Space Agent is a sound and location-based action game where the players are agents on missions to solve Earth from the invisible Xonyans trying to steal our oxygen.
Space Agent was developed by Hybrid Play and Games II ApS and published for IOS and Android by Space on Earth ApS. The company and development were financed by investment from Capnova Game Invest A/S and an innovation grant from the Danish Film Institute.
“Space Agent is ambitious, inventive and points to new directions for mobile games.”Thomas Vigild, Weekendavisen, Denmark
“Space Agent is a new Danish developed app, which is all unique.”Mom’s Apps, facebook
The sound universe and the narrator are great. You simply cannot avoid being captivated by the story. I love that the game requires movement, coordination and concentration and that both the sense of hearing and motor skills come to work.”– Kristine Grundahl, children in the city, Copenhagen, Denmark
“Really a great game universe with the possibility of movement.”– Apps in education, Facebook
5 out of 5 starsChildren in the city, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Exploratory research and concept development.
- Designing and programming the MVP – showcased at the W00t game festival.
- Market research and securing investment from Capnova Game Invest A/S and a grant from Danish Film Institute.
- Establishing the company and development team.
- Project and stakeholder management.
- Design Lead
The Game Trailer
The Game, as described in the Appstore
Headphones are essential when playing this game.
Get lost in space in this challenging game experience.
Come explore the movement and sound-based galaxy of Space Agent. Capture invisible aliens using your ears and your body while you save Earth from the terrible oxygen theft.
Hear for yourself in your headphones where the dreaded Xonyan intruders are coming from and guard the Earth’s oxygen supply against them. Preserve what allows humankind to exist on our beloved planet Earth.
Play using your body, mind and imagination in the truest sense of the word. Push and pull your smartphone as you get pulled into outer space.
You are the secret agent from the Office for Extraterrestrial Affairs on missions where you battle Xonyans, defeat their hidings, shoot their spaceships and save Earth from extinction.
The game is due to IPR issues not being available in any form any longer.
Problem – The Inactivity Crisis
- User insights to extract design guidelines and inform the design of a game promoting physical activity for children aged 10-16.
The inactivity crisis (due to excess sedentary activities such as playing computer games) starts at the pre-teen age, around 12 years. Most children from that age spend over 5 hours a day doing sedentary activities such as computer games at the expense of being physically active. The illustrations below show the average time spent being physically active and the average time spent on sedentary activities (source: www.sst.dk).
Decreasing the activity level at that age raises the potential for developing lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. While we can’t prohibit sedentary game playing, we can design for increased physical activity levels when we design games.
An alternative to Pokémon Go?
Location-based, pervasive games offer advantages in promoting physical activity for this age group. Pokémon Go has cracked the nut of getting the kids out to play and being physically active with this particular game technology. However, looking at kids playing Pokémon Go, they are bound by the screen. While it poses a high risk to walk around urban space with the nose in a screen (which is also warned against when starting the app), looking up brings the player out of the game. Is there an alternative where the player is continuously immersed in the game and physical worlds? I went hunting….
Initial Research and Prototyping – Developing a Concept
The initial study sought to uncover the potential of location-based games and extract design guidelines for location-based game design.
The design and development process was carried out in three major phases:
- Exploring the opportunities for developing a game for children to “break” the inactivity curve. This phase covered initial research, prototyping, testing and concept development.
- Developing the minimum viable product, laying out a development plan and securing funding.
- Developing and launching the game.
- Conducting exploratory co-design sessions to uncover game preferences and culture.
- Co-teaching five game design workshops for three 5th-grade classes in a Danish public school.
- Methods: co-design process producing cultural probes, an ethnographic study of the children’s culture around and understanding of games.
- My role: I was a design co-teacher, facilitator, participant observer and probes investigator.
- A survey among the students about their game preferences in the type of game.
- The students’ game designs (probes)
- Jottings and reports from the observations and interviews
- The preference survey
Thematic analysis of the annotated probes and the jottings from observations and interviews. Exemplified in the illustration below.
