When you make a game, designing the game mechanics (what the player does and how the game experience feels) is a huge part of the job. Writing the game content (all the stories, characters, and tasks) is another huge job! Writing content for an educational game is even trickier because we have to make the content appropriate to the game, fun and engaging, and also true to the concepts being taught in the game. In Radix, although it is a fictional world, this means everything about the world still has to follow the rules of mathematics and also plausibly fit into realistic biological systems.
One example of content we’ve been writing lately is all the phenotypes of the plants and animals in the world. “Phenotypes” refers to their genetic traits – the way they look or function, which you can see or experience. For instance, within the same species some flowers could be red and others yellow. Or, bugs could have long or short antennae. Real plants and animals have countless traits with very complex varieties, but in the world of Radix we simplified our system to focus on up to 3 traits per species, with up to 5 possible varieties within each trait.
Coming up with the traits and their varieties is both challenging and fun! It involves researching real species to see what is feasible, thinking beyond the most common examples like color and measurements, plus fitting the traits to the species in the world and what can be reasonably drawn or communicated to the player. For example, some myzle flowers have a shock factor while others don’t – shockingness is an interesting trait that leads to lots of fun uses in the world! Ripsnarls can have curly or straight tails, and may be bred for a certain variety depending on what is currently desired as pets. Other traits are not even visible, like an animal’s sense of smell or the stickiness of a plant’s sap.
By providing a rich array of examples, we hope to get the idea across to players about how important biodiversity is, and at the same time let them figure out that there is a genetic system that can be discovered and understood. Most importantly, since Radix is set in a contextual world, players don’t just collect and breed animals because they are following instructions. Rather they are motivated to do so in order to use those special phenotypes to solve problems and improve their character and the world!
The Radix island world is full of plants and animals living everywhere from cities to swamps. While the setting is “earth-like”, it is not actually earth. This means that our artists and designers have lots of freedom in what they create. However, we have to think carefully about the properties of everything that we create. To begin with – can these plants and animals really exist? We don’t want to make animals that seem anatomically impossible – a grasshopper the size of the empire state building would collapse under it’s own weight! We also want teachers to be able to relate the game world to the real world so we try to not stray too far from what we know. This often leads of a bit of fun – we spent an afternoon looking up all kinds of plants that could glow in the dark. Bioluminescence is amazing.
Since our plants and animals are being used for biology quests we have to think about them in even more detail. Anything used in the genetics quest line needs to have well defined traits. As we think about those traits we have to decide which ones are dominant/recessive combinations? Which ones are sex-linked? One of our favorite creations is a striped trait for slugs. Some have horizontal stripes, some have vertical stripes – we decided those traits would express a co-dominant inheritance pattern and that meant we could breed plaid slugs! As we develop ecosystems, we determine predator-prey relationships and fit all the plants and animals into food webs. In most cases, we don’t reveal these relationships to the players. Instead, through the quests, they discover them. We set evolutionary relationships in the world allowing students to track changes in traits over time, try to determine common ancestors and make predictions about how organisms in the world might change.
We want the world to feel new and exciting, but we need it to be accurate. Sometimes it feels like a very fine line between fantasy and biology. Occasionally though, just when we thought we’ve gone too far into the fantasy world, an internet search shows us that nature can be just as odd as our imaginations.
As we talked about previously, open-ended quests are an important type of guided activity in The Radix Endeavor. However, we hope to take it even further by providing real “sandbox” environments in the game as well. These are free-play areas designed to have no goals, where players can use the available tools to do essentially whatever they want. We think it’s important to give players time to just explore certain concepts, because by messing around they will figure out what they find interesting and make their own discoveries.
These sandboxes could take the shape of an arena where players can work together to build 3D shapes, putting them together to design cities, sculptures, or anything they can imagine out of shapes. Another type of sandbox might be a breeding ground where players can experiment with breeding animals with different combinations of traits, until they discover some rare recessive trait or produce offspring with whatever trait they feel like collecting.
Unlike other quests, the things players do or create with sandbox tools can’t be assessed by the game. Instead, we want to encourage players to share their discoveries with other players, either their classmates or friends, or even any other players in the world who happen to be walking by. Seeing what others have done will hopefully inspire players to build on those ideas and explore further, ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of the content and a genuine interest in the field.
In an MMO, a quest is a directed task that a player is asked to complete. The Radix Endeavor will largely be structured by sequences of quests in certain topic areas. We want some of these to be more open-ended quests, which might seem like a paradox but it’s one of the design challenges we’ve been thinking over since the beginning of the project. As we have conceived of them, open-ended quests don’t leave players completely on their own, but they don’t have just one right answer either.
One example of an open-ended quest is an environment where players are asked to build a box that will fit a certain creature, perhaps with requirements such as extra space to store the creature’s food. There is no one right box that players can build, and different players’ boxes may look quite different.
Similarly, in the marketplace where players are asked to trade items to get as much gold as possible, they can complete the quest by earning any amount of gold. However, by exploring more vendors and finding a more efficient sequence of trades, they may be able to get even more gold.
Quests like these can still be assessed by the game and its data collection methods because there is a stated goal, but players can feel some autonomy and begin to get creative with the tools available to them. Another key part of open-ended quests comes in the bridge curriculum – if the game is played outside of class, teachers can use class time to have students share their strategies and results from these quests, which will vary widely. The teacher can facilitate discussion around pros and cons of different approaches, and what other situations students might apply these skills to. In this way, we hope that open-ended quests will encourage students to reflect and think more about what choices they are making in the game and why.