How de­vel­op­ers main­tain sur­prise.


In a 2016 doc­u­men­tary by YouTube chan­nel toco toco tv, NieR: Au­tomata direc­tor Yoko Taro said, “Look­ing at AAA ti­tles, of course I find them beau­ti­ful and in­ter­est­ing, but af­ter 20 min­utes of game­play, I won­der whether it is go­ing to be the same for the fol­low­ing 20 hours. I am a bit tired of this. If pos­si­ble, I would like to make games that are un­ex­pected, games that keep chang­ing form.” The spirit be­hind this state­ment drove NieR: Au­tomata to in­cor­po­rate a mind-bend­ing, emo­tion­ally fraught nar­ra­tive, and it brought the game in­cred­i­ble suc­cess. If this ex­am­ple is any­thing to go by, ti­tles re­ly­ing on a sense of sur­prise and dis­cov­ery have more of an au­di­ence than ever—even in the age of so­cial me­dia and in­ter­net spoil­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Jim Craw­ford, de­vel­oper of Frog Frac­tions, this en­vi­ron­ment con­trib­utes to a de­sire for such me­dia. “I grew up with mys­tery-heavy games—back then, ev­ery game was mys­te­ri­ous by de­fault, just by the na­ture of how games were made, played, and mar­keted,” Craw­ford says. “Now, any mys­tery that’s not truly in­dus­trial strength is eaten up by mar­ket­ing, wikis, and data min­ing. Per­sist­ing mys­tery is a rar­ity that you have to work hard to achieve, so it’s some­thing peo­ple sit up and pay at­ten­tion to.”

Gary Kings cre­ates mur­der mys­tery games with a team un­der the name of Na­tional In­se­cu­ri­ties, and elab­o­rates on the com­pli­ca­tions of the genre thusly: “The hard­est thing while mak­ing a mur­der mys­tery game is work­ing out how the game and player com­mu­ni­cate with each other. We’re ask­ing the player to work out the story from the pieces, and tell the story back to the game. You can’t de­sign the story be­fore the me­chan­ics, they both had to spark into ex­is­tence at the same time.” Once a game is re­leased, de­vel­op­ers must also take steps to pre­serve the mys­tery driv­ing it. “If your game is suc­cess­ful,” Craw­ford says, “peo­ple will be talk­ing about it and dig­ging into the ex­e­cutable to look for se­crets.” In Craw­ford’s case, fans solved mul­ti­ple ARGs over sev­eral years to un­lock the re­lease of Frog Frac­tions 2 in De­cem­ber of 2016.

Once you’ve de­ter­mined the type of game you want to make and how you want to im­bue it with mys­tery, you still have to mar­ket it. “The bits you do re­veal have to be com­pelling enough to move copies of the game be­fore it be­comes known for its hid­den con­tent,” Dropsy and Hyp­nospace Out­law cre­ator Jay Tholen says. For Craw­ford, the ‘bot­tled light­ning’ suc­cess of Frog Frac­tions and the Kick­starter for Frog Frac­tions 2 leads him to be­lieve that, “The best op­tion is to make a game that’s mar­ketable in the tra­di­tional sense, even if you leave out the mys­tery.” Which brings me to West of Loathing.

King­dom of Loathing is a free browser-based MMO that’s been on the in­ter­net for over 14 years. How­ever, de­spite the longevity of KOL, the stu­dio mak­ing it was in trou­ble. Cre­ative de­signer Zack John­son re­called a meet­ing with Gone Home de­signer Steve Gaynor, where the lat­ter sug­gested mak­ing a sin­gle­player ti­tle in the King­dom of Loathing uni­verse. Soon, the first pro­to­type of West of Loathing was born. “The im­por­tant el­e­ments of escapism to me,” John­son be­gins, “are more dis­trac­tion than con­vinc­ing me that I’m ‘im­por­tant’.” So, West of Loathing de­vel­oper, Asym­met­ric, went in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Us­ing its bud­get to cre­ate a thin main quest, it stuffed ev­ery inch of the monochromatic Western world with vis­ual gags, soup mines, one-off items, and tomes of knowl­edge that could leave play­ers a walk­ing skele­ton— haunted by se­crets no stick fig­ure was meant to dis­cover.

Sell­ing hon­esty

If they could con­vince a per­cent­age of King­dom of Loathing play­ers to buy West of Loathing at full price, Zack and com­pany be­lieved they could keep pur­su­ing game de­vel­op­ment for a bit longer. West of Loathing be­came a Steam hit, re­coup­ing the de­vel­op­ment costs of the game in just ten days. While he cred­its their suc­cess to a num­ber of fac­tors (in­clud­ing the ex­per­tise of nar­ra­tive game mar­keter Emily Mor­ganti), John­son be­lieves part of the rea­son play­ers loved West of Loathing was its meta hon­esty and free­dom of choice. “The game is, in a lot of ways, a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the nar­ra­tor—which is just me and Riff [Con­ner, cowriter of the game]—and the player,” John­son says. “It’s like a goofy D&D game that’s be­ing played with us as the DMs and the player as the player.”

Gam­ing could use a lit­tle more sur­prise—and these de­vel­op­ers are just a few of the peo­ple brav­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties nec­es­sary to de­liver it. By Xalavier Nel­son Jr

“Mys­tery that’s not in­dus­trial strength is eaten up by mar­ket­ing, wikis and data min­ing”

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