A Guide to Modding in Academia : School Simulator

modAnnouncement.gif

We recently added Steam Workshop to Academia : School Simulator, and we’re super excited to see what mods our players will create.  We already have an explanation of the actual process of creating and uploading a mod to the game here, but this article will go into more depth on how we manage the art in the game so you have a better understanding of how to create visual mods.

Objects and UI images

Objects are the most straightforward things to change, since they are individual images.  Simply replace the current object image with one of your own, making sure that every rotation of that object is included.  Also make sure that your modded image has the exact same size as the original image.  For example, if you want to mod a chair, which is 128x128, make sure your modded image remains 128x128.

Walls

These are a little bit more difficult.  Each wall image is a 512x512 image divided into 4x4 tiles, with each 128x128 tile being one section of a wall.  Each section of the wall is properly aligned to each other so it’s important to stick to this alignment to make sure that the walls render properly in your mod.  Here is a helpful image to help you better visualize how each section connects with each other.

WallExplanation.jpg

Once you are comfortable with how the walls interconnect with each other, you can start making some more radical changes, like maybe making the walls thinner, and seeing how that looks in the game.

Characters

The characters are where you can get really creative with your mods, but it takes some understanding of how we put the characters together in order to get the best results.  
Our characters are separated into four parts (Hair, Head, Body, Hands) as seen in this image:

CharacterParts.jpg

We have a few “types” of each part, which we mix and match randomly in the game to create unique characters.  As you can see from the image below, it doesn’t take a lot of art to create quite a bit of variety:  

StudentCharacterParts.jpg

You can see we’re severely lacking in variety in terms of skintones and body types, and so we’re planning a substantial update to this in the near future.  We also separate male and female hairstyles, faces, and bodies, so that female type parts will exclusively be combined with each other, and same for male parts.  As with the objects and walls, you cannot create “new” body parts, you can only “replace” them.  So based on this image, you could only create two different male body types by replacing the standard ones.  If you added a third male body type to the image, there is no code as of yet that will extract that image to display it in the game.

Body Orientations

CharacterOrientation.jpg

Another important thing to note is that each body part has 4 orientations: (facing)down,up,right,and closed. It’s important to keep this in mind in case you want to do a full change of all of the images in the character spritesheet.

Prison Uniform mod

PrisonUniforms.jpg

While the current character spritesheet can be fairly limited in terms of modding, there are definitely ways to get creative with it.  The first mod I thought of making was the Prison Uniform mod.  When we were talking about what mods to make I immediately wanted to make this.  It’s both an homage to Prison Architect, and a slight dig at people who insist that Academia is a mod of Prison Architect.  The idea of creating a Prison Architect mod for a “mod of Prison Architect” just tickled my funny bone.

This mod was pretty basic, we can call it a “uniform” mod.  All I did was change the uniforms of the students to prison jumpsuits, and that was it.  This is a great, quick mod with minimal effort.  Our most popular mod so far is a Gryffindor mod which basically uses the same process.

Green Aliens mod

GreenAlien.jpg

I wanted to push a little further with this mod because I wanted to show just how creative you can get with it if you spent some time on the images.  For this mod, I basically deleted the faces and bodies of the students, being careful to make sure my new images still kept to generally the same size.  I wanted my students to be “bald”, ie have no hair, so I went and deleted all of the student hair.  In game terms, the game code will still “draw” the hair on the students, but since the image is empty, it will draw empty space, making them look bald.
Why did I do this?  To make our system of matching hair to faces work, we have to be very strict about the positioning and dimensions of our face and hair.  So if I want to make a “taller” face, it would mess with this system.  Deleting the hair means I have a little bit more leeway with the face shapes.  In fact, if you wanted to, you could delete the hairstyles and add hair directly onto the face types.  This would reduce the amount of uniqueness/randomness when generating students, but would allow much more creativity with the designs.

So there you have it!  I hope this blog has been useful to you and made you excited about the prospect of making mods for Academia : School Simulator!

Here are some files to help you out with making mods:

Character texture PSD

Wall texture PSD

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested in making your own mods, you can buy the game now! please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

Why Introversion had no Choice but to Make Scanner Sombre

Introversion Software recently released a video sharing their surprise about how poorly their latest game, Scanner Sombre, has done for the PC, moving only 6000+ units.  It cameas a surprise to them because their last title, Prison Architect, did incredibly well, selling well over 2 million units.  They've received a lot of guff from the gamer and developer populace for their perceived arrogance and foolishness at having such lofty expectations.  Many say that the right thing to do would have been to capitalize on the success of Prison Architect by making a sequel or another “Architect” style of game.  I'm here to argue making Scanner Sombre was not only the right thing for Introversion Software to do, it was the only thing they could do.  

There are More Reliable ways to Make Money

Mark Morris essentially says it himself in the video:

“Yeah, I think that people will mock us and say about us, well you guys were idiots, y'know. You had prison architect, you shoulda done airport architect, you shoulda done parkitecht...”

He underlines this point later on by saying:

“If we were hardnosed businessmen, we wouldn't be working in the games industry...if that's genuinely what drives you, to make you that rich, just go and work in the City and be a management consultant. There are plenty of other routes to huge wealth that are a lot more reliable than what we do.”

There is and has always been a struggle between any art form and the business that drives it.  A responsible indie game developer lives the struggle between art and commerce everyday.  You need the art to sustain you spiritually, but you also need to protect your physical and mental well-being by making enough money to support a decent quality of life (even more so if you are a dev with a family and the responsibilities that entails).

