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 development was financed by a grant from the Danish Film Institute and investment from Capnova Game Invest A/S. The game builds on the research and concept developed in Louise Matjeka’s master’s thesis. Below you will find the official description of the game as it was displayed in the Appstore and Google Play Store, followed by the description of the research and design process.
Below you will find the description from the Appstore.
5 out of 5 stars, Children in the City, Denmark
“Space Agent is ambitious, inventive and points to new directions for mobile games” – Thomas Vigild, Weekendavisen, Denmark
“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
“Space Agent is a new Danish developed app, which is all unique” – Moms Apps, Facebook
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 from them. Preserve the very essence of what allows humankind to exist on our beloved planet Earth. This game is a breath of fresh air.
Play in the truest sense of the word using your body, mind and imagination. The sky is the limit. Zone out beyond the ozone and your living room!
Jump into gameplay that will take you out of this world as well as out of your sofa!
Matters are literally in your hands and your ears as you follow the sound and respond in kind. Push and pull your smartphone as you get pulled into outer space.
Pull off the challenge of restoring order and oxygen on earth. Get up and get moving on this all-important mission. Play the game like it’s your last – your next breath could very well depend on it.
About the game:
In the fiction of SOE, the players are all secret agents working for the Agency for Extra-Terrestrial Affairs against an alien invasion.
The Agency is an underground movement started by a group of researchers who documented the alien existence on Earth. The Earth is currently under attack by the invisible Xonyans, the aliens coming from the planet Xonya.
Xonyans, like humans, live of oxygen, but Xonya is highly polluted and no longer capable of producing oxygen. Therefore the Xonyans need to get oxygen from somewhere else, and they have found Earth. But Earth does not produce enough oxygen to feed both planets.
The player is enrolled in a secret agency (called Agency) dedicated to protecting Earth against an alien invasion already in progress. The alien race, called Xonyans, are invisible and intangible, which means they are right among us, yet we can’t sense them.
The player uses the Omnidevice (the smartphone) to stay in contact with the Agency and to accomplish the assigned quests (capturing Xonyans, finding hidden files, etc.).
The Omnidevice works mainly by sound. The universe is mediated through the Omnidevice by binaural (3D) sound.
The universe is navigated by pulling, dragging, and moving the smartphone in various ways. The main activity is to capture and battle Xonyans.
The game is played by moving around the physical world and is based partially on location information and partially on compass information (to create the battle zones – and to mediate the physical world positions relative to the players’ position and heading).
Apart from battling and capturing the Xonyans, the players will have to defeat their hidings, search for stolen files and conquer the Professor’s secret formula. With the entire formula in hand, the aliens can compress all oxygen on Earth into a milk bottle. But the Agency has divided the formula into thousands of smaller files. Part of these files was stolen during a Xonyan hack of the Agency. It is up to the agents to collect all these files and capture Xonyans and defeat their hiding and spaceships crawling the sky to find agents….
SOE is structured in different pockets of activities; battles, open play and story quests. There are temporary winning conditions relative to winning a battle, finding a specific object and reaching a mission goal. The long-term winning condition is getting to the end of the Story Quests.
If the player loses a battle, the Omnidevice will shut down and reset (in a fictional way, as the phone will, of course, be on all the time). The Agency, in fact, doesn’t want the Xonyans to get access to the device and prefers momentarily detaching the player from the Agency network, and the player loses the resources collected during the fight…
The game is due to IP rights issues not being available in any form any longer.
Research and Design Process
The design and development process of Space Agent was done in three major phases:
- Exploring the opportunities for developing a game for children to “break” the inactivity curve. Much research shows the inactivity crisis (due to excess sedentary activities such as playing computer games) starts at the pre-teen age, around 12 years. Location-based games offer some advantages in such a regard. 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.
Initial Research and Concept Development
The concept development process was initiated as an exploratory co-design process. I had the opportunity to teach a series of game design workshops for three 5th-grade classes. Methodologically, it was an ethnographic study into the children’s culture and their understandings of games. As such, I worked as a participating observer. Their products, i.e., final game concepts, functioned and were analysed as probes. The analysis pointed to two different concepts; Parkourish and Superhero.
