May 30, 2010

The Wild World of Publishing

When I submitted Aurora to reddit, I got several responses suggesting that I publish the game on Steam. Then I got some good feedback from my friends when they were beta testing the game. Yesterday was the seasonal open house for Tiltfactor (where I'm now a Fellow, by the way) and I put Aurora on one of the computers; people were playing it for the entire two hours, getting sucked in the whole while. One of my old professors played for an hour straight.

The upshot of all this is that I'm feeling pretty positive about the prospect of actually trying to sell Aurora. Like, for money. That would be a big first for me. And though I don't stand to make a ton of money, if I found any success at all it would force me to start thinking of myself as a professional game designer rather than just another wannabe.

I've started to lurk in the Indiegamer Developer forums, learning about what it takes to host a decent site, get the word out, set up payment processing, and all the other trivia one must know in order to actually self-publish a game. I can't work on it or sell it while I'm at Bethesda, but before I start work there, I want to set myself up to get started as quickly as possible. I'd love to see someone review the game, and getting it on Steam (maybe, eventually) would be absolutely awesome.

May 19, 2010

Literati: An ARG

Another product of my Values at Play game design class. The assignment was "an ARG for literacy". This is the game brief I turned in:



Literati is an ARG designed to help foster interest in high-level literature in high school students.

The game engages its players through a series of mysterious clues, with answers found in works of literature. By asking players to search for deeper meaning in these works, Literati serves to boost a student's nascent interest in literary analysis.

The Game

Literati begins with an anonymous email to the targeted students that introduces the in-character game masters, who imply that the game is a test of skill for inclusion into a secret and powerful association called the Literati, and includes the starting clue for the players. Players that respond correctly will be directed to a web forum at which they can collaborate on future clues, which are delivered upon satisfactory answering of previous clues.

Early clues are designed to be approachable from multiple angles due to their vagueness. An example starting clue might be:

Sounds. Economy. Visitors. Spring. Reading. Higher Laws.
These have something in common. Read the fifth among them. You're welcome to work with others on this task, but this is not a thing you can find unless you're alone.
Then tell me: How close is my nearest neighbor? What is my panacea? And what do all men fear, despite candles and Christianity?

The clue points to a chapter in Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and the questions are answered by quotes from the fifth chapter. Later clues ask players to engage in analysis or deep engagement with a text. An example of such a later clue might be:

Follow the white whale to the pitiable scrivener I spoke of before. Then tell me: what caused his death?

This clue points towards Herman Melville's short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street”. It asks a specific question about a deliberately ambiguous element of the story. To proceed, players must collaborate and respond with a meaningful analysis. If judged by the game master (probably the students' teachers) to be sufficiently thoughtful, the clue is considered “solved” and the next clue is given, although even in this success scenario the game master may choose to challenge the analysis given by the players.

Why It's Fun

This game hides its nature as an academic exercise, instead adopting exciting conspiratorial tones. By doing this, the game can move past students' biases against academic tasks and tap into the traditional fun of its elements of riddle and mystery.

How it Educates

The fundamental appeal of Literati is the same fundamental appeal of riddles, treasure hunts, and whodunit mysteries. The game hints at a hidden meaning in the world around us and invites players to find it.

The educational “trick” of the game is in its subtle transition from simple clues and riddles (like tracking down a passage and finding relevant quotes) to actual analysis of literature. The game implies that there are messages purposefully hidden and encoded in the texts for the players to find. When players dig through the texts to find these hidden messages, they will instead find the natural layers of interpretation and meaning that are a part of any rich text. “Solving” a piece of literature in the game (a fun task in the context of an ARG) is revealed to be the same thing as reading and analyzing it. Literati can thereby show students the appeal of literature from the point of view of the students themselves.

Problems and Challenges

The aforementioned “trick” of Literati may also be considered its biggest liability. The game's educational strategy is one of baiting the player with riddles and hidden meaning and switching to regular literary analysis and interpretation. If successful, this could create an impression in the player's mind that all literature exists to be “solved”. Texts might not be trusted at face value, and students might go on to try to find contrived alternative explanations for their own sake. That is, Literati attempts to turn the interpretation of literature into a game, and whether or not that is an admirable goal is debatable.

Freedom at last

Aurora was originally inspired by Dyson (now Eufloria), but I wanted to make a game in which the player didn't feel constrained to narrow paths and specified points of conflict. Unfortunately, defined paths are a pretty key part of terrain (and, therefore, strategy). I tried to compromise by offering free movement within a certain radius of any player-owned base, but set out the bases such that progression through a level had to follow certain paths.

I recently submitted Aurora to for comments. The responses I got ranged from utterly unimpressed to highly supportive. More importantly, there were a lot of good suggestions, one of which was to remove the radius movement limitation. After some experimentation, it's become clear that tethering players to their bases is really unnecessary. The gameplay and AI are advanced enough that skipping over bases during an attack is no longer game-breaking, but instead just an interesting gambit.

So, by commenting out a bunch of code (and improving performance as a bonus), the game actually becomes more fun and closer to the original vision! How often does it all come together like that?