Five women with drastically different lives, find themselves in mutually similar situations and are forced to take the biggest decision of their lives. Ignite’s new play 24 Weeks follows these women as they each take their individual path, based on the options that life has dealt them.Continue reading
When it comes to technology’s advances, it has always been said that creative tasks will remain out of their reach. Jasper Schellekens writes about one team’s efforts to build a game that proves that notion wrong.
The murder mystery plot is a classic in video games; take Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire, and the epic Witcher III. But as fun as they are, they do have a downside to them—they don’t often offer much replayability. Once you find out the butler did it, there isn’t much point in playing again. However, a team of academics and game designers are joining forces to pair open data with computer generated content to create a game that gives players a new mystery to solve every time they play.
The University of Malta’s Dr Antonios Liapis and New York University’s Michael Cerny Green, Gabriella A. B. Barros, and Julian Togelius want to break new ground by using artificial intelligence (AI) for content creation.
They’re handing the design job over to an algorithm. The result is a game in which all characters, places, and items are generated using open data, making every play session, every murder mystery, unique. That game is DATA Agent.
Gameplay vs Technical Innovation
AI often only enters the conversation in the form of expletives, when people play games such as FIFA and players on their virtual team don’t make the right turn, or when there is a glitch in a first-person shooter like Call of Duty. But the potential applications of AI in games are far greater than merely making objects and characters move through the game world realistically. AI can also be used to create unique content—they can be creative.
While creating content this way is nothing new, the focus on using AI has typically been purely algorithmic, with content being generated through computational procedures. No Man’s Sky, a space exploration game that took the world (and crowdfunding platforms) by storm in 2015, generated a lot of hype around its use of computational procedures to create varied and different content for each player. The makers of No Man’s Sky promised their players galaxies to explore, but enthusiasm waned in part due to the monotonous game play. DATA Agent learnt from this example. The game instead taps into existing information available online from Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Google Street View and uses that to create a whole new experience.
Data: the Robot’s Muse
A human designer draws on their experiences for inspiration. But what are experiences if not subjectively recorded data on the unreliable wetware that is the human brain? Similarly, a large quantity of freely available data can be used as a stand-in for human experience to ‘inspire’ a game’s creation.
According to a report by UK non-profit Nesta, machines will struggle with creative tasks. But researchers in creative computing want AI to create as well as humans can.
However, before we grab our pitchforks and run AI out of town, it must be said that games using online data sources are often rather unplayable. Creating content from unrefined data can lead to absurd and offensive gameplay situations. Angelina, a game-making AI created by Mike Cook at Falmouth University created A Rogue Dream. This game uses Google Autocomplete functions to name the player’s abilities, enemies, and healing items based on an initial prompt by the player. Problems occasionally arose as nationalities and gender became linked to racial slurs and dangerous stereotypes. Apparently there are awful people influencing autocomplete results on the internet.
DATA Agent uses backstory to mitigate problems arising from absurd results. A revised user interface also makes playing the game more intuitive and less like poring over musty old data sheets.
So what is it really?
In DATA Agent, you are a detective tasked with finding a time-traveling murderer now masquerading as a historical figure. DATA Agent creates a murder victim based on a person’s name and builds the victim’s character and story using data from their Wikipedia article.
This makes the backstory a central aspect to the game. It is carefully crafted to explain the context of the links between the entities found by the algorithm. Firstly, it serves to explain expected inconsistencies. Some characters’ lives did not historically overlap, but they are still grouped together as characters in the game. It also clarifies that the murderer is not a real person but rather a nefarious doppelganger. After all, it would be a bit absurd to have Albert Einstein be a witness to Attila the Hun’s murder. Also, casting a beloved figure as a killer could influence the game’s enjoyment and start riots. Not to mention that some of the people on Wikipedia are still alive, and no university could afford the inevitable avalanche of legal battles.
