Building a social simulation engine, pt. 1

So this topic has come up off an on at work for nearly a year now. We need a good reusable player to create engaging social simulations for training employees on customer interaction. People have looked around and the best off the shelf solution seems to be Nexlearn’s SimWriter. I’ve taken a quick look at it and it does seem like it has a lot of features, but has the same problem most other “learning development” tools have – the look/feel of the output leaves a lot to be desired. And from what I’ve heard it’s a pretty expensive product.

I spent way too much time thinking about this today, and have some free time, so … I’ll build one and document the process on this blog. Not an overly complex one, and I’m not going to be posting all of the source but it’ll be a nice thought experiment.

So what are my requirements?

  • Produce 3 levels of simulation: 1) Linear/low, 2) Branching and 3) “Dynamic State”/complex based on previous branches or other data.
  • Minimum of 3 characters: antagonist (customer), protagonist (you) and a coach/mentor/guide
  • Learner character choice – pick the protagonist who you identify with (age, race, sex, etc.)
  • Scoring – possibly represented as antagonist “mood”
  • History states – go back and review/change past choices
  • Possible branching to other tasks – system/mechanical sim?
  • Basic flow: Introduction, protagonist selection, conversation tree, resolution, summary
  • Tie learning objectives/goals to places in the scenario to measure success/failure.
  • Photos of the characters in different states
  • Audio?
  • Video?
  • Fully Flash based (rich media, etc.)
  • Easy to edit by moderately technical people (XML driven)
  • Possible SCORM tracking: score, answers, performance, time

Not a small list! Not quite sure how long it’ll take me and it will definitely be a phased solution. And I don’t know if  it’ll every be used for anything in production, but it’ll be a nice little way to keep busy in the evenings.

So, let’s get started …

Adding any old library object to a display list

Ok, so you know this used to be pretty straightforward in AS2:

var mc:MovieClip = attachMovie(linkageid, newname, depth);

By in AS3, all of you linked library objects are now classes, so you need to do this with the class name:

var mc:Thingy = new Thingy();

What if you want to attach any random movieclip at runtime but you don’t know what class it will be ahead of time. Maybe its driven by an external data source? You could have a nice if/else or switch block and call the class based on a variable, but that’s a pain in the ass.

So, here is a function that I came up with to make it easier:

function getArbitraryLibraryObject(n:String):Object {
var objC:Class = Class(this.loaderInfo.applicationDomain.getDefinition(n));
var obj:Object = Object(new objC());
return obj;
var mc:MovieClip  = getArbitraryLibraryObject(linkage) as MovieClip;

Let me know if there’s an easier way to go about it, but I haven’t run across one.

In my Ramen player, I’m using this to call sound effects and page to page transition effects.

Articulate headaches, pt. 1

So, I had a really time with Articulate today. Something that should have taken 15 minutes stretched into hours due to a few mistakes. Here’s what went wrong and how I fixed it. I received a lot of help from Twitter – links below.

Problem: I needed to update a few Flash movies embedded in a straightforward Articulate ’09 course, then publish and upload. Simple enough, right?

Updating Flash movies embedded in an Articulate course

When you update a Flash movie that’s embedded in an Articulate course, Articulate picks up the new file since has a link to it on the hard drive.  But it wasn’t doing this with the Flash movies that I had. And I couldn’t figure out why – I didn’t want to reimport them all.

So, I tweeted the problem and Dave Anderson replied with a Screenr showing how this is supposed to work. Well, ok – I had the right idea. But I’d forgotten that when I installed Windows 7, I’d moved all of my working files – so the project was in a completely different location than it had been when I created it. Doh! Articulate stores absolute references to embedded Flash, not relative. Moved the files back to where I had them and that problem was fixed.

Dave later directed me to a Screenr by James Kingsley showing good Flash/Articulate workflow techniques.

Presenter locking up when publishing

So, next problem that I had was presenter stopped publishing the deck. It always stopped on the “Saving files to disk” operation. At first it seemed random as to which slide it got stuck on, and then finally settled on slide 18. It just would not go past this point. I rebooted, which has resolved this issue in the past, but no luck.

Back to Twitter. Brian Batt offered to help and directed me to download and run the Articulate debug tracer, and then send the results back to him. With this running I could see that the SWF on that slide was causing the freeze. I republished the SWF. Not fixed. Reinserted the SWF. Not fixed. Deleted the slide and rebuilt it. Still no luck.

