News and Events

Conf-a-thon 2013

Whoever programmed PAX East and San Francisco GDC back-to-back on opposite sides of the US deserves a special place in hell, as far as Boston devs (particularly indies are concerned). I’m part of the crazy bunch who is hanging out at both; I should get extra points for speaking at both.

This Saturday I’ll be on a panel at PAX East on Narrative Design, in the company of wonderful gentlemen: Austin Grossman, Matthew Weise, Ricardo Bare, Chris Dahlen, Chris Avellone. According to Austin, I’m there to provide the MIT gravitas. But we’re there really to chat about narrative in games and have fun.

In San Francisco, I’ve been given the chance to rant at the Game Education Summit, which is the last talk / panel of the summit. What I’ll be ranting about is a surprise; once it’s done, I’ll post it right here on the blog.

If you are at either of those events, feel free to come by and say hi!

My bag is well stocked with vitamins, soothing tea for my throat and hand disinfectant. The next week is going to be intense.

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Thoughts

Game Production, the Great Unknown

William Goldman said of the film industry: “Nobody knows anything.” The games industry, in its cinema envy, is taking that to heart. This is painfully evident when we hear about the tortuous process of production of failed games. Even the successful ones  are painful to make, if one trusts the postmortems of videogames in industry publications.

The leaked information on why Aliens: Colonial Marines is a trainwreck is an example of the kind of unhealthy, stupid practices that are too common in the industry. The moral of the story is that, if there’s anything that budding game developers should learn is basic, healthy production habits: iteration, scoping, scheduling, communicating, and learning what the different relevant aspects of production are. Game curricula are too focused on technical aspects to remember that games are made by humans for humans. (There are many other things I need to complain about game curricula, but I will just focus on this one thing today.)

Making games is hard. Making huge AAA titles involving hundreds of people and where a lot of money is at stake must be a nightmare. The problem is that game development, big or small, still makes very stupid mistakes. Common sense turns out to be the least common of senses in game production.

Gearbox dropped Aliens: Colonial Marines on the lap of TimeGate, who thought they had to complete a game but ended up having to make the game from scratch. It’s one of those situations in which the developer has to deal with somebody else’s mess. TimeGate was in a pickle. As I read through the article, however, I saw how the developers themselves were wringing a thick noose around their own necks with every decision.

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If you’re not prepared, the realities of production will devour you.

The first red flag in the postmortem is that they immediately put some of the blame on the narrative designers, who changed the script and that forced level designers to scrap whole levels. First of all, the fact that they were working on a narrative game should have triggered off all the alarms in production, because content can spiral out of control very soon and very fast. It is also sad that some people call themselves narrative designers if they are only doing writing. Narrative design is a new discipline, which we’re defining as we go, but if there’s something that should be clear by now is that the writers should have worked with the level designers side by side. It does not sound like communication between writing and design was clear either, which is a serious production issue. It is as bad to design a game and then call the writer to stick a story on top of it as to write a script for a game and then ask levels designers to overhaul what they want. Narrative design bridges both writing and design, but it does not seem that it was really happening in spite of people working under that title at the company.

A bigger red flag is when TimeGate compares their work ethic with Gearbox’s: they’re all about shipping, while Gearbox does “work, work, work, iterate, iterate.” The deadline that they were given was surely unrealistic and the amount of work was probably insane, because that’s how the AAA games industry rolls. What I don’t understand is what they mean by “working to ship.” I believe Gearbox also ships games (and pretty successful ones for that matter). The fact that they had limited time does not mean that they did not have room for some iteration. If you don’t iterate you’re not designing a game. In fact, TimeGate should have been iterating, since they said they had to change the game when the script changed. Isn’t that an opportunity to iterate? Did they really scrap their work and start over?

Which takes me to what is probably the pinnacle of dumb practices that was the final undoing of the game. While producing the demo, someone in power told the developer (publishers? external producers?) “Don’t worry about performance, just make it awesome”, which is the kind of vague, meaningless direction that sounds like a knell to any game. (This is why educators must teach our students to communicate sophisticated ideas in a clear, constructive way.) The developer then went on to make an awesome demo which astounded everyone but wasn’t playable, plus it needed the kind of computer they use at NASA instead of the PC that you can buy at the store. This is the complete opposite of a philosophy that aims at “shipping the game.” It seems that it didn’t even occur to them that they had to fit the game in a disk. “Scoping” does not seem to be have been a word in their vocabulary. If you have limited time, you try to figure out how much you can get done, which will still be over-ambitious, then cut, and then cut some more.

