In class with James Ernest

In October my game design class were fortunate to get a visit from James Ernest, the eminent game designer and head honcho at Cheapass Games. I had contacted him earlier in the year, and was pleasantly surprised to find he was quite amenable to the idea of a class visit; indeed, he was experienced with the classroom setting from being a guest lecturer at Digipen in the greater Seattle area.

As an aside, I’m becoming increasingly jealous of the game design community in Seattle.

Cheapass Games has a long history, but on a personal note I’m a fan. The games are well designed. The early Cheapass games also had a DIY vibe that was tremendously appealing — they were the punk rock of games: made in a basement, distributed without fancy parts; they gave me the feeling that I could do that too.

For the duration of the four hour class, James was charming and informative; jumping from hard mathematics to personal anecdotes, he was able to both drive the conversation and field questions with ease. I was furiously taking notes, and thought I would jot some down here. His talk was roughly divided into the following sections:

  • The game is not the rules
  • Play a lot of games
  • Luck and odds
  • Designing to a theme
  • Prototyping and Testing

And the crammed sheets of notepaper have things like:

  • Theme is not necessary, so do it right.
  • Marketing an abstract game is hard.
  • Moving from mechanics to metaphor is harder than metaphor to mechanics; metaphor suggests mechanics.
  • Fairness — coin toss, or chess? Equal odds or opportunity for skill?
  • Games should allow for conservative and aggressive strategies. Have a “Crazy train”, but don’t force people on it.
  • Texture is designed imbalance.
  • Don’t randomly hurt people.
  • Gambler’s Fallacy: dice work like cards, there is a finite selection. Adding more rolls doesn’t help, e.g. horse race game.
  • Score is not representative of win chance; games based on luck should be drawn-out.
  • Biased randomness vs Fair randomness. Biased hurts player arbitrarily (e.g. roll to move in Monopoly), Fair affects everyone equally (e.g. set up in Chess 960).
  • A game is fun only as long as a player feels like they have a chance to win.
  • Trifecta: Aptitude, Luck, Play.

There are a lot more scrawled notes, and as I’m sure most people do, rereading them is only an echo of what I was thinking at the time.

His visit was very inspiring, and I’m very grateful he was able to join us. He’s also apparently working on a book about game design, which I would love to see. Until that happens, go buy some Cheapass games. Or take the free ones on the website. I recommend Save Doctor Lucky (superior to the more popular Kill Doctor Lucky), Deadwood Studios, and the soon-to-be re-released Captain Park’s Imaginary Polar Expedition.

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