Player Studies: The Riddle Promenade Postmortem

adventures in gaming, critical making, research

[This postmortem was written for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might appreciate reading it as well. You can find the Game Rules, more pictures of player answers, and other context at the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com — if you like, you can even join in and play!]

POSTMORTEM: The Riddle Promenade

Overall, The Riddle Promenade is a slow game. Getting feedback in time for the postmortem was a challenge because from the day that the game was finished to the time that this postmortem had to be written, there were only two weeks of playtesting. That’s only two riddles on the Promenade. Of course, this slowness was an intentional part of the design. The aspects that I chose to take up in my design of a game for Tom Deliva, my muse, were his love of puzzles, mechanics that test his skills (if cheekily, in the case of photography), and his desire to explore and know the history of the things around him. Additionally, Tom works long hours, and doesn’t have much time to devote to games. He and the other players need time to puzzle out the answer to the riddle and then time to go take their picture. Unfortunately, it still means that I haven’t been able to garner as much feedback from as many playthroughs as I might usually have been able to do with a different style of game.

I have also noticed that, even with a network full of people who play games, it can be difficult to get people to come play a game — particularly for playtest purposes. The people who are playing, with the exception of two people from Twitter, are people that I specifically mentioned the game to, and even then, the pool is very small. At time of writing, there are only seven players who have signed up for the google group (one of the accounts on the google group is the moderator’s email, and another is mine for testing purposes and to make sure emails go through). I suppose that it’s possible that some people are seeing the content without signing up for the official group. I have heard that finding participants for academic studies can be a common problem, especially with no monetary incentives (or, as I’ve seen for certain psychological experiments at Concordia, a Tim Horton’s gift card).

What is exciting about having used a platform like Tumblr that allows for others to discover the game is that some people who happen to be into riddles have discovered and liked posts from the site. My hope is that I’ll continue to get better at writing riddles, and that people will join the game over time. Building a community takes more than two weeks, I guess!

I checked in with my muse, Tom, several times during the two weeks of the playtest (November 29th to December 12th). He had solved the first riddle (#2, since #1 was a test riddle) on the first day — almost immediately after reading it. I, of course, neither confirmed nor denied whether he had the right answer, but he was fairly confident in his answer (and it was in fact the right one). He nevertheless thought that it was a good level of challenge, telling me, “that’s often how riddles are — either you get it in a flash or you have to puzzle it out.” For example, another player told me that they weren’t getting the riddle “at all” and “couldn’t wrap [their] head around it.” Overall, Tom liked the game, and appreciated that it wasn’t overly time-consuming. The first time that we spoke, he had solved Riddle #2, but not yet found a good spot to take his picture.  He enjoyed that the game encouraged him to go out and get to know Fort McMurray. His one concern at this point was that he wanted the community aspect – commenting and discussing the photos – to be a key aspect, and worried that the community was still very small. The next time that we talked, he had taken and submitted his first picture. He was a bit exhilarated, and in addition to the picture in response to the actual riddle, he sent me a picture of a walking stick that he had picked up along the way. As it turns out, northern Alberta is pretty flat, and in order to find a vantage point, he had to go to one of the areas hit by the big forest fire in the spring and hike through the burnt-out woods.

When I posted Riddle #3, Tom told me that he again immediately had an answer, but after speaking to him later in the week, I had to hold back from giving him any hints that he, in fact, had the wrong answer. Nevertheless, he submitted a well-considered picture.

A surprise for me as a designer was that, in my head, I thought that our friend group would all want to play this game and share these moments with Tom, but although I shared it with them, initially none of them joined in. Perhaps this has something to do with timing, the end of the semester, and holidays, or perhaps they simply weren’t interested in this style of game. At any rate, this was one aspect of the design that was different than what I had imagined. Tying Tom back to a new online community rather than his existing friend group is not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t what was intended — and that community still needs to be built.

Generally, people seemed to like the concept of this game. I received a lot of comments about it from family (my riddle playtesters) and friends (some of whom said they would join but didn’t). Out of those who actually played the game, which included four players other than Tom who signed up for the Google group, and, as a result, had “officially” signed on to play (there were also Tumblr followers), there were mixed reactions that were generally positive. In this small sample of players, only two (Tom and a close friend) submitted an answer for the first riddle. However, after I shared the post with the answers and photographs on social media, a new player (a personal friend) was immediately drawn in. This post also garnered the first player that I didn’t have prior knowledge of, or my first stranger! Perhaps this trend will continue over time. The deadline for answering the second riddle is December 12th, so this assignment was due sooner than the riddle answers. As of now, I’ve received Tom’s answer to the riddle (he has it wrong) and his picture (he took a nice one), but nothing from anyone else.

