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Secrets of Amazing Transformational Games
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Sabrina Haskell Culyba - A Field Guide for Design Leaders on Transformational Games

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Presenter: Sabrina Haskell Culyba, Senior Game Designer, Schell Games

This talk outlined the tools and processes Schell Games uses when working on serious games with an emphasis on practical takeaways for developers to apply to their own projects:

- Transformational Framework- a tool for breaking down your serious game design problem

- Schedule Considerations- how scheduling for a serious game is different

- Audience Considerations- why it’s so much more than age & gender for serious games

- Working with SMEs- Tips for developers on the how & whys of working with subject matter experts

- Design Lenses- ways of looking at your game design that are particularly relevant for serious games

This is a game developer focused talk given from the perspective of a projector director and lead designer.

Sabrina Haskell Culyba - A Field Guide for Design Leaders on Transformational Games

  1. 1. Imagine you’re walking down the street at night. It’s dark, except for the occasional street lamp. You notice a figure crawling around under one of these lamps. You approach and ask "What are you doing?" They reply "I'm looking for my keys." You look around in the lamplight, then say, "I don't see any keys. Are you sure you dropped them here?" "No,” they say, “I lost them over there", and point off out into the darkness. Of course, your next question is "Well, if you lost them over there, why are you looking over here?“ And they answer, "Because this is where the light is.” This parable was my first real lesson about working professionally on serious games. It came from an email, sent to me by a client Lynn Fiellin from Yale. We were collaborating with Lynn’s team at Yale University on creating a game called PlayForward, a behavior change game with the lofty goal of reducing HIV exposure in at-risk teens by changing their risky behavior. This was a few weeks into what was supposed to be a pretty short pre-production process. We were producing prototypes for minigames to be included in the PlayForward. But Lynn was not happy. What we were designing did not make her believe we were on the right track.
  2. 2. Her parable email continued- “I would ask that you really closely review what we are trying to accomplish ….make sure you are looking at where the “keys” ARE, NOT where the light is.” What Lynn sensed was that, for our team, the light was game design. We could talk about engagement, progression, feedback, theming, narrative. We understood that stuff. It was our wheelhouse. Lynn’s email pushed us.
  3. 3. “I hope you understand the intent of all this. “ she continued. “You folks have been working very hard, but I have been tasked with making sure that what we do is what we have said were going to do and that we produce something that looks good, is fun but MOST importantly has the potential for being EFFECTIVE.” This email was for me, an epiphany moment that traditional game design was not going to be enough to create a this kind of game. We needed to develop other tools, processes, and approaches. The games we were designing were fine as games. But they had to be more, they had to be transformative Lynn’s email was followed by many conversations with her team, and a complete overhaul of our preproductio. And it started me on a journey to establish a new process at our studio for these kinds of games. A process that took us outside the bright light of game design for player entertainment, and into the less explored, less illuminated world of designing for player transformation.
  4. 4. My name is Sabrina Culyba. I am a principal game designer at Schell Games, an independent studio here in Pittsburgh, and one of my roles there is driving our process for transformational games- games designed to change players. Our studio doesn’t just do serious games. In fact, for the first 5 years or so of our existence we worked primarily on entertainment - downloadable games, mmos, theme park attractions, toys. But for about 6 years, we have been working on more and more transformational games. We have about 100 people right now and about 2/3rds of our projects are transformational experiences. For the past 6 months, I’ve been refining & documenting our studio process into a field guide- a handbook for design leaders at the studio on these kinds of games. If you’re a game designer or a game producer, put onto one of these games, then you’re going to face some challenges that are different than working on a traditional games and the field guide is meant to give you the words and tools to answer these challenges.
  5. 5. At the heart of the field guide is what we call our Transformational Framework. It’s part design document, part research paper, part development compass. Its purpose is to give everyone on the team, and any partner stakeholders, a shared vision of game’s strategy for transforming players. These are the pieces but I’m not going to run through the full framework. Each piece here has evolved from the problems & questions that come up during development of transformational games and I think it’s examining these motivating questions that give the right context for the parts of the framework, so I’d like to share some of those with you.
