A Questionnaire

For a pretty long while, we planned and prototyped a game that we called Behind Stars and Under Hills. After we pitched the first prototype to publishers, we kind of restarted the project, for which our vision was a grand one – but it also was a blurry one, a bit too blurry for a project of this kind. Behind Stars needed a relatively big open world and a cohesive story from A to Z. And while this is doable of course, we never were satisfied with the stories, settings and characters we thought of, and it was never enough. In the end we had to admit that a big coherent world isn’t something we should do, even though we liked Behind Stars a lot.

So now we search for another project, and for that we try to find a spark that will give it life. There are several gameplay mechanics we both like and want to pursue, so naturally we chose one of those. One of them is stealth, a gameplay that – in our minds – is always exciting, as the player is both powerful and in danger all the time. There is something oddly satisfying in hiding and stealing from enemies, and for us it always feels better than going on a rampage. So yes, let’s do a Thief-clone!

We even did a Spielgefährten episode about Thief!

Simply copying an existing game is boring though, and dishonourable, and just not our style. Instead we will try to make it our own game, and for that we look at other inspirations, and thinking of what we can do actually different, without diluting the stealth experience. Being inspired comes naturally (or not), but trying to come up with “new” elements, unused ideas – that’s hard, maybe impossible nowadays.

So I created a questionnaire for ourselves, by writing down questions that somebody could ask about the project or that nobody would ever ask. Here are some examples:

  • What does the game tell about you, the developers?
  • Draw the logo of the game.
  • Collectibles: what does the player constantly click on? Does it make them happy?
  • Is there any sex in the game, and if yes, will it arouse the player?
  • What does the game do differently from all the other games out there?
  • What is the most irrelevant feature of the game that still has to exist?
  • When the game is made to a movie, who should definitely be part of the cast?
  • If the game were a person, how often would you invite them to dinner?

Some of the questions are probably superfluous, some are plain bad; to be fair, the questionnaire was created spontaneously and without a lot of revision. In any case the idea behind it is to find out the shared vision, and also to get inspired by looking at the whole project from a completely different perspective. So we printed the questionnaire twice so each of us could fill it out individually. We wrote down the answers, drew some scribbles, and then talked about the result. It was interesting to see where our common ground is, but also where we would differ completely.

If you are interested in the questionnaire, for your own game project or just for a laugh, it is online on Google Docs but also downloadable as PDF, ready to print and fill out. If you don't like any of the questions, just leave them out.

And yeah – more to come about our new project soon, hopefully.

Why not a city-building game about quoting juridical text sources?

Wait, what? You heard right. With our latest project we had the wonderful challenge to fuse education with entertainment. 

So, what is CitApp about? Quoting texts and thoughts by others correctly is a necessity that aspiring lawyers will have to do quite often on their road of writing and analyzing. Especially the younger semesters devote a third of the evaluation of papers exclusively to errors in formalities. The rules of correct quotation are not hard to understand – but it’s something you might just muddle through somehow along the way, accepting point deductions or a failed exam even. *

Not anymore! Together with and for the team from the department of business law at the Martin-Luther University Halle we created a fun learning app that educates students in short lessons, workouts and a rewarding city builder all-in-one.

Citation as a city builder?

Before we came aboard, the project team – consisting of Marcus Bergmann, Ottmar Rentsch, Moritz Schwarz, Annabell Pfaff and Dieter Pfaff – conducted a well-prepared survey with about 230 of their students. In an exhausting amount of questions the team asked about learning and gaming habits including playtime, mobile games played, favorite scenarios and general player type. 

From there the team picked scenarios that would meet the requirement to motivate the students with an app that fit their habits: a game played in short segments, allowing a certain creativity and having a cozy scenario with city building elements.

Armed with this foundation and exercises for learning to quote text properly, the team looked for a game studio through an open bidding, which we as RAT KING took part in. Long story short, with our concept (based on the ideas by the project team) we won.

We did several educational games before, which are all playful and almost always have a range of player freedom while addressing complex topics like biodiversity, deforestation, climate change, people of the Bronze Age, or fake news. CitApp was therefore fascinating for us, as the two parts of the concept (quotation exercises and city building) don’t mix naturally at first glance.

