Thursday, October 25, 2012

More Playtesting!

I spent last night playtesting my game. Here are some notes on what I learned, and what I've done/what I'm going to do to fix it.

To start, here's the latest version of the board:

I color-coded the marks around the edge to try to make it more readable. The playing pieces are now hexagonal, and they've been Alchemy themed. The goal is to take your starting lead pieces and transmute them to gold.

The pieces are a bit too big though. When you move a piece, it brushes up against the corners of all the pieces it passes by, and pushes them around. It's a minor thing, but it gets tedious pretty quickly. I've bumped down the size of the pieces just a little bit.

The one thing that every single play-tester told me was that my game was really intimidating. Just looking at the rule-book and the board, people felt overwhelmed. In one player's words:

             "you see all the letters and numbers and arrows and everything, and it's just, like,       

 One player turned to me and asked quite contemptuously, "Is this a science game?" So, first impressions are not good. I really don't know what to do about this. I mean, those letters and numbers are important; the game would be a hell of a lot more confusing without them. Other people complained about the size of the rulebook, but frankly I was impressed that I got it down to the size it is now. I really don't know what I can cut, and most of it is pictures anyway. On the other hand, most players said afterwards that once they actually started playing, it was pretty straightforward and user-friendly. This affirmation comes with a huge caveat however, for one very important reason...

No one was actually able to play my game correctly.

Some people got pretty close, but in all the games I watched, nobody was able to consistently follow all the rules. Now, the obvious answer here is that my rules were poorly written, and in some cases that's true, as I'll discuss in a minute. But half the time, players would read the rules, even demonstrate that they understood the rules, and then when they started playing, they would completely forget, and just make up their own crazy ways to play. And the thing is, they thought they were playing right. They didn't question what they were doing because they thought it was correct, and they were genuinely surprised to learn they were playing wrong.

What really surprised me was what they got wrong. I had expected players to struggle a lot with the wrapping edges of the board, since that's somewhat novel and seems counter-intuitive, but everybody grasped that straight away. What evaded every player was the mechanic of pieces bouncing off one another, which was supposed to be the core element of game-play, and which I had assumed would be easy for people to grasp. Instead, players would have pieces go through fusion/fission every time they collided! They make the game so much harder for themselves, and then they cry at me that it's too complicated.

I'm pretty sure I know why this happened: because I had assumed the mechanics of wrapping, fusion and fission would be harder for people to understand, I went out of my way to draw attention to them in the rules, and explain them with absolute clarity. I gave each of those rules their own section, with a big bold title at the beginning. But because I had assumed that the collision mechanics would be more intuitive, I didn't make a big deal of them. They were explained quite thoroughly, and had pretty pictures to illustrate, but they were just stuck haphazardly in the "Movement" section, so my guess is that nobody paid much attention to them. I have since re-organized the rulebook to solve this problem.

Here's another bizarre phenomenon. One of the things that every group of playtesters got wrong was the rules for fission. But what's weird is, they all got it wrong in the same way, with the split pieces flying off towards the first moving piece instead of away from it. Everybody did exactly the same thing, and there was no communication between groups. Does that mean I should just change the rules to match what they were doing, even though what they were doing doesn't make any sense physically or thematically?

 One last thing. Even though nobody understood my game, even though nobody played it entirely correctly, they were still having a lot of fun. I was there, I saw them, and they were getting really into it. They were invested in the game, and in finding a strategy to beat out their opponents. Every triumph and defeat was genuine. And even though the game they were playing wasn't exactly the game I had designed, in general it was close enough to elicit the kinds of experiences I wanted. So all in all, I feel good about this. I'll probably never have another first playtest as successful as this one was.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Simple Props

The first set of props I built for the level, seen here in the earlier stages in Maya, and below in UDK, slightly more spruced up.

I probably couldn't have asked for a better introduction to alphas. Trying to make blocks and blobs look like they're actually made out of clumps of straw is no easy task. For now, I'm calling these finished. The work pretty well from across the room, but quickly fall apart under close scrutiny. I'm also getting some weird issues with the shadows on the big hay pile, which I'm hoping can be fixed just as soon as I find out which box I have to check that will make UDK work the way I want it to.

