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News+Gameplay: Bin Laden Raid

Can games be used to report on the news -- and if so, what do we gain from it? In this article, Bin Laden Raid developer Jeremy Alessi discusses the creative process, final game, public and press reaction, and potential of the newsgame form.

[Can games be used to report on the news -- and if so, what do we gain from it? In this article, Bin Laden Raid developer Jeremy Alessi discusses the creative process, final game, public and press reaction, and potential of the newsgame form.]

The September 11th attacks on the United States were traumatic tragedies that not only affected victims directly in the path of the planes. These events struck a chord with people the world over -- including Gonzalo Frasca, who coined the term "newsgame" with a title dubbed September 12th.

It was a simple web game that allowed players to take aim at terrorists roaming about a village. The problem is, killing one terrorist only spawned more. September 12th is a prime example of a persuasive newsgame. Frasca was trying to make a point.

Newsgames

Until about three weeks ago, I didn't know who Gonzalo Frasca was. My interest in newsgames was formed independently of the founders of the movement. For me, newsgames began with JFK: Reloaded. While the title disgusted most people, I found it to be a valuable frame of reference for the event.

For years I watched the documentaries about the event with my father, who was always particularly interested in it, and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. When I got to see JFK: Reloaded for the first time, it all became so much more concrete in my mind.

It was as if, for the first time, I could really understand the events that took place. The physics, viewpoint, and general motion available only in a 3D game environment gave me an understanding that I could have only otherwise achieved by having been there in the first place.

My interest in newsgames was furthered on January 19th, 2009. It was on this date that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River adjacent to Midtown Manhattan. I remember the day well. I was actually driving to New York that day to visit family.

After some of the details poured in, I got my brother, a pilot, to set up his MS Flight Simulator rig for me to recreate the event. We spent several hours tweaking the settings, attempting to recreate the flight. We got pretty close.

At the time I was working on Skyline Blade for the iPhone and thought about doing an app to recreate the flight. I didn't act on it but Austin Meyer (X-Plane) did. Sully's Flight was launched on the iPhone -- quite successfully, in fact. If memory serves me, it took the number one slot of the racing and simulation categories.

In the end, though, the app was removed from the store because US Airways claimed copyright infringement -- its logo was on the plane. To add insult to injury, Apple further requested that Austin acquire approval to use "Sully's" name. This was all on top of the fact that a lot of people viewed the game as cheap, opportunistic, and disrespectful of the people who almost lost their lives that day. Austin gave up, and removed the app from the catalog of X-Plane games on the App Store.

The final straw for me came just two months ago, when Japan was devastated by an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. It wasn't the earthquake or the tsunami I was interested in doing a newsgame about, though. No, instead the thought crossed my mind that a newsgame about the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could actually be useful. If users could get down to ground level, take measurements, and share potential solutions, they might actually come up with something to help those in need. About three weeks after the event, a Fallout 3 mod was announced that showcased the damaged nuclear facility.

Three weeks ago, I became really obsessed with the idea of newsgames. Never again was I going to think about making a newsgame, only to have someone else do it. I set up the website NewsGameplay.com and began work on a format that I thought would be easily consumable, so anyone could experience the news in 3D.

After setting the website up and throwing up a simple mouse-driven 3D prototype, I thought about which story to cover first. The Royal Wedding was non-offensive, but it was only a week away. That alone would scare most people off. In fact, it did scare most people off. I couldn't find a 3D artist who thought they could handle the task. The Royal Wedding came and went, and I still didn't have content for my new website.

May 1st 2011

I didn't hear about the death of Osama bin Laden until my wife was watching the Real Housewives of New York after-action show. The host and one of the women were talking about being in the city on 9/11, and then being in the city that night. I turned to my wife and asked her if she knew what they were talking about. She shook her head as I grabbed the remote and switched to CNN.

