Directory of All Essays

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cooperation War Challenge

Joel Davis sent me an email presenting a classic design challenge. Your job is to teach players important cooperative skills as an alternative to beating the pulp out of another. The twist is that you can not force collaboration upon the player.
  • The game must be clearly competitive in nature and should slowly wean the players off their ‘defeat the enemy’ strategies.
  • The game is only a success if the player has an ‘aha moment’ where they figure out that collaboration is the better way to go despite their initial understanding of the problem.
  • Oh, and it needs to be both fun and easy-to-play by 10-year olds.
There are many possible solutions to the challenge and I’d love to hear your take on the topic. Here is what I came up with while doodling at the coffee shop waiting for my wife.

A brief aside: Seldon Games
I’ve briefly mentioned ‘social engineering’ or ‘Seldon’ games in the past that influence the behavior of players through the manipulation of systems instead of directly telling or forcing the player down a path. The player makes a series of logical, rational choices based off the game system at hand. Eventually, they maneuver themselves into a situation that provides them with unexpected insight. It is a very indirect form of authorial control that is quite different than that found in movies or many linear games. The player is always in full control of their environment, yet just beyond the scope of their cognitive reach there is deeper order behavior at work.

A classic example of this is the ecology in Alpha Centauri. The player naively ends up polluting the environment as they expand their base and end up triggering a massive onslaught of alien worms. This wasn’t the game designer making an arbitrary plot driven exception. It was a natural outcome of how the ecological model in the game worked. The next time they play through a map, there is a much greater awareness of pollution and its impact on the ecology.

I’m attempting a similar progression in this design.

Cooperation War overview
Winter is rapidly approaching and your tribe must gather up enough food to survive. Unfortunately, crops are scarce and the other tribes are hungry as well. What will you do to survive?

Cooperation War is a simple Flash multiplayer RTS game for 2 to 4 players. It is played on a single screen with a mouse. You can chat using a keyboard. In earlier levels, players can rely on force to grab resources for their tribe. In later levels, as resources become rarer, only those who collaborate will prosper.

Each map takes 10 minutes and replay is encouraged through the tracking of individual and group scores.

The basic progression
  • Resources (wheat, sheep, and fruit) litter the landscape initially.
  • Gatherers from the tribe collect resources and carry them to a new location.
  • Builders convert resources into basic foods
  • Builders convert basic foods of different types into advanced foods that feed more people.
  • When the winter comes, the tribe gathers around their leader and feasts on the nearby food that has been prepared.
  • If there is not enough food, the tribe slowly dies off.
  • If there is more than enough food, the tribe emerges from the winter stronger than ever.
Early in the game, players will rush to gather food. As food is processed and begins to accumulate, its value begins to increase. Players will be tempted to create warriors to protect their bounty or steal the bounty of others. Tension builds as the clock runs down. In the last moments of the game, the player will want to position their leader near the largest cache of food around and hope they played the game well enough to survive the coming winter.

Basic units

Players start the game with 4 to 5 units. There are three main types of units in the game
  • Gatherers
  • Builders
  • Warriors
Changing between units
You can convert any unit into any other unit.
  • Click on the unit.
  • Click on the alternative unit you wish to convert to.
  • Conversion takes a few seconds during which the unit is immobile. We show the progress bar during this conversion. This delay exists to prevent wacky micromanagement of unit switching.
The leader
One of your units is flagged as the leader. When winter arrives, the player should place their leader near the largest pile of food they can find. During winter, any food within the radius of the leader will be consumed by the tribe. If the current leader unit is killed, the flag is assigned automatically to another one of your units.

Gatherers pick up items from one area and drop them down in another location. Once a Gatherer has delivered an item, they will go back for more. If there is nothing for them to move they will wait for further instructions. (How much AI do we want here?)

A Gather’s interface is a line connecting their resource and their destination.
  • Click on the Gatherer to select it.
  • Drag their gathering target to a location. This target is a medium sized area from which they will be gathering items.
  • Drag their drop point target to a location. This target is a pinpoint location at which they will be dropping off items.
  • Alternatively, you can drag a line from the source to the destination. This is likely to be a lot less fiddly.
Builders convert nearby resources into basic food and basic food into advanced food. Conversion takes time. Builders that have access to multiple types of resources, say Grain, Sheep and Fruit produce exponentially more food than those that have access to one resource.

