The Sony Game Design Workshop

For those of you following my travels, I am now back in the United States (San Francisco to be precise) where I will be through tuesday. Further legs on this trip take me to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Durham, and New York City, before returning in Boston for the start of the term.

For the past eight years, the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program has worked with Sony Imageworks and various local games companies to produce a workshop on Transforming Traditional Media Content into Nonlinear and Interactive Formats. The course, in the MIT context, runs intensively for five days during a week in January. I run this workshop in collaboration with Sande Scordose from Sony Imageworks. This year, we will be assisted by Ravi Purushotma, the technological advisor to the Education Arcade.

Here’s the basic details:

Storytelling and Games in the Digital Age

Prof. Henry Jenkins, Sande Scoredos and Thomas Hershey, Sony Pictures Imageworks

Mon Jan 29 thru Thu Feb 1, 10am-05:00pm, 14E-310

Fri Feb 2, 10am-05:00pm, 2-105

Enrollment limited: advance sign up required (see contact below)

Signup by: 10-Jan-2007

Limited to 40 participants.

Participants requested to attend all sessions (non-series)

Prereq: None

Student teams develop story concepts for various media, including motion picture visual effects and computer games. Sponsored by MIT Comparative Media Studies (CMS) and Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI), this non-technical activity focuses on the theoretical, historical, cultural, social, and aesthetic elements of interactive narrative and game structures. Morning lectures explore linear and non-linear storytelling across media, audio-visual elements, game theory, and techniques to increase the depth of interactive console games and enhance storytelling. Afternoons run as workshops where participants collaborate in teams to design interactive story scenarios to be presented during a final session on Friday afternoon.

Held in 14E-310. Friday February 2nd will be held in 2-105.

Contact: Generoso Fierro, 14N-207, x3-5038, generoso@mit.edu

Our students include undergraduate students from MIT and Wellesley College, graduate students, visiting scholars, staff, and other members of the MIT Community. While we offer a limited amount of academic credit for participating in the program, most of our students opt to do it purely on a volunteer basis. We also would welcome outside participants though there are limits to how many people we can absorb.

The following text is taken from a teacher’s guide for the workshop which currently resides on the Education Arcade website. Parts of it have previously appeared in Telemedium. We have also produced a series of reality television style short documentaries showing the process at work and displaying highlights from the final presentations. And we have notes from some of the key lectures during one year’s run of the workshop. These are all designed to encourage teachers at other institutions to try their own hands at conducting this kind of workshop process.

The workshop has two basic components – a design competition where teams conceptualize and present their approaches to adopting an existing media property into a game and a series of lectures designed to provide them with the background knowledge they need to complete this task. The contest provides greater motivation for students to pay attention to the information presented through the lectures and to apply it to the specific challenges of conceptualizing their games.

Some aspects of the workshop take advantage of the unique resources of MIT, yet we believe that the basic structure of the workshop could be adopted by local teachers at the high school level. We have had several high school aged students in the past and they have done as well or better than their older counterparts. In any case, the content of the workshop has adjusted slightly each year to reflect the available faculty and their interests.

Educational Goals

This workshop emerged from a series of conversations that Henry Jenkins and Alex Chisholm had with more than 50 different companies, large and small, which might be interested in hiring Humanities-trained media studies students upon their graduation. We were consistently told that while Liberal Arts students are highly desired by employers because of their mental flexibility and breadth of background knowledge, they often lacked some core skills that would make them ideal employees. Among those things most often identified were leadership experience, teamwork, communication skills, brainstorming and problem solving skills, competitiveness, and the experience of carrying a project through to completion. So, one important thrust of the workshop was to give our own graduate and undergraduate students training and experience in these areas.

Team leaders are selected from our own graduate students or undergraduate majors. In the case of a high school, they could be selected from upperclassman and (after the first year) students who had performed well in the previous competition. These students are given some additional training in leadership, brainstorming, and communication skills so that they can insure the success of the workshop as a whole.

At the same time, the workshop was designed to expose students to the basic building blocks of computer and video games – introducing them to current industry trends, technological opportunities of the current game systems, the tools the industry uses to select and develop potential properties – storytelling, genre, character, emotion, space, game play, community building, violence and ethics, gender and generational factors, visual elements, and sound track. Students are introduced to these ideas through the lectures and then apply them to their team projects. The judging criteria for the competition are designed to insure that all of the key concepts get applied.

