Wildfire Preview: Power To The People

In late September 2009, Cyclone Ketsana hit Southeast Asia, devastating the region. In the Phillippines, the average monthly rainfall fell in just six hours, causing flash floods, landslides, power outages and even oil spills. Total damages were estimated at well over $US200 million. This was the inspiration for four Phillippines students to make a game.

Wildfire is one of the games I saw, played and judged at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in Poland. Like all the teams at the Imagine Cup, the Phillippines’ By Implication is made up of early 20s university students who are working on the game part-time while completing their studies. By Implication designed Wildfire along the theme “Tackling the world’s toughest problems”, developed it using Microsoft’s XNA suite and plan to eventually release it on Xbox Live Arcade and PC.

By Implication took out first place to claim the $US25,000 prize in the Game Design category at the Imagine Cup. So, now that my judging duties are over, I thought I’d tell you more about their game.

What Is It?
During the Ketsana disaster By Implication observed that, while the Phillippines government procrastinated in the wake of “Ondoy” (the local name for Ketsana), it was the people who got out in the streets and – via the power of social media – banded together to get things done. Wildfire is about how this kind of “people power” can solve all manner of problems in a modern city.

You play a citizen of a randomly generated city. As you walk around the streets bustling with pedestrians you are alerted to problems arising in various buildings, and it’s your job to fix them. To do so, you use your ability to “orate”, expending inspiration (your chief resource) to urge passers-by to join with you. These “volunteers” then follow you throughout the city and you can direct them to the various buildings in crisis. As they complete these tasks, you earn more inspiration.

Ultimately it’s a game of resource management where you juggle the demands of the city with your ability to inspire the population. Complications grow as problems appear in more and more buildings, each vying for your attention, the enigmatic, black-suited “agents” roam the streets and hinder your efforts, and all the while your city’s overall health is draining away.

What We Saw
We were able to play a new game from the start all the way through to completion, assuming we could get that far. The aim is to complete 21 tasks throughout the city, but we quickly realised our skills were not going to be up to that particular task just yet.

How Far Along Is It?
Since each city is randomly generated, the longevity comes from replaying to beat a range of statistics each play session records. As a result, By Implication doesn’t need to add more content, they’re just adding polish. It’s pretty close to being ready for release right now.

What Needs Improvement?
I didn’t feel that any aspect of the game – from the core design to the controls to the audio/art direction – required improvement. What I’d like to see is a few extensions and additions to the existing experience.

Right now, Wildfire is purely a singleplayer game. The concept, however, is crying out for some form of multiplayer mode. In gameplay terms, a competitive multiplayer mode would surely work well, as two or more players race around the streets, persuading people to volunteer for their respective causes and competing to complete the most number of tasks.

Better suited to the theme, perhaps, would be a co-operative mode. Wildfire is all about people coming together and supporting each other, so having more players able to pitch in and work towards the same goal is a natural fit.

At present, By Implication has incorporated Twitter by displaying tweets (from the United Nations and other relevant feeds) in-game. But what if Twitter and other social networks could be used by the player to recruit additional support? What if your Twitter followers or Facebook friends could volunteer to help you in-game?

What Should Stay The Same?
What is most striking about Wildfire is its elegance and simplicity. Its mechanics are immediately intuitive, centred on one chief resource (inspiration) and the readily understood concept of multi-tasking. From such seemingly basic ingredients, Wildfire manages to extract an awful lot of strategy while maintaining a fast-paced and accessible game. They’ve wisely opted to not add too many extra features which could bog things down. Although you can purchase upgrades to your avatar in three areas (leadership, defence and movement), these only assist the pace rather than burdening you with further decisions.

It’s also incredibly beautiful, thanks to a visual and aural design that matches the elegance and simplicity of its gameplay. The abstract environment not only looks fantastic, but it keeps you focused on the strategy, making it easy to assess any situation. At a glance you can see your volunteers, you can spot those agents and you can track those buildings in crisis. There’s a real sense of maturity, too, in the manner in which the team has approached every element of Wildfire’s aesthetic.

Final Thoughts
Wildfire may sound like a serious game – and in a sense it is. By Implication developed it from a very serious inspiration and with a very serious intent. Undoubtedly, it’s a game that carries a message, and its creators want you to hear that message.

But it’s also jolly good fun. It looks and feels and plays like nothing else. I hope that when it’s eventually released that many of you do check it out. I think you’ll find it an inspiration in more ways than one.


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