Killer Fungus Games with Monocool Interactive, The Game Dr, and Aberdeen Fungal Group

As I previously mentioned in Still to come..., I was interested in conducting interviews of current research and developments of applied games (until a term other than 'serious games' can be agreed upon, I'm using 'applied games' to set the tone). My real passion in games comes from the progressive strides in science, technology, society and health that come as a result of games and play, and I want to make this knowledge more widespread. But rather than making posts about my opinions or thoughts on these games, I feel like it's more appropriate to have the clients and developers discuss their work in greater detail.

For our first interview, we look at Killer Fungus Games developed by Monocool Interactive, in partnership with Aberdeen Fungal Group and Game Dr (Dr Carla Brown and Siam Colvine). Rhys Willis (Director, Monocool Interactive), Professor Neil Gow (Chair in Microbiology, University of Aberdeen) and Dr Duncan Wilson (Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen) provide insight into the project, the games, and the working relationship between client and developer.

Game Dr Logo (credit: Siam Colvine)

Game Dr Logo (credit: Siam Colvine)

Dr Carla Brown Game Dr

Dr Carla Brown
Game Dr

Siam Colvine Game Dr

Siam Colvine
Game Dr

Rhys Willis Monocool Interactive

Rhys Willis
Monocool Interactive

Dr. Duncan Wilson University of Aberdeen

Dr. Duncan Wilson
University of Aberdeen

Prof. Neil A. R. Gow University of Aberdeen

Prof. Neil A. R. Gow
University of Aberdeen

Please outline what the research project is that involved the Killer Fungus Games. What challenges were you looking to address, and why are these important to address?

[NG] "Fungal infections are a huge problem, killing around a million people annually. However the general public are really not aware of the magnitude of this problem. Also funding for research in this area is needed and we wish to underline the importance of our field in general. Primarily, the games formed part of an exhibit which we held at the Royal Society Summer of Science Exhibition called “Killer Fungus”, which was intended to inform the public about human fungal pathogens. The games went alongside other display pieces and interactives about human fungal pathogens. The games , we argued, would be durable and reach a wide community of consumers within and out with our discipline. Specifically the games addressed two points: problems inherent in treating fungal infections, and the evolution of pathogenic fungi."

Let's talk about Fungal Invaders. What was the development process that led you to Fungal Invaders?

[RW] "Carla Brown of Game Dr approached me in November 2015 with the hope of developing a game on behalf of University of Aberdeen. As with all of our games the development process - when working with a client - begins with an initial meeting to discuss specifications and ideas. After the initial meeting we provide the client with a Design Document which will act as a blueprint reference for all parties included in the development process. Once the Design Document is agreed upon by all parties, it is then signed off and development begins on a working prototype. The working prototype allows the client and all parties to give feedback before we get 'too in depth' in the development. It’s at this point we can make major changes easily so it is better to have the client giving feedback throughout the process rather than later on. After multiple revisions, we then polish the game and hand over the finished version."

What was your rationale for Fungal Invaders?

[DW] "Fungal Invaders was a straight-up Space Invaders-style game where the player attempted to stem a “fungal invasion” by shooting down invading fungi with different antifungal drugs. The messages we were trying to get across were that not all fungi can be killed by a particular type of drug, some fungi can acquire resistance to a particular drug (similarly to the antibiotic resistant bacteria that we now hear about in the news), and that some fungi, whilst susceptible to a drug, are very, very difficult to kill."

What do you considers the strengths/weaknesses of Fungal Invaders, and what would you change about the project?

[RW] "Overall I am extremely happy with the finished project. Admittedly the game is pretty short and sweet, but it is designed for a younger audience with its educational value taking priority. Fungal Invaders ticks all the boxes as far as this is concerned. We also designed it with the exhibit in mind. Aberdeen even worked closely with FifeX, (a company based in Fife believe it or not!) have a retro arcade machine designed and put together especially for Fungal Invaders. Together it made an awesome retro game that, although short and sweet, works amazing and in my opinion is incredibly cool. 

The only thing I would change about the whole game would be adding a variety of waves for the future. This just increases the replay ability. Speaking for myself, sometime down the line I would also like to look at maybe online high scores, but this is something that would need to be thoroughly discussed with both Aberdeen and Game Dr."

Fungal Invaders  (credit: Siam Colvine)

Fungal Invaders (credit: Siam Colvine)

Killer Fungus: Evolution  (credit: Siam Colvine)

Killer Fungus: Evolution (credit: Siam Colvine)

How did Killer Fungus: Evolution come about?

[RW] "Once we had completed Fungal Invaders, Aberdeen asked us to work on a second game - Killer Fungus: Evolution. Although this game is far more complex than Fungal Invaders, the development process was exactly the same. "

What were your intentions for Killer Fungus: Evolution?