Illustration of the analysis process
Insights – Two Different Directions:
The analysis of the game probes uncovered a range of keywords illustrated below and a preference for narrative-led games.
The survey rated the abstract game Tetris (7/10) as the most popular game. The results pointed in 2 directions for the type of game; abstract games and narrative-led games. These insights led to 2 concepts; Parkourish and Superhero.
Prototyping the Two Concepts
Parkourish – an abstract game prototype
Parkourish was an abstract game idea with a scratchable surface uncovering treasures.
The scratchable surface resulted from the keywords to explore the physical surroundings and find resources. The scratching of the surface was determined by the player’s speed and movements around the urban space.
Derived keywords: Individual gameplay, codetermination of activities, and exploration of the physical environment.
The Superhero game was a sound-only prototype emphasising personal narration. The participants desired a diversion from ordinary life. These keywords and the desire for zombies and aliens led to the outer space sound theme.
The soundscape aimed at altering the players’ perception of the physical environment to transform their experience of the surroundings into a non-ordinary world. Derived Keywords: heroic acts/rescue, minimal screen-based interaction, movie soundtracks, and personal narration of the surroundings.
Superhero – a sound-only prototype
- Low-fi prototypes – cardboard and pre-composed soundtrack.
- Moderated and unmoderated tests
- Interviews and observations
- Concluding reports
The Parkourish prototype was tested in a moderated setup with pairs of players. The game sessions were observed as the players solved the challenge together, and their reflections were noted for later reference.
The Superhero game was tested in an unmoderated setup, where the players listened to a soundtrack as they walked around the urban space – and a concluding report. The game was tested as a single-player experience.
Methodologically, it was an ethnographic study of the players’ perception of and reflection on the idea. The prototype was tested as a manually operated cardboard version and carried out in pairs, where one player led the game by moving around the urban space. At the same time, the other scratched the movements onto the “screen”.
Results of the tests
The thematic analysis of the data yielded the following keywords and insights:
- The surface was too difficult to comprehend.
- The students did not find it attractive to search for resources they did not know where to locate.
- The surface attracted too much attention for the students to pay attention to their surroundings.
- The soundscape worked well.
- The students liked to share their experiences.
- The game lacked action.
- Include a narrative.
- Avoid complex screen interaction.
- Make sure the players know where to go.
- Include a social dimension, e.g., a multiplayer option.
- Include various actions.
- Sound works well as an immersion strategy.
A set of design strategies guided the subsequent design and development.
Connectors and location-specific cues
Data from the prototype tests revealed that the players lacked meaning for playing in the urban setting. The prototypes lacked connectors between the digital game layer and the physical environment. Thus, a way to create meaning is to implement connectors as location-specific cues integrated into the gameplay. Examples are implementing monuments, stores, public buildings, etc., as part of the gameplay (e.g., pokestops in Pokemon Go).
Sound Alters Our Experiences
Sound design alters our experience. We know it from movies, and we do it when listening to music on our way through the physical world. We use music to affect our mood when we feel sad or happy. It can make us fearless, fearful, anxious or excited. Include rhythm, and we activate our movement abilities. Pay attention the next time you experience loud music. Watch how other people – and maybe yourself – start moving according to the music. We exploited these phenomena in Space Agent as our design strategies.
Altering the Ordinary Everday World into a Sci-fi Universe of Heroes Saving the World
As was uncovered in the initial research (and game theory), we play games to escape the ordinary world and do extraordinary things. Just as sound design alters our experience, so do narratives. And, the thrill of saving the world, being the day’s hero and doing good was at the core of the findings. Being a secret agent on missions to save Earth from audible-only aliens provided a welcoming (and sound-based) escape from our ordinary life.
These insights, guided by the design strategies, led to the conceptual design of Space Agent.
The player is a secret agent from the Office for Extraterrestrial Affairs.
The game is sound-based, with interaction through gestures and sound.
Create missions with single and multiplayer options.
