Growing at SATE 2018

This week, I was in Orlando, Florida for two reasons, to meet with my project clients at Give Kids the World and to attend the TEA SATE conference at SeaWorld. My goal with the conference was to learn how the industry works and be able to gain some insightful design knowledge about how I should be tackling my independent study. The theme for this years SATE conference was the Experience Recipe. The event was designed to spark the imagination with fresh, new "recipes" and techniques for creating groundbreaking experiences. The sessions blended Storytelling, Architecture and Technology to show how rich, diverse projects are created. The presenters, an eclectic panel of "mixologists," curated a diverse menu serving up a feast for the senses to satisfy audiences' taste for adventure, discovery and fun. This innovative approach was inspired by hot trends in hospitality, retail, food, costumes/fashion, scenery/theming and even horticulture, inviting participants to broaden their thinking and explore beyond the boundaries of traditional attraction design.

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When it comes to experience design, the people i.e. the guests are the biggest component of it. We are building the experience for the guests and we should always keep them in mind when we are making the design decisions. Some of the interesting things that I picked up about how to drive people to explore while I was at the conference are to create social and shared experiences, guests rarely want to do experiences alone; emphasize the small moments in your experience and combine them to give the guests a journey through the the experience, let them be in there for the long haul and discuss the journey in the experience rather than the goal of the experience.

But since my independent study is focused on the technology behind the experience and how to integrate it in a way to create even more immersive and interactive experiences let’s talk about how technology can be used to create better experiences. My biggest takeaway from the conference was to find opportunities in the technology and use it for something that it is not being currently used and also to give people ownership in the experience, allowing them to create something that they can keep as a memory of the experience are very strong tools.

The most important question we need to answer while designing an experience is what is technology going to be used for. Technology can be used to educate the consumer about a product or a topic. It can be used to provide a multi sensory experiences to the guest, give them very personalized experiences that they know nobody else had. Technology can be used as an ingredient in the experience, it can just fade away into the experience without being the focus of the experience. Technology can also be used to solve problems and alleviate the guest’s woes. And not just the guest’s woes but also the employees as well. The technology could also be used to amplify the memory side of the experience. Technology can be used to cater to different kinds of audience.

I have received a lot of good advice on what I should be focusing on and how I should create a good experience. I will be using the next few weeks to brainstorm a few ideas and then paper prototype them to see if the experience is designed well and to quickly iterate on the design.

The Future of Themed Entertainment

The themed entertainment industry as we call it, all started with a mouse in Anaheim, California and now roughly 60 plus years later we are at a point where the industry is not just confined to theme parks but is in every facet of our life, from museums, zoos and aquariums, shopping complexes, sports arenas and even hospitals. The age of disruptive tech is upon us. Technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, block chain and many others have started becoming more ubiquitous and theme parks need to start taking advantage of these technologies to keep guests coming back and also to attract new guests.

Taking this into account I have decided to undertake an independent study with my adviser, Shirley Saldamarco on what the future of themed entertainment experiences would look like. I'm interested in interactive experience design and how different game design techniques can be applied to make themed entertainment and location based experiences more interactive. I will be building a proof of concept of what an experience of the future could look like and how it would incorporate interactivity without making technology the showcase of the experience.

To get me started on this study I have been looking at various interactives that are already in place in and outside the parks. The pre-shows on rides like Space Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are a good example of how the guests are traditionally kept engaged as they wait in line for the actual experience that involve some amount of interactivity but with screens. Rides like Toy Story Midway mania and the Ninjago ride at Legoland are examples of how rides and experiences introduce interactivity with the help of technology. Apart from the rides and pre-shows Disney’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game and Universal’s Wand Magic experience that allow guests to interact with physical objects in the park show how interactives need not be restricted to the rides and the entire park can be an experience. Apart from the the parks, companies like The Void are working on creating interactive experiences in virtual reality.

 The Ninjago ride at Legoland has interactivity without the use of traditional guns.

The Ninjago ride at Legoland has interactivity without the use of traditional guns.