Greybox Initial Set Dressing

Dressing up the grey box using the building kits that the whole class made...

For now, I've just slapped a texture onto the ground and the walls, so they still look very flat and blocky. I'm not sure what I'm going to do to that ramp that's going to make it look like it's not a piece of geometry.

Not finished yet, but certainly looking a lot spiffier. I've changed a few things since this picture; I added a door into the side of the kiva, to let people move in and out of it easier and make it feel a bit more open, though you wouldn't be able to see it from this angle anyway. In critique, I was impressed with the structures that other people were able to make just using the pieces from the building kits. I'm hoping I'll be able to do the same thing, and make things just a little more interesting over all before we start adding props.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Print-and-Play: Brainstorming

Here's the log from my latest brainstorming session on my PnP game. Mostly I'm attempting to find ways to solve problems I found during my playtest, but a lot of this is just good old fashioned aimless brainstorming too. And I think there's a picture near the end.

Starting with a potential theme for the game, because a lot of the ideas I had came from thinking about how I could apply this theme mechanically. The theme is: Particle Collisions. As you're reading this, half of you are probably thinking that sounds like the coolest thing ever, and the other half think it sounds like the dumbest thing ever. But it leads to some interesting potential mechanics. For instance, what if, when two pieces collide head-on, instead of being destroyed, they "fuse" into a larger particle, with different properties. And then when larger particles collide, they could go through "fission", and split, which would cause two or more particles to move off in different directions.

The goal of the game could be to fuse your pieces together and be the first player to synthesize a certain type of particle. Certain reactions would require certain pieces, so you have to start with your small pieces, build them up to medium and then large. This gives the player smaller goals building up to the big one, so each turn you can feel like you're achieving something. And the opponent could try to sabotage your efforts by colliding with your bigger particles to break them apart (of course you could do the same to him). This could create a sort of ebb and flow of how many pieces there are on the board. Breaking up an opponent's pieces gets him farther away from the end goal, but might open up new opportunities for him because now he has more pieces on the board.

This theme may or may not make use of actual names of actual particles, which may or may not actually react realistically. Truth be told, that seems like it would be more trouble than it's worth.

Sticking with the theme, the board could be a nuclear reactor. In that case, instead of the edges wrapping, pieces could bounce off of the edges of the board. That might actually not be any easier to grasp for players, depending on how the rules for bouncing work.

Instead of pieces moving a set distance and reacting with any pieces they move over, they could simply move until they collide with another piece. That would be easier for players to conceive, and ensure that one piece only reacts with one other piece. It would keep chains simpler, but they could still get fairly long. On the other hand, how would the reaction ever stop? It could be "move until you reach a starting color or hit another piece".

Currently, a player can rotate any one piece to face any direction. It might be better if they can only rotate a piece one "turn" to the left or right. Keep things a little simpler. It might also be interesting if players can rotate their opponent's pieces (but are still only allowed to move their own).

What if I removed a layer of hexes from the board, to make it smaller? Or what if that happened during the game? after, say, 15 turns, the outer layer is removed. With everything suddenly cramped closer together, reactions would become more volatile, the game would get more exciting.

What if each player had a "cue ball" piece? they are only allowed to control that one particular piece, and they have to rotate their pieces to manipulate the outcome of that movement. I like this.
"On a player's turn, he may rotate his "cue" piece, and one other piece on the board of any color. He then moves the "cue" piece and plays out the reaction."

What other objectives could the game have?
Scoring system based on the size/type of reactions players generate, game ends after X turns and players count their score. This would allow for players to control how long a game lasts.
Goal is simply to create the longest reaction possible. The first player to set off a reaction that involves, say, 10 pieces wins. I think this model would suffer a lot from people not feeling like they have control. Players would have to try to "set up" their pieces for a big reaction, which would be almost impossible to do.

