When we first met up in the pub to talk about making games together, we decided to make a platform game. That was our starting point, it was the wrong starting point. It was an idea that had been done a lot before, really well. We had very separate roles to play and as a result we weren't sharing and owning the ideas together, we each had different levels of investment in what we were doing; owned our own areas and worked on them independently.
The holistic vision and purpose of the game was just not there. We often talked about how we thought games should be made, about what our working life should be like and we realised we weren't actually following our own values and ideals and it sucked. After a few weeks we lost the motivation to work on it. We realised we each needed to have a part in the idea, to work as a team and to have a shared vision and a purpose to motivate us to work all the hours we needed to outside of our day jobs. It had to feel like we could be creative and innovative with it. That's when we changed our approach.
Designing with a purpose
We knew what we really wanted was to design an exciting, engaging and compelling experience that people would really love. All I thought about for weeks was what that meant and how we could get there. I've designed experiences around websites for years, games are different. The considerations of designing the experience of a computer game extend way beyond the experience of a website, it's all the best bits; functionality, usability, engagement, visual design, interation design, with more elements to consider; time, space, sound, movement, emotion, narrative, game mechanics...
With a game you are asking people to spend time, sometimes a lot of time. Life is short and time is precious. I kept thinking, if we are asking people to spend time with our game, we need to really make sure it is good. Good experiences become good memories.
Building on personal experience
There's this great quote in Don Norman's book Emotional Design that sums this up;
"Memories reflect life experiences. They remind us of families, friends, of experiences and accomplishments. They also serve to reinforce how we view ourselves."
Woody and I were talking about how the best memories we have of computer games mainly involve our friends. The times when we've played online together or in the same room, and laughed and told stories about it, for weeks after. It became something more than just passing time, it had a life beyond the living room. The best games touch on our emotions, good or bad, they make us feel things and experience things that we wouldn't get from any other medium.
Designing for context
Around that time I visited the doctors for a checkup. I was sat in the drab and depressing waiting room and I realised that every single person in there was playing a game on their phone. I wondered if anyone who made those games really thought about that as a context that people might be playing them in... sat in a smelly waiting room, passing time, distracting your mind while you wait to see the doctor. It's a completely different context to sitting in a living room. While I was sat there, I thought of a few game ideas to help those people's time pass quicker and be more enjoyable. That was when I realised that more than anything we needed to design the game knowing the context that the game was being played in.
So we built up a full picture of who would be playing it, where they would be playing it, what behaviour, feelings and atmosphere we wanted to evoke, and we based it on our own experiences. From there we started building a vision of the experience we want to create.
We want families to play and groups of friends who may not be hardcore gamers, in a living room around a TV with people shouting and bantering and playing together. We want people to experience a range of emotions; fun, pleasure, joy, excitment, a sense of achievement, loss of self consciousness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, rage, anger...
We began to make decisions based on this context. One stick, One button, we'd have instructions, but we wanted it to be self explanatory, pick up and play. We wanted people to be driven by intuition and curiosity to find out for themselves. In order to create a range of emotions we knew we'd need to include;
Positive reinforcement (get what you want, points, collecting, winning)Immediate positive feedback (points, multipliers)Negative reinforcement (avoid being chomped, losing points, difficult levels)Punishment (get something you don't want, poisoned)Penalty (when you lose something you have, minus points)
We decided the best approach was to have a simple idea that we could build on.. all the ideas that we had were with the experience that we want to create in mind. Woody did an interview with The Indie Mine a little while ago where he explained how we came up with the actual idea.
Designing for real people
So we quickly prototyped the game in a weekend. It started as coloured dots on a screen, the graphics didn't matter, if it wasn't fun without fancy graphics it was never going to be fun. Coding was quick, we just got a prototype up and running and tested it with people straight away to find out how they felt. Once we discovered the basic game was fun, we decided to carry on working on it.
The only way we could ensure that we got the balance of these elements right was through constant play testing. Everytime someone came to our house we made them play, sometimes if we added something new we made people come round. We decided that if we couldn't think of a good reason not to action the feedback we would definitely do it. Although, the best information we got was when people didn't realise they were doing it. We adjusted and changed things according to how we made people feel.
We've been bugging all our friends and family for months and as a result we have stayed true to what we believe makes a good game for the people we have made it for, and we stayed motivated to make it happen. I am glad we changed our approach :)