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GDC 2012: Loom creator Brian Moriarty's 'sinister' school of game design

In an Education Summit talk at GDC 2012, Infocom and LucasArts veteran Brian Moriarty outlined some key principles of game design education, arguing that the best way to teach students is to force them to figure it out on their own.
In an Education Summit talk at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, Infocom and LucasArts veteran Brian Moriarty outlined some key principles of game design education, arguing that the best way to teach students is to force them to figure it out on their own. Moriarty, who previously created titles such as Beyond Zork and Loom, now works as a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and in his talk he detailed his demanding strategy for "hurling students into the crucible of game design." When planning his curriculum, Moriarty explained that he considered teaching students with tabletop "piecepacks," using dice, boards, markers, and the like. He soon realized, however, that digital games rely on their own unique set of building blocks. "To me, digital games are made of code," he said. Therefore, "the fundamental activity students must be doing [for class] is assembling games in code." The only problem was that Moriarty's introductory course had no programming requisite classes, so students didn't necessarily have any coding experience. To create a solution, Moriarty drew inspiration from the 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, which describes a game in which the rules and mechanics are not explained in detail. Using that concept, Moriarty set out to create a game engine that would teach students about coding with minimal guidance. His eventual solution was a simple, Javascript-based engine dubbed Perlenspiel, which could create games using a mosaic-like grid (with a resolution of a medium-sized windows con), colored pixels (or "beads"), and a text-based status box. Moriarty explained that Javascript became his language of choice because it is currently one of the most versatile and useful languages in nearly all realms of game development. "Javascript is as real as programming languages get," he said. With the Perlenspiel engine, he hoped that students would learn "to finger out [game] ideas like notes on a piano." He wanted the engine to become what he called a "gameclavier," or an inherently useful tool for designing, experimenting, and ultimately, creating games. Thus, Moriarty introduced his Perlenspiel engine at the beginning of his seven-week design course, and tasked students with creating a total of six titles within that limited period. Moriarty himself described the workload as "sinister," but said that the short time between projects (and the limited engine) helped students strip down game design to its essentials. As Moriarty described it, students could do little more with the Perlenspiel engine than "change the appearance of the beads, the grid, or the status line," meaning their games couldn't have characters, backstories, or any superfluous elements -- everything came down to the mechanics. One additional caveat in the course was that students had to create games that fell into several categories. First, they had to create a toy, or "something that elicits play," followed by a "game" proper, or a toy with rules and a goal, and finally, they had to create puzzles, or games with a solution. With these guidelines in place, students came up with a wide variety of concepts as the course progressed, spanning drawing tools, virtual mazes, and eventually basic adventure games. By the end of the course, Moriarty said that "course evaluations were unanimously positive," and students clearly appreciated all they learned. Moriarty, however, realized that he course had taught him quite a bit as well. "Looking back on the experiment… I realized that I had not built the gameclavier I was looking for… I thought I was building a game engine for teaching game design, but I really built an engine that taught me how to teach game design." Moriarty admitted that throughout his course, he only used his own Perlenspiel engine to make simple tech demos -- he had never made a game of his own. He decided therefore, that he would design his own game and use it as a tool for the following term. Once he began crafting it, he realized exactly what he had been asking of his students. "I had completely forgotten how difficult it was to code for bare pixels!" he said. He struggled for three weeks to create his game, and gained an even better understanding of exactly what his students went through. Moriarty recalled, "Perlenspiel demonstrated to this old professor how hard students will work if they are playfully and firmly challenged." In his latest term, Moriarty used his game as part of his final exam to test students on the essential elements and principles of game design. He welcomed other educators to use the Perlenspiel engine in their own courses, as it has proven a useful tool for picking apart game design -- for both students and professors alike. The Perlenspiel engine is now available as an open source tool, and more information is available at its official website.

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