Then they had to spend a lot of time shrinking it and re-doing their work (rather than iterating) to be able to ship it somehow. Then, oh surprise, they run out of time, and Sega, the publisher, refused to give them any more time because they had been waiting for their game six years. Their philosophy of “working to ship” then became cobbling together a game and putting the sorry result on a disk.

The sad thing is that the story of Aliens: Colonial Marines is all too common. I know of plenty of successful games that went to similarly dysfunctional production woes. Thing is, nobody seems to learn their lesson, and this keeps happening. Hey, we shipped, so it’s okay.

Of course it’s easy for me to say these things from outside and in hindsight. It’s difficult to see what the problems may be when you’re mired in the middle of production. The games I’ve worked on are way smaller and not as technically complex. But we also worked under insane constraints: 8 1/2 weeks to make a game with students who had not make a game before, and then most of your team would get on a plane and go on with their lives. We also made mistakes, we learned from them, and we tried not to repeat them again. We’re all figuring it out, making games big or small; the difference is how willing we are to be self-critical and to admit we may be wrong.

The Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco tells us that future game developers, the same that are attending our schools, need to learn basic production practices, from understanding what narrative design means to clear communication, iteration and scoping. Students have the room to make mistakes, and teachers should help them think about what worked and what didn’t, not just give a grade to the final result. Some of us are working really hard to emphasize the human factors in making games. But the whole team needs to know these practices: the publishers and producers seem to be the most at fault here, but the whole team needs to understand these practices. Bad production habits lead to wasted effort and talent, as well as to insane crunch and eventual burnout. As educators, we should teach students not only healthier practices, but also to reflect on the process of game making. Technologies will change a lot really fast, but humans tend to repeat their mistakes.

News and Events

World Building Workshop

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In the last few months, I have put together a long-form workshop on world building for videogames. The workshop is a synthesis of my work on narrative in games, and serves as an introduction to integrate game design with narrative worlds, and combines brief lectures with hands-on exercises to create a paper prototype. The first edition of this workshop took place in Guadalajara, Spain, at the Universidad de Alcalá, last January. The next workshop will take place at Concordia University in Montreal at the end of next week, at the TAG lab. The workshop is already filled out, as far as I know. (And check out the gorgeous poster they prepared for me!)

The outline of the workshop is the following:

  1.  What is World Building?
  2.  World Building foundations
  3. World Building for Game Design
    1. Rules of the World: Levels of Abstraction
    2. Characters
    3. Conflict of the world
      1.  Skill
      2. Puzzles
      3. Choice

The workshop is going to travel quite a bit around the world, so I’ll post updates whenever there is a new edition that may be open to the public. If you’re in an institution or company that would like to host this workshop, please contact me directly.

Adventure Games · Thoughts

Choice vs. Puzzles in Adventure Game Design

It is the season of writing game of the past year lists and hyping the games of the new one. I’m delighted to see how Telltale’s The Walking Dead haunts most of these “best of 2012” lists. Its success proves that adventure games still have a lot to say about game design and game narrative, and that there can be a wide audience for them. It also proves how choice design changes how we play and design adventure games.

The Walking Dead confirCaptura de pantalla 2013-01-09 a las 6.11.29 p.m.ms the potential of choice design in adventure games, something that my friends at Choice of Games had already been doing for a while. The core gameplay is making decisions, usually quickly, and living with the consequences (or dying horribly). Although many scenes change depending on your previous actions, because otherwise the choice would be superfluous, the game does not degenerate into out-of-control branching. Instead, it changes specific aspects and scenes of the story. Designing this game must have still been rather complex, which is what happens whenever we have to set up a choice and a clear narrative consequence, but it is done in such a way that choices create a hyper-tangled rhizome.

What I have not seen mentioned often enough in reviews how different The Walking Dead is from other Telltale games, as well as from many other point-and-click adventure games. This may come from the misconception that adventure games are the electronic version of Choose Your Own Adventure books, so it may seem that this is more of the same.It’s not.