A builder’s interface is a draggable circle.
  • Click on a builder.
  • Drag their conversion target to a location. They will convert anything within the radius into it most valuable form.
  • Multiple builders working on the same production step speed up the time it takes to finish.
Warriors attempt to kill units from other tribes within their guard radius. Gathers and Builders die after a few seconds. Warriors will fight for a very long time and tie one another up. Eventually both will die.
  • Click on a Warrior
  • Drag their guard circle to a location. They will move towards this location and begin patrolling.
Communication is key to any collaborative exercise. The player can type a message at any time and it will appear above their leader’s head. With only 2 to 4 players and a single screen, everyone will see everything. We aren’t teaching backstabbing explicitly so there is no need to include private channels in the communication system.

Note that the interface is intentionally designed so that an experienced player could set up their units in the first 20 seconds of the game and harvesting and production would occur successfully without any further interaction. There needs to be space in the rhythm of the game for communication to occur.

Conversion of resources into meals
When a gather is within range of a resource such as a bundle of wheat, they will convert it into a meal. You can convert simple meals into more nourishing meals if you have access to a wider range of resources. At the higher levels, we want to encourage extreme resource crunches where it is highly unlikely that all players have all the components necessary for success.
  • 1 resource yields 10 meals
  • 2 different resources yields 50 meals
  • 3 different resources yields 100 meals
Each game last 10 minutes and a little animated clock shows the countdown of the timer until winter begins. In the last 30 seconds of the game, the first frost arrives and the players are prompted to gather around their units around their leader in preparation for winter.

Any food within the leader’s radius is considered fair game for the tribe to consume. When winter hits, this number starts to slowly count down. Each unit is represents 10 tribes man. Each tribesman consumes a meal a day and winter lasts a variable number of days. When there is not enough food, 5 tribes people die per day.

If you end the winter with enough food, bonus babies are born!

Once winter is over, you get 1 point for each person outside your tribe and 2 points for each person inside your tribe. Bonus babies are scored as a tribe member.

Individual high scores are recorded and each player is shown their rank relative to how others have played in the past.

A group high score (the sum of all player scores) is also recorded and shown relative to how others have played in the past. This is a good opportunity for the interjection of value statements to clue players in on what is rewarded. For example: “Advanced civilization” vs. “Brutish rabble.” We should always display the scores attained by cooperating as a possible goal. Players will wonder how such high scores are humanly possible and this will clue them into the potential that they might want to explore other strategies.

Thoughts on balancing and message
The game mechanics as they stand are stripped of any message. The game can be played in a genocidal fashion or a purely collaborative fashion. Any message we desire must come from how the game systems are balanced and what strategies provide the player with the most desirable payoff. Here are some quick balancing techniques.
  • Converting resources is expensive: In the later levels, it should take most of your tribes efforts as gathers and builders to produce enough food for the winter.
  • Give fighting a cost: When you escalate the violence and fight, you kill valuable people who could have contributed to gathering and producing more food. There is often a short term tactical gain, but long term, you put everyone at risk.
  • Differentiated resources: It become difficult to go it alone because other people have what you need. This encourages collaboration.
Strategies we should enable
The following competitive strategies should all be possible once the game is balanced
  • Genocide: Players can band together to wipe out an opposing team. There is a large opportunity cost to this activity.
  • Stealing: Gatherers can rush another player’s stock pile and steal finished good and bring them back to their own stock pile.
  • Defense: Warriors can be placed in defensive positions to prevent any enemy gatherers from stealing.
The following collaborative strategies should also be possible
  • Gifting: It should be possible for a gatherer to give a specific resource to another player.
  • Sharing of stock piles: Multiple players should be able to build one large stockpile that helps them all get through the winter. Just place both leaders on the same stockpile and everyone will share.
  • Communication: Players should be able to negotiate and discuss shared goals.
Level progression
In early levels, resources are readily available so that the ‘obvious’ strategy of defense and attack are quite viable. However, in later levels, resources become more limited so that cooperation becomes the more viable strategy.