Rather than increase the algorithm’s complexity to identify all backstory problems, the game instead makes the issues part of the narrative. In the game’s universe, criminals travel back in time to murder famous people. This murder shatters the existing timeline, causing temporal inconsistencies: that’s why Einstein and Attila the Hun can exist simultaneously. An agent of DATA is sent back in time to find the killer, but time travel scrambles the information they receive, and they can only provide the player with the suspect’s details. The player then needs to gather intel and clues from other non-player characters, objects, and locations to try and identify the culprit, now masquerading as one of the suspects. The murderer, who, like the DATA Agent, is from an alternate timeline, also has incomplete information about the person they are impersonating and will need to improvise answers. If the player catches the suspect in a lie, they can identify the murderous, time-traveling doppelganger and solve the mystery!
De-mystifying the Mystery
The murder mystery starts where murder mysteries always do, with a murder. And that starts with identifying the victim. The victim’s name becomes the seed for the rest of the characters, places, and items. Suspects are chosen based on their links to the victim and must always share a common characteristic. For example, Britney Spears and Diana Ross are both classified as ‘singer’ in the data used. The algorithm searches for people with links to the victim and turns them into suspects.
But a good murder-mystery needs more than just suspects and a victim. As Sherlock Holmes says, a good investigation is ‘founded upon the observation of trifles.’ So the story must also have locations to explore, objects to investigate for clues, and people to interrogate. These are the game’s ‘trifles’ and that’s why the algorithm also searches for related articles for each suspect. The related articles about places are converted into locations in the game, and the related articles about people are converted into NPCs. Everything else is made into game items.
The Case of Britney Spears
This results in games like “The Case of Britney Spears” with Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Taylor Hicks as the suspects. In the case of Britney Spears, the player could interact with NPCs such as Whitney Houston, Jamie Lynn Spears, and Katy Perry. They could also travel from McComb in Mississippi to New York City. As they work their way through the game, they would uncover that the evil time-traveling doppelganger had taken the place of the greatest diva of them all: Diana Ross.
Oops, I learned it again
DATA Agent goes beyond refining the technical aspects of organising data and gameplay. In the age where so much freely available information is ignored because it is presented in an inaccessible or boring format, data games could be game-changing (pun intended).
In 1985, Broderbund released their game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, where the player tracked criminal henchmen and eventually mastermind Carmen Sandiego herself by following geographical trivia clues. It was a surprise hit, becoming Broderbund’s third best-selling Commodore game as of late 1987. It had tapped into an unanticipated market, becoming an educational staple in many North American schools.
Facts may have lost some of their lustre since the rise of fake news, but games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? are proof that learning doesn’t have to be boring. And this is where products such as DATA Agent could thrive. After all, the game uses real data and actual facts about the victims and suspects. The player’s main goal is to catch the doppelganger’s mistake in their recounting of facts, requiring careful attention. The kind of attention you may not have when reading a textbook. This type of increased engagement with material has been linked to improving information retention.In the end, when you’ve traveled through the game’s various locations, found a number of items related to the murder victim, and uncovered the time-travelling murderer, you’ll hardy be aware that you’ve been taught.
‘Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.’ – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow.
Even though philosophers like Kant and Schiller of the aesthetic tradition never had the opportunity to troll some noobs in Call of Duty or slay a dragon in Skyrim, their views on the concept of play can be critical to our understanding of how the player relates to the game world. Dr Daniel Vella explores the work of aesthetic and existential philosophers. Words by Jasper Schellekens. Continue reading
With ever more digital games companies opening their doors in Malta, standing out can be difficult. Dawn Gillies talks to Dorado Games co-founder Simon Dotschuweit to find out how a small company is carving out its niche in an industry of big players.
In 1974, long before the Internet was around, Mazewar introduced the world’s first computer-generated virtual world. With a serial cable to connect computers, friends could play over a network, competing with and against one another for the first time. The Internet now allows thousands of people from opposite sides of the globe to battle it out simultaneously in games set in online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft.
