tl/dr: I just submitted an app version of a board game I call Root Down to the app store. The app will be free, and represents not all that much effort on my part, but if there is interest, I’d like to update it with AI and multiplayer.
What is it?
Root Down is a 2-player abstract strategy game where the main mechanic is that pieces flip from a state where they can move (kickers) to a state where they cannot move (roots) after every move. The key is that kickers must also be next to a root in order to move, and the number of spaces they move is also determined by the number of kickers next to each root. I spent an evening and adapted the game for iPad, and have now iterated on it a couple of times to the point where I think I’d like to get it out there and see if there is additional interest. There is no AI, and the game can only be played on an iPad with two players. Consequently, I can’t imagine it will get that much interest, but I still want to put it out there and see what happens.
Here are a couple of screenshots:
(Yes, I know this looks awful! I have lost any html skills I maybe once had!)
The full rules for the game can be found in this public google doc.
I could probably wrote an entire additional blog post about what features I decided to include and ultimately decided against including in this simple game. As I mention below, I essentially wrote the initial version of this app in an evening. Probably four hours tops. I knew I wanted to put it out there, get it in the app store, even though it’s pretty minimal in what it does. That initial version basically just had the following:
- 2-player “pass and play” multiplayer (on the same device)
- a rules popover
- end-game popover with final scores
Yes, that was it. I spent another couple of hours adding the following:
- an edit button on the game screen — This allows you to change the opening setup, and initially I thought it would be useful as a “poor man’s undo”, but it can’t undo capture counts, so it really doesn’t work for that.
- a feedback button — This just opens the standard email popup.
- an Abstract Puzzle logo that fades out to the home screen — This doesn’t look as good as I wanted it to, and I’m still debating pulling it from the next build. The problem is that I didn’t have a version of the logo with a transparent background, and the black on red ended up just looking okay, but not great.
App Store Submission
Apple rejected the first version because they didn’t like this bit in my app description: “This is an app experiment. There is no AI (yet), nor are there the other typical bells and whistles usually present in iOS board game conversions. If there is interest, I plan to add an interactive tutorial, asynchronous multiplayer, an AI to play against, universal (iPhone) support, and whatever other features are requested.” I removed all of that, and replaced it with a call to use a “submit feedback” button on the app’s menu.
Subsequently, (this morning), I found a bug in the end-game scoring. I’ll be rejecting the binary, and resubmitting in the next hour or so.
History / Backstory
A month or so ago, Christian Freeling (creator of Mindsports) started a contest on BGG in the Abstract Strategy forums concerning “activator” games, or games with pieces that “activate” other pieces. The idea percolated in my brain a bit, and suddenly I found myself on the floor with my copy of Card Chess, playtesting an idea or two.
I got enamored enough with the game that I wrote up the rules, and wanted to post them on BGG to get feedback, but I didn’t have a name. I started thinking about the pieces in my game that activate, and how they sort of put out tentacles to the pieces next to them, kind of like roots on a tree. Eventually the Beastie Boys’ Root Down popped into my head, and the name was set. Eventually I re-wrote the rules to incorporate “roots” and “kickers”, and “kicking it root down” from the lyrics of that song. I think it works pretty well, actually, for an otherwise themeless abstract. Eventually, I did post the game to BGG. I have also submitted the game to the actual BGG database, where it is pending approval.
An AdHoc build is how you get iOS apps onto an Apple device without going through the App Store. They are typically used for testing. I was asked this question recently, and spent 15 minutes writing up this reply, so I thought I’d post it here. The obvious caveat is that it can of course vary from project to project. A bigger more complex project has more “moving parts” that can need fiddling with when creating a build.
So… How long does it take to make an iOS AdHoc build?
I use TestFlight to distribute my AdHoc builds, and typically, I tell clients an AdHoc build takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete. Thankfully this work “stacks” quite a bit, so doing a few of them at once might only take 20 or 30 minutes. This process basically just involves opening the project, verifying a few settings related to provisioning profiles and “targets”, building an “Archive” of the project, uploading the new build to TestFlight, and writing some release notes as well as picking the users to receive the build. (Thanks to the awesome TestFlight OSX app, those last two steps can be done while the upload is in progress.)