What other themes could the game have?
Bumper cars.
Primitive, single-cell life forms, vying for dominance in the primordial soup.
Totally abstract game with cool-looking arrows and shit.
Flying Mech-Warriors in space, who combine by ramming into each-other.

Let's make some rules for "fusion" and "fission".
1. goal is to be the first to fuse a red piece OR goal is to, on your turn, cause your red piece to collide with your opponent's red piece.
2. each player starts with 3 blue pieces, 2 green pieces, and 1 red piece, which start off of the board. Which player controls the piece is denoted by the color of the arrow, which stays either black or white.
3. when two starting pieces of a player's color collide head-on, they "fuse" into a blue piece. both original pieces are removed from the board, and a blue piece is placed on the tile where they collided.
4. when two starting pieces of opposing player's colors collide head-on, they fuse into a green piece, controlled by the player whose piece was moving when the two collided.
5. when a blue and a green piece controlled by the same player collide head-on, they fuse into a red piece.
6. Whenever one or more blue, green, or red pieces collide head-on with another piece, except in the case of rule 5, they go through "fission", and split: Replace that piece with its two component pieces. those pieces are then rotated and moved. Their rotation is determined by the player whose turn it is OR it is decided randomly (roll a die for each piece, and rotate it that many clockwise turns from the direction of the piece which was moving when the two pieces collided. In the case of doubles, roll again).
7. Whenever a red piece collides with an opponent's piece, that piece is destroyed (this rule would be in the case of the second goal listed in rule one, where play continues after a red piece is on the board. This would encourage players to be the first to get to red, even though it is not a win condition, and would help bring the game to a quick end once a red piece is on the board. A player could win either by destroying his opponent's red piece, or by creating conditions where it is impossible for the opponent to create a red piece, because he doesn't have enough pieces.)

Here's a somewhat updated board, showing what the colored and cue pieces would look like, and a prototype starting set-up for the pieces. I added the marked arrows around the edge of the board to illustrate how the board wraps. The arrangement of pieces is designed so opposing player's pieces are radially symmetrical, and no head-on collisions are possible on the first turn (even without the cue-piece movement rules).

Updated movement rules. Two possibilities:
1. on a player's turn, he first rotates any one piece on the board (of any color) one turn left or right. He then moves any one piece of his color, and plays out the reaction. OR…
2. Players play with a designated "cue" piece. On a player's turn, he may rotate his cue piece on turn left or right, and any one other piece on the board (of any color). He then MUST move his cue piece, and play out the reaction.
VARIATION ON THE CUE PIECE RULES: A player may re-designate which of his pieces is the cue. Whenever a player's cue piece collides with another of his pieces on his turn, he may chose to designate that piece the cue piece. (this may be needlessly complicated.)

That's probably enough to think about until some more playtests.

Print-and-Play Playtest Results

I spent some time play-testing my game with the rules I posted earlier. This is what I found.

1. As I had suspected, trying to force opponent's pieces to collide with and destroy each other is pretty close to impossible. Neither I nor my friend I was playing with were ever able to do it. However, it is very possible to force two of your own pieces to collide this way, or collide one of your pieces with an opponent. I think it would still work to have this action be a point of interest in the game.

2. With the current rules, pieces are destroyed when they collide head-on. The big problem with this is that the board starts to clear up pretty quickly, and the game becomes much less interesting the less pieces there are on the board. I think it'll be more interesting if all the pieces stay on the board throughout the game, and I've got some ideas about what should happen when pieces collide, and how to get a sense of progression from the start to the end of the game.

3. As a player, you don't really get any sense that you have control over what's happening. This is by far the biggest problem I encountered. Even though nothing that happens is random, it's extremely difficult to grasp what the consequences of your moves are, so you sort of feel like you're just randomly moving pieces and waiting for something to happen.
For my opponent, this was partly because he couldn't really grasp how pieces wrapped around the edges of the board (whenever a piece moved off of the board, I had to tell him where it went). We were also playing in my Illustrator file, which was a pain in the ass. So I'm going to mark the board so that it's hopefully clearer how pieces move, and then I'm going to actually print it out, so it can be easier to play.
But, all that aside, I knew all the rules and I knew how the pieces moved, and I still didn't feel like I had much control over what was happening on the board. Solving this might just be a matter of simplifying the rules for movement (I've got some ideas on that as well), or it might take some serious rethinking of the central mechanic. I'm hoping for the former.

