You’ve probably come across the idea that video games can provide other, more “serious” benefits along with their entertainment value. There are a number of reports that games can be especially effective for stroke victims, and that those results have recently been extended to ICU patients as well. Big Fish Games offers a number of games geared toward children that help kids learn things like mathematics and languages while having fun with some of their favorite characters. We’ve even had customers tell us the “training” they received in our hidden object games helped them locate keys they had dropped among a pile of grass and leaves!
It’s not surprising, then, that groups and companies are working to create games that target a specific non-entertainment objective. Carnegie Mellon University – already widely known for programs in computer science, engineering and technology – is home to many such projects through the Entertainment Technology Center. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at some of their most interesting explorations of the other uses for video games.
First up is a project called Crescendo, which is a collaboration with Korean game developer, Smilegate. The goal was to “create an experience for children and families that encourages cooperation, brings people together, and gives players the feeling of playing real instruments without requiring them to have the skills of a musician.” The result was a charming game that immerses the player in a real orchestra-type situation and asks them to keep in time with the set rhythm and play in harmony with one another.
If you visit the project website, you can read through weekly newsletters that document the whole process. These are fascinating generally as an overview of the full cycle of video game creation. Along the way, there were also some interesting discoveries and milestones unique to this particular kind of game and objective.
The first notable aspect of the team’s approach to designing this game is the fact that they contacted an elementary school music teacher to “better understand the mindset and capabilities” of children under 8. With this in mind, they put together a list of design features for the final game prototype including things like “simple actions”, “complexity of actions builds with player’s ability”, “age appropriate music” and a “story to add motivation”. They also were in contact with musicians throughout the game development process.
In the very early stages, they also became aware that along with the software, this game would require them to design and build completely new controllers – simplified versions of real instruments. Anyone familiar with Guitar Hero has already seen this sort of technology. But along with more commonly-digitized instruments like the piano and drums, because of the quality of the music at the heart of the game, the team also had to design string and wind instruments that were not only easy to manipulate, but also mimicked how they were really played.
In week four, the team came up with an additional character that promised to add an even more interesting facet to the game: a conductor that sets the song tempo for the other 4 musicians. This would further add to the real-life experience of being part of an orchestra, and would also promote even more collaboration and cooperation between the players.
After a presentation of the first demo version, Smilegate suggested keeping the gameplay to only matching the music’s rhythm, rather than also work to manipulate their pitch. In testing, however, both college students and elementary-aged children preferred the “professional mode” of gameplay that incorporated both challenges. The conductor role was also well-received and the children were excited about the power it had over the game.
Scoring in the game also underwent some evolution. It is similar to the popular Dance Dance Revolution where musicians are given extra points when they are more perfectly in time with the music. Additionally, the conductor’s score is based on the accuracy of the entire ensemble. So, the kids will learn that with great power comes great responsibility.
Calls for an “Encore”
Because the project was based on Carnegie Mellon’s academic calendar, the deadline for a finished product was at the end of the semester – December 2011. At this time, the team presented their game prototype to the client, Smilegate. Along with inviting the team to Korea to present to the full company there, Smilegate also decided to continue the project for another semester, with the aim of bringing its quality up to that of a commercial game.
Rechristened Crescendo Encore, the project received two additional directives from the client – explore the idea of making the game playable on different consoles and to expand and enhance the existing game framework. Ultimately, the goal was to deliver a polished game for the Xbox360.
During this second phase, the game underwent a few more changes. The final hardware components of the “orchestra” evolved to violin, clarinet, French horn and timpani. A voiceover element, allowing players to receive feedback on their performance, was added. Different levels of difficulty (based on whether the player would focus on both playing the right note and being in rhythm) were built in the new version as well. Throughout part two of the project, the team was also very proactive in having testing by their target audience, and adjustments based on that interaction were therefore made quickly and organically.
By the end of this second semester of development, the team had a product that was not only polished and fulfilled its musical objects, but was also just simply fun to play. Throughout testing, the team was buoyed by children asking to play the game again, without being prompted. After their Soft Opening Showcase at the ETC Silicon Valley campus, the team said, “It was really great to see professional developers enjoy our game, and what’s even more awesome was people became interested in playing even when others were watching.”
At present, the team is again in Korea, sharing their game with employees there. We’re excited to see how Crescendo develops and when it will be finally available to play!