December 15, 2014
MITx Introduction to Game Design
At the moment there is an Introduction to
course given by the MIT Game Lab on the
EdX website. It aims to teach the basic tools of
game design (namely prototyping, iteration and testing) in a practical
manner. I followed the coursework, finishing with pages of notes and
heard some interesting stories. Unfortunately due to time constraints,
considering the need to finish Concealed Intent, I didn’t participate in
the the practical parts of the course. Still, I would definitely
recommend that people relatively new to game design at least peruse the
videos. The advice proffered includes many of the the lessons I learnt
the hard way. Hopefully further mistakes can be avoided thanks to the
The course is 6 weeks long and each week has around an hour of video.
The videos include 20-30 minutes of lectures with the rest being
interviews with professional game developers (most of these interviewees
are people physically located close to MIT or have some other strong
connection with the Game Lab so I’m not sure how representative they are
of the wider industry). The interviews largely repeat the content of the
corresponding lecture, but are also peppered with examples and
entertaining stories. The coursework involves creating a game prototype
with the GameBlox tool and having it
peer-reviewed (other students in the course evaluate your game and
provide feedback). All the content is produced with high production
values, although some of the links are broken.
The course starts by asking what are games and game mechanics. Then
there is a discussion on prototyping and play testing ideas. This seems
to be the central idea of the course. Every subsequent week mentioned
the importance of playtesting and iterating on ideas rather than
becoming too attached to an existing system or mechanic. Lectures in the
following weeks look at designing the player’s experience, digital
prototyping, and making the game usable through UI design and polish.
The final week examines the business of games - largely through the
stories and experiences of some people who have set up successful game
Below are my condensed notes on the core lessons of the course:
- Playtest the core ideas/concepts of a game early and in basic form.
If possible, playtest on paper (rather than computer) as it is much
faster to create and get feedback.
- Don’t become too invested in ideas - be prepared to switch or even
abandon them. Early play testing helps here as not much time will
have been spent developing the idea.
- “I wouldn’t recommend doing more than maybe like two iterations of a
paper prototype. The paper prototype is just to test out the flavour
of an idea.” Move on pretty quickly, don’t spend more than a week or
two. Discard everything if necessary.
- Try to playtest with other game developers. Don’t ask “is it fun” to
playtesters, instead ask “how did you feel when playing?”
- Don’t always follow a tester’s suggestions. Instead try to determine
(by watching them play) why they suggest things. Address the
underlying problem. For example, if they say the game needs to be
more blue, is it perhaps because the contrast is problematic. If
they do an obviously incorrect action, is it because the game is
hard to understand?
- Is there always something interesting for the player to do?
- If a game is designed for yourself then it will be too hard for
- Playtest, playtest, playtest!
- Start with the core idea, test for fun, remove superfluous ideas.
Iterate on the concept, refine until everything (concept, pitch,
graphics, audio) is beautiful.
- Try to test every week or two, so the game is always in a playable
- Pay attention to controls and people having problems in testing -
real players will be less forgiving!
- “The point, to my mind, of a prototype, is you really want to spend
a small amount of time now to learn the things you’re going to need
to learn, to avoid spending a large amount of time and someone
else’s money later. You don’t want to be including anything in your
prototype that is not necessary to answering your current round of
- Know what success and failure looks like at every stage. What does
success/failure in a playtest session look like? What does
success/failure for the game’s release look like?
- The UI is the game explaining itself. Good UI makes it clear what
can and can’t be done. If the game is played badly, the UI should
ensure players understand their mistakes.
- Usability has to be developed iteratively, start at the beginning
and polish all the way through development. Usable UIs are
learnable, efficient, memorable, discoverable, pleasurable and
handle errors gracefully.
- Optimise after the fact - don’t over engineer the game. Bounce
around the game focus on what will make the biggest impact at the
- People are most influenced by the last and first moments of an
experience. Carefully design the beginning - make it entertaining.
Games have little time to impress players. In the game’s first
moments sell: the narrative (create mystery, selling characters is
hard in a short time period, selling the world is easier); the
mechanics - show why the game will deliver a good player experience;
- Try to find unstated/unrecognized assumptions in the game.
Developers are so close to game that there can be large differences
between them and players. Test to find the differences. Sometimes
there is too much frustration instead of challenge, or more
confusion than mystery.
- Super success stories in game development are the exceptions. There
are not many and are they are unpredictable. Most indie gamedevs do
it tough and do it because they love it, not to make money.
- The barrier to game development is low with good tools and digital
distribution. So there are many competitors. Need to outwit and
outlast to rise above the mass of competitors. Use
business/marketing/press abilities. Create novel and unique games.
- Advice to someone who wants to be in game industry - start making
games (not play games, everyone does that) and meet people who are
making games (network!). Start with little games to learn what you
don’t know you don’t know. Expect failure, so finish quickly and