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S0ckrates's picture
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I've seen in multiple articles about Foldit at this point that the game is supposedly like 3D Tetris for proteins.

But y'know what I think? It's a misnomer, and false advertising. And for those who aren't familiar with gaming trends, comparing games to one-another is common but can often be super inaccurate. The whole "[Difficult game] is the Dark Souls of [genre, series]" memery is already bad enough to hear on a weekly basis, but this "Foldit is Tetris for Proteins" rubs me the wrong way more and more every time I hear it and I think the game should either be compared to more relevant titles or described as its own beast entirely.

Tetris is a action puzzle game known for its fast paced, highly engaging gameplay that involves rotating and placing falling blocks together to form complete lines. I can see where the comparison stems from, mainly from the players having to arrange geometric formations in a proper order. Take that, entropy.

But when I would describe Foldit, the way it comes out off the top of my head is really just: Foldit is a protein sandbox simulator where players can manipulate the shape and composition of protein chains to find high-scoring solutions for open-ended puzzles.

There's huge contrasts in those two descriptions! For one, the engagement factor. Hand-folding only takes up the first bit of time and there's hardly any visual or audio feedback when something's going right. In fact, it's impossible to 100% accurately tell if something's going right; the early hand folding could lead to a flawed solution after recipe churning. Not to mention, with the bigger puzzles the game chugs hard in some cases, especially when new players don't know or aren't comfortable with turning off visual elements to reduce lag. Tetris in contrast is high speed, low drag, all skill, all the time.

There *is* a definitive failure state in Tetris: the filling of the matrix and a tetromino being unable to enter the playing field. Foldit doesn't necessarily have a failure state: we don't run out of moves or anything since that would be tying one hand behind our back when we're trying to make scientifically significant solutions (except for, of course. the sketchbook puzzles). Sure we could reset the puzzle, but this doesn't necessarily constitute a great failure state at all really. The ultimate failure state in Foldit is really just a puzzle expiring, and there's not nearly as much fanfare as when a Tetris matrix is overflowing with misplaced blocks.

And then there's multiplayer: Action puzzle versus puzzle sandbox/simulation. If you say Tetris multiplayer I'm thinking a one vs. one duel where every line sends a row of garbage blocks at their opponent. It's fun to watch, nail biting if they're equally matched in skill, and easy to follow. Foldit multiplayer is cooperative and competitive, but on a much slower time scale, and not nearly as exciting in the short term as Tetris. Oh boy, a recipe found 3 more points of score optimization, woo hoo. Sure the leaderboard is updated in real time, but we're nowhere near Tetris levels of hype.

So what do we compare Foldit to? There's not many games I can think of off the top of my head that really fit the bill that are as easy to recognize as Tetris, which isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. Puzzle sandbox and simulation brings to mind Factorio, Opus Magnum, and certain Minecraft modpacks, but these games focus on a sort of production line thinking. There's always physics simulating games/sandboxes, like Garry's Mod, Poly Bridge, and Besiege. The latter 2 of that list look for optimized solutions to relatively smaller puzzles in comparison to Foldit, where they can score based on parts used, time taken for simulation to run, etc. Solution optimization in games happens naturally as a form of emergent gameplay, but these games that I've listed can put a little more emphasis on it than most.

Another thing too: Foldit players don't necessarily get to see their proteins in action. They're just...there. In stasis. I understand that we probably don't have an enzymatic animation that we could do in Foldit and wiggling is the closest thing we're gonna get to "Run simulation," but the only feedback that stuff is working is the absence of clashing/voids and bonding which translates into the small, non-emphasized score display at the top. In other sandboxes you'd get to see projectiles flying through the air, a custom built space ship taking fire and dishing it right back, or other player-created solutions doing something. In fact, now that I think of it, the whole point of score in Foldit is stability; one of the very things that players are seeking is literally nothing happening when wiggle is turned on at full CI, which of course you could just get from one wiggle pass. But what ends up setting apart the higher scoring solutions from the freshly wiggled one? Little of that is super apparent in game, at least.

Would I say any of those games I listed are a definitive comparison? Probably not. This is why Foldit needs its own working description of the game. The most concise one I can think of is "Foldit is an open-ended 3D puzzle sandbox where players tinker with unideal proteins to stabilize them." A game does not necessarily need to be compared to another game for people to understand what it is. Reference points are nice, but people in the gaming sphere got rapidly sick of difficult games being touted as "the Dark Souls of [genre or series]" just because Dark Souls is difficult to most new players. If we skip the false comparisons, we can give a more accurate first impression of the game as it actually is: A sandbox for brilliant minds to flourish.