This assumes, however, that all the devices are already registered with TestFlight. Everything takes longer when I need to add additional devices. This stacks too, so adding 1 to 10 or 15 new devices only takes another 15 or 20 minutes. The main additional thing that I need to do in this case is upload the device identifiers for the new devices to Apple’s provisioning portal, and download a new (or updated) provisioning profile that includes those new devices. This additional work has to happen BEFORE I can make the AdHoc build for those devices.
What I find frustrating is when all these tasks are split up over the course of hours or days. For instance, when I’m asked to send a build to some new individual, but they’ve never used TestFlight, and aren’t yet registered there. Then I have to send them an invite, wait for them to accept the invite, wait again for them to register their device, then finally I can get their identifier and begin the process. This means either waiting for the new person before creating the build (sometimes this can take days, of course!), or just creating two builds, one with the devices I already have, and another when I get all the important information from the new person. Considering the adage that a “a 15 second interruption results in 15 minutes of programmer downtime” (which is more or less verifiable), these build requests can really add up to lost productivity for me.
One final note about what AdHoc builds are not.
After an app is in the app store, unless you are testing a new version, you should really be using that version, and not an AdHoc build. There are many reasons for this, but notably: 1) AdHoc builds will expire when the provisioning profile expires. 2) You get the peace of mind that what you are seeing is what your users are seeing. 3) You will get the updates via the app store, as your users do. 4) You can instal the app on multiple devices without needing to provision all of them. Don’t forget about using promo codes to get “free” versions of apps to your testers or employees after an app goes live! (In my experience, you rarely use all of them for press as you should, and you get a “fresh” batch after each update anyway.)
AdHoc builds are an integral part of iOS app development, but creating them is annoying to me because it’s not programming. Of course, neither is wring this blog post.
When you consider some of the game design imperatives for mobile games — playable in short bursts, interruptible, simple touch controls, UI that fits on a small screen — you may not immediately think that board games are a good fit for the medium. After all, many board games are an all-evening affair, require complex strategies, and cover the dining room table while they’re being played. But there are several reasons that board games are extremely popular on mobile, even games without the marketing budgets and brand recognition of Monopoly or Chess.
First, it should be noted that these are games with an existing fanbase. With a few notable exceptions (see Solforge or Cabals: The Card Game), mobile board games already have a physical version. This means that there is a certain niche fanbase that probably already knows about the game. Quite possibly there are hundreds or even thousands of people who have already played the game and know its rules. Some games already have enthusiastic fans that will help promote a digital version without even playing it.
As anyone with a marketing background knows, the more times a person sees a product, the more likely they are to purchase the product. So a fan of board games might have seen it in their local hobby store or read about it on Board Game Geek. By having a digital version on the market, your game has a leg up on the competition by sheer virtue of name recognition. In fact, this cross-media marketing can go both ways. Notable board game publisher Days of Wonder has been fairly public about the boost in sales their game Ticket To Ride has seen when the app version goes on sale or is otherwise promoted in the app store.
Price point is also worth talking about, as most hobbyist board games cost between $20 and $60, and most mobile apps cost between $0 and $1. A board game conversion application can often command above-average “mobile market value” (usually between $3 and $10) simply because it is being compared to the price of a physical game that is priced considerably higher. To a hobbyist board game connoisseur, picking up a $5 app to “try out” a game that would normally cost much more is quite a bargain. If the game includes a tutorial (as it should!), it might even attract a secondary market in players of the physical board game who can’t, or won’t, be bothered to read a complicated instruction manual.
All of this should not be interpreted to mean that you can ignore the mobile game design imperatives mentioned at the beginning of this article. In fact, those should be some of your primary considerations when you evaluate converting a board game to mobile. Can you shrink all the information onto a 3.5-inch screen? Can you adequately distill the strategies and experiences of playing that particular game into a single-player experience, and will that experience still be fun? Sometimes the answer to that last question is only maybe, or flat out no, but mobile has another compelling attribute that will allow the game to still be worth making: always-on internet! This means it is perfectly possible to make a mobile game that is multiplayer only. There have been some really successful examples of this, (Words With Friends, for example). Another important question is whether the game can be played asynchronously. What I mean by this is: can each player take their turn without needing the input of the other players? If so, this allows for non-realtime (asynchronous) multiplayer and vastly simplifies the implementation of single-device multiplayer.