Prison Architect was a once in a lifetime success story that succeeded beyond Introversion's wildest dreams and made them a lot of money.  The idea that they would then turn around and think about ways to make even more money simply goes against who they are as a studio.  The money is great, no doubt, but what it bought them was a chance to make a game in a shorter time span without the fear that it would bring the studio to the brink of financial ruin.  It is a situation that I am quite honestly envious of as Squeaky Wheel pins its hopes of survival on our next game.  But more on that later.

When I cofounded Squeaky Wheel after working on Prison Architect, it probably made sense to make a similar systems driven game to pitch to a publisher.  Instead, we made a political strategy game called Political Animals.

Why did we do that?  Well, while it would have made business sense to immediately ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity, I really, really just wanted to make a different game.  I wanted to make a game that explored the idea that it's really hard to keep your hands (or paws) clean in an election.  That was the idea that drove the development of the game. I simply would not have had the heart to immediately run out and try to do a Prison Architect “clone”.

So how did our passion project do?  I have gone into a lot of detail about Political Animals' launch and how it's done in terms of revenue (here, here, and here) but tl:dr it's done even worse than Scanner Somber!  Thanks to the Steam summer sale, we've managed to finally move over 4000 units on Steam (If you want to try out the game during the steam summer sale I sure as hell won't stop you).  

The Cash Grab

Given how adamantly I didn't want to do a Prison Architect clone as our first game, it might seem ironic that we're now working on Academia : School Simulator, or as others might call it, “School Architect”.

But essentially we've just found ourselves in the opposite situation as Introversion.  Our project was a financial failure, so now we're doing what we think is the sensible thing to do, which is to ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity to hopefully achieve financial stability, if not success.  

But even at this point, the artist in me still can't help himself.  Analyzing the core elements that made Prison Architect work is an interesting thought exercise, but the process of actually implementing them is sometimes really depressing.  It's at those moments that self doubt creeps in and I start to believe it when people say we're just “cloning” Prison Architect.  

But honestly, I simply cannot imagine just cloning Prison Architect's mechanics.  And it's not even for moral reasons.  Iwould just find it so incredibly boring to do that. Everyone at Squeaky Wheel left jobs (as a freelancer, I did a lot of artwork for iOS clone games) where we had to do that, so what's the point of starting a company to do the same thing?

Unfortunately for us, the parts that will be fun to work on, like school dances, varsity sports, dealing with issues like bullying and teen pregnancy and everything else that makes the school an interesting ecosystem to play with?  That all comes later.  And whether or not we will get to do that will ultimately be decided by how well our Early Access does.  If we can sustain ourselves with our art, then great.  If not...well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

We Don't want to Be Starving Artists

I want to end this by saying that I'm absolutely not advocating the “starving artist/gamedev” lifestyle.  I'm too practical to ever go that route, and in many ways I believe that the idea that one must suffer in order to create great art is very harmful.  But like Mark said, if we only cared about making piles of money, we wouldn't be making games for a living.  We struggle to find the balance between art and commerce everyday, and its a tightrope that very few companies cane successfully manage.

So sure, make fun of the Introversion guys for not making Prison Architect 2.  Criticize Squeaky Wheel for trying to make a ridiculous political strategy game featuring animals instead of immediately chasing after that “Architect” money.  But please understand that for us to have done anything else would have been a betrayal of why we do what we do, which is the overwhelming desire to create new and interesting games and share them with the world. 

Thanks for reading! Just to prove we have zero interest in being starving artists, here is an obligatory marketing footer! If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel!

7 Tips for Aspiring Game Designers

Last week, we introduced you to our game designer Tristan Angeles (That's him on the left, with our programmer Marnielle) and his path to becoming a game designer. There was so much interview content that we decided to break it up into two parts. If part 1 was about his path to becoming a game designer, then part 2 is about practical tips for aspiring game designers.

1. Learn how to code

Or at least learn the basics of coding so that you can understand what the programmers are talking about. Knowing how to code also lets you make your own games and join game jams even with ugly programmer art.

2. Read Lots of Books

Read as many books as you can about any topic that you find interesting. Recently I heard a podcast interview with Sid Meier, he said "The challenge of game designers today is to bring things outside of the gaming world into gaming world."

3. Enjoy using spreadsheets

You will be using them a lot when it comes to game economy and balancing. I used to hate using Excel until I of my QA friends gave a workshop on how to use it for games. Since then I've found it to be both an enjoyable and indispensable tool.

4. Join Game Jams

One of the jams I joined was The Experimental Gameplay Project. It happened once a month, and you'd have to think about weird ideas and make games about the month's theme.

5. Learn to Compromise

Always be open to the possibility that you can be wrong. Ask for ideas from your team mates. These are the things I constantly keep on telling myself. Everything you think you know while designing is just your hypothesis or assumptions, and can only be validated once you start playtesting.

6. Find an Experienced Designer and Ask Them Questions

I once bought a book called Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. I emailed Schreiber to ask how he would approach some of the design challenges I had at Gameloft, and he responded. I think the best advice I got from him was about deconstructing games. He told me when tackling a new mechanic the question to ask was why? Why did the game designer introduce this mechanic? This allows you to make a hypothesis why a certain mechanic was put into place.

7. Watch the Extra Credits Videos about Game Design

These videos were my Saturday morning cartoons when I was getting started. These videos cover a broad range of game development topics from basic game design, to more advanced topics like game economies and balancing.

There was no elegant way to transition between the tips and this last segment, but hopefully it will also provide some more insight into practical game design:

What Resources Were Used While Designing Political Animals and Academia?

