More Flash Progress

Some more images from the game in progress, showing gameplay power-ups. The winged sandal speeds up play, but gives a score bonus; the staff of Hermes arranges the letters in a sorted pattern, making them easier to use; the Gorgon’s head just freezes them all in place, which is also useful, though less good than the sorting.

(Some game design notes from mid-project, in case anyone is interested, and for my own future reference.)

The core gameplay is timed puzzles with a very light arcade element: the letters move around, but they’re not hard to catch. The main point is to challenge the player to work out how the starting sounds could be combined to produce the goal set of result sounds — and because of the diversity of elements, there are often some wrong ways to put things together as well as several right ways. The reset button lets the player restart a round from scratch if he wound up pairing things the wrong way.

This is intentionally not a drill format in which the player is asked “what does X + Y equal?”, because that’s boring. I could ask them that sort of drill question in class (and I do). The game instead provides a context in which the player has to know what X + Y is on the way to accomplishing something else, which may still be lightly challenging, but which gets easier and easier the more completely the player understands the contract vowel rules.

So the power-ups are meant to enable the player to make individual rounds a little harder or a little easier: harder by making the letters slightly zippier, or easier by slowing or organizing them. I think it’s a good idea to have such elements, but I’m not sure I’m completely happy with the specific set of powers I have. I’m earning the powerups too quickly, and the letter speed-up in particular doesn’t make the game noticeably more quirky or fun, just ever-so-slightly more frustrating. So that’s probably going to have to go again.

Conversely, there’s not much punishment for the player taking forever to work things out. There’s a score bonus for finishing a level more quickly than the expected time, but no punishment for letting the clock run out completely. I think I may want to change that and force the player to start over, with a new randomized version of the same level, when the clock runs down; this would give a greater incentive to work quickly, and also allow me to offer powerups that added more time to the clock. (Maybe the winged sandal could be repurposed for that.)

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to evaluate important features like the difficulty of gameplay, because I already know cold the thing the game is trying to teach — so the fact that I can usually solve the rounds very quickly does not necessarily mean that students will be able to. It will soon be time for some guinea pigs.

I’ve added an options pane to turn off the music and/or sound effects, but I’m not happy with the current implementation of this because it’s not possible to access that panel during gameplay. Maybe a sound-mute token up in the corner of the screen would be better than a separate panel.

The music itself is a problem too. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been playing this thing over and over to test it, but even with several different tracks, I’m getting really sick of it all. Of course I can turn it off, but having it be not-annoying in the first place would be infinitely better. I think I’m going to need to add several more musical selections; but the soundtrack is consuming a lot of the development budget already. I’m picking up royalty-free tracks and sound effects from SoundRangers and iStockAudio. The sound effects aren’t too expensive and I’ve got all I need now, but the music tracks range in price from $5 to $25 depending on complexity and the length of the loops… and unsurprisingly the $25 ones are generally more interesting. I like the results — the files are easy to use, the music doesn’t sound too generic to me, and for a project like this it’s not reasonable for me to hire a musician.

16 thoughts on “More Flash Progress”

  1. On music, there are several sources of free music around. For instance, the game Wesnoth has many tracks, though they may well be inappropriate.

    But personally, I always end up getting sick of the music in games pretty quickly and turning it off. I don’t think you can really avoid that.

  2. A thought–

    You might consider, instead of moving the letters around, having them fixed in place. The catch would be that the letters on the tokens are only shown *briefly* — either all at once, or one by one. The duration of this could vary.

    That would be linked to difficulty, but it also would (in theory) move the player to improve his recognition time; which is at least one important part of language learning.

    Don’t know if that would be appropriate, but I thought I’d mention it.

    Care to tell us the task the player is working toward accomplishing?

    C.

    1. The challenge is to assemble the starting sounds into the goal set, in as little time as possible.

      I think having the letters static all the time makes the game feel a bit too… frozen. (I’ve experimented with this.) And I’m pretty sure that I would myself be made crazy if I were expected to remember the locations of sixteen different letters while trying to solve these puzzles, so I’m not keen on making it a recognition test. (In any case, we’re well past the stage where the students are learning the letters themselves. That might be an exercise for a different game, but not appropriate here.)

  3. Yeah, there is a lot of good CC-licensed music you can pick up. The CC license is a good thing to learn and to recognize. Particularly if you weren’t planning to sell the project there is a lot of amazing music under the non-commercial licenses. For instance, medium quality MP3s from across all of all of Magnatune’s awesome catalog are licensed for use under the CC by-nc-sa license (attribution–non-commercial–share-alike).

    1. I do know about the CC license(s) — indeed, most of my own games have some CC license or other. But I’m somewhat conservatively wanting to retain as many rights as possible on the thing I’m building, because I don’t yet know what exactly I’m going to wind up doing with it.

  4. I couldn’t see from the screenshot where the goal is. I assume the tokens are the atoms that need to be combined. Is the goal purely audio at the start of the round?

    What’s the difference in gameplay state between the second and third screenshot?

    Pedagogic games are very interesting, but they aren’t easy to avoid the ‘multiple choice quiz with bells’ trope, as you said. I wrote a Java game in 1997 to try to turn a freshman understanding of genetics into a real gestalt. It worked quite nicely, and allowed students to develop strategies in the game like backcrossing that are really used. But in the end a game is tricky to make an *efficient* way of learning. You can play the game for two hours, but would ten minutes of just clear work be better? Tricky…

    I’d be interested in helping beta the game, if you’re looking for a wider beta than just your class. I did some Koine a decade ago, but I’m probably round about target.

    1. Yeah, it seems games (video or otherwise) are best for cultivating skill, while the lecture-quiz cycle is best for cultivating understanding.