I wonder if players who did sign up but submitted no picture were just particularly busy during the first week or if one week is too short of a time in which to answer the riddle and take a picture. I suspect that having to go outside to take a picture in inclement weather might also be a barrier — this might be a game that does better in summer. There is of course always the possibility that this game, which Tom is enjoying, really does appeal only to a small subset of people that share Tom’s player profile.

Another disappointment, although I am again hopeful that this may change over time, is that no comments were exchanged about any of the photos, beyond my conversations with Tom. Nobody commented on anyone else’s photograph (as I mentioned, I didn’t receive many submissions), and I thought that this would be easy to get players to do given the platform and that people seem to enjoy posting comments about photos on social media. Maybe I should have actually made this game on Instagram!

Overall, the development of the game went well. I spent most of my time developing the game concept and design. Implementing and testing all the parts only took a few hours, once I had all the design work figured out. The aspect of the game that took the longest amount of time (and it doesn’t really show in the game) was writing riddles. I spent days writing riddles – and in the end, I only had five to show for all that work. Partially, that’s because I wrote a lot of bad riddles as I learned how it was done and hit my stride. I think that riddle-writing is a hard-won skill. It’s part poetry and part puzzle design. Making comparisons that are specific and finding answers that aren’t too broad or too narrow once in riddle form is challenging. Two things that I wanted very badly to write riddles about were a movie theatre and a fire station. With a movie theatre, the riddles tended to be about escapism, absorption and time, but were too general — the answer could have been almost anything that is considered a form of entertainment. With the fire station, the defining features were too specific and my fire station riddles ended up far too easy. Maybe I’ll take another crack at writing riddles about these things once I’m a riddle-writing master. One nice side effect of writing riddles and testing them out (mostly on my family) is that my dad started to text me his own riddle-writing efforts. During my writing process, I would call home, and whoever was there would gather around the phone and listen to my riddle (including extended family). That was fun.

Thinking through how such design exercises might benefit game studies and games, there’s a lot to discuss. I’ll first distinguish between how games as a medium and the games industry might benefit, as compared to how game studies in an academic context might benefit.

In the mainstream game industry, large studios tend to say one thing and do another when it comes to their audience. Ostensibly, they are making games for everyone. However, the same kind of games seem to get made all the time, and given the large amounts of money invested in these games, companies and marketing divisions are understandably but disappointingly risk-averse. Really, most games are already being made for a small, default demographic that we know doesn’t represent “everyone.” So, making games for a micro-audience that isn’t a part of that demographic is an exercise in highly-targeted design that probably won’t change the industry — at any rate, not right away. But it is possible that if designers entering the industry had to perform this kind of exercise with players that are very different than them, it might give them a new perspective. It probably still won’t solve the problem, because such a solution assumes that designers and writers don’t want to make innovative games with new storylines and more diverse characters. Since I have friends who work in the industry, I know that they have to fight very hard for every character and storyline that diverges from best practices.

This kind of exercise does also benefit researchers. Going through the process of making a game when it is not your usual mode of study can be an enlightening way of understanding what that process is like, giving academics a better understanding of the moving parts of games and how they are made because they have had the chance to do it for themselves. For those who already design work as one of their research outputs, normalizing design as a research tool helps to legitimize research-creation (and similar endeavours). Being allowed to submit games as class assignments is helpful in that regard. This is already the kind of work I am doing on my own time, so when classroom work lines up with the work I would like to be doing, I appreciate that. I think everyone who studies games should try making one at least once. As to what muse-based design target to one specific person brings to the table in particular, I think it represents a good, scalable microcosm and can result in clear, targeted feedback. Rather than trying to gather data about whether a sub-group of people liked the game for the reasons that I thought they would, I can ask one specific person and get a (hopefully) clear answer. I think it is a good tool for learning. In my own work, I am interested in figuring out how to describe the creative process for different creators, and formalized and examined exercises related to game design are one way of furthering our knowledge about that topic.

In the end, I am still pleased with how this project turned out. I appreciate that I acquired new skills while completing it (riddle-writing and, well, using Tumblr), My partner appreciated the game that I made for him, and the thought and care that was put into it. I think that I managed to design a game that hits the mark for him in terms of time commitment, easy-access (not a lot of extra hardware is needed except a camera and the ability to visit a website), and directing an experience that goes beyond the computer screen. I also appreciated completing this task as a design exercise, and think that there is a lot to be learned from exercises like this one. As I’ve mentioned before though, I want to take this game further and keep it up and running for longer. The fact that I didn’t manage to get that many people to join and play as part of the initial playtest, and that one of the main mechanics of the game (commenting on each other’s photos to help build community) was not used at all are where the project fell short, and I want to see what happens over time as I try to grow the community. I’ll keep trying for now.

