Muzzy lane Software
Making History II
SMTG: Muzzy Lane Software doesn't come across as the typical small indie game studio, working out of a garage and fuelled on pizza. Exactly how big is the company, and how did you get started?
CP: We started in 2002, and up until about a year ago we had 12-15 people. But we are growing now, I think we are up to about 22. Our CEO Dave McCool started the company with two friends. He wanted to make games that could be used in the education space, but were good enough to also be commercial games. That's where the Making History series started, as an educational game aimed at high school and university history classes. I think we are seeing a dramatic increase in both the number of indie studios, and the type. As for our company being atypical, there are still a lot of the 1-2 person indies, but also a lot of midsized and even larger developers working independent of large publishers. Especially in the PC space, where the option of digital download sites like Impulse, Steam and GamersGate have given developers an effective sales alternative to the retail channel and physical product.
SMTG: Given the style of game you make, and the topic, do you run into problems with people outside of gaming not taking what you do seriously?
CP: Early on we ran into some of this. You have to remember back in 2002-2003, most people had never heard of serious games, and the idea that games could be used to teach was pretty radical. It's much more widely accepted now. We currently have projects underway with partners such as McGraw-Hill, Middlebury Interactive Languages, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and others who have come to us precisely because they ARE outside the gaming industry and are interested in making games using our technology.
SMTG: How easy is it to 'get into' a game like Making History? I know many less-hardcore strategy gamers worry that they need a phd in military strategy to understand some of the more serious games in that genre?
CP: This is something we think about constantly, and have throughout the entire series. But you know, people actively seek out complexity in these types of games. It's how you manage all the different areas of the game that makes for good strategy and gives players the most satisfaction when they see how well their plans work out. That being said, you can try to show beginning players the basics and let them learn more as they play. We are always looking for ways to make the game easier for new players to learn.
SMTG: When you make 'serious' and historically accurate strategy games, how do you know where to stop, in terms of modelling using the real data, and ensuring everything is simulated as it really was?
CP: No game is historically accurate once the player begins taking actions, unless the player does everything exactly as it happened historically. And what fun is that? Our concept is that the players make their own history. So while we do use a tremendous amount of real historical data, they are used as a starting point. Once the player assumes control there are very few scripted events that will force the player to repeat history. Instead we design the AI-controlled nations like characters, so their behavior will reflect that nation during the time period. For example, Germany is not always going to invade Poland in 1939, but they are trying to expand, and Poland is right next door, so at some point they will probably go after them. I often joke that historical games loaded with scripted events such as the invasion of Poland on the exact date in history are really science fiction games where the player is from the future like Marty McFly and knows exactly when things are going to happen.
SMTG: You work with very renowned historians as advisors. Do they 'get' the idea of serious games? are any of them hardcore grognards?
CP: Ha! I don't know if any of them are grognards! But in general their interest in using serious games to engage students more in the study of history is a part of why they wanted to join our advisory team. Niall Ferguson in particular is a pioneer of the concept of "counterfactual" history. That is, asking "what if" questions and not looking at history as inevitable. For example, what if Hitler had not invaded the USSR for another year? Could he have ended the war with the UK first, either through treaty or conquest? Or, what if the US and USSR had gone to war when they met in Berlin in 1945? These things could very easily have happened, and in our game you get to actually play them out and see the results.
SMTG: I never paid attention in history at school, yet got into 20th century history through playing video games in my thirties. Do you think using games like MH in the classroom is going to excite the next generation about history?
CP: It already has. The game has been used in hundreds of schools, and one teacher actually did a comparison between classes taught using his standard syllabus, and others using Making History. The classes playing Making History came away with a far greater understanding of the subject, reflected in more thoughtful answers to essay questions, and a dramatic increase in geographical knowledge. Kids were trying to play after school and discussing diplomatic deals in the hallways. The interactive nature of games offers players a chance at a deeper level of understanding of any subject compared to the passive alternative of listening to a lecture. The key is to design games to properly mesh with the material being covered, and to give teachers and students the ability to go back afterwards and review what they did and why. It's not meant to replace conventional studying, but to inform it, as you would go look in a game manual after you've played a game to get some specific information. So the engagement provided by the game increases the motivation of the students to study, because the knowledge has a practical application, it's not just an abstract collection of facts.
SMTG: What's the future for Muzzy Lane, a new Making history game? or something completely different?
CP: We've spent the better part of the last few years building the Sandstone Platform, our technology for allowing high-quality 3D games to be played in the web browser, which is possible with Making History II. We are about to release our multiplayer service which will allow players to play multiplayer games asymmetrically, to come and take a turn and then leave. The game is saved in the cloud on our servers, and when the turn ends players are informed that they can take their next turn via email. This will be a huge help when playing a long strategy game that cannot be completed in one marathon session. We will soon release a Mac version of MHII, followed by an editor. We are continuing to release regular updates to MHII. The game was in rough shape when released last summer, but it has evolved into a really good game! We plan on having another Making History game out this year. We're also working on over a half dozen serious games projects with the partners I mentioned above. So, we're busy!
You can download a demo for Making History II here