Design Blog 04 – So all you do is play games, right?

As we’ve started doing this by discipline Grant and myself have joined together to bring you this super blog, now with extra design.

Communication can be hard, I’m sure we’ve all been in an awkward situation where we think we’ve made our point succinctly but someone manages to take something completely different away from the conversation, or passing statement. 

Look at these Great Tits.

“We are not happy with this comparison”

 A crude example I admit, but it drives the point home rather well. The right words can lead down two very different avenues.

The Design team at Junkfish – and I suspect most studios – run up against this problem often during development. You can only get so far by bandying genre terms such as “Survival Horror” and “Rogue-like” before divergent images of the project form in each others heads. (what is Roguelike?). Add this to the fact that we work with 8 other highly creative people and it doesn’t take long for an idea we miscommunicated to morph into something rather different from what we were at first proposing. 

After passing through the grape vine from myself to Adam and then to Andy the sentence above could easily have become:

“Look at this massive tit.”

 

“Did I hear boobs?”

“No, get help”

 During our early prototyping we managed to channel everything through the board game (read about that here) we originally created to come to a working understanding with whoever was building the feature and move along. However around mid October we reached a cut-off point where we had our basic build, new features and art-work were scheduled but without the touch-stone of the board-game to guide decision making we started to spend more of our time clarifying than designing. We realised subjects such as setting, theme and “fun factor” had only been loosely explained to the rest of the team in a way that allowed them to consistently progress towards our end goals. Our individual tastes also caused some of our ideas to be – entirely correctly – handled with scepticism. 

In order to get the team on-side we knew that we had to come up with a better way to convey our ideas which didn’t fall into the mould of “It’ll be good because, shut up you’re not designer.” So we figured we had 3 options:

1. Create a Game Design Document

2. Replace Grant with a gramophone that repeats variations of the sentence “Like that bit in Lost, but ….”

3. Force feed them the same bunch of games & movie we had based our ideas on.

 

“But makes sense? Please be but makes sense”

 We decided not to go with the first option even though it’s probably considered the ‘traditional’ method of communication from design to development team. It was our feeling that in-depth documentation at such an early stage was a great way to waste 3 weeks doing hypothetical guesswork and not really furthering the project or solving our problem. We knew that it was unlikely anything over a thousand words would be read more than once by the team and you never get everything right first time in games design. Things you thought would be fun aren’t, any value based on distance will be imperfect or totally different in engine from what you imagined etc. We would spend as much time managing the document as we had clarifying before hand. We also didn’t feel it wouldn’t convey the thematic and setting elements of the game any better than the verbal communication methods we had been using up to now – I.e shouting across the small room we all share.

Instead we decided to go with the third option, (sadly the automated gramophone fell outside our budget.) because not only did it sound like it would achieve our purpose but it meant we actually got to spend a day or more getting paid to play video-games, watch TV and then Geek out over them.

We ended up structuring three days around the separate issues we wanted to address which I’ve named as follows:

1) Setting & Visuals
2) Themes
3) Game Mechanics & Enjoyment

Setting & Visuals

The first day focused on the look of the game, we wanted to make clear exactly where we imagined the game taking place in both space and time so our artists could begin running with these ideas and creating more stylized assets. Drawing from our own collections we created a visual library – mainly composing of TV dramas – that focused on the clothing, culture and décor of the 1970s.

Picks were:

  • Life on Mars
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV series) 
  • Lost
  • Argo

Several of these also included an ‘intrusive other’ a character who maybe didn’t belong in the places shown and yet had somehow ended up there, an idea we were keen to run with but were struggling to explain how to visually represent.

You might notice there are no boats here, that’s mainly because boats weren’t much of stumbling block during discussions and it also turns out that despite what we thought “Das Boot” is not on Netflix. 

- Earth colours. Earth colours everywhere -

Themes

We also had to establish what themes we wanted the game to have underpinning its décor and action. Its all very well to say it’s set in the 1970’s but why are we there? And what exactly is going on? We had all seen alien and, bar a couple, the thing previously so this topic off to a good start. We however knew that our ideas went slightly further than the in-the-moment action presented in these two titles. As an extension we chose several titles that you could term “Sci-fi meets spirituality”.

 Picks were:

  • 2001: Space Odyssey
  • X-files
  • Cabin in the Woods

The key take-away from this was two fold: A single work can have multiple interpretations, even the characters involved can believe different things and a world doesn’t have to give away all its secrets to be compelling. In fact it’s often better when it doesn’t.

I would like to add that after this I watched “Triangle” a brilliant film which would almost definitely have been shown on this day if I’d seen it before hand, its set on a ship too no less.

- I see no similarity -

Game Mechanics & Enjoyment

The final day was perhaps where some of our team had the most reservations, we tackled the ‘horror’ part of our title first as we felt most were on-board with our ideas here.

Picks were:

  • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
  • Penumbra
  • Outlast

Highlighting what elements we hoped to emulate or improve from these titles for our own.

More difficult was the ‘rogue-like’ elements of the game-play as some members were either sceptical of the entire genre (How can dying 10 times be enjoyable?) or of how we could apply this to a survival horror environment. To remedy this we put together a small list of ‘easy-access’ rogue-likes and had team members take turns playing them focusing on learning through failure.

Picks were:

  • Eldrith
  • Binding of Isaac
  • Spelunky

 By the end of the session everyone was pretty much sold on the idea that the titles above were fun even if they could be ridiculously difficult.

- Some of us, doing it right -

 

So did it work?

In short I would say yes, however there were clear differences between which disciplines got the most from which days. Artist’s gained the most from the first two days, while programmers and concept-sceptical gained more from the last.

This could easily have been predicted due to the content discussed but we feel it was the correct decision to allow the whole team to take part in each day and the discussions that followed as it meant we were all on the same page, moving forward with a shared vision. It also took a comparatively short length of time and allowed us to get back to prototyping quickly.

A win all round for spending – some – of our work time playing games.