The Climate Trail is a new and totally free game for PC and mobiles developed by Willian D. Volk. The game takes place in the in future, when our inaction regarding the climate crisis has rendered much of the world uninhabitable. The player leads climate refugees as they flee from ever worsening conditions, combining adventure, survival and visual novel elements. The Climate Trail follows the footsteps of the famous series The Oregon Trail (MECC, 1971–2011).
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Willian D. Volk to understand how The Climate Trail came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: Firstly, thank you for making The Climate Trail; the world desperately needed it. Being such a hot topic (no pun intended), it’s amazing no one in the video game industry has faced it heads on yet. So how did you become the first one to step up to this task?
A: The mainstream video game industry is risk-adverse because unlike film, there is no secondary markets (cable, etc.) for their games. With high budgets, they don’t take big risks and rely on franchises (i.e., Call of Duty, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto) for most of the revenue. There’s also an aversion to tackling controversial topics. There are some indie games that have addressed the climate issue, but The Climate Trail may be the first to put players into a post climate-apocalypse world.
Q: Before The Climate Trail, did you have any experience in communicating about climate change? Or maybe even joining up some marches and protests?
A: I have degrees in Physics, a wife who used to work for the EPA and a brother who is a meteorologist. I’ve done way too much online debating on the issue, which was one of the motivations for making this game. I have participated in some climate events as well.
Q: As the game’s title and website make clear, it has drawn inspiration from The Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail series is classified as ‘educational games’. Do you see The Climate Trail equally as an educational game or more as a call to action?
A: My goal is to add more educational content into the game so it can be a resource for climate information, but I also want it to be a call to action. Both are important.
Q: Would you like to see The Climate Trail being used in classrooms?
A: I do. This is why there’s no “roving band of cannibals” or other violence in the game. I present information about climate change in the title and expect to have the game serve as a resource for climate education.
Q: To create The Climate Trail, did you use models and predictions made by climate scientists? If so, which studies and reports have you used?
A: Yes, here are some studies and information about feedback loops.
What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk
Existential Climate-Related Security Risk [foreword by C. Barrie]
Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided
Scientific articles by Farquharson et al. (2019) and Schneider et al. (2019)
Opinion articles by Hewett (2019) and Kristof (2019)
Q: To many (if not most) people, science alone is not enough reason to take action. The emotional impact of a game might be more crucial, and art might play a bigger role here. The Climate Trail has all of that, so how did you approach the mix and balance of science and emotion?
A: I’ve always believed that games can have social value. Chris Crawford’s 1985 classic game of geopolitical brinkmanship, Balance of Power, showed the futility of nuclear war. There are other examples, the 1997 PlayStation game Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee covered the exploration of workers in a moving way. For me the example that best represents a creative effort that moved me to tears is the 1959 film On the Beach.
On the Beach scared me and I’m sure many other “cold war” children (and adults). The ending scene of the film shows a deserted world with banners expressing futile hope in a dramatic image. I want to invoke the same feelings about our ever more likely climate apocalypse as On the Beach did for nuclear war. As the scientist in that film says: “Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?”
I simply can’t believe we’re stupid enough to cook ourselves off the face of the Earth. If I can achieve 1/10th of the emotional impact of Oddworld or On the Beach I will be happy with the effort.
Q: In The Climate Trail, players must survive a journey from Atlanta, USA, to Canada, across a climate-wrecked landscape. Did you choose this area for any particular reason?
A: Single highway route made design easier, all the locations are far enough above sea level to still be passable even if all land ice melts. I’ve been to that Canadian town as well.
Q: The USA in The Climate Trail looks terrible. In what year exactly does the game take place?
A: I’m deliberately not specific. Kate (the scientist) mentions Greenland Ice Melt when she was in college (dog sled picture) so the idea is it could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years or more.
Q: We love that the game’s difficulty levels are represented by greater increases in global temperature. How do the different temperature increase scenarios change the gameplay?
A: They effect heat wave and storm frequency, how many seeds you have at the start and the odds of finding supplies and capturing rain.
Q: You funded the game yourself and made it available to the public for free. Why did you opt for that approach?
A: It’s easier for climate organizations to support a game if it’s not a commercial venture. Also want to get it into schools.
Q: Ultimately, what is your hope for The Climate Trail?
A: Have it become an educational resource (as we add more climate info) and as with On the Beach create emotional impact that moves people to action. I want to see millions playing it.