The abstract game idea Parkourish emerged out of the sessions with 5.a where the participants expressed a joy for the abstract game Tetris and was inspired by the location based musical instrument Sonic City. In combination with the keywords individual gameplay and codetermination of activities, I saw a direction of designing for a high degree of personal narration with exploration of, and appropriation of, the body in the physical environment as the core of the idea. Together with the design constraint of minimal screen based interaction, I came up with the idea of a black screen where the black surface can be scratched off determined by the player’s speed and movements around urban space.
The Superhero game emerged out of the participants’ desire for a game universe to be a diversion of the ordinary life. The outer space theme arose from the theories of how sound design can transform the perception of the situation and the environment. The physical urban environment cannot be changed, thus I wanted to design a game universe where the soundscape alone could alter the perception of the physical environment and transform the experience of the surroundings into a non-ordinary world. One of the keywords found in the participants’ own games was the heroic acts/rescue.
The Superhero concept was the least developed of the two, and functioned as a contrast to the Parkourish concept. Superhero was developed in close connection to the theory of sound design and thought experiments of how sonic features can be appropriated in experiences of the ordinary world turning it into a fictitious game universe. Examples are that of hearing strange (processed sounds) voices coming out of a cellar when passing by, or suddenly hearing space sounds and a space ship approaching, which alters the perception into a fictitious universe. The question then was how to prototype and communicate these ideas to the participants.
The two concepts were prototyped using cardboard and crayon. For the Parkourish game, I created a scratch surface that the players had to scratch according to their moves in the physical world. The superhero game was tested using sound only.
I chose to present Superhero as a verbalized analog play form with myself as the facilitator managing the story of the game. This approach was chosen because I found that making a digital prototype using for example the PlayingMondo platform, would exude a finished game and bring about reactions as if it was a final game proposal, which it was not. I wanted the participants to perceive the prototypes as very tentative in order to make them feel more comfortable in giving less positive feedback.
As opposed to the Superhero concept, the interface in Parkourish played a central role in the whole game concept. A physical mockup of the interface was chosen as the most suitable solution, because it was essential to get an idea of the participants’ spatial perception and reactions to their own movements when playing with the interface.
Based on the tests of the two prototypes, the concept for Spaace Agent was stabilised – however, as Space on Earth.
Space on Earth Concept
The prototype workshop clearly demonstrated the potential effect of a fictitious game universe mediated by a designed soundscape, and the idea of the outer space theme transforming the perception of the physical environment. Contrasting this experience, the Parkourish idea turned out to be lacking fundamental features to convey a meaningful experience. I therefore decided to build directly on the game universe from Superhero and the rationale behind of using sound to transform the perception of urban physical space into a game universe of outer space and extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Instead of Superhero, I chose to call it Space on Earth, which I found more meaningful. The idea of the players being secret agents also gives room for the gameplay to be disturbed by external factors such as passersby, traffic, and traffic lights, in that those conditions would be the same if the gameplay was ‘real’.
The Social Dimension in the Game
In the game the players are all secret agents working for the Office for Extraterrestrial Affairs. The ‘office’ takes care of all extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Inspired by the movie Men in Black, there are already foreign guests from outer space living peacefully on Earth, but regularly problems occur and the agents are ‘called upon’. For a player to be called upon, the player must check into the network. After setting the status to ‘ready’, the player can receive calls at any time. He/she can also just check up on what is going on, and if any of hisfellow agents are in need of help on a mission. The player can then check in on a mission, or call the other players to offer assistance. Likewise, players can contact other players and ask for assistance. An internal voice communication system will be build into the system. For ethical reasons players can only communicate with other players with whom they are ‘friends’, similar to Foursquare. Likewise checking in – the player checks out, when he/she needs to exit the game.