 

 

Player Studies: Thoughts about ‘The Riddle Promenade’

critical making, Uncategorized

[This text was submitted to accompany a muse-based game design assignment for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might enjoy reading it. Look out for a postmortem after the game gets playtested a bit! Feel free to sign up for the Google group if you want to play with us!]

A STATEMENT ABOUT THE RIDDLE PROMENADE

The number one lesson that I’ve learned from making a game for my muse, Tom Deliva, is that writing original riddles is quite hard. The premise of The Riddle Promenade is as follows: a riddle is posted to a community of players on Tumblr and through a Google group. Players first solve the riddle and then take the “best” photo that they can in order to represent the answer – they may do so by going out and finding something in their community that represents the answer, by staging their own photo, or by making some other work of art that they can then photograph. There is a deadline for all photos to be sent to the moderator in charge of the game through the Google group so that the riddle isn’t spoiled for anybody. The photos are then posted all at once with the name of the submitter (and their Tumblr if they have one) and players can engage with them as they wish.

Given the information that I gleaned from my player analysis, there are quite a few directions that I could have taken for this design that would probably have worked. As the player analysis shows, Tom plays eclectically. I knew that I didn’t want to create an adversarial design, and I knew that there were aspects of Tom’s personality and day to day reality that didn’t come across in the player analysis. These are aspects that I know about because I’ve been his partner for around a decade, but that are not always easily pinned down and explained. The player analysis is still a good starting point, but sometimes there were decisions that I made that were not based on evidence from the player analysis, or points where I could have gone either way. In those cases, I used the privileged knowledge that I had to make choices, along with my experience as a game designer (such as it is – I’ve been designing games since January 2013). In this design, I was taking aim at a number of goals which I will explain along with the decisions that I made below.

This game doesn’t take place wholly in the digital realm, but nevertheless I was reminded of our readings about social play, specifically the Steinkuehler and Williams piece and the Eklund piece. One of the goals that I am trying to achieve in this game is tying Tom back into communities online and back home, so that Fort McMurray won’t feel so lonely. So, the fact that there is a lot of evidence for the utility of online spaces as third spaces (Steinkuehler and Williams 2006) and as places of community for both family and friends (Eklund 2013) makes me think that if I can get players to participate, this goal will be successfully met.

Since Tom has played widely in all sorts of different genres and types of games, one of my other goals was to surprise him and to test his skills. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to build something very elaborate in terms of mechanics and levels during the course of the class. Although I could have done a vertical slice, I wanted to scope in such a way that there was a complete, playable and scalable version of the game available by the end of this course. I don’t just want to know whether I’m correct in assessing that this game would be a good fit for Tom, I want to actually get it up and running and have him play it for more than just this class.

Additionally, I wanted the game to fit in easily with tools and routines that the players would already have. These are the reasons (time constraints, ease of use for players, the desire to keep the game up and discoverable for new players) why I have chosen to use readily-available tools rather than programming something from scratch.

There are quite a few reasons that I have chosen to use both Tumblr and Google Groups at the same time. For one, Google Groups can be used to send the riddle directly into the players’ inboxes and act as a reminder when the page is updated (something that Tom will appreciate given his schedule). Additionally, if players make their submissions through Google Groups, the moderator can post them all to Tumblr at once rather. The reason to then use Tumblr on top of Google Groups (which could easily handle the mailing list aspects and the photo-sharing) is so that the game is discoverable to new players (who is going to go looking for a game on Google Groups?), so that the rules and other information about the game are easily organized (Google Groups is not ideal for this purpose), and so that the Tumblr page can act as an archive for past photos and riddles.

With all this in mind, I happen to know two key things about Tom: he hasn’t played much in the way of augmented reality games (he, in fact, did not even play Pokémon Go), and he is a fairly bad photographer. So, although I know he probably expected to have his skills tested in terms of strategy, reflexes and other standard video game playing skills, I think having to take “good” photographs will be challenging and skill-testing for him. In this sense, one of my aims is to surprise him, and is a choice that is a bit teasing if not outright adversarial. It questions Tom’s assumptions around what skills are valid in video games.