My process for this semester long study includes talking to industry experts to get an idea of how to tackle this problem, and using the resources I gain from them to create a design for a simple experience that can showcase interactivity as well as what the future might look like. I have decided to use Raspberry Pi as my platform as it offers me a challenge to learn a new platform but also the ability to create something that could hold the potential of being a fun experience. As of writing this post, I have had meetings with two industry professionals, Cathryn Buchanan, a Content Specialist with Cortina Productions and Matthew Wheeler, a Senior Project Director at Jack Rouse Associates. Some of the advice that I got was to make sure that it is a shared experience for the guests and not just a single player game. I was also advised to make an experience that the guests cannot get at home and need to come out to experience. My main takeaway from both the conversations was to put more emphasis on the real experiences, and less emphasis on the virtual ones.

In summary, I will be working on creating an interactive experience that might be representative of what experiences like these might look in the future. I will try to combine the principles for theme park design with some principles from game design to create an interactive experience. By the end of the independent study I hope to have learned interactive experience design for themed installations and also how different technologies will be used in the Themed Entertainment industry in the coming future.

The decline in popularity of local multiplayer games

I remember there being a time while growing up, where every other game was basically a local multiplayer game where you could play alongside your friends in the same room. I really long for days where I would sit in front of the TV and play the same game for hour on end with my friends. This got me thinking about why is that fewer and fewer companies are building local multiplayer games.

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I think a major reason for this decline in the number of local multiplayer games is because of a decline in popularity. Back in the early days of gaming, local multiplayer was the only option for all sorts of games as the technology wasn’t strong enough to support online gaming, so players had no option but to play these kind of games. Most people played those games because that is what was available to them at that time. High speed internet wasn't a thing back then and if you wanted to play a game with someone you had to go to their house and play it on their console. Another major reason for their popularity back then was that the majority of people who considered video games to be a major part of their lives were younger people, college age and under. At that age, people have more time and less money and getting 4 people together to play on 1 TV, using 1 console, 1 game, and 4 controllers was easier than getting 4 people, 4 TV's, 4 consoles, 4 games, 4 controllers, and whatever subscriptions were necessary to link them. Also keep in mind that people in that age bracket typically live closer together, whether in the same neighborhoods they grew up in or on the same college campus.

With the constant improvement in technology, these people who played games at a young age have grown up liking games and would like to play games with their friends. But, in a lot of circumstances, they no longer live close to each other and find it easier to set apart time to "meet up" online and play on their own consoles and the current technology is providing them with this avenue.

AAA gaming is always pushing the boundary of what the technology can do and how good the game can look to the players and in some cases of local multiplayer games like split-screen games this involves rendering the scene multiple times depending on the number of players and this puts an additional load on the processing power of the console that could have been utilized to render insane graphics. Another issue with split screen games is that they start taking up valuable screen real estate that could be used to render something else. Online gaming has overcome these challenges and therefore, I feel it is safe to say that it is not going to lose to local multiplayer. This is also the reason that a lot of AAA companies have stopped supporting local multiplayer on their titles, most notable was 343 Studios stopping Split screen support on Halo 5 back in 2015.

Now this is not to say that there is no market for these kind of games, but that the market size has certainly diminished. Games that don't offer the players the ability to play alone and try forcing an always multiplayer game-play on them usually don't work. Some great examples of that are Rocket League and the Injustice series. Somewhere the local multiplayer series could work well was if it was designed from the bottom up with co-op or competition in mind. Hazelight, the developer on 'Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons' was able to accomplish this by coming up with the novel control scheme that they had for their game. Their next title, A Way Out is built in a similar way where players can only play if they have a partner to play the game along with but it works as it was well designed. Something that usually works in local multiplayer games is giving players a shared view of the entire world where they can see the character they control do actions but the perspective of the game doesn't change around too much. Sports games like FIFA have been doing this for years and games like Overcooked have found success in it.

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In conclusion, making local multiplayer games is really fun and everyone enjoys playing them but with the ever diminishing size of the market it is really hard to justify spending a large amount of money on a building a game that doesn't have a large appeal to begin with. This was something that I had to think about on my recent game design assignment as there are not too many financially successful local multiplayer games to point to.

Designing Educational Experiences for Middle School students.

Before I jump into the heart of the topic, let me give you some context. I am currently the game designer on CryptoKnight, my semester long project at the Entertainment Technology Centre. We are tasked with creating a game for picoCTF 2018, a computer security competition for middle and high school students. picoCTF has been associated with the ETC twice in the past, once in 2013 and once in 2014. Both of these projects, slapped a narrative onto the existing competition and created a nice interface for the game and called it a day.