  6. 6. You’ll notice that we use the term “Transformational” at schell games,. We prefer this term for a couple of reasons- one is it sidesteps the “boring” baggage often associated with things labeled “educational” or “serious”, I prefer it because it emphasizes not the game, but what happens to the player. In game development, we have the real world, then we have the game world. And typically we mostly care about the player here- in the game world, and while they are playing. But in transformational games, we care about how the player is changed outside the game- we call this transfer. And we want those changes to stick around- not just at the moment they stop playing, but hopefully for a while- we call this persistence. Both transfer and persistence are important when we think about transforming the player Our goal is change. The game is a tool for that change, not an end unto itself. Coming from entertainment game development, this is a bit of a paradigm shift. In traditional game design, we mostly think about the player and the player state in terms of the game- we think about them in the game, we think about them coming back to the game but in transformational game design, we have to prioritize thinking about players outside the game because that’s where the real change exists.
  7. 7. One of the things we’ve found helpful is enumerating the different categorical ways we can transform players. Having terms for different types of transformation helps us talk about them- about how they are similar or different. And perhaps even more critically, it allows to reuse them. If we work with a particular type of transformation on one game, we can talk about ways to take what was successful or not successful in that game to apply it the next time we are targeting that type of transformation. So what are the different ways we can change our players? Two that might be the most obvious, especially if you’re thinking about educational games, are Knowledge and Skill. Knowledge - The player knows something new after playing. Learning the meaning of vocabulary words would be a knowledge transformation. And Skill - The player can do something new or better after playing. Learning to solve algebraic equations would be a skill transformation. However, if you really embrace the openness term of “transformational,” a number of other broad categories of emerge. Physical - The player’s body is changed after playing. Players improving their resting heart rate would be an example of a physical transformation. Disposition - The player’s internal feelings are changed after playing. A reduction in a player’s feelings of stress would be an example of an disposition transformation. Behavior - The player acts in a new or changed way after playing. Players choosing healthier foods to eat after playing your game, this is a behavior transformation. Belief - The player’s sense of truth is changed after playing. Increasing players’ belief that human trafficking is a big problem worth tackling with urgency, would be a belief transformation. Relationships - The player’s social relationships are changed after playing. Getting players to have more trust in authority figures, this would be a relationship transformation. Identity - The player’s sense of self is changed after playing. Getting a player to describe themselves as artistic
  8. 8. To give an example, one of the minigames we designed with Yale for PlayForward had the goal of teaching kids to say no to risky peer pressure situations. Initially, you might think this is a game with a single transformation- a behavior transformation that the player would choose to say no to risky situations after playing the game. But the reality of creating that behavior change is that it is dependent and strengthened by a number of other transformations. Yale, who was our subject matter expert for the game, understood from their knowledge of behavior change that this was a complex transformation to achieve so we worked with them to break down this high level goal into several, more targeted transformational goals – we ended up with 4 total - 2 skills, 1 knowledge, and 1 disposition, plus the main behavioral goal. Breaking down this minigame’s transformational goals in a more nuanced way had a couple of impacts. First, this game got more complicated- what could have been a straightforward multiple choice “how should you say no” kind of thing, ended up being a more multifaceted game. Second, we were able to target specific sub mechanics of the game to each of these transformational goals. And we were able to connect the approach of these mechanics more strongly to specific behavioral, cognitive, and learning theories. We did this same detailed breakdown on each of the minigames in PlayForward and this resulted in a more informed game design that had a much stronger potential for changing players.
  9. 9. These are the categories that we’ve identified at Schell Games. I’m not sure I’d call it the definitive breakdown- we’ve certainly had discussions & debate about where the line is blurred between different transformational types. These terms aren’t meant to absolutely discrete labels. The thing I really want to convey to you is that player change isn’t a monolithic thing and you can use these terms as tools for you to think & talk about how you want to transform your players in a more nuanced way. So we’ve talked about types of transformation but why aren’t our players changed already? What’s stopping them from already having been transformed.
  10. 10. Barriers are the answer to another common question you’ll face working on transformational games- what problems do we actually have to solve to achieve our transformational goals? To help illustrate what I mean by barriers, let’s look at one of our biggest transformational games- The World of Lexica.
  11. 11. Lexica is an RPG style game with a high level purpose of turning middle schoolers into lifelong readers. On the surface, the problem the game is trying to solve can be expressed pretty simply- get kids to read more. But to really understand the problem, we had to turn it around with a powerful word- why. Why do some kids not read that much? We had to become curious about the problem. Getting kids to read is a persistent problem in our educational system. Most persistent problems are more complex than they initially appear. Digging into the research about why kids don’t read revealed a lengthy list of barriers. What was interesting was some of the most important barriers were not ones that we naively had considered to be part of the problem. Most people on the team had assumed that reading was not cool, that kids would rather play games than read books. So we just had to use our game to show them that reading was cool.
