Monday, 22 December 2008

Welsh rarebit

When I was fourteen, I learned to touch type - on a type writer. You may not be familiar with these: imagine a keyboard, but when you type, your key press directly moves a mechanical arm which strikes a sheet of paper through an ink covered ribbon, leaving an ink covered impression on the paper. The paper is moved through the feed, like a printer, but only one character at a time, and when you press the enter key, the sheet of paper moves up a line. And get this: there is no screen.

(Kids these days. Also adults, these days, feeling like they have to explain stuff to kids these days.)

The important thing to remember is that typing was an optional skill. Only secretaries needed to type - senior management would dictate information to them either directly, or by recording it on tape and having the secretary play it back and transcribe from this. This was back when the work force was still divided into higher paying and lower paying positions, mostly on whether you were male or female, and my school, despite being a liberal bastion which a few years later elected to have male and female co-principals, still divided the classes up into electives for typing, home economics, woodwork and technical drawing.

What was different to many other schools, is each of these optional electives was not optional. Every fourteen year old who attended my college studied all four 'electives' throughout their second year. This drove my father wild.

He could understand how woodwork and technical drawing could be useful - and he'd had to suffer enough through me making Welsh rarebit to realise that home economics aka cooking would be useful to me later in life and him immediately. But typing. In no conceivable future of his could he see how typing could be a useful skill - this coming from a man whose bookshelves are bowed with Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. He complained vocally to the school, tried to withdraw me from typing class for more mathematics, and generally made a nuisance of himself to my teachers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, even excelled at it, and it was only two hours a week for three months of my academic career.

I've always wondered at the utility of game competitions - where you are given an inspiration, genre or platform to develop within a limited timeframe. My problem is not coming up with the ideas or making the time to code - it is limiting the output of my ideas to manageable chunks. I find programming easiest when I'm working under a tight set of restrictions: say, catching the train to work where I'll be seated for about 30 minutes, developing Unangband in Eclipse. And it's this realisation that helps me understand what is important about the competitions: it's not the starting that is important, it's the limiting yourself - knowing when to finish.

The delightfully detailled specifications that Dan Cook provides over at the Lost Garden are the pinnacle of this theory of game competition design: his Fishing Girl prototype provides concrete descriptions of every game mechanic, as well as the art assets so that all you have to do is develop the implementation from this design, and then tune how the game plays.

The devil is in the detail - how the implementation work, how it feels, how it plays.

Dan is an impartial critic. You get a gold medal if you can convince him to play your game for 15 minutes. And he's never handed one out. Until now.

What makes this especially significant for me is one detail that is often overlooked when designing games: the quality of the art that Dan provides. It was a little known fact that I started working as a graphic designer before changing jobs to the IT industry. I didn't have a skill that is surprisingly easy to avoid as a graphic designer starting out: I can't draw.

Because of this I knew I could do an adequate job, but I could never be good, let alone great, without this essential skill. I could have invested the time learning, but I did have a set of skills that I could use immediately, and information technology was the place that I could progress far more quickly.

Art, or more importantly, the representation of information visually, is a critical component in game play. It is something roguelikes do so well - a topic I'll explore more another time - despite not having any art assets per se. But allowing the player to understand complex information visually at a glance is key to developing a great game, and why Dan Cook's game competitions are so useful to help you understand game design.

Not many programmers are artists, which is why you see David Gervais' tile sets used over and over in roguelikes, and why free, re-usable art assets are so critically important to the development of an open source game community. I don't ever see the ability to draw, to divide space in pleasing, aesthetic, information rich segments separated, enclosed, captured by lines becoming redundant.

A few years ago, my father confessed to me that typing was perhaps the best thing that I ever did in school. And that's why I'll be encouraging my children to draw - a skill I never made the time for.


Andrew Doull said...

If you're wondering about the non-sequitur title, I was going to push the 'Welsh rarebit' analogy further, but decided not to. It felt a bit cheesy...

(Thank you, I'm here all week).

VRBones said...

Heh, I thought you were going to head down the programming's dirtiest secret route. I'm pleasantly surprised by the turnaround and happy for Andre (and his escape from Black-stumpness)

Daniel Cook said...

Appreciate the post! Andre did some good work. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people reached the 5 minute mark on gameplay as well. For a couple of weeks I thought that perhaps there would only be a handful of casting systems, but people pulled through.

Speaking of drawing, there's a book I was just perusing called Sketching User Experiences ( It was all about communicating ideas through quick and dirty 'sketches'...some hand drawn, but also some constructed out of found materials. That is the sort of 'drawing' class I'd love to see taught in schools.

Happy holidays! (I always imagine that it is gloriously sunny in Oz right about now)