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  • Prom Week: How A Game Can Simulate Real-World Relationships

    [08.30.12]
    - Aaron Reed, Ben Samuel, Mike Treanor and Josh McCoy
  • [A group of PhD students from the University of California, Santa Cruz look back on Prom Week, an experimental game that aims to simulate real-world relationships.]

    Prom Week is an ambitious simulation game that makes use of a "social physics" engine to offer challenging social puzzles with emergent solutions. The team leveraged advanced research in artificial intelligence at the Expressive Intelligence Studio (EIS), a lab in UC Santa Cruz's Center for Games and Playable Media directed by Michael Mateas (co-creator of 2006 experimental social game Façade, which in some ways is the intellectual parent of Prom Week) and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (author of Expressive Processing).

    The original goal was to spend a year focusing on building a short playable experience that used the social simulation theories of EIS Ph.D. student (and core team member) Josh McCoy. Two and a half years later, we found we had a completely new and more ambitious social simulation technology as well as a game that was much larger in scope than initially envisioned. It was the biggest project anyone on the core team had undertaken, and we're proud to have achieved successes in the forms of an IGF nomination for technical excellence, a place at the IndieCade E3 showcase, as well as invites to speak at some of the largest international video game conferences.


    In Prom Week, players select between a variety of campaigns, each with its own social goals. Additional campaigns are unlocked as more goals are met.

    So here's what Prom Week is. Prom Week is a social simulation game about the dramatic week leading up to a high school prom. Players sculpt the social landscape by having characters engage in social exchanges with each other. The results of these social exchanges are many and varied-ranging from mild changes in sentiment toward each other to characters professing their eternal love-and these interactions are informed by over 5,000 social considerations managed by the artificial intelligence system.

    Through shifting the interpersonal relationships and learning the personal intricacies of the characters, the player can solve a series of "social puzzles"; such as making the class nerd Prom Week king, or bringing peace between feuding jocks and preppies.

    Each level's goal has innumerable solutions that all work to maintain character believability. For example, if the player is trying to make Zack prom king, the player could have Zack bond with a popular character over a shared interest to build a relationship grounded on friendship, as Zack being friends with someone popular will increase his own notoriety. Alternatively, the player could exploit a popular character's trait of "competitive" and have Zack flirt with someone who the popular character is jealous of. This could lead to the popular character getting angry and losing their cool, and consequently doing or saying something which might lower their social standing amongst their classmates, reducing Zack's competition for the crown.

    When players get to the prom, they get to see unique endings that relate to the social state they have built and what level goals they have met. For example, the Prom King story might end happily with Zack successfully becoming prom king if all of the level objectives were satisfied. But, if the player had Zack abandon his geeky best friend in an attempt to become popular, that former friend may attempt to humiliate Zack during Prom King's climax. Zack may not even become prom king at all, but will finally muster the courage to express his feelings to the girl of his dreams (assuming, of course, that the social state contains a girl that fits the criteria).

    Prom Week was a really ambitious game to make. We wanted to tell coherent stories where all player choices genuinely mattered. We think that's a bit of a holy grail for interactive storytelling. The following descriptions of our successes and failures offer insights ranging from what might be interesting to apply to other games, to some of the pros and cons of creating games in an academic context. We hope you enjoy it, and perhaps learn something along the way.

    What Went Right

    1. We explored new territory.

    A research game has many luxuries denied to a commercial or even an indie game. One of these is the ability to explore new areas of design space that aren't guaranteed to contain profitable, fun, or even functional games. When we set out to create Prom Week, we wanted to create an experience that made social interaction playable in the same sense that physics is playable in a game like Angry Birds. But since this type of play experience is so novel, we weren't certain what we'd end up with. That risk is hard to swallow when dollars are on the line; but buffered by a university system, we could go out on a limb and really pursue the experiment to a playable conclusion, successful or not.

    Happily, our final product turned out to be something we're all excited by and proud of, combining the dynamism of something like The Sims with the stronger narratives usually associated with story-driven game genres like RPGs. We were able to get there because we had the freedom to pursue these risky ideas as a first-order feature of our project, not a supplemental or optional feature that we could cut if it wasn't immediately working out. Getting the social interactions in Prom Week right took a lot of time, tuning, and experimentation, and it was only through having the space to pursue these ideas that we were able to make them playable. Centering the game around playable social models let us focus on the really novel part of what we were doing, rather than the more practical concerns that most game makers have to contend with to make a polished, sellable product.


    The cast of the first level of Doug's campaign. It's the player's responsibility to shake up the social lives of the characters.

    2. Retargeting social performances

    One design choice that we made out of necessity, but that turned out to be a big win, was our decision to retarget social performances. Before we dive into what we mean by that, let's take a brief aside to go on a quick Prom Week vocabulary lesson.

    In Prom Week, players manipulate the social state by selecting pairs of characters, and then choosing a social exchange for them to play with each other. The player is then presented with a short scene, or instantiation, wherein the characters speak with fully realized English dialogue, accompanied by animations and choreography. The instantiation that gets selected is the one that is deemed to be the most dramatically interesting based on the current social state. Prom Week has about 40 social exchanges, each of which has approximately 20 instantiations apiece, all of them averaging on about 6 lines of dialogue. That's roughly 4,800 lines of dialogue, and although that number pales in comparison to those found in the Mass Effects and Dragon Ages of the world, any given line in Prom Week could conceivably be spoken by any of the game's 18 characters. This is what we mean by "retargeting social performances"-any social performance, as written, needs to be able to work regardless of who the targets are (i.e., the speakers).

    This was a tall order-it meant that any given line of dialogue had to be written generically enough so that it would make sense for any character to speak it, but we also had to find ways to spice them up so that they A.) Weren't boring, and B.) Still felt like they would be something that the character would say, even if they were not written with that character specifically in mind.

    We accomplished this in a few ways. One way was to make use of templated dialogue inside of our instantiations-instead of hard-writing the word "sweetie" into a line of dialogue, we would instead write a special token %sweetie%, which would then be replaced with a character specific way of saying something, based on who was saying the line of dialogue (for example, the sweet Simon calls his sweetie "beautiful," while the arrogantly nerdy Zack refers to his darling as his "gigababe"). We also have a concept of objects in the world that characters are aware of: if the instantiation calls for Buzz asking about something that Gunter has, it can specifically pull out ‘Japanese Swords' and use that in dialogue, whereas it might have selected ‘Glass Roses' had he been talking to a different, sword-less character. Perhaps the most satisfying use of templated text of all, however, is the fact that characters can explicitly reference their shared history with each other, which we'll cover in more depth later.

    Another implementation decision that was a big help in retargeting social performances was the fact that instantiations had specific preconditions that were separate from the social exchange itself. Therefore, even though the social exchange "Txt Msg. Breakup" has the precondition that both parties are currently dating each other, any given instantiation can have an arbitrary amount of preconditions (e.g., this instantiation will only play if the initiator of the game has a high romance value towards the person they are playing the game with, and they have the trait self destructive). This means that, though still conceivably any character could play this game, we know for sure that only characters with that romance network and that trait are only going to be involved in this specific instantiation, which allowed us to author instantiations accordingly.

    The results were remarkably satisfying. We'll watch instantiations and chuckle to ourselves "that's so Monica," and forget that she was speaking dialogue that wasn't specifically tailored for her at all. Having to author with this new mindset was a challenge, but the game couldn't have been made without it. We really believe that this approach can be directly applied to enrich the characters in AAA games, and we hope that industry takes note.

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