  12. 12. But one of the biggest barriers, we found out, was access to books- kids who have easy access to books are more likely to become readers. Another big barrier was time available for voluntary reading and it tied closely into another barrier- the lack of having experienced reading flow- kids who had experienced getting absorbed and lost in a book- who experienced reading flow- were more likely to identify as readers and read more books. Wow. Think about those two barriers and then think about being tasked with designing an engrossing, large scale game to get kids to become lifelong readers. Every minute kids spend playing your game is one they are definitely not spending experiencing reading flow. Okay, well at least we understood that. But let’s keep going because there are some more barriers that are pretty interesting- Kids don’t understand what kind of books are out there and what they might like. This is another barrier about a lack of exposure to books. With this barrier, a rich game world that exposes them to lots of characters and themes from a wide range of books to pique their interest starts to feel like it has potential to make an impact. And then there’s these two- weak technical reading skills and a lack of confidence, or feelings of self-efficacy, about their ability to read. Improving mechanical skills and reinforcing player achievement are things that make sense to tackle with a game. I’m guessing that just reading this list has the designer wheels turning in your head about what kinds of systems and content you might include in your game to address these barriers. And with this list you can also see how you might better prioritize the game systems, investing more resources in systems that have a stronger relationship to the barriers that define your problem space. Identifying the barriers, lets you know where your game can help and where you can be effective. It forces you to question your assumptions about “how you can make the change happen” by asking “why isn’t this change already happening.”
  13. 13. Lexica had 13 barriers in total that we identified. Like player transformations, we’ve found there are common categories of barriers. It can be a useful exercise to run through this list of barrier types while thinking about your high level problem. Depending on your domain space, you might be able to take a first guess at the relevant barriers of each type. However, another great use of these categories is as research keywords. For example, google searching “misconceptions reading” will reveal many sources, of varying levels of formality, that talk about misconceptions that hinder reading or learning to read. The beautiful thing about barriers, is that, depending on your domain, there’s a good chance they’ve been studied. Misconceptions: It’s misunderstood Social Norms: It’s not “cool” Relatability: It doesn’t seem approachable/relevant Complexity: Its scope makes it overwhelming Difficulty: It’s hard to do or understand Motivation: It doesn’t seem worth doing Ignorance: It’s unknown Accessibility: It’s gated by something else (concepts, tools, time, money, wizards...) Priority: It doesn’t seem as important as other things (categorize some of the example barriers from lexica anecdote) Again, I’m not saying this is the definite list of barriers, but this is our current list and we use it as a tool in our transformational design process. Ultimately though what you really want to vet both your barriers and your Player Transformational goals, is a subject matter expert.
  14. 14. If you’re wondering if you should have a subject matter expert working with you in some way on your transformational game, let me simply say yes. You should. If you’re wondering when you should bring a subject matter expert into your process, let me say simply say generally as early as possible. Working with a subject matter expert at the start of pre-production can help you more quickly and accurately identify your barriers and transformational goals. An expert during the process can help make sure your applying research correctly and accurately representing the domain space of your game. So, assuming you accept those recommendations, we found there are some other practical questions that come up. How do we setup our relationship with an expert? Do we pay them? Do we meet with them once a week, once a sprint? Do we have to listen to their opinions? Should we have them produce any of our game’s content? Nobody talks much about the options for structuring a subject matter expert relationship with a team and what we’ve found is that it really does vary project to project. On PlayForward, for example, Yale was our client but also our experts, so we were constantly meeting with them from the beginning to the end, they did have a lot of say in the design- final say really, and well, we didn’t have to pay them- they paid us! By contrast, one of our other projects, Waterbears, a tablet game designed as a tool to help teach systems thinking skills, .had a different relationship with their experts, meeting with them off and on the need arose for most of development but mostly drawing from materials from the excellent book on systems thinking that their expert had written. Later, when the team was working on how the game would be integrated into the classroom, they then worked with their experts to more directly assist with the creation of example lesson
