Finding of the week #45

Early access influence

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I like to trace the influence of an early access game version on the development process of the game.

I’ve already presented the concept of early access games and their impact on the development process of a game[1]. Today, I like to trace the changes in the development process of Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager (BASPM)[2]. Two months after the release of the first early access version, the developers received a huge amount of suggestions and feedback. After analyzing the feedback, the developers decided to rewrite the roadmap of the development process: the game will receive some additional major features the community has requested[3].

BASPM is a strategy game that allows the player to become the director of a space agency. The main goal of the first part of the game is to replay the race to land on the Moon. In order to do so, the player can unlock historic missions and launch them into space. In contrast to Kerbal Space Program, BASPM doesn’t allow the player to control the space crafts directly. Instead, it’s more about managing the funds of space agency, hiring the best employees and improving the components of the space crafts by assigning scientists to the projects.

At the end of October 2013, the early access version of BASPM was released. Over the last two months, the developers released on a weekly basis a new version. The weekly releases added new usability features and new missions to the game. At the end of December 2013, the game received one of the most desired features: the Apollo Program.

Over these two months, thousands of interested players experienced the game and made a lot of suggestions based on their experiences. Some of these suggestions could be implemented right away in a weekly update, but some other requests are more challenging and can’t be quickly implemented. Additionally, these features alter to a certain degree the concept of the whole game.

One of these features is the request to be able to replay the race for the very first landing on the Moon. The original concept of the game was without any direct competitors. However, a lot of players requested the feature to be able to race against another fraction.
At this point, the usefulness of an early access version becomes very obvious. The game isn’t finished yet and the developers have a lot of time to listen to the suggestions of their players. Additionally, the developers like to create a game the players really want to play. In the end, the developers decided to implement two new „Race to the Moon“ campaigns: the player will be able to decide whether he likes to play for the Soviets or for the USA.

To wrap things up, the example of BASPM shows the great potential of early access versions, because the developers can develop their game together with their audience. Features and issues can be adjusted right away and the final product will match the interests of the players. Furthermore, granting access to an unfinished game, improving it on a regular basis and responding to the reports of the players can increase the trust of the players in the developers. The players realize, that their oppinion is important and they start to feel very welcome. This will also strengthen the interest in the final product, because the players have helped to make the game as it is.

Finding of the week #44

Items – the one and only reward?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I discuss the need for a different character progression system in MMORPGs than just rewarding the players with new items.

One of the main goals in a MMORPG is to develop the own character. At first, new players need to „level“ their characters by completing quests or killing monsters. Each action rewards the player with a certain amount of experience points. „Level ups“ are often rewarded with a new skill, the player can now use with his avatar. During the level phase, the player constantly increases the strength of the own avatar. However, after the avatar has reached the maximum character level, the progression of the character abruptly stops.

Allowing players to develop their characters beyond reaching the maximum level requires an additional game mechanic. Most MMORPGs like World of Warcraft therefore mainly rely on the items a character can wear. On Blizzcon 2013, items were characterized by the developers as the greatest gift they can give to their players.

Items are a great mechanic to progress with a character. Every character has an inventory and can equip different kinds of equipment. The inventory allows an easy exchange between different items: players can just swap out an item to upgrade their avatar.
Additionally, items can change the appearance of the own character. The character doesn’t just get stronger and can deal more damage, the character also starts to look more like an experienced hero protected with shiny armor. In the end, items are rewarding their wielder with two benefits at once.
Most of these valuable items can be looted off defeated enemies, who live in dangerous instances. However, getting the desired item isn’t granted on the first win over a strong enemy. This keeps players interested in the game, because they want to collect these items to increase the strengths of their characters to the maximum. The only way to do this, is to complete the instance over and over again in the hope to receive the desired loot. During this period, developers can create new contents and also new items to restart the whole circle.

Unfortunately, restarting the item collection process has become common among MMORPGs. Since the release of WoW 16 main content addons were released. If I just take one complete set of new items per content into account, a player would have collected about 256 items. Naturally, this is a great underestimate and players have collected even more items over their career.
256 items are already a huge number and after so many different items, they can’t be such a reward anymore. Of course, new items still improve the own avatar and provide the player with the feeling of making some progress. However, every player knows that the shiny new item will be replaced in a few month. Items aren’t that special anymore and a new way of increasing the strength of the avatar would be interesting.