Adventure games are simulations. This is obvious to anyone who’s written IF with Inform, or created games with Adventure Game Studio, for example, but it’s a concept that finds resistance from people who only play them, and usually without much enthusiasm. Zork, Maniac Mansion, Machinarium are all based on creating a world, a space, populated by characters and objects, which have different relationships between them. The simulation creates challenges usually in the form of puzzles, and the player has to solve it by understanding how the simulation works. The story unfolds as the player interacts with the world and solves the puzzles.

The Choice of Games series, as well as The Walking Dead, shift the attention to choice and consequence. This is obvious in the Choice Of… games, where the world of the game is described, and our only interaction is selecting items from a menu. We don’t interact with a simulated world, but with a world represented through text. The Walking Dead is a nice hybrid between traditional point-and-click and choose your own adventure, where some scenes allow us to walk around and explore the world at our leisure, to learn about the place and gather information, which will inform our decisions later. There’s less puzzle-solving, the core of the game is choosing the right thing in the moments of crisis. Best thing of all, what the “right” thing to do is never clear, and often makes you feel like you’re trapped in an awful situation.

As someone who designs adventure games focused on simulation and puzzle solving, I really welcome games like Choice of Zombies or The Walking Dead. It’s refreshing, it proves that there is still so much to do in adventure games beyond paying constant homages to our favourite games from Lucasarts or Sierra (I’m guilty of that too). There is a wide design palette at our disposal, we just have to use it.

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The Walking Dead and Choice of Zombies also fit choice design with their topic very well. It makes sense that we cannot go many places, that there is not a lot to explore: it’s the zombie apocalypse! Plus you’d better be careful with what you do, because any choice could be your last. The limitations in the environment bridge very well the world of the game and the game design.

Choice design is not new, RPGs have explored this for a long time, with varying success. Think of all these games series: Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Dragon Age… Often choices in RPGs are limited to “save the baby or kill it” pseudomorality, where the consequences are relatively predictable. Some of the examples just listed demonstrate how much more interesting choices become when your expectations are thwarted, or, better enough, where there is no easy choice, which is what probably is impressive about The Walking Dead.

Choice is not alien to adventure games either–Infocom’s Suspended depends on your strategies to try to save the world before you are disconnected, for example. Point-and-click adventure games included important choices, usually at the end, because it’s easier to generate three different endings than start working on different outcomes all throughout the game (see The Dig, or Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, for example). More recently, Resonance did a wonderful job of incorporating choices. (It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, but I’ll try.) Resonance also has multiple endings, but does have choice points throughout the game that feel really important, and even if the consequences of the choice are not so different (or inevitable, when it comes to the twist of the game), the game makes you stop and think about what you’re doing. This is mostly achieved by getting you to know the characters and empathise with them, you spend time with them, and when the crisis comes about, you feel for the characters, you feel the pain and the betrayal. The consequences are emotional rather than changing the events. Resonance does in practice what the publicity of Heavy Rain kept announcing, and the game eventually failed to deliver.

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The Walking Dead combines plot consequences with emotional consequences very cleverly: early on, you see how your decisions can have awful consequences, people die if you don’t act fast enough or do not make the right choice. Later on, the consequences become more emotional than changing the events. Unlike the adventure games listed in the paragraph above, where it’s a final choice that changes the ending, The Walking Dead takes you to an inevitable ending with slight variations, which may feel different depending on how you have chosen to play your character. That’s eventually the triumph of the game: choice design is about the psychology of the player, not about showing off a complex system.

The possibilites of new adventure games are wide open, it’s our choice. Those who said that adventure games were dead didn’t expect them to come back shuffling their feet and try to rip their gut open.

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Adventure Games · Thoughts

The Last Symphony: Hidden in Plain Sight

As promised, here’s a bit of story behind the game The Last Symphony, why we made it and what we came across. My goal is to let you in the creative process, but hopefully without spoiling the game or being pretentious about what the game really achieves. What the game means is mostly up to you, really.

The conceit of the The Last Symphony is that everything is hidden in plain sight: the objects, the stories, the people, the music. The challenge is to reveal what is hidden, and figure out what that may be. In the process, we invite players to do things that they’re not so used to doing, such as paying attention to the text, listening, and coming up with their own stories.

