If you have made it this far and kept up with the course in real time… then you have a strong will, and a lot of free time.
Take a step back and look at what you have done. And realize that this is not the end of your journey, but the beginning.
Today, we switch gears for a bit and turn our attention to game criticism. Why do we care the least about game reviews or critiques or game journalism or any other form of game writing? Because without the ability to analyze a game, we might make games and then be unable to discuss them amongst ourselves, and thus be unable to improve on them.
A game designer does not have to be an expert critic (nor vice versa), but an understanding of how to critically analyze games is a useful skill to have. With this ability, a designer can learn more by playing other people’s games, figuring out what works and what doesn’t (and why), and applying those lessons to their own designs. It’s far cheaper to learn from other people’s mistakes than your own.
Readings / Viewings
Read the following:
- Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It, by Greg Costikyan. I could write at length about the difference between a “game review” and a “game critique” but Greg has already done so, and far more succinctly and clearly than I could.
I have mentioned before that an important game design skill to have is the ability to critically analyze other people’s games. I think about half of the reason why I am as far along as I am in my career, personally, is that I have the ability to play a game and offer direct constructive feedback that is useful to another designer. My usefulness to designers makes me friends in a lot of places, and I want you to have the same opportunity.
Consider your own Design Project to be, if not finished, then at least “handed in” (if this were a normal class). Put it aside, and let us examine some other projects. It’s good practice, and it may even make you some friends that extend beyond this course.
This time, we will follow a process that is a bit different than before. We are going to take off our game designer hats for a moment, and put on our game critic hats.
Review and Critique
We don’t hear the words “game critic” very often. Especially with video games, more often we see “game reviewer.” Review. Critique. Reviewer. Critic. Are these synonyms? What is the difference?
As Costikyan points out, the difference is in the purpose of the writing. In short, a reviewer is aiding the consumer in making a buy-or-don’t-buy decision. A critic is writing about a game and why it is or is not important, or valuable, or what have you. Since we often hear the term “game journalism” as well, I would add that a journalist is writing about news in the field. Thus, a reviewer writing about Settlers of Catan might say that it is an excellent game that you should buy right now; a critic might write of its historical importance in bringing Eurogames to the US, or an analysis of its mechanics and how the game deals with minimizing player downtime, balancing luck and skill to make it accessible to all ages, and so on; and a journalist might write about a new game in the series getting released, or a new publisher getting the rights to the game, or the designer getting married to a famous celebrity, if any of those things ever happened.
For game designers, it is critique that is the most important, because critique can directly inform our present and future designs.
Not all critique falls into this category. A critique of Chess as a patriarchal game that pushes an anti-Feminist agenda would not be particularly useful if you’re just trying to design a compelling strategy game, sans social commentary. But another critique of the same game might speak of the mechanics and dynamics, what is effective and what is not, and how it all fits together to make the kind of game that has persisted for centuries. And that would be quite useful, wouldn’t you say?
Critical Analysis of a Game: the Process
First, go to the course wiki and select any one game (other than yours). Feel free to browse the projects that are posted, looking at the brief descriptions and photos at the beginning, and pick one that looks like it might be interesting. Do this even if you did not complete your own project yet.
Next, download the components. There should be enough there for you to build the game. You can make a quick-and-dirty paper prototype that contains all of the information, or you can print it out on simple paper. You can even follow the included instructions to assemble your own high-quality version, although this may take more time and money than you’re willing to spend right now.
Next, read the rules and then play the game. You can try playing on your own if the mechanics allow it, or play with one or more friends if you get them together for one final playtest session. Play as a designer, paying attention to the mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics (in the MDA sense).
Lastly, reflect on your play experience. What were the game’s apparent design goals? Did it succeed at those goals? Why or why not? What were the mechanics? What was the play experience? What is the relationship between the two? Did you find any strategies that were exploitable, or did the game seem well-balanced? What kinds of interesting decisions (and uninteresting ones) were you making throughout the game? What do you feel was the core of the game?
Write this up. Include the following in your analysis:
- Name of the game and its designer (partly to get in the habit of giving credit where due, partly so that if you accidentally post in the wrong place it can be rerouted easily).
- Description of the core mechanics of the game. You do not have to reproduce the rules, but you should describe the basic play of the game and the main decisions players are making, as if the reader had not ever played the game before.
- Describe the MDA dynamics and aesthetics, and show how they emerge from the mechanics (or guess, if you aren’t sure).
- State the game’s design goals. What was the designer trying to do? Then, say whether you feel the game met those goals, and why or why not.
- If there was anything else of note in the game (such as a particular issue with game balance or a unique use of game components), say that.
- Lastly, if you were the designer, what would you change about the game (if anything)? Make specific recommendations. For example, don’t just say “I would make the game more interactive between players” or “I would fix the problem that I identified earlier” – say how you would fix things. What rules would change, and what would they change to? Would you change any game objects or values?
Remember, your audience is other game designers. Write your analysis so that other designers can learn from the mistakes and successes of the game you chose. Your goal is to educate and inform, and to discover new lessons about what makes games work or not work. Your goal is not to give a review score.
Post your critical analysis as a comment on the wiki. Go to the page of the game you chose, and leave a comment. I highly recommend writing out your analysis in something else like a word processor first, and then copying and pasting when you’re done. Do this on or before the end of the course (Sunday, September 6). You will not have any other homeplay this Thursday, so take your time on this and be thorough.
You only need to do this for one game. If you want to provide feedback for more, feel free, but complete your original analysis first to make sure you’ll have enough time to do this for others.