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Advanced Short Sim/Branching Story Technique:A Helpful Host

In this sim, presenting an introduction to Econ 101 supply, the player has to assemble food trucks and other options to feed a growing crowd of people.

In this case, the on-screen character is positioned as a helper and collaborator (and conduit to the outside world), not as an authority figure or a judge.  The voice I had for him was Iron Man's Jarvis.

Further, the player could create different solutions to the problem, such as here to feed 100 people, not just find the one

Feedback can be still be given in a Jarvis kind of way (and yes, the player's "voice" is Tony Stark)...

...and artifacts can be created "as a courtesy" to the player.

Advanced Short Sim/Branching Story Technique: A Strong, Visual Microcosm

For any learning sim, one goal is to create a strong microcosm.  In this short sim, designed to introduce demand curves to students, the player can raise or lower the cost of a drink, or have the sun come out or go behind a cloud, to change demand and generate a standard demand curve.

The demand is visualized dynamically by the length of the people in line, with shadow highlights.  The traditional demand curve serves as a mini-map to reflect the situation, with a yellow highlight showing the exact current position.

In this situation, different kinds of characters are waiting in line, and others are not.  As the price goes up, only the most thirsty and those with the most money remain.

The interface is very simple, and allows for the player to navigate towards to objective, stated clearly, to find a situation where demand = 7.

There are some subtle elements as well.  In the conditions above, a female is dragging a male to get a drink.  As the price goes up, the male decides it is not worth it, leaving a thirsty buy unhappy female still in line.

Note:  Temperature shifts the demand curve.   For a mnemonic device, higher temperature moves the curve to the right, hopefully making it easy to remember for other situations.

Short Sim/Branching Story Technique: A Good Size - About 80 Nodes

The short sims I have been creating recently have used a state-based architecture.  This approach has trade-offs, but the speed and predictability of development and deployment, and the ability for me, finally, to be able to role-model an approach by which non-technical people can create genuinely interactive experiences in roughly the same time frame as creating text or video, has made this approach worth serious exploration. These are also easy to embed in html or epub documents.

One reasonable question is, how big should one of these short sims be, from a number-of-nodes (what BranchTrack <> calls "scenes") perspective?

I have created reasonably big sims, of 250 nodes, which turned out to be just a bit too hard to keep track of.  What I have found to be a sweet spot is about 80 nodes.  The configuration of these nodes, however, can vary tremendously, such as this example above and below.

The example below is shown through two view of the same architecture, one with all of the connections shown, and below, with the connections of one node highlighted.

 For one piece of sim model - just 3 options by 2 options by 4 options by 2 options - this is what the wiring looked like.

Advanced Short Sim/Branching Story Technique: A Rosetta Stone

Short sims may use a branching story structure, even as they expand the traditional boundaries of what a branching story is and does.

One technique, when presenting a technical explanation, is to allow the user to go back and forth between a more precise, jargon filled description and that same description in plain English speak.

In this Econ sim, in a debriefing passage following some interactivity - I broke a complicated passage into three chunks.  At any time, a user could shift between two parallel streams, an economist description and a plain speak description.  The user could follow one stream all the way through, or go back and forth as often as met their need.

Advanced Short Sim/Branching Story Technique: A Close-Enough Randomizer

Short sims may use a branching story structure, even as they expand the traditional boundaries of what a branching story is and does.

In some cases, a bit of randomization may be needed.  If the branching tool does not support randomization, I put in a collection of answers that seem equivalent from the user perspective, but, in this case, lead to two different random options a few nodes down.

This is not cheat proof nor bias proof, but for an exploratory sim, it meets a basic design need in a simple, quick and dirty mechanism.

This mechanism has the added benefit of allowing an instructor who is presenting the sim some absolute predictability, something that a more pure randomizer would not.

Note:  I will be publishing a series of short posts about "Short Sim" definitions and techniques, based on the last few months of work.  

10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques

Here are 10 more simple but effective branching story techniques, a follow up to Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques (less polished but longer version here).  

Three live demonstrations, embedded using the great BranchTrack tools, are at the end of this article. Click here to skip to them. 

1. Have the onscreen character be friend or coach, not just the adversary

The most common branching story is probably the one-on-one conversation, where the player is trying to sell to or otherwise influence the onscreen avatar.  This means that the onscreen avatar is the adversary – who must be, for lack of a more politically correct word, overcome.

However using the exact same genre (a one-on-one conversation), the avatar can be a coach, even a friend, who is both setting up any situations, and even playing the role of the adversary if need be.

Here is one way I have created sims to introduce this alternative role.  Even the language, "I am your helper" sets a critical tone.

This approach can still enable the one-on-one influence scenario, and perhaps even a bit more richly. In this example, the coach is temporarily stepping into the role of the adversary, while still adding commentary.