As soon as I got a handle on what occurred, I pulled my laptop out and began searching for the compound on Google Earth. The news moved so fast through the internet that the Google Earth location of the compound had already been reported. Before long, there were two simple 3D models on Google's 3D Warehouse. I rushed to find the specific aesthetics and location of the compound. The initial location reported proved false, and the early 3D models were too simplistic to be useful. That was the beginning of a long week of research on an ever-evolving story that I needed to cover with a compelling 3D game.

The Team

I knew I was going to go for this project, but I also knew I couldn't do it alone. The first order of business was to put a team together. I had been telling my longtime friend John McIsaac (who helped me design Fat Rat) about this "newsgames" concept for the past few weeks, and he was already ready to jump onboard when the time was right.

Indeed, the time was right. John became the designated researcher. As such, it was his job to collect every detail from every news source possible. John scoured the web and watched the news collecting videos, images, diagrams, and more.

With John on board, things were looking up, but I still needed a 3D modeler with the time to pull the project off. Rich Smith is another long-time local friend. Rich had helped me work on Crash for Cash in the past, and he was pretty good with 3DS Max, but he didn't have much real-time experience. The biggest problem is that he usually worked long hours, so I wasn't too hopeful. On the off-chance that he had a day or two off, I gave him a call anyway. As it turns out, his previous employer had bounced payroll twice so he was home, bored, and looking for a good challenge.


Monday Night Kickoff

We all gathered in my office Monday night to draw up our game plan. John collected the latest information, Rich sketched out the compound, and I examined the programming needs. For the most part, Monday night was about getting the scale of the compound down, as well as the placement of the six individuals who were shot, the Blackhawk helicopters, and other details, like the trash burning site.

In order to get our scale correct, we cross-referenced Google Earth (for perimeters) with the isometric 3D model image released to the press that detailed the heights of the walls surrounding the compound. There are many types of newsgames, but from my perspective the most objective newsgame is a "spacial reality". The thought process is that if the game is modeled to scale along distances, masses, and forces, that the game could potentially report the news better than any other source by virtue of its physical accuracy.

Getting the scale of the model and the surrounding visuals from within the compound was pretty straightforward. Where things got murky was the details of the story. Was Osama bin Laden armed or unarmed? Where were the guards? Where were the helicopters? Reports were still conflicting at the time.

The Week

Throughout the week, John refined all the details, including the interior layout of the compound. He meticulously arranged arrays of pictures analyzing every possible angle of the compound and studied all the video walkthroughs of the compound. By cross-referencing the visual media available at the time with basic building practices John created floor plans for all three stories of the compound.

Unfortunately, John and Rich didn't communicate well. Throughout the week, John sent information to me that should have gone directly to Rich. Meanwhile, Rich was asking me questions that John had the answers to. This lack of communication took its toll on the project. Some of the details John picked up on didn't make it into the game. Overall, I think we managed to produce something very solid, but with better communication the newsgame could have reached a higher level of fidelity.

The 24+ Hour Crunch

Friday night started off slowly. I began dropping in some basic behaviors I'd written in 2009 for an iPhone FPS project. For the most part, these scripts were too specialized to that old project, and contained unnecessary complexity, so I ended up ripping them apart and writing mostly all my basic behaviors from scratch. After squashing some early bugs, I broke to go pick Rich up to help him carry his monster of a computer over to my office so we could crank on the last night locally.

It should be noted that Rich had just recovered earlier that day from a massive system crash. Luckily, his filesystem was still in place, so he didn't lose anything. When I think back on some of the challenges we faced, it's truly amazing we were able to deliver the game in a timely fashion!

Anyway, by 9 pm, we were all cranking in my office. John was feeding structural information to Rich and circumstantial details to me. By 4 am we had finally covered the major points of the mission and the structure of the model was pretty close after Rich iterated through the interiors twice.

Due to aforementioned poor communication, Rich never received the layouts John created from the video footage and general building practices. Rich had gone ahead and created his own version of the interior space. The cool part was that Rich is a core gamer, so the interior was really interesting and tense. It would have been a good interior for an entertainment game.