Learning notes
Learning comes when people experiment with new behavior in old situations. Many of the harder levels should be played multiple times by the same group. Initially, all teams will do poorly. After they make the switch to collaborative strategies, they’ll do much better, but expect this to take several attempts.

Learning also tends to occur upon review, not during play. People often need to tell stories about their experience in order to understand it. Keep each game to 10 minutes and build in a logging system. Allow people to watch their first attempt at playing the game and compare it to their later attempts. This can also be used in classroom situations to review decisions and explore them in more depth.

Help Hag
I’m tempted to add an old woman for each tribe. She eats food during the winter and cannot be used as a gatherer, warrior or builder. However, if you click on her, she will give you tips on how to play the game. You could, if you wished, send her off to her death if you desire. However, the players who listens to her wisdom will gain insight into advanced strategies sooner.

The whole technique of clicking on a unit to get tips is a fun one. Warriors can chime in advice on killing the enemy faster. Gatherers in the presence of warriors can talk about making runs to steal enemy goods. Each introduces players to potential strategies. By suggestioning options, you guide the player’s attention along paths that designer wishes them to explore without forcing the player down a hard coded path.

Prototyping questions
There are all sorts of questions that need to be answered through prototyping in order to ensure that this is a fun game. Here is the first round.
  • What is the best interface for ordering around the gatherers? Specifying the source and destination seems like it could be a bit clunky for new users.
  • What setting should we use? The current one is a bit bland.
  • How many resources should we use? Does one present enough strategic complexity? Does 2? Is 3 too complex?
  • What is the scale of the units on the screen? I think this can work nicely for 2 players each with 4 or 5 units. 8 players with 5 units on a single screen may get a bit hectic.
  • What is the learning curve? There is some worry that the learning curve will be too steep. This can be handled with simple intro levels and the use of the help hag.
  • What are the right constants? I can guarantee that the numbers in this document will produce a game that is completely unplayable. Messing about with constants is one of the more enjoyable aspects of prototyping. :-)
I love Joel's design challenge because it points out how you can use the dynamics of the system to guide the player’s actions. One of my greatest pet peeves about many modern games is how authorial intent is enforced though arbitrary exceptions rammed into the heart of an interesting game system. The designer strips away your weapons or causes you to lose a battle on a whim. There is no lesson to be learned, no skills to master. The opportunity to profoundly delight or educate the player is traded for a cheap narrative thrill.

Instead, we should learn the fine art and science of influencing the player without their knowledge. The player must make all their own choices in an open and flexible game world. However, due to the larger order within the systems, there is a high likelihood that they will maneuver themselves into making a series of rich personal decisions. We design this progression even though we cannot control each individual detail.

Because the player is making their own choices of their own free will, the learning experience will ring true. It is the fundamental difference between:
  • Reading about someone not pulling the trigger
  • Deciding for yourself, despite all that has led you to this spot, that you should not pull the trigger.
Take care

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vistech 2005: Thoughts on the military industrial game complex

I gave a talk at a tradeshow called Vistech earlier this week. With all the traveling and attending talks my posts have been coming slower than I would like. Thanks to everyone who keeps visiting the site even after the Nintendogs story dropped off Slashdot and Kotaku. :-)

Vistech is a brand new show by Halldale that I would classify as 'Serious Games for the Military'. The military talks are always intriguing because they are solving problems with game technology in ways that are quite different than your typical game developer.

There is also some weird freaky shit out there. If you ever get invited to a real talk about improving the 'kill chain', run and hide. I didn't know this, but a kill chain is very much like a supply chain in business. Except where a supply chain delivers boxes of shoes to Walmart, the kill chain delivers enemy bodies...Efficiently and with the least amount of thinking required. Applying the scientific process to war activities is a long standing tradition, but it still gives me the shivers.

Here are some fun technology trends...

