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

    - Aaron Reed, Ben Samuel, Mike Treanor and Josh McCoy

  • What Went Wrong

    1. We explored new territory

    Fairly early in the process, we set ourselves the goal of making a game in which players could strategically manipulate social relationships in the service of creating their own stories. The story based play was meant to show how our social simulation technology can achieve a level of realism and believability that might be inspirational for other game developers. The strategy-based play was meant to serve as a new type of experimental game as well as to bring the focus of gameplay to understanding the social simulation itself. In other words, Prom Week tackles the story/gameplay conflict head on and, as might be expected, we encountered problems. In fact, in moments of weakness our endless ambition gave way to doubt that what we were attempting to accomplish might be possible!

    The story-based gameplay demanded that player actions be intuitive. This contributed to the simple interaction model: players simply choose what social actions characters take with one another and then they get to watch a scene play out. Early prototypes showed that people loved to just command characters to engage in more or less random social actions with one another. The great thing about stories is that players love to embellish them so whether our system was doing something awesome or not, testers seemed to be satisfied.

    However, it was important to us that we made a game where the social simulation really mattered. We wanted to lead players around the system so they understood why what was happening was different than dialogue trees. So we did our best to not interfere with players who just wanted to randomly poke characters, but also give players a way to play that encouraged them to engage with the logic of the simulation. And this is where we ran into some problems.

    First of all, the simulation is incredibly complicated and presenting a digestible visualization of the AI for players was really difficult! Even determining which elements of the simulation were important to show was incredibly difficult. Part of the problem is that what we were making was a moving target and what we thought was going to be important may not have mattered all that much in the end. For a particular example, much time and energy was spent creating the list of social considerations that influenced why a character wanted to take some action or respond in some way. This was going to be necessary for solving some of the more difficult puzzles. However, as described below, we never implemented said puzzles. In the end, this interface element isn't used by most people and probably made some players feel overwhelmed.

    Another major challenge we faced is that we couldn't pull an existing interface/gameplay convention off the shelf for players to immediately tap into. For example, a game like Braid is really an (awesome) incremental innovation of the 2D platformer and when new players encounter it, they get to bring in a lot of prior experience. The closest game to Prom Week is The Sims, and what we made doesn't actually share that much in common with it. In the end, we did borrow some from The Sims and some Ville games, but we still had to teach the players a lot before they could play.

    This is the case with any large project, but now that Prom Week is finished, we just now have some idea about how to design better gameplay and interface that could accomplish our ambitious goals.

    Fortunately for Doug, Chloe already had strong enough feelings for him that she wanted to date him in spite of his flawed pick up line. Success! Doug and Chloe are now in a relationship.

    2. Tutorials lose players

    Because of the complexity of our core system, we knew from the beginning that explaining it clearly and quickly to players was going to be a serious problem. We went through several redesigns of our beginning tutorial, starting with an exhausting set of skill-based lessons and ending up with a much shorter "learn-as-you-go" system integrated into playing the first few levels (while introducing the characters at the same time). The final shipping tutorial is much shorter than what we started with, and in fact leaves out useful knowledge about how to effectively play the game in the interests of not bogging things down. But somewhat predictably, even this shorter tutorial proved to be too much for a lot of players to wade through: our metrics indicate that only about half of the people who started playing made it through the tutorial to the main game.

    The difficulty came not just from needing to introduce a whole new style of gameplay and interface, but because the malleable social state meant that the player could quickly move the characters in unexpected directions if we didn't restrict them to an on-rails, move-by-move walkthrough. To make sure cool opportunities would arise to demonstrate the player's ability to "trick shot" the social simulation, we needed to carefully stage-manage what happened during the tutorial: but ironically, the on-rails feeling that resulted was the exact opposite of the open-ended gameplay that Prom Week is all about (and that we should have tried to get that other half of players experiencing right away). By removing the player's agency and creative expression in the tutorial, we probably shot ourselves in the foot as far as effectively communicating what the gameplay is actually about. In hindsight, we should have seen from day one that teaching the game was going to be a major challenge, and spent more time thinking about how to educate the player right in the design phase, rather than patching on a tutorial near the end of the project.

    Characters have backstories that can be referenced in dialogue; these backstories expand to include every single player action. Here Oswald's past is keeping him from sweeping Chloe off her feet (not to mention she is also now already dating Doug, which the characters have also taken into account).

    3. Story Goals

    In Prom Week, you first select a character who will be the "main character" of that play through the week. That you don't actually take the perspective of the character you select, and instead have the ability to have any two characters engage in social actions together, is often a point of confusion with players. The idea is that all the "Story Goals" that the player attempts to satisfy and the ending at prom night are about that character.

    Story goals were designed to lead the player through interesting challenges that show off just how much the system can simulate. We had dreams of players concocting elaborate social situations and triggering massive drama with the perfectly planned awkward social move. However, this is not exactly what we ended up with. Partly because many players have a hard time understanding the details of what they are doing, and also partly because authoring these "puzzles" turned out to take much more time and testing than we anticipated, the goals ended up being pretty simple. For example, rather than having a goal enact an entire Saved by the Bell-like plot where a character (Zack) leaves his less than cool friend (Screech) in the dust for a girl (Kelly), and then learns a lesson when she stands him up, goals are mostly about trying to get a character to have a certain number of friends, or some other relationship. The Saved by the Bell-like drama may still happen while pursuing the simpler goals, but we weren't able to ensure that players get to see this.

    In addition to not having enough time to author and tune the more complicated puzzles, we found that players sometimes have a hard time achieving even the simple goals. Part of the problem was that players didn't really know how to think strategically in a game like Prom Week. Admittedly, we could have better taught players through short levels that teach simple lessons through gameplay. Instead, we introduced "social influence points", a resource earned through play that lets players change character behavior. The social influence points were necessary, as players often need them to progress, but they also added more complexity to what must be learned to play. This is not to say that social influence points are a mistake; the (at times stereotypical) personalities of the characters are so strongly modeled, it is often difficult to get the characters to alter their behavior towards each other without the use of social influence points. For example, if two characters are enemies and had traits that made them naturally antagonistic towards each other, say one was "brainy" and the other a "jock," it could be a real challenge to get them to make up. Social influence points enabled us to give players a way to break the characters out of these stereotypes, which is needed for both gameplay and story reasons. That said, we would have preferred if players could break the characters out of their stereotypes without having to relying heavily on the points, as focusing on them, at least in part, de-emphasized the social strategy (which was the whole point of our gameplay model!).

    Also, we are shortly releasing a patch that will have different difficulty adjustments which should make accomplishing goals a little easier.


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