David A. Gladish

My professional info, level design quest log, and game-related editorials.

BETA Testing

Another great way for a young designer to get noticed and build their professional resume  is to join a BETA test. I’m currently doing a BETA test for a very cool game by a large game company. Because of the nature of BETA testing, we are bound to the terms of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and thus I can’t reveal the title, genre, or company. Nor can I talk about the game, it’s content, or mechanics.

But, there are a few things I can talk about.

First: the community. Making yourself known in the community is huge toward getting noticed in the game industry. Take good notes as you play and post them in the test forums. Give feedback on other people’s posts, and connect with other users to gain valuable long-term contacts. You never know who you might meet or collaborate with during the testing process.

Second: experience. Any kind of quality assurance (QA) testing looks great on the “projects” portion of your cv. Why? Because you’ve kept records, sniffed out bugs, and gone through a large portion of the game development process. Being knowledgeable of this process can only strengthen you as a designer and make you more attractive to potential employers.

Third: critical thinking. Interfaces, user experience, imagery, gameplay processes, level balancing, troubleshooting, and iteration all require an immense amount of critical thinking. As a tester, you are in the driver’s seat of a massive project. The seemlessness of the game experience you take for granted while playing a finished product is made possible (in large part) by the critical thinking and problem-solving efforts of testers. The more bugs you find, the more solutions you’ll create. This is key toward enhancing user experience (UX).

The giant and sometimes chaotic roundtable discussion of an unfinished game can prepare you for the smaller iterative process of initial game design with a professional team in the future. You will use the same skills in a formal, professional environment in the industry. The more you play games, the better prepared you will be for beta testing. The more betas you test, the more you’ll be prepared for in-house (alpha) testing. And so on up the ladder of industry jobs.

So, why not sign up for a BETA today? You never know what you might learn.

Micro Game Challenge

Have you ever tried to make a game? Chances are you’ve probably thought of hundreds. You may have even written some down. But what good is a game if no one ever gets to play it? If you don’t make it, how do you know it would even work?

That’s the point of a micro game challenge. You get a stack of blank cards and your brain, that’s pretty much it. The time limit is up to you, but limiting yourself can be helpful. To be a game designer, working under strict deadlines is definitely a job requirement. Make sure to have a group of critical individuals who will help you seriously test the game in stages, as well.

I did the challenge last weekend and came up with a decent card game. I gave myself 2 days and 22 cards. I made a game for 2-4 players that takes about 30min to play. Without going into too much detail about the game mechanics, I can tell you the basic idea.

Each player has a deck, a hand, a world space with zones, and a discard pile. Players take turns building a “castle” with different character cards. When the castle gets large enough, it encroaches on the enemy’s territory. That’s when the building stops and the war begins. Then players take turns tearing each other’s castles down until there is only 1 left standing.

In 2 days I designed two identical decks of 22 cards. The third day was spent play-testing, talking about the game’s successes and failures, and making changes. The final game was okay, but it required more variation.

Since then I have expanded it to 4 decks of 36 cards, each deck with its own uniquely balanced theme based on four principles: aggression, contemplation, manipulation, and synergy. I also play-tested a 3-player game. It’s playing well, but there’s still more R&D to do and countless hours of play-testing and revision.

So far, the cards are only text. The next step is making the text consistent and economizing space with keywords and symbols. Then designing the card’s layout and illustrating the characters will come last.

Working through this process has been invaluable to my growth as a game designer. I’m not sure if I will ever publish the game, or see it played by other people. But, I recommend this micro game challenge to everyone who fancies themselves a game designer.

Clash Royal

A long time ago, one of my favorite card game apps, Star Trek Rivals, stopped providing support and updates on their trading card game. I had a good run on that game and gained experience posting in the Facebook community on their official webpage. It was a fun game that coincided with the movie releases of the Star Trek reboot. So, that was quite entertaining leading up to the second movie.

It’s hard to remember the exact gameplay structure, but it was both entertaining and frustrating. Like most trading card games, there’s a monetary system which allows you to buy digital cards. Real money can always be “exchanged” for in-game currency. So it quickly becomes a “money-game.” Where the best players with the best cards in the highest leagues are just dropping tons of money to get there and maintain.

I’ve played Hearthstone a tiny bit, so my knowledge of it is lacking. But from what I’ve seen, the mechanics are very similar. I mention it because (other than Magic: the Gathering) it’s one of the more popular digital trading card games at the moment. Some cards are common, some less common, and some are very rare. The more you play, the more cards you get by various means. The more money you spend, or time you give the game (sometimes over the span of years), the better cards you can collect. So, it usually comes down to two play options: time or money. There’s a happy medium for both if you play freemium games. You should spend at least a little money to support the game and its staff, and keep updates and new content flowing. But not so much that you’ve basically cheated your way to the top because of your high socio-economic status.

In recent months, I’ve been talking a lot about +GET games, specifically Clash of Clans. The formula that Supercell has used from app games thus far has been very successful. Especially with me. Because I’m married, teach full-time, have long commutes, and spend most of my free time writing and designing games, the bits of time I do devote to playing games requires specific criteria. I also live in a foreign country with a large time difference from my gamer friends back home. Keeping in touch with them is essential. Clash of Clan fit those criteria perfectly. It helps that my students in Japan also play it. It’s a nice talking point in English that motivates them.

The clan system is great. I have a nice group of 15 friends (so far undefeated in Clan wars) that continuously play the game at all hours of the day and night. We are spread out over 6 different time zones, which keeps our clan active 24 hours per day. The game has a chat function so we can just talk whenever and leave each other offline messages. If we have nothing interesting to talk about, there’s always gaming.

I’ve reached a pretty high level in Clash of Clans, and it’s a time-based game. So I can’t really play it constantly anymore. I’ve burned through two accounts on different devices to try and get more playtime. But 14-day build times, week-long farming sessions, and 2-hour army build times limit continuos play.

