We're a group of graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, and we love games. Playing and building games captures our imagination and thus, our time -- and time is in short supply for graduate students. The 40-hour video games that we enjoyed in the past no longer had a place in our busy schedules.
For other graduate students, losing the luxury of playing video games would have been just a fact of life, but since we were all headed into the game industry, we had to find a way to make games fit into our lives.
Skyrates was intended to be a solution to that problem. The core idea is that a game can be experienced in short sessions, rather than in one larger chunk, much like checking email, which we do a few minutes here and there throughout the day. We call this "sporadic play."
Skyrates set out to be a persistent multiplayer world in the context of a casual Flash game. The game is set in a world of floating lands. Players travel from skyland to skyland in WWII-inspired aircraft. The real-time flights typically last a few hours. By queuing up a sequence of actions, players can keep their characters moving for days without further interaction. Everyone who interacts with the world earns gold and has a chance to upgrade his or her plane.
Development progressed through three major phases. The first semester we made Skyrates 1. Then the team regrouped for a second semester and created Skyrates 2, which expanded on the work of the first semester. The end of Skyrates 2 was marked by our graduations in May 2007. Since then, the game has continued to evolve in our free time into Skyrates 2.5.
What Went Right
1. Meaningful choices, but not all at once. In Skyrates 1, we discovered the concept of sporadic play was novel and appealing. Our players liked the idea of a game that required only a little bit of interaction, embracing the small world we created. Unfortunately, the game's simplicity also proved to be its downfall. Players were reaching the end of the content quickly, and the limited choices were becoming stale, so in Skyrates 2, we added more content: the number and types of aircraft, locations, and commodities.
We didn't expect the addition of more choices to be enough. We wanted to create more nuanced choices, and additional content was a means to that end. By giving ourselves a larger pool of assets, we were able to better tweak small facets of the experience. No longer would players just upgrade their planes to the next in the sequence of fighters. Now they had choices.
However, tossing in more choices blindly is a recipe for self-destruction. Our game is meant to take a small amount of time to play, and if we assaulted our players at each play session with too many options, we would run the risk of overwhelming them. Players who want a casual and sporadic game are less likely to invest their time in learning to navigate a complex interface.
By presenting the decisions in small easy-to-digest chunks and increasing the size of them over time, the player could learn to make complicated decisions quickly. While our game has 12 trade commodities and 38 places to trade them, the beginning player only sees a small subset of that (five commodities and five places). The rest are unveiled over time. As players improve at making decisions, they receive harder and more interesting decisions to make. In the end it remains an experience of just a few minutes at a time.