IGF Factor 2012: Prom Week

Next up in our series of chats with this year’s Independent Games Festival finalists is Mike Treanor and Josh McCoy from the UC Santa Cruz team behind ambitious high school-based social simulation/strategy game Prom Week – which is in the running for the Technical Excellence gong at IGF 2012. Here, they talk flirting, ‘social physics’, bathrooms and their answer to the most important question of all.

RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What is your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

Mike: I am Mike Treanor and I am a PhD student in the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz and I am a lead on Prom Week. My focus is on design (and tons of coding of course). I got into making videogames because they seemed like the ultimate medium for expression (the whole artgame thing). With priorities like that, you pretty much have no choice but to be indie!

Josh: My name is Josh McCoy and, like Mike, I am a Ph.D. student at EIS in the Center for Games and Playable Media at UC Santa Cruz. I come from both sociology/anthropology and computer science backgrounds and really like the intersection between the two. I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember and enjoy a wide variety of games from sports to LARPing to PC games. By luck, I found my way to working with Michael Mateas in EIS and have had a chance to bring all of my passions together making games and doing research in the intersection of humanities, AI and game design. Indie games seemed like a natural fit for the type of work we do.

RPS: Tell us about your game. What were its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?

Mike: Prom Week is a social simulation/strategy game. In it, you control the social actions that a group of high school students take with one another in the week before their prom. Each character’s desires and responses are formed by over 5,000 social considerations (e.g. “if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you”, or “I’ll be pissed if my friend flirts with someone I have a crush on”).

The game is incredibly dynamic. If a level has a goal to get two characters to date, there are countless ways to pull it off. Sorta like how Crayon Physics makes use of its simulation of physics to enable emergent solutions to puzzles, we make use of the “social physics” we built. Also, Prom Week does all this while having actual dialogue (rather than icons in thought bubbles like The Sims).

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if I could change something about the game, I would add achievements.

Josh: The Prom Week was created to explore an in-development AI system model of small group social interaction. This was a direct reaction to the “social games” implicitly encoded behaviours for Grace and Trip in FaÁade. The goal was to take these behaviours and use them explicitly — any character should be able to pick up and use a social game to further their own social agenda. Comme il Faut, the social AI system in Prom Week, provides a procedural social environment for characters to use these first-class patterns of social behaviour at any time they are appropriate. The author only has to write each behaviour once and it’s available to all the characters. After all, why not make social interaction and character dialogue as procedural as combat systems commonly are?

I am very happy that Prom Week turned out to be an experience people enjoy. We aimed high and had a lot of room for failure. It’s not often that a research system for interactive dramas gets implemented into a playable experience meant to be widely played and I feel we have created a game that is fun and compelling for a lot of players.

Adding “gossip about”, “spread rumour” or “ask them out for me” options for the player is at the top of my wishlist for Prom Week. Right now most of the interactions are dyadic with the AI system bringing in 3rd characters were appropriate. Having the player choose a 3rd character and how to use them would add a new level of fun.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

Mike: I’m totally pleased! Being an IGF finalist is the highest honour any of us could have expected when we started this. It validates all of our hard work and crazy ambition (Prom Week really is insanely ambitious).

As for the other finalists, I love the ones I know and look forward to seeing the others. Stand outs for me are Storyteller, Spelunky and GIRP.

Josh: I have to echo Mike — being nominated alongside the best of indie developers is quite an honour. I’ve played and enjoyed indie games for years and I’m glad to be able to contribute to the community.

Each of the finalists’ games (and the honourable mentions for that matter) look awesome! I am looking forward to playing them. Very impressed! In particular Storyteller (for obvious reasons), Botanicula, Dear Esther (<3 ghost stories), Frozen Synapse and Antichamber are games I really want to get my hands on.

RPS: Which game would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

Mike: No strong opinion. All awesome!

Josh: My sympathies to the jury…

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near future?

Mike: I feel good about it. Passionate people making things they want to make.

I sorta want to say that I wish more people would take bigger risks. You can’t deny that AAA games grow up a little every time you see an original indie game get a lot of attention. But I don’t know, fun indie games that don’t take many risks are awesome too.

Josh: As a developer passionate about AI, more please! There is so much new, fertile ground to break in this space. We’ve got a good grasp on physics and Euclidean space; it’s time push forward other frontiers.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

Mike: I’m very excited about the future. Prom Week will release soon, and I am really excited to see what people think about it.