Missions with varied difficulty levels.
Narrative, the outer space theme, and secret agents as the everyday heroes.
Sound as an immersion strategy, include varied actions, and avoid complex screen interaction.
Include a social dimension and discoverable resources.
Challenges and the desire to progress.
Developing the Minimum Viable Product
To test the core idea of a sound and location-based game – and possibly secure funding – a minimum viable game version was developed.
The MVP was later selected for showcasing at the w00t game festival in Copenhagen.
The showcase paved the way for achieving an innovation grant from The Danish Film Institute and subsequently gaining seed capital from Capnova Game Invest A/S.
MVP Game Mechanics
The core mechanic of the MVP was the sound-based battle scene.
Supporting mechanics included locating the aliens’ base before their spaceship landed. If not, the player lost the game. Coordinates were given by Headquarters when a spaceship approached. The player would also lose the game if hit more than ten times.
The Battle Scene
Clusters of max. 10 aliens would attack as the player searched the premises for alien bases. They would attack one by one from either the front or straight left or right. Before the alien attack, the player had to point the smartphone in the right direction and press the shoot button on their phone screen. The alien would sound louder and louder as it approached.
The MVP was tested twice with a set of teenagers during its development. The sound design, time to attack and attack pattern were adjusted according to test results. Also, the location-specific cues were tested and adjusted to be locatable in proximity to the player. The location-specific features were hardcoded and shown on a static map shown on-screen. There were no difficulty levels implemented.
The w00t game festival showcase also functioned as a test case. The following learnings were extracted:
Learnings for Further Development
- Difficulty levels should range from very beginner to advanced.
- Clear instructions on how to play – and set the headphones right!
- Locations should not be far from each other.
- Need excessive guidance from the soundscape to successfully navigate the game universe.
The learnings from the MVP were incorporated into the game design in the following ways:
A system of difficulty levels combined with a ranking and XP score system was developed.
Clear Instructions + Excessive Guidance for Navigation
The characters from Headquarters should perform a guiding role for the player. Guiding speaks should be played with a shorter interval at the beginning of the game and decrease in frequency as the player progresses.
Comprehensive tutorials were developed and tested to ease the learning curve of the mechanics.
The proximity of the Locations – Keeping the Player in the Game with Story Bits from Headquarters
As physical locations are difficult to move – and previous learning was that they should make sense in both worlds – the solution to this challenge was to make the time between locations interesting. While alien clusters could attack the player with little preparation, minor story bits were told by the characters from Headquarters as the player walked between locations. Additionally, a varying soundscape would play when nothing else was happening.
The story bits were part of the narrative.
Based on the above solutions, the main parts of the development centred on the 3D soundscape and battle scene (with difficulty levels and proper instructions), locating and navigating the urban space and the game world simultaneously, and skill development through varying difficulty levels.
Tests During Development
The development was carried out in an iterative and agile process with features tested regularly. We had teamed up with a nearby youth club and a public school to test the game. In return, we taught game design and the process of developing a game. Having a stable pool of interested testers was a gift as we developed new game features and ways of playing digital games. In such instances, testing is at the core of development.
Designing an Interactive 3D Soundscape
The core game mechanic was the sound-based battle scene. To render the interactive 3D soundscape, we used binaural audio technology. Besides aliens attacking, the battle scene featured a captivator to capture the aliens. The captivator was operated through gestures.
As a development from the MVP, the battle scene spawned aliens from any position in a 360 degrees circle around the player. However, a common problem with binaural soundscapes is the front/back difference – determining sounds from the front or back.
To solve this inherent problem of binaural soundscapes, the captivator features a low-pass filter that is gradually added to sound from the back. A lowpass filter can augment the perception of sound simulated from the back, as these sounds are naturally muffled due to our earlobes’ position.
A Fun Fact
Several sound researchers asked us how we solved the front/back problem. Our solution is so simple, they ask; did that really do the trick? Apparently, it did. However, it was accompanied by a thoroughly designed difficulty level, that was adjusted to fit the player’s skill level based on their capturing patterns.
