Canadian-made video game tests software skills

Microsoft has turned to an Ottawa development shop to create an online video game that promotes its TechNet service while testing IT professionals on their enterprise troubleshooting expertise.

Server Quest stars a character named Matt Berg, an “IT guy” who meets and falls for his firm’s new security officer, Alicia Thornber. To win her over, Matt is challenged with a series of technology trivia questions and later is asked to hack Alicia’s wireless network, among other activities. Along the way, characters earn “geekpoints” that determine whether Alicia ends up with Matt. Along the way, the game encourages players to subscribe to Microsoft’s TechNet Plus, which offers product keys and downloads such as Windows service packs.

Server Quest was created by Ottawa-based Fuel Industries, a firm that combines marketing and animation to create games and other “branded experiences” for clients such as McDonalds Europe, Wrigley and 20th Century Fox. According to Brad MacNeil, the writer assigned to the project, Microsoft wanted something that appealed to the IT community, which meant interviewing Fuel Industry’s own technology staff for ideas. Microsoft then approved the skeleton script for the game.

“It felt like writing in a different language,” he said. “I’d have to go to our back end guys and say I needed something about contrast, and they’d say something like, ‘Know your Northbridge from your Southbridge. I still don’t get it, but it makes them laugh.”

Jesse Henderson, project manager on Server Quest, said the idea was to create an homage of sorts to Leisure Suit Larry and similar games from the early 1990s. The TechNet content consists of subscription offers, brief flashes of information about the service, some free software and non-expiring trials.

“They’re looking to advertise and entertain their user base,” he said. “They’re all professional Microsoft professionals in the industry, so they’re not really looking to convert people to Microsoft, but trying to show how they can benefit from a fairly low-cost subscription.”

MacNeil said Fuel Industries often runs games past its clients, but in this case most couldn’t complete it, or even understand it.

“They were really nervous about the humour involved. I give them credit for taking a little bit of a risk,” he said. “There was a real feeling that they didn’t want anything to appear as sexist or stereotypical on this. They also wanted anything that could add to the multicultural aspect of the game. Matt’s boss, for example, isn’t white and is a woman. Alicia isn’t subservient, she’s an equal. Matt’s the hero, but also the nerd of the office.”

There are also veiled references to open source, including a penguin that gets swept off the screen.

“They are inside jokes, but they’re not cruel,” MacNeil said. “We’re not picking on anybody, but there are some companies referenced that are instantly recognizable.”

Henderson said Microsoft has been promoting Server Quest at its recent North American TechEd conference in Orlando, through T-shirts and events where attendees could play the game. So far there have been a number of IT professionals who have managed to earn around 42,000 points, which would be close to a perfect score. MacNeil said some online enthusiasts have even come up with “game documents” to help others boost their performance on Server Quest.

“I was shocked. They might have missed one or two small things, but that’s it.”

Microsoft’s TechNet Plus costs US$279, according to the Server Quest site.

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