At a Higher Level is a game design podcast that takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring games and the experiences they create.
My aim is to explore concepts from other fields (such as pscyhology, culture, and storytelling) in terms of game design. Inspired by the podcast RadioLab, I wrote, recorded, and produced a podcast that enabled me to explore these concepts through the medium of sound. More powerful experiences can be created by using audio design to enhance narrative.
I wanted to craft a story telling and teaching experience around concepts of game design in the form of a podcast, aimed primarily at hobbyist game designers. Normally, a text based blog post would be sufficient, but I was curious how audio could enhance the experience. There is an art to crafting text. By using hooks, build ups, and payoffs, text can be designed to more strongly resonate. Audio is also has these properties, and it adds another dimension. I wanted to use music and sound effects as a way to enhance the conceptual content and to help to further engage the listener.
Sound production is a complicated and sometimes overlooked field. Like all good design, it is often invisible unless you explicitly look for it.
With another dimension comes another set of design complexities. Sound can play a number of roles. It can be used to invisibly bolster the content of a message; or by subtly matching the ebb and flow of the words spoke; or by having the music climax at the high point of a concept. Audio can be used to nudge emotional reactions around an idea, such as somber music playing during a somber scene in a movie. It can be used to distract you. It can be used to craft experiences just as text or visual media can.
I applied a top-down approach to the narrative elements of the podcast; meaning, I started by sketching out the outline for the concepts before writing any content. Similar to a blueprint. One key idea that drove the structure was the idea of "Hook, Build, Payoff."
"If you experience flow, you can enjoy any game."
To grab attention and communicate in a clear and concise way what the podcast's first episode is about, I began by making the claim "If you experience flow, you can enjoy any game." This was controversial to some game players that either do not often play games or only primarily play a single genre. All good hooks imply the payoff.
In the hook, I also say we will put this idea to the test, taking what we learn throughout the episode and having someone play a game they dislike. When poised as an question, either explicitly or implicitly, a good hook can also tap into the psychological Zeigarnik effect. According to this effect, people remember uncompleted or uninterrupted tasks better than completed tasks, even mental ones like solving a mystery or answering a question. An unfinished task consumes more of your attention. The first episode's hook was a question that, to some gamers, is controversial. The answer to "can you really enjoy any game if you can enter flow?" is not answered until the episode's end, therefore taking advantage of the Zeigarnik effect to help capture attention until the question is revolved.
The build should be the bridge between the hook and payoff. For the hook above, the idea of "flow" must be discussed thoroughly. The bulk of the episode is spent here.
First, I introduced the concept of flow and provided universal examples of things we're all experienced, and how they relate to flow. Next, I defined flow by provided three "rules", or conditions, for entering flow. After discussing each one, I reinforced the understanding by communicating what flow is not.
After the listener understands what Flow is, we apply its concepts by discussing how it is related to game design. Finally, we bring on another person for a small discussion about how everything we've learned so far in the abstract applies specifically to an individual's own concrete experiences.
All good hooks imply the payoff. If I did not put the hook to the test, it would fall flat. By learning what flow is, and how games can be designed with flow in mind, then we're prepared to implement the concepts. The payoff is the climax of the episode. The episode ends by taking everything that has been learned, and discussing it with someone who does not like a certain game (Counter-strike).
The person being interviewed does not, at first, believe the premise hook, which helps add to the tension. With audio you can hear the intonations vocal cues that don't come through in text. The interviewee plays the game, and the answer is provided to the hook's question. A payoff is given that is both inevitable, and perhaps surprising - you may not have seen what the payoff would be after hearing the hook, but after experience the payoff, the hook's purpose becomes clear.
When outlining the episode's structure, I only had ideas for how sound would be used to enhance the experience. For me, I used music and sound effects in a "bottom-up" way, as tools for implementing the outline.
There are three "rules" for entering Flow. Throughout the podcast I discuss how these three rules can be applied to games. With text, we can simply create a large header and follow it with relevant content. When someone is speaking, though, visual text is nonexistent. There are no text sizings, padding, or text blocks that make it clear how the words are relevant or how they fit into a larger context. But sound allows us to do this.
In the podcast, unique ambient instrumental background music is played for each of the three rules, whenever they are discussed. Doing this helps the listener to subtly connect the spoken words to a pre-established concept. This achieved by playing the rule's music at full volume before the concept is initially discussed, then lowering the volume and playing it softly in the background while discussing the concept.
Sound effects were used in a number of places to add more texture to the content. Sounds from games such as Mario were used to help trigger memories that many gamers share. For instance, when discussing Skill vs. Challenge, a sound clip of the original Mario for Nintendo is played. The clip is the sound which is played when you are running low on time and must complete the level or lose a life. The intention was to subtly affect your emotional state - to give a sense of urgency.
If you're heard the music as a child, you'll probably have a small sense of panic or anxiety. This emotional response was designed to be in line with the concept of "being pushed to your limits". This is another example of how adding audio can add more the experience of learning than text alone could. It's one thing to write "hurry up" - but it's quite another to hear it and feel it viscerally.
I also created a webpage for the podcast, AtAHigherLevel.com. The site features a fantasy aesthetic with an emphasis on maps. The map serves as a metaphor for discovering concepts of game design from different disciplines.
Overall I am very happy with how the podcast turned out. After learning from the experience, though, there was a big area I identified that could be improved.
I intended for the podcast to be a long, deep dive into game design aimed primarily at game designers. The content ended up being very accessible even to casual game players; however, the duration (one hour and sixteen minutes) was a major issue for a wider audience.
First, a more effective approach would have been to split the Flow episode up into three or four smaller, 20 to 30 minute episodes. The content is already clearly partitioned into "Levels", conceptual groupings that feed into each other. Each level could have been its own episode. This is painfully obvious in retrospect. In many ways, the format content is presented in is often just as, if not more, important than the content itself. It's easier to listen to a 20 minute episode on the bus than it is to sit down for the length of an average movie.
Secondly, if the Flow episode was composed of multiple smaller episodes, I would have been able to more effectively distribute it. Like most apps and games and content in general, my podcast followed a very predictable consumption curve. A couple days after I released it, downloads spiked for a few days, then gradually tapered off.
However, if I had multiple episodes ready, I would have been able to release them a week or two apart, which would have driven more usage spikes, and hopefully created a sort of feedback loop that would have driven the podcast higher in iTunes, which would have led to even more users. I could have potentially reaped all these benefits by simply leaving the content unchanged and splitting up the long episode into shorter episodes.
My goal with the podcast was take advantage of sound to reinforce concepts and create a more engaging learning experience. Overall, I am satisfied with the end result. The podcast is available on iTunes, has numerous five-star reviews, and was featured on Gamasutra. The podcast, along with the payoff to the hook "if you can experience flow, you can enjoy any game," can be found at At a Higher Level.