Silkroads: Introducing the Honours Project
My name is Tom Slade, and I’m a video game designer. My interests include system design, level design, and tutorial/progression design. I also love programming, have had a few years of experience with art, and have produced for a few small projects.
For the fourth and final year of my education at Abertay University, Dundee, I’m required to create a large project and gather relevant research for a dissertation. This undertaking is called the Honours Project. Today I’m going to be writing about my plans.
A Tale of Two Prototypes
Anticipating the Honours Project over my (very busy) summer holiday, I set about prototyping an idea that I’ve had for a while; an educational game that teaches classical physics in an engaging way. After playing Kerbal Space Program and SineRider, I’m a strong believer in the capacity of video games to teach non-intuitive systems – such as algebra or physics – through the use of interactive simulations and well-crafted learning curves. I also think tutorial and progression design is very important, yet increasingly sidelined by many modern games as online wikis become the norm; so I want to see how tutorial design can be used in general, and in educational games.
So, primarily for the sake of checking my work-speed and scope (as the project I’m planning is likely the most complex I’ve ever worked on), I spent a few days of the summer constructing a prototype in Unity. The result demonstrates that physics elements can be programmed fast enough. However, a core game-loop still needs to be programmed.
(Above) The prototype features a small solar-system, where orbits follow the classical law of gravity, and are n-body simulated (all planets attract each other, orbits can change). The player has a white-board to make notes on. Using simple tools of measurement, such as rulers, scales, or sextants, the player would be able to chart the movement of stellar bodies, and derive laws of physics (which wouldn’t necessarily be identical to the laws that exist in reality). Gradual increments in difficulty, and tutorial techniques, could be employed to ensure that even players who lack experience with physics can come to understand the game.
Towards the end of the summer, however, doubts presented themselves. I developed growing concern that the educational concept (for now called the Physics Game) would not be helpful in securing a job after graduation. Meanwhile, some of my favorite studios develop strategy games, while system design and balancing is an area that I find very rich. An alternative project to the Physics Game would be a strategy game of some sort.
What sort of strategy game? Since path finding and AI behaviors are technically demanding areas that I currently don’t want to develop my skills in, the best strategy genre for me to work on might be turn-based or grand-strategy; anything that doesn’t require the two aforementioned features. Such games involve economic play, likely with less capacity for meta-design but plenty of opportunity to flex my system-design skills. Unlike the Physics Game, I don’t have a prototype for this project, but I currently have two concepts;
A game where the player controls a global environmental division, tasked with slowing and preventing the Holocene extinction (aka. the rapid decline in biodiversity currently being caused by human activity). A grand strategy, the map would be divided into ecological regions with species-quantities and extinction rates that must be slowed. Tasks might include dispatching surveyors to gather information, dispatching anti-poachers, pressing for anti-pollution or anti-expansion bills, raising awareness with mascot animals, and researching new tools. Strategy comes in with various agents of strategic importance; e.g. in a food-chain mechanic, a keystone species going extinct would result in a large loss of biodiversity. This concept was drawn up years ago by myself and some classmates: Gerard Lavery, Joseph Tompkins, and Simeon Lilov.
A game where the player trades along the silk road. Trade nodes and locations sprawl across a map of the ancient middle-east, connecting Rome to China and the steppe to India. The player, controlling a trader or trade company, can dispatch trade missions to different markets, taking shrewd advantage of local demands and abundances. Silk fetches a high price in Antioch, perhaps, while Roman glassware in the Hindu Kush goes for a fortune. Transporting along safe routes might invoke high taxes, while unprotected northern routes risk caravan raids.
Choosing between the Physics Game or the Strategy Game amounts to an issue of professional value vs. novel design. Do I want to spend a year creating a game that’s directly relevant to my career, or do I want to use this chance to try and create something very new and experimental? Would the latter even be detrimental, or do employers value a designer who pushes boundaries? Answering these questions and more will take time, which is why my professor has assured me that I have a few weeks to explore both concepts.
A personal deadline for making this decision is: Monday the 26th of September. I have a week and a half of time, as of writing.
My biggest priorities are:
Fleshing out the Strategy Game core design.
Completing a core-loop implementation in the Physics Game.
Determining the professional benefits of either project.
So here I go …