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Nice to have a gamer (and philosphe) point of view !

If we could attract and keep real players (in the seek of pure fun), they would help Science a lot with their high "pattern recognition" skills. The current game seems to mainly select the players playing "for science" a little bit more than "for fun" (their fun is mixed with a seek for utility).

I like:
"Foldit is an open-ended 3D puzzle sandbox where players tinker with unideal proteins to stabilize them"
and the more mysterious:
"A sandbox for brilliant minds to flourish"

I've already read that "Foldit is one of the most complex game in Citizen Science so far".

I like the idea to try to "seduce" future players. I can add that the learning curve is about 200 puzzles and 2 years to have a chance to reach the top 10 ranking, and about 50 Science (not beginners) Puzzles to have a chance to win a single puzzle. I wonder how much it is for other games.

Note that the Tutorials and then Beginners puzzles are more like a 100% fun and competition. May be there are some ideas to even make it more fun and competitive for beginners?

You listed some comparable games. May be good targets there to catch the attention to possible players, by "suggesting" them Foldit as a comparable to their favorite game. Advertising strategy focused to gamers. (I've the impression that the targets for advertising Foldit has always be more science community than game community, but I can be wrong).

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Platforms and Distribution

Your last point there is notable from my standpoint because Foldit is not on Steam. Steam does this sort of thing, recommending similar games to people and also allowing to see what friends are playing at any given moment. In addition the Steam review system is a great (if not savagely accurate at times) litmus test as to how people are taking the game. Now, I'm no game dev, and I have no idea how hard it is really to get on Steam, but I know Steam is one of the big titans of the gaming marketplace right now, with good reason too.

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Rubik's Cube

I asked my sons, who have not played foldit but have certainly heard a lot about it. One stated flatly, "Foldit is not a game." The other compared it to a Rubik's cube, but not a regular Rubik's cube - one of the ones that is cut on the diagonal or assembled of mismatched pointy bits. Just figuring out what constitutes a "side" requires mentally adjusting your vision. You can't just move one part, because something else always moves at the same time. You can eventually memorize sets of moves that do what you want, but it takes 3-D imagination of what it might look like afterward to figure out what you actually want to do. I thought it was a pretty good analogy.

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Halfway there.

It's a better start, and can help perception, but there's still a lot of mental gymnastics involved, and there's one set solution to a Rubik's Cube; I still think Foldit is too distinct from that. Open ended puzzles are the cruxpoint here that I'm finding that makes things fall flat.

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computer assisted

There is something special in Foldit: you can script, automate or optimize moves, elaborate "mass" action strategies by selecting recipes at the right time in conjunction with visual recognition and hand corrections.

Actually, the number of available "tools" (or successions of actions) is potentially infinite.

There are "symbols" (embedded tools like shake etc), "words" (combinations of symbols in recipes), "sentences" (strategies or combinations of recipes) and a kind of "grammar" to make the result being successful (orange inside etc).

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What do you want the game to be?

I really appreciate this discussion. S0ck raises a good point that Foldit doesn't seem sure about what kind of game it is. What kind of game would you like to see it as, S0ck? What objective do you think you're reaching for?

This is currently something we're dealing with on the dev team, and I'm really interested in how you see it as a game.

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Let me get back to you on that.

There's a lot to talk about with regards to not just what I think about the game, but also where it stems from. I think what I'm gonna do is talk about it on my Twitch stream later today, and I'll come back with some compiled thoughts. What I can say right off the bat is that the very fact that Foldit runs off of the Rosetta engine puts some major caveats on what can be done with the game.

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Retain the science, but polish the game.

I still see Foldit as it stands as a protein folding puzzle sandbox game. Seeing as it runs off of Rosetta, this is a great entry level tool into working with in-silico macromodeling research.

One of Foldit's selling points is that it is citizen science: you don't have to be a scientist to generate useful data for research. Indeed, since the Foldit client sends periodic pings and snapshots of solutions to the servers, even a not-explicitly saved solution might be selected from big data analysis through the backend.

As it stands at the moment, Foldit is really just a piece of sandbox software. There's intro puzzles, but they don't feel like they're worth much in the grand scheme of things. The rotating puzzles that are ranked offer some incentive for competition, but having said that they're big, intimidating, and thanks to the problem areas with controls, hard to get into. Students completing the intro puzzles probably don't see this as a game; they just see it as a source of extra credit with no compelling reason to play more if they cannot compete. Moving forward I want to see Foldit polish the game aspect of it while still trying to keep the science intact.