I would still recommend you include a single-player experience if you can swing it. The main reason for this is related to the cross-pollination I mentioned earlier between physical and digital. Folks who already own a game will have less reason to pick up a digital version if it is multiplayer-only. Sure, they can play against strangers and over long distances, but it is incredibly compelling to be able to play a board game you enjoy without needing to wrangle up several friends to do so. Some mobile board game publishers claim that their usage stats also show more single player games played than multiplayer, but that is highly anecdotal evidence.
Another question to ask is: does anything need to change when going from physical to digital? Should you use the art from the original board game? (If you can, the answer to this one is absolutely yes.) Obviously, you don’t have little wooden bits to move around, but of course you could simulate those. What if the wooden bits in the game are just counters? Would it make more sense to just show the number they are meant to represent instead of showing the pile of wooden bits? Anything that can be represented numerically is something you should contemplate.
I’ll illustrate this with an example from one of the first (and still one of the best) iOS board game conversions, Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a tile laying game, where on your turn, you have a random tile to play. In the physical version, you randomize by making face-down stacks of tiles or by pulling one from a bag. Theoretically, you know how many tiles there are left “in the bag” (and even what kind they are) by counting the ones already played on the table. In practice, that’s rarely something anyone figures out when playing the physical game. Yet, in the digital conversion, the developers chose to show a list of all the tiles in the game, with the number remaining of each type clearly displayed. This simple inclusion immensely changes gameplay because players will spend less time trying to determine whether or not a particular tile will be available to them later in the game. This allows for a much more strategic playing of the game.
I don’t have space here to go into all the nuances of licensing a board game property for mobile conversion, but I will say that you can bet most of the more popular games have either already been licensed, or have some other reason for remaining unlicensed. There are thousands of board games, however, and there are many, many diamonds in the rough. Likewise, I could write an entire article about UI considerations. How to best represent physical components on a touchscreen device is question that has been answered many different ways already, and only a few great games have really nailed it.
A few board games have now been released simultaneously with their digital counterparts. Marketing a board game is not so different from marketing a video game, and platform dominance applies to both. There may come a time in the not so distant future when we expect these simultaneous releases. Perhaps someday, digital “conversions” will not be considered “conversions” at all, but rather, just another way to play the game.
Note that I originally wrote this article for the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter, and it was posted at the end of November along with the following bio (which I also wrote, just FYI).
Martin Grider has been developing iOS applications since late 2008, when he launched his first application ActionChess, a Chess and puzzle game mashup. At the end of 2012, he developed and helped launch For The Win, an iOS board game conversion for well-known board game publisher Tasty Minstrel Games. Martin is passionate about mobile game development as well as game design for both video games and board games. He is a proud member of the IGDA, where he has presented for the local Twin Cities chapter on iPhone Game Development, Mobile Game Design, and his own mobile games.
This happened at dinner tonight, my 3-year old daughter had a game idea that was, unfortunately, never properly explained.
The first two MFi game controllers have been released.
The Moga Ace Power, as well as the Logitech Powershell. The two controllers are similar but the Logitech offering does not include analog sticks. From the pictures that are available, the Logitech product may actually be higher quality, but I ordered the Moga one anyway, simply because I like the look of it a bit better, and because I want the analog sticks.
It’s worth noting that I do a lot more gaming on my iPad than on my phone, so I’m not sure how much I’ll use this other than for testing. I’m definitely very excited for a bluetooth connected version when that appears.
I mentioned on twitter that I think this is a big deal. If I’m right, we’ll all know it in a year or two, but I think Apple will continue to eat the big guys’ lunch in the gaming industry, and the relatively quiet announcement that apple was introducing a controller API in iOS 7 was essential for them to more directly compete with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Obviously, these controllers, priced at $99 each are not (yet) cheap enough to be mass market, but of course that’s also pretty typical of Apple products in general, so that may not matter. My prediction is that we’ll just see more and more of these hit the market, and the only indication that Apple products are continuing their domination of the gaming industry will be their slow proliferation into the market. A lot is talked about the competition between Apple’s app store and the Google Play store, but hardly anyone talks (except maybe abstractly, or in passing) about how the app store is competing with the console market. (OK, yes, some people are definitely talking about it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s in the public consciousness yet.)