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In order to differentiate ourselves from the previous projects we sought help from faculty and they advised us that we should address some of the problems that are inherent in the competition. We looked at data collected from the picoCTF 2017 and the problem was pretty evident, the questions that the problem development team had created last year were extremely hard and more than 50% people could not solve more than the first 4 questions and the drop off in participants was extremely high. Assuming that the problem development team addresses this issue this year and creates a more gradual difficulty in the questions, we decided to target the middle schooler demographic of students who were just getting exposed to computer science and computer security and had no prior experience in these areas.

 Difficulty of picoCTF 2017 showing the sharp dropoff in the number of participants after the first few questions.

Difficulty of picoCTF 2017 showing the sharp dropoff in the number of participants after the first few questions.

We decided that with our project, we aim to expose young middle schoolers to the various concepts that are part of computer security. We did not aim to teach the students anything as that requires coming up with decent metrics to measure whether the students have actually learned something and also our faculty advised us that it was not our job to teach.

In order to tie the entire experience into one cohesive ball, we needed a story or a narrative context that the players could relate to while interacting with the educational concepts. This story would also form the basis around which the educational experiences would be built. I came up with the idea that, the city you are in is under the imminent threat of attack from a disgraced evil scientist and you and your team are being recruited by a secret agency to help save the city from danger. This allowed us to present the scaffolding i.e. the actual educational material in the form of missions for the players. Another problem that we needed to tackle was that of making the game inclusive for all genders and races. This was something that previous games had failed to do, we chose to incorporate a story element where, it is unsafe for you to go outside and you must control a robot remotely through the city.

We started prototyping on our ideas, by choosing Cryptography and more importantly, Encryption and Decryption as the basis of the puzzle. During my research, I tried to learn as much as I could about particular topics. Apart from learning the topics online, I also took help from the problem development team to help simplify the concepts. After learning these concepts, I tried breaking them down to the most basic level. For cryptography, we wanted the players to understand why cryptography was important. From encrypting your data to protect it from intruders and everyone, to decrypting it so that it is in a human readable format. Once we had these pieces, I started making the simplest of puzzles out of them.

 The Cryptography mission, where you need to get through a security scanner with the encrypted key.

The Cryptography mission, where you need to get through a security scanner with the encrypted key.

I chose to make a simple move from point A to point B kind of puzzle for this topic. The character’s robot had a key in their hand, which looked like a briefcase. The players had to go through enemy security to get to the other part of the level. To get past security safely, the players need to “encrypt” the key. Encrypting the key is basically clicking a button and playing an animation of what a transposition cipher would look like in that scenario. After the players have gotten past security, they need to deposit the key into a portal like device, but before they can do that they need to decrypt the key. This is one of the more simpler puzzles that I created and the art and sound in the level is doing some heavy lifting. The initial iterations of this level had us stuck on how the player would interact with the key and how much interaction we wanted to add into the level while making sure that the concepts that we are trying to convey don't get lost in the mix. The following images show how the animation for the encryption and decryption worked. We decided to keep the interactivity at this point low on purpose as the players would not know what to do as this is not a straightforward mechanic.

During the first playtest of our game, we received overwhelming feedback from our players that they wanted the core of the puzzle to be more interactive. I took this feedback into account while designing the second mission. This mission was about Brute Force attacks and how you can simplify them. The idea behind brute force attacks is that, you create a dictionary that might be very small or very large depending on the lock. I used this concept to form the core of the puzzle. The story of the mission is that you are trying to intercept the armed nuclear football on the way out of the city and then disarm it.

 The stealth part of the brute force mission where you are tailing the enemy robot.

The stealth part of the brute force mission where you are tailing the enemy robot.

The first half of the mission is a simple stealth mission, where you need to tail an enemy without getting caught or losing track. As soon as the enemy turn onto an alleyway, the mission shifts gears and you now have the opportunity to disarm the enemy robot and the bomb. As you get the briefcase, you realize that it is locked by a 3 digit code and logically you should realize that without any help this could take you a long time. We then give you a clue that contains the first 2 digits of the code and you can use them to to unlock the briefcase as after this the last digit is just trial and error. In short, we reduced the size of the dictionary from a 1000 option to 10. The following images show how the interaction with the briefcase looks like.

