Writing for conversational user interfaces

Last year at Hubbub we worked on two projects featuring a conversational user interface. I thought I would share a few notes on how we did the writing for them. Because for conversational user interfaces a large part of the design is in the writing.

At the moment, there aren’t really that many tools well suited for doing this. Twine comes to mind but it is really more focused on publishing as opposed to authoring. So while we were working on these projects we just grabbed whatever we were familiar with and felt would get the job done.

I actually think there is an opportunity here. If this conversational ui thing takes off designers would benefit a lot from better tools to sketch and prototype them. After all this is the only way to figure out if a conversational user interface is suitable for a particular project. In the words of Bill Buxton:

“Everything is best for something and worst for something else.”

Okay so below are my notes. The two projects are KOKORO (a codename) and Free Birds. We have yet to publish extensively on both, so a quick description is in order.

KOKORO is a digital coach for teenagers to help them manage and improve their mental health. It is currently a prototype mobile web app not publicly available. (The engine we built to drive it is available on GitHub, though.)

Free Birds (Vrije Vogels in Dutch) is a game about civil liberties for families visiting a war and resistance museum in the Netherlands. It is a location-based iOS app currently available on the Dutch app store and playable in Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Oosterbeek.

For KOKORO we used Gingko to write the conversation branches. This is good enough for a prototype but it becomes unwieldy at scale. And anyway you don’t want to be limited to a tree structure. You want to at least be able to loop back to a parent branch, something that isn’t supported by Gingko. And maybe you don’t want to use the branching pattern at all.

Free Birds’s story has a very linear structure. So in this case we just wrote our conversations in Quip with some basic rules for formatting, not unlike a screenplay.

In Free Birds player choices ‘colour’ the events that come immediately after, but the path stays the same.

This approach was inspired by the Walking Dead games. Those are super clever at giving players a sense of agency without the need for sprawling story trees. I remember seeing the creators present this strategy at PRACTICE and something clicked for me. The important point is, choices don’t have to branch out to different directions to feel meaningful.

KOKORO’s choices did have to lead to different paths so we had to build a tree structure. But we also kept track of things a user says. This allows the app to “learn” about the user. Subsequent segments of the conversation are adapted based on this learning. This allows for more flexibility and it scales better. A section of a conversation has various states between which we switch depending on what a user has said in the past.

We did something similar in Free Birds but used it to a far more limited degree, really just to once again colour certain pieces of dialogue. This is already enough to give a player a sense of agency.

As you can see, it’s all far from rocket surgery but you can get surprisingly good results just by sticking to these simple patterns. If I were to investigate more advanced strategies I would look into NLP for input and procedural generation for output. Who knows, maybe I will get to work on a project involving those things some time in the future.

Sources for my Creative Mornings Utrecht talk on education, games, and play

I was standing on the shoulders of giants for this one. Here’s a (probably incomplete) list of sources I referenced throughout the talk.

All of these are highly recommended.

Update: the slides are now up on Speaker Deck.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs playing and it’s been a source of fascination and happiness for years. So the subject matter felt really natural to me. But as a game designer, I find the dynamics of how dogs play together really interesting. Dogs are expert players. Dog play is made of all these ritualized moments of violence and dominance, but when it’s healthy play, it doesn’t cross the line into real violence. Dogs are really good at regulating their play. Playing and playing well is this really deep instinct for dogs, and I thought it would be interesting to try to pull some of that into a game for humans. Healthy dog play isn’t about defeating a bunch of opponents — it’s about having fun above all, while simulating all these really dark and dangerous real-life situations and working out social relationships.

So the pretentious idea at the heart of Dog Park is to make a game that has all kinds awesome “fighting” in it that’s not about defeating your enemies. It’s about how we work together, by pretending to fight each other, by competing with each other, to create enjoyment for each other. In other words, it’s about trying to turn my players into dogs, for a few minutes at a time.

(via » Kevin Cancienne)

Ledoliel is a companion/dating toy for iOS, involving strange procedural creatures and their bizarre customs, where you must try and figure out what topics they might want to discuss, gift they might want to receive and places they may like to be touched – based on their cryptic attributes.

