Article: Designing Sims

By Clark Aldrich
Nov 28, 2011

Educational simulations and serious games have gone from the province of a few rabid believers to a requirement of educational media. Still, the methodology is often misunderstood or applied ad hoc.

I have built a lot of educational simulations and serious games (collectively referred to as sims). Here are the various phases and stages through which most successful projects have gone.

At the highest level, the Phases are:
1. Concept 2. Create 3. Code 4. Calibrate 5. Deploy

However, while this material is presented as steps, every real development involves a less lockstep ap- proach. Steps are iterative, and there will be plenty of skipping ahead and backtracking.

This week, we encourage everybody to read Designing Sims the Clark Aldrich way - it has five chapters, so the idea is to read one chapter a day.

Here are the steps:

Phase 1: The Concept

The first phase for all sim development is creating an awareness of the opportunity. The person who will eventually take the role of client manager has to build a community of people with an appreciation of the limitations of their current methodology, and the new results that are possible.

The conclusion of this stage is to have identified the topic(s) for the first simulation(s) and the roles of key people including developers and sponsors.

Step 1.01: Identify and Build Buy-In for the Broad Need for Sims 11
Step 1.02: Identify the Area of Need 14
Step 1.03: Assign the Early Roles 17

Phase 2: Create and Design

In this phase, the sim is designed. The goal is to produce and gain consensus on a comprehensive design document and/or sim bible, between 30 and 50 pages long.

The designer immerses him or herself in the con- tent, looking at established best practices, lots of tiny relationships, and then relevant existing sim genres.

The learning objectives and requirements are formalized, often using a client liaison and program sponsor. The look and feel are nailed down, hopefully with the work of a good graphic designer. Any technical decisions, including media, authoring environments, and end-user requirements, are nailed down.

While the steps here are the process, the grammar is contained in my book The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games.

Step 2.01: Identify Learning Goals and Program Goals 25
Step 2.02: Identify Target Audience 27
Step 2.03: Create a High Level Budget and Time Frame 29
Step 2.04o: (Optionally) Bring in an Outside Vendor 31
Step 2.05: Produce Concept Document 32
Step 2.06: Produce Rough Schematic/ Walk Through 35
Step 2.07: Set up Sharing Infrastructure and Meeting Schedule with Stakeholders 37
Step 2.08: Review Existing Training Materials 38
Step 2.09: Research, including outside research 39
Step 2.10: Interview Subject Matter Experts 40
Step 2.11: Build out the Simulation Model 42
Step 2.12: Identify Genre, Platforms, and Techniques 47
Step 2.13: Synchronize the Content Model 52
Step 2.14: Bring in the Final Programming Talent, if not yet done 56
Step 2.15: Bring in the Lead Artist 59
Step 2.16: Finalize Budget and Project Plan 61
Step 2.17: Establish Scenarios, Story, Characters, and Settings 62
Step 2.18: Break out Levels and Level Designs 67
Step 2.19: Create List of Needed Art 71
Step 2.20: Produce Proof of Concept 72
Step 2.21: Finalize Assessment Strategy 73
Step 2.22: Produce the Design Document 77
Step 2.23: Develop Architecture, including Content and SCORM and LMS Integration 79
Step 2.24: Finalize Key Simulation Actions and Mechanisms 83
Step 2.25: Meta-Code Algorithms 85
Step 2.26: Create all of the Final Illustrations 87

Phase 3: Code

In Part 3, the programmers/coders (hopefully well briefed and otherwise begun during Part 2) will pro- gram the material in the design document. They will produce much of the core sim engine itself, and provide the links to the fluid content, such as graphic files, videos, sound files, text, and entire level designs and sim flow, using industry standard media and xmls. The program sponsor, lead designer, graphic designer, and client liaison will be peripherally involved, making decisions, and helping flesh out the numerous parts of the sim engine that need refining. Near the end of this process, the lead designer will begin inputting as much of the final content as possible. About 40% of the project budget is spent in this stage.

Step 3.01: Prototype in Code Each New Segment/Genre 89
Step 3.02: Complete all Dialogue and Pedagogy Text 90
Step 3.03: Build Out the Various Content Engines 92
Step 3.04: Create One Complete Level 93
Step 3.05: Finish the Separate Self-Contained Engines Pieces and Fill in the Level Details 95
Step 3.06: Combine Different Pieces into Seamless, Rough Whole 98
Step 3.07: Translate the Text 100
Step 3.08: Bring in the Final Acting Talent 101

Phase 4: Calibrate

The final stage of sim development involves calibrating the sim to real users. Here, the sim is put in front of as many people representative of final users as possible, to look at how well the sim meets program goals and learning goals.

This stage can be bruising for the developers and programmers, so needs to be driven by the more objective project manager or sponsor liaison. Almost everyone involved with the sim need to be available and accessed for short bursts of rapid changes.

And while listed here as a distinct stage, in fact the real process of getting user feedback should be constant and ongoing from the first day of sim design. The more integrated the process of calibrating is, the less dramatic and expensive changes will have to be here.

Having said that, almost invariably, sim elements need to be better explained. Often, new (and even simpler) levels need to be added to the front end of the experience. New tips and other pedagogy have to ex- plain why things are happening the way they are.

Meanwhile the gameplay has to be refined to make things easier or harder. This often just involves the tightening up or loosening up of some key variables, such as timers and enemy AI's.

About 25% of the project budget is spent here.

Step 4.01: Pilot for Usability and Learning Objectives 105
Step 4.02: Rerecord talent where necessary 107
Step 4.03o: Find the Right Content (Optionally, if using third party sims) 108
Step 4.04: Package Any Support Material 112
Step 4.05: Create and Present Marketing Material 115
Step 4.06: Put on Final Server 116
Step 4.07: Chunk Content (for class use) 117
Step 4.08: Test Sim with a Subset of Final Population 120

Phase 5: Deploy

The single biggest milestone in a sim development project is making the sim available for the final population. This can be to a target community in an enterprise or the entire world.

No matter how much planning and testing was done, there are always surprises, including server stress issues, database issues, language misteps, and browser incompatibility issues.

It is best to have a full, ready-response team for the first 24 hours. This team needs to be able to troubleshoot problems in real time. This is also the time to test tracking abilities.

Avoid a common mistake by not planning vacations for the week following the release of the sim, expecting work to be over.

This step also kicks off any marketing or other communication programs, usually with quotes and other user thoughts taken from the pilots. Where sims are required, this also has to be communicated.

Step 5.01: The Set Up (for class use) 124
Step 5.02: From Real Life to Simulation (for class use) 126
Step 5.03: Teaching the Interface (for class use) 128
Step 5.04: First Public Simulation Play (for class use) 129
Step 5.05: Putting together participants for Multiplayer or Team Based Sims (for class use) 130
Step 5.06: Coaching During the Student Use (for class use) 131
Step 5.07: After Action Reviews (for class use) 133
Step 5.08: Off Ramp from Simulations Back to Real Life (for class use) 134
Step 5.09: Gather Metrics around "Simulation Use and Effectiveness" in Full Population 136
Step 5.10: Create the Final Report 138
Step 5.11: Patch and update the Sim 140


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