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> Trying to Design a Truly Entertaining Game Can Defeat Even a Certified Genius
Mole
post Apr 25 2008, 02:23 PM
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Trying to Design a Truly Entertaining Game Can Defeat Even a Certified Genius
By Chris Baker

Ted Castronova, a social scientist and professor at Indiana University, made a name for himself studying the economies of online games, going so far as to calculate the exchange rate between US dollars and EverQuest platinum. But he wanted to do more than study virtual worlds — he wanted to create one. So in 2006, armed with a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, Castronova and a team of grad students got to work designing Arden: The World of William Shakespeare. The aim was to have players explore an Elizabethan environment, interact with characters from the Bard's plays, or just go to a tavern and wager a few farthings on card games like One-and-Thirty. Meanwhile, Castronova would further his research by studying players' behavior. Hey nonny nonny!

The game was released last fall — to little fanfare. It seems something was rotten in the state of Arden. "It's no fun," Castronova says ruefully. "We failed to design a gripping experience." The scholar says he has, however, gained a deeper appreciation for the challenges of game design: "I always had respect for the people who made World of Warcraft," he says. "But now it borders on worship." Castronova and his team are currently putting their hard-won insights to use on a jazzed-up version called Arden II: London's Burning. Wired asked Castronova to give some advice for other researchers looking to create their own games.

Ted Castronova's 5 Tips for Making Games That Don't Suck

Don't Be Overly Ambitious
"We thought it wouldn't be too hard to design a realistic War of the Roses-era economy, complete with swords, armaments, horses, food, and clothing. You want to create a suit of armor? First you have to smelt brass to make the bolts and gather fibers to make string ... We soon learned why most designers don't do that level of realism."

Go Low Tech
"If you can't find a professional game studio to partner with, start small. There are lots of simple development platforms to experiment with. Look at Tribal Wars — it's an HTML-driven online game with hundreds of thousands of users. It can be played in a browser window."

Think About Your Audience
"We put Arden in front of Shakespeare experts and they loved it. We put it in front of play testers and they yawned. We'd get feedback like, 'I talked to that Falstaff guy for a while and got a quest to go repair something. I logged out and never came back.' Too much reading, not enough fighting. Arden II will be more of a hack-and-slash Dungeons and Dragons type of game."

Get a Full-Time Staff
"I love my students, but they just don't have the schedule to do this. I have a very able lead designer and an excellent lead artist, but they had to pause for midterms. You need a core group of 60-hour-a-week people."

Concede Screwups
"You face a moment where you can admit something isn't working or you can lie about it. It's like in Shakespeare's plays: The tragic heroes keep making new mistakes that compound their original mistakes. The comic heroes muddle around and find themselves in ridiculous circumstances, but in the end they accept their own humanity, and the audience respects them for it."


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