David A. Gladish

My professional info, level design quest log, and game-related editorials.

Clash of Clans Part II

I have a few things to say about Clash of Clans. About 6 months ago, I had completely stopped playing it. It wasn’t due to the rant about in-app purchases I had in my last editorial. I actually had a change-of-heart about a lot of the things I said last time. As a designer trying to get a job in the game industry, I now see the benefits of GET games and in-app purchases. No, I quit playing Clash of Clans because, at Town Hall Level 8, the game got tedious and frustrating.

A student of mine got me back into it. He was about to lap me on Town Hall Level 9, and I couldn’t let that happen. Now I have a Clan with some of my old friends from college. We just started a couple of weeks ago, so it’s been fun teaching them how to play. I can also donate them ridiculously overpowered troops to defend their tiny level 3 bases. The social aspect of the game has rekindled my interest.

On in-app purchases, I read quite a few articles that have highlighted the temporary nature of game design jobs. Usually a designer works on a project and then the studio shuts down or works on another game. So companies downsize and job retention is low. In-app purchases keep studios open, keep designers employed, and keep updates rolling out to improve gameplay. There are quite a few benefits to this system. For gamers, it means that we continue to get new content and improved functionality. Before, games were just one-shots or sequels. Now games are becoming an eternal format. We don’t need Clash of Clans II: The Remix when Supercell can keep grinding out improvements for the original. For some games that cost upwards of $80, this means we don’t have to ever buy it again…maybe.

There are still some drawbacks to this system, but the idea of eternally valid programs and perpetual web updates is very new. I am still getting used to paying a monthly fee for Adobe Creative Suite, for example. But, I’m so glad I don’t have to buy the full version of Adobe Photoshop all at once again. And the program only gets better and more intuitive with every update.

Where was I? Oh yes, Clash of Clans. I just started playing the game again right in the midst of the first Clash of Clans convention and a giant, ominous content update–one of those awesome things that are keeping games eternally valid. This one is called The Town Hall 11 Update.

It’s been particularly interesting for me to follow as a level designer. I’m very interested in the decision-making process behind all the new roll-outs. All the articles and videos and interviews I’ve watched are pretty convoluted, vague, and potentially difficult to understand as a simple gamer. Or at least, they’re very high on methodology and very confusing as to how we will have to adapt when the game changes.

The Problems

As the game is now, Town Hall levels 1-6 are pretty straightforward. They’re well-balanced, fun, and great at teaching the mechanics of play and how to exist and adapt in the game environment. It’s also pretty easy to disconnect, or play for hours depending on your mood.

Once you get to Town Hall 7, it gets more tedious and slow and repetitive. The game seems less fair, more strict, and more time-consuming. The build times on everything are crazy long. You can’t just play the game anymore. Something as simple as a wall upgrades instantly (as long as you have a free builder) but costs half a million gold or more. Multiply this by 100 walls and it can take an eternity. Then there’s building and troop upgrades. Building an X-Bow took a week. Then it took a second week to upgrade it. So I had to wait 2 weeks before I could even use it. The build times are something you get used to, even the costs. It’s a time-based game.

But, the biggest problem is cost. Everything gets exponentially more expensive at higher levels. That’s natural. But, to upgrade (for example) a level 5 archer to a level 6 archer in your Laboratory is 6,000,000 elixir. Over the last week, I have been attacking to my base’s maximum potential and regularly. I’m able to get about 300,000 elixir per attack, maximum. Which means I need to complete 20 successful attacks to raise the funds. But the training cost of troops to achieve these rewards is about 150,000 elixir per attack (not including spells). That means I have to complete twice as many (about 40) successful attacks to raise enough funds. Without the aid of green gems (which cost money, but boost building times), it can take an hour to train the required troops.

Here’s the real problem. Say I’ve got 2 hours of play time after work. That means I can attack and train my troops about 3 times. If I’m perfect every attack, I’ll clear close to 1,000,000 elixir gross. Minus my troop costs, it’s only about 550,000 net. I log off for the night with my shield expired. I get attacked immediately after that (usually within 5min) by a level 10 player who absolutely decimates my base, yielding her 350,000 of my hard-earned elixir. Then 12 hours later, while I’m at work, I get attacked again by another ridiculously strong opponent who nabs 300,000 elixir. My shield is now active for another 12 hours, but I have actually lost 100,000 elixir more than I started with the night before. That’s a crappy situation to get off work to.

That’s a usual day in my Clash of Clans experience. In fact, I even spent 60 green gems to boost my barracks and barbarian & archer queen for two hours last night. I still only managed to clear 1.5 million elixir and lost 1 million of it overnight. It basically makes the game impossible to progress at unless I play it once every 12 hours for at least 2 hours non-stop (as soon as you log off, you’ll get attacked). That’s why I quit.

This is an obvious design flaw. It’s not very balanced for the mid-level players and discourages replay. I still like the game, but I’m not motivated to try and level my base and troops anymore, nor am I excited about attacking other bases. The only way to avoid these crushing losses is to put your Town Hall in plain sight, unprotected for a trophy farmer to pick up. They’ll only drop a few troops, steal a few trophies, and leave you with your loot intact and an 8-hour shield.

