Friday, January 16, 2015

Beta Testing Eco: Design Thinking in Action

Screenshot of the gameplay in Eco.  Here the player is trying to hunt a wolf that is wandering the land.

My students were invited to beta test the game Eco, currently in development by StrangeLoop Games.  Eco is a sandbox game with some definite similarities to Minecraft, but with a definite focus on maintaining a sustainable environment.  Players hunt for meat, chop trees for wood, and plant and harvest crops.  All activity is tracked and players can quickly generate graphs to show the impact of their actions in the game.  Resources are clearly limited and maintaining the proper balance takes collaboration and cooperation.  Essentially, everyone in the game is playing together in an attempt to meet the winning condition based on challenges posed by the game.  A very interesting mechanic in the game is that players can propose and vote on laws.  Once laws are adopted, the gameplay adjusts to the laws.  For instance, if a deforestation law were put in place to limit the amount of trees that can be chopped down in a given timeframe, this will be reflected in the game, limiting players actions.

Here is a screenshot that provides an idea of the winning scenario:

This served as a great discussion starter in class today.  If you notice, there are 4.8 days left to complete the goals outlined and win the game.  Marked by the red arrow is the fact that in order to win we can only allow 1 animal to become extinct but currently we have 2 extinct animals.  When I realized this, I asked my students what this meant for the current game.  After a little thought they realized that we could no longer meet the winning conditions.  The students are in my game design and development course. I asked them to comment on this from a game design standpoint.  Students realized that it would present a problem for players who are playing the game as they realize there is no way that they could win.  So the discussion began.  Since we are beta testing the game, one of the activities my students have is to provide bug reports and suggestions for the further development of the game.  I asked students to start to think of possible suggestions based on the dilemma we were now faced with.  Here are some ideas that students came up with:

  • Breed a new species of animal. This is an interesting idea, but even if this were possible in the game, we still exceeded the number of extinct animals so this wouldn't help the current issue.
  • Reproduce animals that were extinct - well, this brought us to an interesting discussion of what extinction meant.
  • Set something up in the game where it automatically resets if the game cannot be won.
This led to further discussion of how this issue could have been averted.  Students (as well as myself and a co-teacher) came up with additional ideas which would be exciting additions to the game:
  • Pose warning when animals get close to extinction.
  • Add a news feed to the game that provided headlines and articles about the declining population of certain species and the impact this would have.
  • Include a visible estimate (it was brought up that providing a number of remaining animals of a particular species is not realistic) of how many of a particular animal remain in existence so players can act accordingly.
  • Include an economy of sorts where prices fluctuate based on availability of resources - that sure would alter the moral aspect of gameplay!
The discussion quickly branched off to the discussion of what should happen related to the laws in the game.  Currently, if there is a law that you can only chop a certain number of trees, the player becomes unable to chop trees once the threshold is met.  This raised the discussion about how realistic it is to go up to a tree and try to chop it but not be able simply because of a law.  We started to discuss how this should be handled in the game.  Students came up with some great suggestions:
  • When a player is in violation of a law their name shows in the game in red so that other players can turn them in.
  • Include a system of consequences for breaking laws.
The discussion continued and will certainly continue.  As a teacher of game design and development this served a very valuable purpose.  My students participated actively in the brainstorming of ideas to incorporate in this game which got their mind going in terms of game mechanics, game design elements, etc. in a very authentic manner.  We will continue to play Eco and I hope that our contributions are valuable to the development team.  I already see how valuable the learning has been for my students.