This mission was received much better than the previous one as it had the right amount of interactivity along with the educational content that allowed the players to take something away from the game. As of writing this blog, this mission is still in development and the players are still having difficulty traversing through the level, but with each iteration, the level is improving just enough to make the player experience a good one.

Last weekend, we had 7 middle to high schoolers playtest our game and we received some valuable feedback on the quality of our game. Most playtesters were able to understand at least part of the problem and enjoyed going through the game despite its rough edges. We were able to identify potential walls for the players and mitigate those problems early.

 Playtesting data showing how the 7 players understood the problems in the game differently

Playtesting data showing how the 7 players understood the problems in the game differently

In summary, creating educational experiences for children requires you as the designer to be well versed in the topics that are in the game. This helps you take those topics and break it down to the most basic level that a middle schooler would be able to understand and take something away from. Also, keep playtesting a lot, as this will help you understand what is working for your audiences and what isn’t.

Game Developers Conference 2018

Over the last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It was a great learning experience and I highly recommend everyone that if given the opportunity to attend GDC, you must. The reason I chose to attend the Game Developers Conference was to explore what types of opportunities the industry could provide me as a game designer and also to meet people already working in the industry and learn from their experiences and also to see if this was the right career path for me. While I may have accomplished these goals, attending GDC was an eye-opening experience that taught me so much more about the diversity of careers that exist within the field. Particularly, I was deeply impacted by attending the Independent Games Summit the two days leading up to the main conference. I highly suggest anyone interested in indie games and game design attend this particular portion of the conference. It was the most rewarding part, and I feel the conference would have been a letdown for me had I only attended the main three days.

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Attending GDC is a whirlwind of discussions, conversations, and exchanging of business cards. At times, it felt overwhelming, for an ambivert like me. Still, I would say the most beneficial growth I did at the conference came from these conversations. So many of the designers I met had had wonderfully twisting and turning careers. As someone who did not fully understand the extent of the role of video game designers, this was a revelation. In addition, I did some networking that I hope will pay off later on down the road.

My initial plan for the conference was to attend the Game Design workshops that were being held on the first two days of GDC. The workshop was being led by Stone Librande, Lead Designer at Riot Games and also an Adjunct Faculty at the Entertainment Technology Center. During the first day of the workshop, I very soon realised that Stone had built the curriculum for the workshop by things he had learnt from watch the Building Virtual Worlds class and the Game Design class at the ETC. Even though the workshop was good, I did not feel like I was learning anything new and after the first half of the day I decide to head to the Summits and other workshops.

At the Summits, I attended many fantastic talks. I chose to focus my time on talks that would benefit me at my stage in my career. I avoided talks that seemed too hyper- focused on topics I would likely not encounter for a long time. I am happy I made this decision, as it prevented me from getting speaker-fatigue from all the panelists.

Some of my favourite talks at the Summits were; Building Games That Can Be Understood at a Glance delivered by Zach Gage as part of the Independent Games Summit. Zach talked about how his goal over the years as a designer and developer had transformed into making Subway-Legible games and he shared the techniques that he used to make such games. I also attended some of the Level Design workshops on the second day of the Summits, and even though I do not want to be a level designer in the industry, some of the talks were really good. One of my favourite talks from that series was the Level Design Workshop: Balancing Action and RPG in 'Horizon Zero Dawn' Quests deliver by Blake Rebouche, Lead Quest Designer at Guerilla Games. This was an interesting talk as he talked about his background in MMO RPGs and how that played into designing a quest that lies somewhere in the middle of an action game and an RPG game and how he had to think of conventional things differently. I also got the opportunity to talk to him after the talk and talk to him about The various system design techniques they use.

 Zach Gage's talk summary on Building Games that can be Understood in a glance.

Zach Gage's talk summary on Building Games that can be Understood in a glance.

GDC is incredibly full of things to do. Talks, presentations, demos, parties, people, recruiters, and friends can all take up a large chunk of time. It is important to go in understanding that you will not be able to do everything you want. You should make a plan ahead of time, ranking what you wish to do most. I made friends, potential professional relationships, and fond memories. I certainly plan to attend again next year.

Are asymmetric games good?

I have been playing a lot of Overwatch recently and I absolutely love that game, but there are some maps and game modes that require players to walk forever to reach where the action is taking place and this got me thinking about how asymmetric the game is and why is that a good thing?

