Troll Runner is an infinite runner game targeting web and desktop platforms built as a MA Project for the Serious Game Design program at Michigan State University. The serious goal of the game is to raise awareness of and decrease gender harassment in gaming communities by encouraging those who silently observe such harassment to tolerate such behavior no longer. In the game, players are a woman traversing the onlines spaces of multiple game genres who must try to run as far as she can while avoiding both static obstacles and the continuous heckling of trolls that enjoy tearing down her self-esteem because of her gender. She can also meet friends along the way who will join her journey, encourage her to push forward, and protect her from trolls and other obstacles. This project began as another game, Meaningful Adventure, that tried to acheive the same serious goal through completely different mechanics and style, but was ultimately canceled due to major concerns regarding scoping and serious message impactfulness. The team then rebooted the project as Troll Runner and built this smaller-scoped game with an eye toward extreme agility on a tight schedule.
Troll Runner was by far the most difficult game project I have yet worked on. In the past, my projects were only a semester long and mostly for the purpose of giving undergraduate and graduate students more experience in making games in Unity3D. However, this game was the culmination of a year-long collaborative Master's project that also included extensive domain research, design research surveys, and playtests conducted far more formally than in the past. This project had two distinct, semester-long phases
The fall semester, largely, ended in frustration and failure. In this stage, our team decided upon the overarching serious goal of the project, brainstormed until we came to a consensus on an idea for how to meet that goal with a fun game, and began the process of implementing the idea. For a serious goal, we settled on addressing the issue of gender harassment in gaming communities, something that in the summer and fall of 2012 had begun to receive major attention from game industry veterans and press. We wanted to contribute in our own small way to bringing about the cultural shift we saw on the horizon that would make for an industry that was far more diverse and tolerant toward women. To be clear, we were certainly aware that harassment and lack of representation were problems for people of color and LGBT* people as well, but (in my mind at least) we decided to focus on women because that sub-problem was particularly easily noticed and because the recent uptick in press coverage offered a valuable set of sources to help us get started.
We began attempting to find designs and mechanics to simultaneously address this problem in a fun game environment. We had some initial struggles and spent some time arguing in circles, but we were able to paper prototype a couple mechanics, which helped us settle on an experience that would allow players to inhabit an abstraction of an online community and choose to be a harasser or a defender of the harassed, and then observe the effects of that choice on the community's culture. We called this project Meaningful Adventure. The player would be presented with these choices in the form of a story about a talented female game industry figure who was having her character attacked via unsavory rumors, and would have to scour the communities surrounding different game genres, represented by open 3D spaces with varying artistic themes and many NPCs, for the person who had started the rumors.
Alongside this design work, we also conducted a survey using the online tool Qualtrics to collect real experiences of gender harassment in the gaming community so that we could have data to point to proving that our serious goal was indeed a problem that existed and needed fixing. We had also hoped to iterate the design of our project based on the results of the survey, but unfortunately due to IRB problems we did not run the survey until we were already well into implementation. Nonetheless, this survey was overall quite successful, as we did observe a fairly high proportion of harassment in our results, as well as some highly impactful quotations of harassing language. The one downside of this research was that the time required to properly form, execute, and parse the results of the survey was a significant drain on the time and brainpower of some team members, which slowed the progress of the project's design and implementation.
However, as the semester drew to a close, it became clear, as you may have already guessed from the above description, that this idea was vastly overscoped for the amount of resources (particularly art resources) that we had available. We all had been harboring serious doubts about whether the game would be engaging without more mechanics than walking and talking, and our implementation's progress and quality fell frustratingly short of the vision of the experience we held in our heads. Ultimately, at the beginning of the spring semester we decided to cancel Meaningful Adventure and create a new lightweight game from scratch.
We retained our original goal of increasing awareness of gender harassment, but this time we first took an eye to our project schedule and approached the problem from the direction of what messages we could send through a game in the time available to us. We decided to make an infinite game after the fashion of titles like Temple Run because we saw that such games would allow us to follow a much more agile development methodology. Overall, the game mechanics were simpler to implement and a better fit for the Unity3D engine, which meant we were able to get each feature ready for iteration very quickly. Moreover, because infinite runners are usually played in the mobile environment as opposed to the story-driven realm of PCs and consoles, they invite far lower expectations of production value from players, which we felt would give our game a better chance of standing out and carrying an impact.
The game we built was Troll Runner, a game in which the player controls a female avatar who must navigate a world full of not only the standard infinite runner obstacles, but hostile trolls. We went through several iterations of how the trolls would affect the player, starting from an instant death upon collision to damaging health upon collision and ending up with trolls being able to damage from afar by shouting their hurtful comments. This opened the door for us to add more impact to the game than just emphasizing that trolls exist and are hurtful. We chose to include subtitles and voice recordings of the trolls' comments, and every comment uttered was a real-world harassing statement taken either from our survey data or from the website Fat, Ugly, Or Slutty, who were kind enough to grant us permission to use the content they had aggregated. Some of the comments were so utterly ridiculous as to be funny, and knowing that such comments were actually uttered by a real person proved in-playtest to be helpful in getting our message across.
The other portion of serious content that we wanted to convey was that an effective path to changing the toxicity of a community is for average observers who are part of that community to speak out as a united front and make the trolls aware that their behavior is unacceptable. We communicated this message through a "friends" mechanic. Unlike most infinite runners, in which the player is usually traversing the game alone, we allowed the player to gather friends who would support them and shield them against the trolls' negativity, sometimes letting the player steamroll over a troll altogether! This positive relationship was also reflected in the scoring system--every friend added would increase the rate at which players accumulate points as they continue to survive the gauntlet. We also added a broader balancing effect to this mechanic by connecting the proportion of trolls and friends, the player's run speed, and the threshold at which a troll could be "run over" to the number of friends the player already had. This feedback loop was a subtle reinforcement served as both a helpful play feature and a subtle acknowledgement that trolls tend to shout all the louder when they are challenged.
The results of this shift in development style and design paid off, as we were able to quickly iterate on our vision of the base game and we received positive and helpful feeback from our playtest late in the project that was still workable to use in a final iteration of the game.
Overall, I think that both iterations of my MA project were one of the most valuable learning experiences I've yet had in my career. While I said earlier that Meaningful Adventure failed as a project, by no means would I say that it was wasted time or effort. The design thinking that was done in the early parts of the semester was vital to our ability to quickly begin work on Troll Runner, the quotations we collected in our research became very useful tools. Additionally, some of the abstractions and interactions we planned to use in Meaningful Adventure, such as using different visual aesthetics to represent communities surrounding different game genres, found a new form in Troll Runner, and I think it's safe to say that all of us learned valuable lessons across a variety of topics (especially on the subject of scoping and project management) from our failed first iteration. Moreover, we proved that we learned from our mistakes by making our second go at the project far more successful than the first! There are not many places where it is safe to learn from such failure, and I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to do so so early in my career.
This code responds to collision events with Friends and Trolls by increasing or decreasing the number of friends the player has (and thereby the scoring multiplier). This code will also initiate or handle actions to be taken if the player runs out of friends and dies.