Thursday, April 23, 2009

Podcast Interview: Arthur from Last Day of Work

Arthur, from Last Day of Work Games, talks about their current games, integrating stories into games, and how indies can succeed...

You can download the podcast here...

or listen to it here...

Show Notes:
Interviewer: I'm at the Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?

Arthur: Hi, I'm Arthur Humphrey. I'm the founder and lead designer and lead engineer at Last Day of Work.

Interviewer: And you focus on specific types of games. Can you talk about the genre that you do?

Arthur: Yeah, we specialize in virtual life sense and virtual pets, and we disguise them as adventure games and tycoon games and a variety of other genres. So, we really aren't a hybrid but at heart the games are virtual pets that run in Real Time like a Tomagatchi.

Interviewer: I interviewed you a few years ago. What have you been up to recently in terms of games that you are releasing and platforms that you are on?

Arthur: Well, we're still here.

Interviewer: That's awesome to hear.

Arthur: It's a great start. We are expanding some of the franchises that we talked about back when we talked before. The leading franchise is always Virtual Villagers, and we've done three chapters of that now and brought two of them over to iPhone, one through a license and one we've done in-house. And, they've both done really well. We brought Fish Tank over to iPhone, and now we're trying to create something new again.

We're creating what I describe as the game I always wanted to make, and it's a virtual life simulator that, at first glance, probably resembles the Sims. It's a family in a house, but mechanically from a gamer design perspective it's much more emergent. It's much more of a simulation. It's very sandboxy, and we're really excited about it.

It's got some really crazy features that hopefully will create some emergent narratives that really represent the drama that life gives you, you know, the ups and downs and the big themes, like a family, career, happiness, health, death.

Interviewer: You know, since the last time we spoke, have you, I guess, come into any other realizations about how to effectively communicate simulations to your audience, or some of the... I know you have this underlying algorithm that you have to constantly test as you're balancing your game. I don't know if you tweak that or come to any other new realizations or understandings related to that.

Arthur: There are a lot of levers that we've discovered in the design of this type of game, and one of them relating to what you are mentioning is how much do you want the game to be emergent, how much do you want to let the algorithms tell the story and how much do you also want to put in a handcrafted, let's call it pre-rendered, story.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: And we've done both and we tried to mix these. Basically, if you put the lever all the way to the handcrafted story you get a rich wonderful story that engages the players and you get zero replayability.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: And if you put the lever the other way you get maximum replayability, but the story becomes a little bit generic as the player can quickly break it down into these thesis that the algorithm is putting together for the narrative.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: So, we try to kind of do both. In Virtual Villagers we did that by having a meta story but leaving the game sandboxy so that the way they unlock these chapters of the story as they play are completely order independent and a lot of emergent stories can still come out of the game like members of your tribe that are very quirky, that will do this and that and they start to bond friendships. People come up. They fill in the blanks with these stories that happen in the game.

In fact, people do this and focus so much on the families in their tribes that we realized we needed to make a game that was just about these family units. That's what led us to the idea of making a family simulator.

Interviewer: Yeah, I was visiting your Virtual Villagers forum, and I was just amazed at how many people are actually writing stories about their families. What trends have you noticed with that, and do you see any kind of direct correlation as you actually tweak, I guess, some of the features so that if you're going more story oriented you're going to write less about their family? If you're going more sandbox oriented, they are going to write more about their family. I mean, do you notice any kind of correlation?

Arthur: You know, we don't do a lot of data gathering on that, but I would totally agree with what you are saying. I think the more you write the story for them the less they are going to fill in the blanks.

It's just like when you see a movie about a book that you loved, and they take away all of the parts that you can imagine and they play all that for you. So, we definitely want to leave some parts of the game to the imagination, let's say. That's where we come in with gaps in the story and emergent elements. I totally agree with that.

We listen to these narratives as players, too, and to us it's much more informative than asking them what they want in a game. If you ask them what they want in a game, they inevitably are going to be like, we want pets. We want them to have a kitten, and the kitten should have a pet mouse. It's kind of funny.