One app store review reads “Don’t buy / This game is weird”. Which I agree with but for the part “don’t”.

(via Ledoliel on the App Store on iTunes)

Recess! 11 – Restate My Assumptions

Recess! is a correspondence series with personal ruminations on games.

Dear Alper and Niels,

My apologies, I fell off the Recess! horse there for a minute. But I’m back in the saddle. Let’s see, what were we talking about again?

Alper obsessively played Ultratron for a while, got bored, stopped and felt guilty for spending 11 hours on it.

Niels helped make Toki Tori 2, got all conflicted about his feelings for the game and went on about how elegantly its world conveys his story.

Sigh. I hope you’ll both excuse me while I don my schoolmaster’s cap and proceed to school you.

It’s telling Alper feels Moves offers more meaningful play than Ultratron. He’s stuck in what Sutton-Smith calls ‘the rhetorics of animal progress’. The idea that play is only meaningful when it contributes to ‘individual development and group culture’. Alper, you should lighten up and maybe submit to the rhetoric of frivolity. Put simply, you should allow yourself to play the fool. Because “unlike the rest of us, who are all losers in most of the conventional senses, and most surely in the mortal sense, the fool transcends triviality.”

Niels, on the other hand, should do himself a favor and read Remediation because he seems to think ‘immediacy’ is the holy grail of media. The medium should disappear, it should not get in the way of the audience’s experience of the message. Well Niels, I have news for you: immediacy is only one possible media mode and its drawbacks are considerable. Most importantly, it precludes critical engagement of an audience with a medium’s message. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, foregrounds the workings of media. It foregoes ‘immersion’ and ‘seamlesness’ in favor of bricolage and seamfulness (PDF). In doing so, it allows for active audience engagement. Don’t you wish that for your stories?

In short, let’s restate our assumptions. I’ll go first:

  1. Play can be meaningful and useless at the same time.
  2. Games can tell stories without being immersive.


Recess! 3 – Rituals & Habits

Recess! is a correspondence series with personal ruminations on games.

Dear Alper and Niels,

Where to begin? I guess by thanking Alper for kicking this thing off. And to respond to his comments on Proteus—yes, Alper, you’re being a stick in the mud. Proteus isn’t a replacement for a walk in the woods, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as such. The thing that makes it special for me is the responsive audio, and how navigating the space is also an act of tweaking and tuning the soundscape. The fact that it was used in a live musical performance is no surprise to me, in this regard.

Niels, your exploration of Ni No Kuni’s world sounds like a lot of work. And I wonder, really, why not just sit back and watch a Ghibli film, if you’re that much of a fan. What could a game possibly add? I myself prefer Ghibli-esque exploratory worlds such as Journey. I guess what I’m saying is: leave games to the game makers and films to the film makers. I’m a purist that way.

What to play? I’ve had the pleasure of playing quite a bit of LUFTRAUSERS lately, and it’s shaping up to be a lot of fun. (I guess we’ll need to wait a bit longer for it, now that Vlambeer seems to be finishing Ridiculous Fishing first.) I’ve stopped playing it during work breaks though, I don’t unwind, I get wound up. Each time I’m close to killing my first blimp but then crash and burn I nearly rage-quit the game.

I’ve finished VESPER.5 last week. It took me well over 100 days to do so. Did it turn into a ritual, as Michael Brough intended? I wouldn’t go so far. I would say it got to being a habit. Which, to be honest, is fine. Perhaps becoming a habit is more than enough to aspire to for games. I did however set a recurring to-do in my Things to remind myself to take my daily step. Is that cheating? Or is it a wonderful thing, that a game finds it way into my daily to-do list?

It’s probably not what Alper is looking for. This game won’t help you unwind, you can only do one thing a day. It’s very zen in that regard. You launch the game, watch all your actions up to that point, ponder the next step (trading off between admiring scenery or marching on towards the exit), take your step, and then perhaps spend a few moments considering what you might do the next day. Hit escape, and get back to what you were doing.

