[Can games be used to report on the news -- and if so, what do we gain from it? In this article, Bin Laden Raid developer Jeremy Alessi discusses the creative process, final game, public and press reaction, and potential of the newsgame form.]
The September 11th attacks on the United States were traumatic tragedies that not only affected victims directly in the path of the planes. These events struck a chord with people the world over -- including Gonzalo Frasca, who coined the term "newsgame" with a title dubbed September 12th.
It was a simple web game that allowed players to take aim at terrorists roaming about a village. The problem is, killing one terrorist only spawned more. September 12th is a prime example of a persuasive newsgame. Frasca was trying to make a point.
Until about three weeks ago, I didn't know who Gonzalo Frasca was. My interest in newsgames was formed independently of the founders of the movement. For me, newsgames began with JFK: Reloaded. While the title disgusted most people, I found it to be a valuable frame of reference for the event.
For years I watched the documentaries about the event with my father, who was always particularly interested in it, and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. When I got to see JFK: Reloaded for the first time, it all became so much more concrete in my mind.
It was as if, for the first time, I could really understand the events that took place. The physics, viewpoint, and general motion available only in a 3D game environment gave me an understanding that I could have only otherwise achieved by having been there in the first place.
My interest in newsgames was furthered on January 19th, 2009. It was on this date that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River adjacent to Midtown Manhattan. I remember the day well. I was actually driving to New York that day to visit family.
After some of the details poured in, I got my brother, a pilot, to set up his MS Flight Simulator rig for me to recreate the event. We spent several hours tweaking the settings, attempting to recreate the flight. We got pretty close.
At the time I was working on Skyline Blade for the iPhone and thought about doing an app to recreate the flight. I didn't act on it but Austin Meyer (X-Plane) did. Sully's Flight was launched on the iPhone -- quite successfully, in fact. If memory serves me, it took the number one slot of the racing and simulation categories.
In the end, though, the app was removed from the store because US Airways claimed copyright infringement -- its logo was on the plane. To add insult to injury, Apple further requested that Austin acquire approval to use "Sully's" name. This was all on top of the fact that a lot of people viewed the game as cheap, opportunistic, and disrespectful of the people who almost lost their lives that day. Austin gave up, and removed the app from the catalog of X-Plane games on the App Store.
The final straw for me came just two months ago, when Japan was devastated by an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. It wasn't the earthquake or the tsunami I was interested in doing a newsgame about, though. No, instead the thought crossed my mind that a newsgame about the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could actually be useful. If users could get down to ground level, take measurements, and share potential solutions, they might actually come up with something to help those in need. About three weeks after the event, a Fallout 3 mod was announced that showcased the damaged nuclear facility.
Three weeks ago, I became really obsessed with the idea of newsgames. Never again was I going to think about making a newsgame, only to have someone else do it. I set up the website NewsGameplay.com and began work on a format that I thought would be easily consumable, so anyone could experience the news in 3D.
After setting the website up and throwing up a simple mouse-driven 3D prototype, I thought about which story to cover first. The Royal Wedding was non-offensive, but it was only a week away. That alone would scare most people off. In fact, it did scare most people off. I couldn't find a 3D artist who thought they could handle the task. The Royal Wedding came and went, and I still didn't have content for my new website.
I didn't hear about the death of Osama bin Laden until my wife was watching the Real Housewives of New York after-action show. The host and one of the women were talking about being in the city on 9/11, and then being in the city that night. I turned to my wife and asked her if she knew what they were talking about. She shook her head as I grabbed the remote and switched to CNN.
As soon as I got a handle on what occurred, I pulled my laptop out and began searching for the compound on Google Earth. The news moved so fast through the internet that the Google Earth location of the compound had already been reported. Before long, there were two simple 3D models on Google's 3D Warehouse. I rushed to find the specific aesthetics and location of the compound. The initial location reported proved false, and the early 3D models were too simplistic to be useful. That was the beginning of a long week of research on an ever-evolving story that I needed to cover with a compelling 3D game.
I knew I was going to go for this project, but I also knew I couldn't do it alone. The first order of business was to put a team together. I had been telling my longtime friend John McIsaac (who helped me design Fat Rat) about this "newsgames" concept for the past few weeks, and he was already ready to jump onboard when the time was right.
Indeed, the time was right. John became the designated researcher. As such, it was his job to collect every detail from every news source possible. John scoured the web and watched the news collecting videos, images, diagrams, and more.
With John on board, things were looking up, but I still needed a 3D modeler with the time to pull the project off. Rich Smith is another long-time local friend. Rich had helped me work on Crash for Cash in the past, and he was pretty good with 3DS Max, but he didn't have much real-time experience. The biggest problem is that he usually worked long hours, so I wasn't too hopeful. On the off-chance that he had a day or two off, I gave him a call anyway. As it turns out, his previous employer had bounced payroll twice so he was home, bored, and looking for a good challenge.