MissionMaker is a game authoring tool that is part of Playing Beowulf, an educational project focused on procedural literacy, based on London Knowledge Lab (UCL IOE). I worked on the research and development team of this project as part of my PhD.
This post is about the new version of MissionMaker, currently in development.1
MissionMaker is an application that allows the creation of games and interactive narratives with characters, objects and locations, as well as rules, behaviors and properties for these elements.
The new version of the tool takes as a starting point the analysis of user experience with the previous version, and building upon it with new ideas and functionalities. It is being programmed from scratch using the Unity engine.2
Workshops: Case Study Analysis
An important part of the research and development work on MissionMaker are the workshops, since they are a valuable opportunity to obtain user feedback. This allows us to closely observe how different people from diverse backgrounds approach the game authoring tools, as well as to collect comments, suggestions and difficulties they might have.
While I was working in the project I participated in some of these workshops, including the first one (the pilot), which was held in October 2014. I made case study analyses of many of the videogames created by the participants, and in the following months I interviewed them individually. This study helped inform the design for the new version of MissionMaker (this analysis resulted in two articles, which I describe in greater detail in this post).
Among some of the changes in the new version of MissionMaker are the simplification of the user interface, which is much less cluttered, and the addition of assets – such as locations, characters and animations – that are more closely related to the Beowuf storyworld.
However, from the perspective of my research, one of the most significant new features added is the ability to create complex rules containing multiple conditions.
Complex Rules and Behaviours
Videogames share many elements with other languages and mediums, such as the use of images (or graphics), sound, music and even text. What sets them apart from other traditional cultural objects is their procedural nature – the fact that, rather than being fixed or linear, games are based on rules and behaviours.34
In my research I am interested in the expressive potential of procedurality (the algorithms), as opposed to the static preauthored content (images, 3D models, music and so on). Although preauthored content is an important part of MissionMaker (and most games, for that matter), my focus is on the procedural aspect.
Beowulf and the Warrior: an Example
The following is based on the storyworld, characters and plot of Beowulf, the epic poem around which MissionMaker is being developed. For context, please refer to the text, which is available online in many different versions (Project Gutenberg).
Consider that Beowulf, the hero, is the player character. The examples that follow illustrate ways of characterizing his relationship with a Warrior from the Danes, via the creation of rules and behaviours.
The pseudocode below represents a rule that tells the Warrior to follow Beowulf whenever a particular object – a sword – is picked up.
If Player picks up Sword
Then Warrior Follows Player
The direct practical consequence of this rule is evident – as soon as the player picks up that object, the Warrior character will begin following him. However, this rule can be more than just an arbitrary game mechanic. It can also be an expressive strategy meant to communicate the idea of loyalty – the warrior is willing to follow Beowulf in combat.
Note that this idea could also be expressed through traditional means, using a voice clip, a text on screen or even an animation. These would be completely valid options. However, by using algorithms instead, it is possible to explore digital media as a language in itself, through its own unique expressive potential.
In the new version of the MissionMaker authoring tool, rules and behaviours become much more powerful, since they can be combined in more complex systems.
Let’s expand on the previous example, adding a condition to the rule.
If Player picks up Sword
And Warrior is Strong
Then Warrior Follows Player
With this small change, the character’s behaviour becomes more complex, and also less mechanical. The potential meaning being represented here is that, although the warrior is able to be inspired by Beowulf’s action, this also depends on his own condition – does he feel strong?5
The dynamics of the simulation change, since this adds more depth to the representation of this character. Before, in order to gain the Warrior’s loyalty, it was enough for the player to just pick up the sword (something that he would probably do anyways). However, with the new rule added, things are not so simple – the player must also consider the Warrior’s state, and eventually act on it (possibly requiring interactions with other characters, and so on).6
Understanding the Language
It is important to consider, however, that an increase in the complexity of the system does not necessarily translate to an increase in meaning or expressive potential. This depends first and foremost on the creator’s understanding and use of these strategies.
Consider an analogy with the work of a painter. On one hand, additional colors may allow an increase in the expressive complexity and diversity of the paintings, through the use of gradients, contrast, new pigments and so on. However, this doesn’t mean that there is necessarily less expressiveness or meaning if the painter decides to use only one color, or to limit the work to just one type of stroke and so on.
The same applies in procedural authoring, when creating rules and behaviours (be it in a game or any other procedurally-based production). Although with every new condition the possible combinations and systems grow exponentially, it doesn’t guarantee an increase in expressiveness or meaning. Similarly, an artist may be able communicate complex and deep ideas using simple algorithms.
In other words, the expressive potential of a language needs artists that understand and know how to use – or realize – it.
[This post is a work in progress, and should be updated shortly (Nov. 2015).]
- The name of the new software is not yet confirmed – “MissionMaker 2” is a temporary name. [↩]
- For an introduction to Unity read this post. Another example of using Unity to create a tool for game creation is Adventurezator (Pigasus Games, 2015), an adventure game which also doubles as an adventure game creator (website; post, in portuguese). [↩]
- This actually applies to digital media in general. Games are a specific manifestation, mostly defined by the fact that it features structured play (although some disagree with this definition). Regardless, in the context of this post, I will make no distinction between games and digital media in general. [↩]
- Note that, although interactivity is indispensable in games, it is not a fundamental aspect of digital media (nor is it exclusive to this medium). [↩]
- I elaborate in greater depth about the meaning potential of procedurality in this article. [↩]
- Of course, how this would relate to the overall system of the simulation depends on the other rules and behaviours defined by the game designer. For example, the Warrior could be initially too weak and beaten to go after food for himself. The player could then decide to go out to hunt and bring back food. Or maybe there could be other ways through which the Warrior gained strength, such as resting – then the player could decide intervening and convincing him to rest. [↩]