Darwin Quest RPG: Making Historical RPGs for Almost Nothing

August 5, 2008

Last Friday I was excited to rediscover RPG Maker, a windows only, no-programing skills necessary, platform for building role playing games. The tool allows you to create games with the look and feel of mid-nineties Super Nintendo Games like Final Fantasy VI, Breath of Fire, or EarthBound. As an avid gamer and proto-historian I was excited to see if RPG Maker could be used to build historical RPGs, or, if not that, at least  playable proofs of concept. After a few hours of fun with the program I am happy to report that I think it can serve both these purposes.

Through the tools relatively simple interface you can very quickly create maps, characters and edit all the other RPG staples like character classes, skills, and items. I have always thought Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos would make a neat RPG so I thought I would start by playing around with that. Below are some screenshots from my 2 hrs of work.

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Charles is aparently a level one naturalist

Charles is apparently a level one naturalist

RPG maker comes pre-loaded with generic map tiles and each tile already comes with standard properties. For example you can’t walk on water tiles but your ship can sail on them. So with a few minutes of playing around with the tiles and a map of the Galapagos I had a functional recreation of the islands for my game. I also used a visual basic sprite generator one of the members of the RPG Maker community built to make a little Darwin character for the main map. You can see him, the map, and the HMS Beagle in the image below.

Darwin on the Map

Darwin on the Map

Here is where the interesting stuff starts. RPG Maker allows you to create events triggered through simple interaction, and then use those events flip global switches that can then impact any number of other interactions. So, in a simple example, a designer could require the player to observe 10 finches on the island to trigger a switch which would give the player an item called “Finch Observations”. Now, the player can use that item to say win an argument, or form a theory. What is exciting here is not my example, which is actually pretty weak, but the fact that this platform allows folks interested in these types of games to jump into development, with basically nothing more than the investment of their time, and get right to the heart of interesting game design questions. You can skip all the programing and start making a game today.

Darwin finds a finch

Darwin finds a finch (Ok, I know it looks like a chicken)

Now, the fact that RPG Maker requires basically no programing experience does mean that it imposes some strong limitations on the kinds of games and the kinds of game play you can develop. After a bit of head scratching I think I am getting close to some ideas for how to use the mechanics behind the RPG standard “kill some monsters-to get experience points-to level up-to kill some tougher monsters-repeat” model to build some very different kinds of player experiences.

I should mention that a lisence for RPG Maker costs 60 bucks, you can try the 30 day trial for free though. Beyond just using the platform, it looks like that fee allows you to make and distribute any game you develop in any way you chose.


Why we need to Play History

November 18, 2007

In the last few years there has been a wealth of interest in games for learning. A growing body of research on the educational value of games underlines the ways the can engage students like no previous media. There are now conferences and journals dedicated to games and learning, the MacArthur foundation last year granted 50 million dollars to different groups to build educational games, articles in Nature and Science have explored the potential for games to simulated health emergencies and elicit scientific thinking. In short there is a lot of interest and excitement about the potential for games, many of these games are under-construction and many are ready for students and teachers to start playing.With all the interest and infrastructure that has been invested in games for learning there is no comprehensive spot for connecting teachers with the resources which have now cost foundations and universities hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of these games are rapidly built, tested, and promptly shelved, often never having been played by more than a handful of students. It is clear that there is a need to connect these games with teachers. Bringing this bleeding edge technology and learning theory to the finger tips of teachers around the world through a web community.

Aggregating these games is simply not enough. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and often stretched to the limit. This project’s success is contingent on making it as easy as possible for teachers to find high quality content related to their immediate needs in only a matter of minuets. By enabling teachers to search for games by time periods, historical keywords, educational standards and associated lesson ideas the tool would be built to make it as easy as possible for teachers to integrate high quality games and simulations into their daily plans.

As more teachers begin to use the tool it will have the potential to engage other audiences. Several communities have emerged in the last few years as places for independent game developers to share their games with the public. Once Playing History reaches a critical mass of teachers and potential classrooms to play these games it can become a spot for developers to try building games for the classroom with easy distribution across the world. This has the potential for building a community where these developers respond directly to the needs of practicing teachers improving the quality and quantity of games available for theses purposes.

Once this relationship is cemented it will become a rich resource for educational researchers. Through a separate interface researchers will be able to track which games are successful at what times in what parts of the world giving them further information to inform game design.

There is something tragic in the fact that so much money is being spent to develop so many amazing games and simulations, but those resources are often lost and kept out of the hands of the teachers who could put them directly into use. With a small investment in Playing History we can connect the research and development community with the teaching community and in so doing tremendously benefit both groups.


If They Use It, They Will Fund: Life Cycle for Expert Search Portals

November 11, 2007

There is no way around it, it will take substantial effort to keep Playing History viable for the future. This is a common feature for expert search style tools. The good news is that all sorts of groups already do it, including CHNM‘s History Matters. There are substantial costs, while there are strategies for off setting those costs the bottom line is that if it is useful and used it will become something worth funding and maintaining for the future.

Cost: Links break: In the ideal situation this site links to some 3000-5000 games, these links will need to be checked and updated over the entire life of the project. There are of course some tools for automatically checking them, but often sites will also change their content, requiring at least someone to check the links on an annual or bi-annual basis.