Last month, Supercell world-released their new game in the Clash universe, Clash Royale. It’s a trading card game, real-time strategy tower defence game, and has the clan system and social aspect. It filled my need for more continuos play and now I have all my gaming needs fulfilled!

All 15 clan members slowly migrated to Clash Royale and now I’m the leader of both clans. It’s wonderful. The best thing, that’s different from Clash of Clans, is that we have different cards and different strategies. Friends of mine from other countries got the game weeks before the rest of the world and have leveled up quite a bit. They have excellent strategies to share from experience. We can donate cards to one another and even have practice sparring matches within our own clan. It’s amazing.

Clash of Clans players can easily migrate into the game. It features the same characters and some of the same army strategies and resource management. But there are new, more-powerful characters, as well. Like the Prince, Giant Skeleton, and Musketeer.

The trading card aspect of the game is fun for many of my gamer friends back home because we played Magic: the Gathering. The format is nice because we can duel and critique one another. Or brag about our epic cards (like the mythic rares in MTG).

Clash Royale is still in its infancy, so I hope it doesn’t go the way of Star Trek Rivals. Right now I’m seeing the same configurations of cards in most matches, and am having trouble finding variants of my own deck that are dependable in battle. There are some “broken” cards, as well. Specifically the Prince and Balloon. At low levels, there are only 1 or 2 cards that can trump them: Skeleton Army, Minion Hoard. So, naturally everyone uses the 2 broken cards, and the 2-3 trump cards in their deck. Or at least some configuration of them. The repetition can be boring while trying to farm treasure chests and trophies. 

I’m curious to see how they plan to introduce longevity and new cards. I’d like to see some sort of alignment for players to take with their decks: whether it be dark vs. light, fire vs. ice, big stompies vs. swarms of minions, air vs. ground, chaos vs. order, life vs. death, manipulation vs. brute force, etc.

It’s interesting to see a hybrid game like Clash Royale because I’ve had similar ideas in the past. I’ve wanted to combine the match-3 style puzzler with tower defense for a long time. So, seeing tower defense and trading card genres combined gives me some encouraging ideas of how to design and implement it. Other than Puzzle Quest, it’s one of the best hybrid genre games I’ve played. It also does service to Clash of Clans and continues the legacy of the Supercell brand. I can’t wait to see the updates they roll out in the future for Clash Royale.

Game Editing in a Nutshell. (if the nutshell is Newton’s apple)

Editing games is a test of your creative problem-solving skills. First you create a problem, then you solve it. Sometimes, any way it’s possible. My recent endeavour is gravity physics.

I’ve tried to tackle the problem before for the Bottomless Pit mod for Skyrim that I made a couple of years ago in the Creation Kit.

Unfortunately, the gravity in the Creation Kit is jacked. It’s an uneditable, constant downward force with acceleration and no terminal velocity.

Imagine a person jumping from an airplane. As they fall they accelerate, reaching blinding speed. Eventually they’re moving so fast that even wind can’t push them. Then the body crashes into the earth with such force that it obliterates the planet.

That’s what the gravity in Skyrim is like.

I solved that problem by using water to slow the player down at certain intervals. That way the player still has enough reaction time to move and avoid obstacles without killing them.

This is my more recent example:

I need to cheat the vanilla gravity in Unity. Why? The baked-in gravity is mono-directional: only down. I need a small planet (sphere) that the player can walk around the surface of. Normally, if the player were standing on a sphere and starts to walk, they’d just slide off the curved slope and plummet into an endless chasm. I need the player to “stick” to the surface by changing the gravitational pull from the vanilla position “down” to the sphere’s “center”. Thus, everything will pull toward a single omnidirectional point and collide with the surface of the sphere as if it were the ground.

The curved surface of a sphere is much more problematic than the standard flat plane with a distant horizon line. Everything operates on elipses and orbits, rather than straight lines. Deviating from the standard will create tons of other problems. Despite the new problems it creates, we’ll start with this one.

One problem at a time…baby steps.

Also, K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid)

Now I have to figure out how to solve the gravity problem by any means before I can move on. I’ll have to get creative. Luckily almost everything has been done before in games. It’s a vastly oversaturated field. That means lots of competition, but lots of help, too.

Google is my best friend. And it didn’t take long (a couple hours) to find a solution.

Unity has ways of creating faux gravity by turning it off completely and applying “force” to objects instead. This is achieved with custom scripts. Once I get the gravity working, I can tackle the camera and player navigation.

These functionality problems/solutions are like branches of a tree that bind a game together. I’m doing the trunk now, which will sprout other mini-problems once i get further along. It’s difficult because, in the end, a game is judged on its look and “fun” factor, which are subjective and largely undefined in the gaming community. What is fun? What looks good? These are impossible questions to answer for everyone.

The function of a game, however, needs to be flawless and inherent from the start. The Japanese have a saying for this: “omotenashi.” It means that everything is already done for you, laid out perfectly like the rails of a train, and you are just along for the ride. The physics, controls, and overall functionality of a game MUST be “omotenashi”. Things like bad rag doll physics, “broken” items, exploitable glitches, server errors, and CTDs are all common examples of a lack of “omotenashi”. When this happens, a game is laughably bad and likely unplayable. (Skate2) It only takes one poorly executed function to ruin a game. When done right, the player doesn’t even know it’s there. (insert “Game of the Year” title here) That means the hard work and perfect execution of game editing usually gets overlooked. Then it’s up to the artists and designers to make or break the game with “fun” and “beauty.” But that’s all in the eye of the be-gamer.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and make Newton’s apple fall correctly…and do it so flawlessly that it’s invisible! Then we can worry about polishing the apple to a shiny, red color that turns into a giant gruesome zombie and rips Newton’s arm off unless the player can shoot it fast enough. Then all the 15-year-old whiteboy gamers can take the rest for granted.

