3 Core Aspects Of Game Design Your eLearning Authoring Tool Needs To Support

3 Core Aspects Of Game Design Your eLearning Authoring Tool Needs To Support
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Summary: To build a custom eLearning game, you need an authoring tool with strong visual design capabilities, support for structural complexity, and design controls that provide sufficient flexibility. Here are some specific features and capabilities to look for.

What Do You Need To Author An eLearning Game?

These days, there's an eLearning authoring tool on the market for every need, whether your end goal is a souped-up PowerPoint or something much more complex.

eLearning game design is one of the more demanding formats. You need a robust and powerful tool to do the job. We're going to discuss a few specific authoring tool features that are essential for game design.

Aspect 1: Strong Visual Design Capabilities

Today's learners have grown up in an age of strong visual design, from web design to video games to movies and television. Consciously or subconsciously, they expect a certain level of sophistication. If you want them to take you seriously, you need to meet or exceed that implicit standard.

While innovative visuals might also require specialized graphic design software, using an authoring tool with strong visual design capabilities can streamline the process and introduce dynamic and interactive visuals.

The first and most essential is the authoring tool's media library. If you can find a tool with an impressive integrated stock library, that's a great place to start. Even better, though, find a tool that helps you store, manage, and reuse custom visual assets. Modern learners are exposed to stock media constantly, which has given them an innate ability to sniff it out. They'll recognize and gravitate toward well-crafted custom design.

Secondly, strong native image-editing capabilities are worth their weight in gold because simple tweaks won't require you to juggle apps. Look for an authoring tool that offers more than cropping and resizing. Some tools offer the ability to adjust color properties (like contrast and vibrance) or apply filters and effects (like focus blur). It's also helpful when a tool creates a new copy of any edited image. Keeping the original copy in the system can help you workshop different styles and simplify future revisions.

Third, if you want to make your game available for different audiences, the ability to “reuse” elements like graphics across different deployments of the project can be a huge time-saver. When reusing elements, you are not simply copying and then copying again when things change, but rather you are cross-linking items between projects, thus enabling you to update all projects with one change.

The ability to layer visual elements is another important aspect. Many simple template-based tools can't do it. Sure, you can layer elements in graphic design software, but an authoring tool with native capabilities will enable you to animate visual elements and make them interactive. Look for the ability to layer text, speech bubbles, hotspots, and other stock or custom images.

In the age of HTML5, it's also possible to do this kind of layering and interactivity on top of video. More robust authoring tools will offer that functionality.

It is also quite helpful if an authoring tool offers built-in widgets for turning the learner's score and progress into a dynamic (and customized) visual display. A simple numeral may be the appropriate display option for some data, but gauges, progress bars, meters, and other dynamic display options are usually more effective.

You should also look for the ability to control the style of your gauge or bar so that it blends in with the overall aesthetic. Look for tools that let you customize the shape and color, at the very least, and the ability to add animation. Some tools let you integrate custom images, as well.

Finally, when it comes to design, consider how your learners will be experiencing your game. If learners are using different devices and screen sizes, then responsive design—as opposed to a traditional, fixed, pixel approach—may be best. And don’t be fooled into thinking that because it is responsive you are limited in design options and sophisticated game development is out the window. If you believe that is true, then you are simply using the wrong authoring tool when it comes to responsive design.

Aspect 2: Support For Structural Complexity

To create a good eLearning game, you're going to really test the limits of how much complexity an authoring tool can provide. We talked about visual complexity above, and we'll talk about interactive complexity in a moment. There's one more: structural complexity.

When you're using an eLearning authoring tool for game design, you're going to need a more complex project structure than a traditional eLearning project would require. Presentations and traditional courses can be fairly simple—many are linear and broken into modules that each contain several pages that typically don’t require multiple modules. You're also typically only tracking user choices on a handful of practice or test pages, if at all.

A good game has "levels" with increasing complexity and, luckily, a module structure can be repurposed to serve this function. This does mean you need an authoring tool that supports multiple modules per project or methods to simulate this, however, and not all of them do.

A key to building a game that feels like a game—instead of a course playing dress-up—is the ability to use non-linear navigation. Unlike traditional designs, it is likely that you will develop a number of pages, or parts of pages, that not all users will experience. Depending on how complex and flexible your design is, you may end up with quite a hefty project that will result in each learner experiencing something a bit unique.