Unfortunately, this isn’t very easy to achieve. Exploring the world could evoke awe for the players, but this will work only once. Same goes for the great feelings after experiencing a big moment in the game. These moments are mostly related to the achievement of completing a difficult task. Like exploring new landscapes, big moments work only once, too. Relying just on the feelings won’t keep players active after they’ve experienced all the big moments.
Rewarding players constantly with new skills won’t work either. In general, most character classes work with a maximum of 10 skills. Moreover, if the player would have too many skills, the gameplay might become to complicated. Additionally, all the skills need to be balanced, so that no combination of skills is overpowered compared to other classes.
Another idea would be the option to build an own house in the virtual world. This house could be decorated with trophies and memories from the adventures. The trophies could be rare and thus requiring the player to complete some content again to keep the player active. However, this system is almost similar to the item based progression system. Instead of equiping the avatar, the player starts to hunt for trophies for his own house.

To wrap things up, keeping players active in MMORPGs needs a simple mechanic, which can be easily updated and which provides the player with a constant feeling of making progress. Currently, no other mechanic than the item-based progress system seems to be capable of keeping players constantly playing the game.

Finding of the week #43

Homework assignments with computer games

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I demonstrate the idea to use computer games as an additional simulation tool to enhance the learning outcome. Simulation games can be used to validate and visualize the freshly gained knowledge.

I’ve discussed already several times how game mechanics challenge different abilities of the players and thus the players are training these abilities while they’re progressing through the game. I also discussed games like Kerbal Space Program (KSP)[1], because these games simulate real physics and the player can greatly benefit from additional specific knowledge. KSP can encourage its players to learn more about space travel to improve their own gameplay[2].

However, today I like to take a different approach and demonstrate how these simulation games can be also used to enhance the learning outcome. The demonstration will show, that a learner of astrophysics might take advantage of KSP to observe and explore important facts of orbital mechanics.
Typically, a learner does some homework assignments to train the freshly gained knowledge, but often the result can’t be directly verified. Of course, in case of astrophysics it might be possible to validate the results with real world facts. Unfortunately, this can be still very abstract to the learner. However, by using KSP to calculate and simulate orbital mechanics, the learner has the opportunity to simulate the situation and compare it with the own results.

I like to demonstrate this approach with one of my space stations I’ve build in KSP. This space station orbits in an altitude of h = 300 km around Kerbin (M = 5,292 e^{22} kg, r = 600 km).

Supply Station in orbit

Supply Station in orbit

At first, we want to calculate the period P of my space station’s orbit around Kerbin:

    \[ P = 2 \pi \left ( \frac {R^3} {G M_\text{total}} \right )^\frac{1}{2} \]

We can neglect the mass of the space station in M_\text{total} = M_\text{Kerbin} + M_\text{station} because the station has almost no mass compared to the planet. So we can just insert M_\text{Kerbin} as the total mass. We assume that the real world gravitational constant G can be applied on KSP, too.

    \[ P = 2 \pi \left ( \frac {(600 e^3 m + 300 e^3 m)^3} {6,673 e^{-11} m^3 s^{-2} kg^{-1} * 5,292 e^{22} kg} \right )^\frac{1}{2} = 2854,783 s \]

    \[ P = 47,579 min \]

After we calculated the period, we can observe the period in KSP for my station: it does one orbit around Kerbin in 47 min and 32 s. Great!

Orbital period

Orbital period

Now we want to calculate the velocity v of my space station:

    \[ v = \left ( \frac {G M} {R} \right )^{\frac {1}{2}} \]

    \[ v = \left ( \frac {6,673 e^{-11} m^3 s^{-2} kg^{-1} * 5,292 e^{22} kg} {(600 e^3 m + 300 e^3 m)} \right )^{\frac {1}{2}} = 1980,839 \frac{m}{s} \]

After we calculated the velocity, we can observe the velocity in KSP for my station: it has a current velocity of 1980 m/s. Great!