A third educational goal here involves encouraging students to analyze the key components of an existing media text. Students need to think deeply about what aspects of those texts are essential to defining the ‘world’ of the story and to insure the audience’s recognition and pleasure. Any adaptation involves maintaining certain core features while changing other nonessential features to reflect the specific nature of the medium in which the work is being presented and increasingly, to offer consumers an expanded experience of the ‘world’ of the story. One reason why we ask students to work with existing properties is that this workshop is designed to foster the analytic skills that we introduce to students through our existing courses on film, literature, or television.


Preparing Team Leaders

The success of this process depends on having good team leaders who can be trusted to keep their groups on track and help them to cross the finish line. Over the years we have been running this process, we have had only one team totally self-destruct. Given the several dozen teams we put through this process, the intensity of the demands placed on participants, and the fact that most of the participants are working without pay or academic credit, we consider this success rate to be a major victory. In order to get teams out of the gate first, we choose a team leader prior to the start of the week. We typically select graduate students in the Comparative Media Studies program, since these are students we already work with closely and who already come into the week with some solid knowledge of media theory and production practices. In some cases, we select undergraduate students from our program who have been working on some of our games related projects or we select people who have gone through the team process once before and have been successful. In the case of a school or after school program, you should consider recruiting some older students with whom you have worked in the past to be team leaders for your first run through this process and then create a system where, if possible, participants of winning teams get asked if they will come back next year to help with the contest. In the worse case, you should select students you think have real maturity and leadership potential to head the teams. Part of what our students get out of this process is experience in managing teams and a chance to test their theoretical insights into media against the challenges of an actual production process. We have been able to recommend a significant number of our students for internships with media related companies on the basis of the leadership skills they demonstrated through their participation in this process.

One of the key things we tell our student leaders is to think of themselves as facilitators. We strongly discourage them from coming into the weeklong course with strong ideas about what kind of project they want to lead. The ideas should come from the entire team and not simply from its leaders. This is key if all participants are going to feel a sense of ownership over the finished product and if they are going to be expected to work actively to realize the group’s goals. Of course, in any given group, some students will feel closer to a particular idea than others and some disagreements about goals and choices is bound to occur. But, if the leader thinks of themselves as insuring the integrity of the process and making sure that each participant has a valuable experience, then the groups are less likely to face a serious rupture on their way to the finish line. In many cases, other leaders emerge organically from the group process and may supplement or assist the selected leaders. What you want to avoid, however, is a situation where struggles over leadership blocks progress on the project. It’s that reason why we want to select leaders from the start.

The group leader needs to know how to brainstorm. Brainstorming involves all participants throwing out their ideas in an non-evaluative process. The leader wants to frame open-ended questions and not dismiss any idea out of hand. Brainstorming should be seen as an iterative process in which one will not necessarily know what the final value of an idea is until it has been worked over and reconsidered several times.

At the beginning of the week, the first phase of brainstorming should involve identifying what content will serve as the basis of the game. The leader may want to get participants to throw out media properties that they think have potential and write them down on a chalkboard or on poster board so everyone can see. A good leader may start to cluster ideas that seem related as they emerge so that the participants start to see relationships between materials. Often in this first phase, it will be hard to separate out the ideas about subject matter from ideas about game play or presentation. The ultimate choice will need to be a game concept that captures people’s imaginations, which allows for innovative use of the medium, and which can be presented in a lively and compelling fashion. Once you have a list of possible properties, then you want to circle back through the list again and again, thinking through the value of each nomination and winnowing out those which pose insurmountable problems or which are unknown to a larger number of people in your group. By the end of the first day, you want to have a manageable list of potentially valuable options and you want participants to spend some time researching on their own their favorite options. The second day the group leaders work to further narrow the list and to reach a consensus about what the group is doing.

The second night, group members may plan on getting together and consume the media property that has been selected, making notes, or sharing ideas about what they want to do. The third day is focused on developing the ideas which had emerged around the property throughout the first two days of brainstorming, to begin to focus on aspects of game play, audio-visual design, and marketing, which will shape the final presentation. The group leader needs to keep good notes of the lectures and to be able to insert ideas from the talks into the brainstorming process in a timely way so that participants see their application to their current design problems.