We listen to them and we want to put these things in, but then we look at what they really talk about and what they really care about, and it's always these fictional marriages between tribe members. That's not even supported by the code, and so we're like, that's what they really want. They are asking for this. You give it to them and they're like, OK but you could have done it better. Instead, we're trying to give them what they really want not what they think they want.

Interviewer: Sure. Can you talk about what they really want? I mean, you talk about the marriages. Is there anything else that you've seen that has resonated with your audience?

Arthur: I think that players ask for things they absolutely don't want, and this is something we've learned and it's very interesting as a designer to try and come to terms with asking a player what they want. A lot of players will say I want this to be easier. I hate it when this happens, and if you remove it, you take the soul out of the game. When you remove consequences, you make the victories meaningless.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: So, we pride ourselves in not giving them what they ask for instead of giving them what I think they want.

Interviewer: OK.

Arthur: Apart from that, we do see them talking about families and marriage and, you know, they are kind of playing doll with the Virtual Villagers which I love. And so, let's put them in a dollhouse, and we're not trying to be the Sims. That's not the Sims. The move you look at it, the more you realize the game runs in Real Time. They have a very finite life. It syncs night and day cycles to your local time, so at night it's dark in the game and they are sleeping.

The game is not about buying IKEA for your house and decorating. The game is about being happy and making a family and finding a compatible spouse. And there's kind of a dating algorithm, and it gets harder the longer you wait, and there's an illness algorithm where people catch a cold that goes through the house and you have to deal with that.

There's a lot of these aspects that people are writing about on their own, and we're giving them algorithms to support that dialogue and that narrative.

Interviewer: Now, are you doing anything where players can socially interact with other players within the context of this game, or is that even happening? Or how does that work?

Arthur: We are inching towards connectivity. We are not going to have a large connective element in this game, and partly that’s because of philosophy. When we first design these games, we call them single player system for two worlds.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: It came out of my enjoyment of playing World of Warcraft, but going somewhere all by myself and doing something on my own but knowing that the world was persistent, and I enjoy that so much. Sometimes, I didn't want to see the other players. I just wanted to be in a persistent world, so we tried to create that in a single player game.

So, all the games, obviously, when turn them back off and back on, time has passed. The children are a little bit bigger. Everyone is a little bit hungrier or wealthier or deader. It depends. And so, we're kind of embracing the single player persistent world. We tampered a little bit. We kind of experimented with connectivity on Virtual Villagers by letting people exchange stats and compete with our kind of arbitrary game stats.

Since then, we've come to the belief that it's one of those things that you should really dive in and do really well or really steer clear of it. For now, we've staying in the single player persistent world, but we have some plans for later in the year for some really connected products that were really designed for a connectivity point of view, unannounced products though.

Interviewer: Sure. Can you talk about the - you said there was a meta story or meta template. So, you have that lever between pure sandbox versus story. What are the templates that you are using in terms of the story, and can you talk about the specifics in terms of how you're actually balancing out pure story versus pure sandbox?

Arthur: Absolutely. You know, if you look at a game that's pure sandbox, like SimCity, you get a certain emergent story. Like, you build some really weird city and you can come up with some of the parts, but it becomes a little bland in a way because it's so emergent that every game is totally different but in a way totally the same.

With Virtual Villagers 3 as an example, we put in a story that continued the first story, and it's kind of a story that you can compare to the TV show "Lost" where there is this mysterious island and we're continually giving them little bits of background of who was there before. They're rebuilding ruins. There's a lot of mystery, and we let them rebuild the ruins in whatever order they want or not rebuild them or do this or that.

So, the game is basically sandboxy but they hit milestones where we actually will pop in a cinematic screen. This pre-rendered story is really important in these indie casual developers, and they need to understand that it's great to give a little more soul to the game, but it's also important from a branding perspective. If you make a strong story like this, you can copyright it, and people won't try to clone your game and copy your story exactly but try to make their own story.