Social media was a very good resource when we were developing Political Animals. People would post news on Facebook, and it seemed like there was always something we can use or put in the game as events or a feature. In fact, when we released the game and people were posting about it on Facebook, one of the best parts for me was when people 'got' the game by relating it to things they knew or experienced in real life. For some of the mechanics like concerns, voting and bribing I based the mechanics on how I understood this paper on Vote buying by Eddie Dekel, Matthew O. Jackson, Asher Wolinsky .

Getting ideas for Political Animals I believe was the easy part since the team followed Philippine politics. Also, it seemed then that every person I asked knew something(or was an active participant) or had experience with cheating in elections in their home town.

In designing Academia, I'm trying to keep a balance between using school administration textbooks, and entertainment. I've been watching a lot of TV shows lately about or set in schools. Currently, I'm being entertained by Boston Public, just a few episodes of this series gave me respect for principals. Running schools is a hard job! I've also been watching documentaries about schools so that I can get ideas about the challenges faced by school administrators.

Thanks for reading! You can read more of Tristan's thoughts on his old game design blog (which he unfortunately no longer updates) If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! !

 

Meet Squeaky Wheel's Lead Designer Tristan Angeles!

In the most recent Academia Devlog, you guys got a chance to meet our awesome game designer, Tristan Angeles (Pssst...if you wanna know what he looks like, watch the first 30 seconds of the video).  In this blog post we asked him a few questions so we can all get to know him better and learn how he became a game designer.

 
 

What was the first video game you remember playing? 

I think we're a computer game playing family. My aunt on my dad's side played Mario 1 and 3. My uncle introduced us to Warcraft, Doom, and Heretic. My dad and I played through a lot of the levels of Battle City, and we devised tactics for each level.

I faintly remember my dad bringing home the Casio MSX one night when I was 4 or 5 years old I. The first video game I remember playing was called Monkey Academy. In the game, the player played a monkey and had to solve math problems by getting the missing part of the equation on top of the screen while avoiding enemies. We had another game for the MSX, but I forgot the title(Car Fighter?). In the game you played a car, and you needed to avoid other cars chasing you, and you could blow smoke on them to stun them for a while.

I played with bootleg copies of games as a kid, we had no idea that it was illegal. Me and my brother would go to a computer shop that had copies of games put into diskettes, and we'd play it in my dad's office during weekends. Some of the games I'd play were: Commander Keen (Carmack,Romero) , Prince of Persia (Jordan Mechner), I didn't know the guys who made these games were well known game developers, I just really enjoyed the games.-

 What was the first board game you ever played?

 
 

The first boardgame I played was probably Snake and Ladders or Chess. I think these two games are one of the first games introduced to children. Excluding those two games, the first game I played would be the Mad Magazine boardgame. It was like Monopoly, except the players needed to do funny things based on the cards drawn in the game.

We were interested in Warhammer, but since we didn't have money to buy models, we wrote to Games Workshop in the U.K. and they sent us their catalog along with the basic rules of Warhammer Fantasy. We cut out the pictures of the miniatures and pasted them on cardboard to play with them.

One day a friend of my dad brought a board game he designed to playtest it with us. The game was called 'Success', and I remember that it was a business themed game. The goal of the game was to become the richest player in the game. I can't remember the mechanics anymore.

This isn’t exactly about board games, but my favorite movies as a kid were Candy Man and Congo. I made up a variation of the game tag based on those movies and played it with my friends in our backyard. Weeks later we find out that other kids in the neighborhood were playing tag with our rules.

Candy Man Rules:

In the movie, the protagonists had to destroy Candy Man's mirror to destroy him, so in our game "The Candy Man" hides a piece of stone or broken glass in the play area before the game starts. After the glass is hidden, the other players shout 'candy man' three times to start the game. Once the game starts, the Candy Man player chases the other players around the area trying to 'kill' them(tag them) before they find the hidden piece of glass.

Congo Rules:

Congo plays like Candy Man except the players are divided into two groups, the explorers and the guardians (ape men) of Zinj. The guardians would hide diamonds in the play area for the explorers to find. The guardians win if they tag all of the explorers before the explorers find all the hidden diamonds. A special rule of the game is that the explorers had a 'camp'(guarded by perimeter guns in our heads) in which they could be safe.

Did you always want to be a game designer? If not, what did you want to be?

No but I remember I always made up games growing up. I say made up rather than design, because some of the rules of the games I made were not really thought out, just what I thought would be fun. Anyways, I made games but I didn't really think that game design was an actual job. I mentioned earlier that a friend of my dad’s had made a board game, and that was the first time that I thought making a game was possible for 'normal' people. After that me and my brother started making our own boardgames.

I think a lot of my friends back then would know boardgames but were only exposed to the common ones like Monopoly, Snake and Ladders, Checkers, etc. We had an old copy of this magazine at home called Games Magazine, and there were reviews of boardgames inside. So I guess I was exposed early on to the wider world of board games.

I was in grade 6 when I got acquainted with Dungeons and Dragons through a photocopy of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide hidden in our classroom. At first I had no idea how to play D&D since we only had the DMs guide, but luckily I learned that a kid from the lower grade levels had the the D&D Basic Set Players Handbook. I bought it from him for 50 pesos. My love affair with D&D had begun. I actually loved D&D so much that instead of grounding me my dad would hide my D&D rulebooks.

Still, it’s not as if game design or development was a well known career path at the time.  My dad was a lawyer, so it kind of made sense to take up law.  . I took a course called Development Communication as a pre-law course. I spent less time playing pen and paper roleplaying games as I began focusing more on Taekwondo and earning my black belt. 

