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Making It With Science: A TUG Interview

"a game that is circumstantial for everybody"

TUG is an interesting proposition. A game of exploring and building, a multiplayer thing that encompasses lots of what has excited us about games over the past few years – dynamic, procedurally-produced environments, exploration, collaboration. It's also a platform that will be exposed as much as possible to modding, and the Kickstarter explicitly supports creating tools to make that easy. It also claims to be using science and academia in its development. How can such mad alchemy be possible? It was time to ask Nerd Kingdom's handsomely bearded academic, Peter Salinas.

RPS: Can you explain to me who you guys are? How do you get from academia to a games Kickstarter?

Salinas: Well a lot of us are academics and scientists, a bunch are game developers and artists. For most of us this stuff really started for us about a decade ago, because we started to get into the MMO scene, the social online gaming scene, around that time. We all grew up gaming and playing Dungeons & Dragons in basements, just like everyone else, and we got to see that things were happening in these games that we were beginning to understand in our studies. When we started to see how those interactions were mapping to theories that we had about the real world, and we began to look at them more closely. We jumped into EQ and UO, World Of Warcraft and so on, and we got to see how economies could be influenced and manipulated, and how interactions of different kinds impacted on guilds socio-culturally. Essentially there was a huge boom in understanding what was happening in virtual worlds, and as time progressed we realised that what we were trying to understand, and what game developers were trying to understand, were totally in sync. But we had very different languages. When we got to talk to people working on games then we got to see how close we were, but also we got to see how much the language barrier sucked, and it sucked so much. We'd say stuff like “okay, let's path a linear progression model and see how that can map to progressive systems of self-representation,” and basically that meant: “let's make it so the progression system isn't shitty, and see why people give a shit about the armour.” That's really what stuff like that meant. So we got together, and said: we have to take what we know and try and make it fun. Let's see if people want to jump on board in the process. That's how TUG got launched.

RPS: But how do academic backgrounds lead into games? What sort of studies lend themselves to game development?

Salinas: Well, for example, my background is in socio-cultural studies, a psychology background. What I do is I study how people perceive things, technology and communications, videogames especially. Moses Wolfenstein, who gets a lot attention because of his name, he studies learning sciences and policy, and what that translates to in game terms is how complexity is introduced in a way that makes thing palatable, or confusing, or complicated. Policy is understanding rule-sets, so how the games are governed. Jim Gee is the godfather of videogames literacy, he is more of an advisor to us. Actually it's unfortunate that more people don't know who he is, because he has been fighting all the negativity towards games for many years, and he focuses on how positive games are for families, and how positive they can be for learning. Ted Castronova is a brilliant mind and a professor of telecommunications and he is a huge mythology buff, too. He is a quantitative mind, but he likes to apply that to fantastical things. He was one of the first people who realised that virtual economies existed in games, and pushed that entire area of study right forward. Dmitri Williams, he studies psychology and behaviour in videogames, and he spoke on behalf of the industry to the government to explain that games are not there to make people to crazy things, but that crazy things come from people who later want to make excuses for them. One of those procedural cop dramas made a villain out of him, actually: evil Dmitri Williams who used psychology to make evil videogames. That was kind of funny. Then Steve Levkoff handles our economics...

RPS: That's an extraordinary range of people. How did you all find yourselves working together on one thing?

Salinas: The academic community is massively collaborative. It's funny, right, because while the industry is based on creating worlds together, its done with the motivation of doing business, and so people hide things all the time. But the academic community gets excited about sharing information with each other. And I think the tradeoff for that is that sometimes academic information becomes nonsensical or just doesn't have any impact whatsoever. But there are a few of us who were into videogames who wanted to see how what we knew impacted on game development itself. So we go to conferences and talk about this stuff, and over time we began to stick together more, and eventually started doing things. Making things.

Cover image for YouTube video

RPS: I've heard a few academics say that all academics who study games should make games. Do you think that's fair? How much does it actually help study?