Since we were making a newsgame, though, I told him we needed to redo it to line up closer to the videos available. In the end the first two floors were close to what John derived, but the third floor remained mostly fiction. John stated that no video footage was available from the third floor so Rich ended up keeping the layout he'd originally created with the exception of the location where the stairs came up, which followed the second floor plan that John created.

Although the compound was refined that night, some details were simply overlooked. Since it was John's job to collect the details, he was particularly disappointed that some details he found didn't make it into what went out on Saturday. Our plan is to continue to refine those details, but it will have to be balanced properly so that we deliver the best information without impeding the development of new newsgames. I can certainly see traditional "feature creep" working its way into newsgames, which would be detrimental overall.

By 5 am, the structure of the compound was finalized, and the mission points we covered. It was decided that players would shoot five individuals, as was reported, kill Osama bin Laden, collect intelligence, destroy the damaged Blackhawk, and finally extract using the remaining Blackhawk with bin Laden's body aboard. With the major points decided, John headed home while Rich and I continued to refine the programming and quality of the model.

For the most part, Rich was done, but he continued to improve the quality of the model mainly through use of better materials. I, on the other hand, was swamped. As the sun rose, I looked at the game, horrified by the number of bugs.

I had chosen to make use of the Bootcamp demo that comes with Unity, but this was the first time I'd ever worked with this "engine". It's widely acknowledged that it's easier to write your own code than learn someone else's if you know what you're doing, but in this case I didn't have the time to replicate many of the good qualities present in Bootcamp -- so I wisely chose to learn it.

The downside of using Bootcamp for this project is that it was pretty complicated to dissect all of its features in such a short period of time. There were GUI features I didn't want, the locomotion animation system wouldn't walk up our stairs, there were conflicting collision layers, and more. On top of Bootcamp I had several of my own script issues, which were causing inconsistent behavior (the worst kind).

Rich and I worked side by side until 11 am, when he finished redoing the materials on the compound model. By that time the sun was shining, so I told him I'd take him back to his place. We loaded up his titanic tower of a PC into the back of my SUV; I dropped him off, and then picked up breakfast for my wife.


The Home Stretch

While taking a break for breakfast, my mind worked out many of the problems plaguing the project. When I came back to it, I squashed the bugs quickly. Once the game was functional and bug-free, I still had to import the latest model from Rich. Using Bootcamp was great, but there were a lot of setup issues for the model.

Since we were working completely on-the-fly, there were no tools in the pipeline to auto-tag objects in our model with certain properties. I had to manually tag every surface on the compound model as metal, concrete, wood, dirt, or glass in order to get the proper bullet holes, footstep sounds, and other associated reactions to play correctly.

Beyond the tags, though, the model didn't import correctly. Many of the materials were missing their associated diffuse maps. So in addition to tagging I had to reassign materials and get them looking decent on about half the surfaces in the compound.

Finally, I wanted to spruce the compound up my making it destructible; certain objects can only be destroyed by the grenades (like the steel doors and satellite dishes) while other objects can be destroyed with the gun as well.

All in all, I tweaked with these features as well as experimenting with various lighting setups and other presentation level concepts until about 6 pm Saturday night -- 25 hours after I began.

Publicity

As I write this, things are just starting to take hold. We had zero marketing plans. As I type this, though, emails have started flooding in from newspapers, other developers, and other publications. The most interesting of which has been an interview with Wired, which featured an article about the game on its front page.

So the hype is just building, and it appears to primarily be based on that article. Other news outlets started jumping on the story after seeing the Wired piece. Without the help of the media, this would be dead in the water. Without the game being developed so quickly, and without the basis, of the subject matter, again it would be dead in the water, because it's not a traditional entertainment game.

