers in the industry to reflect on what it takes to craft a good song, and how to use that towards innovating video games to come.



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