  15. 15. There is no “right” answer for how to structure your SME role, but here are 4 generalized patterns, based on our experience- On-demand Consultant: You meet/talk occasionally, driven by the needs of the projects. In this relationship, specific questions from development will trigger interactions with your Expert. This is sometimes paid, but if it’s infrequent or informal enough, you might find that compensation isn’t required. Advisor: You meet /talk on a regularly scheduled basis. This isn’t so much about input into specific questions you know you have, but more about having an expert available as a sounding board for your direction. An advisor can provide another perspective during your development process and bring a wealth of expertise. Because this is an ongoing obligation, an advisor is often compensated in some way. Reviewer: You share builds or documents with the Experts and they give their feedback. This is more of a reactionary role. Rather than framing your direction, a reviewer validates or challenges what you are producing. Reviewers, in our experience generally aren’t paid. Often though they might have a stake in the game- for example, they might be a teacher interested in using the game in their classroom once it is published. Partner: In a partner relationship your expert is working closely and regularly with the team. They are formally or informally considered part of the extended project team. Unless they are your client, they are most likely paid- perhaps by your client. Sometimes they might even produce some of your content or do detailed review/approvals of content based on their expertise. of course, sometimes you’ll need to bleed between these roles or transition from role to role over the course of the project, but hopefully labels these help you think about the possibility space for working with SME.
  16. 16. So, we’ve established that working on a transformational game means wrestling with some pretty significant additional questions during pre-production- And we’ve also talked about scheduling time (and perhaps doling out money) to get input from subject matter experts. So, if you’re wondering if there’s an impact on your production, the answer, again, is yes. I hope we’ve already established that transformational games require a bigger pre-production effort. It takes time to learn about the domain space of your game, to understand the transformations you will be targeting and the related barriers, to look at the relevant research. And all this is in addition to the normal stuff you do during pre-production- prototyping. When we reset our pre-production process on PlayForward, we ended up effectively more than doubling our pre-production timeline- and it wasn’t because we had lost that much time going in the wrong direction- it was because we started to understand that we had a much bigger task to tackle than we had previously thought Another impact we’ve seen is that transformational games are more complicated explain so that everyone is on the same page- there’s the game, then there’s what the game is trying to teach or change, then there’s how the game might be integrated into formal learning environments, then there’s the business model for the game which often differs from traditional entertainment games. Since there are more and diverse stakeholders in transformational games, you will have non-subject matter experts, including yourself, trying to explain or understand the transformational aspects, AND you’ll have non-game people trying to explain or understand the gameplay of your game.
  17. 17. One of our current transformational projects is Happy Atoms, whose high level purpose is to “demystify chemistry”. I recall having a conversation with the project director where he shared his experience being at a conference and overhearing someone from the studio describing Happy Atoms and making pretty broad claims about what it was going to teach players- claims that did not line up with the current thinking on the team. This was a one of the moments he really started to value the transformational framework, because he was able to start using it as a tool to message very clearly what the goals of happy atoms were. But even with the framework, this messaging takes time and attention. My point here is not that these things are unique to transformational games- these are to some extent familiar production challenges- but in transformational games these challenges are often more difficult and more complex, so plan and buffer accordingly.
  18. 18. Another big hit we’ve seen is in content development during production. We really saw this on The World of Lexica. The game is certainly text heavy, with a lot of written dialog. This dialog had a lot of masters- on the schell games side, we had writers experienced in writing narrative for games who were focused on engagement and storytelling through the dialogue, on the client side, we had writers trained in English Language arts who were focused on the technical language arts aspects, and we were representing character from classic literature, so the dialogue not only had to be interesting and correctly written, it had to reflect the voice of various works of historical authors. On top of that, some characters are from books by modern day authors, so at times the original author would also have a voice in the process. Development of the games dialogue was no simple feat. Further, this is a game all about reading and writing, so minor text errors, which might have been known shippables in a different game, were considered critical bugs even late in the QA process. You will need additional preparation and thought to generate your content. You will need to incorporate research. You will need to consider how content connects to assessment. You will need to consider how content scaffolds learning. Your content must support your transformation, in addition to being engaging. You will have more stakeholders involved in the review process. You will have more feedback. With more voices to consider, it will simply take longer to parse and incorporate all your feedback. You will have more feedback from individuals inexperienced with games. Stakeholders who are less familiar with games may give more challenging feedback. This different perspective can be very valuable, but it can also slow agreement and approval of game content. You will have additional standards for your content: You may have more rigorous qualitative standards. You may have more rigorous factual standards.