Overwatch

What is asymmetry? Asymmetry generally refers to the fact that players have different experiences from the start of the game. This can be anything from choosing different characters with different stats and roles in Overwatch to choosing different roles in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Asymmetry can also be introduced through the level design, like in Overwatch's different game modes like Assault and Escort.

Some of the arguments that people make in favour of asymmetric games is that it adds variety to the game, makes it interesting and keeps it from going stale. It also supports different player preferences and player styles. It helps players in learning and getting into the game easy. But the same can be said for a well designed symmetric game. It will keep the players interested, support their different play styles and make it easy to learn the game. 

Blizzard is doing a lot of right things to create an optimal experience for everyone from a casual gamer to a professional eSports gamer in Overwatch. They have thoughtfully balanced asymmetric character design as well as level design. Each character in Overwatch is vastly different from the others and favours different kinds of play styles from its players. Some characters, like Widowmaker and Hanzo require you to have the perfect vantage point to snipe and block the enemy team in, while some characters like Bastion require you to have the perfect defensive point to lay down suppression fire in Sentry mode. This prompts the truly interested players to learn the maps inside out so as to take advantage of these points and that is true for every FPS. Overwatch also makes sure that characters can only be where they are supposed to be and not reach places and locations in the map that would give them an unfair advantage.

Overwatch's asymmetric level design plays an important role in ensuring this as well. Overwatch has mainly two kinds of game modes, the first where one team is defending an objective and the other team is attacking the objective and the other is when both teams are vying for the same objective. The first type of game mode has a more asymmetric design while the second one is more symmetric. In the game modes like Assault or Escort, the attacking team has the initial advantage as they have multiple ways to approach the objective and they can flank it from any direction but as the game progresses, the defending team has the advantage as the attack is led to one straight path which can be easily blocked. This leads to some interesting moments in the game. Also, the games don't concentrate all the action on one location and have multiple choke points throughout the level and the action keeps moving around the level. Some of the asymmetry in the level is also introduced from where each player is spawned after they are killed. Overwatch does not use the fixed spawn point technique as this would not favour the asymmetric level design and they move towards having multiple spawn points throughout the level and choose to spawn players closer to the action.

 Level Design for Temple of Anubis in Overwatch showing how the Asymmetric Design works in that level.

Level Design for Temple of Anubis in Overwatch showing how the Asymmetric Design works in that level.

But, this asymmetry is like a double edged sword for Overwatch as even though it introduces an interesting player dynamics for all sorts of players it prevents them from quickly iterating on new characters as every character needs to be balanced for the game in its current state to make sure they can't take advantage of the current level in unfair ways. This leads to Overwatch tuning their levels for new characters and releasing them at a much slower rate.

A game like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes uses asymmetry in the fact that players choose different roles to begin with. Only one player can see the bomb, while one or more players can see the bomb manual and they must cooperate to diffuse it in the given time. After a while, some of the puzzles in the game turn into a memory game, but Keep Talking handles this by upping the ante and adding more modules to the bomb as you progress through the levels.

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In conclusion, asymmetric games being good is debatable. On the one hand, it make things interesting and caters to a myriad of player types but on the other hand it might lead to players having vastly different experiences and that can be a good or a bad thing. Designing a good asymmetric game involves balancing the game for different player types and running through the checklist that it gives everyone a fair and equal opportunity to win the game. Designers need to walk the very fine line of designing experiences that are focused on not just one type of player.

Why LIMBO is a good game, even in 2018.

When I played LIMBO, the 2D side scrolling puzzle platformer developed and published by Playdead Studios in 2010, last year, I was completely blown away by how good of a game it was even comparing it to some similar games that had released in 2017. The game won a lot of critical acclaim for its minimalist aesthetic and heavy focus on gameplay. Even though the gameplay is only a few hours long at most, it holds its own against some longer games.