That’s game editing in a nutshell.

Open Letter to Gamers Everywhere: Stop Saying “rape.”

I’m guilty. I’ve been a 15-year-old white boy for a time in my life. I’ve said it at LAN parties when I was killed and my gun was stolen. But I was wrong. We as a gaming culture need to stop appropriating this hateful and juvenile term to describe our frustrations with loss during a “fun” recreational activity. I’m not saying that teenaged boys will ever stop using the word, or that girls aren’t guilty of using it, too. But, I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve heard adult males claiming they were “raped” in a game. No one needs you to advertise it.
You were not raped. If you somehow equate your loss of a match or having resources stolen to being sexually assaulted, then you need to re-evaluate your definition of the word. Rape is a violent, humiliating, life-destroying, illegal, and very real crime. The victims are almost always women or children, not straight white men. You are minimizing the trauma of every person who has ever been raped, abused or sexually assaulted by using the term freely to complain about sucking at your game.

So, just quit it.

I’d also like to mention that you’re wrong. First, you’re on the wrong side of history. Historically, we will look back at hateful people (bigots, racists, and homophobes) as tyrannical and evil. I can already think of several examples from my history book. If you want to tout your freedom of speech, do it by saying something accurate. We already have perfectly acceptable game vernacular for being killed: ‘frag.’ I’m sorry if that’s not “extreme” enough for you. Go slam another Mountain Dew.

Second, you’re using the wrong term. Don’t try to argue that you’re just using the term rape from the historical context “rape and pillage.” This type of rape is the wartime act of seizing women as spoils of war and subjecting them to sexual violence. It’s usually coupled with an extreme sense of xenophobia, racism, and disregard of basic human rights. It is not something we emulate in our games; Even if the game has war, battle, military, conquer, or invade in the title. No one is forcing the rape portion of “rape and pillage” upon you. If your village, town, castle, or clan was just attacked in a game and resources were stolen, you have been “sacked” or “pillaged.” That would be perfectly acceptable to say. “My base just got pillaged.” or “I’m sick of getting sacked.”

Third, I hope you’re wrong about the person you directed that language toward. I think the person who just beat you at a game would be shocked to discover that you think they’re a rapist. Yes, that’s what it means when you say “I’m getting raped.” I hope you would be pretty mad, too, if you were the person who just won and then had your sore-loser opponent said you just raped them. Conversely, if you are a bad-winner, I hope you wouldn’t choose to compare yourself to a rapist by saying “You got raped” or “I just raped you.” If that’s your goal in life, there is a special list for you to be on and special place for you to live.

Fourth, if you heard someone say it and didn’t care, you’re a bad person. I’ve been there. It’s easy to fix: inform yourself and be conscious of it. If you heard someone say it in a mixed group and said nothing, you might have just let a rape victim relive their worst experience. I’ve been there, too. Now that I’ve made that mistake, I won’t repeat it. So, please learn from my mistake. If you heard someone say it and it bothered you, say something! Or at least make them read this if you’re too non-confrontational. If you are a rape victim and you heard someone say it, I’m so sorry. You should never have to hear that word used out of context. I’ll do everything I can to make people I know stop it. 

Finally, if you’re the one who says it, I don’t hate you. I don’t dislike you. Just think about your life and your choices. I want you to think about what you said, why you said it, and who might have been forced to listen to you say it. There is only one appropriate time for you to cry “rape” and I think you know when that is. Not when you’re playing a game with others. If you still don’t care, then you shouldn’t play games with anyone. There are plenty of games you can play alone in an empty room with no internet connection. Just be aware that people who lack that sort of empathy are called sociopaths. Historically, sociopaths were exiled from their communities or pushed off cliffs to protect the community. I don’t condone murder and exile, but in gaming terms it would equate to booting and account banning.

I didn’t come by this opinion out of the blue. It’s something I’ve struggled with for the last 20 years. Originally I was one of the offenders, too. It’s easy to take a powerful word out of context when you’re frustrated with your white-boy problems. It’s much harder to care about other people and be conscious of how your words affect them. It took years of education and insight from people I love to train myself to: first, stop saying it, second, notice it and be bothered by it and third, speak out about it.

It’s about time the gaming community levels up and removes the word “rape” from its vernacular. Why? It’s not about you. It’s about the 1:6 women and 1:33 men who have been sexually assaulted during their lifetime. In a 50-member guild, that means you’re making at least 9 people relive the horror of real rape every time you say it. So stop.

Clash of Clans Part II

I have a few things to say about Clash of Clans. About 6 months ago, I had completely stopped playing it. It wasn’t due to the rant about in-app purchases I had in my last editorial. I actually had a change-of-heart about a lot of the things I said last time. As a designer trying to get a job in the game industry, I now see the benefits of GET games and in-app purchases. No, I quit playing Clash of Clans because, at Town Hall Level 8, the game got tedious and frustrating.

A student of mine got me back into it. He was about to lap me on Town Hall Level 9, and I couldn’t let that happen. Now I have a Clan with some of my old friends from college. We just started a couple of weeks ago, so it’s been fun teaching them how to play. I can also donate them ridiculously overpowered troops to defend their tiny level 3 bases. The social aspect of the game has rekindled my interest.

On in-app purchases, I read quite a few articles that have highlighted the temporary nature of game design jobs. Usually a designer works on a project and then the studio shuts down or works on another game. So companies downsize and job retention is low. In-app purchases keep studios open, keep designers employed, and keep updates rolling out to improve gameplay. There are quite a few benefits to this system. For gamers, it means that we continue to get new content and improved functionality. Before, games were just one-shots or sequels. Now games are becoming an eternal format. We don’t need Clash of Clans II: The Remix when Supercell can keep grinding out improvements for the original. For some games that cost upwards of $80, this means we don’t have to ever buy it again…maybe.