  19. 19. A complaint you often hear leaved against serious games is that the production value isn’t there. That they don’t seem to have the quality and depth of gameplay or narrative or visuals that you see in entertainment games. Why is this? You hear lots of casual statements of cause. People who work on educational games are more academic and don’t have good game production skills. They don’t understand how important “fun” is to a game. Or, these games are constricted by the environment in which they are design to be used and sold- that if you design for the classroom, your the standards are much lower because you just have to be more interesting than a lesson plan or a test. So, now you’re going to lead the design on a transformational game. And you think to yourself, that’s not going to be us. We’re going to make a kick-ass game- it’s not going to look educational, it’s going to have a really rich feature set, it’s going to be fully animated 3d characters with completely voiced dialog, all the things that other people don’t bother to do on transformational games- we understand, we have the game development skills, we can do it. Let’s pretend you have two buckets of resources- one is to make a traditional entertainment game, the other is to make a transformational game. If we’re spending more of the transformational game’s bucket on a longer preproduction, a subject matter expert, and a more costly content process, well, the remaining resources we have left with which to build the game- the resources from which we draw our general game development- is obviously smaller If you’re going to try to hit the same production value as the game portion of the entertainment game, you’re going to need more resources. Something has to give. This is one of the reasons why we see production values dip in transformational games. Of course, some project swing the opposite way, they do less work for the transformational aspects and really focus on the game, and they may end up with a game that is more modestly transformational but is closer to the production value of an entertainment game.
  20. 20. Oh, and by the way, the reality is you’re probably going to end up trying your best to do more for less, because budgets for transformational games generally tend to be smaller than those for entertainment games. This stuff isn’t easy. When we extended the preproduction time on PlayForward, it was painful because we knew that on some level we were robbing game development to feed transformation. We were shifting resources to focus on things we had less experience with and that had more unknowns. That’s scary for producers and project leaders. Ultimately we are happy with the balance we were able to strike, but it did not come without compromises. It may sound like I’m the harbinger of doom and gloom, But actually, understanding this really makes me value everything that we’ve learned at Schell Games and the process we’ve collectively been able to establish for these kinds of games, because it is this collective cumulative wisdom that helps us mitigate these production challenges. And when you hit them, you don’t feel blindsided- it’s part of the job. If the job were easy, it wouldn’t be fun.
  21. 21. One nice thing about working on a transformational games is that it can bring a layer of objectivity and motivation to your design. Ultimately you have a target goal and you are designing to achieve this goal, and you have a lot of powerful constraints. The longer you work in design, the more I think you appreciate how embracing constraints can empower your design thinking. If these challenge don’t excite you, prepare to be frustrated and disillusioned with transformational game development. But let’s not forget that we are changing players, and thus, at least in some small way, changing the world, in theory for the better. Hopefully, if you’re working on these kinds of games, you find that as motivating and inspiring as I do.
  22. 22. So speaking of remembering that we are changing players- one of the most common questions our teams wrestle with working on transformational games is the question of the game’s efficacy. How do we know if our game is working? There is an idealized standard for transformational games, and this is rigorous scientific evaluation on their efficacy. This requires collecting data to study. So how do we collect this data? In traditional game development we have kind of have it easy. Since we mostly care about the player in the game, we can look directly at their actions or inactions in the game to answer the questions we really care about: Do players want to keep playing? Is the game too hard anywhere? Do player know what to do next? Are players incentivized enough to buy our items? Gathering the answers to these questions is pretty straightforward and it involves a familiar tool- analytics. We track the actions and state changes of the players in the game. We can even do somewhat complex analysis of our analytics- If we see most players complete levels 1 & 2 on the first or second try, while on average take 5 times to beat level 3, and that a higher percentage of players drop out at level 3, we can pretty strongly infer that level 3 is too difficult and is causing players to quit. So, can we use analytics for collecting data about transformation? For some kinds of transformation, like knowledge and the more mechanical skills, analytics of a players performance in the game can get you the data you need to get insight into changes in your player. If the player answers a question wrong at the start of the level but gets it right at the end of the level, you can infer they gained some knowledge.
  23. 23. But let’s look back at what it means to be transformational- what if your transformational goal isn’t something players can truly directly do in the game? What if your goal, for example is a behavior transformation that that players are more likely to choose healthier snacks at lunchtime. Unless you have some way to track your player’s actual eating habits, it’s going to be hard for your in-game analytics to tell you how successful that transformation was. And what if the transformation operates on a totally different time scale- for example, you want to delay your average player’s first sexual encounter- which was one of the goals on the Yale PlayForward game. How are you going to know if you are successful about a transformation that may not be clear until years into the future, long after the game is over?