Finally we want to know the velocity v we need to escape Kerbin:

    \[ v = \left ( \frac {2 G M} {R} \right )^{\frac {1}{2}} \]

    \[ v = \left ( \frac {2 * 6,673 e^{-11} m^3 s^{-2} kg^{-1} * 5,292 e^{22} kg} {(600 e^3 m + 300 e^3 m)} \right )^{\frac {1}{2}} = 2801,33 \frac{m}{s} \]

    \[ \Delta v = v_\text {escape} - v_\text {current} = 820,491 \frac{m}{s} \]

After we calculated the velocity, we can try to plan a maneuver to escape Kerbin in KSP with my station: this time, we’re pretty close to the KSP maneuver, which only requires a velocity change of 806 m/s.

Escaping Kerbin

Escaping Kerbin

This short demonstration has shown, that a computer game can be used as an enhancement for a traditional learning approach. At first, the learner can take advantage of the specific knowledge about orbital mechanics to calculate some variables. Afterwards, the learner can simulate the calculated variable and validate the own calculation approach. Moreover, the learner can start to manipulate the simulation and learn even more about the connections of different variables and constants of the equations being used.

Finding of the week #42

Realism vs. fun

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I discuss the problem of creating a realistic simulation to raise the general attention for global problems. A too realistic game might cause more confusion than a more simple approach.

I’m currently thinking about games, that help us to understand global problems like polution or overfishing. Anno 2070[1] is a good example how to present our own influences on our environment. The player can choose between the Eco and the Tycoon fraction. The Eco fraction tries to save the environment and uses only „green energy“, whereas the Tycoon fraction doesn’t care about the environment and is able to build coal-fired power plants. Over time, this playstyle changes the environment of the game.
The player settles on an untouched island and starts to build his city. If the player cares for the environment, the nature around the own buildings looks healthy and green. However, if the player takes the Tycoon-style approach, the nature becomes unhealthy and the whole island starts to look wasted.

Anno 2070

Anno 2070

Apart from the constant influences on the environment, the player has also to face catastrophes like a fire on an oil rig. If the player doesn’t stop the fire in time, oil can leak out and polute the oceans. The player is armed with enough countermeasure tools to clean the oceans but players of the Tycoon fraction might not care about the polution because they’re not as punished as the Eco fraction for living in a poluted environment.

This approach of Anno 2070 to make us more sensible towards environmental problems is a good step towards a broader understanding of the global problems. Players can experience the different impact of building a coal-fired power plant or a solar array power station.
On the other hand, Anno 2070 is just a computer game and the main goal of a game is entertainment. Changing the environment is pretty easy and most of the polution is just gone away after the „dirty“ buildings are replaced. Although recovering the nature is easy, the general concept of the game helps its players to think more about the global problems.

A more realistic approach might help to develop a deeper understanding of these global problems. However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, because realistic approaches need to take into account a lot of new variables. All these variables need to be simulated and also to be controlled and influenced by the player. A new player would be easily overwhelmed by all the important features and it might frustrate the player.

The simulation genre lives from simulating realistic facts. However, in most cases, the game simulates only one single topic. A flight simulator has only a limited amount of variables, that need to be simulated. Same goes for a racing simulation game. These variables are also well defined and can be easily implemented in a game.
Complex things like the global problems however do have almost unlimeted variables, which influence the outcome. Different laws to protect the environment and different approaches of the consumers towards their products are often the key factores. The product should be cheap, which forces the industry to produce very efficient. Efficient production often leads to a higher degree of polution. Additionally, businesses want to increase their revenue and „green“ production is expensive.

If it’s somehow possible to gather all the different variables and to create a simulation out of them, then the simulation would be very complex and the player needs to understand all the influences of each variable to successful play the game. In the end, a game, which should help to raise the attention for global problems in an entertaining way, will cease being a game and frustrate the player. One could argue that this frustration might also lead to a deeper understanding of the complexity of this problem, but in the end most players would only be confused about all the different variables and connections.

In conclusion, a game like Anno 2070 with only a simple simulation of environmental changes caused by polutions could be more helpful to understand global problems than a complex hardcore simulation. On the other hand, if a player has developed a basic understanding of the problem, a hardcore simulation that helps to understand every detail might be a good step as well.