By the third day, the group leader will also have thought about a division of labor based on the skills and passions of participants. In some cases, they may put one person in charge of each aspect of their presentation and send them off to work on their own; in other cases, the group may work through each level collectively and collaborate in the completion of tasks. We have seen both approaches produce successful results in the competition. What is important is that the leader know how they are approaching the tasks and know who is responsible for completing each one. On the third day, we have a review session where group participants meet with the faculty in charge of the competition and walk through the choices which have been made so far. We recommend that the group leaders check in with the supervising faculty at the end of each day to make sure that things are on track.

On the fourth day, the group will start to shift its focus from generating new ideas towards executing those it has developed. The focus shifts more decisively onto the challenges of developing a presentation that will effectively communicate to the judges what is exciting and innovative about this particular project. Here is where the diverse skills of the team come handy with programmers helping to develop the digital embodiment of the idea, graphic artists helping to develop materials that visualize the concepts, and business students helping to develop the business plan which shows why this approach might prove commercially viable. The group leader should be prepared to work late into the night checking in with individual team members or keeping the group working together until they know they have what they need for their presentations.

The final day involves the presentations. In some cases, the group leaders may be the most effective people to communicate their ideas, though we encourage many if not all members of the team to play a role in expressing their concepts to the judges and especially in addressing questions. In other cases, the group leader may play director and stage manager, pulling out of the immediacy of the presentation in order to watch each participant and give them feedback on their performance. You want to make sure you know more or less how long each part of the presentation will take because the judges will cut students off at the end of their time whether or not they have finished their presentation. The leader needs to anticipate problematic team members and have plans about how to deal with them should they “act up” during a presentation. We have seen people try to dominate the presentation, overstepping their assigned roles, interrupting fellow panelists, or even trying to reorder PowerPoint slides mid-presentation. These are the kinds of crisis that try leader’s souls, but the leader must have established enough of a relationship with each member to be able to intervene quickly and effectively to put things back on course. Other times, students develop stage fright and the leader may have to step in and fill their roles at the last moment.

The judges will have a chance to ask participants questions about their project. The leader should try to anticipate the most likely questions, develop a division of labor so that the most qualified member addresses each point and so that the group sticks by what is said even if the point is one for which no consensus has been reached. In many cases, the leader may have to be the person who addresses unanticipated questions since the leader is the one who can be expected to have the fullest sense of the project as a whole.

Throughout the process, the leader needs to maintain team spirit and morale, since the more “up” the team members feel about what they are doing, the more effectively they will communicate that enthusiasm to the judges. Morale also is what keeps someone working later in the evening or pulling out the extra stops creatively.

The Presentations

The teams have 30 minutes to present their material, 10 minutes to dress the stage, and 10 minutes to respond to the judges’ questions. We keep a tight time clock to insure fairness to all involved. The teams have to be well organized in order to get themselves into position by the start of the time and to stay on schedule so that all aspects of their presentation can be heard within the allotted time. We have certainly had teams who fell behind and the team leader had to make decisions on the fly about what should/could be cut in order to get the key ideas into the time. Ideas that don’t get presented aren’t considered by the judges even if the judges have heard them at earlier points in the process, since the judges have no way of knowing what changes might have been made in the last minute preparations for the presentations. No matter how many times you review the projects, there are always surprising elements in the final presentations as the projects only take their final shape the night before.

The order of the presentations is chosen by drawing slips of paper the day before. Everyone comes into the day knowing when their team will present and what the ground rules are for the presentation.

All participants in the competition have to be in place at the start of the first presentation and no further work can be done once the first presentation begins. All participants hear all presentations. The other teams are pushed out of the room momentarily when the judges ask their questions. Clearly, even with this precaution, later groups have some advantage since they can absorb information into their oral presentation, even if they don’t adopt it into their visual materials. But, there have really never been any complaints about unfairness here.

