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Brewing Up Good Game Design

In this post I discuss how elements of my homebrewing hobby have given me insight into my game design work.

Some of my posts have been a little more utilitarian of late so I thought I’d do something fun with this one.  The Holidays are upon us, and with them come festive food and drink of the season.  You see, when I’m not waxing poetic at work, with friends, and on Gamasutra on the experiential power of video games as interactive media, I brew my own beer – and I’ve been quite busy setting out my Holiday selection

Now, I’m not talking about making my own version of Keystone Light or other “lawnmower” or “drinking game” beers.  My outlook on brewing is the same as my outlook on game design:  be experimental.  If I can buy it in the store chances are I don’t want to spend the extra money making it myself. 

This philosophy has made me notice that sitting at a table poring over notes with friends on our next brew is strangely akin to developing new game concepts.  While this may be because I do a lot of my brewing with friends that I also design games with, I believe it goes further than that.  In the premiere of the Discovery Channel show Brewmasters, CEO of Dogfish Head Brewery Sam Calagione explains his own company’s mission statement with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote printed high on a wall in his brewery: 

Why so would be a man
must be a nonconformist.
He who would gather immortal palms
must not be hindered
by the name of goodness,
but must explore if it be goodness.
Nothing is atlast sacred
but the integrity of your own mind.

 While Sam has turned this quote into his slogan of “off-centered ales for off-centered people”, we game designers can take this as a call to rebel against the endless stream of watered-down and flavorless first person shooters and sci-fi/fantasy sequels by creating some truly off-centered games; and we can look to some lessons of good craft brewing to show us the way. 

Ignore style

This bit of advice comes from the book Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher.  You see, in 1516, a law known as the Reinheitsgebot (known in the U.S. as the German Purity Law) was implemented in the German duchy of Bavaria.  This law stipulated that beer may only be brewed from three ingredients:  water, barley and hops (the presence of yeast in the fermentation process was not known at the time) so that other grains such as rye and wheat could be utilized in bread and the price of beer could be kept low.  These limits have led to a variety of excellent beer styles, but have also limited the brewer’s creative freedom.  While each of those ingredients can be pushed to their extremes (an EXTREMELY hoppy IPA I once made comes to mind), many of those frontiers have already been conquered.  The influence of the Reinheitsgebot can be seen in the pale lagers that dominate the American beer landscape today. 

 Periodic beer table

So many to choose from...

We game designers have something very similar to styles.  Where a brewer may say, “today I’m going to make a porter”, game designers try to fit their own creations into well-defined categories known as genres.  These categories have evolved over time as successful game designs are created and copied from game to game.  This is not to say that the idea of creating the next great platformer is bad, but limiting a game to one single genre can have the same effect as following the purity law.  If you find a way to transcend what’s been done with platformers or a hefeweizens while keeping the same basic ingredients, all the more power to you.  If the some of the recent “make one sequel a year” news is any indication, however, games are in danger of suffering the “light beer” effect, with competing rehashes of the same product flooding the marketplace. 

 The new Hoth

Gee guys, isn't this the 20th time we've stormed this beach?

Craft brewers and independent game designers are fighting these creative restrictions in many different ways, some which are not so different from one another.  Brewers are trying to pave the road to the future by looking to the past.  Before the restrictions set out by the Reinheitsgebot, beer was made for thousands of years with a variety of indigenous grains and flavorings.  Brewers would literally ferment grain-based beverages with whatever was around them; from rice in Asia (sake is technically beer) to corn, cocoa, and chilis in Central America.  Belgium, which has never had any specific brewing restrictions, has always followed a similar brewing methodology, with brewers incorporating different fruits, sugars, and spices into their beers.  That’s why when you go to a beer-savvy bar, many beers are simply defined as “Belgian” while still being vastly different from one another.  Many find these beers to be infinitely more flavorful and of much higher quality than mass-market corporate beers. 