Foldit running off of the Rosetta engine incurs some limitations, I reckon, with regards to how much content is put into the game, versus how much content is housed on the website. Certain things that you would expect to be in the game, or to be accessible in the game (e.g. Recipe Search and Groups), must be viewed through the website. The website itself, is at best, somewhat dated in terms of design (especially for mobile users). If there is to be this disconnect between the game client and the website, I think it needs work to reconcile what responsibilities the game and the website have with each other.

Besides the game-website divide, the game itself still needs some dire work and polish with UI and just being a game that runs and looks well. Things are cluttered and poorly organized, the game can chug with certain setups, and the static black or white background combined with the amino acid and side chain spaghetti is very simplistic and not too pleasing on the eyes. To be frank, this portion of my critique probably calls for the work of an entire (or indie, depending on individual ambition) game studio to bring to reality the visual (and hopefully audio, game soundtracks are actually fantastic) improvements, but I'm aware of academia having their hands tied with regards to funding. Indeed, if a Kickstarter were launched to try and pay for some development and polish, I find it a very tough gamble that's likely to fall flat on its face unfunded.

A possible addition is the introduction of a campaign with more fixed-goal puzzles a la the intro puzzles. In the intro puzzles it was possible to know when you were achieving something competently with the score goal. These new campaign puzzles could be oriented towards making what players are doing in the game extremely more relatable to things that are already familiar with them. The first campaign I'd suggest is a series of real proteins that are in the human body that perform essential functions; maybe the active site of glucokinase, or maybe a small ion channel. It might be tough to do whole proteins right off the bat, so starting small and gradually working up towards, say, a final boss level of ATP Synthase could work well. Exposing players to real protein folds *in game* is a great way to develop good-science habits for more useful solutions in all puzzles. This doesn't require any wiki-diving either, you can see it in-game, visualize it and tinker with it with your own curiosity and satisfaction as a player, versus a well intentioned yet paternalistic recommendation by a veteran in chat. Moreover, with a campaign that has set start and end goals, a new emergent way to play arises: Speedrunning. This could revitalize the hand-folding competition, and find new and efficient ways to hand-fold. All in all this creates another reason to keep playing the game besides the ranked rotation that doesn't intimidate players: it's a simple to-do list.

This campaign does not have to be a prerequisite into getting into the weekly rotations of puzzles; locking "ranked modes" for those who want to jump straight in (especially considering that this is *not* a synchronous multiplayer team game, you don't have to say to your friend "oh i can't join I have to do the tutorial first"). Having the ranked competitive scene is still great for Foldit, but it needs that uncompetitive training base for it to flourish in my opinion.

Speaking of the ranked leaderboards, other big-label games have the tendency to group players into skill brackets. This labeling can be a boon for recognizing player skill immediately without having to look at a number and go "this number out of how many active players?" The skill tier reveals a lot, for better or for worse of course. I don't know if having a tier system like "Black Belt Folders (I-V) > Quaternary (I-V)>...>Primary (I-V)>Free-Residues" would actually help, but if (and hopefully when) the playerbase grows, a normal curve can hopefully be extrapolated from the global scores of folders to set up a tier system with point thresholds.

The final thing I want to ramble about is controls. I've mentioned before: Blueprint mode is a step in the right direction. The simple drag and drop usage is great, but with a few caveats. For one, you cannot actually preview how your addition is going to be oriented in space. Secondly, these building blocks are set; players may not design their own. Expanding upon this control scheme for use in synthesizing proteins in all puzzles is a must in my opinion. I'd like to see a simple drag and drop system for adding residues to cut ends, just like dragging on Lego bricks in say, Lego Digital Designer (man I feel old.). Allow players to make their own frequently used building blocks, and to be able to carry these common toolsets and maybe share them with fellow players. Perhaps, even, with regards to monomer design puzzles, have players start with only one residue, and work from there. Maybe add a resizable helix/sheet block, with a slider (or numerical input box, having both is super super convenient) to resize the secondary structure being dragged in. I think a lot of drag and drop elements can be co opted from other creative games like Spore in order to really polish the end user experience. I'm sure it's easier for a scientist to use Foldit's tools from the get-go, but if they really try to play this like an actual game, the frustrations would come to a head.