The Solutions

Thank the makers for the massive Town Hall 11 update. They have done some ingenious planning to give us a more balanced experience, while adding replay value and new elements to strive for. The game has such a massive following that no matter how good the update is, there will be a lot of bitching in the forums. I’ll list the changes in the update and how we will actually play the game after it.

Attack Through Shield

What’s that?

You can attack while your shield is active without (completely) removing it.

So how will this affect gameplay?

Now your shield clock is a resource. You have to spend it in bits to attack (3 hours for one). I have to be attacked in order to get it back. Or buy it with green gems.

What’s this gonna do to me?

For those of us playing the game now, it means we don’t have to worry about turning off our device in between the first couple of attacks. As long as there’s some time left, you can log back in and attack again. It also means that there will be roughly 3x more people attacking at any time because they’re not afraid of losing their shields, and 3x fewer people to attack because their shields are still up.

Automatic Logoff “Personal Break”

What’s that?

The game will kick you out if you’ve been playing too long.

So how will this affect gameplay?

You can’t play longer than a few hours, and you can’t have an infinite shield by never shutting off your device.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You just gotta take a 6 minute break every once in a while. But, finally all those people who have avoided getting attacked by cheating will feel the PAIN.

Village Guard

What’s that?

You get a little extra time, based on your league rank (trophies) as a shield “safety net” that kicks in when you activate it (even while logged out).

So how will this affect gameplay?

You’ll be tweaking the timing of your attacks and your village guard to maximize the time you’re protected from others and minimize the time you’re vulnerable.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You can stop playing long enough to eat dinner and talk to your family/take a pee break without getting attacked. (depending on your rank or wallet)

Town Hall Loot

What’s changed?

There’s more gold, elixir, and dark elixir stored in your Town Hall.

So how will this affect gameplay?

There’s now 20x more loot inside your Town Hall. It’s still not a lot for higher level players to spend. But anyone who doesn’t protect it better can guarantee they will get attacked more.

What’s this gonna do to me?

If you see a base with an exposed Town Hall, attack it! You’ll probably get some decent loot, even if you don’t get trophies or a high damage percentage. Oh, and be sure to hide your own very well.

No more Trophy Farming/Shield Farming

What’s that?

In the past, you could find a vulnerable Town Hall, destroy it with a single archer, and get one star, a handful of trophies, 1,000 elixir and gold, and your full league bonus rewards. Likewise, people would intentionally put their base in an easy place to promote this kind of an attack. The defender only loses 1,000 gold and elixir, but gets an 8-hour shield.

So how will this affect gameplay?

You can still do this, but now there’s 20x more loot to be gained/lost in your Town Hall. The attacker gets no trophies or bonus. The defender gets no shield. More bases will reflect this change visually and be harder to attack.

What’s this gonna do to me?

Your new goal is to hit 70% damage on every base you attack. You get the maximum bonus reward (which has doubled), two stars,  and trophies…well those are dependent on your opponent’s rank compared to your own. Rank is no longer about quantity, but quality of attacks/opponents.

New Stuff!

What’s new?

Town Hall Level 11.

Grand Warden Hero.

Wizard Tower Level 9.

Storages Level 12.

Witch Level 3.

Minion Level 7.

Freeze Spell.

Eagle Artillery.

Larger Village Space.

Spell Donation.

So how will this affect gameplay?

For lower level players, not much. If you’ve maxed out the game, this will give you more to do and hopefully make the game stretch a bit longer.

What’s this gonna do to me?

You’ll see lots of cool new stuff. Hopefully you’ll get to use some of it. I personally like that a lot of the new stuff has a “lighter” motif than the current black and spikes and lava. The biggest changes will probably be in Clan Wars. Basically, it’ll be harder to cheat and more difficult to succeed at attack and defense. It remains to be seen what the best ways to earn the most loot will be.

Sploder Arcade Creator

sploderarticleheader

My wife is also a teacher in Japan. As part of her job, she teaches IT class to fourth, fifth and sixth graders twice a month and is often looking for unique ways to engage the students. What better way than through game design?

She turned me on to a web based game developer called Sploder. Her students have been building games in the ‘Arcade Creator’ for a few weeks. Apparently her students LOVED it and made some pretty unique games. So, I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s amazingly simple and limited, but I actually find that refreshing after drowning in more complex editing programs for the past few years. It’s a great way for a seasoned designer to step back and focus on optimizing a ‘fun and playable’ type of game in a not-so-adaptable medium. I’ve found it rather challenging.

There aren’t many tutorials for it so far. Thus, I reverted to the ‘tinker and test’ method of learning a new program. Luckily the editor makes it simple to push play and quickly test what you’ve created for iteration and debugging. The actual gameplay and physics are clunky, but it’s beautiful because everyone who uses the Arcade Creator is limited to the same set of odd assets and wonky characters. It’s more what you do with them and how you arrange them to make an engaging game that’s important.

It works a lot like Mario Maker. Obviously the assets are changed enough to avoid a lawsuit, but the grid palette and drag-and-drop system are pretty much the same. Immediately, I found it necessary to learn what all the items do to form some kind of cohesive game narrative.

