Coming July 1: GRADQUEST

*Update: the game has been released! You can play it by following the links here.

I'm planning on releasing my upcoming game, GRADQUEST, on (at minimum) Kongregate and Google Play on Tuesday, July 1. Short notice, but I decided to set a hard deadline to release GRADQUEST because it's the only way I'll ever finish it and get it out the door.

When I first came up with the idea for GRADQUEST, I was a graduate student in a PhD program in ecology and evolutionary biology and making games was a hobby. Feeling somewhat burned out, I decided to take a breather and make a game. The idea was to take a cynical look at graduate school life and try to use game mechanics to tell a story about being a (literally) faceless grad student. It was a joke at the time. A couple months later, I admitted to myself that this really was how I viewed graduate school and made the decision to leave.

I don't want to spoil too much, but I wanted to highlight a few examples of how I've tried to portray grad student life through game mechanics.

The rules are unclear

The game is intentionally very opaque about how it should be played. There are instructions that tell you how to do things, but you're never really told what to do or given any sort of overarching goal. I assume most players will try to complete their dissertation and graduate, and maybe become a professor. But, is that the best outcome? Is that "winning?"

A very interesting lesson from game design is that if you put an obstacle in front of a player, they'll try to overcome it, sometimes without question. In a kind of Milgram-esque way, you can lead players to do things that may not actually be in their best interest by creating a series of short-term obstacles and a sense of achievement when overcoming them. I once played a text adventure where the goal was to torture a prisoner, and you had to be specific about what you wanted to do to which body part. He would scream or mutter in another language or cry. You had no context, just a vague goal and actions that elicited responses. It never ended; I just stopped playing after a while. In these kinds of situations, the question becomes: how long will the player stay in the box you put them in?

GRADQUEST is not nice to players. It mocks them if they ask for help:

Most graduate students go through periods of imposter syndrome at some point during their education. I know I did. It makes it difficult to ask questions, as it feels like you should know what you're doing at this point. But so many of us really don't.

As a result, in GRADQUEST, you don't really have any direction as to what you should be doing, and your advisor (not based on my own advisor, by the way!) is comically detached and unhelpful. There are always a set of very obvious things you could do, but will they help you reach your goal or are they just distractions?

You have no control: success is random

Success in academia, despite popular belief, is not about how smart you are or how hard you work. In the end, your success or failure will be determined by a host of factors, many of which you have no control over.

In the game, players choose how many tasks they'll try to accomplish each semester (taking courses, doing research, trying to earn money), then distribute a limited pool of dice among those tasks. A roll of the dice, plus whatever revelant skill the player has developed, determines success or failure. Trying to do too much will result in spreading your effort too thin and failing at everything; do too little and you'll run out of time before you meet all the requirements.

In earlier prototypes of the game, the sense of chaos and futility was even more pronounced. There was no dice allocation. Skills were completely meaningless; for every point you increased a skill, the difficulty when using that skill would just go up as well. This was a little too cynical and not enough of a game, so I made some modifications.

Success isn't the only thing that you can't control. Plenty of things can go wrong at some point and there's nothing you can do to prevent them. You may suddenly discover an undiagnosed health problem. You may have very difficult financial issues and struggle to find funding and pay rent. Your dog might die. All these things can get in the way of making progress toward your degree.

On the other hand, you might suddenly win a national fellowship and have smooth sailing from that point on. (Ironically, a few months after deciding to leave graduate school myself, I was awarded an NSF graduate fellowship. A little late, guys.)

You will almost certainly fail

Good luck paying all that debt off with your degree in Historical Blorbology!

The odds of "succeeding" (using a very narrow definition of success) at any stage in academia are low. 50% of doctoral students leave without graduating. Around 2% of those that do graduate will become professors. However, in real life, we tend to think that we are somehow different from everyone else. We can beat those odds. Sure, lots of people won't make it, but I'm special!

In GRADQUEST, you're not special. In fact, you have no control over any aspect of yourself except how you spend your time. Everything, from your appearance to attributes and background, are randomly generated. If you don't like what you get, you can roll again, but many factors - financial obligations, for example - are random and initially hidden from the player. You also don't know how or which visible attributes might affect the game. Does it matter that I have glasses? That I'm female? My school or field? Quantitative skills? Skin color? These are things you don't always have control over in real life. I didn't think it was fair to give the player too much control.

It may take several playthroughs to get a job as a professor, and a few more to get tenure. Unfortunately in real life you can't insert a quarter and try again.

Depressed yet?

I hope not! I actually find the game pretty fun, and it's been cathartic to make and play. There's something deeply fulfilling about struggling to succeed in a world that's designed to bring you down, as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. The game is simple enough to play through - it shouldn't take you more than about 20 minutes each time. There are lots of possibilities and outcomes, so things can go differently each time you play.

Hope you'll give GRADQUEST a try on July 1. Good luck!