Simulation Tools for Every Budget

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Learning by doing is one of the more powerful methods for picking up a new skill. It’s how many of us learned how to tie a shoe, swim, and drive a car. It’s also a worthy tool for many of the concepts we try and teach in our workplaces. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical, safe, or even possible to learn every skill on the job.

Enter branched simulations

Branched simulations are simply interactive recreations of actual situations.  By interacting with them, a learner is given the opportunity to make realistic choices. Then, the plot of the simulation changes as a direct result of those choices. They’re a great way to simulate real world experiences, but also give people a safe place to fail until they master the skill.

While we know they work well, branched simulations are often written off as too expensive, time-intensive, or complicated to produce. Thankfully, this isn’t always the case. Once you’ve written a script, there are a surprisingly large number of tools for actually delivering your simulation, with an option for every budget, timeline, and skill level.

To make sorting through your choices a bit easier, here are some of the most effective picks for specific situations.

Text: Best super low-tech solution

So, let’s say you’re crunched for time, budget, or, probably even more realistically, both. You need to put a branched simulation together cheap and fast. If this is the case, then try a text-based simulation using either paper or a PDF.

Essentially, you’ll just replicate the text-based Choose Your Own Adventure books you may have read as a kid. Write out a bit of the scenario, and then give your reader a set of options to choose from. Each choice will tell the reader what page to turn to in order to continue the story. If you’re using a PDF, you can even use clickable hyperlinks to make these page jumps easier.

This option is cheap, fast, doesn’t require any new tools. And it is easy to distribute. Sure, it’s not fancy, but it can still be immersive and effective if you’ve written compelling content.

PowerPoint: Best solution you already have

If don’t have much of a budget, but want something a bit more slick than just text, then say hello to your new best friend: PowerPoint.

This method functions the same way as the text solution, only with much better visuals. In this case, you’ll use each slide like an e-learning screen, adding text, visuals, and learner choices as needed. The trick in this case is to then add hyperlinks buttons to all of your choices so that they link to the corresponding next slide in the story. After you do this, you can simply put the slide deck into Slideshow mode, and learners can interact with it by clicking on the buttons.

Granted, a PowerPoint simulation can’t do anything fancy like report scores to your LMS, but from a user perspective it’s not that much different than e-learning.

As an added bonus, if you happen to eventually purchase an e-learning authoring tool that’s compatible with PowerPoint, such as Articulate Studio or Storyline, you can import your slide deck and convert it into an e-learning simulation quite quickly.

 Branch Track: Best free tool for a conversation-based simulation


Branch Track is one of those tools that decided to focus on doing one thing exceptionally well. In this case, making conversation-based simulations. So, it’s a niche tool, but one worth checking out if what you need to simulate is a conversation between two people.

Branch Track’s simple web-interface takes you step-by-step through the simulation creation process. You start by focusing just on the text, choices, branching, and feedback. Once the logistics are all established, you’ll then set up your look and feel using the tool’s character sets and backgrounds. After a few quick choices, your simulation is all set to be viewed online or on your LMS.

The limitation on layouts, characters, and backgrounds make everything created in Branch Track look slick, but very similar. That said, the ease of use and free images make it the perfect choice for people who have little to no budget or graphic design skills.


Inklewriter: Best free tool for a text-only simulation:

What if you have a simulation that really only requires text and minimal (if any) images, but you want to do something a bit fancier than just a paper version? Then check out Inklewriter. This free web-based tool was designed entirely for easily creating and sharing interactive branched stories. Input your text, define where each choice point goes in the story, and you’re all set.

There are two additional features of this tool that set it apart from your other options. First, there are some (admittedly more complex) features you can leverage that cause Inklewriter to remember the choices a reader has made and then auto-populate later sections of the story using that information. For instance, you could have the story keep track of how many customers the reader has talked to and remind them of that fact on a regular basis.

Second, for just ten dollars Inklewriter’s parent company will convert your story to a format that can be read on a Kindle. This can be a fantastic way to distribute your simulation as an ebook.

Twine: Best free tool for making a simulation game

If you want something closer to a videogame, check out a free tool called Twine, which allows you to create a simple videogame (nothing cutting-edge, mind you) without requiring coding.

Twine has some of the same choice tracking as Inklewriter , but with more sophistication. For instance, you could create a situation where the player can’t progress to the next section of the story until they’ve talked to a particular character. In addition, if you happen to have some coding experience, you can customize your Twine project even further.

If you want to get up to speed on using this tool effectively, thankfully there’s an active Twine development community online. Consider tapping into that network if you plan on using this tool.

Articulate Storyline: Best rapid e-learning development tool that can also create branched simulations

If you’re looking for an e-learning tool that also does an excellent job at crafting branched simulations, try Articulate Storyline. The tool is incredible easy to use in general, and the process for create branching through quiz questions or hyperlinked buttons is simple to learn.

There are three other perks of Storyline worth knowing about. First, you can import in PowerPoint slides, which is perfect if you like scripting and laying out your visuals in PowerPoint.

Second, it will actually display a map view of your branches, which is extremely helpful for checking over your work. Third, it exports to an iPad-friendly format without much fuss, giving you yet another way to distribute your simulation.

SimWriter: Best tool for creating deeply complicated branching

Last up is your best choice for creating a simulation with exceptionally complex branching: SimWriter.

SimWriter is a tool developed specifically for building branched simulations. It’s niche software, expensive, tricky to use, and, to be honest, in most cases using it is complete overkill. That said, the way it handles complex branching is spectacular. If you need to replicate a situation where a single choice can have multiple outcomes, all depending on what was done previously, then SimWriter is your strongest option.

What exactly would that kind of situation look like? Well, consider a simulation for bank employees learning how to process loans. Complex branching would allow you to, for instance, let a single choice lead them to one screen if they had collected all of the client details they needed previously in the simulation, but to another screen if they had missed a step.

Tools like Storyline or Branch Track can’t handle that level of sophistication, but SimWriter can—thanks to its system for “remembering” previous choices. 

Bottom line

The barriers to using simulations have never been lower, so now is the perfect time to try out some of these tools and see which work best for you.

About the Author

Bianca Woods is an instructional designer with BMO Financial Group, where she designs course content and media, test drives new learning technology, and passionately argues for the abolishment of Comic Sans. With degrees in both art education and education media design & technology, she has a substantial amount of interest in demystifying design and technology for others.

When she’s not creating learning you can often find Bianca obsessing about new tech, live tweeting industry events, and searching for the perfect cupcake. If these things sound interesting to you, you should probably follow her Twitter feed @eGeeking.

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