On a final note on the way out, does anyone on the dev-team, science or game dev related, actually go to game developer conferences or play games themselves? I ask, because it's a key question to bring up when it comes to developer-player relationships. Games flourish when this is managed well, and come under fire or wither away (looking at you, EA) when they are not. Sometimes, I would honestly like to hear what the scientists and game developers think of the state of the game, if they actually do care enough about it to have these nuanced opinions in similar veins as mine.

With that I think I've said enough, and I should also mention that next quarter at UC Davis Dr. Siegel has notified me of an opportunity to work on development that I have cleared my schedule for. Now that I mention it, now's a good time to e-mail him again about the specifics from our conversation. Thanks for taking my feedback into account, and I hope to continue to be on the forefront of representing this game on Twitch.

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We appreciate the feedback

Hey S0ck,

Thanks for all of the good feedback, as always. I can't speak for the entire dev team, but here's what I can say from my perspective:

- Some of the things you've mentioned are being considered, so having some player voices to back up the need for these things makes it easier for me to justify that these parts of the game are a priority for development (if this sounds vague, it's because I'm not actually sure what I am/not allowed to talk about)

- Personally, I am an avid gamer and game designer, although I haven't been to a game dev conference yet. One of the lead designers, scooper, has worked in the games industry before as well, but his time is so often consumed by bugs and new features that it falls on me to update the UI and game design. Possibly a couple of the junior devs, like myself, are also gamers, but by the nature of student programs, they come on the team for a year or so and then disappear, so there isn't much of a dedicated team toward fixing the game as a game. That being said, we recognize this as a priority, so we have a small team working as quickly as we can to implement a few key features. I will add, though, that my own work is tailored more to new players than expert players, so you might not get some of these things until the intro levels are in better shape.

Keep up the feedback and we'll keep taking notes!

-Josh

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Thank you!

I appreciate the transparency you can give me and the insight behind some of the limitations. Keep up the good work; I'm already waiting eagerly for the full band strength slider to come to live.

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Sock's great feedback / why people play

Sock's feedback
I think Sock has done a great job talking about how to categorize Foldit. As a team that tries hard to attract new players and bring them along, I most like the idea of giving some rewards along the way to players of various levels. The difference between alphatoxin and the beginner puzzles is enough to scare a newbie away :D
So thanks for keeping some small puzzles. They work better for our beginners and us small machine people. And giving rewards like various levels would be great. Us long time players don't need them, but I believe the game needs them to help nurture and grow new players. We need to teach them to apply tools in free form puzzles, how to spot what should be helix or sheet with given strings of residues, etc. It can take them a while to master basic skills like these -- it took me a while. So a progressive path that rewards might help us retain more players
It might also help to add levels to the puzzles. Perhaps not everything should be "intermediate".... that way we could signal to newbies which puzzles are most approachable. Steer them to revisits first, and let them attack alphatoxin down the road. Sock is a brilliant and wonderful exception, but I'd love for us to get some more players hooked

Why people play
One final note -- there are a large number of players who are caretakers. We have parents, other relatives, etc. who have diseases that Foldit may attack. Alzheimer's, Parkinsons, ALS, muscular dystrophy, etc. keep many of us more involved than scoring well. We don't often travel or do other things as we can't. I'd recommend we get some feedback about this on the next survey or even a new one.

Skippy

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Good points!

Skippy, even *I* haven't even picked up how to spot common sheet or helix sequences yet. Big wake-up call, really. This would be a great side-series of smaller to mid-size puzzles waiting to be designed so that this skill can be embedded into player mastery if you ask me.

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What would foldit more attractive to simple players

I am a casual player of fold.it and up to my impression
there are some points which hinder fold.it to be more attractive to casual players:

1. The average period till my efford is rewarded via given points is quite long.

2. The level which has to be reached to gain more than
the "Thanks for the participation" point is quite high.
In other words you have to gain (at least)
an end term rank of >100 to obtain a senseful amount of points.

3. The number of actual playable puzzles is quite low.
It would be fine to have at least one puzzle of each category active and playable.

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One word: Progression

These problems highlight what I think is a fundamental hole in the player progression curve of Foldit. Good points.

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Developed by: UW Center for Game Science, UW Institute for Protein Design, Northeastern University, Vanderbilt University Meiler Lab, UC Davis
Supported by: DARPA, NSF, NIH, HHMI, Microsoft, Adobe, RosettaCommons