Luckily, we seem to have hit just the right balance of quality, journalism, and subject matter to garner some attention. Our goal from here is to build the website, build the technology, and continue to build news stories quickly.

The Future

This medium has some powerful potential. If the circumstances presented in our newsgames are physically accurate enough, and we let N number of players interact with them, patterns will emerge. The "Holy Grail" will be solving a real-world mystery with a solution derived from within a newsgame.

Another way to explain this is with a simple real-world example. Let's say I have a ball, and you can see I'm holding it in my right hand. In that instance, you would know the original circumstances. At that point, I ask you to turn around. I throw the ball and ask you to turn around once the ball has come to a stop. Finally, I ask you to describe how the ball got to its new location.

In this example, there are literally an infinite number of solutions. Perhaps the ball bounced twice and stopped, maybe three times, or perhaps it bounced off the ceiling once. One person could never present all the solutions, much less the precise, actual solution that took place. With enough players though, not only would a huge number of solutions become available, but also the most likely solution would statistically begin to stick out like a sore thumb.

This hypothesis basically aspires to take advantage of something that has traditionally hampered game developers. When Halo 2 was released, the development team and QA teams were shocked to learn some of the things players were doing within the game. There were some pretty big bugs that only emerged when N number of players reached a certain threshold. Viewed in the right context though, bugs might actually become potential solutions.

Already, emergent behaviors have created realistic but unintended side effects. The game was designed to be free of any explicit challenge. This mission had to be carried out with surgical accuracy in reality. Players who didn't mirror that surgical approach in the game (i.e. used only the grenades) complained that they had a hard time locating the intel.

By only using grenades, players were pushing the physics-enabled intel objects (laptops) all over the place, sometimes making it difficult to find them. In reality, using such a chaotic approach would yield similar results; most of the intelligence would be unattainable because it would be destroyed or buried.

Currently, we use Twitter and Facebook to pass our opinions on to CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC programs. Ultimately, I see News+Gameplay as a platform for solutions. Instead of stating your opinion, you will create your solution in-game. If the game is delivered quickly enough, then perhaps that solution can be used in reality.

In other words, the game crowdsource solutions from the players. Of course, eventually the news itself could be crowdsourced in 3D. Google Earth gets us close to a 3D Wiki, but it doesn't contain high fidelity experiences. Sure, someone put Osama bin Laden's compound up there within an hour of the press conference, but it didn't contain any behavior or physical ability. This is where the games part comes into newsgames. Games make the news interactive, and eventually provide solutions. Crowdsourced development will ensure the highest fidelity possible for the experience.

Eventually, interactive news can overcome limitations present in the current news system. One-way mediums like text and video are prone to force-feeding a concept to the end consumer. As we all know gamers call "bullshit" quicker than anyone because they aren't led by the hand through the simulation. Players control the flow of logic. As soon as something presented is less than logical, players realize it and reject it rather than nodding their heads.

Newsgames can provide a powerful check and balance system to help journalism evolve to the next level. I hope News+Gameplay can become a truly useful platform in this new field. I think we're off to a good start. If nothing else, we delivered proof that a team assembled on the fly can research, develop, and deliver 3D interactive content quickly enough to be relevant, even on a breaking news story.


Afterthoughts: Design Principles

I stated above that this newsgame is considered a "spacial reality". Ian Bogost informed me of this classification via email after asking me a few questions about what we created. The answers I gave Ian were in reply to the question "What's the journalism part of it?"

My answer to that question was that the intended journalism was the physical accuracy of our newsgame. Everything was built to scale, the people were placed where they were reported to have been, Osama bin Laden was unarmed, the woman ran at the SEALs, there were two Blackhawk helicopters (one damaged), there was a pile of burning trash, a German Shepherd, and chickens. By laying out all of these details where they were reported to be, we summed up the mission in the most succinct way possible and simultaneously presented the highest level of fidelity at the time.

