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Postcard from SGS 2005: What's So Serious About Game Design?

October 31, 2005

Doug Whatley, CEO of BreakAway Games

The second half of Monday's keynote at the Serious Games Summit DC was given by Doug Whatley, CEO of one of the leading "serious game" developers, BreakAway Games. His portion of the keynote concentrated on some of the practical problems of developing serious games, from the perspective of someone who has worked with a number of different customers in a number of different fields. In fact, Whatley started by quoting educator Donald Thompson, who commented: "Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the education of young people is that we apprentice youngsters into 19th century science rather than letting them play scientist."

This set the scene for Whatley's talk, which discussed how to harness the game-related learning techniques that the game business has developed, but also made the important point that, although the entertainment business has forced us to look at the development pipelines in new ways, we shouldn't look at the "serious games" products that are produced as something that replaces what we've already done. In other words, "serious games" can and should let you play scientist. Whatley then made a reference to Peter Perla's previous talk, noting the importance of wargaming as a trailblazer for this concept, and pointing out that military culture has been very accepting of gaming for a long time. In military research, he noted, there's always a very specific problem to be solved, and much process has already been developed by following techniques from military wargaming.

As is the case with many speakers, Whatley then went on to try to define "serious games," at least in his view, arguing that his definition of the phrase would be: "A product that is not specifically entertainment, but uses entertainment or the techniques and processes of the entertainment business to achieve a purpose." The important point here, he argued is that such products are not just a replacement for e-learning or books - they should "fundamentally change the way we train, educate, and interact with the real world."

Culture Clash?

One of Whatley's major points was that those making serious games are game developers, and it's important that those funding serious games "understand our process," in terms of scheduling and framework, which may not necessarily be immediately obvious. As Whatley put it, although "game publishers are the bad guys," in popular developer parlance, they have adapted to this complex development process well, something that hasn't happened yet in the "serious games" business. According to Whatley, this is especially true for government contracts, which require a statement of work precisely spelling out final game features and attributes to the letter, and can potentially harm the creative side of the game construction process.

Whatley contrasted this with game publishing as a process, in which there can potentially be various points at which the publisher makes extra decisions, such as the end of design, and the end of prototyping. In his view, the same thing should be true for serious games, and he urged that all parties don't lock into stone the feature set, and negatively affect the final product.

Seriously Scheduling

The BreakAway CEO then briefly brought up a traditional video game schedule, and how the serious game development process differed in terms of development stages - in some cases, significantly, but in other games hardly at all. He first focused in on the concept stage, in which, in his opinion, those working on serious games should craft a vision statement for product, as well as a project statement from the developer point of view, discussing why the developer is doing the project. It's important that these concepts match up, since there can be frustration if some of the game design decisions, though sensible from an enjoyment point of view, are potentially contradictory to the underlying purpose of those commissioning the project.

Next up is the design phase, which Whatley contends should include a detailed design document, a technical design document, and a risk mitigation document that looks at all risks, even if it can't solve them on the spot - it should at least come up with a plan to help solve them. Following this is prototyping, in which designers, programmers and artists can iterate to find the right mix of elements in project. This period seems to be longer, relatively speaking, than the percentage of the development process dedicated to prepare these features in a conventional game development environment, and Whatley indicated that it's nice, although not mandatory to finish this period with a working, playable prototype.

This serious game prototype doesn't have to be a single entity, though - Whatley referenced that you could end up with 3 or 4 executables for risk mitigation purposes, each identifying a particular feature there might be concern over. Following prototyping, which might take 3 to 6 months, there's pre-production, which could take 6 months, and tends to mystify some funders. However, it was explained that this period is essentially to create one of everything in the game, and really get the timing down. It allows those developing it to identify the asset production pipeline, and hopefully provide a "slice of gameplay", which is easy if you're producing the kind of game where you can make one level, and iterate art to create the rest, but harder with games such as the Civilization series where, if you pull the game apart, you don't have the full experience.

It's more difficult to make "slices of gameplay" for titles such as the Civilization series, Whatley suggests.

Next up is the production phase, which can be scaled up and down depending on the amount of people put into the project, since you should now know the amount of artist man months needed to create the rest of the game assets, and can staff up and down accordingly. Whatley argued that serious game developers might want to consider the concept of being code complete at alpha, and content complete at beta, a concept also true in the conventional game industry, depending on the definition of those two milestones. Finally, Whatley ended by talking about the testing phase, which is vital, but apparently something that government entities don't always like paying for as a separate line item, because they're not used to it. It is, nonetheless, very important, as potentially is ongoing post-release support, something also overlooked at times.

Concept Of Proof

In his next section, Whatley referenced the important of locking down the concept - especially of the type of "serious game" that the funder wants to make. He pointed out that different groups don't understand similar types of products in the same way, so this needs to be carefully defined. For example, is the planned product for play or training? The difference between these is immense, although the product could be dealing with the same exact subject matter.

Whatley then tried to define the different types of "serious game" - not by their subject matter, but rather by the kinds of lessons that they try to convey. He divided these up into training games (again citing educator Thompson's definition as "something akin to the military model of training:, with metrics, a task, and developable skills), the education-based game (founded on problem formation and the expansion of cognitive ability, applying learning in different, new and nonexistent contexts), simulation (simply defined as "a speculative exercise with rules, goals, and containing a disequilibria outcome"), play (involving "...the notion that kids can put their hands on something," when outcomes are often unknown and unexpected), and a relatively undeveloped concept, toys (involving "just discovering elements of individual objects.")

Practical Hints

Finally, Whatley discussed some more practical hints to creating serious games that are truly relevant. He particularly focused on the granularity of time, pointing out the turn-based vs. realtime debate, and arguing that a shorter turn eventually becomes realtime, and in the real world, the decision-making loop speed can change and actually be different for different opponents - this potentially stymies an opponent from ever reacting, because he is always thinking about the new move made by his opponent. This concept is rarely built into entertainment games, but Whatley clearly feels that it's important.

In addition, also touched on were the problems of overdetailing graphics (Whatley pointed out that you may not need to model a continent to the nearest leaf when you're just moving divisions around a European map), and looking carefully at how effects are modeled in a serious game (you don't model the physics of that element if you don't need to.)

Oddly enough, Whatley concluded, there are developer/client relationship issues that map to some of the in-game issues. In particular, comment and reaction loops need to match between the developer and client, and they need to work together to see how processes are going to work, since the developer has a preset schedule, and if the client comments on something not on that schedule, it may not get addressed for some time, especially if the developer is already working on another task. Thus, expectation for relative importance in feedback loops needs to be carefully set, and the game's design needs to be fungible, giving the developer, contractually some flexibility. If we work through these problems, Whatley suggested, the sky really is the limit in "serious games", as he ended on a happy note, positively glowing about the possible future of the community, and evangelizing: "We can change the world."


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