It’s also not the fairytale world Niels would like to get lost in. It’s very sparse. There’s a bit of music, low res pixel graphics, hardly any animation. There are still images you “unlock” as you visit certain parts of the game’s world, suggesting a kind of alien landscape. It’s evocative, but in a very different way from Ghibli’s lush works. Perhaps a snow globe is a nice analogy. A thing that sits on your desk or in your windowsill, that you absentmindedly play with occasionally, while taking a break from whatever you are doing. Perhaps it reminds you of a place or time you hold dearly. But it’s not the place itself. It’s a proxy or a totem or whatever the right word is.

I’m well over my intended 250 words. Don’t read on if you’re playing VESPER.5 and hate spoilers. I’ll just leave you here and hand over to Alper again. But if you don’t care, here we go:

The one thing that disappointed me, in a rather unexpected way, is that the game ends abruptly when you get to the end. I thought I’d be rewarded with some nice surprise but I wasn’t. I also thought I’d perhaps done well because I took a lot of detours along the way. But the game did not acknowledge this in any way. What I was left with, was that it was done. I was done. And thinking about it now, that’s a shame. It’s crazy, because the promise of finishing this thing after 100 steps, one step a day, is what got me started, and what propelled be throughout. But now that I’ve gotten into the habit, I don’t think I need that goal anymore.

I’d like a VESPER.5 that just stays with me, like that snow globe. That I can just go through endlessly. A habit, a good one at least, is something that should continue on indefinitely after all.


(Read Niels’ contribution, and Alper’s post before that.)

Week 174

STT again

This week on Wednesday I found myself in the lovely KNAW building to talk about the far future of applied game design. I was invited to do so by STT, together with David Shaffer, Jeroen van Mastrigt and Jeroen Elfferich. I talked about the incapacity of design as well as science fiction to effectively imagine a future, how to deal with that as a designer, and two areas that I see as truly virgin territory for applied game design: the new type of city we’ve seen emerge in the East, and synthetic biology. I got some nice responses and some challenging questions from the crowd, so I guess things went OK. The annotated slides will find their way to the Hubbub blog soon.

Aside from this, I spent the week working on PLAY Pilots – continuing work on the next pilot for Le Guess Who? together with Monobanda. And at the HKU, working with my students on the Pampus project. Finally, my interns have kicked off their third game at the Learning Lab, this one running on their internal blog platform. It involves monkeys and a blind dragon. Looking forward to the writeup for that one.

Quite a few bits of content found their way online too, by the way. In case you missed them the first time around, here they are:

Plus a video of the Bocce Drift session Hubbub ran a while back:

Week 173

At the studio, coffee brewing in the french press, El Guincho on the stereo. Last week I felt overwhelmed, this week I just feel allergic. Literally. I have a head full of antihistamines, hope they kick in soon.

One thing I decided to do about the overwhelming bit is block out more time in my calendar for work. Not saying how much, but I already had some time blocked for a while now, and I have doubled that. It just won’t do to have hardly any time to do actual design. I guess I’ll just need to to talk to fewer people. If you do not push back, it is easy to lose all your time to meet-ups. People are reckless in the ease with which they impose on other’s time. Myself included.1

We played a card game last night at the studio. An insight I’ve had after reviewing the past period with my interns. To become better designers, we need to make a lot of games, this is true.2 But it also helps to play games, many games, of any kind. So we’ll set apart an hour or so each week and we’ll play a game that someone brings in. I kicked it off with Dominion, which is interesting for the way it has built upon trading-card-game deck-building mechanics, like Magic the Gathering. In stead of it being something that happens before a game it takes place in parallel to the game.

What else is of note? Ah yes. I attended Design by Fire 2010 on Wednesday. It is still the best conference on interaction design in the Netherlands. And I really appreciate the fact that the organizers continue to take risks with who they put on stage. Too often do I feel like being part or at least spectator of some clique at events, with all speakers knowing each other and coming from more or less the same “school of thought”. Not so with Design by Fire. Highlights included David McCandless, Andrei Herasimchuk, m’colleague Ianus and of course Bill Buxton.