A bit of care has to be taken to use a consistent “grammar” to effortlessly lead the player.  In this situation, I use quotation marks if the coach is speaking for the adversary, and I also use quotes in the response if the player is speaking directly to the adversary.  The screen shot above is an example.

When using the Branchtrack tool, in a branching story in which the coach is going to play a role, I use the neutral emotion for the coach as him or herself, and the various emotions if the coach is playing the role of the adversary.

This general approach allows a branching story to be significantly more enjoyable and educational. The player has an onscreen companion, who can explain what is going on and make implicit things explicit.

2: Use branching stories as labs, or information interviews, or choose your own adventure, not just persuasion

As said in #1, far too many branching scenarios used today are around persuasion scenarios.  These are effective, but only a small subset of what these tools could be used well. Other types, especially if the coach technique explained in #1 is used, include:
  • Labs:  Players build or experiment with something, and see the consequences.  (Example here)
  • Information Interviews:  The player interviews the onscreen avatar to learn more about something of interest.
  • Choose-your-own-Adventure: The player is taken on some ongoing story, making key decisions that influence the flow of events. 
Any practioner of branching stories should explore all of these various types, and more. Each will improve your skill in all.

3: Create deep dives and rat holes

Use the branching format to create situations where players can go very deep into a single area if they want, while still being able to move on at any time.  As with real life, these deep dives or rat holes can start with productive content and get less so (diminishing returns), or start less productive and get more so over time, or just be fun and get people comfortable with the genre.  I like to put a rat hole or two up front to set a tone.
Here is part of a light hearted rat hole from one of my sims.  The mentor is patient, if eventually a bit eye-rolling.

One nice thing about rat holes is that they also give power to the player.  They give a feeling of control and ownership.  Because they are relatively linear, they are pretty easy to create.  However, all forms of interactivity can be added to them if the desire is there.

4: Present different spins of the same world depending on the player's paths

In branching scenarios, different paths lead to different outcomes.  Typically and necessarily, the player influences some or all of the depicted events.  But along some parts of the journey, a good branching story may also present different interpretations of the same events and even different versions of the same options.

In this veterinarian scenario on mindfulness, the sim, depending on if the player (inadvisably) jumps to a conclusion on the diagnosis or keeps an open mind, presents the same two options but with different shades of spin.
In the sim from which this was taken, this second choice, (nodes #42 and #39 in the chart below) led to the beginning of two different paths down which the player could go.

5. Make it easy to start over; make it easy to skip to the end

Most of the individual branching stories I create for organizations are about four or five minutes long.  A typical half-hour program may have six of them, and some of my favorite programs draw six random scenarios from a pool of twelve created to mix things up.

One of the best signs that I have created the right branching story is when players replay a sim three or four times, exploring a variety of paths, even when they don't have to.  The sim has to be interesting enough, even charming enough to warrant that extra-attention.  (Charm is that secret ingredient that has to be considered essential,)

Similarly, especially if a branching story is a lab or a choose-you-own-adventure, if at all possible, put both frequent options to [Start over], and frequent options to [Skip to the end] and get the explicit  "lesson."  This puts players at ease, and lets them explore the sim in their own way.  It feels less like an assessment and more like an enjoyable, instructive experience.  (I try to avoid a directive leadership style whenever possible, and prefer a collaborative approach.  I assume the person wants to learn, and I create a rich experience that justifies and rewards their interest.)

Almost every time in one of my sims a player has skipped to the end to learn the formal lesson, he or she has returned to see what it is like to apply the material

6. Give the player some optional alter egos

In the first list of ten simple techniques, I suggested that designers give players some no-consequence decisions, especially around self-expression.

In one recent sim, I asked students what beverage they wanted when they first woke up.  It was not relevant, but led to an important moment.  The choices I gave the student were:
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Orange juice
  • Water
  • Milk
  • Protein smoothie
  • Mountain Dew
  • Bawls
  • Bacon Hot Sauce, straight up.
The generic responses got generic responses, but some of the more bizarre choices got more customized and targeted responses.

In other sims, I have taken this idea one step further, to add some charm to an experience, and encourage exploration.  I have given the player the possibility of taking on very character-driven alter egos, or just play it straight.  

Here is a snippet from an information interview style branching story, where I created a consistent, manic, cheeky, far too talky alter ego option (think shades of Monty Python or Dr. Who).  This hardly impacted the flow, and not any conclusions, but it added some fun.  