[DW] "Killer Fungus: Evolution was about how fungi can evolve particular attributes which allow them to survive attack by the human immune system. Here, the player starts off as a non-pathogenic fungus which is easily killed by immune cells. However, by collecting points, the player can “upgrade” their fungal character with special attributes similar to the pathogenicity factors which real fungal pathogens possess in nature. In doing so, the player can circumvent or survive attack by the immune cells. We therefore feel that this game genuinely teaches people about how fungi can avoid the immune system."

[RW] "In educational terms, the aim of Killer Fungus: Evolution was to promote the complexity of fungus, and how there are a vast array of traits that fungus can have. In addition, we also wanted to show a number of enemies that fungus face within the body. Although playing this would be enough, we also included a catalogue within the game that gives all the science speak on the different mechanics within the game."

In similar fashion, what do you considers the strengths/weaknesses of Killer Fungus: Evolution, and what would you change about the project?

[RW] "One of the main strengths of Killer Fungus: Evolution is that it is a very modern game. Endless runners are pretty common and with the complex system of picking your skills and upgrading, it feels very much so like a mobile version of League of Legends. I think people can relate to that so it is easily playable. One of the weaknesses is that because it was so complex, there was a ton of ideas we had to just forget about (for now!) because we were strapped to deadlines. But who knows what the future holds?"

What methods of public engagement did you use? How did players respond to the games?

[NG] "These two games were primarily for engagement at the Royal Society Exhibit. They were received very well and they were being played pretty much constantly when I was at the Exhibit. We’ve also made them free to download on Google Play, app store etc. So far there’s five reviews on Google Play and four of them gave 5-out-of-5 stars. They are also available to play at the Aberdeen Science Centre, where we have another exhibit called the Kingdom of Fungi. The latter is aimed at a slightly younger audience and the first of our games seemed very popular with them."

How was the project managed? How regular was your communication, and how involved were you in the games' development?

[DW] "Being microbiologists, we felt it can be quite easy to take certain things (and ways of thinking) for granted. In this context, the fact that Carla Brown is a trained microbiologist, probably made a big difference here. During game development, I was in regular contact with Monocool. We had a scoping meeting early on and numerous virtual meetings to discuss the development and refinement of the game. We met in person about three times and I count 200 emails regarding the games. I conceived the gameplay design for Killer Fungus: Evolution. I basically told them the idea and we emailed back and forth. When the game was playable, I played it commented on what didn’t work, what didn’t look right etc. There was good input from the games developers and other people on our research team contributed their thoughts as the game developed. In the end I was impressed with the graphics."

[RW] "Working with Aberdeen University was great. They were very supportive of the whole games thing, even though their background wasn't necessarily in games, they knew how big games were and from what I can see they are somewhat pioneers in the Science sector of the UK in regards to pushing forward with science games. Once we got the initial ideas down, they pretty much left us to it which was great. I think they somewhat respected our 'creative minds' and trusted us to do the right things. We of course kept them in the loop with everything and as mentioned provided them with decisions and prototypes so they could make informed decisions. 

As for the science, it was way out of my depth. This is why Monocool and Game Dr worked amazing together. Carla acted as a filter that translated the science perfectly into 'English' if you like. We then worked together to create the best game. Carla was highly critical on the educational side of things, ensuring what we were doing was right and was perfectly understood by our target audience. Whereas I / Monocool did our best to ensure that the games were as fun as possible and kept forwarding game ideas to improve on the ideas we had. It was a perfect match. As a result I didn't need to do that much to understand the science as Carla was a great teacher. But at times we would need to go over things a few times as creating the mechanics would be really awkward if I didn't exactly know what was going on." 

What were the main things that you learned from this project, in terms of games, research, collaboration? Were there any major obstacles that you had to overcome during the project?

[NG] "It was interesting to adapt certain aspects of the scientific research that we carry out into the format of computer games. It is important to have a common understanding of objectives – if that is clear then these collaborations are likely to be highly productive and satisfying. I think the development ran pretty smoothly. There were some issues that had to be sorted out with the contract. I spent a lot of time seekingfinancial support to back the games and the exhibition as a whole. The costs escalated during the development for understandable reasons."

[RW] "One of the main things I learned from this project was that time passes much faster while in a collaboration. When you're working alone or with your usual team, there is no real expectation. You still have deadlines and that’s important, but you can generally meet them stress free. When in a collaboration, I found there is a lot more dialogue, there is a lot more discussing and this discussing is important, but it does slow down development at times. Also working with people from a totally different field was a unique experience.

One of the major obstacles that we had to overcome was to keep the game as scientifically accurate as possible. It’s a difficult thing to get right as we can make a game about anything, you can add eyes to anything and it instantly makes the game more 'fun'. But when you're dealing with real fungus, real antibiotics, it’s important to represent them properly and make it fun at the same time. This can be difficult but we feel we got there in the end."

I'd like to say a word of thanks to Neil, Duncan and Rhys for their time and contribution. I'm really pleased that I was able to discuss the Killer Fungus project for my first interview piece on the website. The value of games within scientific research is enormous, and I believe we are only still scratching the surface of what's possible when we mix research and play.

Fungal Invaders and Killer Fungus: Evolution are available to download for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android from their website.

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