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Lecturer and developer Stefano Gualeni explains how his team employed biometric testing -- once the purview of big publishers and chiefly used to test action games -- to improve player response to a casual, indie iOS game.
"For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid."
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter LVI - Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes.
This article charts the history of a whale. Or rather, it is the story of my whale: the iPad video game titled Gua-Le-Ni; or, The Horrendous Parade.
I designed and developed Gua-Le-Ni between 2011 and 2012 with Italian development studio Double Jungle S.a.S. of Padova, Italy, and I call it "my whale" because one of the main tropes of such game, namely the fascination with mythological creatures, captured my curiosity since my early childhood.
I still remember my mother going through books with etchings of fantastic animals with me, and perhaps it is going through these early memories that the conception for a game involving fantastic beasts was first formed. I am sure it was a similar fascination that drove my decision to become an architect in the first place.
Toy cubes with animal parts printed on their faces constitute the main player-interface for Gua-Le-Ni.
This article tells the story of how my obsessions as an individual, as well as my inclinations as an independent game designer, became entangled with academic research. Specifically, it is about Gua-Le-Ni, and about how the development of the game was influenced by scientific experiments.
To begin with, the production of my game was slowed down and structured in a specific modular to accommodate the needs of the research team at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences. The coordinated effort of the Italian development team and the Dutch research team made Gua-Le-Ni the benchmark to assess the possibility to integrate psychophysiological (or biometric) experiments in the quick iterative production cycle of casual and independent game development.
Whereas on a personal level, Gua-Le-Ni is a work of love, a way to embrace my childhood experiences and to explore my understanding of the creative process, for the research team working on my game, it was an object of dispassionate observation reduced to its mechanical and quantifiable workings. Analogous to Melville's pyramid in the quote from Moby Dick, both perspectives are sketches of the same whale -- my whale.
From the point of view of a player, Gua-Le-Ni is an action-puzzle video game that takes place on the wooden desk of an old, befuddled British taxonomist. On his desk lies a fantastic book: a bestiary populated by impossible, finely drawn animals. Just like the monsters of myths and folklore, the impossible creatures in my game are combinations of parts of real animals. To understand what I mean, it might help to think of legendary creatures like the sphinx, the Minotaur, or South Park's Manbearpig.
Feeding the beasts in Gua-Le-Ni does not only temporarily stop their relentless stampeding, but can also modify the beasts' composition or increase their value in terms of points awarded upon their correct cataloguing.
My paper abominations walk across the illustrations of the old bestiary. Above, you can see a CA-BIT-DOR-STER: a four-module beast with the head of a camel, one body part of a rabbit, another of a condor, concluded with a lobster's tail. The main goal of Gua-Le-Ni is to recognize the components of the fantastic creatures and their relative order before one of them manages to flee from the page (which is the Game Over condition).
Mentored by the old taxonomist, the player pursues this purpose by rotating, moving and spinning toy cubes with pictures of animal parts printed on the six faces of the cubes. A paper beast is correctly recognized, and thus prevented from escaping the bestiary, when the player manages to match the illustrations on the top faces of the taxonomic cubes with the paper beast currently in play.
Departing from a player's perspective and taking yet another point of view, namely the academic framework that underlies my doctoral studies, Gua-Le-Ni is a creative artefact that complements my dissertation. It exemplifies the potential of video games for the explanation, the testing and the development of philosophical concepts and questions. In the specific case of my game, the playable philosophical notion is David Hume's understanding of the imaginative capabilities of the human mind. Luckily for you, neither this aspect of the game nor my sickeningly personal design process will be discussed here.
For the sake of the audience of Gamasutra, instead, this article will focus on one aspect of my whale, namely an aspect which has a practical dimension for people developing video games in short production cycles. More specifically, I will present some of the opportunities offered by biometric testing methods for the development of casual video games (the development of which are characterized by quick iterations).
The practical use of biometry in Gua-Le-Ni will be presented as a case study that clearly demonstrates the advantages offered by biometric testing. The benefits and the viability of a biometric approach for the developers of casual games are extensively discussed in the academic papers that discussed our methods and experiments (see references) and will be shortly presented to the reader in the conclusion of this article.