The three motifs: Forest, Cave, or Tech

Let’s start with the classic: Forest. The landscapes are pretty much what you’d expect. Grass, trees, dirt. But I immediately gravitated towards water, spouts, lava, spiked platforms, and mushroom/flower triggers. These made awesome assets for a fun side scroller. Any time death is imminent, I find my gamer juices flow faster.

So, I played around with the mushroom triggers to control the death-bringing assets. The mushrooms are timed, so you can create some killer puzzles. The wonky physics make it even more killer-literally.

The link logic system is simple, but becomes complex because it’s visual: right there in your level palette. If the puzzles become too comfortable lex, the screen becomes a mess of blue link lines. It makes deletion and editing quite cumbersome. After creating three or four simple puzzles, I noticed I was using mushrooms rather often. So, I strung them together and called the game “Mushroom Kingdom.”

Now, there are a ridiculous number of weird items. Things like coins and necklaces, blue orbs and red apples, blue hearts and silver coins. The learning process was lengthy enough for me, that I knew my audience would be lost unless each stage slowly introduced them. The narrative required situations to use the items, and NPCs to the explain the finer points. For example, there’s a carrot. Sometimes I can pick it up, but sometimes I can’t. So I placed an evil rabbit that will give me information if I collect them. He can’t do it himself because you have to be injured in order to get them. They give you back a tiny bit of health, but the sadistic rabbit wants to watch me suffer and hurt myself on purpose. Sweet, delicious suffering. As you collect carrots, he teaches you about mushroom triggers, flowers, collectibles, health, magic, energy and upgrades.

The best thing I learned from on my time in Sploder is that a small set of assets can be used to create a very engaging game. Also, I got some great practice for designing a gradual leveled tutorial right into my game story. With each new screen and success, they played increases their knowledge and uses what they’ve learned to overcome more difficult challenges. I haven’t had time to play around with the cave and tech environments yet. But I hear there’s new monsters and teleports!

After playing with Sploder for a week, my wife informed me that it’s a kid’s program. So I asked how her kids handled the link logic. Apparently none of them figured it out yet. I guess I’ll have to teach her so she can pass the knowledge along. I’ll be interested to see their final IT projects. I can’t stay a kid forever, but I wish these tools were available to me back in the 80’s. Now it’s time for me to get back to a more adult program.

[Fin.]

Question Quest and the Art of Gamifying Education

questionquestheader

I live in Japan, and one of the only full-time employment opportunities for foreigners is teaching English. So, I became an assistant language teacher, or ALT. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. And it’s taken time away from making the games and mods I’m used to. But in the process, I’ve had to create educational games, worksheets and gamified activities for students to build their skills in the classroom, while keeping them engaged. It’s excellent practice for game design.

Right now the trend in ESL/EFL instruction in Japan is changing. In the past it has been really popular for ALT’s to be a sort of game master: always in charge of preparing games for students to play. More recently, we’ve found ways of combining them with a particular grammar point they’ve covered in the textbook. These games include things like Go Fish and Crazy Eights. I’ve also done variations on Battleship, Jeopardy, Uno, Guess Who, Bingo, and a slough of other games. Teachers like them because the kids aren’t bored, but they’re using the grammar. Students like them because they get to do something fun in class with their friends that doesn’t involve listening to a teacher blab on for an hour. But, the educational community is becoming increasingly anti-game in the classroom.

Why doesn’t academia like games? There are a few reasons.

First, most popular games are (at their core) anti-educational. They are based on the premise that you play them to compete and win. To escape real life. To do things that are taboo, unacceptable, or completely impossible in the real world. The majority of the most popular games of the past couple of years are won by killing and stealing things (Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Grand Theft Auto 5). The rest, aside from two or three, are won by exploring an impossible fantasy world with an unrealistic or fictional character (Final Fantasy XIV, BioShock Infinite, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).  If you notice, every one of these games is a sequel: a testament to the popularity of their genre. The acts of killing and stealing are not in line with current morality education even if they are fun because we SHOULDN’T do them in real life. Moreover, the fantastical settings are engaging because we CAN’T go there in real life. Those things are only done for entertainment.

Second, games require an investment of time and money. The teacher has to take the time to teach the rules of a game, and hope that all the students (regardless of level) understand and can perform. For more complex games, this can take away from the time they are actually able to learn the target information. Also, games require materials. Sometimes those materials are expensive and/or can’t be changed to fit a particular lesson unless they’re hand-made. Ten Uno decks per class per school adds up quickly. Administrators may not be keen on the idea of budgeting money for games and teachers don’t have time to design, create, and implement a new game for every lesson.

Third, research shows that the retention rate of information through game-taught methods of learning is the same as lecturing, around 20%. This is quite low when compared to task-based learning, 60%, and self-directed study, 80%, and teaching the material to someone else, 90%. (I took these figures from a lecture by a professor at Fukuoka University which I saw recently.) Of course we want students to retain information. This signifies to me that the games are being used improperly in the classroom: 1) by a lazy teacher to only occupy students, 2) to take the place of introducing new information, 3) to do something other than express practice of what they’ve already studied. The other problem might be that the games used for this research were ineffective examples of “gamified activities for retaining information.” What does UNO really teach? A) How to have group conversation? B) How to use colors and numbers? C) Nothing. It’s just a game of random chance to pass time. The last and potentially most important correlation to the above percentages is that students retain more information the more responsibility they are given to direct their own learning. This can only be achieved through motivation, goals, and tasks. This is where game design becomes very important.