Another goal for this project is to encourage Tom (and other players) to explore their surroundings. Since Tom is newly arrived to Fort McMurray, Alberta, I hope that this game will be helpful to him in giving him an excuse to wander and get to know the place. That’s the “Promenade” part of The Riddle Promenade. This aspect of the game may or may not be successful because my understanding is the weather has already gotten quite cold out there. Tom also mentioned during our Pathfinder game that he enjoys discovering “information, places and items” and “know[ing] the history and fluff.” Through his exploration, I hope that Tom will be able to engage with the history and local points of interest in Fort McMurray.

Now, anyone with a phone can go for a walk and take pictures. I wanted to give the exploration and the photography a goal and make it more likely that people would actually go take walks and explore. Since one of Tom’s stated interests is puzzles and riddles, I thought that a riddle which was answered with a photograph on a deadline would be a good solution. It’s clear from the success of Instagram and other social media sites that have photo-sharing options (Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr, etc) that people enjoy engaging with each other’s photographs, so this is a proven mechanic that I have decided to leverage in the game.

Additionally, this is a game with a flexible playtime, which, given the fact that Tom now works twelve hour shifts (four days on, four days off) is significant. Tom can think on the riddle while at work on other necessary tasks, and then pick a day to go for a walk for an hour or two in order to take his photograph. The frequency of the riddles and their deadlines may vary, but there will be no more than one a week, which means that Tom will be able to play when he can, without the game taking up too much of his spare time.

Overall, I think this is a game that Tom will enjoy and like, although it isn’t a traditional video game. Since Tom plays so widely in so many genres with so many mechanics, I think that a well-designed clone or reimagining of many kinds of games would have appealed to him. What I’ve tried to do is not only appeal to him but also help him adjust and deal with his new living situation, while connecting him back to a community that isn’t location-dependent.

It remains to be seen whether Tom will enjoy this game. There are a few challenges still ahead: finding and building a community of players, practicing my riddle-writing skills to make writing them a bit easier than it is now, and maintaining the game with regular updates once it is up and running.

You can find the game materials here:
Game Rules: the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com

WORKS CITED
Steinkuehler, C. A. and Williams, D. (2006), Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name:
Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11: 885–909.

Eklund, L. (2013) Family and Games: digital game playing in the social context of the family. In
Quandt, T & Kröger, S (Eds.) Multi.Player. Social Aspects of Digital Gaming. Routledge: London

Platforms and Programming: One Month in the Life Postmortem

adventures in gaming, critical making, curious games

GuybrushSquarePortrait

[WARNING: There are a lot of feelings in this post and there is a lot of frankness — about mental health, mostly. MUCH FRANKNESS AHEAD. If that’s not for you, you probably shouldn’t read this.]

This past semester, I learned how to learn to program (no, that’s not a mistake). With the help and guidance of Rilla Khaled and Pippin Barr, I first learned Processing (Daniel Shiffman is a great programming teacher) and then after a brief evaluation of p5.js, moved on to Phaser and JavaScript.

[A note on guidance: all this learning actually happened under the guidance of a whole community of programmers both in and outside of TAG lab. When I couldn’t figure out how to space out the flower petals around my stem in a Processing exercise, the community was there to help. The other day, when it turned out that I hadn’t learned enough about object-oriented programming in JavaScript to properly manage states in phaser, the community was there to help. So, thank you, community.]

For something that I had been dreading for so long, it was revelatory to find out that I enjoy coding — like, really enjoy it! When the pressure is off and I can appreciate the puzzle of figuring out what to do, I like writing code a lot. This should come as no surprise: I love learning languages, which is why I know, in addition to English and French (the ones that I had to learn), Spanish, a bit of Italian, a bit of German, and an anime fan’s Japanese (so, also not very much).

But, the final project for this class is one of the hardest games that I have ever had to make. It was difficult for a variety of reasons. In my last post, I mentioned how Tom was getting ready to leave for RCMP training, and how I could think of little else, creatively and otherwise. That’s why I decided to make a game about the month between Tom learning of the RCMP’s decision and leaving for Depot. I wanted to take away some of the event’s power by making a game about it.

As I also mentioned in my last post, I would normally never, ever, ever consider making a game (or any kind of writing or other creative work) about something that happened in my life so close to when it happened. Normally, I’d let such an idea sit in a drawer for a few years and then give it a go. But, as I mentioned before, this was hugely preoccupying for me. After being with Tom for nearly ten years and never being apart longer than that one time last year when I went to Europe for 45 days, I knew that this was going to be a big change, and probably a very difficult one.