There are still some drawbacks to this system, but the idea of eternally valid programs and perpetual web updates is very new. I am still getting used to paying a monthly fee for Adobe Creative Suite, for example. But, I’m so glad I don’t have to buy the full version of Adobe Photoshop all at once again. And the program only gets better and more intuitive with every update.

Where was I? Oh yes, Clash of Clans. I just started playing the game again right in the midst of the first Clash of Clans convention and a giant, ominous content update–one of those awesome things that are keeping games eternally valid. This one is called The Town Hall 11 Update.

It’s been particularly interesting for me to follow as a level designer. I’m very interested in the decision-making process behind all the new roll-outs. All the articles and videos and interviews I’ve watched are pretty convoluted, vague, and potentially difficult to understand as a simple gamer. Or at least, they’re very high on methodology and very confusing as to how we will have to adapt when the game changes.

The Problems

As the game is now, Town Hall levels 1-6 are pretty straightforward. They’re well-balanced, fun, and great at teaching the mechanics of play and how to exist and adapt in the game environment. It’s also pretty easy to disconnect, or play for hours depending on your mood.

Once you get to Town Hall 7, it gets more tedious and slow and repetitive. The game seems less fair, more strict, and more time-consuming. The build times on everything are crazy long. You can’t just play the game anymore. Something as simple as a wall upgrades instantly (as long as you have a free builder) but costs half a million gold or more. Multiply this by 100 walls and it can take an eternity. Then there’s building and troop upgrades. Building an X-Bow took a week. Then it took a second week to upgrade it. So I had to wait 2 weeks before I could even use it. The build times are something you get used to, even the costs. It’s a time-based game.

But, the biggest problem is cost. Everything gets exponentially more expensive at higher levels. That’s natural. But, to upgrade (for example) a level 5 archer to a level 6 archer in your Laboratory is 6,000,000 elixir. Over the last week, I have been attacking to my base’s maximum potential and regularly. I’m able to get about 300,000 elixir per attack, maximum. Which means I need to complete 20 successful attacks to raise the funds. But the training cost of troops to achieve these rewards is about 150,000 elixir per attack (not including spells). That means I have to complete twice as many (about 40) successful attacks to raise enough funds. Without the aid of green gems (which cost money, but boost building times), it can take an hour to train the required troops.

Here’s the real problem. Say I’ve got 2 hours of play time after work. That means I can attack and train my troops about 3 times. If I’m perfect every attack, I’ll clear close to 1,000,000 elixir gross. Minus my troop costs, it’s only about 550,000 net. I log off for the night with my shield expired. I get attacked immediately after that (usually within 5min) by a level 10 player who absolutely decimates my base, yielding her 350,000 of my hard-earned elixir. Then 12 hours later, while I’m at work, I get attacked again by another ridiculously strong opponent who nabs 300,000 elixir. My shield is now active for another 12 hours, but I have actually lost 100,000 elixir more than I started with the night before. That’s a crappy situation to get off work to.

That’s a usual day in my Clash of Clans experience. In fact, I even spent 60 green gems to boost my barracks and barbarian & archer queen for two hours last night. I still only managed to clear 1.5 million elixir and lost 1 million of it overnight. It basically makes the game impossible to progress at unless I play it once every 12 hours for at least 2 hours non-stop (as soon as you log off, you’ll get attacked). That’s why I quit.

This is an obvious design flaw. It’s not very balanced for the mid-level players and discourages replay. I still like the game, but I’m not motivated to try and level my base and troops anymore, nor am I excited about attacking other bases. The only way to avoid these crushing losses is to put your Town Hall in plain sight, unprotected for a trophy farmer to pick up. They’ll only drop a few troops, steal a few trophies, and leave you with your loot intact and an 8-hour shield.

The Solutions

Thank the makers for the massive Town Hall 11 update. They have done some ingenious planning to give us a more balanced experience, while adding replay value and new elements to strive for. The game has such a massive following that no matter how good the update is, there will be a lot of bitching in the forums. I’ll list the changes in the update and how we will actually play the game after it.

Attack Through Shield

What’s that?

You can attack while your shield is active without (completely) removing it.

So how will this affect gameplay?

Now your shield clock is a resource. You have to spend it in bits to attack (3 hours for one). I have to be attacked in order to get it back. Or buy it with green gems.

What’s this gonna do to me?

For those of us playing the game now, it means we don’t have to worry about turning off our device in between the first couple of attacks. As long as there’s some time left, you can log back in and attack again. It also means that there will be roughly 3x more people attacking at any time because they’re not afraid of losing their shields, and 3x fewer people to attack because their shields are still up.

Automatic Logoff “Personal Break”

What’s that?

The game will kick you out if you’ve been playing too long.

So how will this affect gameplay?

You can’t play longer than a few hours, and you can’t have an infinite shield by never shutting off your device.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You just gotta take a 6 minute break every once in a while. But, finally all those people who have avoided getting attacked by cheating will feel the PAIN.

Village Guard

What’s that?

You get a little extra time, based on your league rank (trophies) as a shield “safety net” that kicks in when you activate it (even while logged out).

So how will this affect gameplay?

You’ll be tweaking the timing of your attacks and your village guard to maximize the time you’re protected from others and minimize the time you’re vulnerable.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You can stop playing long enough to eat dinner and talk to your family/take a pee break without getting attacked. (depending on your rank or wallet)

Town Hall Loot

What’s changed?

There’s more gold, elixir, and dark elixir stored in your Town Hall.

So how will this affect gameplay?

There’s now 20x more loot inside your Town Hall. It’s still not a lot for higher level players to spend. But anyone who doesn’t protect it better can guarantee they will get attacked more.

What’s this gonna do to me?