Fourth, students become more invested in winning a game than succeeding at the language. Students will perfect a strategy of using the required words or phrases to gain points, minimize their real understanding of those words or phrases, and sacrifice any genuine input or original thought for efficiency. A friend of mine giving a seminar on gamification said it best,

“Students will always take the path of least resistance. Design your games in a way that encourages them to be creative without cutting corners. They will always spot and exploit your game’s flaws and use them to their advantage. A game that is both fun and challenging will create perpetual motivation. It’s our job to make that happen while still cramming all the essential knowledge we can into it as well. We must essentially trick our students into learning.”

As designers, we have to be diligent in achieving a seamless duality between motivation and knowledge retention/application. Some games tend to take the language out of its context and place it where it can be used solely for entertainment. It’s like giving a kid a hammer and telling them to hit as many nails into a board as they can in one hour. Now they know how to build a house, right?

I just did a lesson on gerunds and we played Battleship. The grid was made up of six rows and six columns. Each row had a question starter, such as “Do you like~.” Each column had an object in present simple tense, such as “play tennis.” Player one would ask “Do you like playing tennis?” (changing the grammar to use a gerund) Player two would respond “Yes, I do like playing tennis.” if their ship occupied that square, or “No, I don’t like playing tennis.” if their ship wasn’t there. The game was good for pattern practice, and the students were engaged in the activity, but what did they actually learn? Can they understand what it means to “enjoy making lunch”? Do they know in what context in real life they would ever say “I started studying English.”? If I ask them in a week to make a gerund sentence using “finish” and “brush my teeth” will they be able to do it? But can they sink their opponent’s imaginary ship on a grid by connecting two phrases: yes.

Where games do succeed is at their ability to portray amazing narratives filled with artistic creativity and task-based problem-solving. They are already engaging, so kids won’t need convincing. It’s adults who need the convincing. I believe that with the proper design, these aspects of games can be utilized for effective education. But, in order to succeed, there will  be a lot of convincing to show theorists that a game can be student-centered, focus on cooperation and healthy competition, use conversation in a meaningful, genuine way that promotes original ideas, and provide situational context so that the students will remember how to use the grammar and apply it in real life.

That’s where Question Quest enters the picture.

Question Quest is a card game specifically designed for teaching EFL and promoting conversational English. I was recently introduced to the creator of Question Quest, Sean Anderson. He is also the founder of Quest Maker Media, a small group of developers devoted to modernizing the way we teach English and making language learning thrilling. QMM is made up of a linguist, a designer, and an illustrator. What they have created is a game that pushes the boundaries of what a game can do educationally. It really does effectively bridge the gap between entertainment and learning and provides the best proof I’ve ever seen that a game can facilitate language learning.

I’ve always been interested in creating a game for myself to learn Japanese. I am a great visual learner, but a terrible book studier. In school, I honestly believe that playing games like Number Muncher and Word Muncher improved my mental computation and spelling skills more than reading and writing in class. The only thing I’ve found to do this for Japanese is a one-man programmed RPG computer game called Slime Forest. He had the right idea, but the RPG format and simple pixel graphics made it boring. I still had to read all the dialogue, and not being able to progress in the game (“Who do I have to talk to to finish this quest??”) hindered my ability to progress at the language.

Language requires two people. That’s why Question Quest succeeds where Slime Forest failed. Format. A multi-player card game is a much better format than a single-player computer RPG for language practice. Group games fundamentally require conversation, whether it’s haggling over a property in Monopoly or strategizing over how to beat the traitor in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. But QQ cannot substitute for introductory learning of new words or grammar, and it requires a judge (teacher) to monitor the game and make sure it’s being played correctly and fairly. Although, once the students become familiar with how the game is played, they can judge one another. So, to succeed, QQ still requires classroom grammar lessons and introductory materials.

To see how the game is played, watch their YouTube videos.

It’s really easy to come in and view a work and critique it, then find the flaws once it has been made. It’s another thing to try and make it perfectly the first time around. But Question Quest isn’t perfect. So I’d like to point out a few of my observations on the game. I have yet to actually play it, so most of this comes from a very limited knowledge of its gameplay and from the conversation I had with Sean.

First, how is this useful to teachers?

The easy answer is that is does the job for them, mostly. It puts the language practice in the hands of the students, literally. One deck can easily supply a group (2-6 players) with language content and keep them busy for a full class period. It reinforces basic English grammar and dialogue, and introduces some new words and concepts that might require them to self-study a bit. It’s a bit task-based, even though students aren’t necessarily working together to win or achieve a goal. But language strategy and temporary alliances can be formed to achieve small personal goals. It is well designed, full-color, illustrated, easy to use, and has fun characters: all which make it more interesting for students. It can be altered by taking out higher or lower level cards to meet the needs of different learners. Adaptability is very important for multiple skill levels and difficulty progression. It’s not a substitute for normal lessons, but it’s a good way to have a regular practice/ or a solid review activity.