Salinas: I think it totally does. And I think you see developers that are evolving beyond games, people who reach a point who leave the industry and look towards academia. And that goes the other way, too. It's like this: the impact of interactions in videogames is largely mapped from the real world, right, so when you play you can say “that doesn't feel right”, it sounds very from the hip, but there's something very profound about that, because it's about how people perceive a game, and that will be part of how we judge the consistency of a game. There will be a very specific way to understand that: we know from other areas of study that things that are complex will be more or less engaging depending on the rate someone is exposed to them. This is something that isn't generally tested, and you don't normally take the time to figure that out, necessarily, or you do it as you go along. For us understanding those intricacies happen first. For example we have been trying to work a lot of this stuff out in Minecraft, and we've been getting a lot of help from the modding community to do that – it's a very open game and community. Small changes, subtle changes, can give you real insight into what worked and what doesn't. This speaks to why we have alpha and beta processes in game development. We aren't saying that “science is the way to understand everything”, we want to say “here are some our hypotheses and here's how they might apply.” For an example of that: we're not going to allow there to be any guilds in our game. We got a lot of very aggressive feedback about that, about how lazy it was, and how it was going to ruin things. But this doesn't come from one area, this is a balance of things we've tried to understand from different angles: how people look in the game, and what that means for how you profile them, whether we display handles in the game world, what stats are visible to players. It all matters. These are all strange and abstract elements, but they sync out to create an experience that is more or less immersive. Once we've balanced them with the community we should be able to work out if they are also more or less fun.

RPS: Can you explain where the concept for TUG came from in all this? Was it one person's vision?

Salinas: Well, it's fair to say that this game did not come from one person. Rather, well, we wanted to look at how games map to the real world. At the dawn of time we “launched” civilisation and based ourselves around resources. In real world civilisation people's cultures and economics evolved depending on what those people are exposed to: some places have a lot of gold, some places have a lot of iron, and so on. They would evolve culture, society, law, based on their resources. That really was our starting point for the game: how people would have evolved from the dawn of time, and how we worked as a society. From there we dropped in stuff that we liked, picked designed systems that we liked: dragons, goblins, and all that stuff.

RPS: Can you talk a bit about the player experience in TUG? What's going to happen to that first time player?

Salinas: They're going to dropped in some random location, and they won't know exactly where they are. They might be by a river, they might be in mountains, they might be in a dark cave. We want them to start exploring, picking up sticks, picking up rocks, picking up vines, and seeing what they can and can't do with those things. It really is a matter of discovering what's going on in the environment. Players will begin to realise that the little choices they are making are either going to allow them to progress, or to get stuck where they're at. So as an example, a player might find a rock a vine and a stick, and they might make a small axe and cut down trees, kill animals, or whatever else it is they need to survive the environment. They might discover things that are more mysterious, and less obvious... and we're not trying to make a game that is easy for everybody, but rather a game that is circumstantial for everybody. So you might start the game in front a bear, that's just how it might happen. But we want that to be based on a variety of possible play.

RPS: So people are going to be making their own goals? And that's true of groups of players?

Salinas: We're doing some interesting things on a social level. Players are going to want to co-operate with each other, or they are going to want to compete with each other, and that is going to come down to what is available to them. For the single player it's going to be about exploring: seeing unique environments and so on. Procedural generation is a very fuzzy word, but with the maths we're using we can create incredible caves, strange overhangs of rocks, and so on. Unique things to see. The day and night cycles and the seasons will change everything drastic, too. That will affect the kinds of creatures that appear – a mystical creature might only appear at the solstice at sunset, for example.

RPS: What would the Kickstarter money mean for you guys?

Salinas: Right now it would be about letting us make more modding tools, and getting more art support. The core technologies are essentially done: we developed the engine in-house for ourselves so we have more flexibility and more ability to make changes. If we get the support from Kickstarter the mod tools are the most important thing. We want to see what people will do with this stuff. That's part of why we want to get a lot of dynamic systems in place, like lighting and shadows and day cycles and all the rest of it, so people have all that stuff already in place to make the kind of games they want to play. As for the art support, well, the core systems are there, but we want the art to flesh that out. We could do it ourselves, but right now a lot of us are working jobs to do this on the side.

RPS: So what's the immediate plan?

Salinas: An alpha in July! We're just finishing a few things up, adding polish like particle systems. We're going to introduce a few design features and get a bit of feedback, and act on that. When we get to the beta we will get more of the RPG and survival features involved, and that's happening in January 2014.

RPS: We look forward to seeing that. Thanks for your time.

TUG has just over a week left on its Kickstarter.

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Jim Rossignol