About the Team
William D. Volk is a game developer, founder of Deep State Games, and environmental advocate. He began his career in 1979 helping to launch the computer game division of Avalon Hill. He has worked at Activision and Lightspan and produced over 100 educational adventures. George Sanger, also known as “The Fat Man”, is a musician who has composed music for several video games, including Wing Commander and SimCity 2000.
 Farquharson, L.M.; Romanovsky, V.E.; Cable, W.L.; Walker, D.A.; Kokelj, S.V.; Nicolsky, D. (2019) Climate change drives widespread and rapid thermokarst development in very cold permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic. Geophysical Research Letters 46: 6681–6689.
 Schneider, T.; Kaul, C.M.; Pressel, K.G. (2019) Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming. Nature Geoscience 12: 163–167.
Mondo Museum is an upcoming simulation game developed by Viewport Games where you can build your dream museum. Equipped with dinosaurs, Books of the Dead, classical paintings, and space-age stuff, Mondo Museum has something for everyone. The game will be soon published by Kitfox Games and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed designer/programmer Michel McBride-Charpentier to understand how such a wonderful game like Mondo Museum came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: There are lots of sim games around, but as far as we know, there has never been one about curating and running a museum. So how did you get that idea?
A: After the announcement, a few people have said they’d also had the idea of a “SimMuseum”, so I don’t think it’s a wholly original concept. I’m actually really surprised nobody else has made a game like this since the idea first popped into my head over a decade ago and I’ve spent the last 5 years really expecting one to drop on Steam at any moment.
The idea, like most good ones, came to me through synthesizing a lot of different interests I’ve developed over my life: visiting a wide variety of museums in school and later as an adult, a love for Maxis and Bullfrog management games, and a personal desire to create work that is educational and engages players with systems thinking without being a dry capital-letters Serious Game.
Q: Do you have any particular type of museum you enjoy the most? Or an all-time favourite museum?
A: Museums that contain a wide variety of exhibits that have no apparent relation to each other are always the most fun for me to visit. For example, The Met in NYC which has collections ranging from Ancient Egypt to medieval European armour to Rembrandt paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is also in this vein, with dinosaur skeletons and fossils next to Chinese sculpture.
Asking for my favourite is an impossible question, but I’ll use this opportunity to shout out the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NYC. It’s entirely focused on the life and work of Japanese-American sculptor/designer/landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Walking through those galleries and the sculpture garden for the first time sparked a real appreciation for abstract sculpture I never had before, and he instantly became my favourite artist of the 20th century.
Q: Did you bring into Mondo Museum some of your personal experience or preferences?
A: Choosing which collections to include at launch was definitely driven by my personal preferences. When I was a kid I wanted to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist, so including an Ancient Egypt collection was an obvious choice. Many of the things that invoke a sense of wonder in kids but are often lost as we become older are represented, such as dinosaurs, space exploration, and the geology of the Earth.
Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a museum before?
A: C.J. Kershner is writing the exhibit item descriptions and the few characters who are directors/curators of other museums, and has many years of experience volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History as an info desk attendant (so obviously had to know a lot about the workings of the museum from the visitor’s perspective), and as an explainer for a live exhibits team.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Mondo Museum? Are there different scenarios and objectives to be met?
A: There’s a sandbox mode where the end goal, or how to achieve the highest prestige ranking, is mostly up to the player to define. There is a task/objective system that provides short-to-medium term goals, such as unlocking new items or receiving more funding.
As for scenarios, the current plan is to have those, though what exactly they will look like is still undecided. A campaign where you move between different museums with unique challenges and constraints is the goal, but will likely only come in an Early Access update.
Q: From what we’ve seen, the game includes all types of museums: natural history, technology, archaeology, anthropology, art, etc. How did you manage to gather all these different areas of study and interest into a single package?
A: As I mentioned above in what my favourite types of museums to visit are, it’s not uncommon for real museums to display a wide variety of collections under one roof. But we go one step further, and let players mix and match items from any collection. The challenge was in selecting items that complement one another and allow players to discover these relationships between items. One example is how in the Ancient Egypt collection there’s an astronomical chart, and tools for observing the stars, that can be combined with items from the Space Exploration collection to create a kind of “Astronomy through the Ages” combo. Right now I’m explicitly defining these combos, but might try out a more free-form tagging system, where for example any item tagged “Tool” could be placed in an exhibit hall with others that share that tag.
Q: And now perhaps the most important question of all: does Mondo Museum include exhibits of the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)?
A: “The Ocean” is on a shortlist for collections to include in a future content update, but if you’re really desperate to see some horrors of the deep, mod support means if a player can make a 3D model of one then it will be very easy to put in the game.
