Matthew Weise asserts that IGF Student Showcase finalist The Snowfield fills a niche that virtually no war games deal with: the aftermath of battle, the despair of loss, and the inevitability of death. The Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab team's title seems to paint a bleak picture, as players assume the role of a lone soldier wandering war-torn territory in the dead of winter.
Yet, Weise insists that The Snowfield provides, in part, a feel-good gaming experience, where players help Germans instead of shoot them. Though players may begin their journey feeling they are alone, they will come to find out that they are not.
Weise, who carried out most of the publisher duties as product owner, discusses here his team's playable online game experiment. Weise also delves into the results of their experiment of inverting the design-QA relationship in the hopes of creating an improvisational, simulation-based narrative world.
Could you tell me about the team who worked on the game? Any notable previous game projects?
The Snowfield was created by a team of 10 students -- some from Singapore, some from the U.S. -- over the course of eight weeks. The team came together only for those eight weeks to make the game and had not worked together as a team before. Teng Chek Lim, the designer, was previously a coder on the Windows version of [IGF Grand Prize Finalist] CarneyVale: Showtime. Naomi Hinchen, one of the programmers, also worked on Poikilia, an earlier GAMBIT project. But basically Team M.I.A. (as the name implies) existed only to create The Snowfield.
What development tools did you use? How long was the development cycle?
The Snowfield was made in Unity over eight weeks in the summer of 2011; that's from initial concept to final polish and release. The first two weeks were mostly brainstorming and non-digital prototyping, so in terms of actual development on computers it was really closer to a six week project.
Were there any notable advisors or external sources of help for the project?
There were two: Jason Beene, acting as game director, and myself, acting as product owner.
The development process and design philosophy behind The Snowfield were based on my own work in emergent narrative and transmedia adaptation at MIT. In industry terms I was closer to a publisher-side producer on the project, reviewing the team's work and giving feedback to guide them, but not designing or creating the game myself. Jason was closer to a developer-side producer, mentoring the team's internal producer on project management practice (though Jason gave design feedback and guidance, as well).
The team itself was primarily self-organized and self-managed. They made the game. Jason and I were there more as mentors and instructors who wanted certain kinds of results, but the team got to choose how to achieve them.
Why a snowfield?
We wanted an open-world with no contrived physical barriers. We felt this was important to the believablity of the scenario. We thought cold would be a good way to control the player's movement that would also give us nice dramatic possibilities. We also liked the idea of fresh snow clashing with the mess of a recent battle, with the gore half-visible under a blanket of white. This was also easier to do from an art perspective - more simple, but more evocative. It was a choice we made for holistic reasons, as per our narrative design philosophy.
You say The Snowfield is an experiment in inverting the traditional relationship between design and QA. Could you explain the experiment in more detail? What were the results, and what did you learn?
Game makers have been trying for a long time to make open-ended, replayable video game stories work. A lot of them try to figure out "good storytelling" as if it were some code or formula and then create some sort of A.I. storyteller that "controls" the player's story, guiding it in the proper ways for maximum dramatic effect. We think this is over-engineering the problem. Instead of creating some sort of super-advanced A.I. that manages these things on the fly, we felt it was more practical to work that sort of feedback system into our development process, to manage it by incorporating more QA feedback into game design.
This doesn't mean we let testers design the game. Rather, we used tester feedback to observe what sort of stories tended to emerge based on a core set of mechanics, behaviors, and characters we had designed around our WWI survival scenario. We didn't design a story, in a sense. We designed a world with a set of affordances we felt had good dramatic and emotional potential. We then let people play with them, and then we refined mechanics and A.I. based on observation.
The results weren't as complex as we'd hope to achieve in the time frame, but we knew it was a pretty ambitious project going in. The method involves a lot of exploration, iteration, and revision, and the eight week development cycle - already painfully limited by student standards, let alone industry standards - was a very challenging environment to try and execute such a strategy. We had to cut massive amounts of features near the end in order to hit our release window, but the cuts and revisions were all done according to the development philosophy, making the final product a relatively modest, but true, illustration of the method.
Seeing the response to the final product, we learned that even simple mechanics and behaviors seem to go a long way when paired with a dense and evocative visual and audio design. The strong emotion some players felt, just about being cold and surrounded by crying people, was enough to make them want to retell their play experience as a story, no matter how simple.
Most commercial developers function on the assumption that narrative creates emotion, but our game hinges on the assumption that emotion creates narrative. It suggests that trying to do less from the start, that spending more time trying to heighten the evocative impact of a simpler set of mechanics, could yield even better results.
What are some interesting things about your game that you haven't talked about before?
Though the game is about WWI, and goes to great effort to create that sense of time and place, it was almost about something else entirely. An earlier idea we almost did instead was a small planet inhabited only by children, vaguely inspired by Le Petit Prince. Since a lot of the brainstorming had to do with different ways we could limit and control player agency with an evocative scenario, we came up with some wildly varying ones. We eventually went with WWI because we felt we'd have to work less to set up the world and the dramatic situation (which was more recognizable) than have to create an entire surreal universe from scratch.
Why do you think Snowfield deserves to win the Student Showcase?
I hope that the subject matter is refreshing given what we are used to in most games, and I hope it sticks in people's brains enough to make "fun" war games difficult to enjoy afterwards.