As the competition has continued, the quality and elaborateness of presentations has grown each year. We find consistently that showmanship counts for a great deal in terms of the relative merits of presentations. Groups have become more theatrical. For example, it is very common for participants to create and wear costumes that help to establish the characters contained within their game. These costumes range from glitter rock garb for a Making the Band project to Purple Hats and capes for Willy Wonka. Very often, they will dress the stage with elements that evoke the atmosphere of the story world. For Spirited Away, they created the look of a Japanese bathhouse. Several times, we have had teams use puppets to communicate their ideas. One memorable presentation on Princess Smartypants included both a puppet imitating the regal voice of a princess and a man dressed up like a fairy. Given the technical skills of MIT students, it will not be surprising to learn that they build power point presentations, which can contain very elaborate mock-ups done in Photoshop or flash of what the actual game might look like.

Sometimes, there are very elaborate computer animations that help communicate the core premise. A group focused on Survivor had animations of cracking fires on laptops arranged around the room. The 1984 team, which won last year, turned a video camera on the audience and projected live feed on the wall so the judges and audience had the uncomfortable experience of watching themselves watching the presentation.

More and more students provide give-aways to the judges: one year, for example, a Matrix team provided a gold box with a red and blue sugar pill, asking us to decide which one we would take. Another group, working on Homer’s The Odyssey, offered us bottles of root beer with a label designed to imitate the culture of ancient Greece. Some groups mimic the advertising materials or box designs for their products, even going so far as to give us blank CDs in jewel cases mocked up to look like the finished product. For a Fugitive project, each judge was given a ‘wanted’ poster with his or her own image on it. The groups frequently use music to communicate the audio design of their projects – in most cases, songs sampled from existing CDs, but in a few cases, original compositions the students created for the occasion.

The judges strive to separate out flash which is simply flash from elements carefully chosen to communicate the core elements of the concept and make it come alive for the audience. If there is no serious thinking behind the performance, it can upstage rather than compliment the other elements of the presentation. Throughout the contest, the students are ask to distill down the core features which most be present in order to allow their new product to fit coherently within the existing media franchise. Here is their chance to show you how fully they have achieved that goal. Yet, students need to be aware of the importance of underlying what aspects of the performance are in the game and why. Often, students will play interesting music throughout the presentation but not talk explicitly about sound design elements in their pitch.

We now ask the groups to identify a specific audience to which they are pitching the game. This element requires the groups to do their homework on the different companies which produce games, their connections with other media companies, their existing product lines and preferences, the core market to which they are addressing the bulk of their products, and any notable successes or failures which might impact how they think about your particular product. The group working on Spirited Away, for example, chose to address the Japanese branch of Sony, opening with an extended greeting in Japanese, and drawing on what they knew about protocol and business practices in that culture. Most of the information students need to know about the business can be found on the web.

Students search for games that may be similar to what they are proposing and need to know how well they did and what markets they reached. They can find this by reviewing the large number of games-related websites produced by fans, industry insiders, or journalists. They may look up the property that they are drawing upon to conceive the game to see who produced it, how well it did at the box office, and what other connections may exist between the production company and a games-related company. They may look at other games linked to that studio’s properties to see which games companies developed and released them. Those with more business interests can look for trends through industry-oriented publications, which might make the company more or less receptive to the kind of game proposed.

When we first started the competition, these business aspects took a back seat to the more aesthetic dimensions of the presentations, but in recent years, we have attracted more and more management students interested in getting into creative industries. The teacher may need to assess her or his own students to know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and decide how much emphasis to place on this aspect of the presentations. Some focus on the industry, however, seems desirable as a way to help students understand the economic contexts in which creative decisions get made (including the impact of concentration of ownership on the current media environment); this focus on factual information also gives incentive for students to work on their research skills and especially their web searching skills, since this up to the minute information is not going to be found in books.

The goal of the pitch is to put together the key elements of the game in a way that is compelling for the audience. Everything students know about presentation skills comes into play during this part of the process. Students need to think about the ordering of elements – so that the information makes sense to the audience as they are hearing it, so that the most compelling elements get the proper degree of attention, and so that the closing drives home the core elements with an extra persuasiveness. The groups need to make sure that they address each of the elements they will be judged upon while not getting bogged down in local details to such a degree that the judges do not get a clear sense of the game as a whole.