Pro Tip: Do not order directly from Moga, as you’ll pay a minimum of $5 shipping, and you can order directly from Apple for the same price with free shipping. Also, at least the Moga is already showing up in some physical Apple stores, so you could just head out to one of those, or check availability online and then head out to one of those.
The second FULL day of Practice was easily just as amazing as the first. I never really finished extolling the virtues of the first day, and I’m highly unlikely to go back and flush out my previous post with more details, so here’s a disclaimer that this post will be similarly unable to adequately describe how compelling and wonderful I found the conference experience. If you want to get a sense of it, probably easiest would be to scroll back through the NYC Game Center’s tumbler, where a lot of quotes and some screenshots were posted. I understand that eventually the talks themselves will be posted.
Michael Brough started the morning by talking about roguelikes. It was interesting, (if a bit un-focused), but I would much rather have heard him talk about his process. He only casually mentioned tools he’d created for art (and music?), and I absolutely wanted him to go into detail about those. The “slides” of his talk were mostly just screenshots from various roguelikes, none of which even remotely approach the beauty and glitch-glory of his own creations (even the screenshot of his game(s) didn’t adequately show off the graphics, I didn’t think, and video would have done a much better job). I am a huge admirer of his work, so if you are reading this and aren’t familiar, at least download Glitch Tank or the more recent 868-HACK from the app store. If you have a PC, a lot of his older games are also available for download from his website.
If the first day was influenced by Warren Specter’s talk “about” emergent gameplay versus scripted gameplay, the second day seemed (to me) “about” the second talk, which was about Nordic LARP, by Cecilia Dolk and Martin Ericsson, two of the organizers for a LARP based on Battlestar Galactica called Monitor Celestra. Their talk was highly entertaining and really compelling. (I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of “I’ve never wanted to larp before, but this makes me want to.”) They said a lot about crafting experience, and it was clear to me that the quality of their LARP was what made it extremely compelling. Similar to the generative gameplay concept, they argued that you cannot script a LARP, you merely script the rules and framework, and hope for the best. It sounds like Celestra was a huge success, and they are going to help bring the experience to the US in the next year or so. (And look for copy-cat LARPs that use similar concepts to allow us to “experience” many other fictional worlds in the future. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a disney Star Wars LARP, which there is some evidence to suggest might be in the works.)
The final talk of the day called back to LARPing with references to a dinner theater in which you play the prisoner’s dilemma in order to “move up” to the spots where you get better quality food.
One of the best aspects of the conference (that I have yet to really even mention) was hanging out with all the other incredible game designers in the generously allotted time between talks (left open intentionally for this purpose). My lunchtime discussion was decidedly influenced by the Celestra LARP talk, and we spent probably an hour discussing LARP, role playing, and the various other ways that games and life overlap.
After lunch there was a three-part discussion of user-testing, which diversely included someone working on League of Legends, someone who works on the Assassin’s Creed series at Ubisoft, and Naomi Clark, who interviewed dozens of indie developers for her portion. I won’t say much about this, except that it was great, and to link to Naomi Cleark’s slide deck, which is absolutely chalk-full of good advice for indies.
Finally, my talk of the day award, (IMO) and possibly the talk of the conference, goes to Robert Yang, who essentially did a cultural reading of the Half-Life source code. I couldn’t possibly do it justice, but among the many surprising and beautiful insights he shared were the fact that the door of the train in the opening sequence of the game is actually another train, as well as the observation that “smell” in Half-Life is actually a “sound”. (You’ll probably need to watch the talk to understand either of these statements.) Let it suffice to say that his talk was full of cultural and political references, and also imaginative insights like “Half-Life is the Myst of video games”. He called for more closer examinations of source code in the future, recommending the book 10 PRINT, and the works of Fabien Sanglard, who has done some writeups of the source of a lot of the id software releases. Yang is clearly a lover of originality and beauty in video games, and his passion for both was quite compellingly at the foreground of his talk.
In conclusion, I cannot overstate how compelling and positive I found the experience of going to Practice 2013. I will almost certainly try and go again next year, and I hope that many of the people I made contact with will become long-term relationships. The game development industry is quite fragmented and sometimes feels so huge that it’s a bit like sailing in the ocean. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and in the mean time you probably won’t see anyone on your journey. It’s nice to find a place like Practice, some kind of pirate’s cove or something, where a bunch of similar ships are gathered, at least for a little while.