So how did you end up in game design?

In my last year of college I decided to do my thesis on using Pen and Paper Roleplaying for Teaching History. I was partly inspired by my professor’s research on using Democracy 2 and partly lazy because it was so natural to me already.

One day after I’d graduated I saw a game design contest in GameCareerGuide challenging people to think of a game idea based on a theme. I entered it and then weeks later I found my idea in website as one of the top picks. I joined again a few weeks later and once again my idea was featured. I then joined a contest on Gameful (a website started by Jane Mcgonigal) and won 500$. I joined another contest which had prize money and a chance to talk with Asi Burak, Co Founder of Games For Change. I entered the contest with the game "In The Court of the Spider King" and won another 500$. I bought my very first laptop using the combined prize money and felt like maybe there was something to this whole game design thing.

Me and a few of my college friends joked about it and talked about starting a game company together. Problem was nobody knew how to make games.  I think I took that joke too seriously. When I entered my first job at a call center company as an agent, the trainer asked us to stand in front of the room and tell the class where we saw ourselves in 5 years. I remember saying "I see myself as a game designer travelling the world showing my games to conventions." Around this time I was learning how to program in Python, asking people in the IGDA(including my now team mate Marnielle) how to do stuff.

I eventually left the call center company and applied as a game designer for two local game companies. I got rejected by both and realized that this was because I had nothing to show them in terms of game design work.  So instead I applied as a Quality Assurance Tester. While doing QA, I learned Actionscript and started making games with my brother. I also joined game jams like Ludum Dare and the Global Game Jam. I got an award in Manila Global Game Jam, and a month later I receive an email from Casual Connect that they wanted to feature one of our game jam games at Indie Prize.

Being pressured by time( I gave myself one year to become a game designer or else I'd take law), and thinking I now have some credentials to design game I left the company I was working for as QA and got a game design position at Gameloft.

Who is your favorite game designer? What is your favorite game in terms of game design?

Hard question. I don't really have a favorite game designer I think, because when I say that I like a game designer I'm probably talking about the games they designed. If that's the case my favorited designer would be Gary Gygax(for creating D&D). AD&D(2nd ed) is probably my most favorite game of all time. When I first learned about AD&D my first reaction was like "really? a game that you can play only with your imagination." There are other better designed games than AD&D out there but AD&D is the only game(in my experience) that makes your friends talk about "killing that dragon" years later after playing and make strangers look at them as if they were crazy.

In terms of game design philosophy I'm trying to integrate some of Sid Meier's thinking into my own.  I've listened to all of the Sid Meier interviews on Designer Notes, and the ones on youtube. What I've taken from these interviews is something like, to give the most
importance to the player's fantasy i.e. being pirate, building a civilization, and do whatever it takes to let the player play out
that fantasy in the game. I took this to mean that how a game is designed is less important than the output(meeting the player fantasy).

An example of this is when I'm designing a mechanic of the game, and I design this complicated system trying to make it look 'intelligent'. So as a designer I think we feel the pressure to make 'intelligent' designs, or look for answers in obscure places when the simple solutions may be enough to create that player fantasy. It's easy enough to say this of course, but really hard to actually pull off. I'm still trying to make sense of all of those interviews.

Offhand, my favorite boardgame is Pillars of the Earth because is one of the prettiest boardgames I've ever seen, one of the reasons that kept me from selling the game when I've started selling my boardgames(I had 20+ boardgames once) when I moved to Makati. I like the game because the theme works well with the mechanics. It's a very easy game to play and easy to teach because the steps of the game is already laid out on the board.

My favorite Video/PC game is The Last Express.  I really like how they executed this game. Storytelling with time moving forward. The setting was great( One of my dreams is seeing or even getting a chance to ride the Orient Express after I read the Agatha Christie novel).

What do you in your spare time aside from playing video games?

Actually, I'd like to spend a lot more time 'seriously' playing games. I can count with my fingers the games that really made me sit down in the years since I started designing games professionally. My spare time is split between reading books, learning Japanese, going to the gym,practicing Taekwondo, and learning programming . Recently I think I've started to have an itch for travel, and I've been wanting to travel more. The team recently talked about taking up new hobbies to get our minds off the project once in a while and I've been considering taking up either MMA or Kendo. I also attend meetings of the Philippine Historical Boardgames once in a while, and recently got started playing Advanced Squad Leader.

What are you most proud of in your work as a game designer?

 
 

Political Animals. Seriously and not just because it's a Squeaky Wheel game. The game might not have been financially successful but:

- It was my first PC game on Steam where it has "mostly positive" reviews.

- It's my first game to get into EGX,PAX, and Tokyo Game Show.

- It's been introduced by a former teacher of mine to students and teachers as a tool for learning about Philippine politics.

Aside from what I've stated above, another reason it means a lot to me is that it's a full blown game and a project I was involved in from the very beginning. This game will be like a battle scar I'd be telling younger game designers in the years to come (assuming I stay in the industry that long).

Thanks for reading! You can read more of Tristan's thoughts on his old game design blog (which he unfortunately no longer updates) If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! !

 

Political Motivation : Why Games Belong in our Classrooms

Recently, we wrote a blog post saying that Political Animals was looking for educators who would be willing to analyze the game and see how they might use the game in their classes.  JFP Maligalig is one such educator, and this is the first of a two part series of blog posts talking about his experiences with games and what inspired him to be an advocate for game-based learning.

