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  • Student Postmortem: Northeastern University's Shortfall Digital

    - Mark Sivak and Seth Sivak

  • What Went Right

    1. The team. One of the nice things about being on this project was that we had a diverse group to help us. We worked with several excellent professors who had worked on the second edition of the board game: Jackie Isaacs in the MIE department, Donna Qualters from the Center for Effective University Teaching, and Ann McDonald and Jay Laird from multimedia studies. The interdisciplinary nature of the original team is an indication of the complexity of this project. Additionally, without the help of the other members of the team and graphics support from some fellow students, the project would not have been possible.

    The original game resulted from a well-researched master's thesis, and the second edition had taken a massive overhaul of everything from gameplay to actual content. Without the solid base developed by the previous team as well as the group we worked with, it would not have been possible to complete anything in a semester-long timeframe.

    We were granted a considerable amount of freedom for where we wanted to take the project. Our backgrounds were in both mechanical engineering and game design. The added bonuses of working on this particular project were that 1) we had previously created educational games and 2) we essentially fit the target market: undergraduate engineering students.

    2. Streamlining the supply chain. Both versions of the board game are very complex and simulate a supply chain for automobiles. Each competing supply chain has three distinct tiers -- materials, parts, and cars -- with four players per tier. That amounts to 12 players per supply chain.
    The different tiers compete as teams against each other, but also require each other for success, and the final win condition is determined by the total assets available after five rounds.

    Each player on a team is given a direct role in the decisions made during his or her turn. The roles are CEO, production manager, R&D manager, and environmental manager. The board game also required an in depth tutorial and an actual human game master to facilitate the current events and changes from round to round.

    We learned from student game tester comments that this complexity, while interesting, was taking away from the game. We decided that the entire structure of the supply chain and the gameplay needed to be reworked.

    The first thing we decided to do was change the way the teams were formed. We put six people on a supply chain, two per tier. Then we reformulated the game to be a competition between two competing supply chains so the overall number of players was still 12. Restructuring the players allowed us to solve a lot of internal balance problems that were in the board game as well as simplify the player roles. And having competing supply chains strengthened the feeling of collaboration among the teams of tiers -- materials, parts, and cars.

    Finally after all these changes occurred, it became possible to add more rounds to the game. Initially the board game only had five rounds because the first round involved a scripted tutorial that was guided by the game master. The digital version removed the need for the game master but was replaced with a narrative instruction packet handed out prior to the game, followed by an interactive tutorial. These changes allowed us to expand the game to 10 rounds, which meant we could create different aspects of the gameplay for shortsighted players and for those who had longer-term strategies.

    3. Reorganizing player roles. Putting two players per tier completely restructured the roles of each team. The two new roles were innovation manager and economics manager, corresponding to the two user interfaces involved in each team's turn. This change helped eliminate a lot of confusion that the players had and helped consolidate the roles, which some players thought were too boring or simple. It also opened up a new range of player choices and tied together how each team needed to strategize and plan together for each turn.

    We saw several other potential advantages to reorganizing the player roles. For one, the two new roles both had essentially equal power, whereas in the previous versions, the CEO had the ultimate decision-making power.

    4. Improving the interaction by beating the networking problem. Switching from a tabletop game to a digital one posed a number of unique challenges for us. These challenges, coupled with the fact that we were under a strict time constraint and did not have much experience with the platform (Adobe Flash), we had to change the design a bit to facilitate functionality.

    We decided early that a fully networked version of the game was simply too much for us to undertake in this independent study. However, we still wanted the supply chains to be able to compete against each other with the possibility of declaring a winner when the game was played in a classroom setting. We envisioned each team of six passing around a single laptop while taking turns playing.

    One of our goals was to not just make a single-use game, but a replayable one so students could experiment with different strategies. Our fix for this was to use an innovative feature that revolved around setting pseudo-random numbers for the market changes and the order of the current events. Each game is numbered, and the game number links to a specific set of data. Therefore, as long as each team plays the same game number, all teams will be essentially playing the same game and can compare scores at the end, enabling competition in the same classroom or across the country without requiring an internet connection.

    This dynamic also made it possible for people to play the game at any time. A group could play game number 6 and then a month later a different group could play the same game and they could compare scores. The groups do not have to play concurrently.


    5. Restructuring "innovation trees" to maximize learning. Most of the facts and real world material in Shortfall are stored in what we call innovation trees. It was important to make the trees a highlight feature in the digital version of Shortfall instead of an unstructured, non-strategic decision card as in the original board game. This part of the game was where a lot of the fun and strategy would come into play.

    However, we needed to balance the choices available to the players so that there was no one single path to victory. To accomplish this, we had to create a new way of handling the scoring. Rather than just scoring the profits gleaned, we added in a green score (after all, it is a game about raising environmental awareness). This provided an opportunity to create choices among options in the innovation tree. On each level of the tree, there is a technology choice that allows opportunities for either higher profits or increasing the team's green score.

    To add to the strategy development, we added an innovation mastery. These are special Innovations that take a large number of prerequisites before you can invest in them, but that reap excellent rewards. Much effort was put into making the Innovations Tree and the Mastery options logical and as real as possible. Careful consideration was taken when placing the Innovation in the specific tree and level. We feel that the redesign and development of the innovation tree was a major intellectual contribution to the strategy of the game and that it is a truly polished feature.



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