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Let’s Live on Mars! (Part 2)

For the first article in this series about “The Next Step”, a management and survival video-game set on Mars, currently being developed by GLaSS 2015 students, click here. This week, we’ll cover playtesting a prototype of “The Next Step”, balancing fun and scientific accuracy in our game, choosing what we had to leave out of the game, and preparing to showcase our project at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie.

Playtest, playtest, playtest. Then playtest some more.

Last week, we talked about our objectives and ambitions for our GLaSS 2015 final project. The next phase we were about to enter involved playtesting our prototype, then analysing the data from it to check we were heading in the right direction, and improve our game.

Each GLaSS game project group got the playtesters to try their game, and gathered feedback.

As far as “The Next Step”‘s development team was concerned, our main objective was to set up a favourable environment, where playtesters wouldn’t be distracted by goings-on around them, where we would be able to observe them while they played, and where the current build of the game would be bug-free.

We also wanted to gather quality data, and to this end we drew up a lengthy questionnaire for playtesters to fill in once they had finished testing the game. We asked them what they thought of various aspects of the game (graphics, sound, difficulty, gameplay, etc.) made sure the game’s theme (management and survival) was clear, tried to field their suggestions regarding possible improvements, etc.

Most people liked the game overall, in particular the graphical elements (despite their protoypical and unfinished nature) and the survival aspect. A few suggestions helped us tweak ideas we had for the game, but most of the things that people saw as “missing” from the game, were in fact elements that we had planned to implement further along the development process, namely crises / emergency situations, and scientific research missions.

We’ve organised a final playtest, on Wednesday 29th of July 2015.

Gameplay vs. Scientific Accuracy

One of the main concerns – in any game where a major objective is scientific accuracy – is actually creating something that is fun to play. Conversely, a constant question when thinking about gameplay ideas is “is this realistic?” Whether it’s data, or situations generated by the game.

Some of the main (lethal) challenges to human colonisation of Mars, such as solar and cosmic radiation, and the lack of a breathable atmosphere, are hard to convey in a realistic manner. For the most part, we’ve had to resort to a “tell” approach, instead of “show” or “play”, due to the extremely limited project lead time. For example, we have a dust storm game event which will be described (an accurate summary of how this would come about on Mars) and its real-life effects – compromising insolation and limiting power output of solar panels – are transcribed through gameplay: solar panel electricity production is reduced in-game. However, we won’t have time to animate these events graphically, thus losing the visual immersion and sensation of “being there” regarding these situations.

Capture 1

It’s difficult to have visually striking artistic design that is “realistic” In all probability, building on Mars will involve 3D printing a radiation-shielding outer layer from the local regolith, around an inflated interior “bubble”. While this concept is incredibly cool as far as we’re concerned, it does mean that most buildings, if representing this in-game realistically, would simply look like homogeneous lumps of varying sizes. It would have been possible to simply toggle transparency for these lumps, thus revealing the activity inside and giving each building a visual identity this way. However, this design and animation process would have required months of work. As such, we chose to have buildings actually closer to how people currently imagine them: basically an orbital station on the ground. It’s possible to give each building a clear visual identity this way.

We gave each item that can be built by the player in-game a descriptive text, based on the research we’ve done. We also used some anticipative reasoning to describe technology that should be available in the mid-21st century for such a mission.

Choosing what to leave out of the game

We started with design intentions that we progressively had to either reduce considerably in scope, or remove altogether. This unfortunately included some of the elements we thought would be part of our core game. All told, perhaps half of what we thought we would do will actually be in the game when we present it to te public. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work on it further, once the GLaSS is over, to at least implement the elements we thought we “had to” have at the beginning of the game design process.

Presenting The Next Step to a jury and the public at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie

From the 31st of July to the 4th of August, the GLaSS 2015 students will showcase what they have accomplished during their two months at the CRI. Our final projects will be evaluated by a jury, and they will be asked to judge scientific validity, gameplay, and artistic design, of each game. The game will be playable by the public for 3 days: Friday 31st of July 2015 afternoon, Saturday 1st of August and Tuesday 4th of August.

The next article will cover finalising of the project, preparing the exhibit at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, and communicating to the world about what we’ve done!

Written by Esther Berges

The CRI is developing a lab to prototype games with educators, scientists and students at the CRI : the gamelab.
In this context, we designed GLASS, a summer school to create scientific games, both digital and hybrid. We invited fifteen international students from science, game design, programming and arts backgrounds, during the summer of 2015. The summer school consisted of masterclasses by industry professionals, on different tools and techniques to develop games, along with a variety of creative challenges, testing of new technologies, and exciting events to share skills and learn by doing together. All of this was aimed at creating innovative and popular scientific games!

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