Android title: Exploration of Space

Pushing hobbies forward

I don't earn money with programming, gamedesign, or talking about those two. But they are my hobbies, and I love doing all three. The main trap about hobbies is when they require labour. At some point, every project in the traject of completing needs tedious and boring work. For this reason I have a fridge full of unfinished projects. Many times I have forced myself not to start a new project again, because my conceptual fridge is too full already. But last month I stumbled upon a nice challenge that got me motivated to actually finish a project: the Ludum Dare -finish a game and bring it to the market- October Challenge! The challenge is already over, but that didn't stop me to accept it regardless.

I tried to keep the main idea of this game project as simple as I could (that's quite the challenge already!). You start in a star system with a civilisation that is about to take their first baby steps into interstellar growth. On this star you decide which steps into different kinds of technologies your civilisation will take. When you choose, new technologies will become available. However, one decision may cancel out others as well. Each choice grants you new abilities, resources, etc. to construct buildings, which in turn unlock new possible research and subsequent buildings.

At some point you may build a Hypergate. This allows you to colonize different stars that are linked to yours in the Local Cluster screen (see screenshot). Research on the new star will start all over again, allowing you to research and develop different paths you skipped on the previous star. The final goal is to reach and finish the last star in the Local Cluster. The faster, more efficiƫnt and more developped you finish, the higher your ranking. Your rank will be updated online, so you can meassure yourself against the rest of the world.

At the time of writing this post, I have released the first development screenshots. The basic programming framework and interface design stands, now on to extending and balancing the game!

Applying Drives to Gamedesign

The harmony between psychology and gamedesign

Here are two interesting articles on rockpapershotgun:

Both their statement hold truth. But there are a lot of games that cover neither story nor problematic situations, and are still popular: Quake, FIFA, Need for Speed, Team Fortress, Farmville. If we look to the similarities of the two different ideas both articles describe, we can generalise this statement and get something along the lines of:

Games are best when they give the player a self-developing experience after he reaches a goal.

According to various psychological models, people have certain drives explaining why they act as they do, and like the things they like: work of Clare Graves, Kolb, DISC, Vermunt, they all overlap in the human characteristics they describe. My favourite model is one with 6 drives (to my loose interpretation): social interaction/networking, curiosity/understanding, prestation/efficiency, structure/precision, acting/initiating, safety/familiarity. Some of these drives you need to function properly and feel happy, some you naturally act from without realising, and some drives you really can't stand or don't care for when someone else acts out of those drives. We can apply them to games as well. Some cases for each drive:

Add to the player's emotional framework and create a familiar environment: tell a story through dialogues, music, show intriguing scenery. Give the player metaphors reflecting life experiences for the player to use in real life. Allow the player to create a safe home base and explore the world from there.

Stimulate the player's problem solving abilities: let the player solve engaging puzzles, handle complex situations with unknown outcomes, figure out hidden systems.

Satisfy the player's desire to strive for perfection and structure: let the player create sets of rules that influence the game, do tasks that require precision and careful working methods.

social interaction/networking
Stimulate the player's interaction abilities: allow the player to forge a team, either with A.I. or multiplayer and reach a common goal, give options to dialogues that substantially differs the final result of the conversation, allow the player to develop his character in his own image, and let the environment be influenced by that.

Allow the player to develop his prestation skills: add a highscore list to visibly become the best, use achievements to give the player an idea how far he has progressed, add special endings when the player completes a goal the best way possible.

give the player a set of tools to experiment with right away, allow to skip tutorials, give a clear goal, present fast-paced elements, use impulsive gameplay and involve action.

The more cases you cover in your game, the more popular and memorable your game becomes (although there are also a lot more factors). Not everyone is triggered by every case, some of those drives you don't care for, some of them are really important. A game that has something of every case covers the biggest target audience.

Think about minecraft; it covers almost all human characteristics: you can create a safe environment, the terrain is intriguing, it contains a strong problem solving part: redstone and pistons, the entire game is about building structure from the chaos of blocks and use precision for the type of blocks you choose (you can do a lot with stairs, fences, trapdoors, ...), thanks to the multiplayer part the player can forge teams and enemies. The only characteristic that is lacking is prestation (there are achievements, but those are not engaging enough to significantly trigger prestation-aimed players), but the community took care of that; let's plays where people try to draw as many subscribers as they can to make more money, forum and blog posts about the most beautiful and intriguing structures, there is a group that are the best of the best. And that's only in-game, then there's the modding community... no wonder minecraft is so popular still after 5 years.

Now take a game like Mass Effect 1 (the only one I played). It has a story, a team assembling part, you are rewarded for your prestation by the skill points you can divide on skills, and the best of the best guns you can buy after doing a lot of sideway missions, and it has strong action elements. But you don't really create structure or strive for perfection (to an extend, but it does not change the way you end the game), nor is there a big problem-solving part. Nearly all of the problems are chewed our for you in the mission log: do this, do that. No cognitive thinking required. It is a good game, but less popular than minecraft (especially after 5 years).

Let's compare two types of players:

Why don't call of duty players play sims and vice versa?
Call of Duty is action oriƫnted, sims is not.
Sims contains a very familiar environment, allows creating your home base (literally) and hands you the ability to create structure in the life of your Sim, CoD does not have these drives.
They both have social interaction and prestation and efficiency. The wide range of drives they cover makes them as popular as they are. But generally taken, Sims players dont like action and CoD players don't like the patience to give your Sim a structured and prosper life. They both do lack challenging the player in curiosity and understanding, which is why I don't really like playing either of them.

Human drives

What drives you to do what you do, say what you say and love what you love?