Digital gaming is an industry on the rise, and Malta has seen success after success. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise, taking in an astounding $30.7 bn globally in 2017 alone according to Statista. In recent years there has been a surge in free-to-play online games. With so many free games competing for our attention, you might wonder where the money comes from. It may seem counterintuitive, but these free online games sometimes generate higher profits than paid counterparts. Multiplayer PC beat ’em up Dungeon Fighter Online reportedly made an astonishing $1.6 bn in 2017.
With more than 30 digital games companies in Malta alone, it’s a competitive industry to take on. Yet Simon Dotschuweit and Nick Porsche have created Dorado Games, launched real-time grand-strategy game Conflict of Nations, and gained over 400,000 customers.
Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game.
Dorado’s Origin Story
Whilst working for the independent creators, publishers, and distributors of digital games Stillfront Group, Dotschuweit was already mulling over some new game ideas. The game engines, platforms, and building blocks were all at his disposal. What he needed was a collaborator. That was when Nick Porsche appeared on the scene.
Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game. Their ideas had Stillfront interested. They were in the early stages of building a game, and the endeavour was gaining support. ‘It was going well, and the company wanted to go ahead with it.’ Two years later, Dorado Games was acquired by the Stillfront Group.
When most of us think video games, we immediately think of games consoles. So why choose to create an online game? Or, for that matter, one that’s free?
Dotschuweit says, ‘They’re a lot more fun to do. You have more control. Usually you self-publish. You can do stuff more iteratively. You can release and then improve. With console games, you need a large publishing partner that will take a large portion of the revenue.’ With Dorado constantly striving to improve their online world for players, the ability to continually update was a big draw for them.
The world of online gaming better lends itself to strategy games. With Dotschuweit and Porsche already big fans, their goal was to create a game they wanted to play. Their business model is also better suited to online gaming than consoles. ‘It’s free to play, so we incentivise players to pay for extra features, which doesn’t work well on console.’ This is where the money comes from. Players pay to construct buildings or train their troops more quickly, giving them an advantage over the competition.
But Stillfront’s acquisition of Dorado meant it was decision time for Dotschuweit. He had to choose between keeping his comfortable job with Stillfront, or taking on a new challenge in the startup world. Living in China with his family at the time, the ramifications of that decision were huge. Porsche was already in Malta, incentivised by the Maltese government’s support of new businesses. In the end, Dotschuweit felt the opportunity to join forces was too great to pass up. He made the leap.
The Rise to Success
Money was key. Dotschuweit tells us, ‘We managed to secure quite a sizeable employment-based grant from Malta Enterprise for our company, which was of course a very nice plus. And Malta is a really nice place!’ The grant not only helped Dorado win over investors, but it reduced risk in an industry that’s infamous for its kill rate, both in-game and in real life. Suffice to say that coming out on top in the gaming world is not guaranteed.
Working in a start-up was also a change for Dotschuweit. Having previously worked for US tech giant IBM, he wanted to make a mark with this new venture. ‘You get to have a lot more impact. Your presence matters a lot more to a small business; it’s a lot more fun. You get to wear lots of hats and get a lot of experience.’ The busy and exciting nature of a small business appealed to him much more than clocking in to a regular office job.
The good times continued rolling with more support coming in from the University of Malta’s (UM) Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation (CEBI). CEBI houses the TAKEOFF programme which supports new businesses and provides facilities for them. Dr Joseph Bartolo and Prof. Russell Smith are familiar names when it comes to Maltese start-ups, and they have both been an influential part of Dorado’s story. They now operate from the TAKEOFF building on UM’s Msida campus.
But Dorado’s journey is not all smooth sailing. ‘We are a live service and we don’t have separate teams for operations and expansions, so that sometimes means your plans change!’ explains Dotschuweit. It’s all hands on deck to fix any problems. ‘It’s part of the bane and the fun of operations. But it doesn’t get boring!’ he says. This means that a day of meetings can quickly turn into a hectic day of making sure the game is running smoothly. They don’t want to disrupt players’ gameplay if they can avoid it.
In the past, Dorado hired game developers to bring their ideas to life. But this modus operandi changed when it came to Conflict of Nations. With this project, Dotschuweit and Porsche wanted more control, and they were ready to invest. They dug their heels in and hired their own team.