Frequently, students divide up the roles in their presentation based on their expertise and enthusiasm for different aspects of the product. Often, they also identify someone who is their best “finisher,” that is, some one who has strong sales skills who can drive home the final pitch at the end of the presentation. We do not require every participant to speak, since we see the value of students who are uncomfortable in front of groups making contributions on other levels. This is, however, a philosophical question, which teachers need to consider in the context of their own programs. If the goal is to get students to really hone their presentation skills and get experience speaking in front of groups, the desire to have every student participate in the presentation is greater than if your goal is to focus on brainstorming and conceptual skills.

The presentations are a time for all team members to drop disagreements and work towards the common good. Often, team leaders instruct participants not to contradict each other during the presentation. If a team member gets hit with a question for which they are unprepared, he or she should make up an answer consistent with the overall approach they are taking and then subsequent team members will need to factor that answer into what they say about the game. One year, we had a group which totally failed to reach a consensus to the point that one group member disagreed about the order in which the PowerPoint slides should be presented and kept flicking back and forth throughout the presentation in a distracting fashion, upstaging and confusing his team mates. Needless to say, this group did badly in the competition and much anger was directed against him after they got off stage.

Judging The Presentations

We recommend having 5 or 6 judges, since each judge will see the presentations in slightly different ways and will focus on somewhat different elements. Having a broad based group of judges helps to take the pressure off any one participant and helps to even out any potential biases the judge may feel towards one group or participant. The judges are given a score sheet. We have established ten criteria of evaluation, which are known by the participants in advance. For each category, the judge gives a score from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest score. Each judge keeps a running tally throughout the day and reserves the right to adjust scores upwards or downwards as they hear subsequent presentations. Judges often have to rethink their responses to the first few presentations, in particular, since they do not have a very clear baseline of expectations at the start of the day. Each group must be judged by every criterion, which means that they may lower their score significantly if they do not directly address one or another aspect. For some reason, students typically offer much more on game play, narrative, and visual design than they do on sound design.

The judges should set their own standards for each category. As long as they are consistent in applying those standards to each group, then their numbers will be correctly weighted in the final score. It doesn’t matter if one judge is strict and another lenient since in the end, it is the total score across all of the judges which we use to weigh the teams. But those judges who are too generous in their grading need to realize that they are flattening out the distinctions between the teams.

In our process, we tally the scores to get a straw poll vote of where the judges have aligned themselves. The judges are often surprised by their own overall scores on the different projects. Subjectively, we will weigh some elements more than others in forming our overall impressions of the team. But if we weigh each element equally, we may find a team did better overall without being the best in any particular category. Once we have a set of scores, we then discuss the presentations to make sure we are fully comfortable with where the collective tally breaks. In some cases, we end up with two teams, which are only a few points apart in scoring, well within the margin of error, and we have occasionally had absolute ties on the first stage of the scoring. Talking through the presentations may help us appreciate things we missed the first time through or think more deeply about potential problems in the team’s approach. We often will then recalibrate our scores and retally the results.

Another reason why you always discuss the projects among the judges is because ultimately, we see winning and losing the competition as less important than the critique we are able to provide to each team on its work. Talking it through helps us to identify high and low points on each presentation, which will be discussed as we critique their work. Often, we will give secondary awards which foreground what we see as the biggest strength of each presentation, so that each team has some kind of moral victory in the final presentation. So, for example, we may take each of the criteria and decide which team performed best on each, giving out recognition for best visual design, most faithful to the original content, or most innovative approach to narrative.

When the students come back into the room, we go through each group in order offering our critiques of their strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, one tries to be tactful in describing flaws in the presentations but we also feel it is important for all participants to have a sense of how the judges responded to each presentation. Doing the critiques first keeps students focused on what we are saying since they are looking for clues into which group may have pleased the judges the most. Usually, we have one judge designated to lead the critique of each group with the others jumping in as needed to elaborate on key points. It is important for the students to hear how a range of different judges with different types of expertise and backgrounds responded to their projects.

Typically, we spend 5-10 minutes on each group; trying to be even in the amount of time we spend on each. At the end of the process, we then announce the superlatives assigned to each group and finally, the ultimate winner of the competition. In the MIT context, because of our association with Sony, each member of the winning team receives some moderately priced electronic gadget. All participants in the process receive a certificate and many years, Sony brings a book or video tied to one of their current releases for each participant. Teachers will need to think about what kind of prize is appropriate for their students – perhaps a gift certificate from a local merchant.

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