7. When ordering the presented options in a branching story, develop a consistent navigation strategy

If designing a branching story - such as a persuasion scenario, a lab, an information interview, or other - I try to use the ordering of the presented options predictably and constantly throughout an experience, if possible. For example, if a player is navigating a structure, I may have in the back of my mind:
  • Option A: Interact 
  • Option B: Move to the Left
  • Option C: Move to Straight Ahead
  • Option D: Move to the Right
In a persuasion scenario, I might try to think of the different strategies, and put them in a consistent order, such as:
  • Option A: Listen
  • Option B: Be accommodating
  • Option C: Give a hard choice
  • Option D: Deliver an ultimatum
Obviously the language changes each "turn", but the options are roughly the same.
Similarly, in information interview style interaction, I used the following consistent framework, 
  • Option A: As for clarification of a term.
  • Option B: Go into more detail in the current item.
  • Option C: Skip over the details and go to the next big idea.
  • Option D: Move on to the next entire section.
This last example makes it much easier to design.  Here is a snippet of an implementation from an information interview of web design:
  • Node 1 (Subject Matter Expert): I look for people who have some critical hard skills, also called the technical skills. For these products, I like to think of them in terms of  "frontend" and "backend". 
    • What's the difference between frontend and backend? [Go to Node 2]
    • Tell me about the frontend. [Go to Node 3]
    • Let's skip the front end and  go right to the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 2: The frontend is all the things that the final users will touch and see. The backend is all the hard-core coding that goes on to make products reliable and function properly.
    • Got it.  Tell me about the frontend.[Go to Node 3]
    • Let's skip the front end and go right to the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 3: For frontend programming, the most important language you can learn is JavaScript. You should be very fluent in JavaScript, and all the relevant JavaScript libraries.  Other languages you need to be familiar with are CSS and HTML.
    • Tell me about the backend. [Go to Node 4]
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
  • Node 4: There are a lot of different platforms that run web services. The most popular one today, and probably the easiest to get started with, is Ruby on Rails. 
    • Go deeper.
    • Interesting, but my eyes are glazing a bit.  Let's switch topics. [Next section]
Finally, I never tell the player that I am doing this, nor do I rely on the player being aware of this, but it does makes the use of the scenario subtly more intuitive and even gamelike.

8. Ask quick questions to challenge assumptions, but in a no-consequence way

One of the greatest challenges in creating a branching story is breaking up long passages of exposition.  The player has to be engaged at all times; the metronome of responses has to be rapid.  One technique is to ask short questions of the player that provide some insight into the subject matter, and where there is no judging of the answer as right or wrong.

Example 1: Avatar: Here's a statement I heard.   The theft and sale on the black market of credit card numbers will catch up with illegal drug sales as the number one source of revenue for organized crime in the next decade.  Do you think that is true or false?
  • False.  Drugs are everywhere.
  • True.  Computers are everywhere.
  • Credit card fraud is already higher than the sale of illegal drugs.
Example 2: Avatar: I am in charge of Information Technology.  Guess what my major was in college?
  • History.
  • Medicine.
  • Drama.
In this second example, I shortcutted the process of having the avatar give the three options, and just present them.  Further, in this essentially random presentation, and where the student can't know the right answer, each option should have some pedagogical significance.  In this example, assuming Medicine is not the right answer, the on-screen character may say, "No, it was history.  But I am now looking at hiring a candidate who does have a medical background because I want that immunology thinking in my team" rather than, "Wrong.  History."

9. Break the fourth wall

As said in #1, it is often best to have the onscreen avatar be a coach or friend, rather than the adversary directly.  (The coach can still role play the adversary, if necessary.)

One light, fun technique is to then have the coach provide a bit of meta-commentary on the sim itself.

For example, I had one coach say, near the end of the branching story, "Right now, I am supposed to ask you three questions.  I don't know who wrote these - they seem pretty irrelevant.  But they make us all do it.  Ready? Here's the first one. "

Or have a coach provide some context, such as starting the session with, "It's great to talk to you, and thank you for your interest.  I have to warn you, I am flying out to Saudi Arabia in about two hours, and I still have to pack, so let's make this quick."  This framing came from a real life context in which I did the interview.  The purpose of the trip, and even the packing that had to be done, worked its way into the sim.

A final example:  In response to a student rat hole, where the student asks the coach, "How old am I in this scenario," the coach replied, "I don't know.  It doesn't say in the notes they gave me."

This can allow some greater interest and fun, even charm.  It softens the melodrama often present in the genre.  Obviously the technique should be used very sparingly.

10. Use strongly negative emotions for feedback very sparingly

For some reason, in branching stories, most designers create onscreen avatars that are as delicate and prone to negative emotional outburst as the typical Internet chat room.  Click on the wrong option, and onscreen characters fume with spittle flying, look at you with hate in their eyes, grind their teeth, and otherwise seem about ten seconds away from having an aneurysm.

