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

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

  • 4. AI-Based Games are Hard to Schedule and Test

    With a game that was so intimately related to the AI, it was really hard to incrementally test. Prom Week's social simulation has so many interrelated moving parts that anytime we would encounter something that would seem like a problem, it was really easy to say, "Well, when component X is in there this won't be a problem." And this was often true! However, after an initial prototyping phase, we never really got the chance to take a serious look at the complete system and evaluate the design.

    Part of the problem is that the usual design, prototype, test loop took a very, very long time to get through. We probably could have been more creative with small prototype design throughout the process, but we also didn't have the resources to give someone weeks toward something that wasn't going to make the game closer to completion. Having a member on the team whose job was exclusively to prototype, test and critique the design would have made the game much better.

    What made this even worse is that we spent the last year and a half of the project constantly thinking we were three months away from launching. This may be part of the nature of making an experimental research game (there was nothing to compare to!). However, constantly thinking the release of your game is imminent is a really bad thing, because you are never willing or able to step back and make big changes.

    At the prom, the player's completed goals--and the choices they made to get there--determine the ending to the campaign.

    5. We Worked Like We Were in a University

    Working within a University setting came with a set of challenges as well. One of the biggest hurdles we had to face was that we lacked a "reliable" team size. Many students would join the project as undergraduate researchers for a quarter (or two, if we were lucky), and would then not have time to fit Prom Week into their schedule the following quarter. Although this would be an issue in any University setting, Santa Cruz's 10-week quarter system combined with the particularly steep learning curve of authoring for Prom Week meant that the undergraduates would often have less than two months of working with us before moving on. Moreover, it meant that we tended to not give them tasks that required deep knowledge of the AI system, and instead opted to give them relatively self-contained responsibilities that were off the critical path, such as authoring content.

    As discussed above, the undergraduates were extremely helpful, and generated an impressive amount of content. However, since we had a steady stream of newcomers, there was near constant pressure on the part of the core team to put aside working on Prom Week directly, and instead spend time getting the undergraduates spun up. There were times when it was unclear whether or not spending time training the undergrads was a better use of time than working on the game directly. Also, much of the content that the undergraduates generated had to go through a tone pass administered by the game's Lead Author. Although editing someone else's work is less time consuming than creating something new, checking for tone was still a substantial time commitment, and limited the amount of time he had to write content of his own.

    Regrettably, the undergraduates weren't the only ones with non-Prom Week responsibilities--all of the core members of the team had other obligations as well. During Prom Week's two and a half year development cycle, there was but a single summer where there was a member of the core team who was working on the game full time (and it was exactly one member). Most of us had classes of our own that we had to contend with; either classes that we were enrolled in, TAing, or in one case teaching. There were certain academic milestones and responsibilities that were expected of us; our lead AI designer had to take some time advancing to candidacy, and our Lead Author had to write a thesis and create an award winning project to complete his MFA. And perhaps the greatest challenge of all, Prom Week was just one research project of many that the core members of the team were affiliated with.

    These other research projects were certainly very fascinating, and we don't mean to speak disparagingly of any of these non-Prom Week pursuits. SpyFeet, which half of the core team was working on, was an experiment in making a narrative based mobile augmented reality game that would encourage adolescent girls to engage in more physical activity. Game-O-Matic, which one Prom Week member was a lead on, is a system that allows non-game-designers to create op-ed games with custom nouns, images, and verbs in a matter of seconds. The last core Prom Week member was working on Holodeck, an experiment which imbued non-player-character avatars in Second Life with behaviors that made them near indistinguishable from human players. The faculty members on Prom Week were overseeing all of these projects, plus many more projects and students besides.

    Because no one person was really ever full time on the project, there were times when we would feel blocked when we otherwise wouldn't have. For example, there were moments when the three of us who had time to work on Prom Week couldn't move forward until the fourth finished their commit, but they couldn't finish their commit until they had successfully taken their midterm in their graduate course, and then grade 300 midterms for the undergraduate course they were TAing. Because of this, there were times when progress would only inch along, while if we had all been in the same room working together five days a week, we would have been able to address these issues in hours, rather than days.

    Many of these external commitments are natural expectations of graduate students. Others, however, boil down to matters of funding. It's difficult to fund a game in an academic setting, and the way that graduate students get paid is either by working on funded research (hence SpyFeet, Game-O-Matic, Holodeck), or by being a Teaching Assistant. Although there was a little bit of funding for developing Prom Week, it wasn't enough to cover the expenses of the number of team members that we had, for the amount of time that we needed.

    Another challenge of the University setting was a lack of a dedicated meeting space. Although all of the graduate students had personal cubicles, any undergraduates who came into the lab to work would be lacking a desk. Although the Expressive Intelligence Studio is fortunate enough to have an auxiliary lab that would accommodate our small army of undergrads, we had to share the space with other research groups in the studio (and indeed, most other research groups would agree that we probably got access to it more than our fair share as it is!)

    The University provided us with some excellent resources, but the challenges it brought were ones we were combating throughout the entire development process.

    A glimpse of our in-house design tool, used to author the 5000+ rules for social behavior and all character dialogue.


    With all of the good and bad considered, we are left with a very positive view about Prom Week. Given the myriad ways this project could have failed, the end result was a successful game that explores a new area of game design where the player has access to a new depth of interactivity with a game world. We accomplished our research goal of creating an experimental game based on a playable model of social interaction. We also accomplished our personal goal of making an interesting and fun gameplay experience that was enjoyed by thousands of people. Being successful in venues like the IGF surpassed any of our goals or expectations we considered at the start of the project.

    In this discussion of "what went right" and "what went wrong," there were many things that happened that were either neutral or a mix of both. One such aspect of Prom Week was the puzzle style of the game. We committed to this constraint fairly early in Prom Week's development and have built a game around that choice. Though including puzzles helped us develop and frame the game, we had little chance to explore alternative design decisions. Another early commitment was having a flat hierarchy in the core team. Everyone equally owned and was responsible for Prom Week. Without running a similar project with the same team, it is hard to determine if the motivational benefits of group ownership outweighed the potential loss of not having a single creative lead.

    We believe that there is so much more than can be done with the tech in Prom Week alone, and that AI based games are a promising direction for further experimentation. We hope that our innovations in dialogue and social simulation will inspire and influence future games. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy Prom Week!

    [Author Information: Josh McCoy, Mike Treanor, Ben Samuel, and Aaron Reed are PhD students in the Expressive Intelligence Studio, part of the Center for Games and Playable Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.]


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