With a much shorter heritage to work from, video game designers are trying new combinations of genres, or even completely disregarding the idea of genre to mold mechanics to a singular artistic vision of what the game should be.  While there is a lot of room for these game ideas to crash and burn (but hey…there is when you decide to make a batch out of more maple syrup than yeast can eat too…possibly speaking from personal experience…) Many of these indie game developers, not pressured by corporate publishers, are brewing their own recipes for interesting game experiences that throw genre out the window.  This hearkens back to a time when before corporate video games when games were not made to fit in with what the public saw as a familiar “style”, but what the game was trying to convey:  Chess as military strategy, the cooperative work games of slave children in the American South meant to contrast their oppressive environment, Ring Around the Rosie as a rhyming game written by children describing the symptoms of the bubonic plague.  The people formulating these games were improvising from their own environments for their game design inspirations…which brings me to my next lesson we can learn from craft brewers…


When you have to invent a genre to define your game you've done a good job...

Find unique inspiration 

You know you’re either a sadist or simply completely insane when you walk into an ethnic market, spy some unusual plant or ingredient, and think, “I should make a beer out of that.”  It’s even worse when you begin going to the very same market to find the next ingredient you’d like to throw in your brew kettle.  This is how I tell students to approach their own game designs as well.  In the book, Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman argue that ANYTHING can be made into a game if designed correctly.  Let me repeat that: 


And why not?  In an interview, one of the designers of Katamari Damacy said that people thought they were crazy when pitching a game about rolling a sticky ball around until it was digitally prototyped.  Likewise, many games take what could otherwise be a boring topic and make them incredibly fun, such as urban planning and management (SimCity), the development of religion and culture (Civilization), negotiating treaties and military alliances (Diplomacy), waitressing (Diner Dash), and countless others. 

 Katamari Damacy

Who would have thought...

Why should all games be brown and gray first person shooters?  Likewise, why should all beer be the light yellow and watery?  The thing that successful conversions of everyday activities into games do is to find the essential foundation of what that activity is about and distill it into its simplest form, creating a core mechanic from which a game can be designed.  Players need to have some simple, repeatable activity that they can understand in order to make a game accessible.  If the game designer understands how to make this conversion happen, they can begin to look for inspiration in seemingly crazy places. 

 Beer ingredients

Random ingredients in my kitchen that have inspired, not the dog buscuits

Brewing is about balancing flavors, so the idea of using something like…pumpkin…for example, is simple if one knows how to properly integrate and celebrate this ingredient among the flavor profile created by the barley, water, hops, and yeast.  Balance is also an integral part of game design; making sure a game contains proper mechanics that allow each player to have a fair chance at winning and that each element of the game complements one another.  Added correctly and in balance with other mechanics, the idea of making a game out of wacky activities such as brewing or making games (see what I did there?) is absolutely possible.  Like how a beer with off-centered ingredients would probably also use barley, hops, water, and yeast (it’s necessary to have those ingredients in the U.S. to technically call your product a beer), a game based on, let’s say ironing, would probably also contain familiar things like rewards, goals, choices, and conflict.  Of course all of this is only necessary if you…

 Design for the experience

Again this goes into the whole corporate vs. independent conflict and the discussion of what the masses want.  Statistically 90% of Americans drink light watery American lagers brewed with cheap adjunct grains like rice and corn (Budweisers, Millers, and the like.)  To put it bluntly, these beers have no flavor and are pretty much all the same.  The American public is largely unaware that there’s anything else or simply doesn’t care.  As stated before, gaming is in danger of being in the same situation.  Many of the most popular games out today are also some of the most unoriginal.  Publishers clamor for sequel after sequel of successful gaming franchises that need not actually add anything new to the experience of a series besides tweaking some features or fixing a bug or two from the previous version.  Sure, Black Ops is fun but at the end of the day it tastes the same as Modern Warfare 2.  While sequels and franchises will always have their place, each game should still strive to be an independent experience from one another.  Again, many gamers were very excited to have the latest Call of Duty, much in the same way that they look forward to each new year of Madden football (and soon, yearly or bi-yearly Halo.)  Yet many more discerning gamers are looking for a little more flavor variety in their games. 

 evil corporate beer

Let's not follow their example...