Mitigating that Cost: It might be possible to connect with a publisher to publish editions of a dead tree version, one might be able to roll the limited money related to the books into biannual refresh of the project.

Another option: As the site becomes more of a community it will be possible to involve power users from that community to contribute content. On the most basic level, giving users the ability to flag broken links would reduce the need for checking them, beyond that power users could recommend and review games they have found and used.

Unlike an archival, or web article style project. These types of projects are often concerned with preserving their projects for the ages. At least for the time being, I am not. At least initially there really wont be that much of value to save. The site will function more as a web portal, and the content is really at the end of the link after your search on someone else’s server.

With a bit of TLC it would be very reasonable to keep such a site operational for 7 years, at which point if it was successful, lets say tens or hundreds of thousands of users, it would warrant further investment to migrate to PHP 15 or whatever were up to then. If it is not successful I am sure someone will have built a better mouse trap and the world will continue to turn.


How Much Will It Cost!

November 4, 2007

As I have thought about this project it has become apparent that there are several different levels on which it would be possible to proceed. I decided to post them here to bounce them off an audience. Below I have laid out what I would do with grants of varying sizes. Does this look like a good use of money?

Cost: Just About Nothing
This scenario would require me picking up a bit more knowledge of PHP and MySQL. I would start to catalog games in a database and then build a PHP front end for the site. It may well be that there is something ready made that I could bend to fit my purpose. ( I don’t know that much about Drupal or other CMS tools those could well be the way to go). From there I could manipulate Google’s custom engine to search the games sites directly and the contents of the site itself. Many of the more flashy features, a “Games Backpack”, a portal for games developers, integration with state standards, would all have to wait till the site received more funding. The only expense, outside of my time, would be to register the domain and host the site.

Cost $50,000
With $50,000 things would probably be very similar. Most of the money would go toward contracting out the design and site layout to a web designer/programmer. The goal here would be to build a stable and attractive site with a database backend that I could then populate with information on the games that I aggregated. Any money left over would be spent on interns, or a graduate assistant to help me aggregate the content. Hiring a designer would both improve the quality of the site and also rapidly increase the speed at which the site could be operational. By contracting out the web design I will be able to focus more on the content, improving the quality of both.

Cost 150,000
$150,000 would allow me to develop more of the features I initially laid out. Here I would consider hiring a web designer/programmer to work full time for a year, and then use the remaining money to hire interns or a graduate assistant to aggregate the content. Ideally, with this much money I could spend most of my time evangelizing the tool, working to build our user community making the project attractive enough to acquire additional funding to extend Playing History’s capabilities.

Cost 300,000
With 300K I would hire the same people that I did in the 150k scenario, but I would hire them for an additional year. This would allow us to spend much more time integrating user feedback and rolling out more of the stages I discussed earlier. In all the scenarios the goal would be to work toward acquiring additional funds to extend, expand, and add additional functionality.

Those are rough outline of how I have been thinking about funding the project. So, doe it sound feasible? Are there big things I am leaving out?


Playing History:Hacked Screen Shot

October 7, 2007

Playing History Screen Shot

Here is a quick mock up of a individual games page for Playing History. (Click on the image to see it at its native resolution) Everything isn’t perfectly lined up but you get the picture.


Playing History For An Audiance

October 7, 2007

So far I am calling my video games resource for teachers “Playing History.” As I am imagining the resource there are four potential audiences, and each of the audiences would enter the picture at different stages, and each would have unique needs.

K-12 History Teachers
The primary audience is Teachers. As outlined in my use case the primary goal of the resource is to make it as easy as possible for teachers to find game content and associated lesson plans to use in their classrooms. The initial stages in building the tool will all focus on building a useful tool for teachers. It will be necessary to gather together and review a large amount of games to build up enough content to make it worthwhile to visit, aggregating games that crisscross the history curriculum. The site’s content and development would at this stage mirror History Matters. Once the site has enough content to get off the ground the project would start to target the early adopters, teachers in ning groups like next gen teachers groups on yahoo teachers, and Google certified teachers. Those interested would be able to join the project in a collaborative fashion, adding to the content by reviewing games. With the early adopter teachers on board the next target would be district Academic Coaches/Curiculm coordinators.

Academic Coaches/ Curriculum Coordinators
Curriculum Coordinators work with teachers to develop their districts curriculum, in larger districts there is a director for each content area and in smaller ones a single director manages content of all the disciplines, in either way their job description sets them up as a way to connect teachers with resources and develop the classroom. In the second stage of development Playing History would target Curriculum Coordinators through conferences (like ASCD), and professional development events. This phase would also role out a separate interface for coordinators, one that allows them to send resources to the teachers they support both within the site’s canvas and also through existing communication networks like email. As the site grows and gains attention and users it will become a useful place for the third audience Developers.

Educational Game Developers
There is a growing community of educational games developers, but sadly there is no easy portal for those developers to get their games to teachers. Once Playing History has acquired an audience for teachers it can function as a portal for developers to expose their games to a wide audience of educators interested in games.

Educational Researchers
Finally the resource could eventually become a interesting nexus for educational researchers to further plan and develop new projects. By providing a common ground for developers and teachers to connect and discuss each others work the site would be full of interesting information for projects. In the fourth stage of development Playing History would offer a portal for researchers to track the success of different approaches to educational games and better survey the needs of classroom teachers.