Since its debut six weeks ago on March 4, the Half the Sky game has seen more than 580,000 players (!), who in total have contributed more than $175,000 in donations directly or through sponsors. Players have already unlocked 92,000 free books and $61,000 worth of life-changing surgeries.
While we’re proud of the meaningful impact in such early stages, we know that some of this meaning would be lost if we didn’t share the lessons learned with others who might be interested in embarking on a similar project.
With this second post in our lessons learned series, Emily Treat discusses what went right and what went wrong in terms of initial concepts and content for the Half the Sky game. (Catch up on part 1 of the series, where Asi Burak talks about the game’s executive production, here.)
What Went Right
1. We focused on opportunity instead of oppression. We were dealing with sensitive issues (such as gender violence and sex trafficking) that needed to be handled delicately, without sensationalizing or oversimplifying their graphic nature or the complexities involved. So together with our developer Frima Studio, we made the decision to focus our game progression around opportunities for women and girls: access to education and economic empowerment. We still highlighted many darker issues in the game, but the game progression focused on hopeful story arcs.
2. We worked with our NGO partners as content experts on topic tone, depth and representation. We worked with NGO partners early on to define how content should be approached and included them in the drafting, writing and revision process. For example, we invited sex trafficking survivors to participate in our character design and dialogue script writing process. Through arranging a series of on-site design workshops with the survivors at our partner organization GEMS, we were able to witness these women’s spirit of support, sisterhood, family, hope and inspiration. Many of the character designs, dialogues, and names that exist in the game were inspired by our friends at GEMS.
3. We chose a Facebook as platform to reach new and existing audiences. Though this is a highly competitive space to release a game, and very ambitious for a social impact game in terms of technical and production scope, we knew the primary audience we were trying to reach (adult women) were the dominant audience playing games on Facebook. We have not only reached our targeted audience but also a younger generation of high-school and college-aged girls.
4. We gave players multiple ways to take action from our game. Not everyone has the resources to make financial contributions, so allowing people to engage without spending money was a core goal for our design. We also wanted to be able to validate and track the actions that players were taking through the game, so we worked with our NGO partners to define meaningful actions players could take and then with Facebook to identify what activities we could validate within the Facebook API. We ended up offering more than 85 activities players can take to get involved, such as signing a petition, tweeting a message or hosting a fundraiser for a particular cause.
5. We looked at what was working in existing Facebook games and incorporated the best uses for social, currency, and mechanics. We looked at games that had wide audiences and broad appeal to identify what was working well and what was not. We examined things like amounts of text present on screen, interface complexity, audio pace, number of choices, scope of experience and tutorial formats to better understand how we could manipulate these features to work for our game experience.
6. We presented the experience through the lens of a woman herself, rather than of a hero who saves her. Our player plays as a woman named Radhika, who must first empower herself, then work to empower her family, her community, and finally, her world. The progression from personal determination and to global empowerment was best depicted through vignettes of dialogue, which we could weave in personal dramatic reactions and details that surround the complex the issues within Radhika’s world.
7. We invited feedback on our game in a private beta and made major revisions before making it public. When we were about 80% finished with the game development and only about 30% done with content development, we opened our game up to a small audience. Much of the feedback reflected around gameplay and technical polish was positive—we have a winner! But not so fast—we realized the writing was driving players away. Since we invited feedback early, we still had time to fix it. We enlisted a dramatic screenwriter, sequestered ourselves in a conference room and, in the three weeks leading up to launch, we rewrote 130 individual dialogue scripts. While not ideal, we were able to make these changes in time before launching to the public and greatly improve the game experience.
What Went Wrong
1. We focused our first deliverable on mechanics and features instead of first-time user experience (FTUE). It is common in software and game development to focus on the mechanics of the design and define deliverables around functionality. For our first major milestone we did just this. Unfortunately, we were less considerate of the user experience and when we first saw all of the elements pulled together we were… underwhelmed. Although technically all the features were in place, the overall experience still felt flat and disconnected. We looped back to focus all our attention on designing the first 15 minutes of gameplay and used this as a start of a loop to further refine the gameplay and build out the experience.
2. We had a design with very ambitious scope. As we defined our design and outlined game features, we recognized that our ambitions were very lofty considering our production budget and timeline. The content alone was ambitious in scope. We also made a ‘late in the game’ decision to expand our game from one country location to five, each requiring a unique style of art and set of characters. Unfortunately, this meant we had to loose other elements of the design or were never able to develop some features that may have enhanced the core experience.
3. We started the writing process late in the production timeline and did not bring a writer onto the project until the end. A major part of our game experience is the dialogue and narrative. Despite multiple people’s efforts, we were not hitting the desired writing quality and knew there was lots of content left to write. It seems obvious now, but when creating a game experience that is so dependent on the dialogue and narrative, it is essential to work with a creative or dramatic writer who can help translate scenarios into emotional expressions.
4. We emphasized donation mechanics over social mechanics and may have missed opportunities for viral growth earlier in release when media attention and marketing efforts peaked. Much of our effort was spent around features and mechanics to engage our players with the NGOs we partnered with. Though one core goal for the game was to raise donations for our NGO partners, we now look back and see that we sacrificed social features, one of the main reasons we selected Facebook as a platform. We had not ignored it intentionally, but unfortunately, the complexities with setting up a process and customized mechanism for donations became a development hurdle that moved efforts away from other features.
5. We descoped (and waved goodbye to features forever. *Weep.*) As we approached our already extended launch date, features had to be abandoned in favor of upgrading scripts, eliminating bugs and cranking out new location art. As is usually the case, although we started out with best-laid intentions and the most elegant design EVER, we eventually had to eliminate features in order to deliver the final game.
6. We designed our game thinking mostly about women, which made men feel left out or ‘villainized.’ Through the design and development, we constantly thought about women—their personal struggles, their achievements, their motivations. The result was a very strong reaction from male players that they felt like they were being blamed and represented as an evil opponent. This was never our objective. Worse than that, we didn’t want this game to be about women vs. men. Since we affirm the belief that empowering women is not helped by placing blame and that both women and men are part of the solution, it was critical for us not to present our male characters as anti-female opponents. During our script revision process, a huge effort was put into softening the male characters dialogue, diffusing scenes around gender inequity with humor or elements of compassion and reframing Radhika’s husband and other male characters.
7. We did not provide enough ways for our players to continue to engage with the game or with each other after all content quests were completed. Many of our players who have completed the game (a process that takes between 2 to 3 weeks) are now looking for additional ways to engage with the game and our audience. Though we urge players to engage with our NGO partners in a variety of ways during the game, we should have thought more about designing features that to continue to engage players once their game journey is complete.