Beam Me 'Round, Scotty!

Period: September 2013 - November 2018 (various iterations)

Technology: Unity Game Engine, Blender, Inkscape, Git, C#

Gameplay Video

An archival video showing gameplay from all three versions of Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! (WARNING: Long but it covers most of what's written below...)

Background

Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! was a prototype game I developed as an experimental platform for my PhD. By developing my own game from the ground up, I had full control over every aspect of gameplay, visuals, sound, controls, etc. and could tweak each to serve any desired experiemental purpose. This was in contrast to many (if not most) Games User Research (GUR) projects I'd come across in academia at that time that instead used commercial, off-the-shelf games as platforms for running player experience tests. While that approach certainly had it's benefits (speed being foremost), it also had numerous drawbacks.

From a scientific perspective, comparing experimental results gathered using one game with results gathered using a different game invariably runs into trouble with confounds. Sure, we've observed some differences in the player experience, but was it because of our experiemental manipulation (e.g. playing with friends vs strangers) or was it because of the difference in visual appeal between the two games? The difference in controls? Players' prior familiarity with the game(s)? Narrative? Player "type"? And so on.

Progression of the Kirk character model progression over the lifetime of the BMRS project.

I designed, developed, and iterated upon Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! continuously over the course of my PhD. While all of the game development, learning, and skills development no doubt extended the duration of my PhD by many months, not only were my research results richer for it, I came away with a much broader set of game development skills, a deeper understanding of the finer details of game design, and love for creating something people can play!

With the exception of certain sound effects, which were borrowed from existing games (see if you can recognize which!), all design, code, models, and animations were created by me.

Gameplay

The core design of Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! centered around exploring asymmetric co-operation. One player assumed the role of courageous space captain Joanna T. Kirk who has crash landed on a hostile alien planet. The second player would assume the role of plucky spaceship engineering Scotty who, still safe on the orbiting starship, could use the ship's various systems to help Kirk escape.

The Kirk role was designed to be action-oriented while the Scotty role was designed to be strategic and supportive. Each role went through many iterations and explored many different facets of asymmetric co-operative play. Interested readers can read my actual PhD thesis but I'll share a general overview here.

BMRS v0

An excersize in "utting pen to paper", as it were, the very first ("zeroth") iteration of Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! served as rapid prototyping exercise: testing a wide variety of gameplay ideas, possible Kirk/Scotty mechanics, different gameplay goals (e.g. defeating N enemies vs Kirk reaching an exit), and development tools/technologies.

In the below screenshot, we can see the shared isometric perspective had already been established as well as several of Scotty's special abilities (e.g. torpedos, healing) that would persist throughout the rest of BMRS' lifespan. The procedurally generated terrain would eventually be replaced with hand-crafted levels along with some of Scotty's abilities would being completely overhauled/replaced (e.g. damage boost, shield bubble).

Screenshot of the first BMRS prototype focusing on procedural world generation.

BMRS v1

This first iteration of BMRS was played from an overhead, twin-stick shooter perspective. Kirk players used a dual-joystick gamepad while Scotty players used the mouse to deploy their special abilities.

As part of player experience testing, two levels were created. Both followed the same general sequence of beats/encounters where each different section was designed to tilt the degree and direction of interdependence between Kirk and Scotty players.

As with Super Mario Bros. World 1-1, placing a "teleport gap" challenge early in each level forced players to explore how Scotty's teleport ability worked in a stress-free situation. Similarly, the "environment hazard" section taught players about Scotty's shield ability, and so on. Later section of the level deliberately ramped up the difficulty, requiring players to work together more effectively and utilize the full breadth of Scotty's abilities.

BMRS v2

A major piece of feedback regardng BMRSv1 was how Kirk's and Scotty's conjoined perspective often interfered with Scotty's ability targeting. Because the virtual camera generally followed Kirk's movements, Scotty players were forced to dynamically adjust their aim as the enemies/objects they were targetting continuously shifted beneath their otherwise static on-screen cursor.

In response, BMRSv2 split both players perspectives: Now Kirk was played from an over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, while Scotty's perspective was move up to a fully top-down, overhead view; akin to a real-time strategy game where Scotty themselves is detached, distant, and out of direct danger. Further, Scotty's interface was shifted to a network-connected touchscreen tablet. Scotty's new drag-and-drop, token-based interface was theorized to be more intuitive for players less familiar with complex gamepad controls.

The split perspectives of Kirk and Scotty in BMRS v2.

In BMRS v2, Kirk's perspective shifted to an over-the-shoulder, third-person camera and melee attacks while Scotty's perspective shifted to directly overhead using a networked, touch-screen tablet.

This shift had the dual benefit of giving each player control over their own camera and widening the degree of asymmetry between Kirk's and Scotty's in-game perspective. Scotty players could no longer see terrain shrouded by overhangs (e.g. archways in the maze looked like solid walls to Scotty) and Kirk players now couldn't see "behind them"; increasing their reliance on Scotty's visual overview during hectic combat.

Kirk and Scotty navigate a lava maze with asymmetric abilities/perspectives.

Kirk and Scotty navigate a lava maze with asymmetric perspectives.

In addition to the now split character perspectives, two new gameplay modes were also created: "Twin Kirk" and "Twin Scotty". In these modes, rather than one player assuming the Kirk role and the other playing as Scotty, both players played as identical characters. In the Twin Kirk case, both players could cast their own healing, torpedo, teleport abilities and so didn't strictly require intervention from their play partner. In the Twin Scotty case, both players needed to shepherd their own AI-controlled "RoboKirk" to the level exit. RoboKirk could be commanded to move but would otherwise not perform any sophisticated maneuvers.

For experimental purposes, this second version of Beam Me 'Round, Scotty! was designed to test the impact of asymmetry versus symmetry on players' feelings of social connectedness. This version drove at the heart of my PhD thesis: everything else being equal would players feel more socially connected given asymmetric roles/abilities versus having symmetric versions of the same? Was it only the narrative trapping of "a sci-fi away team working together to escape danger" that caused players to feel connected or did the deliberately asymmetric gameplay mechanics have a significant impact?

Twin 'Super Kirks' navigate the same lava maze with symmetric abilities/perspectives.

Twin 'Super Kirks' navigate the same lava maze with symmetric abilities/perspectives.

BMRS v3

Again building off it's predecessor, BMRS v3 returned to the standard "1 Kirk, 1 Scotty" arrangement but this time focused in on the specific mechanical design of Scotty's various abilities (heal, shield, shock, bomb, teleport) and how those manipulations could be used to tune players' feelings of interdependence. For example, does Scotty's teleport ability require Kirk's participation? Or can Scotty's teleport Kirk unilaterally? Is it more engaging to have Scotty target torpedos but Kirk trigger them? Or does that degree of low-level, lock-step interaction veer into tedium?

Kirk targetting torpedo strikes without Scotty's intervention.