Second, does it really help with English education?

It gets students speaking to each other in English. Japanese students, especially, are painfully shy and constantly worried about making mistakes. Language is all about making mistakes. It’s the outgoing ones who really excel at this. (They tend to be the lower academic level students.) Question Quest requires conversation solely in English with question and response dialogue. Even the shy students must participate to succeed at the game. But, the outgoing students must perfect their grammar in order to excel. Talking to one another in small groups makes the students less nervous to perform. The cards in Question Quest also include the basic foundational grammar forms required for inquisitive communication. Interrogatives, modals, and helping verbs are a fundamental part to each round of the game–the responses to which require original and genuine answers within the format and guidelines of the initial question. This requires critical thinking, which is key to education.

Third, is the game well designed?

The art is beautiful. I think that is the key to getting a wider audience interested in the game. Most people can appreciate craftsmanship. The illustrator for Question Quest has created six original characters engaged in very well crafted images to describe the question/answer pairs written on each card. They are reminiscent of taro cards, Japanese manga, Magic the Gathering cards, and build your own adventure books. It immerses the players in an East-meets-West fusion of medieval fantasy and culture. The design of the cards is also very high quality. Quest Maker Media’s graphic designer did a stellar job of arranging the cards so the major items are clear and hierarchical by importance. Great care was taken when drafting each question, as well. The cards provide specific examples in very small font at the bottom as a cheat-sheet to help the questioner draft their own original questions or identify any problems in the other player’s response. Now let’s get into game mechanics.

There are many potential road blocks. First of all, the object of the game is to get points. The higher points the card is, the more difficult the question and the better your chances of stumping your partner. How will this affect a conversation between a half-Filipino student with an English-speaking father and a full Japanese student with no exposure to English outside the classroom? Won’t the first student have a better chance of winning every time?

How do you get points and eventually win? Your conversation partner must fail or make mistakes. That’s how you win. Or you can interrupt someone else’s conversation and win. Wait…is this the way English conversation works? Kind of. But do we really want to punish students who try and make minor mistakes and reward students who just interrupt a conversation? Seems anti-motivational for the slower learners and motivational for the extroverted students to use rude behavior. But, that’s the exact nature of debate.

If you think about it from a debate standpoint, which is the sport of interactive argument and persuasion, you do want to strategically stump your partner into a standstill with the clever use of language. But is it a genuine interaction between interested parties who are trying to gain a deeper understanding of one another through conversation? Not really. Although, to be able to use language in debate does illustrate a more sophisticated grasp of it. That happens a bit by accident as the game is played, once the right questions are asked and answered, and if the students are invested enough to remember or understand each other’s answers. But perhaps after repeated use of this game mechanic, students will learn that it can be done in real life, as well.

If you haven’t watched the gameplay videos on YouTube by now, you’re probably a bit lost. Well, go back and watch them now! What are you waiting for?

Final Thoughts:

Question Quest isn’t perfect, but it’s the best attempt I’ve ever seen to gamify language learning. Let’s remember this phrase from now on because it is becoming vernacular in education: gamification. Language learning is also driven by an interest in culture. If I didn’t have an interest in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t have an interest in learning Japanese. My love of anime, games, ukyo-e prints, Edo period design and aesthetics, sushi, cute characters, and travel enhances my motivation for learning one of the most difficult, confusing, time-consuming and opposite languages to English in the world. Likewise, a game must also be culturally immersive. Language and culture are entwined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we find beautiful, the gestures we use when we emote, and the situations we react to positively and negatively. Think of the differences in these categories as they relate to 16th century Italian Renaissance language vs. 18th century Japanese language.

Gamification is not respected in formal education because it is seen as childish, anti-educational, immoral, and for entertainment purposes. Desire for educators to remove games increases as learners’ age and skill increases. But the validity of gamifying activities still remains.

I think it is essential for language learning at all skill levels. Gamifying the use and repitition of conversation (in the right way) can provide students with motivation, situational context, cultural awareness, retention, and positive cognitive responses to an otherwise boring, difficult, and anxiety-enducing language lesson. Roleplaying is necessary to provide context for language when it is impossible in the primary country. I can’t take my whole class to the supermarket and expect them to shop in English with a Japanese store worker. But, my Harry Potter Hogwarts School Shopping roleplaying game allows us to do it right there in the classroom.

“Games” also give clear tiered levels for students to achieve. Learners need to visualize their progress and be rewarded for using language properly. It is difficult to quantify someone’s grasp of a language over time otherwise. And games can be more interactive, team-building, goal-oriented, and culturally immersive than tests. They display a learner’s critical, real-time thought and creative problem solving skills where tests only represent a learner’s ability to memorize facts. Gamified language activities also allow for variation and improvisation where tests are inflexible and require one, precise solution.

I’ve been working on a large-scale gamified motivation and reward system for a month now. I plan on unveiling it here as I implement it at school. It puts into practice many of the points I discuss here as it relates to Question Quest and the art of gamifying education. Look forward to it in my next post.

