Friday, October 16, 2009

First Test of Prototype Game Level - Paper Version

As part of their midterm, students in the intermediate conversational German course tested what they had developed so far today in class. Over the past few weeks, students in this course have been researching assigned identities for the NPCs in order to develop more realistic depth of character. I am hoping that this research will result in more carefully articulated characters instead of typical German stereotypes and that students' work in small groups will help them to formulate connections between their NPCs that will, in turn, create more authentic gameplay. Research consisted of using available library resources, databases, and online materials to flesh out the sociocultural backgrounds of the NPCs more fully and the dialogue they developed based on this research was to be augmented by our class discussions of our weekly reading topics (e.g., East-West German relations 20 years after the fall of the Wall).

Students came to class today armed with their dialogue on 3 x 5 index cards and were provided prototype evaluations sheets to evaluate how the gameplay functioned. It seemed to me that this testing and evaluation was a critical part of the entire development process as students finally understood how their individual components fit into the big picture. A paper-based walk-though is standard operating procedure in many game designs studios early in the development process. I found this procedure difficult to fit into the academic calendar, however, thinking that it would perhaps be akin to midterm testing. I will have to think more carefully of how to apply external design assessment models in an academic setting in the future.

Below are the comments (verbatim) provided by the student prototype testers and their respective questions:

1. What seemed to work particularly well with the prototype test?

  • Using ideas in class with my character's conversation, mostly of unemployment and discrimination.
  • General game will work well when finished.
  • Getting food and money.
  • The individual conversations.
  • The character stories that we worked on.
  • Some cards led the player to his objective well / were appropriately complex.
  • It flowed within each person's cards, but not as a whole.
  • When we all sat here together it seemed to come together more easily, when we met out of class is was all unclear, also since we finished our cards we realized the missing connections.

2. What did not work so well with the prototype test?

  • We all didn't realize how crucial the connectors were so it was more individualistic I think.
  • Everyone did not really know what was going on. It was unclear.
  • No one was sure which objectives to do or how to lead the players to certain objectives; we didn't know who the player was; some cards were not so conversational; some information about the objectives was contradictory between different NSCs.
  • Connecting goals in a realistic way.
  • Relationships / interactions between people.
  • Finding some objectives.
  • It would have been nice to know the background of the player beforehand. Should coordinate our cards better.
  • Weaving other characters into my conversation.

3. Were there any moments when gameplay seemed to lag? What will you do to correct this in the next design iteration?

  • Throughout later note cards, it was hard to find conclusions to the conversation.
  • When there were dead ends. Not all goals were addressed. Mine was too involved.
  • Just from uncertainty on how to play.
  • The interaction and relationships between the characters.
  • It was hard to find a person who had a branch to a specific objective. Sometimes you can talk to a person for 5 minutes only to get the same objectives that you just got. We have to have more interconnections.
  • Some cards were too conversational and not enough about the objectives -> include more references to objectives or other NSCs who can help with the objectives.
  • Yes, it was because it was the first run through I think if we all had see what others had done before it would be more clear.
  • Only when there was a dead end and no connection.

4. Were there any challenges that were particularly easy to solve? Or too difficult? What will you do to correct this in the next design iteration?

  • Some answers went directly to the goals too easily.
  • Getting food, almost everyone could lead there.
  • Some cards made the answers to the objectives too easy -> hide the answers under a few more layers of conversation.
  • Geldautomat and Döner were easy. Telefonkarte was hard. We just have to keep working to connect all 6 objectives.
  • Geldautomat was too easy (lead player along more).
  • Too difficult: Telefonekarte, Untergang. We will correct by having people actually lead to these objectives.
  • Mine were too long and involved. Others seemed to be fine.
  • Figuring out order and connections between each card.

5. What are you going to do in the next design iteration in terms of character development?

  • Research more the other characters, integrate them into my conversation.
  • Go more into depth, maybe throw in some "Easter eggs," More clues.
  • Incorporate other players more.
  • Do more than just give the answer right away. Create more relationships with other characters. Help lead to most / all of the objectives.
  • I am going to connect more other players and have a way to reach all 6 goals from my character.
  • Write the part of a player for an American journalist; reference/lead the player to others who can help with each objective; more information about my character in the dialogue and more the objectives a little harder to achieve; reference class topics / current events when possible.
  • Mention other objectives, add in "is there something I can help you with"
  • More connections with other characters, not leading to a dead end right off the bat. For me: Zeitungen.

So, to summarize: It seems that students will need to work more carefully on how to weave their dialogues into a cohesive whole that can lead the player along specific challenge paths, but without being blatantly obvious so that gameplay becomes predictable and boring. Also: the students will have to figure out how to incorporate game objectives into their dialogue in a manner that seems to occur naturally and conversationally. As for many of the students the game seemed to "come together" for the first time only during the prototype testing phase, this is something that needs to happen sooner in the semester, rather than later. Here are some images from today's prototype test:



Left to right: Elizabeth Leman and Matt Trucksess figuring out points of connection between their characters. Elizabeth's character is an apprentice auto mechanic by Volkswagen, trying to help the player, a rookie reporter from the USA, navigate the intricacies of the German pedestrian zone.


Left to right: Christine Mader, John Lesko, and Matt Trucksess hammer out the details of their game components. Christine's character wants to have a smoking ban in Germany.

On other fronts, I am still working on my submission to L2 Journal and I will probably hold off all 3D mesh and texturing development until this article is behind me. Once I have that done, I will be working almost exclusively on the game and getting up-to-speed with Blender (and Python).

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