Q: Did you bring in any museum staff as consultants while making the game?
A: No real consultants other than C.J., but if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).
Q: There is a lot of discussion today around ownership and repatriation of artefacts, especially in archaeology and anthropology. It is a tough subject, but does Mondo Museum tackle it in some sense?
A: Absolutely, and it’s core to the politics of the game. I didn’t want to recreate the systems of colonialism and looting that resulted in many museums in the West originally acquiring their collections. Mondo Museum takes place in a more just and utopian world, where all items have been repatriated (or never left in the first place). The way you unlock new exhibit items is by satisfying the conditions of visiting directors/curators from these museums around the world, who will then effectively give you permission to display parts of their collections.
Q: The game focuses on the exhibitions, which are the public face of museums. Will there be any mention to the vast collections of objects and specimens museums have and of all the research (scientific and otherwise) that is done based on these collections?
A: The research and archive aspect of the game is still a work in progress (there are researcher staff you hire who can improve the quality of your items/the understanding visitors get from it in a sort of abstract way), but I like the idea of the item we have created that is on display representing a lot of associated items that don’t have 3D models but you need to manage to some extent. I’m trying to keep the scope achievable for the moment, but big updates are planned throughout Early Access.
Q: Do you hope the players will learn something with Mondo Museum or maybe spark their interest to visit a museum?
A: I really do hope it encourages players to go to museums if they haven’t been in a while, or maybe since a school field trip. Hopefully the game will give everyone a deeper appreciation of the work behind creating an exhibit that makes sense to the public, or consider what curation decisions they might have done differently to tell a different story.
Q: Do you hope museums worldwide might learn something from Mondo Museum?
A: The people running modern museums are generally doing a really good job in engaging visitors these days, so I’m not expecting to reveal anything they don’t already know. Maybe there could be more museum activities for adults, and not just kids or currently enrolled students. I’m targeting an audience of all ages, and there’s been a lot of interest from adults intrigued by the game. Curator talks, seminars, group tours, opening parties, etc., are fairly common, but I’d love to see more creative activities and workshops designed with adults in mind, since there’s clearly an adult audience for “playing” with museums.
ABOUT THE TEAM
Michel McBride-Charpentier is Mondo Museum’s designer and programmer; the other team members are Genevieve Bachand (artist), Farah Khalaf (producer), C.J. Kershner (writer), and Rhys Becker (artist). Viewport Games is a small studio based on Montréal, Canada. Kitfox Games, also from Montréal, is an independent games studio focused on creating intriguing worlds to explore.
Squids Odyssey is a role-playing game by French studio The Game Bakers. It is the latest entry in the Squids franchise, released in 2014 for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU, and more recently, in 2018 for PC and Nintendo Switch.
The fun fact about our Squids games is that we were actually all fascinated by octopuses and cephalopods in general long before we created the game. We even almost named our game studio “Happy Squids”… It was when we were working on the game mechanics and looking for some characters that could be “stretchable” on an iPhone screen that we thought about “tentacles”. Then we knew it was a perfect fit! We started designing our little heroes inspired by real octopuses, squids and other cephalopods.
We did a lot of research to get inspiration on shapes and colors, but of course there is also a lot of redesign in cartoon style so sometimes it might be hard to see the direct reference. But you can still recognize a few: for instance, Clint was inspired on the vampire squid. Baron, the bad guy in the story, is inspired by a more regular octopus.
We also looked at shrimps and crabs for the enemies. The big boss of the first game is a coconut crab, while a basic enemy you meet in the game is a hermit crab. You can tell the influences directly from the designs.
We took inspiration from other real underwater fauna and flora for the environment design. Even their habitations or their helmets are inspired by things you can find on the bottom of the sea. And in the comic book, we extended the character design to fish; for instance, one of the characters was inspired on a swordfish. In our game, squids and turtles actually cooperate, even though this might not be the case in real life.
For simplification, our little characters only have 4 arms. It’s funny that we’ve been told by some members of our Japanese audience – experts in octopuses and squids – that our little heroes did not look enough like these animals!
ABOUT THE TEAM
The Game Bakers are an indie game studio founded by Emeric Thoa and Audrey Leprince, and based in Montpellier, France. Besides the Squids franchise, they are also responsible for the acclaimed Furi and the upcoming Haven.
 Squids and cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. Octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles.
 Shrimps, crabs and lobsters are crustaceans and belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, alongside insects and arachnids. They are not related to cephalopods, which belong in the Phylum Mollusca alongside snails and clams.