[End]

Love & Hate & Free-To-Play Time Based Strategy Games with Micro Transactions

That title is a mouthful. Let’s break it down a little. First, I want to talk about one of my favorite App games: Clash of Clans. I want to talk about it because I both love and hate it. I’ve played it to death, so I have some experience grinding through all the little nuances.

clashofclansheader

Why do I love it? Well, it’s free. It’s really well-programmed. The graphics are crisp and stylish. And building and destroying bases is really fun with your friends in a clan. That said, the game is potentially ruining modern games for independent designers–and ruining mobile and app gaming in general, putting profit over playability. First, it’s free to play.

What? It’s free! Awesome! This company must be a bunch of suckers, right? Well, it ain’t such a big deal for a big company like Supercell in Helsinki, Finland.

They have a lot of things most indie designers don’t have, namely a $12 million investor. But also, they have a big server, a giant advertising campaign, and a team that can crank out lots of new content and tons of updates to breathe new life into the game as it ages. They make their money back on a relatively new concept called micro-transactions. A free game like Clash of Clans looks a lot more appealing to the casual App-Store surfer than the indie designer’s $0.99 game.

Patience is a virtue some gamers possess if they are grinding–repeating a task over and over again to gain a skill or item. But many gamers have zero patience for a game that slows them down in any way. My patience disappears when a timer won’t even allow me to try. Micro-transactions are like a clot in my gaming heart. I’m about to unlock a dragon! I need to upgrade my Town Hall. But–”You don’t have any builders, they won’t be available for another 3d 4hr 36min 5sec.” My heart arrests. “Buy another builder for 30 gems.” I only have 10 gems. My left arm goes numb. But I can buy a chest of 20 gems for $9.99. So either I fork over ten bucks or wait half a week to play my game?! HEART ATTACK.

Hang on. Let’s start over. So I can play your game for free and test it out. Or I can buy a different game up front for $0.99 without playing it?

No-brainer. But now that I’ve put some time into your free game, you won’t let me play it unless I pay 10x the normal game price for an exhaustible in-game resource? But once I spend the gems on another builder, I’m back to where I started “Wait for 2d 3hr 45min 10sec.” Am I supposed to buy gems every time I make a decision just so I can play?!

Why didn’t I just spend $0.99 on ten different games? (facepalm)

Let me propose an analogy. Micro-transactions are to gamers as heroin is to everyone. You gotta have a lot of money to support the habit, but in the long run it becomes an addiction. It’s like all games are becoming online gambling. Oh, and screw poor people. If you’re poor, you can still kinda play the game, but you’ll never have the same opportunity as the money-players. Have fun waiting!

These game stimulants go by many names now: Micro-transactions, In-App Purchases (IAP), Unlock Keys, Downloadable Content (DLC), and Apple’s newest genre for games that are free (at first)–GET+. The industry seems to be catering more and more to this format of game design and it’s disturbing. Clash of Clans is actually a good game with lots of well-designed and fun content. But, games will get simpler, more derivative, and more locked down. On second thought…

“GAME OVER.  CONTINUE? (2 CREDITS)” The coin clinks into the slot and Jin lives another day to uppercut Yoshimitsu.

Maybe the industry is just modernizing the way that games made us plug more coins into the machine in the past. The home console killed the arcade machine (the old skool IAP), now the mobile device is avenging its death in a way?

Not exactly. If I put up the money to buy my own arcade box, you better believe I won’t be using quarters. We’re already coughing up $400+ on mobile devices, but they don’t seem to have free play buttons. Is it just me or has the coin slot been twisted and made much worse? The quarter for credits system was much simpler. Now we need a device and App Store credit to get a game with micro-transactions for gems to kinda-sorta play for a bit. The industry knows it can get gamers hooked and undercut the non-free-to-play developers while raking in dough. They will continuously profit off our impatience without having to release new games all the time to keep us interested. Cower as the rise of the GET+ game cometh. I think the way it’s going, they’re gonna tear us all a new coin slot.

iDesign Therefor iPad, Part II: Codea

20140413-232525.jpg

A commenter on Kaminazo just referred me to a more sophisticated game editor for iPad. It’s called Codea. Available directly on the App Store from Two Lives Left for $9.99.

Finally, I have what I’ve been wanting since I began using Game Salad: an editor program that functions directly on the peripheral. Now I can create games from my mobile device and test them directly on it in real-time as I program.

Codea uses a programming language called Lua that I am not familiar with. But after previewing its functionality on YouTube and checking out the in-App tutorials and sample projects, LUA doesn’t seem much different from all the other scripting languages I’ve encountered. The App also gave me access to forums and tutorials on the basics of both Codea and Lua.

I’m most excited about the potential for designing 3D environments. Perhaps this format will be good for the tower defense game I’ve been working on.

As I delve deeper into Codea and begin working through the tutorials and beginning stages of design, I’ll blog again.

If you’d like to see Codea in action, check out this video:

Codea on YouTube

Algorithms

The answer...is three.

The answer…is three.

“We’ve updated our algorithm so the hardest enemies don’t spawn until you reach higher levels.”

I’ve heard this phrase, or derivatives of this phrase, ad nauseam since I started learning game design. “What the heck does that even mean: updated our algorithm?” I told myself. At first, I thought it was just a fancy word game designers threw around to simplify an update they couldn’t really explain. I resigned myself to the idea of an intangible string of complex mathematics on a scientist’s blackboard that I’d never understand. I just figured they were above my head and I’d never understand the concept, or how to write them.