And it was. I just wasn’t prepared for how hard. A lot of the reasons that made it hard for me to be without him, even though he was an email or a video chat away were because of things that we would normally deal with together — but more on that later.

At first, I didn’t have much time to devote to the game: I had to finish up my semester’s course work, fulfill my TA responsibilities, get Tom ready to leave for the RCMP, and be present for a friend that was also having a hard time. I chose to prioritize my relationships with people that I cared about, and would do so again. And that’s where the time went, up until Tom left.

After Tom left, the game was my priority. I had finished my course work and everything else could be put off for a while. I went into hermit mode and started working on the game. And that’s when my 96-year-old grandfather went into the hospital.

Now, as someone who lives in a town with decent public transit, I haven’t yet acquired my license. We visit my grandfather fairly frequently, and Tom usually would rent a Communauto (car-sharing service) car and off we’d go. I was upset that my grandfather was sick and that I had to rely on there maybe being space in my relative’s cars in order to go visit him, or possibly not visit him at all (as it turns out, I now have a standing offer from a friend to drive me so long as she’s not at work). I was upset because, at 96, even small ailments can be hugely important, and these ones weren’t so small. I found myself completely unable to focus on the project. I felt like my brain was betraying me – this was when I needed to be able to focus the most, and I was getting nothing done.

livingroomfront

So, I left the scary parts for later. When I was able to focus, I did the parts that were familiar and pleasurable to me — I wrote dialogue, I drew pictures of my cat and my apartment, and I thought about the design of the game. But, when all that work was finished, the deadline was coming and I still hadn’t programmed anything. What’s worse, I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned all semester. On top of that, feeling like I might not be able to finish the project before the deadline was stressing me out even more, increasing the pressure.

I had actually chosen a slightly early deadline for the project, thinking that I would get nothing done during IndieCade East, which was happening right after the deadline and which was where we were going to show In Tune perhaps for the last time.

So, I fought back the feeling that I was somehow disappointing the people who had been so kind as to take time out of their schedule to teach me in a directed study this semester, and I wrote asking for an extension.

The relief was palpable when the extension was granted. That, along with the fact that, at that point, my grandfather was getting better and would be released any day, helped me regain my focus (unfortunately, he’s now back in hospital). Things went slowly at first, but working diligently through IndieCade East at the NYU MAGNET, with the support of some lovely friends there, I managed to program portions of my game. And I was enjoying it. And, given that this was my first time with JavaScript and Phaser, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job. I managed it! It had seemed impossibly stressful the week before, but things fell into place.

Well, so that’s how it was to work on this game. In terms of the workflow, what I would have of course liked to do differently is give myself more time to work on the project long before the due date – that’s kind of my style. But, up until now, I have had the privilege of an excellent support system that has allowed me to focus on my work, even when other things in my life were going on, and this was my first time doing without it. I’m not sure what I could have done differently about that.

That means that it’s time to talk about the game itself and the design decisions.

What I wanted to do in the game was juxtapose some version of the conversations that Tom and I were having about his departure with our cat’s daily shenanigans. As it says in the game, cats don’t care about human drama. They don’t understand it. So, what felt very dramatic and important to me didn’t have much of an impact on our cat at all.

I like the juxtaposition. The game is pretty slow-paced, so there’s time to read the conversations and interact with the environment (at least, I think so). My worry is that there aren’t enough animations to keep the player engaged in each scene.

For this project, I had to scope very tighly given the time frame, but I was also sick of certain of the choices that I usually make while making games on a short timeline. Namely, I wanted to try a different art style. I was sick of making pixel art for these short little games. This was at odds with the fact that I didn’t have much time to work on the game. Each individual animation was taking way too long to make. So, I had to make the decision to do story-board style animations, with very few keyframes and a simple style. Overall, it’s not what I had originally envisioned but I’m happy with the result given the timeframe.

I’m not a professional animator – I just dabble. What that means is that even the storyboard-style animations took enough time that I made relatively few of them. I wish that I could have made more of them, because I wanted to them to function as a visual reward for the player. How I made up for it is made it so that when you click the cat, messages about the cat appear, and I find those fairly entertaining. But that might just be me.

Of course, the most important thing to me about this game is that I programmed it myself in Phaser/JavaScript and that it works. That’s a big milestone for me. It was also one of the main goals of this directed study, so I’m happy that I managed it. It’s an empowering feeling, even if I know that I might struggle just as much the next time that I sit down to program something. I’m okay with that — knowing that I can do it at all is huge.

[This game is available for play here.]

overthrowthepatriarchy