Good trends that I found interesting
  • Hybrid systems (aka Augmented reality): The ultimate goal of many folks is get to the point where the virtual simulated world is placed on top of what the pilot is seeing out the aircraft window. In a normal aircraft, the pilot would look out and see trees. In a hybrid aircraft, the pilot would look out the window and see a tank blinking in the trees. The tank is completely virtual and is based on a momentary sighting 5 minutes ago by a drone. Its current position is extrapolated from an AI algorithm that is used to plot its potential course.

    Combine the data from hundreds of aircraft, infantry, sensors, etc with satellite data and that little window out the cockpit becomes a highly illuminated, data rich environment. In twenty years, this technology will start making its way into the commercial world. Software tends towards commodity pricing so the only thing keeping this back in the long term will be hardware and display costs.
  • Ladar scanning: The single biggest problem facing the use of 3D in serious applications is the cost of producing meaningful 3D information. At Anark, we rely primarily on CAD data because of the huge repositories deep inside manufacturing companies. Other folks are looking at ways to rapidly scan large scenes with a laser system (or photographs). Drive down a street and get a multi-terabyte point cloud model complete with color and all the little details.

    In 10 years or so, this will turn into 3D photography. You won't model anything from scratch. Instead, you'll whip out your special 3D camera and capture a massively high resolution model that is then post processed to run on 3D hardware. The part that excites me is the inevitable creation of "3D photoshop". That will be sweet.
Bad trends
  • Recycling game engines: We are at such an early stage of transferring game technology over to other sectors, that the primary method evident is outright theft. Grab the Unreal engine, slap a new mod on it, and call it an Army game. This works for a small set of problems. It doesn't work for many other problems (for example, ones that don't involve shooting people)

    The 'stealing phase' of technology adoption is common and inevitable. My worry is that this becomes the primary mode of dealing with game technology. We need to open our eyes to the broader possibilities. Rip out all the guns, and look at a physics system, a 3D engine and all that lovely networking code as a tool kit. Find a problem and apply the tool kit. I suspect that if you do your job well, you'll come up with an application that is very effective, but looks nothing like a FPS.
  • Small size of events: Games have been around for a while. The problems that game technology helps solve has been around for a while. Yet there were only a page full of names attending this conference. They are the forward thinkers, the visionaries. Very cool, but the industry cannot grow with visionaries alone. I look forward to the day when the accountants, middle managers and people on the front line come to conferences such as Vistech because it is pertinent to their jobs.

    I have hope. The Serious Games Summit keeps doubling in size each year. New shows like Vistech and the Synergy Summit are popping up. With any new industry, it is simply a matter of time and momentum. We have the later, but I'm an impatient fellow.
take care

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Serious Games: A broader definition

I was hoping to polish off a simple, easy to use definition of serious games. I ran into the following difficulties immediately:
  • A wide spectrum of groups are interested in serious games
  • Each group has a radically different understanding of the term ‘serious games’
The company I work at is in somewhat of a unique position. We’ve been working on game technology for the past 10 years and have been successfully selling solutions into businesses for many years. Our customers include Boeing, Panasonic, USAF, Maseratti, AMD, Nvidia, Sony and more. We’ve sold both product and services to everything from large enterprise companies to defense to game companies. I’ve personally been able to witness hundreds of projects from start to completion.

We’ve learned some good lessons about this new movement people are now calling ‘serious games’. Sometimes the lessons were painful. Sometimes they were surprisingly positive.

I’ll begin this series of essays on Serious Games with something fundamental. The public definition of serious games doesn’t match the experience of people selling serious games.

Lessons 1: The man on the street doesn’t understand the benefit of games, but he does understand the benefit of game technology.

Why does the following situation occur?
  • Show a business leader a game of chess and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll laugh you out of the office.
  • Show them a great 3D engine and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll ask you how much it would cost to ship them one by next Friday.
A broken definition of serious games
“The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its
overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game
industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health,
and public policy” -
This definition of serious games is too narrow. The goal is admirable, but there is more value hidden within game development than just games for ‘education, training, health, and public policy.’ We need a definition of serious games that includes the core reason why businesses care.