The latter also reminded me of some useful frames of thought for next Tuesday, when I will need to spend around half an hour talking about the future of games, from a design perspective, at an invitation-only think-tank like session organized by STT.3 The organizers asked me to set an ambition time frame, but as you may know I have a very hard time imagining any future beyond say, the next year or two. (And sometimes I also have trouble being hopeful about it.) But as Mr. Buxton points out, ideas need a gestation period of around 20 years before they are ready for primetime, so I am planning to look back some ten years, see what occupied the games world back then, and use that as a jumping off point for whatever I’ll be talking about. Let’s get started on that now.

  1. Mule Design had an interesting post on this. Part of the problem is people, but part also software, according to them. Imagine a calendar you subtract time from in stead of add to. []
  2. Tom wrote a wonderful post on games literacy. []
  3. The Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends. []

5 things I’m thinking about

You have Alper to blame for this. Alice started it, many followed (some well worth reading) and now the meme has crossed the pond it seems. I know, we’re a bit slow in NL. So, what am I thinking about?

My upcoming holiday, which will be the first break in over a year. I am planning to completely unplug, which I am both dreading and looking forward to. It seems the longer I am self-employed, the harder it gets to just leave work behind for an extended period of time. It seems crazy to be worried about the continuity of my business when I’m only away for a week on a freaking Wadden island.

Today marks the last day of final exams at the HKU and I am lead to wonder about the future of design education as it happens there and at other similar institutes around the world. It often seems too closed off from the outside world, too insular. I am looking forward to tangling with this subject matter more in an upcoming project with River Institute.

Choosing has never come easy to me. In the past I have found it painful to choose between disciplines, skills to develop, projects to work on. And at some point I sort of decided to stop forcing choices and find ways to have them all mesh. I think that finally I am getting to a spot where I am comfortable in not choosing. So now I wonder why that is, what the value of refusing to choose is and what that means for creative disciplines.

I am essentially pessimistic about the future of this world. I have a very hard time conceiving of any future, in fact. Recently I found myself in a workshop aimed at making plans for an event in 2015 and I was totally lost. Having learnt this about myself the next question is how to act – I don’t wan’t to “play dead” as Bruce Sterling would say – so what’s the alternative?

Since it is at the core of my business I am thinking a lot about domains where games could go next. I am thinking a lot about citizen engagement, particularly when it comes to public policy, but I am mostly stumped about making inroads into that area locally.

There you have it.

A quick look at Tweetakt’s playful installations

Tweetakt is happening in Utrecht at the moment. It’s a youth theatre festival, really pushing the limits of what we think that means. As an example, they’ve provided space for several installations at the festival centre on the Neude. I went over for a quick look today – even though I know most of the creators personally and am familiar with several of the pieces. They’re all free and open to the public, so if you’re in the area, you should go too.


Medialab Utrecht's Knikkerbaan at Tweetakt

Made by a few principals at the Medialab Utrecht. Push a button and a marble starts rolling down a futuristic looking track. Halfway through it enters a scanner of sorts, and is converted into a virtual counterpart visible on a screen, only to emerge physically after some time again. At the end of the track, you get to keep the marble.

It’s hardly interactive, but does look kind of impressive and of course, marbles are always fun.


Monobanda's Kleurkamer at Tweetakt

A new version what is becoming a classic by the troublemakers at Monobanda. A beamer, a white decor and wiimotes enable you to paint with light. It’s a simple premise, the execution is serviceable but the result is quite magical. The addition of white jackets for people that want to become part of the canvas is a real nice touch.


Fourcelabs's Blockblazers at Tweetakt

Made by my friends at Fourcelabs, this is the one that hasn’t the benefit of a spectacular physical shape but is the most fun to play. It’s a competitive platform game playable with eight people at the same time with some clever social and physical touches. Scoring points is rewarded with a big photo of yourself that is shown for a few seconds, and the game wraps around two big screens that are back to back, forcing you to move around and compete with the other players for physical floor space.

It’s nice to see this kind of stuff at a theatre festival. I hope the pieces will do well – despite the fact that not all of them have been placed and presented to the public in the best way – so that we’ll get more of this stuff in the years to come.