Another source of complexity for a game is the need to track and score different learner choices in a variety of methods across the entire project. Most eLearning tools have a set scoring capability tied to a set of test questions. For most games, you want scores and activities that accumulate across the span of the game and are not part of an overall exam at the end. You also need more options for scoring certain learner actions (like clicking on an element) without needing to tie them to a pre-boxed test, or even practice, question format. It is also likely that the need will arise to track the score for multiple resources at the same time (like "money" and "health" in a video game). Along with this, you’ll need a method to trigger actions that change and adjust based on user actions, experiences, and conditions. To make any of this happen, you'll need robust variable support, including custom variables, conditions, and the ability to tie actions to them (more on this below).

Aspect 3: Sophisticated, (Mostly) Programming-Free Design Controls

Once upon a time, if you wanted full freedom to build a dynamic, complex set of interactions, you needed someone on your team with coding skills.

Over the years, as authoring tools continued to improve, the need for this began to dissipate. Of course, programming skills can still be quite beneficial, but looking for an authoring tool that empowers you to create the activities without programming can really unleash your creative freedom. Especially when those programming resources are limited or simply unavailable.

For the flexibility to build a custom game as you see fit, you'll need to choose one of the more powerful tools on the market.

When selecting a tool, there are solutions primarily focused on gaming alone, or you can utilize all-purpose eLearning authoring tools like Storyline, Captivate, and dominKnow | ONE, which offer almost unlimited flexibility, with little to no coding. You can use their intuitive design controls to create almost any action or interactivity you might need. Which solution you select often depends on your overall needs, type of content, and games you want, as well as your plans for future development.

The features we've already discussed are certainly part of that, as they allow visual design and structural complexity without programming. Here, we're going to focus on the final area of key game design controls: interactivity.

If you're starting at the shallow end of game design, you can actually get a lot of mileage out of the built-in elements that serve as practice exercises and test questions for traditional eLearning. They can be repurposed into shortcuts for complex interactivity in a game, though this is easier in some tools than others, and you need to make sure the solution enables customization of the look and feel, feedback, and trackability for these elements.

Certain built-in activities can be integrated more seamlessly than others, but just about any type of exercise or test question can be useful if you get creative. Question types that are useful for stealthy repurposing include hotspot capabilities, branching scenario builders, and drag-and-drop targets.

For "longhand" and custom interactivity, you need a tool with robust variable, trigger, input controls and action capabilities. Full-featured authoring tools have a library of built-in system options for each, as well as the ability to customize. The custom capability is key if you want full control, but the system options can save a lot of steps.

Earlier, we discussed why variable capabilities matter. Some system variables will be helpful for game design, particularly those related to score or time limit. However, you really need custom variable support to build a game. That functionality will help with score tracking, as discussed above, but custom variables can also be used to set a trigger. This lets you tailor later events based on learner choices for a richer and more complex experience.

eLearning development tools with a core focus on rapid, templated courses won't provide much (or any) custom variable support because it doesn't suit the product's purpose. You need a full-featured authoring tool to get this functionality.

Then there are triggers and actions. Some system-generated actions and triggers will be more relevant to game functionality than others. Game-related trigger examples include "interact with element" triggers, time-lapse or question attempt triggers, and animation/FX actions. In addition, look for specialized triggers that meet your design needs, as they can save a tremendous amount of development time. When shopping for a tool, evaluate the pool of system options with your game design needs in mind.

For the ultimate flexibility, you might want a tool capable of smudging the "no programming" rule. For example, a tool that allows you to insert JavaScript when creating a custom variable can give you extra flexibility. In some tools, you can create custom effects with CSS. Combined with sophisticated design controls, a little code can go a long way.

Final Thoughts

A complex eLearning format requires a robust, full-featured eLearning authoring tool. dominKnow | ONE provides all the functionality discussed above, and you can find sample eLearning games created in dominKnow | ONE on the dominKnow website.

dominKnow | ONE is also fully cloud-based and has collaborative features that simplify your workflow. To learn more, contact me or leave a comment below.

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dominKnow | ONE
dominKnow | ONE is a robust collaborative Course Authoring solution with responsive, traditional & software simulation authoring functions making it easy enough for SMEs yet powerful for advanced designers all in one central system.