Ingenious! – creating the CD-ROM

Cover art of the Ingenious! CD-ROM

In 1995 the Keating Labor government recognised that digital content industries were about to become very important to the economy. They set up a project to kickstart Australia’s expertise in digital content creation. The project was called “Australia on CD ” and it provided funding for the development and production of a series of CD-ROMs reflecting Australian culture.

It is difficult to remember now, but in 1995 the internet was still in its very early days. Dial-up modems were unbearably slow and there was no such thing as consumer broadband or streaming video-on-demand. CD-ROMs were relatively new but could contain a massive 550 megabytes of data! Having so much data on a single disk was exciting. It meant we could potentially create completely new interactive experiences and bring them into the home. That’s why the initiative was focussed on CD-ROMs.

The ABC, in partnership with Questacon and the Sydney software company Radiant won funding to produce one of the titles – the science-based Ingenious!

My role was that of writer and content director. I’d always been a fan of computers and computer games, so I had a fairly good idea of what was so appealing about them. It’s that old adage, ”if you want to be a writer, be a reader”.

I also knew that the best computer games required considerable learning before you could master them. Most of this learning was within the realm of the game – such as how many hit points does it take to kill a troll, or what’s the easiest way to replenish your energy supplies without getting killed. Some of these invented game-worlds were quite complex. It was all part of the challenge created for the player.

The best games were rewarding and satisfying to play. The only annoying thing was that practically everything you learnt or taught yourself while playing a game was useless once you stopped playing.

For me this begged the question. What if you could build games that were great fun to play, but where the information and principles you picked up while playing, actually had some real value outside of the game?

That’s what intrigued me about the opportunity of developing games based upon real-life science mysteries…

I’d spent a decade or more working with the ABC’s TV science unit, so I was aware of plenty of real-world science mysteries.

In the end we settled upon five different science mysteries/challenges.

  • Are we Alone? — the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence
  • Racing on the Sun — The challenge of designing and racing a virtual solar car
  • Something Fishy — solving the mystery of a massive fish die-off in the ocean.
  • Fire Fighter — a bushfire fighting simulation
  • The last Tribe — working to save a small species of wallaby from extinction.

In retrospect, we were very ambitious to include five separate missions in the one title. Each of the missions was sufficiently engaging to have been the basis for a CD-ROM title of its own – a thought that never occurred to us at the time. Everyone involved was on a learning curve and very keen to explore all the possibilities. Each of the 5 Ingenious! missions ended up employing a different approach to immersive game design, using a different combination of simulations and decision-trees.

The first mission we built was a wildlife conservation mystery about an endangered wallaby, the Mala. Why had it almost completely disappeared from the central desert where it was once so common?

We built that game entirely with branching decision trees – using the same questions faced by the real researchers. What could have caused the problem? Should we investigate this or that? As a player, you could work your way through the possibilities. Depending on your choices you either found more questions, or were able to eliminate a dead end. Eventually, by exploring different paths and if necessary re-tracing your steps, the mystery could be solved – exactly like the researchers had done in real life.

At the other extreme, the Fire Fighter mission was built around a simulator. This was a pretty sophisticated model of how a bushfire would change its behaviour depending on wind shifts, the nature of the fuel load, and the actions of the firefighter/player. It meant the computer had to continually perform complex calculations for every every single cell in the game landscape. This was quite a stretch of the limited graphic and processing powers of the Macs and PCs of the day.

We began work on Ingenious! in early 1996. Of course it took much longer than we expected, but it won both the 1997 ATOM award for Best Educational Title, and the 1998 AIMIA award for Best Game.

The original CD had a couple of delightful short animations inside the missions, like the one below – explaining the environmental concept of a keystone species. (A story based upon the Cassowary of North Queensland).

Another one was about extinction – a perfectly natural process, but is today’s rate of mass extinction natural?

Ingenious! was built using a software program called Adobe DirectorDirector later morphed into another Abobe product called Flash – which was big on the internet for quite a while but is now obsolete. So even if you still have a copy of the original Ingenious! CD-ROM, it is now pretty hard to find a computer that can play it. (You’ll need a PC running Windows XP or earlier, or a Mac running OS9 or earlier). There is a patch for XP users.

It’s a real pity that as the technology has advanced, many of these early examples of innovative digital content have been rendered unplayable We can still see movies made 100 years ago, or listen to music recorded way back, but future historians will find a large gap when it comes to tracing the development of interactive multimedia.

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