“Playing the News” Update – Distil Interactive

I just returned from Ottawa where Nicole Rinerand I went to collaborate with Distil Interactive. We spent two days in their office and it was a positive learning experience. I should make a premise that Distil is trying to build a system that will allow non tech-savvy users, with little knowledge of coding, to create a game or game-like environment in a simple way and in a short time. The system is based off XML, flash and C. Right now the XML code is what controls what is being displayed on screen and what C written functions are used to generate certain responses. They are also creating shells of code that perform certain functions that are fetched via XML, in order to hide part of the code.
The morning of the first day Kenton White, one of the founders of the company, walked us through the XML code and how their system works. It was quite overwhelming and I started noticing that the XML code was partly automatically generated and it contained no comments. Most of the references and the names of the variables were semi-arbitrary names that the development team used, which might have been intuitive for them but not for external people looking at the code. So I already knew it would have been hard to tweak the code. Anybody who has done some programming knows that working on someone else’s code is like trying to read someone’s sloppy handwriting. Also the four games that Distil has available right now have been created from scratch and by coding and not with any high-end tool. This means that they were tailored for a specific issue and have a specific game structure. The game we worked on was a game that is meant to train employees or managers about safety issues in a boat factory. It only had one location and a good amount of characters. The structure was set up in a fashion so that the player would only be able to choose one option for every character, and then the character would become inactive. This is because the player had to make a decision and then the decision was final. On our side we had a different structure. Our theme was all of the issues surrounding the use of ethanol as a fuel and the player was a reporter investigating the various facets of the issue. The dialogues were back and forth between reporter and interviewee with multiple questions to be asked of every single character and in different locations. I have to admit that having some experience coding in other languages, but not much in XML, helped me and made it possible for me to change a few things. Definitely though, it was not an everyday person user-friendly task. I was able to add/remove characters, modify the questions asked and the answered, create different locations, make the active characters glow or not glow if inactive, and move the screen directly to a new location after all characters were interviewed. One thing we had to compromise was that the reporter could only ask one question, which limited the gaming experience. Also changing such structural element was not easy nor a quick task. In fact I tried to directly ask the person who worked on the code and he said that he had never done it before and it would have taken some time to change the code. Another thing that we had to compromise was that to display different locations we had to create one big flash background and not separate ones like I originally wanted to do. Right now all locations are on the same map, which was not what I wanted. The people at Distil also said that setting different locations in separate scenarios was feasible but they couldn’t do it on the spot and it would have required some time. Nicole on the other side had access to a great library of art assets and did a great job at creating four locations.
Some of their games don’t really have any game elements at all, aside from the game-like feeling they provide. But the latest they have produced are closer to being defined as games, since they present some challenges for the players.
My conclusion is that Distil has a great idea and has created a good structure to begin with. On the other hand, right now their higher end tools are still in an early stage and building games requires a good knowledge of the internal dynamics of how the system works. For example the programmer who helped me couldn’t apply certain changes on the fly and had gone through a month of training to get acquainted to how the system works. So they are clashing with the same problem that our research group has been clashing with: the trade off between making a general set of tools and the amount of code/work behind it. I think the experience and what I saw at Distil just reinforced my thesis that I have been building during this past year: the more general the game creation tool aspires to be the more complexity will be needed “under the hood”. I believe though that with time, competent people and funds it is possible to create some sort of PowerPoint that will allow someone to make a game in 10 minutes. I actually had an interesting conversation with Kenton about the ubiquitousness of tools. For example when PowerPoint did not exist, there were people in charge of creating presentations; now even the busy manager can do it in 10 minutes. Obviously the average quality of the presentations has gone down but at least it is a tool accessible to a lot of people. And of course the tool doesn’t prevent someone from creating better presentations than others. The same has happened with music in the last 10 years. Now it is possible to create high-definition music at home, and recording studios are blossoming everywhere. The average quality of music has gone down, in my opinion, but the tools to record it are more accessible. People like Kenton and Nora Paul are trying to make it accessible to everybody to create a game. I am confident that sooner or later it will happen. Sure, the average game quality might go down, but people with good design ideas could be able to put them in practice without being a game designer for a game developer.

Stay tuned.

Fabio Berzaghi