The morning lineup just blew me away. The day started with Warren Spector, who basically made a long and somewhat impassioned argument for emergent systems in games. He argued against scripting specific gameplay paths in favor of giving your players a lot of freedom of choice. He repeatedly said he wasn’t making qualitative judgements, and that he (sometimes) enjoyed games that didn’t do this, but these apologies probably felt pretty flat for proponents of games without open-ended and emergent qualities. I was pretty active on twitter yesterday, and quoted him as saying “I’m not saying games without emergent gameplay are bad… I wouldn’t call them games really.” (This was an actual quote.) He somewhat cheekily finished the talk in a rush, saying “Games are good, simulated games are better.”
Someone on twitter called his speech preaching to the choir (early on), but other tweets later made it clear that was decidedly not what was happening. I think there is a small but very passionate group here who feel that games can (and should) exist on narrative alone, or rather that the quality of “experience” is all that matters. I think my tastes fall pretty clearly with Warren on this issue, but I can see the other argument too. I think there’s a place for those games, sure, but I wish more giant AAA titles were emergent, and I don’t think I’m particularly interested in making games without those properties myself.
Eric Zimmerman, who more or less moderated and announced all the speakers, called Warren out at the end of the talk, asking for those proponents who had been vocal on twitter to speak up in person and challenge this viewpoint. Barely anyone did, and nobody (in my opinion) made any real challenging or compelling arguments.
As an aside, “action puzzle” games decidedly qualify as emergent, while “static” puzzle games are basically the exact opposite. (Possibly explaining why I still haven’t put out Action Chess Puzzle, even though it’s pretty far along in development. Designing the puzzles themselves was so tedious for me that I ended up writing a puzzle generator to try and get out of the task entirely.
This theme, emergent versus scripted gameplay (even if this isn’t, as some argued, an either/or dichotomy), continued throughout the morning and the rest of the day, almost as if it’d been planned. It was definitely continued on Twitter, but each of the speakers had a Q&A at the end, and in those too, this argument popped up over and over again.
Robert Seater, who I’ve been hanging out a bit with (thorough sheer proximity and the discovery that we share quite a lot of favorite board games), expressed frustration this morning that this argument is not particularly applicable to board games, but I think Rob Daviau‘s brilliant talk later in the day was directly relevant. He talked about designing the game Risk Legacy, and in addition to being one of the more charismatic speakers, he was clearly a board game design veteran with a lot of great advice as well as anecdotal experiential wisdom to impart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t have time to write about everything (and there is so much I wanted to talk about that I haven’t gotten to yet!!!). I skipped over the 3-part talk immediately following Warren Spector’s talk ostensibly about “strategy games”. Soren Johnson exceeded my expectations (having mentioned his stint at Zinga in his bio), and struck me as particularly smart. Keith Burgun‘s portion had a slow start, but eventually he got into some really nice design advice.
I’ve got to cut this short, because I’m watching Michael Brough talk about roguelikes, and that’s pretty distracting.
Yesterday – Tourism
I got into town yesterday, and got some tourism in with my friend KR and her husband Dan. KR and I took in an audio tour of the statue of Liberty, and got to climb to the top of the “pedestal” on which she stands, looking up her skirt. (She’s standing on a glass ceiling!) The guy who worked there gave us some interesting factual tidbits including the fact that the inside of the statue is black because of “our friend asbestos”, and as they remove that in the upcoming years, the inside of the statue will eventually turn as green as the outside. I am now a fount’ of Statue of Liberty knowledge (though I will likely soon forget it all) and it’s got a much more interesting history than I’d imagined previously.
I slept in today, and eventually got to Greenwich Village around 1 pm, but the email said this afternoon’s event started at 3:30. (Playtesting and board games until 5:30!) So I hung out for a while at the nearby Monument park, avoiding the homeless-looking chess players (it’s a bit sad to me that they all appeared to be over the age of 50), and instead sitting on a bench people watching, listening to a pretty amazing saxophonist, and eavesdropping on one side of a tarot card reading by a man wearing a pointy silver hat and cape. Eventually I wandered into a coffee shop called Think Coffee, and lost myself in Oceanhorn for an hour or so. (Prognosis on Oceanhorn: MUST PLAY!!!) I looked up and it was almost 4, so I headed to the location.