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First, lets talk about the story. The game follows the primary character, a boy whose name is never mentioned throughout the game. The game starts with the boy waking up in a forest. As the game’s tagline, “Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters Limbo,” suggests we follow the boy throughout the game to help him find his sister. As we play through the game, the forest environment transitions into an abandoned factory and then into a crumbling city. Throughout the game, we encounter very few human characters that either attack the boy, run away or are already dead. The game ends with the boy being flung through a glass pane and landing in the forest where the game started. The game’s story and especially its ending are open to many interpretations. The ending was purposely left vague by the developers, to allow players to interpret it as they please. I interpreted the ending to befit the title of the game, the player is stuck in Limbo, like purgatory. The boy completes the journey only to end up in the same place where he started, allowing the player to restart the journey all over again. Very few games have split the audience in the way LIMBO was able to on how they perceived the ending of the game.

Now lets talk about the audio. The game's audio was created by Martin Stig Andersen, whose specialisation was in "acousmatic" music, non-traditional music created from generated sounds that have no apparent visual source. The music or lack thereof in Limbo is instrumental in building immersion of the player. Anderson noted that; "if [the players are] scared it will probably make them more scared when there's no music to take them by the hand and tell them how to feel". Two examples that stuck out to me were the use of the electricity noises while in the presence of the ruined neon "HOTEL" signs, and the gradual silencing of the wind sound as the spider approached the boy in the forest. The sound used is not clear and is distorted in a way that it leaves it open to interpretation by the player allowing players to interpret their meanings for themselves. The sound in the game is realistic and recognisable but abstract at the same time. This sets LIMBO apart from most games that rely heavily on the use of background music to guide you through the game.

 One of the ruined hotel signs where the electricity noises are played.

One of the ruined hotel signs where the electricity noises are played.

Talking about the visuals, LIMBO has extremely dark visuals and the entire game has a grayish tone to it. The game’s director Amt Jensen set out to make this game with the goal of having minimum emphasis on graphics and thus chose not to use three dimensional models and keep the tonality very dark. This approach along with the various lighting and filtering techniques allows the visuals to carry most of the story’s weight. The game has a very open-ended feel to it. The game from the start has no tutorials of any kind or any text tor UI to guide the player. The game relies heavily on the player learning as they go from the beginning. The entire experience can be titled as one of  “trial and death” as the player dies repeatedly in the traps that are hidden in the dark visuals, like bear traps or electric signs. One aspect that I absolutely loved about the game was that the game did not shy away from showing you the gruesome ways in which you would die, like by beheadings or dismemberment of your limbs. Although this feature could be disabled for the faint-hearted. The game manages to captivate the attention of the player despite the use of minimalistic visuals and that makes the game stand-out for me.

 An example of how you would die in the game.

An example of how you would die in the game.

The puzzles in the game lie in the sweet spot of neither being too easy that they are solved just by looking at them nor being too complex that the player doesn’t understand the significance of the puzzles and just solves them by trial and error. This makes the game lie in the Flow Channel, thereby avoiding boring players by being too easy or frustrating players for being too hard. Each puzzle in the game involved no more than three interactions, thereby leaving the player with enough room to process what was happening. The puzzles in the game aid in immersing the player into the experience and narrative that they are helping the boy find his sister and I easily bought into this narrative. The game is a feast for Achiever and Explorer player types according to Bartle's taxonomy. Achievers are given the opportunity to gain extra achievements by finding the hidden eggs and unlocking the secret ending or by completing the game by dying less than 5 times. Explorers are given the agency to roam around the 2D landscape as much as they want and complete the game in any order as they please.

 The secret ending to the game. There are 10 candles and each correspond to one the eggs in the game.

The secret ending to the game. There are 10 candles and each correspond to one the eggs in the game.

In conclusion, Playdead Studios’ work on LIMBO is poetry in motion. Their use of an aesthetically pleasing minimalistic art style and dark tonality, their use of distorted sound effects and absence of background music elevates the story to a higher level. I enjoyed playing the game and was completely invested in the story by the end and that is the reason the ending left me surprised and disappointed at the same time. I was surprised because I didn’t expect the game to end so abruptly and I was a little disappointed as the story left a few important questions unanswered, What happened to the sister and who was that girl?

Why I prefer playing simulation games.

As I get comfortable in my seat and sift through my game library to decide what to play, I chuckle at myself as I know I will always end up choosing the same games over and over again. As I start another session of FIFA 18 on my PC, I look back at the start of the previous semester. Since I have started studying at the Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, I have been asked multiple times "What games do you play?", and every time someone asks me that question it gets me thinking about what do I actually like playing. 

