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  • Thesis: Game Design and Architecture

    [06.16.09]
    - Christopher W. Totten
  •  In my previous article, located here, I discussed the beginnings of my thesis work on how game design methods can be used to influence the architectural design process. The first semester heavily involved help from Valve Corporation level designer Chris Chin, who had previously been an architect and whom I contacted through contact information in the Developer Commentary for The Orange Box. With his help and that of my other committee members, as well as a visit to the Valve offices, I was able to create a design method for architects that is based on game design. The highlights of this method are:  

    • Creating a "core mechanic", the basic action a player takes within a game, as the design generator for an architectural space (the basic action someone takes within the building.)
    • Using game engines to playtest building designs with clients and other designers to understand how an occupant will see and move through them.
    • Designing in a "Cabal", similar to Valve's own designers, by having designers from different parts of a project exchange work and playtest one another's designs, ensuring that each element contributes to a cohesive whole and that the building follows the original design goals of the core mechanic and any other experiential concepts.

    After the design process was figured out, my committee and I decided that the typical thesis path employed by the school; conducting research then designing a building; would not be as effective as creating a way to demonstrate the design process to architects and students interested in learning how to use it. The argument behind this was that the final focus of any presentations or discussions should be on the process and not on the aesthetic features of a building. It was therefore decided that I would create a design game based on the Game Design and Architecture method. 


    During my research, I had become familiar with studies on how kinesthetic learning through games and play, such as the Epistemic Games created at the University of Wisconsin, can be incredibly effective methods for occupational training. I decided to create a simple board game to avoid any long and difficult development processes (I also can't program to save my life.) This choice allowed me to design a game quickly and begin playtesting as soon as possible.  The basics of the rules are: 

    • Three or four player/designers play cooperatively but each have their own piece on the board. Each of these players takes on a different design role so they can learn how to work with consultants in a Cabal environment. We typically had players each taking on different roles as architects, interior designers, and structural engineers.
    • The team, or "firm", decides on the building they would like to design and the core mechanic that will become the basic experiential goal of the building. They also draw a card that describes an experiential concept that will be a goal for how it should feel to be inside the building (concepts like "risk" and "rewards".)
    • Players each take turns rolling the die to move around the board and respond to the directions on the space they land on; which tell players to make design changes, draw new cards, lose turns, or run playtests. To design, players utilize 3D modeling programs or video game level editors.
    • After each lap of the board, players playtest their design in a game engine or the walkthrough features of their modeling program and evaluate how well the experiential components of the design work. After 3 turns of the board, players do a final evaluation of their design or submit it to an external judge to decide whether or not the design is successful.

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