Unfortunately I then figured out that the games and playtesting were over in Brooklyn, at the actual NYC Game Center. Fortunately that was only a 15 minute train ride away.
NYU Game Center
The Game Center space is pretty sweet, and there were lots of folks crammed into their “game library” playing a bunch of different games, many of them on machines that are clearly permanent, but several people were demo-ing their own wares on laptops or iPads. There was only one board game being played, a werewolf-like (why are these so popular now!?!), and when I sat down to maybe get in on the next game, it was explained to me that all the cards had different abilities, which you had to memorize, because the rules were in German, and there wasn’t that much time for the next game, so maybe they didn’t want any new players, thank-you-very-much. It was honestly just fine with me, although the game did appear to have more interesting mechanics than your average guess-who-is-who, but Eric Zimmerman, who was organizing, was very apologetic about it afterward, which was nice, and probably as a result, agreed to break out his new game Quantum, so I could at least get a look at it, even if we didn’t really have time to play a full game. (I am hoping to get a game in this weekend sometime. I think it looks very promising even if there is the occasional die roll.)
After that, a group of about 7 or 8 of us took the train together back to Manhattan.
We got to the venue and got our badges with only ten or fifteen minutes of mingling before everyone filed into the auditorium for the first session.
Well, actually before the first session, this pretty amazing video played:
Then (after some preamble), the first session was by two female break dance event organizers (and themselves breakdancers) explaining some of the game mechanics of break dance competitions. I’m sure I was not the only person in the audience to be surprised that there are international competitions, or that a one-on-one competition is referred to as a cypher. (Was totally not aware of this meaning for the word, though apparently — at least according to wikipedia — it is also used with similar meaning in poetry slams.)
Following the talk, there was a party / reception featuring a demonstration of some of the breakdancing, as well as an open bar (so I could feel doubly slothful). There are some pictures on the NYU Game Center blog, where discerning viewers can probably find some entertainingly candid photos of me.
There were a bunch of games set up for multiplayer fun, and I particularly enjoyed a 2D top-down capture-the-flag game called Slash Dash.
I also had a really great talk with fellow (but former) Minnesotan Ben Johnson, of Babycastles. We both agree that the Twin Cities is rife with potential for game developers and art to collide and make spectacular games.
I left with a small crowd of fellow attendees heading toward the subway, to be greeted by this street-performing duo. I think everyone else got on a train before this started though, and I may have been the only Practice attendee to witness how awesome it was:
This is totally random, but like a week ago I was (as I often am) just looking at random games in the app store. This particular day, I was struck by how many games (several in a row, completely by coincidence) featured Unicorns in their app icon. Here’s a random sampling:
You’ll note the stylistic differences. (I far prefer the hand-drawn ones to the photorealistic ones.) Just a reminder that I was not actually looking or searching for unicorn games when I discovered these. Seriously. (Yes it’s possible I spend too much time browsing the latest game releases on app shopper.) No, that came later, after I realized this was such a rampant trend.
It was then that I discovered my friend / developer acquaintance Ken (of Mind Juice Media) had released his game Unicorn Rush. (I’ve met him now a couple of times at 360 iDev and played this one a little over two years ago. Looks like it’s been out for over half that time!)
Also that the “unicorn genre” is so saturated as to include not just one, but several zombie/unicorn crossover titles!
I also discovered that to try and be “inclusive” and show a representative sampling of unicorn app icons would not only be foolish, but probably take me days to compile. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps with unicorn icons. Of course, it’s possible, maybe even likely that most or all of these titles are just trying desperately to capitalize on the success of Robot Unicorn Attack, a game so successful that it not only has a freemium sequel, but also spawned “Heavy Metal” and “Christmas” editions:
The earliest unicorn app store experience I can remember was discovering that Minnesota’s own Mono had created an app that allowed you to make yourself into a unicorn, called Younicorn. That was back at the end of ’09, and I remember the link getting passed around the office, and some brief (but lively!) discussion about how easy it would have been to make, and yet, none of us thought of it!