4. To end on a high note: My friend assured me that even though he didn't really feel in control, moving the pieces was still exciting for him. He enjoyed the way the pieces move and interact. That's exciting for me, because that's basically what I was building the game around. If I have to scrap everything else, but I get to keep that. then that's all right with me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Print and Play Deconstruction: Abande

Abande is a 2-player board game designed by Dieter Stein.

For the sake of completeness, here is the website for the game, where you can download the official rules and one of two game boards:
I played using the hexagonal board. Ideally, you should use checkers pieces or poker chips as the game pieces. I printed out some white and black squares and it worked pretty well.

1. Goal
The object of the game is to control the most pieces on the board at the end, by placing pieces on the board, and stacking on top of opponent's pieces to capture them.

2. Core Mechanics
Players take turns placing their pieces along the intersections (not the spaces) of the board, or moving a piece on top of an opponent's to gain control of it. The unique mechanic of this game is that all pieces on the board have to be connected along a single "band" (hence the name). This severely limits not only where pieces can be placed, but which pieces can be moved.

3. Space
The space of the game is composed of 37 discrete spaces, arranged in a hexagonal grid. Players place and move tiles along the intersections of the grid lines. The grid lines define which spaces are connected to which.

4. Objects, Attributes and States
Aside from the game board, Abande has only one type of object: the pieces. these pieces have four attributes:
  1. color: a piece can be either white or black, denoting which player owns that piece. Each player has 18 pieces in their color.
  2. location: a piece can be either off of the board, in the players "hand", or on one of 37 spaces on the board.
  3. stack position: a piece can be unstacked, on top of a stack, or in a stack. Stacks can contain no more than 3 pieces.
  4. relation: a piece either is or is not adjacent to at least one piece or stack of an opposing color. This attribute is important for scoring, which is described later on.
5. Operative Actions
On his or her turn, a player may perform one of three actions.
  1. place a tile on any empty space that is adjacent to at least one piece or stack.
  2. move a piece or stack he controls. A player controls a stack if the top piece on that stack is his color. A player may only move a piece or stack he controls to capture an opponent's piece or stack. He may not move to an empty space, or onto a piece or stack of his color. He may not make any move which results in one or more pieces being disconnected from the rest of the pieces on the board. Stacks may not contain more than 3 pieces, so a player may not make any move which would result in a stack with more than 3 pieces.
  3. pass their turn. If a player passes, he or she performs no action on his turn. A player may only pass if he or she has no pieces left in his hand, otherwise he must either place a new piece, or move a piece. When both players pass in succession, the game is over.
6. Rules
Black plays first by placing a piece on any space on the board, after which players take turns placing, moving, or passing. Moving is only allowed after Black has entered the second piece. That is, Black cannot capture White's first piece on his second turn. When both players pass their turn in succession, the game is over.
Before scoring, players remove from the board any piece or stack which is not adjacent to at least one piece or stack of an opposing color (note that it is possible for this to split the band. that is okay!) These removed pieces are not counted towards the players' scores. Players score one point for each remaining piece they control, meaning any unstacked pieces of their color, and any pieces in a stack they control. The player with the higher score wins the game!

