Tuesday, December 20, 2011

DEV DIARY: A small quiz game

There's an explanation for the lengthy hiatus in game reviews: I've been busy working on a game myself. In early December, it occurred to me that I could make productive use of some of the downtime I had around the holidays by working on a small project.  Ideally, I wanted to work on a small project, one that I could make up a working prototype in a month or two. The goal was to give me an opportunity to sharpen my programming and development skills, as well as see if I could put together a casual game, that was both fun and at least somewhat educational.

At the time, I didn't think much about documenting the development process here. It wasn't clear to me if the world of the interwebs needed yet another promise-filled blog of an amateur game developer, nor was it clear if it was fair to hijack a review site with a developer's ramblings. But as I've been working, I realize that there is some possibility that the difficulties I'm encounter may just resonate with the struggles of others interested in building educational game.  Not only that, but I concerned it a very real possibility that some of the weaknesses and flaws which I am so quick to identify in the completed games of others might eventually show up in my own game. In that event, it might be helpful if I could pinpoint just where in the process my game started to take a wrong turn.  Was it a result of technical limitations or failed vision?  And could I imagine other ways to deal with the problems encoutered in the devleopment process that might have made the game significantly different, and maybe even better. So over the next few weeks, our regularly scheduled programming will be periodically interrupted by a short series of development diaries.

The Preliminaries

Because I needed a project that would take roughly a month of working in my spare time to complete,  this meant that gameplay would have to be relatively simple.  There would be no elaborate stories, complex relationship trees, or extensive animations. Because I develop in Flash, it seemed the best way to meet these requirements would be to make a game with a primarily point-and-click interface, and to make something that was more of a basic puzzle-game with only one major game mechanic.  And because I wanted to make sure the game had an obviously educational dimension to it, I decided to make a quiz game.

The Game Concept

I knew there were certain disadvantages to making a quiz game.  One of my biggest concerns was that, generally speaking, only externally motivated players have much incentive to play quiz-style games. If the quiz is on a topic that a person is already studying, then a quiz game is ideal--it helps to reinforce materials that one is already committed to learning. But what about the casual player? Most quiz "games" are hardly games at all, they're simply quizzes. For someone who's not invested in learning the material, the "game" is neither fun nor intrinsically motivating. Is there a way around this problem?

So I turned the question on myself, "when am I most motivated to learn?" It's a tricky question, as I easily vacillate from being a veritable information-sponge to becoming quickly bored and easily distracted. But the more I thought about it, I realized that there was answer that was always true: I learn most when I'm expected to teach others. The thought of having to stand in front of a class and having nothing to say because I'm unprepared is one of the most terrifying scenarios I can imagine. And not just because of the awkwardness that standing silent in front of a class necessarily involves, but because I feel accountable for my students' learning. If I fail to learn, they fail to learn.  for me, that sense of accountability is a powerful motivator.  Could I harness anything like that sense of social responsibility to motivate players to perform well on a quiz? 

How about a quiz game in which the "score" isn't directly determined by the player's performance, but by the performance of a player's students?  In other words, even though the accuracy of a player's answers would be tracked throughout the game, feedback would be registered through a classroom of students with a very basic AI.  These students would then be the ones graded at the end of each quiz session, and their performance would be evaluated based both on the accuracy of the player's answers as well as the player's speed in answering questions. Ultimately, the point of the game isn't to do well just for the sake of a high score, it's to do well for the sake of your students.

And lo! Now, I've turned the idea of making a simple quiz game into something much more complicated. How does that always happen?  Not surprisingly, it's turning out to be quite a challenge for me from a programming perspective, and I still have no idea if I can actually create a classroom full of virtual students that players will actually identify with.  But I like to think that the idea of making the player responsible to an other is an interesting conceit that can hopefully breathe a little life into the often dull quiz game. We shall see.

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