It was in February 1986 when all my relatives from Metro Manila suddenly came home to our ancestral house in Los Baños, Laguna. My cousins and I thought it was because of my brother’s birthday on the 23rd. We had little interest in the local news, which showed mobs of people and soldiers facing off on some highway. Our family reunion turned out to be a sign of protest for my relatives: each of them was an officer in the Armed Forces. They had refused to fight civilians or fellow soldiers in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in Philippine history, the People Power Revolution.

As a child, I couldn’t have cared less about politics and the prevailing social conditions of the country at the time. Fast forward to 2017, and I wish I could tell you that kids today are different. Most are as in the dark or apathetic as I was in 1986. What’s more frightening is that their parents, our generation, didn’t feel the need for political and social awareness to be a part of their childrens’ education. That is, to quote a popular leader from the West, “sad.”

All Roads Lead to Rome (Before You're Crushed by Germany)

My interest in government and social issues were sparked in high school by something very unlikely: Sid Meier’s Civilization (for those of you who are unfamiliar with one of the most successful digital game franchises of all time, please find a copy and prepare for many sleepless nights). I played Civilization in a computer shop and I spent almost all of my free time building up my Romans (the Roman civilization had become “mine,” an important point that I’ll elaborate on later); I would build cities, discover gunpowder, go to war with the Germans, and be crushed by their tank units (lesson learned: allot more resources for research, because musketeers don’t intimidate German tanks at all). I got so obsessed with Civilization, I started reading history books to find strategies on how my Romans can conquer the world. That might sound funny to the uninitiated, but Civilization was so well-designed, the game’s concepts and mechanics were good representations of social studies course content.

As a side-effect of my Civ­-aholic (yes, they made up a term for it) tendencies, I surprised my social studies teacher by reciting more in class and showing up in the top ten for the highest final grades in my section. The funny thing is that up until that point, I hated history class! That experience got me thinking: if a game motivated me enough to learn something I despised in school, maybe I could do the same for other students like me.

Game-Based Learning using Democracy 2

Since my undergraduate research days, I’ve been trying out analog and digital games in classroom situations to see if students learn better with games. Most of those games belonged to the strategy genre, and almost all of the games I used dealt with the social sciences. One of these was Cliff Harris’ political and governance simulator Democracy 2 (D2). The game (and the other versions in the series) lets the player be president or prime minister of simulated countries (fictional or based on real ones). By changing policies and managing the national budget, players can either make their digital nation prosperous (getting the player reelected in the process) or impoverished (a game over condition marked by the player’s ouster … or worse).

For my Master’s thesis, I performed an experiment involving 1st Year students from the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ College of Development Communication. For one of their foundation courses, these students were taught development issues using conventional classroom teaching, classroom teaching with D2 game sessions, and classroom teaching with D2 games sessions plus a discussion about the gameplay experiences. While performance in standardized tests were not significantly different, the students who played D2 were found to have a deeper understanding of what development was about.

Why did D2 have such an impact on the students in the study? The game allowed the students to make abstract concepts in development (i.e. poverty) more concrete. D2 players were also more aware of the interrelatedness and interaction of issues in governance, as this is a key mechanic of the game. Players were providing more specific solutions to issues when asked, showing that they gained more “experience” with these issues (in the game) that non-players did not have. To quote one of the student-players, “(In class), we were given just theories. It was not a first-hand experience, but the game synthesized the problems and solutions.” Explaining further, the student said that D2 made them “feel” that the problems discussed in class were theirs, and that they felt obligated to use what they learned in class to make solutions to their problems. When I heard this, I smiled, remembering “my” Romans in Civilization and how I dove into history books to figure out how to conquer a digital world (and discover tanks before the Germans, for heaven’s sake).

D2 was a small step towards making games acceptable for Philippine classrooms. After I finished my degree, the college dean at the time (who was also my research adviser) gave me instructions to try out the game as a regular part of the course activities. Jackpot! With the inclusion of an exercise based on my research into the course syllabus, D2 became (to my knowledge) the first digital game to be institutionalized as a requirement in UPLB. For a time, even other degree programs started using D2 for their classes in human ecology and sociology.

Teaching Critical Thinking with Games

That was back in 2010. I’m not up-to-date with D2 use in UPLB, but I still advocate the use of games like it for appropriate courses. Since then, I’ve used other games, both analog (mostly card games and role-playing games) and digital (a Rock Band clone, anyone?) for teaching. But there’s one more frontier for strategy games dealing with governance: political awareness. As a child, my grasp of politics was practically nonexistent, but that changed because of my education and interest in games like Civilization and Democracy 2. Children, especially those in high school (Gr. 7-12), should be given the knowledge and motivation to become active participants in nation building by the time they enter the workforce. But this is easier said than done; the current political landscape has shifted so much, even politicians are scrambling to keep up with the times.

This is where games like D2 would come in. By giving youths the motivation to learn about politics and governance on their own, they would be able to sift through all the available information and determine a political stand based on their own beliefs and not on propaganda. However, playing games without proper guidance might not be as effective at developing these traits; no matter how compelling a game’s mechanics are, they will never exactly match how real-world systems work. That’s why I believe teachers should be trained in game-based learning methodologies: to enable them to mentor students in gameplay experiences that could influence their growth into responsible and active participants in the development of their communities.

Opportunity Knocks!

A few months back, I was looking at Democracy 3 for another game-based learning study when I got a text from an old research advisee, Tristan Angeles. He’d since cofounded a game development company and he told me that their game, Political Animals, would be releasing in a few weeks. It was good timing, too, as I had learned of a research conference where I could present this game’s use of anthropomorphic animals as representations of political stereotypes.  But I'll write more about that in a future post.