My lovely colleagues at the lab put together this fine video that explains the research and the game. This blogpost extends what is in here.

As I say in the video, the focus of the project was environmental storytelling. I had developed this concept, indexical storytelling, which refers to design techniques to construct stories in the environment by leaving traces or indications, and I wanted to put it to the test. You can read my paper on the concept, or watch one of the industry presentations that I have given on the topic online if you need more detail.

A hidden object game seemed to be the way to go. It was perfect for my purposes: related to adventure games, the genre I know best, it was not a particular technical challenge, and a scope was feasible in the length of the summer program (8 weeks!). Plus hidden object games are all about environment: you’re scouring the screen, finding items in the jumble. Hidden object games seemed to be in need of some environmental storytelling techniques, so that the story also happened in the screens that the player spends the most time at, not only the cutscenes. Although some of hidden object games are certainly trying hard to give relevance to the objects you seek, and are leaving behind the photoshop-the-hell-of-it technique, there was certainly room for improvement. Hello, research!

I was lucky to get a fantastic team to work on the game, most of whom had not really played any hidden object games, but who also saw the potential for improvement after playing as many demos as they could. Since it was a game that was heavy on visual assets, I got the largest artist team of the program, plus the game designer is also an illustrator, and even the producer also had experience in animation. (Please note the wonderful team that made the game at the bottom of the page. They’re going to be big in the near future.)

The first step was common to all my previous games: paper prototyping. As with adventure games, the catch was that we had to have a story of the world which would shape the environment, and from that we wanted to have a set of mechanics that related to finding objects on a screen. Story and prototype had to go together.

With all the visual focus,it was ironic that that during brainstorming and prototyping, everyone’s favourite story was reconstructing the life of a music composer. This opened up the way to use music as another layer to tell the story, which I personally was very excited about (I love film soundtracks, and never miss the chance of using the music as a narrative element as well), and so was our audio designer. He has written his own blog post about the role of the music of the game, so go read it too.

In implementing the game, the main challenge was that every object on the screen had to be there for a reason. A lot of the weight of indexical storytelling fell on the illustrators, who had to negotiate constantly where things would go and why. Every object is part of a story, like a puzzle piece, it had to come from somewhere, and it had been left where it was for a narrative reason. (Well, at times there were technical reasons, like you don’t want to put small objects at the back of the room, because then players have to find a pixel). At times it is surprising to realize that, in order to improve games, you only have to think about what you’re doing, rather than going through the motions of what’s been done before. It takes a tad more time, but in the long run it does not become a problem for production, although it scheduling has to accomodate for it. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: innovation comes from putting a bit of thinking of where things come from.

What was still missing was how to make the objects meaningful. The events of the stories in the game have left a trace in the space, but how can the players also leave a trace? The first step was figuring out who the player was in the game: a museum curator seemed like a natural role, which would justify why one would go and look for objects in a house and take them away (detectives and thieves are trite at this point). Curators also have to construct a narrative based on objects. Based on that, we came up with a set of mechanics where, after finding the objects, the player had to select them based on which items may relate to each other and generate a narrative.

We still had one piece missing: how does the player know what the objects mean? How do we cover that gap? The cheap and fast solution was to attach texts to the objects themselves. That information could not be presented as the player found the objects, or making them into hotspots–this was a hidden object game, not an adventure game (I’d done that already). But what was the narrative premise for that? Our player character could give us some information on the objects, but we needed to reveal more. And that’s where our lovely Ruth Carmine appeared.

One of my demands for the game was that the protagonist of the game had to be female. There’s a dearth of female protagonists in games (although they are more common in hidden object games), and I was kinda embarrassed that only one of my three previous games featured a female protagonist. Our usher to the world, and the person who holds the key to the stories behind each object, is a lovely English old lady, endearing and absent-minded, who has more to her than just sipping her tea at 5 o’clock. We used Margaret Rutherford as a model to make our lady come to life.

The end result is a game where the player has not only to find objects but also figure out the story. Given our time constraints, the mechanics that give you feedback on how related the objects are not very complicated or have much depth. On the other hand, we hope we turned a bug into a feature: rather than us telling the story to the player straight out, the player must fill the gaps and come up with their own. It’s not the first time that I’ve encouraged this in games: Rosemary and Symon both thrive on leaving gaps. The difference is that we have turned those gaps into an essential part of gameplay, the goal of the game is to build the story through the objects.