Through the Darkest of Times is a historical strategy video game taking place in Berlin during the Third Reich, from Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 to Germany’s surrender in 1945. The player leads a civilian resistance group fighting off the new regime how they can. The resistance is made up of common people, from all walks of life, so it’s the leader’s job to win hearts and minds and hold the group together. The player will be responsible for planning the group’s activity and survive by avoiding the Gestapo. All of this while actual history unfolds outside: the game follows the actual historical time-line, which influence the player’s options. The game is under development by Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games, made up by the duo Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz. It will be published by HandyGames in the near future and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jörg Friedrich to understand how such a unique game like Through the Darkest of Times came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: On your website, you mention that a game focusing on the civil resistance during Third Reich Germany just had to be made. We agree, of course, but would you care to elaborate a little more on this?
A: The story of civilian resistance fighters in Germany is a story that people must learn about – these normal people with families, with normal jobs, saw what was going on the world and decided they had to do something against it. They went underground and risked their lives to stop an inhumane regime.
We think this is a story that must be told.
As political people, certain developments in the world, the fact that we see fascists rise again, here in Germany but also in many more countries in Europe and in the US, worries us a lot. In 2017 we wondered what we could do about this and the only thing we are good at is making games, so we thought “hey let’s make a game that takes an anti-fascist stance and maybe it will make the world a better place!”
As game developers and artists, we like to push the boundaries of the medium. Sebastian and I met when we were working for YAGER, where we made a game called Spec Ops: The Line – an AAA shooter that asked players to shoot people and blamed them when they did. It was supposed to make players feel bad.
Back in 2012 this was special. It felt like a game that needed to be made. We felt like pioneers, we felt like we tried something new by taking a new stance on war and on war in games.
Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar – we try to find a new way on how games treat Nazism.
Q: Do you believe game developers have a responsibility when representing History? Should this come before artistic freedom?
A: We learn history not only at school, but also from the stories told to us by movies, books and well – video games.
But if someone would learn everything he knows about Nazism from games, he might conclude that Nazis are villains like the Empire in Star Wars: somewhat evil, but they have cool uniforms and tanks and are in the end just a faction like any other.
I find it problematic, that most games with Nazis don’t even mention the murderous anti-Semitism, the slow rise of Fascism or the Shoa.
I know that these games usually have no bad intention by omitting these facts, they often do it to avoid controversy. But honestly: if you think mentioning the historical crimes of the Nazis is inappropriate for your game, maybe picking Nazis as a faction or theme for your game is what is inappropriate here.
Q: Nazism seems to have become just another Hollywood trope nowadays. Are you concerned about how Nazi Germany is depicted in current games?
A: Here is the problem: if your game is about Nazis, but in your game, they do not commit any war crimes, there is no Auschwitz, no Shoa, then you create a historical narrative in which the Nazis didn’t commit these crimes.
And that’s the narrative that is told by Neo-Nazis who try to white-wash historical Nazism, so people are less hesitant to open for far-right ideologies.
Video games is the most important narrative medium of our time – as developers we must take responsibility and tell things the way they happened just as movies did a couple of decades ago.
Q: Current gaming culture is often referred to as toxic, where sexist, racist, homophobic behavior unfortunately abound. Do you believe that might be related to the ideals that games historically presented? Can game developers help change this culture?
A: Yes, I think so. The way games were marketed since the 1990’s until recently, towards young men, featuring the ideal of tough white guys who like hot girls and solve problems with their guns, appealed to a specific type. And this type feels now entitled to games. They think it is their medium and that developers need to create games for them and only for them.
This was never true, because of course there were always all kinds of people playing video games, but we now have this extremely entitled, extremely loud and toxic bunch of guys who yell the loudest and think they can dominate the Internet and our medium.
We must not let them. We must not listen to their demands; leave them stew in their own juice and just ignore them. Let’s make games that are open and inclusive, for an open and diverse audience instead of making games for the Christchurch killer.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What exactly is the players’ goal in Through the Darkest of Times?
A: You play a leader of a civilian resistance group in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler becomes chancellor. You try to fight the regime with acts of sabotage and later attacks, educate people and let them know the truth about the Nazis’ plans and their doings, and help the persecuted, by hiding them or getting them out of the country.
Your goal is to persist as a group until the end of the war and do as much of the three things mentioned as possible without being caught by the Gestapo.
In order to achieve this you need to send your members on missions and organize resources necessary for your fight.
The group members are civilians, who are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must do something illegal and risk their life to resist the regime. Members have different biographies and political views, which can lead to conflicts within the group and keeping up morale and members from simply giving up can be tough.
