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An Introduction to Cascadia Explorers
Image from popejon2 from Paddington, Australia
Some time ago I started a volunteer project to develop a video game for Pacific Spirt Park Society; the project has evolved and taken on a life of it's own, and like much of the things I have done in my life, was something I was drastically underprepared for, but took on as a learning experience.
The game, currently in active development, focuses on teaching the player about the nature of invasive species. Rather than taking a more traditional edutainment approach of having the student iterate through a lesson and quiz model, I took a different approach, and designed a more interactive game. Over the next several weeks as I move in the direction of a public alpha (of my first game ZOMG! such nervousness!), I am going to write about some of the game design decisions and roles. The game is no where near ready to release, and each of the public alphas will focus on playability, useability, learnabilty, and enjoyment. My primary testers are my kids, and they think it's cool, but I need more useful feedback :)
Cascadia Explorers is an educational video game where the player takes on the role of a scout working to earn wilderness badges by locating and dealing with invasive plant species in the park. While doing so the player will have to learn the terrain of a real park, interact with native, invasive, and at-risk species in the park, and complete challenges that indicate they have successfully assimilated the knowledge in the lesson.
Cascadia Explorers presents a mission based game set in a real-world park that has had it's terrain and high profile features replicated in the game world. The player will complete a series of missions by interacting with the environment in a adventure game format. The player will be challenged to earn their basic badges by completing the missions as required, and earn extra merit awards by fully exploring and learning about the species in the park.
The player accomplishes these tasks by investigating various plant species, and as they learn about them, unlock information about the right way to deal with each invasive species. The game is finished when the player completes all missions, however the player will also get a ranking and score that is based on how they performed on each mission, and the "completeness" of each mission, including details such as identifying each native species, or ensuring they don't walk in "protected" areas of the park.
The game presents a single player game, which is accessed through a game menu; there are no gameplay difficulty settings, and progress through the game is tracked (but can be reset) on a per-player basis. This means that players returning to the game, or playing for the first time, may need to reset the game if they want to start fresh.
From the game menu, the player can select the mission they want to play, with additional missions unlocking as they complete preceeding missions. The first mission will be a training mission to familiarize the player with the controls, one or more native species, one invasive species, and how to interact with each of the game elements.
In addition to the primary display and an overhead map, the player also has a log book, which can be displayed or dismissed without interrupting the game. The Log Book will provide a list of all the currently earned badges, progress towards goals, and any new missions that are discovered in the process of playing the game. The log book also contains "player discoveries", which are details the player has learned about each species they have discovered, and will include artwork and details from appropriately licensed materials (preferably those under an appropriate Creative Commons license, and curated information from Wikipedia).
Each mission will be divided into three primary phases, an Introduction, which outlines the goals and objectives of the mission, the mission itself, where the player has a great deal of freedom to explore and interact with a region of the park, and the Epilogue, where the player receives details about their performance on the mission, and learns about the outcomes of their activitiess.
The player will have access to controlls that are customary for console and PC based adventure games. The player will be able to walk, run, and jump, and will have a set of actions (described below) that they can perform in the correct context. Withing the constraints of that context, players will be able to have a great degree of freedom in exploring each level - there are no barriers or barricades to overcome, and while there may be difficulties in accessing an area while finding the correct path to an area, there are no puzzles for the player to solve. The goal is to move the player towards learning and successful interactions. Ideally when the game is closer to completion, the introduction of some problem solving features can occur.
The player will have five primary context sensitivce actions they can perform:
Using the study action near a sample (native, at-risk, or invasive) allows the player to unlock an element of the samples knowledge article. Each time the player studies an individual sample, they will unlock a single element. There are three elements to unlock for each species (Drawing/picture, observations, and detailed information). This requires the player to locate and interact with at least three of each individual species to be able to complete the games knowledge base.
The knowledge base articles also provide insight on the best way to mitigate an invasive species - to either dig up, collect, or chop the plant, or to simply flag it, if that is all that is necessary.
Using the flag action, the player can mark a sample as "at-risk" or "invasive"; this action is required for certain types of invasive species that are simply to risky to interact with, or to earn merit badges for identifying and protecting at-risk species.
These three actions can be performed by the player any time a sample is near, however using the incorrect action, or using the action in the wrong sequence can result in earning demerits. Using these actions incorrectly on a repeated basis can result in the mission failing.
The Game Environment
The game is set in a portion of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, a beautiful urban preserve located within the University Endowment Lands in Vancouver, BC. While the park itself covers over 2000 acres, and more than 70 km of trails, we are only implementing a portion of the park, and only portions that allow us to avoid the complexity of dealing with implementing the roadways that surround the urban environment. We have faithfully recreated the major terrain elements and waterways, and are the process of populating the park with a variety of native, invasive, and at-risk species. Subsequent posts and alpha test releases will include explorable environments that will allow you to experience some of this amazing resource!
This is the first in a series of (hopefully) weekly blog posts, and upcoming posts will include more details about the various species that we aim to included. If you would like to get involved in our testing, and get regular updates, please fill out this form and we will invite you to the mailing list!