While we were playtesting the game, asking people to tell us their version of the story was our part of the fun. At times people had outlandish versions that confirmed, yet once more, that players don’t read or pay attention to anything narrative. Others had very interesting takes. Others were right on, even when we had provided very little information. Players appropriated the objects and the story and made it theirs. A lot of players still want to know if they had got it right, see if they had guessed what the story is, and the end of the game probably does not give you enough information. We’re so used to winning and losing, to doing things a certain way, that most players cannot stand the uncertainty of what had actually happened. Although this game is not a David Lynch movie, it’s been a treat to see how people try to make sense of it.

In my previous blogpost I talked about how I struggled with whether to talk about the process or not. And what made me decide to write is was really the desire to hear more player stories. So if you made it this far, could you please play the game and tell me what the story is?

Thoughts

Games behind the scenes, and the art of being a game maker

Here’s my dilemma: I want to talk about the game that we worked on last summer, and tell all about the thinking that went on it. On the other hand, I’m also reluctant to explain what the game is about, since I consider making games an art, and I do not feel like imposing my own reading to the audience. It’s an old problem, which I’ve already talked about in public several times. An additional factor is that there have already been quite a few run-of-the-mill games, which shall go unnamed, getting attention and shining because of the way they have been presented, based on their topic, their supposed results, or the people involved. This annoys me because my games also deal with some of those topics and are based on sophisticated design concepts, but I don’t want to beat people over the head with it. My problem partly has to do with me being the kind of subversive person who likes to drop messages between the lines, and always keep an ace up my sleeve. Plus I don’t feel comfortable peddling myself and my work.

My favourite part of my job is seeing how people make sense of my games and enjoy them, and I don’t want to spoil the fun either for my players or myself. Some takes understand the specific thinking that went in the game; if I’m lucky, others will provide insight on the game that I had not even thought about. Other times, people can’t make heads or tails of it, but that’s also fun.

The predicament also results from being a theorist-practitioner. As a theorist, my job is to help make sense of my field of study (digital media), and generate new insights through my work. In the same way that I learn a lot from analyzing other people’s games, talking about my process should be a way of disseminating what I have learned through making games. As a practitioner, I still feel a bit uncomfortable privileging my take on the work; plus most of the games are really the result of team work, and I would become the spokesperson of what the games are about. Additionally, I need to hear what players think of the game without me explaining anything, because learning how people play and interpret it is also part of my research.

This quandary has got in the way of me writing about The Last Symphony, a hidden object game where there’s much more than meets the eye (and the ear!). Since I’ve found myself in a Hamletian trap of inaction, I’ve decided to break this vicious circle and talk a bit about the game. After all, I’ve already been talking about it in various venues, although not in much extent. It also helps that one of the team members, sound designer and music composer Richard Gould, has also started writing about the process of making the game too. So it’t not only me; I hope the rest of the wonderful development team also chimes in.There are different ways in which I can talk about the process: as a cinephile, I love reading about the process of making film, watching “making of” documentaries, and listening to film commentaries, because it provides context on the work itself. One can also talk about the craft itself, without going into an exegesis of one’s own work. So perhaps the key is providing that kind of insight on the process, without spoiling the fun (and always read my explanations after playing the game).

Revisiting this interview with John Ford, I realized I couldn’t really shut up or be flippant about my work. It also takes someone as grumpy as John Ford to implicitly telling know-it-all Peter Bodganovich to sod off. I’m no good at facetiousness either. The scholar in me loves talking about the thinking that goes into making a game, and the maker in me also enjoys talking about the process of creating a game.

So here’s the deal: I’ll talk about The Last Symphony, the basis of the research, the general concept, and some of the things we learned from making it in my next blog post. But first you have to go and play the game, and tell me what you think (I actually need that for my research). And then, one day, I’ll explain what the concept of the game is about, just like other people who care more about their image than their players or being an actual artist.