The fantasy of the algorithm in Hollywood is a hacker circumventing the complex electronic lock on a steel vault. “My mojo is way better than this corporate hack’s algorithm. Cracking it will be a cinch.” Turns out I’ve been making those algorithms all along. Of course, they’re much simpler and not used for security systems.

Hail to the 90's.

Hail to the 90’s.

All games use some form of algorithm. In the past, I had referred to it as “game logic.” It’s an OK term, but we should use new vernacular. It was exciting to learn that I had been doing something I thought was reserved for mathematicians. They look and function exactly like a flow chart. There’s a question that goes through a series of causative statements, following the pathways until it arrives at a final output. Let’s deconstruct the idea of an algorithm into practical terms to better understand it.

Say we’ve got an actor, let’s call her GunGirl. We’ve placed GunGirl in our level. Now let’s make an attribute for her, we’ll call it “dead.” It’s a boolean attribute, which means it produces two outputs: true or false. Let’s set the default to false. When the level starts, there’s GunGirl, and she’s alive.

Now let’s put another actor on the floor in front of her. We’ll call this one “grenade.” Let’s pretend it has a timer set to zero. So when the level starts, it explodes. Now let’s tell GunGirl that “if grenade time = 0, and GunGirl position < grenade position + 5, set “dead” = true.”

The game starts. GunGirl has about a split-friggin’ second to live. It’s just long enough to notice something at her feet…BOOM! Grenade explodes, Gungirl’s position is checked against the blast radius of the grenade, “dead” outputs true, and GunGirl goes “POOF .”

That’s an algorithm.

Now, I just had this thought: “Maybe all this time I was confusing the word algorithm with logarithm.” Turns out that it’s just a case of continents vs. countries. Logarithms are the smaller calculations (mathematical formulas) that help the more complex algorithm. A logarithm’s basic function is to search a list of things, or log, in the most efficient way possible. Then it retrieves an answer and gives it to papa algorithm. Think of logarithms like little slobbery golden retrievers. Some algorithms even contain little sub-algorithms that behave like logarithms. When logarithms get to their smaller, programming language selves, that’s when they become the math-heavy enigmas that are best left for programmers.

Let’s look at the if/then statement we created before. Something has to govern whether the grenade timer counts down, the radius of the grenade and GunGirl overlap, and whether GunGirl is alive or dead. There’s actually about a dozen more sub-algorithms the game engine has to check, plus an exponential amount of little logarithmic calculations before our parent algorithm resolves. Each one of these actions can potentially trigger another algorithm. They’re all part of a massive web of causes and effects that make a game function.

If you get the chance to use a program like GameSalad, Creation Kit, or UDK, you’ll find that creating algorithms is 75% of game design and 100% of what makes a game function. Learning how to make them, and simplify them to their most basic math is fundamental for a game designer, in my humble opinion.

An algorithm, as seen in GameSalad.

An algorithm, as seen in GameSalad.

 

An algorithm, as seen in the dialogue tree of a Skyrim character's attributes in the Creation Kit.

An algorithm, as seen in the dialogue tree of a Skyrim character’s attributes in the Creation Kit.

 

Another algorithm, as seen in Unreal Kismet in UDK.

Another algorithm, as seen in Unreal Kismet in UDK.

Now, hopefully, we understand the phrase at the top. For fun, let’s put it in the context of ice cream, cuz who doesn’t like ice cream?! If Baskin Robbins has 31 flavours of ice cream, they’re bound to have some nasty ones that didn’t make the cut. A child who has never had ice cream before (lvl 1 N00b) will go for the flavors that are easiest to swallow: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, chocolate chip. A man with a clipboard (we’ll call him Assistant Manager Logarithm) records the number of cones each customer buys. The flavours that aren’t popular with the younger customers are now put in a separate place. That’s the job of Senior Manager Algorithm. The craziest flavors, like mint popcorn coffee marshmallow surprise, are only given to long-term return customers (lvl 100 badass). These guys are much more likely to try them and stick around to try another, instead of running out of the store vomiting.

Get it?

Interrogative Games Pt. 2

quizupscreengrab

The easiest of easy questions I wrote for level 0 noobs.

Let me outline a few quick things that come to mind when before I attempt to recap the editing process I went through in collaboration with Plain Vanilla Games, the makers of Quiz Up.

1. Not everyone wants quality when they’re on a deadline. In fact, most will settle for anything in high quantity as long as it functions.

2. Teenagers make awful collaborators.

3. Free labor/internships afford you all the work and none of the control.

4. Published doesn’t mean available.

5. If you put in the effort and communicate with your industry contact, they’ll give you better tasks.

6. None of it matters once it’s out there. You can always update.

I guess that about covers my experience with the Anime topic project for Quiz Up. I mentioned before that I was given editing rights to a document of 600+ questions. It took a few days to go through them all. The file had a list of contributors with editing rights and access to the file who had added questions in a random and unsupervised capacity.