Kuma War's version of the compound looked more richly detailed, in my opinion, but it was also clearly not to scale. The rooms inside were cavernous, Osama bin Laden was armed, and he also appeared in random rooms.

I think that the contrast between these two products demonstrates the difference between a newsgame and a game based on the news. Kuma War: 107 is a game intended to entertain; Bin Laden Raid is a newsgame, intended to inform.

In some places we referred to Bin Laden Raid as a sim. It's a sim because it presents a real-world environment built to scale, as well as circumstances based on the most accurate reports at the time. It is a game because we didn't include every soldier that actually participated in the event, because we used the other soldiers mainly as navigational clues, and because it doesn't take 40 minutes to complete the mission.

There were other design decisions that we made in order to keep the story accurate. For example, the player cannot be shot or shoot the other soldiers, because there were no reported injuries to the SEAL team. We weren't trying to give players a playground to wreak havoc upon; we were trying to bring them into the compound and execute the actions (generally) that the SEALs executed.

Afterthoughts: Public Reaction

In general, the public reaction to Bin Laden Raid has been good. Most people seem to be excited for games to become a news medium (especially the reporters we talked to). This signals a huge change from JFK: Reloaded or Sully's Flight. Of course, it could simply be the fact that this newsgame isn't about an American hero but rather a terrorist leader who is widely hated around the world.

All the same, I'm hopeful that people are opening up to the medium -- but from some of the questions reporters have asked I fear that the game's acceptance hangs on the fact that people feel a certain degree of catharsis when they pull the trigger on the former terrorist leader.

When it comes to gamers, I think most prefer Kuma War. In terms of traditional game metrics, I think they trumped us. However, it's true that they are in business full-time to make what they made. My team was assembled on the fly with no prior experience delivering a game this way, and we delivered our game on the same day as Kuma.

Some of the articles proclaimed our take on the situation as the more interesting one, because it was intended to be taken seriously and not just be a fun game with some catharsis on the side. If anything, the feelings people have are completely independent of our game, because we didn't intend to make any sort of point with Bin Laden Raid other than "it happened" and "here's the 3D interactive interpretation of what occurred".

Again, we weren't making a game based on the news. We made a newsgame. We laid the environment, characters, and events out in such a way as to replicate the reports of the time and let players experience them from the ground.

I think that some of my comments have been taken too seriously (judging by other peoples' comments on the Wired piece). I realize that this newsgame isn't the end-all, be-all in terms of experience, but on the Saturday after the event it was the best available.

It was more accurate than Kuma War and it simultaneously looked better and was more interactive than any of the canned 3D animations on the major news networks. With those facts in mind, yes, we had the premiere window into the mission as it looked on the ground. It wasn't exactly what the SEALs saw, but it was better than any other 3D recreation at the time.

Final Thoughts

At this point it's been nearly two weeks since the release of News+Gameplay's Bin Laden Raid. I've had a bit more time to think about this newsgame, and even about this article. In general, I do feel that the medium presents many benefits that are not present in text or video. However, I also feel that I have presented our game and mission in an overzealous fashion. Clearly, newsgames offer us a new way to view the news. Today they give us a 360-degree ground level view of models built to scale. Tomorrow they will offer us new possibilities.

When I got my copy of Ian's book Newsgames, I complimented him on the objectivity of the book. Far too often, we game developers are so excited about what we see in our own minds that we forget the rest of the world sees only the here and now. The rest of the world wants objectivity.

I like objectivity and strive to create things that are objective. I think we did that with Bin Laden Raid. We took the facts and made a 3D interactive piece with them. The quality of what we created is amazing to me considering that it wasn't our full time job, that we weren't plugging a map into a pre-defined pipeline, and that we were actually reporting on a story in which new facts were being reported every day.

I don't see Bin Laden Raid itself as a creative work like traditional games. The people involved in the actual event created it. We compiled the facts and spit them out in a new format. I think the creative part is seeing what newsgames can be in the future. I think that future is bright and wide open.

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