Beginning Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008
entrants, today’s interview is with Serious Games Interactive's Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, developer of Global Conflicts: Palestine
‘Global Conflicts: Palestine’
tasks the player as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, armed with only a pen and paper. The player collects quotes to get a newspaper article, with many different avenues of obtaining information. The most newsworthy story will get the best exposure, but what's printed will affect the balance of the conflict, and the game aims to challenge ideas about the issues through situations taken from real-life events.
Danish-based developer Egenfeldt-Nielsen describes his own background as coming from "the twilight zone between the games industry and the research world," as he researched the educational potential of computer games. He also used to work for clients like Nike to help them develop their online presence. The company, he says, is a mixture of people with a variety of backgrounds, but while they've had involvement with a number of projects, this is the first released title for many of them.
What motivated you to create a game intended to present a serious topic?
I was convinced that we could do better than the typical edutainment that we see on the market, and that we could broaden the appeal of games over time to new target groups.
From where did you draw inspiration for its design and implementation?
I am not quite sure how much inspiration we actually drew from, but games like Baldur's Gate
did provide some inspiration.
How important was source material, such as photography and city maps from the real Palestine, in the creation of the game world?
It was crucial. We went through extensive research using reference material and maps, not necessarily to build a completely accurate model but to capture the atmosphere and feel, which according to most, we were capable of.
Also, in relation to the actual contents of the game, they were based on primary sources like interviews, testimonials, documentaries, books, newspaper articles etc. Basically, everything we could get our hands on. The basic idea was to get as close to the primary source and personal viewpoint, and let players engage with that in the game.
How has it been to use the Unity game development tool during the production of Global Conflict: Palestine?
We have worked very closely with the people behind Unity, which are also based in Denmark, so we had extensive support and could draw on their extremely talented programmers. The tool was not completely finished when we started some years ago, so we had some beginner's problems, but the tool is really powerful for developing small to medium games like ours. You have smooth flow between different resources and the technology is extremely approachable, so you can really cover a lot of ground quickly.
What do you think the most interesting element of your game is?
I believe we have found an interesting formula that can provide a very compelling combination of education and gaming, with a bit of tweaking. The idea of the critical journalist that has to explore different perspectives on an issue provides a strong starting point for a compelling and educational experience.
Also, the game mechanic, wherein you have to understand the information to progress in the right direction, and actively recognize and sort information to your final article by understanding what is going on, works very well.
Roughly how many people have been working on Global Conflict: Palestine, and what has the development process been like?
Well, we have varied quite a lot through development as ambition levels shifted. Back in 2005, we started with four or five people that worked around the clock to get a prototype for testing within six months.
That prototype was received well in testing, but we still decided to scrap it and lift the quality to a higher level in terms of graphics, game mechanics, scope and narrative. At that point we increased to five or six people that basically finished the game in a year. That year was pretty hard work, and towards the end we were focused on getting it shipped no matter what.
If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
Where does one begin? We would have done a million things differently. We started by trying to develop a combination of a strategy game and the current game. That was too ambitious, but nevertheless, we spent a good deal of time on that - we did almost have a running strategy game.
We would definitely have implemented far better debugging tools earlier in the process, and spent time on getting our customized tools ready before pushing for production. We would have been more focused on prototyping and testing the core gameplay more extensively before implementing it. We would have focused on getting the gameplay more engaging, more challenging and allow for a greater variation in the game instead of being too focused on the educational experience.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?
It still seems to be a tough arena, and although digital distribution is getting us some of the way, it is primarily for casual games that indie developers have a chance. I think the Introversion guys are doing some interesting things and have put together a smooth operation.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?
Don't be confined by what games are, but think what they can be. Open your eyes to the potential beyond a pure focus on entertainment. This will grow new target groups, and provide a place for aging gamers to retire to when they get tired of the mainstream game formula.