  24. 24. Collecting this data on player transformation is not analytics, but assessment- assessment of the actual transformation that results from the game. These two things are not the same. Analytics, you can do it better or worse, of course, but generally we as game developers are equipped to do it. On the other hand, assessment of things like behaviors, dispositions, beliefs, identity, etc is not something most game studios are equipped to do. There are ways to do these things but it often involves reaching outside the game- observation, interviews, performance reviews, surveys- and we don’t typically have the resources to track players outside the game. Of course, we can do some level of playtesting and sometimes we do informal versions of these assessment methods during our playtest. But on top of just collecting data, rigorous evaluation involves adhering to specific formal process and standards. So, rigorous evaluation done right is not cheap, fast, or easy. On PlayForward, Yale set out from the beginning to do a formal two year evaluation on the efficacy of the game that involved detailed assessment of player’s change outside the game. They’re just finishing the first year of that study and the initial results will be published this fall. When we tell people how Yale’s is studying PlayForwards’ efficacy, I’ve been surprised by the frequent incredulous reaction- you mean, you’re going to have real data about if the game works or not? You mean, professional researchers are evaluating the game? It took a few times of getting this reaction to really understand how unusual this is. Most transformational game projects don’t have the budget & resources set aside to do this level of assessment & evaluation. So this creates a predicament. Our developers want to believe in the product they are creating. They want to be able to confidently stand behind any claims we make about the game transforming players. But it’s unlikely their game is going to be the subject of a formal study. Should we give up on calling these games transformational? Should we not list them under the educational category in the app store? Should we avoid having schools use these games? Are we making false claims? This question can wear on your soul and it can demoralize teams. How do we deal with this issue?
  25. 25. One solution is to reframe your game’s purpose. Recently, Schell Games released our game Waterbears through GlassLab and the app store. This is a systems thinking game- but the team was very careful not to claim that players would learn systems thinking by playing the game. Instead, the game is designed as a tool to teach systems thinking. Numerous design decisions were made with this distinction in mind- you can play the game on your own and you will be interacting with systems thinking concepts but there’s no explanation and no reflection about systems thinking in the game. Instead, the game is designed to be a tool for teachers to illustrate and provide hands on examples of systems thinking concepts in the classroom. And to this end, the game has accompanying lesson plans for teachers to use and adapt. The team knew that there already was a powerful structure that could teach systems thinking- teachers. Designing the game to be useful for teachers turned out to be a powerful framing of the project’s goal. It’s much easier to show factually that teachers say your game is useful for teaching systems thinking than to determine if it directly improves systems thinking. So intentionally designing for something easier to assess is one strategy. But we don’t always want to do this. So, how can we think about evaluating the efficacy of our game if this isn’t the case.
  26. 26. Jesse Schell, our studio ceo, wrote about this in the second edition of his book Art of Game Design. He proposed 5 levels of efficacy evaluation, which I’ve adapted here: Instinctual Rationalization: You have some instinctive reasoning about why the game might be effective Theory Basis: The game uses prior research as a basis for its design and how it achieves player transformation. Expert Review & Validation: The game has the endorsement of experts who vouch for the games effectiveness. Anecdotes and Informal Testing: The game has been informally used and there is anecdotal data about its effectiveness Formal Research Data: The game has been formally studied and data generated that informs claims about the game’s efficacy. Looking at these levels, one of the encouraging things is that even if we can’t do formal research, we can do 1-4. Naturally we bring our instincts to the project, using a process like the transformational framework helps us establish a thoughtful basis in prior research and theory, integrating subject matter experts to get their professional validation, and informal playtesting of the game or having people actually using it after publication can help us gather anecdotal feedback on the efficacy. So, if you’re hoping to have rigorous, scientific proof about your game’s efficacy, be prepared to spend a lot of money (or hope some researcher really wants to do it for you) and be prepared to wait a long time. We completed PlayForward in 2012 and like I said, the first results will be published this fall, 3 years later. If you’re willing consider other ways of evaluating efficacy within the resources of your development team, there are options. You can set yourself up for success by using a strong, early transformational process that includes a framework similar to the one I’ve described here and brings in input from subject matter experts.
