17. What are some common mistakes that you see from students who take your classes?
The most common mistake I see in my classes is a lack of time budgeting. I do my best to give really detailed syllabi, assignment expectations, and other information on my website courseblogs which I'm convinced is more than most professors, yet I still often see final projects that reek of poor planning and the 'night before' syndrome. I think this is probably due to a combination of overconfidence and underestimation of the work involved, and I believe that the best skill that my students can learn is the ability to break assignments down into meaningful chunks in order to plan out and do the research and planning required for the assignment. This is especially true in research papers and design documents and the like. I have gotten to the point now, where after grading literally thousands of assignments, I can glance at a work an know how much time a student spent in the planning phase. This is detrimental in the industry, and I hire only students who have demonstrated their ability to plan well. Also, I know that these same students are the ones who are most successful in the industry, while others experience multiple lay-offs and do not last in their jobs.
That's an enormous question, but I think that so long as we don't assume there is a connection between 'impact' and 'good' then we can say with certainty that the big games that are making the money like GTA V and Assassin's Creed are doing very well despite some gameplay problems (AC3 was pretty universally panned but did very well anyway as did the well-received AC IV - which was renamed to sell better despite being an AC3 series prequel technically) That said, I think the most impactful games right now are in fact the so-called 'indie' titles which are experimenting with new forms. I'd cite 'Thomas was Alone' which used narration instead of graphics to create a great story, or anything from Tell Tale like the ongoing 'Walking Dead' which is using player data to create new content for their story by heavy data mining from the online enabled game. Services like PSN and the iStore have changed the way we game, and thus are changing the industry from the inside out.
Well this is an opinion, surely, but I remember when Prince of Persia: Sands of Time came out it changed the way I think of gameplay. One of the highly innovative things about it was the adaptive difficulty built into the game. as a result, anyone could play and feel comfortably challenged by the game. What most people don't realize is that many games just build this right in. I think that the Fallout Series has much to teach us, and 3 is another example of how adaptive difficulty was implemented perfectly well. So my answer is that any game that adjusts gameplay or procedurally adapts to the user is worth keeping an eye on, and will have the greatest impact.
Design by committee doesn't work. Having a creative director or head designer is the key to projects. Every member of the team also needs to have a clear idea of what their role is. I've been on teams where I didn't know my role, or who was in charge, and the creativity literally stopped in those moments until someone stepped up and took charge. This sort of problem is never seen in the industry on effective teams, even teams of hundreds know the chain of command, and we still can recognize the creative director and "style" of big games like Bioshock or Brutal Legend as a specific person -- in this case Levine and Schafer.
Yes. --- What I mean by this is that I don't really agree with the assumption that there is a seminal list. If someone wanted to become an FPS expert, then they really need to play lots of FPS's like DOOM, Quake III, Borderlands and Medal of Honor. If someone wants to be an adventure game expert then they would need to hit some of the best in that genre like AC, Tomb Raider, Portal, and so forth. RPGs? The list is massive starting (at least!) with the old 3/4 isometrics like Baldur's Gate and culminating in Skyrim and Fallout -- but the point is that you are the sum of the games you have played. I know I am. I hate JRPGs. I get bored with massive world games (though do love them for a time), and though I'm good at FPS's I really have no great love of them, though I did enjoy Borderlands for some reason. What I obsess over (nowadays - its different from when I was younger) is the AC series, anything with high levels of interactive story, and until last year Minecraft at perhaps an unhealthy level, but which I will happily be getting back into for professional reasons again soon. Ask another professor and you'll get a different answer, but I look at it the same way as any other Humanities field. I've read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dickens - but I haven't read ALL of Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I have, however, read all of Rex Stout, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, and am working on the most recent by Stephen Lawhead, but that's a different matter.) Same principle.
Design games. I'm not being silly, I'm being very serious. There are tools available to you now to create games. Be it gamemaker or UDK or others, there is a massive toolset and community available to tap into. Even if you just start by building an adventure map in Minecraft or Skyrim mod then putting it on the forums for feedback and fixes, you should be designing NOW,making NOW, and 'publishing' NOW just like any artist. Build that portfolio, and in combination with that ATEC degree you are working on you will stand out over the other candidates on hiring day. Applying that time management mentioned before an you will will have a paved path to success!
Every year my wife and I watch the Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition trilogy on bluray to bring in the New Year. You know the version – it’s the one that people make fun of for being too long, except for those who don’t and are thus made fun of for having nothing better to do than sit through twelve (yes twelve) hours of movie content – though typically not all at once. As for us, we make sure that every year we have nothing better to do than to watch it all at once, and so far we have succeeded in exactly that - straight through from about 10 am till 10 pm, usually on January 1 for about six years running now. We now have it down to a science, having evolved with the technology from DVDs to bigger screens and so forth. We turn off the phones, ignore the email, (hide the ipads!,) cook enough porridge and meat pies or something equally Hobbitty to cover all seven meals for the day, and actually just simply WATCH the movies together.