If you see a base with an exposed Town Hall, attack it! You’ll probably get some decent loot, even if you don’t get trophies or a high damage percentage. Oh, and be sure to hide your own very well.

No more Trophy Farming/Shield Farming

What’s that?

In the past, you could find a vulnerable Town Hall, destroy it with a single archer, and get one star, a handful of trophies, 1,000 elixir and gold, and your full league bonus rewards. Likewise, people would intentionally put their base in an easy place to promote this kind of an attack. The defender only loses 1,000 gold and elixir, but gets an 8-hour shield.

So how will this affect gameplay?

You can still do this, but now there’s 20x more loot to be gained/lost in your Town Hall. The attacker gets no trophies or bonus. The defender gets no shield. More bases will reflect this change visually and be harder to attack.

What’s this gonna do to me?

Your new goal is to hit 70% damage on every base you attack. You get the maximum bonus reward (which has doubled), two stars,  and trophies…well those are dependent on your opponent’s rank compared to your own. Rank is no longer about quantity, but quality of attacks/opponents.

New Stuff!

What’s new?

Town Hall Level 11.

Grand Warden Hero.

Wizard Tower Level 9.

Storages Level 12.

Witch Level 3.

Minion Level 7.

Freeze Spell.

Eagle Artillery.

Larger Village Space.

Spell Donation.

So how will this affect gameplay?

For lower level players, not much. If you’ve maxed out the game, this will give you more to do and hopefully make the game stretch a bit longer.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You’ll see lots of cool new stuff. Hopefully you’ll get to use some of it. I personally like that a lot of the new stuff has a “lighter” motif than the current black and spikes and lava. The biggest changes will probably be in Clan Wars. Basically, it’ll be harder to cheat and more difficult to succeed at attack and defense. It remains to be seen what the best ways to earn the most loot will be.

Sploder Arcade Creator


My wife is also a teacher in Japan. As part of her job, she teaches IT class to fourth, fifth and sixth graders twice a month and is often looking for unique ways to engage the students. What better way than through game design?

She turned me on to a web based game developer called Sploder. Her students have been building games in the ‘Arcade Creator’ for a few weeks. Apparently her students LOVED it and made some pretty unique games. So, I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s amazingly simple and limited, but I actually find that refreshing after drowning in more complex editing programs for the past few years. It’s a great way for a seasoned designer to step back and focus on optimizing a ‘fun and playable’ type of game in a not-so-adaptable medium. I’ve found it rather challenging.

There aren’t many tutorials for it so far. Thus, I reverted to the ‘tinker and test’ method of learning a new program. Luckily the editor makes it simple to push play and quickly test what you’ve created for iteration and debugging. The actual gameplay and physics are clunky, but it’s beautiful because everyone who uses the Arcade Creator is limited to the same set of odd assets and wonky characters. It’s more what you do with them and how you arrange them to make an engaging game that’s important.

It works a lot like Mario Maker. Obviously the assets are changed enough to avoid a lawsuit, but the grid palette and drag-and-drop system are pretty much the same. Immediately, I found it necessary to learn what all the items do to form some kind of cohesive game narrative.

The three motifs: Forest, Cave, or Tech

Let’s start with the classic: Forest. The landscapes are pretty much what you’d expect. Grass, trees, dirt. But I immediately gravitated towards water, spouts, lava, spiked platforms, and mushroom/flower triggers. These made awesome assets for a fun side scroller. Any time death is imminent, I find my gamer juices flow faster.

So, I played around with the mushroom triggers to control the death-bringing assets. The mushrooms are timed, so you can create some killer puzzles. The wonky physics make it even more killer-literally.

The link logic system is simple, but becomes complex because it’s visual: right there in your level palette. If the puzzles become too comfortable lex, the screen becomes a mess of blue link lines. It makes deletion and editing quite cumbersome. After creating three or four simple puzzles, I noticed I was using mushrooms rather often. So, I strung them together and called the game “Mushroom Kingdom.”

Now, there are a ridiculous number of weird items. Things like coins and necklaces, blue orbs and red apples, blue hearts and silver coins. The learning process was lengthy enough for me, that I knew my audience would be lost unless each stage slowly introduced them. The narrative required situations to use the items, and NPCs to the explain the finer points. For example, there’s a carrot. Sometimes I can pick it up, but sometimes I can’t. So I placed an evil rabbit that will give me information if I collect them. He can’t do it himself because you have to be injured in order to get them. They give you back a tiny bit of health, but the sadistic rabbit wants to watch me suffer and hurt myself on purpose. Sweet, delicious suffering. As you collect carrots, he teaches you about mushroom triggers, flowers, collectibles, health, magic, energy and upgrades.

The best thing I learned from on my time in Sploder is that a small set of assets can be used to create a very engaging game. Also, I got some great practice for designing a gradual leveled tutorial right into my game story. With each new screen and success, they played increases their knowledge and uses what they’ve learned to overcome more difficult challenges. I haven’t had time to play around with the cave and tech environments yet. But I hear there’s new monsters and teleports!

After playing with Sploder for a week, my wife informed me that it’s a kid’s program. So I asked how her kids handled the link logic. Apparently none of them figured it out yet. I guess I’ll have to teach her so she can pass the knowledge along. I’ll be interested to see their final IT projects. I can’t stay a kid forever, but I wish these tools were available to me back in the 80’s. Now it’s time for me to get back to a more adult program.


Question Quest and the Art of Gamifying Education


I live in Japan, and one of the only full-time employment opportunities for foreigners is teaching English. So, I became an assistant language teacher, or ALT. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. And it’s taken time away from making the games and mods I’m used to. But in the process, I’ve had to create educational games, worksheets and gamified activities for students to build their skills in the classroom, while keeping them engaged. It’s excellent practice for game design.

