More than a game for Jeff Howard
For Dr. Jeff Howard, DSU’s assistant professor of game development and design, there is more to video games than just what meets the eye. Howard helps students and other designers dig into the storyline of these video games to make them, just that, a story. The storyline envelopes the player and takes them through an adventure interactively, which turns a mediocre game into a legendary one.
For those who believe that video games consist only of a bunch of fighting and button-mashing thrown onto a flat screen TV, Howard’s classes would make you think twice. Howard teaches game design classes within the narrative design focus area of the major, including popular game genres, such as survival horror (think Silent Hill), action-adventure (Tomb Raider), and strategy (Civilization). He also assists students in developing magic and combat systems, the game mechanics. Classical and contemporary mythology plays a large role in many games, which Howard teaches in myth and media classes.
In addition to teaching, Howard does extensive research and publishing on the narratives and experience of game design. He authored Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives, featured on Electronic Arts Senior Designer, Sean M. Baity’s must read list for aspiring game designers. Howard recently signed a contact with CRC Press/Taylor and Francis for a book entitled Game Magic: A Game Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice.
Wizardry and sorcery are common elements of game play, and many video games feature magic systems. A magic system is any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate magic, the alteration of reality through metaphysical forces.
“All too often, though, game magic is repetitive or dull, just pressing an icon on a quickbar, waiting for the cool down period to elapse, then pushing the button again,” explained Howard. “The goal of the book is to help put the magic back into magic systems by re-connecting them with the sources of magic in human experience: myth, ritual, religion and the occult.”
Howard’s expertise recently awarded him the opportunity to present at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) Online 2012, a prestigious peer-reviewed industry conference in the field of game design. His talk will be part of the Game Narrative Summit portion of GDC, which is the longest-running, most prestigious event dedicated to state-of-the-art storytelling in video games.
His presentation, “Occult Game Design: An Initiation into Secrets and Mysteries,” explores effective approaches to gradually uncovering a mysterious narrative universe. Drawing both on his experiences as a game educator and an independent designer, Howard highlights the purposeful creation of a sense of mystery through intertwined mechanics and narrative, individually cryptic but mutually reinforcing.
“Occult design enables puzzles that are pervasive and organic rather than localized and artificial. The cumulative effects heighten player engagement, enable rich player communities, and keep the players satisfied, but still wanting more.”
Along with writing, teaching and speaking about game design, Howard keeps busy creating games as well. He currently works on a transmedia game design project called Arcana, a portion which will be developed with a team of DSU students this next year.