So you try to do as much good as you can and lead you and your group through the darkest of times.
Q: There are some games out there with a healthy dose of historical backgrounds, such as Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts and Assassin’s Creed. How does Through the Darkest of Times approach History?
A: Every turn in the game is one historical week. At the beginning of each turn you get the news with what happened in that week – based on the historical events of that week. But history influences the game mechanics too: at the beginning you don’t need to be too worried, there are even public protests against the regime happening in the streets where you and your group can join. But over time, the repression increases; after the Reichstag fire, the city is full of SA and things are dangerous; and once the Gestapo is founded and the first concentration camp is built, things are dangerous.
There are also big historical events that you witness through narrative sequences to give you more a feeling of being there, than just in the strategy mode.
History also influenced the looks of the game. Sebastian was inspired by German expressionists of the 1920’s who were later banned by the Nazis as un-German art. He tried to create a look that the Nazis would have banned.
So I would say, history plays a very important role in Through the Darkest of Times.
Q: What kind of source material did you use while building the game? Books, historical documents, interviews?
A: All of this. We read a lot, we went to places and museums – luckily, as we are in Berlin and the game takes place in Berlin, there are a lot of memorial sites and local annalists we got in touch with. We read interviews of course and we talked to descendants of civilian resistance fighters.
Q: How faithfully does the game follow real-life events of the Third Reich? Can the players expect to “change the course of history”?
A: In the main game, the historical events and what you read in the news all follow the actual historical timeline. Your character, the members of the group and your supporters are fictional though, and so are their actions against the regime.
But characters and actions are inspired by real civilian resistance groups that were active in Berlin at that time, such as the Schulze-Boyssen/Harnack group or the Jochen-Baum group.
Most of the missions wouldn’t have an impact on grand politics – if this is what you mean by “changing history”. However, the way we see it, history is not only changed by generals and leaders but by all of us.
Who saves people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea today is changing history – more than most politicians and in a better way if you ask me.
But since we have all these rogue-like elements in the game and since we like the idea, we are thinking about a second mode – a “New Game+” if you want – in which events happen less predictably and you might be able to stop the regime before the end of the war.
Q: Do you hope players will learn something about German and World History by playing Through the Darkest of Times?
A: When I talk to people about the Nazi time they often have the idea that it started with war and holocaust right away. But it didn’t. Hitler got elected. He became chancellor in a legal way, because we had conservatives who thought that they could handle a fascist in power and that this would still be better than the left – 12 years later half of Europe was destroyed and millions of people had died.
I hope people might be able to recognize the patterns when playing Through the Darkest of Times when they look at what is going on in the real world.
Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from your game?
A: It would be great if our players took away the same message that we took away when we started to learn about civilian resistance fighters: some developments are so wrong, they are so evil, that we have to overcome our day to day disputes, unite and fight for the fundamental human rights even if it means taking a risk.
About the Team
Paintbucket Games is a Berlin-based indie game studio founded by two ex-AAA developers. Jörg Friedrich does design and code and Sebastian Schulz does art and design. They have been making games for more than 13 years each and worked on 10 of those together. Among the several titles they worked on are: Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Island 2, Albion Online, and Desperados 2.
Valleys Between is an environmental puzzle game, where your goal is to grow your world for as long as you can while protecting it from threats that will damage its health.
When we started designing Valleys Between we wanted to explore ways to get people thinking about environmental issues, and while the game has evolved during the game development cycle, the core themes of the game are still there. While we considered real world ecology and nature, we realised early on that to create a fun and engaging game we would need to take inspiration from them without being too literal.
One of our goals is to create a strong bond between the player and the world they’ve created, and one of the ways we do this is by allowing you to literally shape the world with your fingertips. Players only have the ability to swipe up or down to interact with the world, but small actions such as pulling a tree up out of the ground can actually have a big impact. Much like the real world, one action isn’t always enough to solve larger problems but a group of small actions can result in a big change.
Many of the games mechanics are inspired by nature, though in a simplified or abstract way. This allows us to craft gameplay that’s enjoyable and relatable without ever straying too far into something that feels completely at odds with reality (at least in most cases). With that in mind we had two important rules that guided our design:
The game is inspired by nature, so the environmental theme should always be present while never overpowering or distracting the player from the gameplay.
We won’t sacrifice enjoyable gameplay for the sake of keeping something too realistic or similar to how our real world works.
These rules allowed us to find a balance between fun and relatable mechanics that are easy for the player to understand. When designing mechanics we often started from an ecological concept and explored how we could distill it down to base elements to see how they could work well within the game. The best way to illustrate this is to look at the primary mechanics in Valleys Between.