The problem with selling ‘games’ to business
The benefit of a game is still questionable to many people. First, there is no concrete evidence that says ‘games increase learning by X%’. There is great work being done here, but overwhelming evidences that games are an inherently useful tool does not yet exist.

Second, when I start a conversation with the claim that ‘games are good at teaching people.’ I get blank stares. This theory may be common knowledge within academia and game design circles, but to the broader world (people over 40) games are still seen as toys. Every time I sit in on a sales call, I’m reminded that we have decades left of intense public relations before we change this basic cultural stereotype.

As a developer, this irks me. As a businessman, I have to bite my tongue and admit that it will take a long while to boil this particular ocean.

3D means replacing real world experiences
Game technology, surprisingly, is a completely different matter. Modern games use 3D to let users experience realistic simulated situations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to experience in the real world. People grok this concept intuitively. When a business person looks at Half Life, they may not care about the game design aspects of the title, but they grasp that they are witnessing impressive technology that has the ability to change how we interact with the world.

I’ve heard variations on the following scenario many times. “My son was playing Half Life and he had to turn on a bunch of valves to get the water level to drop. Why, we do the same thing in our company training. If I could give people an application that lets them virtually mess with valves, I could save millions.” People use different words based off their individual problem, but the core concepts are the same

  • 3D games let people experience real world activities
  • It is expensive, dangerous, etc to let people perform certain real world activities at my company.
  • A 3D application that replaces certain real world activities would be immediately valuable to me.
3D matters
I’m going to broach a subject that is a bit of ‘the elephant in the room’ in my conversations with my colleagues who are deeply excited by the concept of serious games.

Are you curious why serious games only started to take off in the past couple of years? ‘Serious games’ have honestly been around for ages. Call them edutainment or simulations if you wish, but the basic concept of learning games has been a niche aspect of training and education for at least a decade or more.

It is only with the introduction of 3D that this market is taking off. This makes me suspicions that the learning / edutainment / game design aspect of serious games is not the key factor driving current growth.

Based off my experience, many companies are not primarily looking for games per se. People with money are looking for 3D applications to solve previously intractable business problems. The modern game industry with its hyper-realistic, low cost 3D worlds is hitting business over the head with a potential solution to their business problem.

We’ve made the intractable possible. People are flocking to serious games because we are finally offering the right technology at the right price.

Lesson 2: When a business person says ‘game’ there’s a good chance he is talking about a ‘3D application.’
Game developers and designers are fooled by this sudden interest in 3D game technology. They bring their decades of expertise in game design to the table and immediately start talking about learning, reward systems, and ‘fun’. Stop. Take a deep breath.

There are 3D applications that use modern game technology that are not ‘games’. They don’t need to be fun. They don’t need learning or reward systems. They have none of the formal requirements of a game based on any one of the dozen definitions you might throw at them.

We work with a large company that sells airplanes. They love our game technology because it lets them save about $10 million per airplane they configure. The application dynamically builds up an entire 3D airplane from information stored in a database and interactively lets customers change out parts. It replaces a telephone book of options and a large, but relatively useless, physical mockup.

This is a 3D application that solves a business problem. It is described as ‘game-like’. It is described as ‘using game technology’. But it isn’t a game. We need a name for this very useful application.

Two overlapping categories
I see two categories of serious games:
  • Games: Applications focused on learning, simulation and fun.
  • 3D applications: Applications that use 3D game technology and techniques to solve business problems.
Both types of applications are valid and useful. The goal of this article is to broaden the concept of serious games, not dismiss the wonderful learning applications of games. The two categories certainly overlap.

  • There are 3D applications that are not games
  • There are 3D applications that are games
  • There are games that are not 3D applications

Looking at serious games from a business perspective
Serious games aficionados should avoid jumping to the conclusion that serious games customers want games. Instead ask some basic questions first.

  • What is the business problem?
  • What are the tools required to solve the business problem?
  • What is the solution the solves the business problem?
You may find that they need a 3D application that only uses game technology and not game design. In my experience, this is the case in approximately 90% of the customers who approach us. (Your experiences naturally will vary. We are all blind men describing a different part of this new market.)