These features are designed to meet a combination of the social space inherent in LAMGs and the strong social element found in both parkour and the workshops. As such, the game is a social network as well as a tool for cooperation. One of the core social features of the concept, taken from parkour and the participants desire for multiplayer, is that players, in order to be on the same mission, can check in together. The missions will then vary, according to how many players are playing together. An example is the day in Enghaven, when the participants had to be a group of four players in order to solve the mission. Had they been only two players together, the mission could have been to negotiate with the space ship or in other ways hinder the aliens from getting out of the space ship.
The game consists of various types of missions. For example: Earth is currently under attack from the Artesurions. The Artesurions are an invisible life form (to the human eye) from the planet of Artesuro. Artesurions, like humans, live off oxygen, but Artesuro is highly polluted and no longer capable of producing oxygen. Therefore the Artesurions need to get oxygen from somewhere else, and they are now trying to build a pipeline from Earth to Artesuro to capture oxygen. But Earth does not produce enough oxygen to feed both planets…
The missions are ranging from avoiding Artesurion space ships to land (like in Enghaven), to capture Artesurions and locate their hidings as well as finding out how their plans are proceeding. At the same time, other missions can have the purpose to find a solution to the oxygen problem to help the Artesurions. These are missions including experiments of, for example, how much oxygen is needed to run a certain distance as opposed to bicycling the same distance. The range of and variety within the ‘missions’ should be designed to accommodate the participants’ desires for heroic acts and rescue, readiness to find and test their limits as well as missions focused on simple task solving.
Levels, the Score System and Game Time
Another dominating keyword from the analysis of the workshops was levels. The participants enjoyed the feeling of progress by completing levels. Inspired by the non-competitive character of how traceurs progress and develop in synergy with their teammates, I worked out a score system where the skilled players will gain from playing with the lesser skilled players and vice versa. The total score on missions completed with a diversely skilled team of players will be higher than that of a team of equally skilled players, and so will the individual score accordingly.
Through the scoring system, the players can gain tools and earn resources to help in missions. These tools are as diverse as tools for easy capture of different species of extraterrestrials, ability to ‘run’ faster (closer distance), hear over longer distances (the gameplay is mediated through sound, so hearing activity on long distance is a possibility) or they can choose to use their resources on tools – for example for producing oxygen, or containers of oxygen, or tools to help the Artesurions in how they can avoid pollution and produce oxygen at home. Tools can be traded in to accommodate the current mission at the time. The higher the score, the higher the rank and the higher the possibilities and challenges in the game – and the more the player can raise the level of other players. The scoring system is also part of the social element expressed by the participants during the workshops by being multiplayer, and the players can communicate with each other. The scoring system is also intended to facilitate a diverse social interaction between the players across levels, skills and circles of friends.
The game time is pervasive, in that it keeps running, and the players can check in and out of the game as appropriate. The missions are time limited, so that the players can ‘win’ and progress in the game to new missions with new teammates, and thereby gain points and progress in level.
Other keywords from the analysis of the workshops include codetermination of gameplay and finding/locating something. In order to establish connectors between the game space and the game interface, designing with location-specific clues was a way to achieve such a connection. The combination of these three keywords led to the game feature of the players to report back to the ‘office’ any suspicious activity in connection to any current overall ‘missions’ (like the Artesurions stealing our oxygen). Suspicious activity could be a suspicious looking cellar, it could be the hiding of Artesurions, or it could be to spot potential places for landing invisible space ships – such as Rundetårn or Enghaven, or it could even be to report in the home of not-registered extraterrestrial homes. The player will then have to mark these locations and the reason for reporting and characteristics of the place (landing spot, home, hiding). The locations will then form part of the gameplay as e.g. a landing spot, home or hiding. By doing so, the game space will be connected to the game interface through location-specific clues. Other instances of using location-specific clues could come from the ‘office’: “On the corner of [the street of players position] and [the nearest street] an Artesurion is trying to buy some important spare parts for the pipeline. You have 10 seconds to thwart it.”
Space on Earth as MVP
I developed the game as a dedicated location-based version aimed at the W00t game festival 2013. The game was selected for showcase. The showcase worked as testing in the wild of the game concept and the core mechanics of capturing invisible aliens throug hsound interactions. The game was hardcoded to the specific physical spots at the festival location and the aliens could only be heard from straight left, right or in front of the player. Yet, feedback was positive and the mechanics understandable. The showcase led to attention from investors and the Danish Film Institute.