7. Skills Players Learn and Resultant Actions
This game is entirely based on mental skill. There is arguable an element of social skill in trying to psyche out the other player, but that can be said of almost any game.
In playing Abande, players quickly learn that the relation between pieces is much more important than any individual pieces. One of the big turning points is when a player discovers the tactic of placing one of their pieces across from an opponent's piece to prevent him from being able to move that piece (since he/she can no longer move it without breaking the "band"). When you first think of it or see it done to you, it seems like the most nefarious, cunning and dastardly trick, but it very quickly turns into a basic and common tactic. The flipside to that is the act of "supporting" one of your own pieces by putting another piece behind it. This protects the piece from capture by the opponent, since one piece can't be taken without the other piece taking it right back, but also blocks both pieces from moving (for the time being). In midgame, it's not uncommon to see long rows of opposing pieces staring each other down, each player trying to gain the advantage over the other.
Stacks are extremely important to strategy, and the movement of pieces changes dramatically based on their relation to a stack, and the size of the stack in question. If a stack contains only two pieces, that piece is at its most powerful and its most vulnerable. Its most powerful, because it can capture an opponent's piece and be invulnerable to capture afterwards; and its most vulnerable, because it can still be captured by the opponent, and be immune to further capture afterwards. Opposing stacks of two also cannot be captured by each other, which creates a bizarre sort of parity.
Once a stack has three pieces, however, it immediately behaves much differently. A stack of three is completely inert: it can't move and it can't be captured. However, it still functions as part of the "band", so you can play pieces off of it and move around it knowing it will never go away. In that way it functions as both an obstacle and an "avenue". Cool!
The rule about removing certain pieces from the board before scoring seems odd and unnecessary at first, but it prevents the strategy of simply covering part of the board with rows and rows of your own pieces, which would make them virtually unassailable by the opponent.

Addendum: Application to Designing Print-and-Play Games
This game is beautiful in its simplicity. The rules seem somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but don't take very long at all to grasp. It's amazing how the designer was able to create very different behaviors and relations between different pieces simply through the movement rules. All the pieces are completely the same, yet each one has different qualities during play, simply based on its position.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Print and Play Initial Concept

So I was brainstorming about the Print and Play just now, and I came up with a concept I'm pretty excited about. It seems like something simple to make, definitely within the scope of the time and resources that I have, but also like it'll be pretty fun. And then I thought that I should post this on my blog, because that's what it's there for, right?

Keep in mind that I have not tested this game at all. it is purely conceptual at this point. With that in mind, here's the mock-up I made in Illustrator that I was fooling around with:

And here are the rules as they stand right now:
     1. there are two (possibly more, but for now two) players of opposing colors. each player starts with six pieces on the board, two on each of the three colors of the board.
     2. on a players turn, he first rotates any one of his pieces to face a lane, then moves any one of his pieces.
     3. when a piece is moved, it travels in the direction of its arrow straight along a lane, and stops on the next tile of the same color as it started. The edges of the board wrap, meaning that a piece may move off of the board and then reappear on the other side and continue moving (the final board will be marked along the edges to denote where a piece reenters depending on where it leaves the board). Any piece that it moves over or lands on is then moved in the same way, as well as any pieces that those pieces move over or land on, ad infinitum.
     4. If a piece moves over or lands on a piece which is facing it (that is, both arrows are pointing at each other), both those pieces are destroyed, and removed from the board.
     5. the object of the game is to remove all of the opponent's pieces from the board.

What I predict will be the two biggest problems with the game in its current state:
     1. I'm not sure it's actually very easy or likely for the criteria for destroying pieces to occur. Since both pieces are destroyed when they collide, winning the game would require you to force two of the opponent's pieces to destroy each other at least once, which would mean the opponent would have to end his turn with two of his pieces facing each other along some lane, which would seem to require some pretty major slip-up on the part of the opponent. perhaps there could be a mechanic to allow you to manipulate the opponent's pieces under certain conditions. or something.
     2. This game is modeled on the idea of building chain reactions in pieces, which is certainly interesting, but this is a board game, not a video game. that means all of the movements would have to be carried out by the players. Larger reactions could be very hard or at least annoying to work out, and could possibly create a logistical nightmare. This may require a limit to be placed on the number of reactions that can be made. There's also the possibility of creating an infinite loop. that would have to be accounted for somehow.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Print and Play Study

In preparation for creating our own Print-and-Play games in the coming weeks, we downloaded and printed a bunch of free PnP games off of the internet, to check 'em out, see what makes them tick, and what does and doesn't work in the PnP format.