      I teach English, and I use both; I improvised a huge game of tic-tac-toe with the coordinates specified with verb tenses (past-present-future vs. perfect-simple-continuous). Kids got all kinds of into it, because they wanted to win.

      It wouldn’t have been effective as a means of introducing the material, but it was great to develop facility.

      Conrad.

    2. Goal tokens are the ones inside the vase; the only difference between screenshots 2 and 3 is that in 3 the player has applied an optional power in the game to sort the tokens out instead of letting them float around.

      But in the end a game is tricky to make an *efficient* way of learning. You can play the game for two hours, but would ten minutes of just clear work be better?

      My hypothesis here is that “clear work”, as you put it, is not always very efficient at producing longer-term recall of seemingly-arbitrary facts. Many of my students have spent much longer than that trying to memorize their contract verbs, but with less than perfect quiz results. What I’m doing is sort of on the order of a typing tutor: it’s designed to coax people, mostly painlessly, through a process of memorization, and get them to the point where they don’t even have to think consciously about the thing they’ve memorized. It’s just there. (That’s the goal, anyway.)

      Then there’s also the knowledge/understanding gap — less applicable to what I’m doing, but certainly an interesting point in general. If a game lets students “develop strategies… that are really used”, I’d say that is also a big win: it means the student has internalized and made use of the material at a much deeper level than simply mastering a page of notes. Many of the best teaching programs and games I recall encouraged that kind of engagement: Oregon Trail; the Broderbund math-teaching programs (I’m a little surprised but pleased to see they still seem to be selling some version of the programs I used back in the early 90s); Geometer’s Sketchpad. I’d also put in that category The Redistricting Game — it’s got a political agenda, to be sure, but it approaches that agenda by demonstrating interactively the possible strategies by which the simulation can be gamed.

    3. Yes, Emily, I agree. I’ve seen many students for whom the speed of learning is directly proportional to the speed of forgetting.

      The (un)conscious/(in)competence model has some applicability here. My goal for the genetics game was to build unconscious competence so students didn’t spend their time having to drop back into a conscious process when trying to grasp higher level concepts – which is exactly what you’re trying to do with the contractions, afaics.

      The comment about efficiency is key, I think, when you think about this in terms of the broader sweep of one’s pedagogy, rather than in terms of a single learning outcome (i.e. is it better to have a smaller number of more embedded outcomes or expose students to a larger number in a more superficial manner – I lean towards the former, but the education system, at least here in the UK, is somewhat biased towards the latter).

      I’m quite excited to see how your game develops, because I think having a talented game designer trying to innovate in the educational space is a great thing.

      @Conrad (& Emily) – have you come across http://lrnj.com/ as a way of language teaching (as well as mastery) through game? I have a sense that this kind of thing could be absolutely superb. But Slime Forest isn’t quite there yet.

      1. Personally, I’m against efficiency in education. I think it’s a mistaken ideal in this context.

        The way to learn something thoroughly is to far exceed the law of dimminishing returns: expose yourself to the material constantly, work hard at it, and engage with it in a number of different routes.

        The nice thing about games is that they engage and distract the parts of the mind that otherwise get bored and seduce the learner into bailing out to watch TV. That’s primarily what they’re for — wrapping up the target behavior in an engaging context.

        As I say, I don’t know anything about the skill Emily’s teaching, but I look forward to seeing what she’ll come up with.

      2. I’ve downloaded and tried Slime Forest. As you say, Sago, it’s pretty basic. Brought me back to all of those hours wasted in Jr. High playing Ultima on my Apple IIc.

        I studied Japanese in college; I might go back to it, if I decide to teach there. I’m keeping the program against that contingency; I expect it could help a person learn the language, although by itself it wouldn’t be nearly sufficient.

        –Also, while it’s barrenly implemented, there *is* a sense of humor there; you wander around town stealing from people; a guard tells you anyone who steals from the treasury will be killed, but makes no move to stop you.

        Thanks for the link.

      3. @Conrad – Thanks for the responses. I agree to some extent, although with far more beneficial things to learn than time to learn them efficiency will bite you eventually.

        Slime Forest isn’t the best game certainly, and isn’t quite there pedagogically either. But I do think the medium of teaching a language through an RPG is a neat one. I can imagine it working if done well. And I can imagine a company that builds the basic framework (I’m thinking thoroughly retro RPG here, not FFXIII) making a reasonable return by releasing it for a range of different languages.

  5. Three recommendations:

    Leave the decision about if the music is repetitive till sickness to your guinea pigs. You should not judge that.

    Don’t penalize the player for take too much time to solve a stage, instead, make two difficult levels, one with time out and one with not. Games like this, sometimes, beg to be played with calm. Try this, for example:

    http://www.kongregate.com/games/SandhillGames/ring-pass-not

    About the letter speed up feature, I would keep it, you just need to balance difficulty and reward.

    I envision this feature like a pinball machine, with multipliers and the score climbing up like hell. If you feel it is not already satisfying to the player, put into some good FX, maybe adding reverb to some of the audio pieces. But if you make that the score goes up quite high in these moments, players would be pleased (if you have a score board, of course.

    I envision this like the multipliers in Sing Star or in Rock Band or Guitar Hero, it could be a good idea that if the player chain success after success, the game grow up the multipliers.

    It is a power-up, so, maybe there’s no need to make the game more difficult when using that power, just, it could be a “fever time” where to collect a lot of points for the pleasure of listen some good collecting sounds (like in Mario games).

  6. I don’t know if you need external testers at some point, but if so I’d be willing to give your game a try. I’ve been dusting off my Greek skills lately, and at the moment even the name “Pelosi” appears to me a contraction of “Pelaousi”. ;)

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