Saturday, December 19, 2020

Viral Days: inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, this real-time strategy game for Android and iOS demonstrates the propagation of a virus and, especially, the most effective ways to stop it

Nine months ago, to the day, I woke up after about four hours of sleep. With large parts of the world in lockdown, I started thinking about how a mobile game could make a useful contribution in the current situation and any future situation, as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is not the first and won't be the last of its kind.

I'll tell you in a moment what happened then, but fast foward from March 2020 to this weekend, and Viral Days (product website) is available for iOS on Apple's App Store, and for Android on the Google Play Store, [Update] the Huawei App Gallery, and the Samsung Galaxy Store [/Update]. Here's a gameplay video (this post continues below the video):

Back in March, some low-quality games from traditional genres, basically cheap knockoffs of titles like Angry Birds and Super Mario Bros., had been rethemed and rebranded as COVID-19 games. But they made no sense. You don't cure a disease by throwing toilet rolls at virus-like faces, or avoid getting infected by jumping over obstacles. What I wanted to come up with instead was a game that would really make a difference. A game that would

  • demonstrate the problem of exponential propagation in a simplified, time-compressed form and

  • promote several of the most effective ways to stop (or at least slow down) the spread of the virus.

After about an hour, I felt very good about my rough idea, and I luckily got another three or four hours of sleep. After waking up, I was (still) absolutely determined to turn this idea into reality. That same morning, before stores opened, I already had a call with Mario Heubach, whose company was doing contract development for my app development firm. We actually had been working together on another title--a highly interactive trivia game--since the summer of 2018 and were probably just a few months away from launching it. I was worried he'd declare me completely crazy to put a near-finished project on hold in order to start a new one. Let's face it: this is completely against conventional wisdom. But under the circumstances, what one would normally not even consider for a second was the right decision this year--we agreed on this much, and in early April, after some further conceptual work and research, development began. The Unity 3D engine was our obvious choice, and we also found valuable material on the Unity Asset Store.

We took our time to get it right--we really wanted to make a high-quality game--and finally submitted the app to Apple, Google, and Huawei yesterday. Apple and Google approved very quickly--they had previously taken a look at our beta versions. It's part of the history of this project that we initially had to deal with rejections, but I don't want to go into detail, at least now here and now. What matters is that the game is now available. And today we also submitted it to Samsung's Galaxy Store for review.

The initial release comes with 14 different languages.

Later this month we'll publish an HTML 5 (WebGL) game based on the same engine. I'm pretty sure that one will go absolutely viral, and when you see it, you'll see immediately why I think so. Stay tuned.

I'm aware of only one other game that "strategygamifies" the problem of a viral pandemic: Ndemic Creations' Plague Inc., which was launched in 2012 with what is now called its "main mode." That "main mode" has the objective of extinguishing humanity by means of a lethal virus. By stark contrast, my game's subtitle is "Heal - Protect - Prevent." Also, the virus in Viral Days isn't lethal. There's a difference like day and night between those two virus games not only in terms of the game objective but also the genre. Plague Inc. is a numbers-centric, abstract game where you see dots on a world map. Viral Days is about people you see--and try to take good care of. It's hands-on because players get to distribute masks, hospitalize or home-quarantine infected people, disperse crowds, and when you impose a lockdown in my game (available once you've reached level 18), you see people running home, just like you can see how infections are happening when an ill person and a healthy person spend too much time close to each other.

Viral Days highlights proximity with a frame that adjusts dynamically. I prototyped that one back in 2014, originally for a completely different purpose, and for a long time I had been looking for a way to put it to use in a game. In the early morning hours of March 19, 2020, I finally found it.

This game has the potential to reach a huge audience--and should have a positive effect on many (especially, but not only, young) people's attitude towards masks and social distancing. Apple disallows COVID-19-themed games, and Google has strict rules concerning metadata containing such keywords as COVID-19, corona(virus), and pandemic. But Viral Days is a generic virus game. In fact, what you see in the game would apply to the Spanish Flu of 1918 as well.

When I started blogging about those App Store antitrust cases in the summer, I said I was about to publish a game app myself. It took a few months longer than I thought then, but by now you know which one I meant. I'm so happy to have created a game that I'd definitely play even if I hadn't made it. And proud to have invented a new strategy game genre: real-time strategy without anything resembling military combat. It's viral real-time strategy.

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