At its core, Valleys Between is about creating a thriving world. The first step to doing this is to create an environment where things can grow, so the first move a player makes is to create water tiles in their new world. Water makes all dirt tiles around it turn into grass, and trees can only be planted on grass. To plant a tree, the player pulls up on a grass tile and essentially plucks a fully-grown tree out of the ground. While this is clearly a few steps removed from reality, it feels close enough, and this familiarity helps create a stronger connection between the nature presented in the game and what the player expects from nature in the real world.
Trees that are next to each other can be combined to make a forest, which grows your world by adding a new row of land. In this way, the base relationship between water and trees are shown as being critical to growing a world. Groups of forests can be further combined to make a house, which introduces humans as part of the ecosystem in Valleys Between. While this is an incredibly simplified representation of nature to a few small mechanics in Valleys Between, it’s part of what makes it feel environmentally rich.
The game wouldn’t be very fun without something challenging you, so we decided to introduce the two sides of human influence on the environment. The first is a positive influence of creating a house by combining trees which helps your world grow and expand. However, as your world grows, we also introduce a negative influence in the form of factories and other man-made objects. Factories threaten the health of your world and they can spill oil to surrounding tiles if you leave them for too long. While there isn’t necessarily an easy action to fix things these things in our world, we wanted players to want to protect their world from these threats even if they can’t stop them from occurring. We also found in early playtests that people became very attached to the animals that wander their world, and this helped them feel connected to it, so we decided to tie these concepts together and have animals act as the primary protectors of your world. Animals wander throughout your world, and while you can influence their path, you aren’t able to control them directly. You can choose to use them to nurture and enhance a specific area, or use them to convert a factory to something that won’t damage the health of your world. Once you’ve used an animal, they fall asleep for a period of time so the player has to choose when to nurture and when to protect their world.
While these mechanics may seem to be quite a stretch from the real world, we’ve found that by taking inspirations from nature rather than literal representations, we’ve been able to craft an enjoyable game.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Niamh Fitzgerald is a producer and game designer at indie studio Little Lost Fox, based in Wellington, New Zealand. She organised the New Zealand Game Developer Conference in 2017 and 2018, and likes to combine her love of travel with game development by getting involved in game developer events around New Zealand and internationally.
 Released in 2018 by Little Lost Fox. Currently available for iPhone/iPad and coming soon to Android. Learn more at http://littlelostfox.com/
In this study, I investigated whether Brazilian independent (“indie”) game developers use methods and techniques derived from Software Engineering when developing their games. The hypotheses raised in this article are that, even with the vast literature available to guide good development practices, independent developers do not have specialists in their teams in the role of engineer; also, they do not use Software Engineering knowledge when developing their games. All this sums up to several difficulties during game development. Thirty-five indie developers from four Brazilian Internet communities and 13 Facebook groups were interviewed for this study, showing that indie game development in Brazil still lacks professionalism, especially regarding methodological aspects.
DELIMITATION OF THE SUBJECT
A definition of “indie” is given by Lemes (2009: 27 [my translation]): “a project to be developed without the financial contributions of big companies (…) a game developed by a small team, or individually, by pure passion of the subject or simply to one day make money and start a career in the area of creation and development of digital games” (see Wikipedia, 2017b, for more information).
There is a bunch of indie games out in the market, some known far and wide, like Minecraft and Angry Birds, but some famous only within the gaming community, like To the Moon (Fig. 1) and Stardew Valley. In the Brazilian indie scene, Chroma Squad (Fig. 2) and Momodora (Fig. 3) are good examples of the latter case.
Figure 1. To the Moon. Screenshot of the game.
The process of game development is (or should be) bustling with engineering techniques, such as project organization, modeling, software metrics, surveying requirements, and software documentation. According to Pressman (2010: 31), Software Engineering “encompasses a set of three fundamental elements – methods, tools and procedures – that enables the manager to control the software development process and provides the professional with a basis for building high quality software productively.” However, it is important to point out that Software Engineering was not always present in the development processes among professionals in the field. Pressman (2010: 8) states that at first “programming was seen as ‘an art form’. There were few formal methods and few people used them. The programmer often learned his trade through trial and error. The technical bragging and the challenges of building computer software have created a mystique that few managers cared to penetrate. The software world was virtually undisciplined.”
Figure 2. Chroma Squad. Screenshot of the game.