One of the only features of my initial MVP development was my use of the compass to measure the direction of the smartphone. It formed the technological basis for the final game design. Yet today almost ten years from later, people (university professors) ask me how the game could measure whether the player pointed the device in the right direction or not. When I tell them that I used the camera, they get this funny look of; “of course. That’s clever – why didn’t I think of that”.
As I secured funding for the project from Dansih Film Insitute and Capnova Game Invest A/S, I started planning the development phase, hiring team members, budgeting and writing up the design document.
The Development of Space Agent
Despite the basic concept of the game being stabilised, there were still a lot of unknowns. So we made an agreement with a public school (another set of 5th-grade classes) to do co-design workshops and tests for the final game.
The team of four full-time, two part-time employees and two interns was organised as a Scrum team with external consultants like a graphic designer and a writer.
We initialised the development phase with a design workshop focusing on extraterrestrial aliens and sci-fi fiction to get insight into children’s understanding of these themes. The workshop formed the basis for developing the final design of the aliens, the soundscape and the game’s storyline.
The game was developed iteratively and the design was adjusted according to ongoing tests. Besides the public school, we also tested game versions with a youth club. The process with amendments is shown in the changelog in the design document.
One major change was to change the name to Space Agent instead of Space on Earth. The rationale for doing so was that while the original title refers to a phenomenon, the final title refers to the players’ role, which says more about the gameplay than a phenomenon.
While it is too much to display all the UX and game design issues for the entire development, I here list some of the major issues and how they were solved.
- Designing an interactive 3D soundscape controlled through motion gestures.
- A (too) steep learning curve in the initial onboarding of players.
- Resource management and advancement in the game.
Designing an interactive 3D soundscape controlled through motion gestures
The game was a hybrid of screen-based and audio-based interactions with the main part of the game – the battle – as an interactive 3D soundscape. To render the soundscape we used a bianural audio technology and to measure the player’s position with the smartphone (called Omnidevice in the game), we used the compass, while the gestures to capture the aliens used the gyroscope and accelerometer.
The challenge was that bianural audio is based on the average of many people’s head adn ear measures, which means that it is almost good for everyone. The almost good just wasn’t enough to instantly and intuitively locate the aliens’ position and capture them before being hit by them.
The solution was to augment the way we determine positions sonically. Our ears are designed to hear what is in front of us first and brightest, while sounds coming from the back are slightly muffled as they pass through the earlope – which adds a very subtle low-pass filter to the sound. Thus, sounds coming from behind are more or less filtered through a low-pass filter and that is how we determine front from back and what is between. To augment this phenomenon, we added a very subtle low-pass filter to sounds coming from the back. Practically, the filter kicked in when the sounds were positioned either straight left or right and increased gradually toward straight back. Doing so solved the inaccuracy of determining the position of the aliens. A fun fact is that I have met sound scholars telling me that exactly this problem apparently has been difficult to solve and no one ever thought of this solution.
A too steep learning in the initial onboarding of new players
As the above explanation points to is that the game as a 3D soundscape controlled by motion gestures built on new interaction schemes as well as mental models. These factors laid the ground for a very steep initial learning curve as we had to teach the players to navigate the soundscape, while doing specific gestures to capture the aliens. Furthermore, the three types of aliens moved in different patterns.
The solution was to start with the “easiet” and most common alien. As the game was also based on a rich narrative, the tutorial centred around onboarding the player through the narrative in a structure of a hero’s journey. The aliens and different motion gestures were the gradually introduced and the difficulty level adjusted to the player’s skills. So if the player had difficulties capturing the aliens and, thus, mastering the motion gestures in relation to the soundscape, the difficulty level, i.e., speed and relative position of the aliens were adjusted accordingly, so that the player would feel powerful and able to master the controls.
Resource management and advancement in the game
To dive more into rationales and the design phases, you are welcome to read these resources;
Space on Earth Concept development
Space Agent Design Document