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Over the years I have played my fair share of games in a lot of genres from First and Third Person Shooters to Real Time Strategy and Role Playing Games, but, nothing gets me as excited - or lose complete sense of time - as a good simulation game. Simulation games give me the ability to live vicariously through them and gain experiences that I normally wouldn't have been able to acquire in this lifetime. A well crafted simulation game will have you hooked from the get go.

Let's take a look at Sims for an example; the brainchild of Will Wright and currently the gold standard for a suburban simulation. The Sims 4 provides an exceptional wealth of options for self-expression and customization, and the extent of this variety only continues to grow. Another great example is F1 2017 by Codemasters. IGN states that, "F1 2017 is a confident and comprehensive racer that succeeds by embracing all of modern F1’s idiosyncratic rules and regulations, as well as its danger, and baking it all into a truly great sports simulation."  

Kerbal Space Program is an incredibly detailed physics-based space simulation which lets you design and construct your own spacecraft before launching it into orbit, and then doing impossibly complicated things like docking with other vessels or landing your wobbly phallic construct on the moon. Is it 100% realistic? Given that it's simulating one of the most complicated human endeavours ever undertaken and letting you have a go with your mouse and keyboard, there's an element of creative licensing. However - it's about as close as the medium has produced. Every physical object in the game abides by Newtonian dynamics and its model of orbital mechanics has also been praised by those in a position to assess that sort of thing. In fact, NASA took notice of the work Squad, the developers of Kerbal Space Program were doing and worked with them to implement the real-life Asteroid Redirect Mission. My point with these examples is that a good simulation will be able to recreate the original content in a fair and just way, and have you playing them for hours on end.

 Image: A screenshot of Kerbal Space Program

Image: A screenshot of Kerbal Space Program

Personally, my favourite category of simulation games is sports simulation games. I grew up watching and playing a lot of sports, from being part of my high school soccer team to watching every sports channel imaginable on the television with my grandfather. This has prompted a love and appreciation for all things sports. Therefore, I lap up any opportunity I get to enjoy sports - be it first-hand by playing the sport physically, or second-hand enjoyment by playing it in a simulation, or watching it on TV. Ernest Adams says in The Designer's Notebook that, "Simulation games, especially sports simulations deserve more respect than they get because they make a real effort to address the second-greatest challenge in all of computer gaming, and they’re getting better and better at it all the time. The greatest challenge in computer gaming (and, for that matter, in computing generally) is the creation of credible artificial people. That’s a problem whose solution is still a long way off, and most adventure and role-playing games don’t make any serious effort to address it. The second-greatest challenge, however, arises from the basic premise of almost all simulation games: that they are an accurate simulation of the real world." Even though most of what Ernest says is relevant even today, I personally feel that the challenge of having credible artificial people in your game has been tackled to quite some extent, and the day we can have such characters in the game is just beyond the horizon.

Also, over the last twenty years, with advancements in computing technology, simulation games have started becoming more realistic and accurate depictions of the real world. Simulations like military simulator or a flight simulator might have the luxury of faking things and not having to worry about being completely accurate as the number of people that know what the real thing feels and how it works like is very small, but in the case of sports simulation games, they do not have that luxury as millions and millions of people know how the sport works and these people also have access to the real thing weekend after weekend on the television. But that being said, simulation games are reaching the point of realism where they are being used as training and testing apparatus for professionals in that field.

While one of my cousins was studying to be a commercial pilot he was required to undertake six months of training on a flight simulator before he could actually get his hands on a real plane. When I questioned him about it, he said that these simulations are so realistic he sometimes forgot they he wasn't actually flying. He also said that the simulator use the same software as the jets themselves, and that makes a major difference for training realism and effectiveness. He stated that the companies also use these simulators as testing apparatus to test the pilot's level of preparedness in the case of an emergency, may that be flying through a storm or following protocol in case of a hijacking. These tests are conducted periodically to keep the pilot's on their feet.

 Image: An example of a flight training simulator

Image: An example of a flight training simulator

All in all, the level of detail that game development companies put into their work - from getting the stadium atmosphere right, to perfecting the idiosyncrasies of the actual sport, right to having actual commentators do hours of dynamically playing commentary - grants sports simulation games a gold star in my books.

As I recline back in my chair waiting for the next game to load, I now have some of the answers to the questions that I get asked when I say that I prefer playing simulation games over any other genre out there.