It’s hard to know where to begin in summarising the first episode of Mirror State. The buildup to the day and the game itself is quite a blur looking back on it now. Fortunately I made notes. Lots of notes.
Let’s start with my completely subjective review of the game – it was great. Feedback so far has been near universally ecstatic (95% enjoyed the game, 100% would like to play again) and despite some, from my perspective, glaring problems with how it ran I’m marking this down as a win. Rather than talk about what was good, and it all mostly worked so that would be a pretty lengthy article, I’m going to focus on what I’m going to work on ahead of the next episode.
1. Briefing players during the game
Please take a look at the diagram below.
No, it’s not a working schematic of the Starship Enterprise‘s warp core, rather it’s how the game should work. It starts like this – the Antagonist decides to do one of their nefarious actions. Under almost every scenario this leads to one or more human players receiving A BRIEFING. This could be a hint at what’s going on, possibly accurate, possibly misleading, but it’s the means by which the story continues. Each of these briefings represent what the humans should know based on the current status of the world.
As a result of receiving a briefing, the Agency, Corporation, Media group or even State involved will choose either to reveal the information or not – this is more likely if they’ve no intention of following up on the briefing. Usually however there will be an inter-department discussion on the subject where it is decided what to do next.
Once the action is decided, and if necessary voted on, the humans tell the appropriate moderator what they’re going to do. A short time later they’ll then receive a followup briefing and the cycle begins again.
This did not quite go to plan in Episode One. Briefings weren’t always delivered in a timely fashion, some went missing entirely, and it lead to the situation where the US was probably less prepared than they should have been. This was the moderation team at fault with some left hand/right hand miscommunication, but we’ve got the solution ready to roll.
One of the major strengths in Episode One was the digital briefing system used with the media players. While much of it was automated data, it also allowed the moderators to send story hints to the media teams, and it worked really well. So, the first thing we’re going to do in addition to improving this system is extend its use to both Corporations and Agencies. The Politicians shouldn’t need it, but this is still being evaluated.
2. Hiding mechanics is fine, but…
…at least give people a fighting chance to understand how they work! This covers the earnings made by Corporations, taxes received by Politicians, how that piece of legislation will be received, better opinion polling and maps, lots of maps. This will manifest itself in part through better pre-game briefings and in part through digital means – not least of all in terms of mapping.
We want to be able to show you population changes in states (should they start to die off suddenly), which way states are voting, where resources are deployed and more. Corporations should expect to receive detailed earnings reports, politicians understand their tax receipts and generally get a better view on some of the numbers used to simulate the US population.
3. Pacing and Act 3
The game was slow to get moving. This will often be the case in a megagame as players find their feet, however my feeling was we were 30-45 minutes behind an acceptable slow start. Part of this was down to briefing issues (as mentioned in #1) but largely it was down to not having clear objectives immediately. We’ll fix that.
Act 1 of the game is the time when the world is largely “normal”. Standard domestic and international politics are at play, agencies are pitching for budget, states are working on re-election strategies, it’s all good. Act 2 starts with the discovery of the primary threat – it is the main story arc in the game and ratchets the action up a notch. It ends when humanity is standing on the brink of defeat.
Now it might seem odd that it only occurred to me when watching Episode One play out, but shouldn’t we have a series of potential fight-backs, retaliations and the like for mankind? The answer is yes. In the game just played we waited to see what would emerge from the players in the game, but it became very apparent from where I was standing that most infected states were digging in for the long term, and had the game gone on longer it would have got pretty repetitive, and slow in a hurry.
To combat this we’ll be designing each threat with several means to combat it built in. There’ll also be other routes to a non-extinction ending that will emerge, but we want a concrete act 3 in the same way that acts 1 and 2 are. This doesn’t mean to say that humanity will survive, or that there’s a narrow band of options to combat the threat. Quite the opposite in fact, however rather than leave it in the hands of fate to see what happens if things escalate fast (as they did in Episode One) we want to make sure that humanity isn’t completely screwed in the space of 45 minutes.
The main development we’ll use to accomplish this will be scientific research. Now this research could be done by the CDC, NASA, DoD or any other agency but more likely is that it will be the corporations who get there first. This has the advantage of giving the Corporations potentially enormous power later in the game – pleasant negotiations are for the first two acts, the third is about the Corporations flexing their muscles.
There are a lot of moving pieces in each of these changes to the game and I haven’t mentioned some other wins like a larger font and better scrolling system for the on-screen news. Or improved display of the election. Or greater opportunity to use polling. Or new ways to buy airtime on media channels. Or legislation forms to speed up the political game. Or simpler opening legislation, clearer state information and much more. I’ve a couple of dozen changes in total that I’m making, but it all boils down to two fundamental intentions :
1. Better communication of what’s going on
2. Greater clarity over the simulated world
In the post-game survey there wasn’t much appetite for a simpler game, but there was plenty of support for understanding it better, so that’s what I’m going to deliver. Episode Two should be a stride forward in gameplay opportunities with another boost in polish. You won’t want to miss it.