Till then, learn on, game on!

JPF Maligalig is an educational communication and technology practitioner and researcher who specializes in analog and digital game-based learning. He is taking up a PhD in Educational Administration so he can develop procedures and policies in introducing game-based teaching and learning paradigms in schools, colleges, and universities. In between classes, he plays “Pocket Academy” on his smartphone.

A link to his study on Democracy 2 can be found here.

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Learning and Using GOAP (Goal Oriented Action Planning) For Squeaky Wheel's Next Game

Ryan: We've been working on a new game the past couple of months and this is the first time we're going to be talking about it.  You can find out more about the game by watching the video above, and then geek out over the AI by reading Marnielle's post below.

I’m excited that we’re making a builder type of game in the likes of Prison Architect Banished, and Rimworld. I love playing such games. Our’s is a school management game where you can design classrooms, offices, hire teachers, design curriculum, and guide students to their educational success.

For every new game, it’s always my aim to try to implement a new algorithm or system and learn something new. I’ve always been fascinated with an AI planning system called Goal Oriented Action Planning or GOAP. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a simple tutorialI haven’t developed such system myself as the games that I’ve made so far have no use for it. I think it’s the perfect AI system for builder games. I hope I’m right!

Why GOAP?

The primary reason is I’m lazy. I don’t want to wire and connect stuff like you do with Finite State Machines and Behaviour Trees. I just want to provide a new action and my agents will use it when needed. Another main reason is I’ve reckoned that there’s going to be a lot of action order combinations in the game. I don’t want to enumerate all of those combinations. I want the game agents to just discover them and surprise the player.

Another important reason is the AI system itself is an aide for development. There’s going to be lots of objects in the game that the agents may interact with. While I’m adding them one by one, I’ll just add the actions that can be done with the object and the agents will do the rest. I don’t have to reconfigure them much every time there’s a new action available. Just add the action and it’s done.

Tweaking The System

While making the system, I had some ideas that would make the generic GOAP system better. They sure have paid off.

Multiple Sequenced Actions

Per GOAP action, instead of doing only one action, our custom GOAP action contains a set of modular atomic actions. Each atomic action is executed in sequence. This is what it looks like in editor:

By doing it this way, I can make reusable atomic actions that can be used by any agent. A GOAP action then is just a named object that contains preconditions, effects, and a set of atomic actions.

GoapResult

I incorporated the concept of action results like how it is in Behaviour Trees. An atomic action execution returns either SUCCESS, FAILED, or RUNNING. This is what the atomic action base class looks like:

public abstract class GoapAtomAction {

    public virtual void ResetForPlanning(GoapAgent agent) {
    }

    public virtual bool CanExecute(GoapAgent agent) {
        return true;
    }

    public virtual GoapResult Start(GoapAgent agent) {
        return GoapResult.SUCCESS;
    }

    public virtual GoapResult Update(GoapAgent agent) {
        return GoapResult.SUCCESS;
    }

    public virtual void OnFail(GoapAgent agent) {
    }

}

When an atom action returns FAILED, the whole current plan fails and the agent will plan again. A RUNNING result means that the current action is still running, thus also means that the current plan is still ongoing. A SUCCESS result means that the action has done its execution and can proceed to the next atomic action. When all of the atomic actions returned SUCCESS, the whole GOAP action is a success and the next GOAP action in the plan will be executed.

This concept makes it easy for me to add failure conditions while an action is being executed. Whenever one action fails, the agent automatically replans and proceeds to execute its new set of actions.

Condition Resolver

Condition Resolvers are objects that can query current world conditions which you need during planning. I implemented this as another base class in our system. The concrete classes can then be selectable in the editor. This is what the base class looks like:

public abstract class ConditionResolver {

    private bool resolved;
    private bool conditionMet;

    public ConditionResolver() {
        Reset();
    }

    public void Reset() {
        this.resolved = false;
        this.conditionMet = false;
    }

    public bool IsMet(GoapAgent agent) {
        if(!this.resolved) {
            // Not yet resolved
            this.conditionMet = Resolve(agent);
            this.resolved = true;
        }

        return this.conditionMet;
    }

    protected abstract bool Resolve(GoapAgent agent);

}

Note here that it has logic such that Resolve() will only be invoked once. Concrete subclasses need to only override this method. Such method may execute complex calculations so we need to make sure that it’s only called once when needed during planning.

This is what it looks like in editor:

All conditions default to false unless they have a resolver which is used to query the actual state of the condition.

Usage

Once the conditions, resolvers, and actions have been set up, all that’s left to do is to add goal conditions and invoke Replan().

 

void Start() {
    this.agent = GetComponent();
    Assertion.AssertNotNull(this.agent);

    // Start the AI
    this.agent.ClearGoals();
    this.agent.AddGoal("StudentBehaviour", true);
    this.agent.Replan();
}

If there are new goals to satisfy, the same calls can be invoked to change the goal(s) for a new plan to be executed.

So Far So Good

Our custom GOAP system is working well for us… for now. I now have working worker agents and student agents. More will be added later on, including cooks, janitors etc. Here’s hoping that we don’t need to revamp the system as we’re already so deep with it.

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to be updated on the latest Squeaky Wheel news, please sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! Please let us know if this is something you would be interested in supporting via Early Access!  Any feedback on that would be most appreciated!

Political Animals is Looking for Educators!

While Political Animals was made for the retail market, we've always hoped that it could be used for educational purposes.  Part of our goal as a studio is to try to broaden the topics that games are allowed to talk about, and having the game used in classrooms and thesis dissertations definitely aligns with that goal.  