A game of political and military tactics with elements of espionage, Conflict of Nations requires real-world diplomacy skills to move up in the world. Unlike most other strategy games, it takes place right here on Earth, making use of Google Maps to make the game truly global.
Bringing their dream team to life was a challenge. ‘Finding talent back then wasn’t the easiest thing,’ says Dotschuweit. But their perseverance has seen them build a close-knit team who have all contributed to Dorado’s success.
The quest for perfection is a common theme in Dorado’s story. The perfect team, the perfect platform, the perfect game. Their commitment to giving players the best possible experience is a testament to their investment in their projects. Taking the time to get the right team together has proved to be one of the many reasons for Dorado’s fast climb up the games industry ladder. Another was getting their game out quickly to get fan feedback as soon as possible. The Stillfront platform restricts them somewhat in their design, as it wasn’t made specifically for Dorado, by Dorado, but it has reduced their workload massively, allowing them to get Conflict of Nations launch-ready in a fraction of the time. Identifying and taking advantage of opportunities has also been key to their quick rise.
Many Lessons Learnt
In the crowded world of online games, Dorado games has skillfully managed to carve out its place. Real-time negotiations and political tactics in Conflict of Nations are the stand-out features for fans who enjoy the long timescales and mental strategy involved. With this victory under their belt, we’ll soon see more from Dorado. They have plans to develop another game this year.
With years of experience in the industry, Dotschuweit has some advice for any future gaming entrepreneurs. ‘Get it out fast and get feedback. You can always improve it later.’ He notes the success of game jams in turning ideas into businesses and urges people to get involved. So, what are you waiting for?
Author: Dawn Gillies
While speech development starts early in life, the course of acquiring and processing language in a bilingual country like Malta is challenging. Engineers and language experts at the University of Malta have teamed up to build a toy that will help children overcome that hurdle. Words by Emanuel Balzan.
Toys and play are critical in children’s lives. It is through play that children learn how to interact with their environment and other people while developing their cognitive, speech, language, and physical skills.
The way children play reveals many things including whether or not they are hitting particular development milestones. Play is also used by professionals who intervene when those skills are not acquired. Speech and language pathologists (SLP) use toys to tailor tasks based on their objectives for the child, determined following their assessment. For this reason, toys are vital tools.
With technology moving at the rate it is, electronic components are easier and cheaper to access. As a result, a lot of smart, educational toys are now available on the market. However, Dr Ing. Philip Farrugia (Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, UM) honed in on a gap in the market—a smart toy that supports English and Maltese.
To make this happen, Farrugia recruited a team of researchers from the university. Engineers Prof. Simon Fabri and Dr Owen Casha joined the effort. Researchers Prof. Helen Grech and Dr Daniela Gatt brought their expertise in speech and language acquisition and disorders. The team was finally complete when game development company Flying Squirrel Games stepped into the picture.
Getting down to business
The SPEECHIE project is divided into three stages. During the first phase, we sought to understand the process of speech and language acquisition, assessment, and therapy. We involved users through workshops that allowed us to observe children’s play and their toy preferences. We also conducted focus groups with parents to identify what they most wanted from toys. During these sessions, one parent noted how ‘there are not any [educational] toys in Maltese our little ones can play and interact with.’ Others agreed with this observation. Parents also raised concerns about children’s attraction to tablets and smartphones, noting how they interfered with social interaction. On the tail end of this discussion, one parent quickly added that ‘the toy must have something to make it feel like a toy and not a gadget.’
With further questioning, we also came to realise that different parents have different criteria when deciding to buy a toy. One parent told us that before buying a toy for her daughter, she would ‘try to see for how long she will play with it and what the toy will give her in return.’ Another parent, concerned about toys’ safety, checks for the CE mark (Conformité Européene) prior to purchasing the toy, saying that he associates the mark with better quality. However, he also confessed that ‘in the hands of children, nothing remains of quality. Give them something which is unbreakable and they will manage to break it in one way or another.’