Different from the MVP and to add varied actions, the alien capturing was changed from pressing a shoot button to making a pull gesture with the smartphone. Then, to capture aliens, the player must determine the position, point the phone in the right direction and pull it towards them. While doing so added complexity to the game, it also enhanced the audio part of the game. This feature was tested a lot, particularly the tutorial and training part.
Lose/win condition Build in as a Rechargeable Protection Shield – and the Monetization Strategy
When the player does not capture an attacking alien, the player is hit. The consequence is that the player’s protection shield is damaged by 10%. If the player loses their protection shield, they are hacked, the Omnidevice restarts and their mission is lost.
The player can recharge their protection shield by turning 360 degrees around – if they have the resources to do so. If not, they must buy protection shields in the Appstore.
A Fun Fact
We used the compass to measure the player’s position with their Omnidevice. This feature has sparked interest from sound researchers asking how the game could measure whether the player pointed the device in the right direction. When they hear that it is the compass, they get this funny look of, “Of course. That’s clever – why didn’t I think of that”.
A Complex Level System Infering Challenges
A game without progression is a game without challenges. Thus, a detailed difficulty level system was developed. Furthermore, the binaural audio technology is imprecise (based on average head sizes) and, therefore, also requires skills to manage – and develop.
A combination of alien attacking speed and the capturing range determine the difficulty level. Based on the player’s capturing achievements, the difficulty level adjusts by narrowing the capturing range (between 10-50 degrees) and accelerating the aliens’ attacking speed. These are dynamically adjusted in peaks to provide an experience of progress and challenge. The levels are based on the player’s XP.
Pokémon Go Versus Space Agent: Motor Skill Training
Space Agent features more diverse neuromotor training skills than Pokémon Go: To navigate the game world, the players use different gestures and movements to capture aliens, avoid spaceships and recharge their protection shield. In contrast, the only motor skill that Pokémon Go trains are the swiping skill.
When and how do the aliens attack? And what nudges the player to walk around urban space?
Aliens attack randomly in clusters. However, the player’s Omnidevice contains a detector similar to a Geiger counter alerting the player of alien proximity. While the detector cannot show the position of alien clusters, it can show the position of alien spaceships and aliens hiding. The player can either avoid the spaceships by moving out of proximity or enter a battle by standing in direct proximity. A battle with a spaceship is similar to battling a cluster of aliens – but the spaceship carries more files to recollect.
Resources and Resource Management
Hidings are based on Google Maps information and are located in stores, libraries, schools and other places with a name and stationary position. When one of the aliens’ hidings is found, and the aliens protecting it are captured, it contains valuable files and the aliens’ stolen oxygen.
The player also finds files about the aliens, their home planet, technologies and culture in the alien hidings, besides the stolen files about the agency and agency members.
A Storyline Through Urban Space
As the player searches urban space for aliens, occasionally, Headquarters get in contact and tell stories to cheer up the player and tell background information about current attacks or how it all started. When not in contact with Headquarters, the player is immersed in a soundscape that reacts to movement by fading in and out of soundtracks composed of a blend of NASA outer space sounds and structures, encouraging an other space theme.
Besides gaining much knowledge about children’s play habits and location-based games, we also had some valuable general learnings.
Test often and continuously – and with a diverse set of people. As we were developing new interaction forms, it was essential to continuously have a feel of the reception of these features. We could not rely on principles or common knowledge – as there was none.
Introduce new features gradually – step by step and little by little. People must feel confident and capable when they learn new things and adopt new products. If not, they move on – instantly!
Use play to introduce new features; when people are in their playful mindset, they are more open to change and exploration. However, be extra careful not to violate their confidence and faith in your mission.
Onboard with a mission: Turn the player’s journey into a hero’s journey. You can do this with a user journey as well.
Good luck out there – may your hearing be with you!
Please get in touch if you wish to know more.
Or read the design doc