The key is to take the craft brewer’s approach and treat each gaming experience like it’s unique.  The experiential aspects of gaming and brewing are a similarity that they share on a chemical level.  When someone is engaged in a pleasant activity, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released into the brain and the person feels a sense of pleasure.  Two of the things that release dopamine into the brain, you guessed it, playing games and drinking fermented beverages.  While this blog post does not ignore the damage that can be done physically and mentally to those who overindulge in alcoholic beverages and those around them (the jury is out on whether gaming has similar harmful effects on the human brain), they can each be a pleasurable experience on their own if consumed in moderation.  Design consultant Donald Norman has suggested that dopamine-inducing situations such as playing games can put designers in a more creative state of mind, making them more open to suggestion and abstract thought then if they are under stress.  I myself tested some of these claims in my own graduate thesis by merging architectural design with game design, embodying the process in a game, and seeing what effect the process-game had on architects playing it.  Subjects in my own test reported getting along better with co-workers than they did designing under their normal “work mode” and having ideas they would not typically have in a focused crunch.  While consuming both mass-marketed games and beer will facilitate these pleasurable reactions in the brain, creating something unique and memorable will leave a much more profound impact on the person experiencing the final product.  

work and play

Come to the play side...we have candy

The sheer joy of being someone who teaches/writes about game design and occasionally gets a few friends together to get a game together is that I essentially have the same freedom I have with my homebrew.  As stated previously, my motto is “If I can get it in the store I don’t want to make it at home” and it’s served me well so far in terms of beer experiences.  Last week I bottled a Christmas beer whose ingredients included biscuit malt (a preparation of malted barley that gives toasted/doughy flavors to beer), cranberries, almonds, and honey.  While I look forward to giving a few bottles to my family and friends, I didn’t make it to ship to millions who will provide me with a profit by purchasing my beer.  I brewed it to experience what a homemade cranberry beer would taste like.  At a friend’s suggestion I added honey to balance out the tartness of the berries and in a moment of insanity toasted some almonds and added them to enhance the malt.  What I got was a beer whose taste begins sweet then becomes pleasantly tart, leaving the roasty flavors of the almonds and the malt in the aftertaste.  It is in this same way that a project I did with some students over the summer (discussed in my blog post on dabbling in programming) created a game to tell the story of a growing relationship between two characters.  Players begin the game as a scientist searching the bottom of the ocean in a heavy diving suit with limited movement.  He encounters a woman from an undersea civilization who helps him through the environment while he protects her from dangerous creatures and enemies.  As the game progresses, each is enhanced with abilities that mirror the natural talents of the other and more of the world is open to them.  Sure, screenshots of the game in action look like those of a typical first person shooter in just the same way that a look at the grain bill for my cranberry beer would make it look like a brown ale, but the experience of the designs themselves are much more complex and wonderful. 

demo screenshot 

Screenshot of our tech demo

It is no real surprise that the experiences of games and beer are so similar, why else would they show up in the same places so often?  Both are important parts of human civilization:  from the fermented honey and barley beverages in Turkey (recreated in the last decade as Dogfish Head Midas Touch) to The Royal Game of Ur, humans have been seeking out the pleasure of both fermented beverages and games for millennia.  Perhaps this is why they are so often found next to one another in modern times:  from the twelve ounce bottle next to you as you play Starcraft II online, the dart boards and arcade games at bars and of course, to college party drinking games, where the beverage is integral in the mechanics.  If we take some of the lessons of good brewers, we game designers can begin creating some truly uniquely crafted experiences for our audiences, thirsty for new gaming styles.  To follow in the footsteps of Sam Calagione, let’s start making some off-centered games for off-centered gamers. 


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