Since our toy is intended for use in speech therapy, we went ahead and organised more focus groups with SLPs. Outlining the role of toys in their clinics, SLPs said ‘[they] are normally used as a reward. If you know that this child likes blocks, then you use them to motivate the child.’ Toys are also used as part of the language tasks SLPs give. ‘We use objects to put a grammatical structure in a sentence. Many times you find something that represents a noun, a verb, an object and then put them together’ to model the appropriate sentence construction. This prolific use of toys, however, brings with it a very practical problem. One SLP explained how challenging things can get on a day-to-day basis due to the lack of multipurpose toys. ‘We are always carrying toys… we are always carrying things around with us. Even our cars… it is like I have ten kids,’ she said.
To address this issue, SLPs emphasised how useful it would be to have a flexible toy with multiple functions. One that does not bore children and which they can use to target different speech and language therapy goals. They also drew our attention to a prevalent but damaging mentality that they are trying to address. ‘Unfortunately, the majority of Maltese parents have a mentality that the more money they spend and the more therapy sessions for their children, the sooner the problem is alleviated, but in reality this is not true. The work needs to continue at home on a daily basis. It is not solely our responsibility,’ the SLP said. Much like when we practice daily to learn to play an instrument, speech and language therapy works the same way.
Sharon Borg, an experienced occupational therapist from the government’s Access to Communication and Technology Unit, said that the toy we had in mind could provide a simple way for parents to engage with their children and work at home on related exercises. Borg’s colleague, Ms May Agius, also noted the need for the toy to offer ‘surprises’, saying that ‘anticipation and elements of surprise draw kids and keep them engaged.’
Here we have only touched the surface of all the ideas brought forth. However, by considering the children’s, therapists’, and parents’ needs early in the engineering design process, we should be able to reduce the number of design iterations we have in future.
Design is key. Based on the feedback from the focus groups, we have now started working on the hardware and the software. But the journey is not straightforward. One issue we needed to deal with was the lack of compatibility between the 3D modelling software Flying Squirrel Games used and the technology used by the UM. From an academic point of view, because of the innovative nature of the toy we are making, we needed flexibility, so we modified Flying Squirrel’s virtual model to add different mechanisms which involve moving parts. These alterations now allow us to create support to fix electronic components within the device and ensure that no moving part is impeded by another part. As a result, assembly is much easier.
We have also made the decision to build SPEECHIE software using modular blocks. This will enable us to switch parts and functions around so we can widen the idea of who might enjoy our product. The toy will not only be of use to children with speech and language impairments, but also to others. This approach was inspired by a meeting with behavioural economist Dr Marie Briguglio who warned us that labelling the toy could be stigmatising. She explained that it should not become ‘an isolated toy which kind of becomes a label: because I have this toy, that means I have speech impairment.’
Despite the aversion some parents felt towards technological devices, as said during focus groups, Borg also encouraged us not to shy away from using them. She said children with autism responded very well to technology, and therapists will make the best choice for the child to improve their skills. To hit a sweet spot in between these views, we are incorporating functions that will allow for a kinesthetic learning experience that involves physical activities rather than passive consumption of instructions. We want to mix different modes of play to encourage effective learning. We do not want kids to sit and watch their toy, but to move around, dance, and sing with other children.
With all of these choices under our belt, we now have a working prototype. But the SPEECHIE toy is not yet complete. In fact, the coming months will see us working on the mechanisms and the interfacing of electronics.
Towards the end of the year, we will start putting the toy into preschoolers’ hands to determine its effectiveness and efficiency in regard to speech and language therapy. To do this, we will compare the progress of children who use SPEECHIE with those who only use traditional SLP methods.
What we hope is that this toy will encourage parent-and-child interaction through play. We want to enable more frequent use of both Maltese and English and allow children to be safely exposed to technology and to a fantastic learning experience—all while having a ball.
Note: We are excited to share these insights about SPEECHIE with the public, and if you would be interested in joining on this journey by participating in the evaluations, get in touch here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Emanuel Balzan