Right now the trend in ESL/EFL instruction in Japan is changing. In the past it has been really popular for ALT’s to be a sort of game master: always in charge of preparing games for students to play. More recently, we’ve found ways of combining them with a particular grammar point they’ve covered in the textbook. These games include things like Go Fish and Crazy Eights. I’ve also done variations on Battleship, Jeopardy, Uno, Guess Who, Bingo, and a slough of other games. Teachers like them because the kids aren’t bored, but they’re using the grammar. Students like them because they get to do something fun in class with their friends that doesn’t involve listening to a teacher blab on for an hour. But, the educational community is becoming increasingly anti-game in the classroom.

Why doesn’t academia like games? There are a few reasons.

First, most popular games are (at their core) anti-educational. They are based on the premise that you play them to compete and win. To escape real life. To do things that are taboo, unacceptable, or completely impossible in the real world. The majority of the most popular games of the past couple of years are won by killing and stealing things (Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Grand Theft Auto 5). The rest, aside from two or three, are won by exploring an impossible fantasy world with an unrealistic or fictional character (Final Fantasy XIV, BioShock Infinite, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).  If you notice, every one of these games is a sequel: a testament to the popularity of their genre. The acts of killing and stealing are not in line with current morality education even if they are fun because we SHOULDN’T do them in real life. Moreover, the fantastical settings are engaging because we CAN’T go there in real life. Those things are only done for entertainment.

Second, games require an investment of time and money. The teacher has to take the time to teach the rules of a game, and hope that all the students (regardless of level) understand and can perform. For more complex games, this can take away from the time they are actually able to learn the target information. Also, games require materials. Sometimes those materials are expensive and/or can’t be changed to fit a particular lesson unless they’re hand-made. Ten Uno decks per class per school adds up quickly. Administrators may not be keen on the idea of budgeting money for games and teachers don’t have time to design, create, and implement a new game for every lesson.

Third, research shows that the retention rate of information through game-taught methods of learning is the same as lecturing, around 20%. This is quite low when compared to task-based learning, 60%, and self-directed study, 80%, and teaching the material to someone else, 90%. (I took these figures from a lecture by a professor at Fukuoka University which I saw recently.) Of course we want students to retain information. This signifies to me that the games are being used improperly in the classroom: 1) by a lazy teacher to only occupy students, 2) to take the place of introducing new information, 3) to do something other than express practice of what they’ve already studied. The other problem might be that the games used for this research were ineffective examples of “gamified activities for retaining information.” What does UNO really teach? A) How to have group conversation? B) How to use colors and numbers? C) Nothing. It’s just a game of random chance to pass time. The last and potentially most important correlation to the above percentages is that students retain more information the more responsibility they are given to direct their own learning. This can only be achieved through motivation, goals, and tasks. This is where game design becomes very important.

Fourth, students become more invested in winning a game than succeeding at the language. Students will perfect a strategy of using the required words or phrases to gain points, minimize their real understanding of those words or phrases, and sacrifice any genuine input or original thought for efficiency. A friend of mine giving a seminar on gamification said it best,

“Students will always take the path of least resistance. Design your games in a way that encourages them to be creative without cutting corners. They will always spot and exploit your game’s flaws and use them to their advantage. A game that is both fun and challenging will create perpetual motivation. It’s our job to make that happen while still cramming all the essential knowledge we can into it as well. We must essentially trick our students into learning.”

As designers, we have to be diligent in achieving a seamless duality between motivation and knowledge retention/application. Some games tend to take the language out of its context and place it where it can be used solely for entertainment. It’s like giving a kid a hammer and telling them to hit as many nails into a board as they can in one hour. Now they know how to build a house, right?

I just did a lesson on gerunds and we played Battleship. The grid was made up of six rows and six columns. Each row had a question starter, such as “Do you like~.” Each column had an object in present simple tense, such as “play tennis.” Player one would ask “Do you like playing tennis?” (changing the grammar to use a gerund) Player two would respond “Yes, I do like playing tennis.” if their ship occupied that square, or “No, I don’t like playing tennis.” if their ship wasn’t there. The game was good for pattern practice, and the students were engaged in the activity, but what did they actually learn? Can they understand what it means to “enjoy making lunch”? Do they know in what context in real life they would ever say “I started studying English.”? If I ask them in a week to make a gerund sentence using “finish” and “brush my teeth” will they be able to do it? But can they sink their opponent’s imaginary ship on a grid by connecting two phrases: yes.

Where games do succeed is at their ability to portray amazing narratives filled with artistic creativity and task-based problem-solving. They are already engaging, so kids won’t need convincing. It’s adults who need the convincing. I believe that with the proper design, these aspects of games can be utilized for effective education. But, in order to succeed, there will  be a lot of convincing to show theorists that a game can be student-centered, focus on cooperation and healthy competition, use conversation in a meaningful, genuine way that promotes original ideas, and provide situational context so that the students will remember how to use the grammar and apply it in real life.

That’s where Question Quest enters the picture.

Question Quest is a card game specifically designed for teaching EFL and promoting conversational English. I was recently introduced to the creator of Question Quest, Sean Anderson. He is also the founder of Quest Maker Media, a small group of developers devoted to modernizing the way we teach English and making language learning thrilling. QMM is made up of a linguist, a designer, and an illustrator. What they have created is a game that pushes the boundaries of what a game can do educationally. It really does effectively bridge the gap between entertainment and learning and provides the best proof I’ve ever seen that a game can facilitate language learning.

I’ve always been interested in creating a game for myself to learn Japanese. I am a great visual learner, but a terrible book studier. In school, I honestly believe that playing games like Number Muncher and Word Muncher improved my mental computation and spelling skills more than reading and writing in class. The only thing I’ve found to do this for Japanese is a one-man programmed RPG computer game called Slime Forest. He had the right idea, but the RPG format and simple pixel graphics made it boring. I still had to read all the dialogue, and not being able to progress in the game (“Who do I have to talk to to finish this quest??”) hindered my ability to progress at the language.

