Real World Simulation

Small Time Criminals is the first “real world simulation” game we’ve built at Pop Up Playground – but what does that mean? Our lead game designer Ben McKenzie investigates the term.

Petra Elliott in the Small Time Criminals Pozible video shoot.
Petra Elliott, dressed in PI gear, on location for the Small Time Criminals Pozible video shoot at SAE/Qantm.

Live games don’t have it easy when it comes to describing them. After all, aren’t all games live, in some sense? Plus it’s an incredibly broad category: “live games” can encompass everything from hopscotch to Citydash and puzzle rooms. So it’s helpful to try and find more specific categories. For example, hopscotch is a traditional “folk game” – one of many that have been passed down by word of mouth for generations, and rarely require anything except simple rules, a bit of space and common household objects or toys. “Street games” like Citydash add a playful layer over the urban landscape players are already familiar with, hidden in plain sight under the noses of unsuspecting city dwellers.

Small Time Criminals is what we’ve called a “real world simulation”: a game that seeks to put the players into a situation that, while artificial and constructed, is not an abstraction – you just respond to the game as though its fiction was real (with a few caveats for safety purposes). Escape rooms fall into this category: you really are in a room, solving puzzles to find keys, unlock doors and get out. And in Small Time Criminals, you really are in a bank, looking for valuables and working out how to get them without alerting security or setting off alarms.

One of the great strengths of real world simulation is its simplicity: while much time, thought and design must go into such a game’s construction, players don’t need to learn how to use a game controller, read and understand (or be taught) the content of a rulebook, or acclimatise to the 3D of virtual reality. You can’t press the wrong button, misinterpret a crucial rule, or accidentally cheat because your feet land outside a boundary. And while you certainly can get into the spirit of the thing, you also don’t need to take on a character; you play yourself, in an extraordinary (but realistic) situation. This gives the experience an intentionally low barrier to entry.

That said, robbing a bank is outside most people’s experience, so there are some things we can’t reasonably expect players to do; lock picking is an art, you can’t learn it inside an hour! For those parts of the experience, we’re working hard on some special designs that, while abstractions, will feel as real as possible. For the most part that’s where the technology will come in, and it’s proving to be one of the most exciting challenges of the design process.

This article was originally published at on February 19, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.