If your game is successful, people will start to care about your world, and it's the number one defense against people copying your game. These stories and the story of Virtual Villagers takes place on an island called Isola, and about the third or fourth chapter people care about this island. They want to know what is going on here. They don't care what's happening on the clone island that someone else came up with.

It's just like Harry Potter. People read book two and they get into it or read book one and they want to read them all, and they don't want to read some other copycat story. They care about Harry and Harry's world. So, it's effective as a mechanic, and it's effective for branding.

Interviewer: Can you talk about other things that the indie and casual game developers could use to either appeal to their audience more or cater to their audience more?

Arthur: I think that we're seeing another kind of emergent demographic within the casual demographic that people are calling more and more the enthusiast players, and this is an open door for any developers to get into these casual portals.

The portals are becoming more and more open to it. When we started launching these games, they were a bit too poor for the portals, and we had a real fight to get them listed, but we're almost surprised at how well they did.

I think that indie developers like myself need to put on the sheep's clothing and start really accepting that their game can be a casual product and be involved in casual distribution and the wide distribution that's available there. I think the traditional indie gamers tend to be a little proud and put their game on the indie sites, and I think they need to wrap them a little differently, get the casual game's best standards in there, where the buttons should be, just to make a few tweaks and realize that these are the best casual games that there can be.

The casual games that are being created as casual games often by suits are a bit repetitive and unimaginative and they are profitable and they make their money and then go on. But the indie games that are in the casual space have legs. They sell and sell and sell.

Interviewer: Can you talk about other tycoon or simulation games you've seen in the casual game space that either inspired you or that you found compelling?

Arthur: Yeah, well, there are certainly other successes in the Sim genre casual, and you look at games like BuildALot by Headsoft. We're friends with them and we think that we made it a little easer for them to distribute their arguably Sim title. They made a real accessible game that casual players love, and it just has a huge tale. It sells and sells. That's a great example.

There are some other tycoon games out there, but I think BuildALot is a great example and I know their story is fun, too, because they created a game that was based on Warcraft, the original not the MMO.

Interviewer: Sure.

Arthur: They created a game that was the building part of Warcraft, that kind of ends when the war begins. It just boils down the construction and infrastructure part of that game, and they made it casual. I think that's exciting and I like how they did that.

Interviewer: Let's talk about, now, new platforms for your games. You talked about iPhone. I know before you were kind of talking about you had some demos in flash. Are you now embracing some of these more web friendly platforms so that you can implement the kind of social activity that you're talking about that might happen in future games? How is that working out?

Arthur: The web friendly is one of our Achilles heels because we're known in the casual space, but we're kind of an indie developer, and our games have a little more under the hood than flash wants to let us do. It's a little tougher for us to bring them into web label. We have done it historically.

Other platforms like iPhone are another story. The games were actually conceived on the Palm Pilot years ago, so the innate design is touch screen friendly and they're just a natural fit for iPhone. So, what we're doing now is jus bringing in a whole catalogue to iPhone almost as is, a few adaptations for the hardware and people are loving it.

That's kind of the first thing we are doing for in-house alternative life form work. After we finish bringing the catalogue over some time this year, that will include Virtual Villagers 3. Virtual Families will come to iPhone immediately after the desktop launch in about a month or six weeks. We're aiming for kind of a May 1st rollout for Virtual Families, then probably Virtual Villagers 3 after that.

Then, we'll start to implement some exciting custom designs for iPhone. It will be smaller, evolving games with more connectivity, a little bit more experimental, and we can do that because the development costs are still relatively low on that platform.

Interviewer: OK, great. Any last words then for other indie game developers out there who want to make an impact?

Arthur: I like to talk to the indie gamers, and I've spoken at the Indie Summit, and I really connect with these developers the most. I hope that I can be an example for them, that you can take your indie game and turn it into a casual game. You're not selling out. You know, you're just, maybe, making more money.

We're seeing some people start to do this, and some runaway indie hits, like World of Goo, and they're starting to crossover, but I think it could be done a lot more. I am going to be evangelizing that as well all year. I'm going to keep telling people that until their ears bleed.

Interviewer: Great. Thank you very much.

Arthur: Thanks.

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