The meta-genre of branching story makes this so easy to do, and some of the time it is appropriate.  But it can make an unrealistic and unpleasant experience for the player.  I would rather deliver negative feedback with a resigned smile, especially when key pedagogical information has to be delivered.  A lost client may say, "I like this bank, and it is convenient.  But the other bank has this great program that I just can't resist."

Here are other places to use angry emotions.
  • Use the negative emotion as a starting point for the avatar's arc, not an ending point.  Have the character start mad at the world (not the player, i.e. "the elevator is broken again on the hottest day of the year"), and then go from there.  This can make for an interesting context.  
Negative emotions can be great input into a decision.
  • Use negative emotions as a result of the player going down a rat hole, making deliberately fun and terrible choices, and  in other situations where the player feels as if they are in control.  Tap everyone's inner six year and delight at driving the teacher crazy.    
  • In some cases, have the anger of the avatar be something to which the player has to resist.  There may be an easy option to make the avatar less mad, but the right one is to the right thing regardless.

Three Examples of Branching Stories

I created these simple examples of interactive media.  (For some organizations, I have created between six and twelve of these short stories for ethics review classes and orientation.) These illustrate some of the points in "10 More Simple But Effective Branching Story Techniques."

Be the Hacker

Car Pool

Audio File

Also play:

Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome weighs in on "Sims" vs. "Serious Game" Babel Problem

Getting "A Good Sim Score" on Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome : "Episode 1"
I wrote in The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games (Pfeiffer, October 12, 2009) about what I called "The Babel Problem."  Here is an excerpt:
The Babel Problem—“Serious Games” or “Educational Simulations”  
As noted, the focus of this book is to present common definitions of concepts and terms that apply to Sims. The lack of common terms is a huge problem, and it has substantially hindered the development of the simulation space. Sponsors, developers, and students have not been able to communicate intelligently. 
Perhaps the most salient example of this is the total lack of a universal name for the space (as in, “For our next program, we will use a ___ approach,” or “I am going to a conference to learn more about ____”).  
Here are the top ten candidates:  
10. Virtual experiences. Pros: Captures the essence of the value proposition. Cons: Overlaps with “social networking.”  
9. Games. Pros: Unambiguous and unapologetic; all smart animals from cats to otters to African Grays see play as a way of learning core skills. Computer games (a subsection of all games) are a $10 billion industry, therefore computer games should be in classrooms (something other people say even more convincingly than I do). Cons: People play lots of games anyway—what is the value of forcing them to play more? Besides, the term is too diverse; would you want your doctor to have learned from a game?  
8. Simulations. Pros: Scientific, accurate, really serious-sounding. Cons: Includes many approaches that are not instructional (weather simulations) or engaging; implies 100 percent predictive accuracy.  
7. Social impact games. Pros: Conveys the nobleness of the cause. Differentiates from the default notion of games as not having a (or having a negative) social impact. Cons: Still emphasizes the tricky word games, and doesn’t fit in corporate or military cultures. In any case, has any social impact game actually had a social impact? 
6. Practiceware. Pros: Emphasizes the core of practicing to learn skills. Recalls physical models such as batting cages and driving ranges. Cons: It’s a frankenword; besides, it doesn’t include a lot of puzzles and awareness-raising activities. It sounds vocational.  
5. Game-based learning or digital game-based learning. Pros: Spells everything out—game and learning—any questions? Cons: Sounds dated and academic. 
4. Immersive learning simulations. Pros: Hits all the key points. Cons: Doesn’t roll off the tongue. Name sounds a bit redundant (wouldn’t any two of the three words work just as well?), and besides, it sounds expensive. (And does “immersive” equal “3D”?)  
3. Educational simulations. Pros: Sponsors like it. Cons: Sounds hard and perhaps too rigorous for casual students.  
2. Serious games. Pros: Nicely ironic; students like it; press loves it—loves it (I mean New York Times and “serious games” should get a room); researchers use it as a way to get foundation grants; it’s the most popular handle. Cons: Sponsors hate it, and instructors from academics, corporate, and military hate it. It emphasizes the most controversial part of the experience—the fun part (that is, the game elements), and it often describes content that is too conceptual (you would never call a flight simulator a “serious game”). Most examples of serious games are neither very serious nor very good games. For better and worse, the term is the successor to edutainment.  
1. Sims. Pros: Attractive to both students and sponsors; it captures the essence, and it’s fun. Cons: Also includes computer games in general, as well as one very famous franchise.
I actually first used the term "sims" as an umbrella term for educational simulations and serious games in Learning by Doing (2004), knowing that serious games among the academic community was more popular in the short term but more problematic in the long.  So it was with some pleasure that I heard, on Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome : "Episode 1" (time 3:19) the following dialogue:
"Good sim score?"
"No, no. Not a good sim score. The top sim score."
"Well, I'm impressed."
"Thanks.I'd be if I were you."