The beginning of June marked a crucial point in Project:Filter's development as the prototype was put in public hands for the first (and second) time, with two events taking place. Firstly, Glasgow Caledonian University hosted this year's SmartSTEMs event, where over 500 female schoolchildren participated in STEM-related subjects. As part of this event, I helped to run a game design workshop, where the pupils used paper prototyping to come up with ideas for games based on water pollution. Their ideas came from playing Project:Filter and two games developed as part of the noPILLS Jam: Sewer Sweeper and Polluted. Some of the ideas to come out as a result of their play involved rhythm-based sorting of pollution, a trawler-man's journey to collect fish, and a team-based "Call of Germs" competition.
Following this was the Science Day at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. This was a two-day public event designed for families to explore different science-related activities, such as engineering, optics, and the science of physical exercise. I initially aimed to collect qualitative and quantitative data to contribute to the holistic research conducted; it quickly became apparent that questionnaires and surveys are the wrong method of choice to interest children. So my backup solution was to take observational notes as the public played the games, and see what reactions and behaviours emerged.
The observational evidence from each of these events provided three areas that I wish to share for the next iteration of Project:Filter. Consider this a post-mortem of the first public appearance of Project:Filter.
Area One: Invigoration
1. Public Opinions
First thing's first: I love showing games to the public. There's an exhilaration to showing off something you've been working on for a while and seeing people enjoy themselves. It certainly makes the hard graft of making games worth it, like a rare reward at the end of a long-winded dungeon infested (and I mean infested) by monsters. Except this dungeon splits at the entrance with signs reading "PhD to the left; Game Dev to the right", it has no foreseeable exit, and the monsters are internal beings called "self-doubt" and "exhaustion" ... The public are the heroes to this story, and I'm a particular admirer of the harshest of critics among them. Their play experience is like orienteering: they have a hold of the (metaphorical) compass and plot your future direction by tell you what's wrong, when it's wrong, and why it's wrong. At the end of the day, it's up to the developer to follow their instruction, or grab the compass and leave them in the forest.
2. Raising the Profile of "Serious Games"
I also love conversing with the parents, especially those who have a personally-justified scepticism about gaming for their children: whether their children are too young for certain games, or they just don't like games at all. Maybe it may be from the kind of games I'm showing off, where it's not commercialised virtual slaughterfests of any description: the parents can interpret the messages in the games as their children play, and if that's a good message, you can see their understanding about games evolve. They probe with questions about games in general, about the "serious games" and how their children can do this in the future. It's a small yet satisfying contribution to change perceptions of what games can do for people, especially if it's your game that causes such a reaction!
It's certainly been quite a tough-going few weeks and months, and this the small reminder that I needed to refresh my purpose and desire to make games: ultimately, I want to make games that make people care. To care about the game; to care about what the game's about; to care about what the game means in a wider sense; and to care to play similar games. That's what it means, from my perspective, to really understand games as a medium beyond entertainment in a similar vein to other types of media moguls.
Area Two: Affirmation
3. Predicting Player Satisfaction
I anticipated that Polluted would be the most age-appropriate for the Science Day in comparison to Sewer Sweeper and Project:Filter. Polluted was a major success with younger children: they took to the game like a fish to water (pun intended) and didn't need much support or help to play. The interface is vivid and understandable, the text is legible and simple (parents would read in their own language to younger players), and the narrative that plays out once a checkpoint has been reached encouraged continued their play experience. The game resonated well with its audience, and it was clear to see as the queues of younger children would form around one computer.
Sewer Sweeper was a bigger hit with the adolescent audience, particularly during the SmartSTEMs event. Again, it probably came down to age-appropriateness: Sewer Sweeper requires a level of dexterous play that Polluted doesn't offer, so some of the school pupils felt less challenged. The game was very challenging for younger audiences at the Science Day, who would give Sewer Sweeper a quick go only to re-queue for Polluted. Despite Sewer Sweeper's popularity with the older audiences, the "learning" elements of the game were generally ignored: loading screens with facts and answers to potential future questions were not read; quizzes were often guessed or ignored; and context to each level was not generally interesting enough for children to understand (or adults, who would help their children skip the menus more often than not). The text-heavy dependency was a big let-down to what is a relatively-simple and enjoyable game.
Project:Filter took a step further than Sewer Sweeper in respect to challenging player dexterity, processing information, and adult support; admittedly, it was the most challenging game for both young and adolescent audiences at both events. For the majority of players, play sessions would last a few seconds before they would fall off the platform, either by being pushed while trying to understand why there was a controller in their hand, or by moving the joystick too far before they realised what they were doing. Players tried time and time again as their character fell outside the game space in an attempt to understand the controls. (There was a few exceptions to the rule: those who were familiar with dexterous-challenging games and a controller would last a considerable amount of time longer on the game than those of a less experienced disposition.) Essentially, it was affirmation that children would struggle to understand the controls without some form of assistance: it's unlike many games that children are familiar with (games such as Subway Surfers and Colour Switch would appear regularly in the workshops), so there is an unfamiliarity to overcome initially before the "game" element becomes secondary to the learning.
In essence: Project:Filter needs to become more user-friendly towards less-experienced players, and define the rules and mechanics more clearly and simply.
4. Audience and Demographic
As I indicated previously, each game was predictably suited to different age groups and experience types: the diversity of games and skill levels required to play kept the computers busy with so many types of players who were enticed by a particular game, then found themselves playing the other games.
Based on the average age of players and their time spent on each game, Polluted certainly appealed to younger children, probably no older than nine; Sewer Sweeper was popular among the ten-to-twelve year old children; Project:Filter accommodated for those aged twelve and older. However, it's worth mentioning that this ranking is reflective of skill level also: Polluted offered a more entry-level experience, while Sewer Sweeper and Project:Filter challenged even the most confident of young players.
Inclusiveness and difficulty aside, the appropriation of late-stage pre-teens fits into the demographic intended. Identified within my research, twelve-to-thirteen year old schoolchildren were seen as the most appropriate audience, based on cognitive development theory (mainly Piaget) and outcomes in Science and Social Studies subjects (set by Education Scotland under the Curriculum for Excellence).e
Area Three: Inspiration
5. Emergent Solutions to Challenges
Something that really struck me, particularly at the Science Day, was how alien a controller can be to a player. That, probably, comes down to my ignorance: it never crossed my mind that someone - even children - wouldn't know what a controller was, and what each button would do. It was rather overwhelming for some and led to confusion for a lot of players: the game only uses one analog stick and two buttons, but children wanted to use all the buttons ("What does the triggers do?" was a popular question).
My initial thoughts were "How do I communicate the controller's button layout more effectively?", but then my mind wandered elsewhere. Because to have a controller and not use all the buttons would feel redundant (personal opinion: if you're not maximising the input's controls, then some added thought is needed). I started, then, to think about bespoke input. Because it's a bespoke game: there's not many games that use a filter system with point collection. And it's only a three-button game: why not create a three-button controller (think Atari 2600 controller with an additional button)? Would that add anything to the game? It remains to be seen...
6. Next Development Iteration and Direction
Combining the public's opinions with emerging challenges that need addressed, the direction of development for future iterations has become apparent. The depth and perspective issues resurfacing requires a revision in camera positioning and composition. The learning content should be communicated beyond text-heavy scriptures. And controls need to feel right and be easy to understand: either through effectively communicating on familiar hardware (such as a keyboard or controller), or through a new, bespoke piece of hardware.