  27. 27. So this has been some of what we’ve been learning and extracting at schell games from our collective experience. The field guide I’m working on covers this content and more, in greater detail. The field guide is a work in progress but, like we do for all our projects, we are actively playtesting it. I mentioned how our Happy Atoms project team used the transformational framework and field guide to better communicate to people outside the team what their project was actually trying to accomplish. But it did much more than that for the team internally. The project director working on Happy Atoms was new to leading transformational game development and he was taking on a very ambitious project with a digital experience as well as a physical toy component, also this project was funded by a grant, which comes with its own special requirements. When he took on the helm of happy atoms, we knew we had a physical toy that was compelling for talking about how molecules form but the scope of the goals of project was a pretty nebulous – teach something- anything?- about chemistry. They didn’t really have a client driving them. So, a challenging transformational project- the perfect opportunity to field test the field guide. So what was the impact for the team? They used the field guide to drive their pre-production process and it helped them figure out what they needed to prioritize. Just learning about the types of transformations outlined helped them understand the range of types transformations that were possible and by looking closely on the barriers relevant to learning chemistry, they were able to narrow their focus to a couple types of clear transformational goals and to feel confident that their direction was going to address relevant barriers in the subject of chemistry. This rallied the team because it felt so much more achievable. It let them cut scope in smart ways so that they could focus on the features and content that really mattered for their specific
  28. 28. The framework from the field guide also faced an early real world test at a critical production moment on The World of Lexica game. Lexica was originally conceived as a multiplayer, online enabled game where players would actively play through the game story with their peers. Around the same time we were starting to formalize the framework as a process for our studio, we also learned that Lexica wouldn’t be able to rely on internet connectivity in schools or many homes of the student players. This clearly had big implications for the game design- what should we do? What we did was turn to the newly created transformational framework for Lexica. What were we losing, transformationally, if we took out online multiplayer? There was a barrier about the importance of addressing social norms perceptions about reading, by creating a culture of readers. On the surface it seemed like losing the social multiplayer was going to hurt our ability to address this barrier. However, looking more at our transformational framework as a whole, we were able to make a strong pivot. - what if Lexica was not primarily an online social game, but a single player, episodic game? Could we create a sort of “water cooler” real world social interaction between players through the release of episodes over a school semester, like a tv show season? After all, one big advantage we had is that we knew students would be surrounded for 8 hours a day with peers who all had the same tablets with the same game installed on it. And this type of social interaction outside the game, had a better chance of bleeding over into discussions with peers who weren’t already playing. And, by moving to single player, we could shift the gameplay so that the player had a party, not of peers, but of book characters. This created many more opportunities for story moments with characters and so strengthened the ability of the game to engage players emotionally to entice them to try various books. And finally, because the game had built in breaks between episodes, there were natural pauses provided space for players to explore any books that piqued their interest during the game story so far. We realized we could perhaps do more for our transformation by intentionally nudging players out of the game.
  29. 29. In sharing parts of the process we have been iterating on at Schell Games, I don’t mean to declare this is the right way to do things or the only way to think about this problem space. But I do hope you’ve found some of what I’ve shared useful, and that it brings a little more light in our collective search for the keys to successfully developing games that effectively change players.
  30. 30. If you want to continue the conversation about anything I’ve shared here, you can reach me via email. While the field guide isn’t available publicly yet, we’ve published a few early pages from the current draft on the Schell Games blog and plan to continue doing so, and I’ll be posting these slides there as well. Also, I’m looking to include anecdotal stories from other developers working on transformational game- if you have a story that illustrates an insight or pitfall for developing these types of games, please get in touch.
  • annanroberts

    Jul. 6, 2019
  • NadineK1

    Mar. 20, 2017

Presenter: Sabrina Haskell Culyba, Senior Game Designer, Schell Games This talk outlined the tools and processes Schell Games uses when working on serious games with an emphasis on practical takeaways for developers to apply to their own projects: - Transformational Framework- a tool for breaking down your serious game design problem - Schedule Considerations- how scheduling for a serious game is different - Audience Considerations- why it’s so much more than age & gender for serious games - Working with SMEs- Tips for developers on the how & whys of working with subject matter experts - Design Lenses- ways of looking at your game design that are particularly relevant for serious games This is a game developer focused talk given from the perspective of a projector director and lead designer.


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