Sunday, March 11, 2007

User Experience in Educational Multiplayer Games – A Case Study of Global Countdown

Global Countdown is a hugely successful multiplayer educational game commissioned by Telenor in Norway and developed by Rayon, Hybris and Thue & Selvaag. It has been deployed in five different locations in Norway and will soon open in Islamabad, Pakistan. The game teaches teens that visit Telenor about information technology and communication.

The game is an installation that takes up a fairly large room. The room consists of a big screen, one game master PC, 4 president Tablet PCs, 4 group big screens, 8 Advisor Tablet PCs and 12 PDAs. With that kind of hardware a whole school class can play at one time. A game lasts two to three hours and involve up to 24 people.

The concept behind the game is quite simple. The players are divided into four groups that represent the four regions of the world. Each group selects their president that will sit on the central negotiation table. The rest of the group is advisors, with the head advisor in contact with the president through video and audio communication. All players have access to chat, e-mail, address book and other applications through their tablet-PCs or PDAs. The presidents will negotiate with each other to reach consensus through five rounds of questions. While they negotiate, the story moves on and the advisors are bombarded with information from different sources in the form of e-mail, video calls, phone calls and chat messages. If the advisors don’t manage to filter and trust the relevant information to their president they are going to be at a disadvantage when negotiating.

The story is about the increasing environmental problems in the world. The four regions have sent the nuclear powered icebreaker Artica to the North Pole to conduct studies and negotiate a climate treaty. But just as soon as the game starts, the story starts to twist. A crewmember is found dead, oil is found, a ship is in need of assistance and the fusion reactor starts acting up. Quickly, the situation changes from minute to minute, all while the players are required to solve the situation to their regions best interest.

To me, the most interesting aspect about this game is the experience it creates. There are unique opportunities when creating something like this:

You control the room, the sound, the hardware, the esthetics of the interior, and the behavior of the game master. Use that to create an immersive experience. Every single detail has to be there to create the illusion of being inside the game. Create suspension of disbelief.

You certainly do not control the players; let them create content, subplots, action and suspense. The story is just there to facilitate cooperation, competition and conflict between them. Do not let the story become the focal point, but let it become the framework. Experiences is all about emotion and emotion between people can be much more powerful than emotion between player and game.

Skills matter, not knowledge
With immersive game experiences you have a unique opportunity to create situations that test skills and not knowledge. The inter-personal skills, speaking in groups, negotiation, information filtering, speed reading, netiquette, information technology and calmness under pressure. The game should put the players in a situation where it is necessary to use skills and not knowledge to master the situation.

Let the players be in control. The players are not spectators; they are participants in the game. Embrace the uncertainty of the human factor and lead the players into situations where the human factor can contribute. Do not include elements that take away control from the players, like “hand of god” or railroading techniques. These kinds of techniques will limit the effort they are willing to invest. Your greatest tool for creating the experience is the players.

Learn by doing
Do not require the players to be thought the game before they start. Let the game teach them. If they have to find out how things work and teach each other during the game it will only heighten suspense and facilitate cooperation.

The game is going to be played only one time, so the rules of the game have to be simple and intuitive. It should be challenging, but not impossible to grasp and master the game in a short time span. Keep the rules simple, but the experience complex.

When creating games, if it is a board game or a massive multiplayer game, you have to create a playing field and rules. The rules of the game have to be consistent and fair. Read up on game theory. The rules also have to be logical, but they do not need to be explicit. People have a remarkable ability to spot patterns unconsciously. If you break the rules, the experience will feel like “something is not right.”

Re-use story elements
When writing an interactive story that are going to be played one time you can re-use a lot of scenes across different paths of the story. Think of the story not as a tree that branches, creating a story that so huge that the cost is going to be astronomical. Think of it as a hay ball, where a number of different paths through the story can touch the same scenes.

Use your strengths
You are not going to have the same budget as the developers of console games. You can’t compete against Halo or Gears of War when it comes to graphics. Avoid using the same graphical style as regular video games. Differentiate yourself from that kind of competition. Use video or illustration, use immersion, and use the players to create a game that will never be possible to recreate in somebody’s living room.

These unique opportunities are all answered to some degree in Global Countdown, and has created a successful game, from an educational standpoint as well as successful in the experience it creates.


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