A world dedicated to books

Honoring other authors’ thoughts and writings is the basis of the app, and an intention we completely embrace. The love for books and text – something we experienced especially through the mandatory book wall in Marcus’ office and his own book on the matter – we wanted to make visible through all of the game’s design. CitApp became a world dedicated to books. But the style of CitApp is only one of the elements to bring both worlds together.

In our game, the reward system for citation exercises and tutorials goes hand in hand with building your town. To collect money for your buildings you need to successfully master the exercises. To unlock new building types and rewards you need to prepare tutorials. The rewards let you expand your city and upgrade buildings.

The library is the central building and the place where the knowledge is based, where the tutorials are stored – a building that also has to be guarded against Plagiarists. Those little critters spice up the game even more: over time, Plagiarists and Bookworms will try to invade your city and need to be stopped by purchasing and strategically placing protection towers.

CitApp is the home of the Citlings (the citizens of your little empire) creating a welcoming atmosphere, where students can come back once in a while to a place of learning, next to challenges, fun and creativity.

How the footnote came into the app

While everything in game development is an interesting and often exciting journey, implementing the actual logic for the quotation exercises was especially tricky. Of course, some of them were easy to do – a simple quiz that tests your knowledge and memory is nothing new. But after this, the harder tasks are dynamically generated out of database entries, filled with dozens of details that can be part of a footnote. Author(s), noble title(s) of the author(s), editor(s), title, subtitle, source of information, place(s),... also included are informations that are superfluous, to give players an extra challenge in the higher levels. Not to forget the length of German juridical books like “Antrag zum zweiten Gesetz zum Schutz der Bevölkerung bei einer epidemischen Lage von nationaler Tragweite”. (There are longer ones.)

In any case we cannot just take the data out of the database and be done with it - it has to be processed and put in formulas (which had to be built from the ground up); and of course, several edge cases were identified during the development, which usually receive a special treatment in the code.

From the straight-forward exercise of sorting the elements of a footnote into the correct order, to the very complex  “find the error in an incorrect footnote”, where elements can both be missing or just wrong, designing and programming the learning exercises was highly demanding, and more so fulfilling when everything came together in the end. And this isn’t to say that the city-building part was any less interesting!

Working together

Creating so-called serious or educational games is never easy. A lot of them either fail to be entertaining or be actually educational. It is always challenging to find the right tone and gameplay to meet the target audience and their gaming habits to let the learning sink in naturally through gaming.

In the back from left: Ottmar Rentsch, Moritz Schwarz,
Friedrich Hanisch, Marcus Bergmann;
In the front from left: Annabell Pfaff, Jana Reinhardt

What we appreciated most about this project was how close we worked together with the university team and our testers to make sure the game does exactly that. Just to be clear: there are different learning types, games are not for everyone. Even the nicest and best-prepared tutorial found players who would rather read a book on the matter. But for those who need a little extra motivation it hopefully will become an app to fight plagiarism and procrastination.

* Ottmar Rensch, “Im Kampf gegen Plagiatoren und Bücherwürmer: Spiel-App lehrt Zitieren”, https://pressemitteilungen.pr.uni-halle.de/index.php?modus=pmanzeige&pm_id=5158

Spielgefährten, now live and in color!

The corona virus affects us all, in one way or another. Although the Rat King is a small team and there is no need for us to work at home now, we still feel the effects of the lock-down. In order to get rid of the uneasiness a bit we dusted off our Spielgefährten podcast, where we talk about games and game design.

This time we did a (German) live-stream on Twitch about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Fallen, a third-person shooter from 2000. We did a poll on Twitter beforehand, asking which character we should play (you can choose between Sisko, Worf and Kira). It was more popular that I'd thought it would be.

For over 2.5 hours we played as Kira shooting a lot of cardassians and talked about The Fallen, it level design, a bit of background, and other things. You can (re)watch our Let's Play here.

(YouTube videos try to set cookies and contact Third Party servers!)

A week later now we want to do another live-stream; maybe even making it a habit and doing it every Wednesday. In any case, this time we will play some multiplayer games, local coop to be exact. You can choose between Overcooked, Out of Space and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime - but I am sure we will play more than one game. A bit of Spheroneers will be there to, probably.

So if you speak German and want to talk about games, visit our Twitch channel on Wednesday, 7pm (Berlin time). We also have a Discord!