Out of ideas, I uninstalled Articulate, rebooted and reinstalled it. I’d seen that anti virus programs can also interfere with this so I turned it off while I was at it. One of these fixed it. Not sure which since I didn’t follow good troubleshooting procedures, but it publishes just fine now. Which is all I cared about.

The trace window is pretty cool – they should include something like this in the tool under a “More Details” button  – I’m not a fan of processes that take >10 minutes to run with little information. This fixes that for me.

Uploading to a FTP site

I uploaded it to my site and went to preview it. I got the dreaded “Slide 100 of 160” blank screen error. This means that either I’m using Articulate 4 with Flash 10 (which I’m not) or something didn’t upload correctly. I deleted the files and tried again. Same issue. Articulate has a built in FTP option, so I used that. It failed twice saying “Cannot upload file, unknown error.”

I’m just a little mad at this point </sarcasm>.

I started looking at options in my FTP program. I noticed that the file transfer type was set to “auto.” I’d seen problems in the past where binary files has been uploaded as ASCII, so I changed it to binary. Re-uploaded and viola!

Lessons learned

So here’s what I got out of this:

  1. Articulate doesn’t use relative paths to imported Flash movies. Don’t move things around!
  2. Turn off your virus scanner if you have problems publishing
  3. Always upload Articulate courses in binary mode
  4. Articulate has awesome support via Twitter

SCOMaster – Gameplay

I was finally able to record a round of my SCOMaster game! Recap – It’s a multiplayer WiiFlash game designed to be played with teams in an instructor lead classroom setting. The object is to assemble a learning program structure the fastest – but watch out, because your opponent can take one of your SCOs and reuse them in their own program. Developed in Flash CS3 in about 150 hours.

SCOMaster Gameplay

AS3 Learning Interactions? What should I do?

Casey’s gone back to school and things are settling down with the new baby, so I’m finding myself with a little free time again. When I posed the Creating a Flash WBT Framework post, I had planned to follow it up shortly with a few learning interactions, but I never found the time. Now I have some of that time. And being inspired by this conversation on the Pipweks board, I think that it’s something that would help out a lot of people.

I don’t plan to make them drop dead simple to use, like the old ones that were included with Flash, but I’d like to ask my (very few) readers: “What would you like me to do?” Are there interactions that you’d like to see?

I plan on making them class based, following the MVC pattern, with the data stored in an XML file. Should make it easy enough to modify, but the AS3 code would be intermediate level so it would require some effort there.

If I don’t receive any comments, I’ll just start wandering in a random direction and post what I come up with.

Update, 1/21/09: Well, things didn’t go as easily as I’d planned. Work was crazy and then I took a break for the holidays and just couldn’t get motivated to start on these. Excuses. But I’ve finally gotten around to turning the computer back on in the evenings, so I’ll be picking up on a few odds and ends soon.

Also – thanks for all of the comments!

WiiFlash Graffiti Gestures

I’ve been playing around with using gestures with WiiFlash as an alternative input scheme. As a first step, I’ve taken the Flash Gesture recognition code from Didier Brun and modified it to work with a Wii remote instead of the mouse. It works pretty well – some of the letters aren’t easy to hit – but not bad for a first try. I’d like to modify with further have more “shapes” rather than “letters” to match. More to come on this when I get extra time.

We had a baby!

It’s been quieter than usual around here be cause on July 9th, our son Gabriel James was born.

Casey went to the hospital with chest pains – and it turned out that she was in labor! After 14 hours of labor, Gabe arrived, 3 weeks early, at 11:21am. He was pretty big at 7lbs 2oz and dispite being early, everything was OK and we went home on time.

Sophie’s getting used to him, and we’re getting used to the two of them.

SCOMaster – WiiFlash mulitplayer learning game

SCOMaster screen shot

After a week and a half I finally finished my first real WiiFlash game – SCOMaster. It’s a competative, 2 player learning game designed to be played in a group setting. It illustrates the concepts of assembling a course in an LMS system. Bonus points are awarded for content reuse – they are SCOs after all! Unneeded objects and faulty objects can be sent back to the development team to be reworked – but at a cost.First one to build a completed activity tree wins.

Ben Hutchens, our graphic designer, created the art work for it. It took about 60 hours to program it using the WiiFlash classes that I had developed earlier in the year.