A digital game is by its nature a computer software and it must go through similar, although not identical, processes during their development. Velasquez (2009: 30 [my translation]) states that, contrary to the usual popular opinion, a “computer game is not just a toy, but a large and complex software project developed by a vast team of professionals.” Therefore, similar problems can be detected during the development phases of games and “regular” software, such as: the long production time, the difficulty in measuring progress while the software is being developed, the lack of data collection during development, the late detection of errors, etc. (Pressman, 2010).
Figure 3. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight. Screenshot of the game.
Moreover, even with similarities, game development differs in some instances from conventional software development (Morais & Silva, 2009) and still lacks a Software Engineering model dedicated to it (Velasquez, 2009). The importance of engineering methods in game development (and design) are even more obvious when thinking of the final game/software as a product for the market (Lemes, 2009; Lacerda & Selleri, 2012).
In summary, there is agreement in the literature that there is a need for engineering methods in game development, which should be different from conventional methods and adapted to the specificities of games. By applying such methods, it is possible to maintain a stable project progress control, which will in turn result in a better product. As pointed out by Lacerda & Selleri (2012), the best candidate for this methodology lies in the area called Software Engineering.
The main roles on a team of game developers are: Programmer, Artist, Designer, Producer, Tester, Composer, Sound Designer and Editor (Doolwind, 2017; Wikipedia, 2017c). Among these, the Producer not only oversees the entire team, but is also responsible for the aspects of Software Engineering, including project management. The activities of the Producer are typically undertaken by software engineers (the titles assigned to these positions vary a lot: Engineer, Manager, Game Designer, etc.), evidencing the necessary presence of the engineer in a game development team. Without proper systematization during game development, even the best ideas will fail (Lemes, 2009).
This systematization must start before the production of the game, when the game design is defined and documented (Lemes, 2009): the GDD (Game Design Document) serves as the blueprint from which a game will be built, Sayenko (2015) has a great article describing how and why you have to write a good GDD; one of his tips for coming up with an effective GDD is to put just one person in control of it. From then on, it is the responsibility of the game designer (the engineer) to maintain the GDD.
It is clear that large game companies have specialized software engineers, but independent developers possibly do not. If indie developers lack a person skilled in engineering techniques, they will likely neglect engineering aspects. As stated above, without giving proper importance to such aspects, even the best ideas will not save the project. Therefore, here I analyzed the reality of indie developers in my home country, Brazil. I investigated: (1) if they have specialists in their teams to fill the role of the engineer; (2) if they actually use techniques from Software Engineering for developing their games; and (3) if they have defined and followed a GDD. It was hypothesized that the indie community in Brazil do not comply with the three topics above.
The first step of this study was a survey of the largest Brazilian independent game developer communities, which are mainly based on Internet forums and social media platforms. Only those groups on Facebook with 1,000 or more registered users and online forums with 1,000 or more registered users that are receptive (that is, accept the request to join the group in a period of seven days and do not exclude the search of the feed) were selected (Tables 1 and 2).
The second step was the preparation and application of a questionnaire (see the Appendix) to the groups and forums selected on the first step. The Google Forms platform was used for this, as it allows the preparation of online surveys. The questionnaire was semi-open, with objective questions of single and multiple choice, also counting with fields for (optional) further comments and explanations. The questionnaire was composed of 16 questions in total and was presented to the groups outlined in Tables 1 and 2. The third step consisted in analyzing, interpreting and exposing the collected data in a statistical manner. In this way, the initial hypotheses raised in this study was put to the test.
Table 1. Indie game developers groups on Facebook (last access: 03/Apr/2017).
Table 2. Online communities of indie game developers (last access: 03/Apr/2017).
RESULTS & DISCUSSION
The questionnaire remained available for the developer communities for 17 days, during which 35 different questionnaires were answered (without duplicates).
According to the data collected, almost 70% of the independent developers do not use engineering techniques (Fig. 4: Q2). In the circa 30% that do use them, the engineering methods cited are: Design Patterns, MVC (Model-View-Controller), MVVM (Model-View-Viewmodel), MVP (Minimum Viable Product), Scrum, Prototyping, Briefing, and Modeling with Diagrams. (It is not the objective of this article to discuss the different engineering techniques, but, as they are readily available online, I urge the interested reader to look them up.)
Figure 4. Percentage of answers for Yes/No questions. Question numbers are the same as noted in the Appendix. Q2: Do you use engineering methods and techniques in the development process of your game(s)? Q8: Do you or your team write a Game Design Document (GDD) at the beginning of your project? Q9: Do you and your team follow a system requirements document in game implementation? Q10: Do you consider it important to draw up a Game Design Document for your game? Q15: Do you consider using software engineering methods important in the process of developing your game(s)?
