How to Build a Game – The Serious Game Design Workshop at I/ITSEC 2017

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This is a guest post by TAPE’s Information Systems Analyst Jeff Long.

The Serious Game Design Workshop occurred on the last day of the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), an annual five-day convention held in Orlando, Florida. The TAPE group in attendance included Business Analyst Walt Long, CEO and President Louisa Jaffe, and our PM TRASYS contract team.

The I/ITSEC showroom floor had closed when we walked into the workshop and were greeted by our two instructors for the day: Peter Smith, an assistant professor of game design at the University of Central Florida, and Vance Souders, founder of Plas.md, a creative studio focused on developing innovative immersive solutions for health, wellness and education for DoD, government, and commercial entities.

This was an excellent experience that I think didn’t got the attention it deserved. I believe everyone from beginners to advanced would benefit from this high-level overview about making a “serious” learning game (definition below). The entire course was done with pen and paper, with no programming required.

One engineer at our table commented that it was great to see non-game designers interested in the inner workings of what can be a complicated process to understand. “We don’t see enough manager types in these classes but I noticed we have a great mix today.”

So what is a serious game? A serious or applied game is a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment, typically for training.

We began with a high-view concept of what kind of planning and stages it takes to make a simple serious game. Then we were split into various groups, taking on roles related to instruction (instructional designers, trainers, and instructors), game (game designers, game developers, and producers), subject matter experts (who might have experience with procedures/tactics/equipment regarding a profession, or other processes to be used as curriculum within a game), and technical/management (software developers, managers, and artists). Each participant chose a role and we acted in that role over a series of 15 exercises throughout the day.

Analysis

Our first task was in the realm of analysis. Before we could make a game we had to ask ourselves a few questions: What purpose does it serve and who would be the audience? What’s our game concept? What are our learning objectives? What are we assessing? These great questions helped focus our plan of attack. Without knowing these basics it would have been easy to go off the rails. Each group collaborated to answer these questions and develop the initial idea of what their serious game could be.

Core Design

Next we moved on to core design. Here we would take our assessments and begin to develop a story, one that was relevant to the interest of the audience we identified during the analysis. The next step was to figure out how we would take the learning objective and teach our audience the required skills.

This is where a creative mind can go just about anywhere. In general gaming there is almost an infinite number of genres, with new ideas showing up daily. My four favorites are role-playing games (RPG), real-time strategy (RTS), first-person shooters (FPS), and virtual reality (VR). A quick Google search of any of those terms will reveal countless games to find inspiration for your game.

Finally, we asked this very important question: What shouldn’t be in our game? It’s easy to lose yourself in a wish list of features, but each feature will need to be created and with limited resources having too large of a scope can run your project over budget and behind on development time. Having an ambitious project is great, but don’t go overboard, especially if it’s your first rodeo. Distilling your ideas so not to overburden the player will result in a better gaming experience.

Experience Design

Here we started with a small discussion about common pitfalls. The instructors provided a helpful overview of the concept of design patterns. This is about establishing reusable systems so people don’t end up reinventing the wheel. (See this excerpt from Robert Nystrom’s Game Programming Patterns for more on the concept of design patterns.) Using these wherever possible will help ensure that your game design is easier for your team to create, understand and implement.

In experience design, we explicitly define and iteratively refine each of these learning game elements: goals, control, actions, assessment, guidance, and feedback. Each of these concepts help the player understand and move through your serious game.

Revise

In this stage we did a mental walkthrough of the game from the player’s perspective. We wanted to identify issues that the player could experience, such as edge-cases, poor performers, “gaming the game,” or bored players. You want to be a devil’s advocate to find anything that breaks immersion, flow, or buy-in.

Finally, we tried throwing a wrench into the works like what might happen when real life intervenes, like what happens when a customer doesn’t think the game is fun, or wants to go deeper? Or when students don’t like the game or it isn’t producing the desired learning outcomes? What if it takes too long to play? Or your budget is reduced or money runs out before you finish creating the game? What if the players aren’t taking the game seriously?

Any of these problems have the potential to tank the entire project. While we can’t predict or avoid every problem, we can imagine these situations and try to have a plan when possible.

I personally hope they bring this workshop back and that we see a larger group there for 2018. If you are interested in making a serious game, this workshop was designed around a book called Design and Development of Training Games Practical Guidelines from a Multidisciplinary Perspective, edited by Talib S. Hussain and Susan L. Coleman. If they don’t have another workshop in 2018 or you can’t make it to I/ITSEC, this book might be for you.

Good luck and have fun!
Jeffrey Long


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