Before moving out to the West Coast, I worked for several months with the irrepressibly delightful Jessica Hammer on refining the mechanics and creating the visual style for ADVANCE!, a Diner Dash-ish game at the center of her doctoral dissertation. Jessica has an extremely sophisticated understanding of games and game dynamics, so naturally the game she envisioned was much more than a resource distribution clickfest.
ADVANCE! is a sneaky little game. It’s both a craftily created study of systemic biases in corporate settings masquerading as a game and also as a kind of time-release pill to confront players with evidence of their own biases which they might otherwise be able to plausibly deny. If someone in a study setting asks you to sort through a group of resumes based on the candidates’ appropriateness for a particular job, you will probably make every effort to appear equanimous, even if in a real-life situation you would rarely chose a female candidate over a male candidate. But people love games, they love figuring out the rules and winning, so if you create a game which rewards behaviors that in a non-game setting might be considered uncouth, you can in theory short-circuit political correctness and self-censorship—provided you make the gameplay compelling enough.
And that’s where I came in. I created the visual feel for the game—an info-graphicky, isometric layout with a consistent information panel to the right modeled on a simplified CRM platform—and helped to distill the actual gameplay so that each element and each interaction reinforced the theme while also adrenalizing the game’s fun-ness and making it simple to make complicated judgements based on multiple data points quickly. The final result is a game that looks great and boasts some really nifty mechanics.
Players run a job agency responsible for staffing a faceless but multi-ethnic corporation in a boring high-rise office building. As applicants enter the job queue, players can look for appropriate job openings within the company. Each job requires certain minimum qualifications. If the player doesn’t fill a job quickly, the company will hire an NPC internally.
Each job also comes with its own politics, symbolized on the game board by hearts and skulls beneath the colleagues that come with a particular job. The higher the ratio of hearts to skulls, the more likely a candidate will thrive in a position and become eligible for promotion.
Promotions (and demotions) happen automatically when a job opens on a floor above a certain character’s current floor and his/her qualifications have increased sufficiently. Alternately, the player may choose to train characters to manually enhance their skills, though this can prove very expensive.
The abstract notion of a score is replaced with a running tally of the job agency’s bank account balance. Running the business costs money, so this balance creeps downward throughout the game. Successfully placing job candidates results in cash bonuses, and the player receives a percentage of their salary as long as they’re employed. Training candidates improves their job prospects as well as the bounty a player receives for placing them, but as a character becomes more experienced, the cost of training grows exponentially.
As the game proceeds, the costs of running the business escalate, so it becomes increasingly important to place candidates quickly into jobs in which they’re happy. As characters are promoted, more floors are added to the building, so finding job openings requires moving floor to floor, which uses valuable time. The ultimate goal is that players become so focused on staying afloat that they don’t notice the subtle biases that are randomly attributed to the client company at the beginning of each game. In one game, instance, the client company may promote men more than women and show a distinct preference for Asian candidates. In one version of the game, identifying the bias correctly during gameplay results in a giant cash settlement; in the other version, there is no mechanism for addressing the bias.
Much my work developing the interface was iterative simplification—removing unnecessary or irrelevant complications while maintaining the game’s overall information-dense statistical feel, and ensuring players’ ability easily and intuitively make multi-dimensional decisions such as comparing a candidate’s qualifications with job requirements while previewing that candidate’s relationship with his/her potential colleagues. I played the skinless prototype—a grid of geometric shapes—which I found totally compelling; I can’t wait to play the finished product!