Beginning Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, we talk to Neal Grigsby about Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's IGF Mobile 2008 Innovation in Mobile Design and IGF Mobile Best Game finalist Backflow, a casual-style puzzle game, a city building sim, and a multiplayer strategy game where players control the waste disposal system for a city.
Games On Deck: What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?
Neal Grigsby: The team that worked on Backflow came from quite diverse backgrounds. The game was made over summer 2007 as part of the inaugural slate of games developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. For the summer program, the lab flew in 31 students from Singapore's tertiary educational institutions and put them together with several MIT undergrad and graduate students to form 6 development teams. Aside from one of our programmers, who had a few student projects under his belt, the Backflow team was mostly inexperienced in making games, but very passionate about them. All of us were students or recent graduates. We had two programmers, two artists, a project manager who had mostly worked on film and video projects, and a testing lead from MIT's brain and cognitive sciences department. As the design lead, I had studied games as a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, and I led the winning team in a week long game pitch competition held annually at the institute called the Storytelling and Games in the Digital Age workshop, but I had never worked on a true development project. We did have some experienced faculty to advise us, most notably Eric Klopfer and Marleigh Norton, but the team was responsible for the final design and all of the development work.
GOD: What motivated you to make your game?
NG: We knew that the GAMBIT project leaders had high expectations for us, despite our inexperience, and that alone was incredibly motivating. The games in the project were held to a professional standard of polish, even though we had only 8 weeks of development time. To know that the people you are working with are serious and passionate, and that they are each dedicated to producing something innovative and fun, meant that we couldn't let each other down. We had to work hard. That kind of atmosphere is so valuable, especially in the academic space where often the standard of quality is lower.
GOD: Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
NG: We had a research goal that our game was designed to address: we were asked to design a "participatory simulation," meaning a multiplayer game in which players are embedded inside a simulation. This is a bit difficult to explain: not a simulated game world so much as a framework for player interaction such that the simulation emerges from player behavior. For our game this translated into the resource market. We tweaked the game to force players, as much as possible, to trade resources with each other.
But perhaps our major source of inspiration was just Eric Klopfer's suggestion that we think about an issue that was important to us and try to design a game that would address it somehow. It's the imperative of the serious games movement. One of the artists on the team, Fabian Teo, had the original idea for a game about waste management and recycling, where player success is linked to other players in some way because, of course, the environment is an area where an individual's behavior effects others profoundly.
GOD: What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?
NG: The usual suspects, I suppose. The artists used Photoshop to create the art assets. The programmers used the Java SDK for the handset work, plus MySQL for the database. We had a few Sony Ericcson k800i handsets to test on. And for design work nothing beats a whiteboard and a deck of index cards. We kept everything organized with Base Camp. I don't know if it can be considered a "development tool," but a centrally important aspect of the development was our management process. All of the GAMBIT teams used Scrum for project management. We could not have developed the game to its current level of polish without the iterative design framework of Scrum. It forced us to have a playable version with improved functionality every two weeks.
GOD: What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?
NG: This might be a cop-out but the hybridity of the game is its most interesting quality to me. I like that you have this very simple, casual-style game at the core of it, but that plugs in to a city simulation and also the multiplayer market simulation. It can be picked up and played for a few minutes, but also rewards a bit more long-term engagement and strategy, which is a good fit for the mobile platform.
Also, I like that the game has poo in it.
GOD: How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?
NG: The GAMBIT summer program started with a few weeks of orientation for both the Singaporean and MIT students, and then once the teams got together we had 8 weeks of development time. Literally the day after those 8 weeks were up, the students from Singapore got on a plane and flew back to their country, many of them going back to their school work almost immediately. At that point all development on Backflow stopped.
As you can imagine it was an intense trial-by-fire process, but also a lot of fun. The GAMBIT team at MIT, led by Philip Tan, really made sure we all did more than work. We had movie nights, game nights, visits by local game developers, and a trip to Six Flags. A few folks from Harmonix dropped by, and several of the students were able to get in some game testing on Rock Band. I've written in some detail about the process for Henry Jenkins's blog (Henry is a principal investigator on the GAMBIT research project), so if you want to read the real nitty-gritty, you can find that here: http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/11/from_serious_games_to_serious_4.html
GOD: If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
NG: As much as I value the game as it is now, I think if I were to do it again I would have spent more time at the beginning thinking through the multiplayer design. I really think we could have made a game that was truer to the dynamics of environmental exchange that we were attempting to model. One of my goals had been to simulate the "cap and trade" system of emissions control, so that in our community of players those that did better, or were more lucky, could sell emissions credits to players that were not as green. This turned out to be quite complicated even to explain much less design. Had we given a higher priority to the multiplayer, I think we might have been able to pull it off.
But with a finite amount of resources and development time, it's all about trade-offs. More development in one area means less development in another.
GOD: What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?
NG: Because I was working in an academic context and was partially shielded from the demands of the market, I can't speak with too much authority about the state of the industry, but I do have a few reflections. Since the end of development, we have been exploring the possibility of getting the game published as a means of getting it into the hands of more players. For GAMBIT, and myself as well, what is most important to us is just getting more people to play the game. But it has been quite difficult to make headway. The game is available as a free download from the GAMBIT website, but it was only ever optimized for a single handset, and even those that have the right phone may not be comfortable with the process of installing new software. Porting is a resource-intensive task that is beyond our ability to do in-house, and the return on investment of hiring a porting house is unknown; it is a risky proposition. It is a catch-22 that I am sure many independent mobile developers are familiar with. We just can't take advantage of the kind of viral distribution that independent games made for the PC or the Web can leverage. Would an open platform help? Maybe.
GOD: You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?
NG: Well if I had 30 seconds to live I don't think I would address my final words to the mobile game business, but OK. I would say to stop looking at mobile devices as crippled hardware. Yes, as I can now attest, designing and programming for the mobile platform has many challenges. But mobile phones do lots of stuff other platforms can't. They go with you, they're always on and connected in some way, most of them have cameras. Why do another bad port of a popular console title designed to be played in a half-distracted mode that the player will tire of in 30 seconds when you could make an entirely new gaming experience? From what I've seen of the other IGF mobile nominees, playing these games would be a good place to start to understand what that might mean.