The first game we played was called Fire and Water (but sounds much cooler in its original German: Feuer und Wasser). It plays kind of like a cross between Dominoes, Othello, and Go. The idea is to capture to most amount of territory on the board by playing numbered tiles to increase your influence.

The game was a lot of fun, but suffered from some logistical problems. There are these extra pieces called Leaders and Elementals, which added different challenges in an effort to break up play, but there wasn't any sort of reward for overcoming the extra challenge; conquering an Elemental tile gives you just as many points as conquering any other tile.

About halfway through the game, we discovered it was actually a lot easier for a player to build up a ton of influence by himself in one corner of the board, rather than try to compete over tiles with opposing players. The game got a little silly after that; there was still interaction between players on the board, just not as much, and then I ended up winning on a technicality.

So the game certainly has problems, but we did have fun playing it. There's a wonderful sense of achievement that you get from starting out with an empty board and slowly filling it up over the course of the game.

One other thing worth mentioning: although the game did manage to get a good amount of complexity out of very simple pieces, and overall made the most of the Print-and-Play format, it also tended to suffer from Tiny Paper Squares Syndrome. Way to often the game had to be put on hold because someone laughed a little too hard, breathed too heavily, or would even just look at the pieces funny, and they would go tumbling across the table. Now, this is a problem I've had even with professionally made board games, and it's not exactly a deal breaker, but it's also not a lot of fun. The problem was somewhat compounded for this game, because the pieces are nothing but tiny paper squares, and there's a lot of them. I'm not about to declare for myself or for anybody else that Tiny Paper Squares are off-limits in designing a PnP game, but I think it's definitely something to keep in mind, and if you can avoid having Tiny Paper Squares in your game, you probably should.

The other game we played was called The Duke. This one is essentially a chess variant, but with two very interesting new mechanics. The first is that each piece has two different rules for movement, which are each displayed on opposite sides of the unit's tile. Whenever you move a piece, you then flip that tile over, so on the next turn, it moves according to a completely different set of rules. For most of the tiles, the two movement options are designed as an "offensive" and "defensive" set, so making use of the appropriate tactics at the appropriate time becomes very important. These movement rules also necessitate that you think kind of... fourth-dimensionally, I guess you could call it. You can't just look at the board and size up what each piece will be able to do, and a piece can go from being useless to unstoppable in the blink of an eye if you're not careful. You're allowed to check the backs of your own pieces to remind yourself of their other movement rules, but you're not allowed to check your opponents' pieces. So unless you can remember all the movement options for all the different pieces (unlikely on your first play-through), you have to be prepared for surprises. I was able to pretty much demolish my opponent because he couldn't really get his head around the shifting movement patterns.

  The second major change is that you start with only three of your pieces on the board, and you can spend a turn to select one of your other pieces at random to place on the board. What really makes this interesting to me is that it actually gives value to the Duke piece (this game's analogue for the King in chess). In chess, the King really only has value because the rules say so. It's not a particularly useful piece (until endgame, but let's not get into that right now). But in this game, the Duke is incredibly valuable, because he's how you place new units. Whenever you place a new unit on the board, it has to be placed in an empty square adjacent to your Duke. Just because of that mechanic, you can win or lose simply by the placement of your Duke.

Here's a tip, in case you ever play this game, which you should: One of the first things you learn in chess strategy is "control the center of the board". Here, that rule counts times a million. This board is a factor smaller than a chessboard, and it gets cramped quickly. It's actually possible for a piece to become permanently stuck, so forcing the other player to the edges is always a good idea. Also, get new pieces on the board as soon as possible. The first time they play, most players will probably spend their first turn to move one of their Footmen forward. That is a waste of time. Use your first turn to get your Duke clear of your Footmen, and then, if you can, move it on or near the center of the board. Then just start placing as many units on the board as you can. Once the game gets going, finding the time to place a new unit will become very hard. Do it early in the game, before you have lots of stuff to deal with.

