Jed Merrill, Producer/Game Designer

Week 7

Monday, February 17, 2014.

President’s Day.

I use part of the holiday to watch a few episodes of Sword Art Online on Hulu. Recommended by a classmate, SAO is Japanese anime about 10,000 virtual reality MMORPG early adopters trapped in a game by a power hungry game designer until they clear 100 levels of a nearly unbeatable tower. If they die in the game, they die in real life, and those who survive are put on life support in the real world for two years, until the story’s heroes find a way to end the game. A third of the players die. Still more just find a way to adapt and live in virtual reality as fishermen and blacksmiths. The best players join the front lines, and a handful have special abilities. SAO is adventure, a love story, and a perfect chance to explore ethical issues involving virtual worlds.

“My two years in SAO taught me something else. That there’s no meaningful difference between a real and a virtual world. It’s pointless to ask anyone who they really are. All you can do is accept and believe in them.” ~ Kirito-san


The first half hour of class, we hear from Brian Matthews who works at Google. He is in love with the work environment and strongly recommends it. Gourmet chefs are a lot better than the cereal and milk he was lucky to have at a previous position.

He describes the Scrum process used at Google, and says it is a lot more than stand up meetings.


For Joe Bourrie’s class, we present our final level design documents, polished from a week ago.  We also turn in a three page paper about observations on level design in a game of our choice.  I choose Journey even though we’ve discussed it to death in other classes.  Because there are no deadly enemies, you are not distracted from the beauty of the levels as in other games.  However, the constant opposition from elements of weather and a few challenging platforming puzzles still provide a sense of accomplishment by the time you reach the end.  I also consider the seamless presence of other players as an element of level design.

We also consider the limitations of game engines.  Object count, polygon count, draw calls, view distance, GPU “copies”, light count, and collision limitations are the main topics.  We also talk about solutions such as streaming, culling, lower complexity shaders, baked lighting, level of detail (LOD), fog/matte paintings for view distance, batching, instancing, deferred lighting, and brushes for collision detection.  He shows us complex examples, and asks how we would solve these problems in each instance.


In the morning, we show our games to a Cohort 1 alum who now works at Microsoft.  We make great progress on Premonition, just in time since we do a dry run presentation of our prototypes on Tuesday!

In Corrinne’s Narrative class, we have our first writing group.  She gives us eight tips in writing on how to have a successful writing group, which come down to be nice.  Writers have egos, and sometimes low self esteem that craves validation through positive feedback.

When it is my turn, I tell the group it is okay to tear me apart, because I want honest, complete feedback, but Corrinne is not okay with that.  (Do writers really have such thin skinned egos?)  I get startlingly good feedback from every member of the group.  Even though I focus mainly on setting, everyone seems to connect to the character and see the world in a new way through its eyes.

Corrinne says she can imagine this as a game, and I said I designed it that way.  We are making game books in this class, but why not make my book a pitch for a game?  I’m bringing life to two stones with one bird. 🙂

My private entertainment motto for years has been “entertain and inspire.”  It occurs to me that you can entertain quite well with mechanics like puzzle solving and button mashing, but it is almost impossible to inspire without narrative, so all of my games will include some of both.

Not every gamer has patience for narrative, but I think that is in part because few games offer high quality narratives.  The best narratives captivate a player and activate the imagination.  If as a game writer you can’t lead a player effectively using narrative (preferably delivered by voice AND subtitles because some players play with sound off, especially on mobile devices), the next best option is a story world.

A story world allows the player to tell the story, but is not as rich and satisfying without dialog and a gradually unfolding story.  In real life we don’t interact solely with swords and bullets, and we shouldn’t in games, either.  Of course, story can also disrupt the flow of a great mechanic, so pacing does matter, especially as good narrative is rewarding to players in a different way than goal completion, overcoming monsters and obstacles, and puzzle solving.

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