I’m wrapping up the PhD next year. On the way, I will be finish up “Cartoonist”, a collaboration with the GA Tech Newsgames group that can generate games that represent ideas, as well as make one more game that revolves around in game economies. Heck with Prom Week finished, I may even have time to finish a side project “diary game” that I’ve been sitting on for years (it’s about being in bathrooms).

Josh: I’m working on my dissertation now and should be on the job market in June. I’m looking forward to prototyping some new game ideas, pushing forward social AI systems, and taking a hard look at AI-based game design (while practicing, of course).

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

Mike: Oh, I don’t talk to strangers.

Josh: Um, hey! Where’s the yellow key in The Citadel? k thx

RPS: Thanks for your time

Prom Weekwill be released soon – you can request to join the beta here. The full list of IGF 2012 finalists is here, and keep an eye on RPS for more interviews over the coming days and weeks.


  1. Kdansky says:

    This sounds like something more games need. I’m so tired of the old fetchquest with trivial combat on the way (I am looking at you, WoW (and at you, WoW-clones)). Sadly, it uses one of the few settings I absolutely despise: American High School.

    • Keith Nemitz says:

      If you don’t mind slipping back a few decades, try ‘Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!’, not as dynamic of a story, but a pretty wild story (adventure/lite-RPG).

  2. Rinox says:

    Saw that article pic and instantly misread the title as “Prom Geek”

    • Tokjos says:

      I misread the name of the studio as “Excessive Intelligence”.

  3. Chris D says:

    Like most geeks I have mixed feelings about the whole concept of proms. By which I mean a deep desire to run as far as possible mixed with an intense loathing of a ritual so clearly designed to cement the status of the cool, beautiful and popular one final time before we are all cast adrift to make our own way in the world. Not that we actually had a prom at our school anyway, everyone just sort of drifted off after their last exam.

    On the other hand this seems like a really interesting concept. Games have got quite good at all manner of killing things but modelling realistic social interaction has so far eluded us. Until now?

    I hope this does really well, both for the sake of a dev coming up with interesting ideas and also because I’d really like to see this concept take off and become integrated into all kinds of RPGs. Maybe one day we’ll be as good at talking to monsters as we are at killing them.

    • Tams80 says:

      I skipped prom (which was before exams). It didn’t really bother me, but I hadn’t been at the school for that long anyway. What seems odd to me is that there are now proms for even younger people. GCSEs aren’t THAT hard people and going into sixth form isn’t that much different. ¬.¬

      As for the game. The setting and some of the dialogue doesn’t appeal to me much, the AI seems interesting.

  4. flashman says:

    Mike, Josh, if you’re reading this: go for the big counter-terrorism dollars. If you can model the emotions and related actions of a large group of people with any accuracy, the CIA wants to talk to you. I’m completely serious. Simulating actors in this way helps flesh out predicted scenarios and real-world responses from issues as benign as elections to as major as Mutually Assured Destruction.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    If the social modeling stuff works well enough then this could be quite special, as least as a proof-of-concept. Long term, I really, really hope that this kind of simulation makes it into the GTAs and Skyrims of the world, as they quite desperately need it. It’s an area where games have made relatively little progress in the last 30-odd years.

    • Kdansky says:

      They are actually far worse than they were 10 years ago. Wizardry 8 had hundreds of lines of dialogue per NPC, not structured in a typical dialogue-tree, but you could click on any word to talk about it. Or use your keyboard to type it (which made second play-through very different, because you knew what to ask for). Skyrim has to do with very little choice per dialogue, because everything must be voiced.

      Voice-acting utterly destroyed dialogues, and made them into cutscenes.

  6. bladedsmoke says:

    From the way the video presented the social interactions, I really don’t see how this differs from ‘The Sims, but without user-generated characters.’

    I hope I’m wrong, though. If it really was that shallow, I don’t see how it’d be in the IGF final.

  7. bill says:

    Yay! A screenshot! So i clicked and read!

  8. Craig Stern says:

    I love what they’re doing here, mechanically–but dear sweet lord, why high school? This is escapism in the same way that breaking into maximum security prison is a jailbreak.

  9. Skabooga says:

    Is this the first step in creating something like Hari Seldon’s psychohistory?