So that wasn't exactly the sort of analysis that we were supposed to be doing of these games, but hopefully it's apparent that I enjoyed playing this one. This is a great example of how a few simple variations on an established format can create a wildly different experience. This game also manages to wring a lot of complexity out of comparatively few pieces. It does suffer slightly from Tiny Paper Squares syndrome, but the squares are a fair deal bigger than in Fire and Water, and on top of that they were weighed down by the tape I used to stick the two sides together.

Another interesting note is how the designers were able to establish an enjoyable theme for the game out of almost nothing. The only embellishment that each of the pieces have is a little symbol to the side representing a weapon or a scepter or sigil or something, but that symbol is the difference between "the piece which moves according to these rules" and The Champion, or The Seer. We probably only played this game for about an hour, but people got really into the theme, going on about "Aw Yea, got my Wizard now bitch, what'choo gonna do now!" and stuff like that. And although the movement patterns are mostly abstracted, there is a fair amount of thought given to the relationship between what the piece is called and how it moves. Certainly more thought than in Chess, where castles charge across the countryside, and priests can't step on the wrong color.

It was also really handy that all the rules for movement are displayed on each of the pieces. That was especially important for this game, since the rules are changing constantly, but even if that wasn't the case, having the rules readily accessible during play, without having to review the rulebook constantly, would make things a lot more accessible to a new audience. If I was inventing Chess, and I was making it a Print-and-Play game, I would write the movement rules on all of the pieces.

Gosh, I sure do talk a lot, don't I.


Putting together the building kit in Maya, for use in the Alleyway.

Some of the parts...

Starting on texturing...

A mock-up house assembly...

And the final version before I import all the pieces.

Conclusion: you can do an awful lot with just a little.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Life Mod

Okay, this one's gonna be a doozy, since I should've been updating periodically throughout this process instead of all at the end. Anyway.

To start at the beginning, the purpose of the Life Mod (or Real World Alteration) is to
a) observe an interaction or behavior in the real world, and then
b) to try to alter that behavior in some way which is beneficial and hopefully fun for everyone involved.

Initially, each of us in the class made observations individually. I chose to observe the behaviors of people walking through this particular set of doors on the first floor of the Academic Center, which are probably the most obnoxious two doors one could ever be made to walk through.

they are arranged in such a way that they just barely miss each other when they're both opened, and you have to walk around the opened door to get through the doorway. I thought it'd be interesting to see how people interacted with the doors, and what sort of things variables made them easier or harder to get around. I found that people are generally able to get through the doors faster the more people there are, since the doors end up staying open regardless of whether anyone deliberately holds them open.

Here's a visualization of a creepy dude sitting in the hallway, intently watching you opening doors:

After everyone did their observations and made presentations to the class, we broke up into teams based loosely around who had similar sort of concepts in their observations. My team ended up going in a direction entirely unrelated to my initial observations, which was just fine by me because the doors thing was kind of boring anyway.

Based on the observation that people have a tendency to walk along sidewalks and other established paths, even when it's a much slower route to wherever we're going, our team focused on the theme of "off the beaten path". The idea was to encourage people to move off of established routes, and explore the campus a bit more in new and interesting ways. Based on the themes of paths, exploration and adventure, and my own love of all things Tolkien, we decided to adopt the motif of the story of The Hobbit book.

Our final alteration, as we pitched it to the class, was an Interactive Text Adventure adaptation of the story of The Hobbit. We created posters using illustrations and quotes from the book, so that each poster would tell a part of the overall story of the Hobbit, and placed them around campus, arranged with the intent that each poster would lead viewers from one to the next. They were placed in areas that were clearly visible (hopefully), but that nevertheless were out of the way enough that they would encourage viewers to walk off of established paths (hopefully). We also numbered them, so that they would be easier to follow (hopefully).