In 2013, Fleury et al. (2014) surveyed the methodologies used for software development in Brazilian game companies, noting that circa 25% did not use any methodology. The absence of software development methodologies was deemed worrying, demonstrating the lack of professionalization of this industry in the country. That survey focused on the actual industry (with a large number of respondents), showing that the problem is not something endemic of independent developers. In any event, it is a much larger problem in the indie community, even when current literature and previous research strongly advocate the importance of engineering methods.
Among those indie developers that do make use of software engineering, most of them (ca. 74%; Fig. 5) opted for not using agile methodologies. The so-called “Agile Software Development” are a set of principles for development based on the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams (Wikipedia, 2017a). Among those who do use agile methodologies, Scrum is the most used one (ca. 20%; Fig. 5).
Figure 5. Answers to Q13: Do you use any of these agile methods? Abbreviations: XP = eXtreme Programming; FDD = Feature Driven Development; DSDM = Dynamic System Development Model.
Another flagrant issue is the lack of a specific professional on the teams who is responsible for the engineering and documentation of the project under development (the Producer mentioned before). By the answers (Fig. 6), having an engineer on the team is exceedingly rare for independent developers. This position apparently is not deemed important by them, which may explain the rare use of Software Engineering methodologies in their development processes.
Figure 6. Answers to Q5: Which member(s) make up your development team?
This question can be better understood when we realize that most independent “development teams” actually consist of a single person. About 57% of the interviewed developers work alone, which might explain the usual absence specific software engineering skills, as most programmers are not specialized in this field. It also explains the anecdotal data on the large number of abandoned projects with exhaustively long production times. Things such as this can be estimated with software metrics, provided there is someone (the engineer, manager, designer, etc.) with the necessary understanding of Software Engineering (Pressman, 2010).
The elaboration of the GDD, as predicted, was also precarious: it is not made by roughly 50% of the interviewees (Fig. 4: Q8). Failing to elaborate a document with the specificities of the product at the beginning of the project can lead to several problems during the game’s development process. It is curious, however, that the importance of the GDD is acknowledged by most developers (80%; Fig. 4: Q10).
Similarly, the importance of using engineering techniques is recognized by most developers (ca. 70%; Fig. 4: Q15), even though only a third of those interviewed (Fig. 4: Q2) actually uses them. This data echoes the above-mentioned survey of Fleury et al. (2014) that evidenced the lack of professionalism by Brazilian game developers.
A common difficulty mentioned (by six respondents) is the dissemination and marketing of the product, which is a key factor, naturally, but one that can be addressed at the beginning of the project based on market risk analysis and estimates of the investments required for a future marketing campaign. That is, this is a problem which can be solved or attenuated by engineering skills. Other difficulties raised were the low investments and scarce incentive to independent development (eight respondents), lack of professionalism (three respondents), and lack of time to finish the game (two respondents).
From the data obtained here, it can be seen that Brazilian independent game developers still lack professionalism, especially regarding adequate methodologies. Curiously, this is recognized as a problem by the developers themselves. The alarming low usage of Software Engineering techniques also highlights the need for instruction and self-guided research on such methodologies.
Of course, that is not to say that all indie developers in Brazil are in this position or that a lack of professionalism permeates the whole industry in the country. However, the large percentage of developers to which these conclusions apply show that this is a real big issue and the importance of using engineering knowledge to manage and produce quality products cannot be over-emphasized. I hope this serves as a call-to-arms for the indie developers to review their position and start studying and applying concepts from Software Engineering. Citing Velasquez (2009: 30) once again: “[a] computer game is not just a toy, but a large and complex software project developed by a vast team of professionals” and should therefore be treated as such.
Fleury, A.; Sakuda, L.O.; Cordeiro, J.H.D. (2014) 1º Censo da Indústria Brasileira de Jogos Digitais. NPGT/EPUSP, São Paulo.
Lacerda, E.L. & Selleri, F. (2012) Um levantamento sobre processos de desenvolvimento de jogos para redes sociais. Proceedings of SBGames (XI SBGames, Brasília): 77–80.
Lemes, D.O. (2009) Games Independentes: fundamentos metodológicos para criação, planejamento e desenvolvimento de jogos digitais. Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, São Paulo. [Unpublished dissertation.]
Morais, F.C. & Silva, C.M. (2009) Desenvolvimento de jogos eletrônicos. e-Xacta 2(2): 11 p.
Pressman, R.S. (2010) Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach. Makron Books, São Paulo. [Portuguese (Brazil) edition.]