After participating in quite an intense but very motivating team session on Management Drives, I felt rather enlightened. Management Drives visualises human characteristics in 6 colours in a grid; properties like impulsive acting, abstract thinking, groupsbonding and creating structure are evaluated for each person in the team, from which results an order of colours which fits most to your current natural behaviour. There is more in play, but this is to give you an idea.

Being rather skeptical towards labelled boxes and putting people in there(even though I like structure a lot), the character traits that the coach described to each member reminded me more of an astrological reading at the beginning than a fact-based analysis. But as I started to understand the model better, the descriptions became remarkably fitting for every team member.

It is, like every psychological model, a tool to make you aware of the interactions between you and your colleague, a foe and (especially) yourself. I was able to answer questions on why I do the things I do: why do I like to create games that influence people at all? Why do I not have a problem putting my personal feelings in a group, but can get it difficult when someone else does the same? My main drive is to get acceptance from my environment, feeling safe, fits to this behaviour. When I express myself openly and know my colleagues will catch me, that feels safe. But when another colleague express him/herself openly, then a bit of safety falls away, and I play part in creating safety rather than having it. Luckily my drive to bond a group, and give help to people that need it, is also there :).

I am sure I will take this experience with me in the things I do, say, and the way I approach people from now on. Can't stop seeing colors everywhere!

To game or not to game...

Staying on schedule by doing some work now, or admit to your game addiction?

Not everyone find them self capable of following their schedule properly, and prefer to "slack" off doing something else. Under normal circumstances people do not get into immediate trouble when they shift work forward once in a while, but there is a group of people who tend to take slacking too far. They cause trouble for themselves and people who depend on them, causing stress on their colleagues and bringing deadlines in danger. It sounds a bit exaggerated but it happens more than occasionally.

An often heard reason for failing deadlines is "not enough time". What those people probably mean with that is: there was not enough time to be able to bring up motivation. An entertaining approach for reducing slacking from work might be a good way to increase motivation. Some playful way of completing work well on time to keep one on schedule and prevent stress.

I have some experience in shifting work forward, so I took myself as an optional target to start with. I would create a means of motivating myself for doing boring tasks that I would likely shift forward. As a fan of games I got interested in some sort of motivational game that would keep me on track of my schedules. and as a fan of programming I got to work and started prototyping that game.
My final target audience will be: game-addicted people failing to complete their tasks on time. A target-audience specific enough to draw a small relevant group of people to share and test some theories with. I could even use myself as a test subject!

There are some interesting similarities in the world of gaming. One that interested me most is the phenomenon of "grinding" in games. If a player is grinding, it means he is doing a repetitive task for a lengthy time to achieve a certain goal.

For example: the player's hero is killing monsters to gain experience until he reaches the next level. In the gaming world, people do this for days, if not weeks, on end. A lot of time is put into this repetitive task to finally accomplish something to be proud on. So, what is the difference between real-life work and grinding in gaming? What is it that our audience does grind, but not work?

Some potential reasons:

    • The task requires less skill to start in game than the task in real-life does
      The task has a larger motivating factor while executing in game than the task in real-life has
      The task gives a more appealing reward at completion in game than the task in real-life does.
  • If one has the choice between two unfavourite tasks, but one is easier than the other, or the reward is better, the choice is obvious. Sometimes the reason is not even justified in the long run; the joy of gaining a level lasts for a short time, gratitude from colleagues by finishing work well on time can last much longer with better carreer perspective. Yet levelling up is more appealing. For the person taking a choice between task A or B at that moment, the short-term benefits weigh more. Changing that perception of someone is not feasible by any game or technique, it is behaviour that the person need to change himself. One thing we can do with our game is compete on motivation- and reward systems with the game that distracts the user, so the player plays our game instead. If we gain the player's attention, then we can help complete his schedule.

    Below are some gamedesign approaches for stimulating a player to complete his real-life schedule. The examples are superficial to make the basic idea clear.

    progress of the game is directly linked to task completion.
    Example: player inserts list of tasks. When marked as completed player gets play time.
    Advantages: player is motivated to complete tasks before "having dessert", obtaining good habits.
    Disadvantages: user chooses a wrong granularity of tasks (e.g. tasks are split to too much detail), causing unbalanced rewarding.

    The game uses multitasking abilities of the player just enough to prevent distraction but still able to do the task.
    Example: player needs to hold a finger on screen to increase future play time while vacuum cleaning.
    Advantages: player has to vacuum clean in order to play later.
    Disadvantages: requires a versatile set of game-tasks to cover all sorts of real-life tasks. Requires multitasking abilities of the player.

    the game monitors the applications that users are using, rewarding the user with the amount of time spent on applications that belong to tasks.
    Example: player applies applications for work and entertainment. Game monitors time spent on each and calculates future play time.
    Advantages: player has to have his work related applications open, inviting the player more to perform the task.
    Disadvantages: computer-tasks only, leaving applications on without working gives unfair reward.

    To get started with a prototype we need to choose between concepts. Concept 3 cuts the target audience we have somewhat, as not all tasks a user must do are computer related. Household tasks should also be possible. It might be a very effective way for a more specific audience, we keep it in mind as a feature or sequel.
    The second concept is quite some work to implement different actions a player must do for covering all kinds of task operations. Gestures, voice based, memorizing or visual interaction can be used while performing repetitive job tasks.
    The first concept requires the player to have scheduling skills. It is the easiest concept to implement as the balance of reward control is given to the player. For this reason I have chosen that approach to create a first prototype.

    The basic interface layout for adding schedules and tasks is there for Android, and currrently working on the game itself. There are also plans for iPhone and windows mobile, but due to the trouble interface creation gives me for different devices, I went with the easiest way first (as far as my experience goes). Next up: the actual game!