Because we were posting shit all over campus, we had to get approval for the project as an Art Installation, because I guess this technically qualifies as that. Getting through that red tape was about as painful a process as could be expected. We eventually had to hunt down this guy's office to pressure him into giving us approval, not because he actually had any real problems with what we were doing, he just had to actually sit down and do whatever thing he had to do, which only took him about five minutes once we were standing in front of him. So because of all that we didn't get the posters up until about two days later than we had planned on. All that is stuff that we should have been prepared for in the first place, so I'm not blaming anybody for that, but I just wanted to vent a little.

I do think that we should've at least been given earlier warning that this was something we would have to do, because we only had a week between giving our final proposal for the project and giving our presentation on the results of the project. If we had had the forms ready and filled out by the time we had our proposal, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but as it is we had to rush the get all the forms filled out and get them to the right people at the same time that we were putting the project together.

Here's some pictures of us putting the stuff together, and the posters up around campus:

The ultimate results from all of our endeavors were... less than we would've hoped for. I'm told from my teammates that they did see a handful of people who were actively seeking out and reading sequential posters, but during my observations, I never saw anyone read more than one. Most often what people would do is see a poster as they were walking, look at it without slowing or stopping, and then look away and keep going once they had walked past it.

This sort of behavior pretty clearly illustrates what is most likely the biggest shortcoming of our posters, and certainly the one that should have been plainly obvious to us during the planning stages, which is that our posters have way too much text! Whenever you do anything like this, you have a very narrow window of time in which to catch a person's interest and keep it. In this case, that window is quantifiable: you have as much time as it takes them to walk past your poster. Seeing those massive walls of text most likely scared a lot of people off, and demanded too much of an initial investment from viewers, with very little context or promise of any kind of payoff.

There was another aspect of our project, which I'm gonna talk about now, and eventually this will come back around to how we could've improved the project, and a nice conclusion. First some story background. If you haven't read or know anything about The Hobbit, the story is about a band of adventurers who are on a quest to the Lonely Mountain, so that they can slay the dragon Smaug who has taken up residence there, and reclaim their ancestral treasure, which the dragon stole ages ago. Along the way, they meet Elrond in the elven city of Rivendell, who deciphers a line of runes for them, which gives them a riddle to finding and opening a secret door into the Lonely Mountain, which would allow them to enter unseen by the dragon. We attempted to appropriate this by writing our own riddle for our own Secret Door. In the book, finding the door necessitates being at a certain place at a certain time, so we attempted to do the same thing, so that we would go and set up the door slightly ahead of time, and have a little meet and greet for anyone who solved the riddle and show up, plus we'd have some candy for them. That was the plan.

Here's the door we made:

(that symbol is based on the symbol in the book which marked on a map where the door was hidden, although the actual door, to my knowledge, did not have that symbol on it.)

And here's the riddle:

If that looks to you like a bunch of incomprehensible jargon, that's because it is. I'm not going to go in-depth into everything that's wrong with how this 'riddle' is constructed, but for what it's worth, the answer people were supposed to take away from this was "Go to the bamboo at midnight on Friday." Nobody solved the riddle, and nobody showed up.

But, there is something of a silver lining to this story. As we were packing up and getting ready to go home, full of shame and woe, we did run into somebody, purely by chance. He hadn't solved the riddle, but he had gotten pretty involved in the posters, probably as involved as anybody had, and we managed to get some insight from him about what seeing the posters was like from the other side, and what did and didn't work. Let's hear what he had to say...

It really was interesting to hear all he had to say about the project. It kinda seems obvious now, but it was really surprising to me to hear that seeing the sequential numbers on the posters wasn't enough to suggest a real progression. That's definitely something that would have to be emphasized if we were going to do something like this again.

So overall, I'm still pretty bummed out that we didn't get the kind of response that we wanted out of this thing. I mean we put a lot of work into it. But I can't deny that I learned a lot, and as stressful and nerve racking as this whole process was, it was a lot of fun too. This is also the first time that I've worked collaboratively with people on a creative project of this caliber, and I think that experience was very helpful as well. Plus I got some pretty cool posters to hang in my room once it was all over. I guess the big lesson to take away from this is that communicating your intentions to people is always harder than you think it's going to be.

Boy, that one was a doozy.