I started adding my own questions to the file before tackling the existing questions. Lots of them were already flagged for problems like going over the maximum character limit for use in the game. One of my contacts at the game company told me that most of the contributors were teenagers with poor writing skills. I sorted them all by title to get a grasp of how balanced the question pool was and added my contributor tag (D.G.) to all of my own content to keep it straight. After putting in about 30 hours proofreading, editing, and organizing the file it was ready to go.

Then, trolls. A few days later I logged in to add ten more questions. Someone had done a little editing of their own. I’m guessing that someone didn’t like all the work I had done and decided to delete about 50 of my questions, rewrite some of them, remove my contributor tag, and revert all the questions they had written to their original form. They undid lots of hours of work.

So, I did my best to go back through and fix the immediate problems. I emailed my contact and he booted the person responsible. I went through one last time and flagged all his poorly written, typo-filled questions quickly with a comment marker. I wasn’t about to redo all that work. It was an unfortunate thing that had happened.

Later the same contact emailed me back saying he was reinviting the culprit to edit the file after it was published in its current form. Salt in the wound. It’s hard not to take something personally when you’ve put a lot of quality effort into it.  So I was done.

I stood my ground and told them how unprofessional and unfortunate it was for the game to allow this user to stay. They agreed. A day or so later, they offered me the chance to write the topic description and reward titles for Anime and Avatar: the Last Airbender. A nice little consolation prize.

The topic was published a few days ago. But, it hadn’t posted until yesterday. I obsessively checked the game every day until it finally showed up. Apple takes a few days or so to approve even small updates.

The 40 or so questions with bad editing do bother me when I play the game, but the community of players it has created were worth it. It’s in the list of the most popular categories still. Most of the people I play have already grinded their way up to level 30. That includes people from all over the world. It’s quite an amazing feeling to have something you’ve created entertain the world.

Like I said before, once it’s out there all the drama just doesn’t matter. There’s always future updates to make it even better. I encourage you to download the game and give it a try.

Interrogative Games

QuizUp_Logo

The lightning bolt is for…answering questions…fast!

Recently, my wife and I have been playing a trivia app game called Quiz Up. It’s a fast-paced trivia game where you race against a random parter to answer questions about your favorite topics. The topics range anywhere from Logos to Star Trek. It’s wickedly fun and has a lot of little perks that make gaining experience fun. There’s also a wide enough pool of questions that you don’t revisit the same ones much, if at all.

Quiz Up is made by a small app development company out of Reykjavík called Plain Vanilla Games. The company allows users to submit a 15-question application for potential submission to the game. You even unlock an achievement if your content is used in the game.

Recently, I did just that. I submitted two applications. Rather than expand on an existing topic, I wanted to create a new topic for Quiz Up. Under the TV category, there’s an Animation subcategory. But, it’s very broad and general. It contains a lot of questions about animation like cartoons or movies from Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. I wanted more anime.

I received emails back almost immediately from two Content Editors with Plain Vanilla Games. They said that they were psyched about an Anime category. Apparently there was a big enough demand for the topic. I spent the next week writing 130 new questions and answers (1 right, 3 wrong). I came up with a list of 100+ mainstream anime that I felt should have some presence in the quiz.

After some correspondence with the Editors, they expressed their need for someone with more anime knowledge. So I just asked and they were thrilled! Now I have access to their files and am the official Content Editor of the anime category on Quiz Up! Yay!

But, I inherited their master list of submissions (over 600 unedited questions from random users) and it’s a bit of a mess. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Hopefully in the coming weeks, you can play my new anime category live on Quiz Up!

I’d say this is my second game design career win after Tanner’s Ridge Treehouse: something I can actually put on my CV!

The “Impossibles” Genre

Flappy-Bird-1

50 grand a day on ad revenue for 3 days of work. Wow.

Clearly you’ve been missing out if you didn’t get a chance to play Flappy Bird before it was pulled from the AppStore recently. It’s an impressively simple and addicting infinite side scroller designed by one guy in three days. Luckily I still have it. And I’m using it as a basis for my own project: “Finish a damned game already, will you?”

So the recipe is: one part 8-bit graphics, one part cute and familiar character, two parts obstacles and simple touch movements, infinite parts scrolling, and zero parts beatable. The impossible genre meaning that the game is ridiculously hard even though it’s childishly simple to play, and goes on forever with no real end. I decided to go back to GameSalad to design this type of game.

The game is called Burger Bounce. My love of Z-axis design is obvious in this one. You are a burger that is falling from some unknown height, and you must poot air out to the left and right to avoid hitting clouds that slow you down. When you reach the bottom, you get stars for how high you can bounce. The fewer clouds you hit, the higher you bounce off the ground. It’s not infinite, but it is simple.

I plan on making ten levels for the Free Version of the game. Perhaps it will end up on the AppStore in the future.

Castle Craft

I’ve decided to design a tower defense game in 3D using UDK, 3DSMax, and Photoshop. It’s a very ambitious design and I’ve started a dedicated notebook just for it. As I work on game mechanics and design, I’ll throw up my ideas on here. The working title for the project is Castle Craft. Though, unfortunately that name has been taken by what may be a very playable game, but with terrible visuals. I hope to publish it on iOS at some point in the future when I can get the most out of my developers license.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.