Big Time Designers: System

Creating a real world simulation combines many different disciplines: game design, yes, but also writing, direction and physical design. Game designer Ben McKenzie talked to the team members covering all these things to find out more about how Small Time Criminals is coming together. In the first interview, Sayraphim Lothian and Anastassia Poppenberg talked about the physical design of the space; in the second, Robert Reid talked about the narrative and story.

For this last interview, Ben spoke with Kevin Turner, about designing the play in Small Time Criminals. The two are co-lead game designers on the project.

Ben: While we’ve been working together on the design, we haven’t had much time to talk about how we’ve approached the design process. Where are you coming from?

Kevin: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about different videogame systems, and looking at having a strong base goal. While we’re designing an open world system as much as possible, it’s still contained within a structure that has an end goal – to get the highest score, or to steal the most things from the bank. So with every design thought, I try to start from that and work down. What will constantly move a player towards, or present an obstacle against, achieving that highest score.

Ben: That’s a great place to come from.

Kevin: What about you? What’s the conceit that’s most important to you, that you never want to forget during the design process? What’s your base?

Ben: Definitely the player’s experience. Rob and Sayra are experience designers, they’re making sure the space and the narrative work together to give the experience of staging a bank heist. I’m looking through a similar lens at what we ask players to do to make sure that gels. So it won’t just feel right in terms of look and feel and story, the things you do – and the affordances we give you to do it – have to feel right as well.

Kevin: Yes – we have to stay on theme. No-one is locking up safes in banks with a ball maze on a rotating axis. It’s a Melbourne investment bank, it’s not Gringott’s!

Ben: Yes! For this game you have to feel like you’re solving a problem, not a puzzle.

Kevin: We’re trying to create systems that reflect real-world security, without using actual security systems. I’m really excited about taking the things you learn from watching heist films, the things you see and think “that’s really cool”, and abstracting them so it feels like the player is doing those things. Things like lock-picking, or cracking into safes, which are obviously things we can’t actually teach players how to do, but we can abstract them so it feels like you are doing those things.

Ben: Yeah – I think the best videogame analogy is Rock Band or Guitar Hero. You’re not really playing an instrument, but the system is excellently designed – in the shape of the controller, the position of the buttons, the effect those buttons have on the game – to make it feel like you are. This is sort of Bank Heist Hero!

Kevin: That’s a pretty solid comparison! It’s really fun to come up with ideas for those abstractions.

Notes from an early game design session for Small Time Criminals.
Notes from an early game design session for Small Time Criminals. #nospoilers

Ben: You have a lot of experience running escape rooms. What has that taught you that you’re bringing to this game?

Kevin: It’s funny, because a lot of what I brought into running escape rooms actually comes from running Pop Up Playground games! The major thing being that players will do whatever they want when presented with the opportunity. So as much as possible I want the design to facilitate that.

Ben: I think that’s what I was talking about in the blog; it’s much less linear. What’s the biggest difference?

Kevin: At any point a player taking part in Small Time Criminals could just walk out of the place! They’re not stuck there. They can say “Cool, I’ve stolen this much stuff, I think I’ve done quite well, I’m done! I should leave before I get caught.”

Ben: Do you think that’s likely?

Kevin: No, I think they will push themselves to the very limit of the time available – and their scores might suffer from doing that! But I like the idea that the option is there for them, that it’s not an escape room. An escape room has a very clear goal – to escape the room – but the goal for Small Time Criminals, while clear, allows for more freedom in how players move around the space.

Ben: If money was no object, if you could have your dreams come true for Small Time Criminals, what would you put into the game?

Kevin: My answer is super boring! My biggest dream would be an automatic door at the beginning of the experience. Like something we could trigger away from the players that makes the door open for them, so we could drag them into the space in that way.

Ben: Would it please you to know that I think we actually can do that?

Kevin: Oh, that’s pretty great. But honestly, as far as putting cool stuff into the space goes, I think that we can do a lot with the money we’ve already raised; the expensive stuff is the tone and aesthetic of the space. With more money for that we can make it a much cooler experience.

This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on March 10, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.

This interview series began with Space (Sayraphim Lothian and Anastassia Poppenberg on physical design) and then Story (Robert Reid on narrative).