Language requires two people. That’s why Question Quest succeeds where Slime Forest failed. Format. A multi-player card game is a much better format than a single-player computer RPG for language practice. Group games fundamentally require conversation, whether it’s haggling over a property in Monopoly or strategizing over how to beat the traitor in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. But QQ cannot substitute for introductory learning of new words or grammar, and it requires a judge (teacher) to monitor the game and make sure it’s being played correctly and fairly. Although, once the students become familiar with how the game is played, they can judge one another. So, to succeed, QQ still requires classroom grammar lessons and introductory materials.

To see how the game is played, watch their YouTube videos.

It’s really easy to come in and view a work and critique it, then find the flaws once it has been made. It’s another thing to try and make it perfectly the first time around. But Question Quest isn’t perfect. So I’d like to point out a few of my observations on the game. I have yet to actually play it, so most of this comes from a very limited knowledge of its gameplay and from the conversation I had with Sean.

First, how is this useful to teachers?

The easy answer is that is does the job for them, mostly. It puts the language practice in the hands of the students, literally. One deck can easily supply a group (2-6 players) with language content and keep them busy for a full class period. It reinforces basic English grammar and dialogue, and introduces some new words and concepts that might require them to self-study a bit. It’s a bit task-based, even though students aren’t necessarily working together to win or achieve a goal. But language strategy and temporary alliances can be formed to achieve small personal goals. It is well designed, full-color, illustrated, easy to use, and has fun characters: all which make it more interesting for students. It can be altered by taking out higher or lower level cards to meet the needs of different learners. Adaptability is very important for multiple skill levels and difficulty progression. It’s not a substitute for normal lessons, but it’s a good way to have a regular practice/ or a solid review activity.

Second, does it really help with English education?

It gets students speaking to each other in English. Japanese students, especially, are painfully shy and constantly worried about making mistakes. Language is all about making mistakes. It’s the outgoing ones who really excel at this. (They tend to be the lower academic level students.) Question Quest requires conversation solely in English with question and response dialogue. Even the shy students must participate to succeed at the game. But, the outgoing students must perfect their grammar in order to excel. Talking to one another in small groups makes the students less nervous to perform. The cards in Question Quest also include the basic foundational grammar forms required for inquisitive communication. Interrogatives, modals, and helping verbs are a fundamental part to each round of the game–the responses to which require original and genuine answers within the format and guidelines of the initial question. This requires critical thinking, which is key to education.

Third, is the game well designed?

The art is beautiful. I think that is the key to getting a wider audience interested in the game. Most people can appreciate craftsmanship. The illustrator for Question Quest has created six original characters engaged in very well crafted images to describe the question/answer pairs written on each card. They are reminiscent of taro cards, Japanese manga, Magic the Gathering cards, and build your own adventure books. It immerses the players in an East-meets-West fusion of medieval fantasy and culture. The design of the cards is also very high quality. Quest Maker Media’s graphic designer did a stellar job of arranging the cards so the major items are clear and hierarchical by importance. Great care was taken when drafting each question, as well. The cards provide specific examples in very small font at the bottom as a cheat-sheet to help the questioner draft their own original questions or identify any problems in the other player’s response. Now let’s get into game mechanics.

There are many potential road blocks. First of all, the object of the game is to get points. The higher points the card is, the more difficult the question and the better your chances of stumping your partner. How will this affect a conversation between a half-Filipino student with an English-speaking father and a full Japanese student with no exposure to English outside the classroom? Won’t the first student have a better chance of winning every time?

How do you get points and eventually win? Your conversation partner must fail or make mistakes. That’s how you win. Or you can interrupt someone else’s conversation and win. Wait…is this the way English conversation works? Kind of. But do we really want to punish students who try and make minor mistakes and reward students who just interrupt a conversation? Seems anti-motivational for the slower learners and motivational for the extroverted students to use rude behavior. But, that’s the exact nature of debate.

If you think about it from a debate standpoint, which is the sport of interactive argument and persuasion, you do want to strategically stump your partner into a standstill with the clever use of language. But is it a genuine interaction between interested parties who are trying to gain a deeper understanding of one another through conversation? Not really. Although, to be able to use language in debate does illustrate a more sophisticated grasp of it. That happens a bit by accident as the game is played, once the right questions are asked and answered, and if the students are invested enough to remember or understand each other’s answers. But perhaps after repeated use of this game mechanic, students will learn that it can be done in real life, as well.

If you haven’t watched the gameplay videos on YouTube by now, you’re probably a bit lost. Well, go back and watch them now! What are you waiting for?

Final Thoughts:

Question Quest isn’t perfect, but it’s the best attempt I’ve ever seen to gamify language learning. Let’s remember this phrase from now on because it is becoming vernacular in education: gamification. Language learning is also driven by an interest in culture. If I didn’t have an interest in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t have an interest in learning Japanese. My love of anime, games, ukyo-e prints, Edo period design and aesthetics, sushi, cute characters, and travel enhances my motivation for learning one of the most difficult, confusing, time-consuming and opposite languages to English in the world. Likewise, a game must also be culturally immersive. Language and culture are entwined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we find beautiful, the gestures we use when we emote, and the situations we react to positively and negatively. Think of the differences in these categories as they relate to 16th century Italian Renaissance language vs. 18th century Japanese language.

Gamification is not respected in formal education because it is seen as childish, anti-educational, immoral, and for entertainment purposes. Desire for educators to remove games increases as learners’ age and skill increases. But the validity of gamifying activities still remains.