The fuzzy boundary between games and 3D applications
It is tempting to say that serious games only deal with the gaming-focused solutions and other types of 3D applications are not serious games. But the differences are not clear cut.

Borderline Game #1: Let’s consider the airplane configuration tool that I mentioned earlier. It turns out that there is a quite a large amount of simulation involved in its creation.
  • Application of complex business rules to give feedback on weight distribution and object placement. The system can tell you if you are going to be able to fly to Seattle or not.
  • The physics of navigating a large aircraft.
Are there goals? The buyer certainly has goals and they manipulate the tool to reach certain cost, distance and maintenance goals. It still isn’t a game, but it has many of the attributes possessed by games.

Borderline Game #2: There’s another application that we built for a maintenance repair project. Technologically and architecturally it is nearly identical to the plane configuration tool. The user is placed in a training scenario where they have 15 minutes to repair a broken seat monitor. They rush around through a virtual airplane, replacing parts and running tests. If they succeed, they are told ‘good job’ and given a score in the LMS (Learning management system).

Is this a game? The customer thinks of it as a training application. It turns out that there is an element of ‘fun’ to it, even though it was never built as a game. You could even take each training scenario and plunk it into the middle of Half Life 2 and no one would suspect that these ‘levels’ came from a training application.

In short, if the definition of a ‘game’ is poorly defined, then the definition of a serious game is even fuzzier. I find it difficult to draw a clean line between games, simulations, and 3D applications. Even more to the point, many customers do not make this distinction. In the immortal words of a friend who works on these problems daily, “It uses game ‘stuff’, therefore it is a serious game.”

Broadening the Serious Games definition?

Tunnel vision
Many websites that cover serious games focus on the game aspect of Serious Games and very little on the technology and process transfer into 3D applications.

I believe this is short sighted. Serious games has the potential to be far more than an simple opportunity for game developers to make games that happen to exist in a business setting. The serious games movement acts as an ambassador that promotes the adoption of modern game technology, processes and thinking throughout the larger business community.

We are finally getting the rest of the world to talk about games in a positive light. Serious games is the start of a wave that is spreading into the mainstream press. Do we really want to promote the implicit message that “Game technology is only useful for training and nothing else.”?

Ambassadors of the beneficial side of games
If the serious games community wants to embrace its growing role as the pragmatic, beneficial face of the game industry, we need to set our sights higher. Discussing the joys of finished game is a start, but we also need to promote the rest of our secret sauce outside of the gaming community What about:

  • Game development techniques and processes
  • Game development skills and expertise
  • Game design techniques and philosophy
Make it pertinent
In order to serve as ambassadors we need to make each of these elements pertinent to the people paying our bills. As game developers, we need to go to the mountain since the mountain isn’t going to come to us.

  • Speak the language of business: We need to understand business problems at the same level and often better than the businesses do.
  • Integrate with their systems and processes: We need to work within their ecosystem of databases, security concerns, and business logic.
  • Understand business value of our solution: We need to clearly understand the value our fancy technology brings to the business.
A new definition of serious games
I don’t have a perfect definition of serious games, but here is a more inclusive attempt:

Serious Games: The application of gaming technology,
process, and design to the solution of problems faced by businesses and other

Serious games promote the transfer and cross fertilization of game development knowledge and techniques in traditionally non-game markets such as training, product design, sales, marketing, etc.
I want to see a 3D application headlining the next Serious Games Summit. Serious games is still young and flexible. This is our chance to show the world that there is more to serious games than rebranded FPSs. There is more than 2D city planning games or mathlete shooters. Let’s start talking about the wide array of intractable business problems and how we are solving them using our flexible and powerful set of game development tools.

The broad definition of serious games will grow into multi-billion dollar markets and will fundamental change how businesses and governments operate. As developers who are passionate about serious games, we are one of the few groups that is ideally suited to spread the gospel.

I’m curious to see what path the community will take. Are serious games only about games or are they about the broader application of games and gaming technology?

Take care

Note: These are my views and don’t necessarily reflect Anark’s views. C'est la vie. :-)

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