Interactive Fiction · News and Events · Thoughts

Games By The Book – The Making of an Exhibit

Games by the BookLast Friday was the first day of a very special exhibit at the Hayden Library at MIT. Games by the Book, curated by myself and Nick Montfort, is a small exhibit of literary works adapted to the medium of the videogame. The games in show display a variety of approaches to adaptation applied to videogames. Luckily for us, they’re all available online, so you can get to play them too.

  • The Great Gatsby is loosely based on the novel, and is presented as a lost Japanese NES cartridge, although it’s really a Flash game made in the US.
  • The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a new take on events on Douglas Adams’ novel. It’s also the only one where the author was part of the development of the game.
  • Yet One Word is an adaptation of a specific interpretation of Oedipus at Colonus. You would have never thought tragedy was so cute.
  • Avon takes characters and situations from Shakespeare’s plays and turns them into contrived and strange puzzles.

You can read the more detailed description of the story on the exhibit’s website. Nick has also posted some photos of the exhibit on his own blog. The exhibit will be ready at the Hayden Library until October 8th and it’s open to the public. So if you’re anywhere near MIT campus, be sure to come by and check it out.

Preparing the exhibit has been an enjoyable undertaking, and more laborious than one would think. The initial process of curation required taking into account what would be both an interesting selection and a good fit for playing in a public space like a library. I started by browsing Mobygames, which already features a group called Inspiration: Literature; I also browsed the pages of one of the new incarnations of Home of the Underdogs, which is one of my t0-go resources to find interesting and off-beat games. Part of my goal was finding games that one would not think could be adapted to a videogame. So the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Tom Clancy were out, and in was my old friend Will Shakespeare.

The trickiest part was finding games that would do well in an exhibit. I had to be easy to set up and maintain, since the library staff couldn’t do tech support, and neither of us could be checking on it constantly.  Complex setups and special peripherals were out of the question, because the library is a public space with no security. Most importantly, it had to “play well” in a public space. Patrons would not spend hours playing these games, but only a few minutes, even if we weren’t counting on heavy traffic. That left out a lot of adventure games. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Avon, both works of interactive fiction, where chosen because they feature tricky puzzles and game over states,  which results shorter play sessions by design. Interactive Fiction is also a good fit for the library, because it has no sound, so we don’t have to worry about headphones being unplugged. The other two games, Yet One Word and The Great Gatsby, are flash games with short play sessions as well, and although they both have music, neither is loud or obnoxious. In the end, computer games were favoured over consoles, because a console would have needed a cage or custom cabinets, so people could not take the game cartridges or disks; game controllers may be tempting to abscond with, while keyboards and mice are cheaper to replace. A last consideration was keeping the computers offline, or limiting the websites that could be accessed. Patrons to the library tend to use the computers to check their email or social websites, instead of looking up books in the catalogue.

During the process of setting up the actual exhibit, I found myself using a lot of my game designer brain, because an exhibit is also an experience. Having worked on adventure games for quite a while now, the process of designing the actual set up of the exhibit requires asking oneself similar questions. Where does the visitor start? What do they see? How do they know what to do? How can this break, and how do we prevent it? The answers to some of these questions resulted in specific design features, such as using the screensaver as a prompt to attract people to the computer, or including game manuals and brief instructions. The postcards on how to play interactive fiction are part of the display, since the genre is not as intuitive as us IF lovers would like. Other things, like using parental controls to limit access to certain websites, creating direct access to the games on the desktop. The exhibit also required some handiwork. Any recognition to the idea to tie the books with a cable to the computers has to go to Nick, who also drilled the holes through the books himself. You can see how that looks like. It’s been a cheap way to keep the books in place, and so far it’s worked.

I haven’t lurked around the exhibit long enough to see how people approach the exhibit. So far, most people walk around it, look at the books, but don’t sit down to play. Maybe a stand would have been a bit more inviting, since some people may feel self-conscious about playing videogames in public, and sitting down implies a commitment. (We didn’t have money for stands, we were lucky to get one of the Library’s computer carrells.) Looking at the activity logs, people have been playing the games, from 8 to 12 people per day, most for one minute, and 4 or 5 from 15 to 20 minutes. So we do have visitors. After a decent stakeout at the library, I should be able to report more details soon.

The process of creating this exhibit has been quite enjoyable and gratifying. The overlap between curation and exhibit design and the process of making a game has enough points in common to allow me to use my background designing games. So I hope this is the first exhibit of many!