I think it is essential for language learning at all skill levels. Gamifying the use and repitition of conversation (in the right way) can provide students with motivation, situational context, cultural awareness, retention, and positive cognitive responses to an otherwise boring, difficult, and anxiety-enducing language lesson. Roleplaying is necessary to provide context for language when it is impossible in the primary country. I can’t take my whole class to the supermarket and expect them to shop in English with a Japanese store worker. But, my Harry Potter Hogwarts School Shopping roleplaying game allows us to do it right there in the classroom.

“Games” also give clear tiered levels for students to achieve. Learners need to visualize their progress and be rewarded for using language properly. It is difficult to quantify someone’s grasp of a language over time otherwise. And games can be more interactive, team-building, goal-oriented, and culturally immersive than tests. They display a learner’s critical, real-time thought and creative problem solving skills where tests only represent a learner’s ability to memorize facts. Gamified language activities also allow for variation and improvisation where tests are inflexible and require one, precise solution.

I’ve been working on a large-scale gamified motivation and reward system for a month now. I plan on unveiling it here as I implement it at school. It puts into practice many of the points I discuss here as it relates to Question Quest and the art of gamifying education. Look forward to it in my next post.


Love & Hate & Free-To-Play Time Based Strategy Games with Micro Transactions

That title is a mouthful. Let’s break it down a little. First, I want to talk about one of my favorite App games: Clash of Clans. I want to talk about it because I both love and hate it. I’ve played it to death, so I have some experience grinding through all the little nuances.


Why do I love it? Well, it’s free. It’s really well-programmed. The graphics are crisp and stylish. And building and destroying bases is really fun with your friends in a clan. That said, the game is potentially ruining modern games for independent designers–and ruining mobile and app gaming in general, putting profit over playability. First, it’s free to play.

What? It’s free! Awesome! This company must be a bunch of suckers, right? Well, it ain’t such a big deal for a big company like Supercell in Helsinki, Finland.

They have a lot of things most indie designers don’t have, namely a $12 million investor. But also, they have a big server, a giant advertising campaign, and a team that can crank out lots of new content and tons of updates to breathe new life into the game as it ages. They make their money back on a relatively new concept called micro-transactions. A free game like Clash of Clans looks a lot more appealing to the casual App-Store surfer than the indie designer’s $0.99 game.

Patience is a virtue some gamers possess if they are grinding–repeating a task over and over again to gain a skill or item. But many gamers have zero patience for a game that slows them down in any way. My patience disappears when a timer won’t even allow me to try. Micro-transactions are like a clot in my gaming heart. I’m about to unlock a dragon! I need to upgrade my Town Hall. But–”You don’t have any builders, they won’t be available for another 3d 4hr 36min 5sec.” My heart arrests. “Buy another builder for 30 gems.” I only have 10 gems. My left arm goes numb. But I can buy a chest of 20 gems for $9.99. So either I fork over ten bucks or wait half a week to play my game?! HEART ATTACK.

Hang on. Let’s start over. So I can play your game for free and test it out. Or I can buy a different game up front for $0.99 without playing it?

No-brainer. But now that I’ve put some time into your free game, you won’t let me play it unless I pay 10x the normal game price for an exhaustible in-game resource? But once I spend the gems on another builder, I’m back to where I started “Wait for 2d 3hr 45min 10sec.” Am I supposed to buy gems every time I make a decision just so I can play?!

Why didn’t I just spend $0.99 on ten different games? (facepalm)

Let me propose an analogy. Micro-transactions are to gamers as heroin is to everyone. You gotta have a lot of money to support the habit, but in the long run it becomes an addiction. It’s like all games are becoming online gambling. Oh, and screw poor people. If you’re poor, you can still kinda play the game, but you’ll never have the same opportunity as the money-players. Have fun waiting!

These game stimulants go by many names now: Micro-transactions, In-App Purchases (IAP), Unlock Keys, Downloadable Content (DLC), and Apple’s newest genre for games that are free (at first)–GET+. The industry seems to be catering more and more to this format of game design and it’s disturbing. Clash of Clans is actually a good game with lots of well-designed and fun content. But, games will get simpler, more derivative, and more locked down. On second thought…

“GAME OVER.  CONTINUE? (2 CREDITS)” The coin clinks into the slot and Jin lives another day to uppercut Yoshimitsu.

Maybe the industry is just modernizing the way that games made us plug more coins into the machine in the past. The home console killed the arcade machine (the old skool IAP), now the mobile device is avenging its death in a way?

Not exactly. If I put up the money to buy my own arcade box, you better believe I won’t be using quarters. We’re already coughing up $400+ on mobile devices, but they don’t seem to have free play buttons. Is it just me or has the coin slot been twisted and made much worse? The quarter for credits system was much simpler. Now we need a device and App Store credit to get a game with micro-transactions for gems to kinda-sorta play for a bit. The industry knows it can get gamers hooked and undercut the non-free-to-play developers while raking in dough. They will continuously profit off our impatience without having to release new games all the time to keep us interested. Cower as the rise of the GET+ game cometh. I think the way it’s going, they’re gonna tear us all a new coin slot.

iDesign Therefor iPad, Part II: Codea


A commenter on Kaminazo just referred me to a more sophisticated game editor for iPad. It’s called Codea. Available directly on the App Store from Two Lives Left for $9.99.

Finally, I have what I’ve been wanting since I began using Game Salad: an editor program that functions directly on the peripheral. Now I can create games from my mobile device and test them directly on it in real-time as I program.

Codea uses a programming language called Lua that I am not familiar with. But after previewing its functionality on YouTube and checking out the in-App tutorials and sample projects, LUA doesn’t seem much different from all the other scripting languages I’ve encountered. The App also gave me access to forums and tutorials on the basics of both Codea and Lua.

I’m most excited about the potential for designing 3D environments. Perhaps this format will be good for the tower defense game I’ve been working on.

As I delve deeper into Codea and begin working through the tutorials and beginning stages of design, I’ll blog again.

If you’d like to see Codea in action, check out this video:

Codea on YouTube