However, Political Animals is a little difficult to pitch to educational institutions.  As a turn-based political strategy game It doesn't easily fall into the genre of “edutainment”, and any lessons to be extracted from it are solely based on the interpretations of a teacher or student.  Lessons that might be learned include weighing the different moral decision you have to make during an event.  There could also be a discussion about campaign strategy, or perhaps the difference between different electoral systems (Political Animals uses straight majority as opposed to the Electoral College). But there are no lesson plans of any sort, or guidelines for how to use the game in this way.

This is why we need your help.  If you are an educational practitioner of social studies, politics, anthropology or any other subject where you feel that there might be some merit in having your students play our game, we would love to hear from you!  To give you an idea of how it might be used, I did an analysis of the most recent US election a few months ago.  I'm sure you could do a much better job than that.

Send us an email at ryan@squeakywheel.ph with the Subject line “Political Animals for Education” with an introduction of yourself, your school or institution and how you'd plan to use the game in your class, and we'll give you a free copy of the game.  In return we'd love your feedback on your experiences and the results, if any.  If all goes well we'd love to release an education site license similar to that done by Democracy 3. Thanks, and we hope you can spread the word to your fellow educators!

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Indie Game Developers Should Sell Games in China (While They Still Can)

China Shakes the (Gaming) World

“The potent lure of the 1.3 billion person market, no matter how illusory it may be, has helped China to leapfrog some of the technology barriers that had stymied several of the Southeast Asian 'tiger' economies in the 80s and 90s" -James Kynge in China Shakes the World

Ever since China opened up its markets to the world companies have invested trillions of dollars into the country, hoping to be the one that reaps the rewards of access to that colossal market. Internet stalwarts like Uber and Ebay have tried and failed, and on the gaming side Sony and Microsoft are still barely chipping away at the market, yet somehow Valve has grown its Steam userbase in China, giving indie developers a crack at the Chinese gaming population.

China is well known in the gaming scene, but common wisdom was that the vast Chinese market was never going to pay for a game. Most people in China's first experience with gaming was through mobile phones, and with the subsequent turn of that marketplace towards F2P, it further entrenched the notion that Chinese gamers were unwilling to pay for premium games.

Even Valve's sideways entry into the market was via free-to-play. An alliance with Perfect World literally forced gamers to download Steam in order to play the Dota 2 in China. In fact many of them protested at having to download a piece of useless “zombie” software. But then a funny thing happened. While the Chinese government was busy banning Gears of War 4, Steam was subject to no such restrictions. The lure of ostensibly banned games being available on Steam seems to have led many Chinese gamers to buy and download GTA V on Steam. Enough of them have bought GTA V that China is the second largest country for GTA V in terms of units sold.

GTAV stats courtesy Steamspy

GTAV stats courtesy Steamspy

Steam took notice, and took steps to court the Chinese market by supporting payments in Chinese Yuan via payment services like AliPay and UnionPay, which greatly increased Chinese gamers' access to Steam games. In 2016 Steam also held the inaugural Lunar New Year sale to further embrace the Chinese Market. AAA game development has also taken notice, with increasing numbers adding Chinese language and audio to their games. Indie games like Lost Castle have also made a killing, selling 200,000 of its 300,000 total units in China alone.

There seems to be a growing appetite for paid PC games in China. On reddit commenter even mentioned that there is a sense of obligation on the part of Chinese gamers, saying “I have to buy (gamename)to pay back the debt no matter how bad it is. Because they have played lots of pirate version growing up lol.” And yet surprisingly very few indie developers seemed to be taking the Chinese market seriously, including myself.

Maybe We'll get Banned in China

Personally, as someone from the Philippines, I simply assumed that the Chinese market behaved in a similar fashion as the rest of South East Asia, where I grew up. Players bought pirated games as kids and then transitioned into playing free to play games. The population playing legitimate games was simply too small to mater financially. Our strategy was to try to make it big in Western markets (ie US and Western Europe) and the other markets would follow suit. We even joked that maybe the best thing to happen to us would be to be banned in China, because then at least we'd get some press from it.

So I have to admit when I first received an email from Fall Ark of indienova with an offer to localize the game in Simplified Chinese, it wasn't on the top of my to-do list. I was flattered that he had been following the game on Tigsource for a while and thought it would be worthwhile to localize the game into Chinese, but I simply didn't take the market seriously. In my defense, September and October of 2016 were very trying periods for me. We were flying across the world to present Political Animals to gamers at PAX, EGX, TGS, and BICFest and trying to gauge feedback and finish the game all at the same time. It was probably the most stressful times of my life, and trying to add another language to our localization tasks might have have driven me crazy. But as I'll share with you all in a bit, I now really, really regret not having taken advantage of this generous offer sooner rather than later.

Political Animals in China

In our last blogpost, I mentioned that I was pleasantly surprised at how much our sales in China had picked up after we got localization done. I'll dig in to the numbers to give you some more context.

When I compared the two week period before we announced Chinese localization and 2 weeks afterwards, I realized that there was a 8x increase in the total number of units sold during that time. To take a longer view, I compared the sales for the 5 weeks prior to localization launch to a combined 2 and 3 week period after the launch and 3 weeks in January (excluding the units sold during the Winter Sale, which we’ll get to in a moment) and found a 3.2x increase in total units sold over the course of 5 weeks.

What can we learn from this? The amount of units sold in China was negligible prior to localization. It’s common knowledge that Chinese gamers usually won’t bother with a game if it’s not localized unless it’s massively successful. Adding localization to our game exponentially increased the chances that random Chinese gamers might pick up our game. Interestingly just as I was writing this we sold 4 more units in China, and 1 in Australia.