So, I’ve been following the Zooniverse projects for a while now, ever since the retired “Galaxy Zoo” project. For those not familiar, the Zooniverse projects (you can see a list of current projects on that link to their homepage) are basically crowdsourcing science. Each one takes a relatively focused (and menial) task that would take a researcher or research team years to complete, and makes a pretty simple web interface that allows “citizen scientists” to participate. The tasks all appear to be (at least from my limited experience — I’ve only done two or three of them) mostly image recognition of one kind or another. Interestingly, in the Zooniverse Reddit AMA (ask me anything) this afternoon, I learned that one of their retired projects was used to successfully train a computer to perform the tasks that the humans were completing, and thus, the project is no longer needed. That is some pretty cool computer SCIENCE.
Until today, I hadn’t given much thought into the people behind Zooniverse. But when I did think about it, I sort of assumed it was like rocket science — in other words, impossibly hard tech-wizardry. Reading the AMA where the team answered questions about quite a lot of their projects and process was for me a humanizing experience, striking home for me that, much as scientists are real people, (not superhumans), so too are the people who make really amazing software that advances science (also not superhumans).
As an aside, I think I have sort of an inferiority complex when it comes to “real” scientists. Not that I don’t know a few here and there, I do have a healthy smattering of PHDs in my facebook friend feed, (who for some reason don’t count). I think of “real science” as this thing that you have to be WAY smarter than me to do. When, in reality — or anyway my newly rationalized version of reality — I am now trying to internalize the idea that much of scientific discovery is not “breakthroughs” and genius-level eureka moments, but rather made up of tiny incremental observations and discoveries. Maybe this putting scientists on a pedestal comes from reading too much science fiction where there is a lot of hand-waving around what happens when the big breakthroughs are made. (This is actually something I do occasionally fault science fiction for, one of my pet peeves is when some near-future science fiction novel’s plot hinges on one or more breakthroughs that completely disrupt modern society, yet we’ve never heard of them before.)
Anyway, the Zooniverse projects aren’t quite gamefied, at least not in a competitive sort of way. I’ve “helped” a bit with a couple of the latest ones, and some of them give you some nice stats about how many images you’ve helped classify, and that sort of thing, which could be used to create a leaderboard or achievements, but the messaging around all the projects is much more about how you are helping further science than about how you can score more points or get the next gold star.
Which brings me to my next example of crowdsourced science, the far more gamefied “puzzle” game, Phylo. Phylo is played by moving squares around the gameboard, matching their colors vertically, and trying to optimize (or eliminate) empty space between them horizontally. The link between science and what you are doing in Phylo is a bit harder to grasp than in the Zooniverse projects, but as near as I can tell, the colored squares represent genetic sequences of DNA or RNA. From the project’s about page: “By taking data which has already been aligned by a heuristic algorithm, we allow the user to optimize where the algorithm may have failed.” The game is interesting at least, to the puzzle gamer in me, if not actually fun (it would probably be considered fun to some people, I can’t quite decide why I don’t think it’s fun, even though it’s got that “just one more game” draw for me), and they have packaged up the game with a leaderboard and “levels” (that all represent sequences that need matching). There is even an end-game condition, whereby you have to meet the “par” set by the computer algorithms before you can complete each game.
So back to my observation that scientists, or at least the computer programmers who help scientists are not superhuman, and my final link-observation that much of the Zooniverse code is up on github. This means that, if I had the time to spare and inclination (and an image cataloging project I wanted to crowd-source) I could probably get a pretty decent head start by checking out what they’ve already put together. That observation led to my thinking about whether the power of lots of humans playing could be harnessed to create the ultimate video game. A kind of crowd-sourced game design. I imagine a sort of branching-path puzzle game where at the root node, the game is in its simplest form, (and probably least creative). Then, you give the player a choice of whether they want x feature, or y feature. You measure how many people chose x vs y, and you make games x and y also, so you can measure how long players “stick with” both. (One assumption here is that a “sticky” game is good game design.) You could build this incrementally, so maybe in the beginning only a few branches are “built out”, just to have some content, and then you keep building branches, ideally in direct response to additional user feedback or surveying. Wouldn’t that be fun? The problem is that of course you need to generate the “branch ideas” from somewhere. Maybe you also let the players contribute ideas that also get voted on. (A sort of “other” survey answer.) Dunno, it was just a thought. Might be fun tho.