What’s interesting about this particular method is that we now agree that it keeps getting better every year. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and asking myself why this is? Is it just because I know it better each time? If so then why am I not bored of it? Is it because the movie is just so wonderful? If so, then why not marathon Harry Potter or Star Wars as I consider those tales to be just as wonderful. Is it because I forget parts? On the contrary, we've gotten pretty good at the Trivial Persuit LotR Movie Trilogy Edition and can cite fun facts like who the five riders were to battle the Uruk-hai then ride out to meet Gandalf at daybreak on the fifth day of the battle at Helm’s Deep, or which of the Hobbits is the ‘tall one’ – so I don’t think we are forgetting too much. On the contrary I put forward that it is in fact the knowing that makes the experience worthwhile.
I teach my students at the University of Texas at Dallas that throughout human history we have told tales that seem to fit certain patterns. Unlikely reluctant heroes with supernatural gifts have taken up the call to adventure in order to gain/destroy the boon on behalf his people, only to face trials beyond belief, grow in the process, face their greatest fears against loss and death, and typically make the ultimate sacrifice in order to defeat evil, then returning home via a magical flight/rebirth saving the world and restoring normalcy. Luke/Harry/Frodo all fit this pattern as to countless others from Neo to Jesus Christ. Joseph Campbell called this the Hero’s Journey. Kal Bashir calls it Monomyth. Others (Like my colleague Frank Turner) have simply called it Epic. Whatever the moniker, the idea of a created world in which we can journey, tell stories, or even play (D&D anyone?) is to me most interesting because we know the ending.
The Lord of the Rings franchise is a great example of this, and perhaps one of greatest (albeit somewhat meta) moments of the films to me is when Sam and Frodo discuss this very thing within the context of their journey:
SAMWISE: “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes my boy, the most famousest of Hobbits. And that’s saying a lot!’”
FRODO: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without him, now would he?”
This rings true to me in a deep way going back to the ancient stories we still tell. It’s the prerogative of every child to interrupt and ask questions of the storyteller. Like young Fred Savage's character asking the grandfather in Princess Bride “Grampa! Grampa! [...] "Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody's got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who?" we all have a deep desire to know how the ancient tales come out in the end, and we think we know how they should, even before we really actually do. But is that right? How can we even resolve a non-linear chaotic storytelling method with a monomythic sensibility? Read on.
So maybe it’s my years as a High School English teacher poking through, but let’s take Beowulf as a convenient example. When the Old English bards travelled the land and told the story, we should not make the mistake of thinking they told it in order, the same way each time, or even the same way twice, always adapting the details to the audience and the immediate atmosphere. In fact, there is strong scholarship to suggest that in those days stories were as interactive to that audience as video games are now to those of us who experience those stories, we just don’t have the cultural context to understand it. The truth is that the only reason we believe Beowulf (or any epic) is linear is because some anonymous weirdo wrote it down despite all common sensibility. Ignoring for the moment the various translations from Old English, the irony is that we have Beowulf at all only because when we moved past the oral tradition into print tradition, that particular written version is what survived the middle ages to be discovered later on – but there is a hypothetical parallel that can help us understand this: Imagine if evidence of every video game disappeared tomorrow, but for one – let us say the “best”- LET’S PLAY video which somehow survived this culling. This theoretical precious and valuable video evidence of the one playthrough of the game would be to us as Beowulf is in fact. Instantly canonized as the linear and immutable definitive version of the otherwise interactive game experience we can no longer play.
There is no coincidence there if Beowulf feels like a character from Middle Earth. As a professor of language and histories, Tolkien (weirdo that he was) literally set out to create a believable (albeit fictional) mythological history of the Britons like that which was presumably lost during the many conquests of that land across the ages. His use of epic forms, and retelling of the old tales in a recognizable pattern was great story told expertly. Peter Jackson and company knew this despite what the Tolkien estate may think. Just watch the making-of specials (There’s about 54 hours of that!) and you will see the fanatical passion there, and the process of translation/adaptation applied to these masterpieces. It is why I watch these films every year. It gives me perspective with but .003% of my year sacrificed to the cause, and reminds me of all that has happened in this last go-round the sun. Most importantly it challenges me to interact with the media I love and teach at a higher level of appreciation for the choices being made by artists/writers, storytellers/bards, and audience members/players – for fundamentally there is always a choice being made by one or all of these – and that my friends is where the heart of storytelling lays – in the choices made.
So until next year the Lord of the Rings films will go back on the shelf. They will not change, but we will have changed, and thus the viewing will be different, better, and wonderful yet again.
Happy New Year, everybody!
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Adam L. Brackin, Ph.D - Doc to his friends - is an independent media consultant, writer, and sometimes professor. His teaching and research interests include: Social Media, Transmedia, & ARG, all forms of non-linear & interactive narrative, story mechanics models, and video game studies & design.