The only upsetting thing about this is thinking about how many sales we might have gotten on release day when we had front page status on Steam.

Steam Winter Sale

Things got even more interesting during the Steam Winter Sale, which according to Sergey Galyonkin on Steampsy drives the most unit sales of games. As you can see from the graph above, Chinese sales represented 17% of our total sales during the Steam Winter Sale, more than the UK and Canada combined! By comparison Japan and the Russian Federation, both large non-English speaking markets, only mustered 1% of the total sales each.

Obviously these are exciting numbers, but first you have to ask yourselves whether or not these numbers scale. After all, we’re looking at a very small sample size here in terms of units sold and time elapsed. But given the fact that games as vastly different as GTA V and Don’t Starve both have China as their number 2 region in terms units sold, I’m fairly confident that over time, that will be the case for us as well.

One major caveat that I have to mention here is that since Steam suggests pricing of 50% lower for China, that means that while the increase in units may be impressive, the revenue increase will be less so.

How to reach your Chinese Audience

Assuming you’ve bought in to the idea that there is huge potential in the Chinese Market, what do you do? First, localize. We were lucky enough that we were able to get free localization from indienova. They are pretty active about localizing games they like, so go ahead and get in touch with them if you haven’t already been contacted.

If you haven’t been contacted by indienova, there are indie game publishers in China that are actively searching for games to localize and launch in China. Another Indie and Coconut Island Studios are two examples of that. I would actually suggest this path for English speaking indies that don’t have access to someone who understands the Chinese market. These companies have relationships and fanbases that they can use to promote your game much more than you could do so on your own, especially given the fact that Facebook and Twitter are banned in China. Streamers are super big in China but unless you can read Chinese or have relationships with them there's almost zero chance you can get one of them to play your game. We actually pitched our game to Another Indie but they declined due to concerns over the political nature and style of our game (it didn't help that the game hadn't done well so far).

So for the most part we are DIY-ing it. We went and made a Squeakywheel Weibo account since thats what folks use there instead of Twitter/Facebook. We post there every now and then using either Google Translate or asking some Chinese friends to do short translations for us. As for stuff we post, we usually look at either reviews of the game in Chinese or screenshots people have posted of the Chinese version of the game.

funny.jpg

This funny review in Chinese got quite a few views. When run through Google Translate it reads:

"Political animal" by the United States Obama team carefully built three yuan super VR games, Obama, Trump, Hillary lead. AD 7, 1427, Azeroth, the mainland decided to elect the next general secretary, and you, as a person elected to be elected as a candidate, where you need to use a variety of moral and moral The way to beat your opponent. such as:
Hard point of a topic, so that people of this constituency to know you
To confuse a second time, so that the constituency of all the people plus one second
In the constituency to find a sister, through the point of praise to pay Po into the harem
Mourning is hereby, ask the constituency of the Tu Hao to Krypton a single
To a PY deal, so that those who do not continue to force a second to see Marx
In this process you can also have a bunch of little brother and thugs to help you fight home robbery, they each have their own good.
Especially for a constituency can put forward a big news rival
Donkey lions can bury your sins to help you cook
Prostitutes from Hong Kong to run particularly fast
Repair the computer can be made welfare
Activists are good at muffled fortune
Dogs feed more boys
Report can be power cuts
Rogue can pull the opponent's brother out of the base
Each character has its own characteristics.
And you need to decide whether you should pay more attention to the motherland's small loli, unemployed female college students, dirty PY transactions, Crystal Palace construction progress, loss of faith lost lamb or the national physical health of these six major issues.
In the course of the game continue to use carrots and sticks to buy people speculation public opinion.
Eventually, all the banknotes will be gone, and you will be honorable to the crowned King

Yeah, we didn't get it either, and when we asked a taiwanese friend to translate it he said it was just full of bad puns!  It's hard to really say how many people we're really getting to click on our link to go to steam, but it's a toehold and we're taking advantage of as best we can.

We've geared up for a 40% discount during Chinese New Year weekend. Luckily it's the year of the rooster, and whaddayaknow we have a rooster on our candidate roster. It won't be as successful as if we had some proper support in China but I'm hoping it will make some impact. I'll report on that in a future blogpost.

The Window may be Closing

I personally want to push this as far as I can to try and see if there is room for markets for us aside from the US and Europe. The larger and more diverse the markets that we can sell our games to, the more indie game studios can survive and thrive. If a game that doesn't do well in the US can thrive in China, that should be celebrated.

However the window may be closing on indie and PC game developers in general. As previously mentioned, the Chinese government takes games seriously. They have a government body that regulates each and every game that is released on consoles, and recently this also affected games that were to be released on the app store. This substantially slows down game launches as publishers and studios have to jump through numerous hoops before to release their games. Publishers and large game companies have representation that can explain to them how best to go through the process, but small indies like us will be shit out of luck.  A recent government pronouncement has already started moving in this direction, so it may not be long before Steam's free pass gets revoked, and it gets much harder to release games beyond the Great Firewall. 

Tech Conglomerate Tencent has muddied up the waters even more as it launched a Steam competitor called TGP and plans to launch a gaming console.  TGP is restricted by the same government rules as Sony and Xbox, but it understands the Chinese market better and has every opportunity to replace Steam as the go-to platform for PC gaming.

In short, if you're an indie developer that feels like they have a shot at the Chinese market, you'd better make your move soon before that window closes for good.

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