All good things must come to an end – and even the most corrupt of banks eventually runs out of loot when burgled often enough.
The vault will close for the final time at Small Time Criminals on Sunday, 26 February, 2017, so if you’ve always wanted to stage your own bank heist – or come back for a second attempt – it’s time to get your crew together. There’s only a limited time left to make this score!
We’ll be operating as normal up until our last day, and bookings are open now for every session running between now and then. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Ben, Kevin, Sayraphim, Rob and all the creators, cast and crew at Small Time Criminals: thank you all for your interest in our game. This was our first Elsewhere Room, but it won’t be our last.
Something’s stirring in the bank…something dark…something evil… Yes, it’s time for Halloween! The staff at Eureka Futures are throwing their own Halloween party, and surely there’s no better time to rob them. From October 21 to 31, stage a heist amongst the spooky decorations – but watch out! Is it really all just for fun, or are there real occult goings on in the bank?
Book your heist for the Halloween weekend (October 29-30) and you can use the code “SpookyBank” to get 10% off! You can do it now using this button: Halloween special
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.
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.
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).
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 this second of three interviews, Ben talks to Pop Up Playground’s Artistic Director Robert Reid about his role in directing the narrative of Small Time Criminals.
Ben: How would you describe your role on the project? Are you the head writer?
Robert: No, it feels weird for me to be a “Head Writer” when we have Nic Velissaris, Bridget Mackey and Emilie Collyer. Sayra and I are the equivalent of a director on a theatre show, so we’re experience directors – me from the fictional side, and Sayra from the fabrication side. We’re looking at the overall experience from a player’s perspective and how that translates to a narrative understanding of the world and the experience they’ve been through. So when they walk into the world, they’re having a phenomenological experience; it’s my job to make sure that whatever they do, and whatever anyone brings into the project, it becomes a narrative when they’re done.
Ben: So you’ll combine forces, but Sayraphim will be primarily looking at the physical aspects of the space, and you’ll be primarily looking at its narrative and story aspects?
Robert: I’m looking at the lies we tell; Sayra’s looking at the lies we make.
Ben: Very quotable! What’s the difference between experience design and game design?
Robert: The game designers are looking at the overall structure: what players are asked to do, the problems they’re asked to solve, and the mechanics by which we give shape and meaning to their experience. Games have rules, even if they’re quite obscure and environmental; that’s game design. As the Experience Director, I’m good at saying “I want it to feel like this”, “I want these kinds of problems”, to serve the experience and the narrative, but then I leave it to the game designers to answer “what are those problems?”
Ben: There are four writers on the project, including yourself. What kind of things are you going to be writing?
Robert: Memos, diary entries, reports, post-it notes… All the bits of evidence that we leave in our daily lives. We’ll be constructing a sense of the characters that work in the bank, so when we get actors in, I can hand each of them a character sheet which tells them who they’re playing and what they know, and they can improvise from it. Of course if we make our final stretch goal for the Small Time Criminals web series, we’ll also be writing scripts! Because we can pay actors to learn them, and I can make them say exactly what I want. Which is what I like as a playwright!
Ben: Most of it sounds very different from a regular writing gig, though?
Robert: That’s true, and that’s the thing that excites me about it!
Ben: How are you going to coordinate the whole process?
Robert: The tricky thing is negotiating with the other three writers and working out how their work fits into the overall world. I’ll be giving them that world, and saying “okay, write this bit”. One of them already had ideas of how the gameplay will work, so I’m having some back and forth to make it clear what kind of experience they’re writing for. They’re all theatre writers, they’re used to writing dialogue, and I am asking for dialogue – but in a very different format.
Ben: What other strengths and styles are the writers bringing on board?
Robert: Emilie has written prose, including essays and crime fiction. Nic is really interested in Mafia, the game, so he’s bringing that kind of aspect in. Bridget is super intelligent, I brought her on board because she’s really clever!
Ben: The idea is that they’ll each be writing separate scenarios, each providing a different experience for the bank. Will those narratives intertwine? How will you manage that?
Robert: I did something similar on one of my plays, All Of Which Are American Dreams. That had five writers, me included; I wrote the overall story for it, then they wrote in response to my prompts, and it was my job to decide “oh, that fits into the world here”, or “this character might that interaction with this other character”. I sort of knit them together so they sit in the landscape alongside each other. So for Small Time Criminals, I’ll say to the writers “Here’s your character and the kind of story; go write it!” Then we’ll go through a drafting process, the writers will send me a draft and I’ll say “that’s great; one of the other stories has this, can you work it into yours?”
Ben: The first alternate narrative, or game mode, will be live when the game opens, and the other stretch goals will come in later; do you see opportunities for adding more to the game as time goes on?
Robert: Oh yes! Small Time Criminals is going to be amazing fun, and it’s a really interesting way to explore the notion of live performance and live games. But the thing that interests me most about it, the real motivator for me doing it, is the potential for this to be an ongoing story. With the actors on YouTube, and the contributions that players inevitably make by playing, we have the opportunity to tell a year’s worth of story. It’s like a sit-com, a soap opera, a serial – but it’s a serial you can walk into and explore. Potentially, if you’re smart about it and following the narrative, players could write notes for characters. You know, find out what Kevin is doing behind Anastassia’s back, and write a note for her. If we find it we should take that into the story. We’re building a machine for a year’s worth of immersive story to come out of.
This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on March 8, 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 continues with System (Kevin Turner and Ben McKenzie on game design).
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. First up are Experience Director Sayraphim Lothian and Production Designer Anastassia Poppenberg, talking about how they’re creating the space for the game, and everything in it.
Ben: What are your roles in the design and making of Small Time Criminals?
Sayraphim: I’m overseeing all the physical design on the game, working with Anastasia.
Anastassia: I’m designing the set and props and the way the aesthetic will all come together.
Ben: You’ve both worked with theatre and film sets, where you get to create a space from scratch, or close to it. Here you have to work with an existing space. How is this different?
Sayraphim: The building is actually an old bank!
Anastassia: I love that. You’re going to walk into the space and be sympathetic to the world that already exists there, that’s a really exciting design challenge. It’s good problem solving: we want this space to fulfil a certain function; this is what we have in the space; how do we achieve that? That’s exciting! It’s a different kind of design.
Sayraphim: The main play space is an office, so we need to design an office space. That isn’t just about desks and shelves and books, it’s also about the staff who work at these desks every day. Who are they? What do they bring to work? Do they have photos of their families, are they that kind of person? Our role is designing that and making sure that it’s a coherent whole. The theme and the feel of it should be consistent, not clashing with itself. It all needs to fit together in the same world.
Ben: What’s that world like? Where’s it coming from?
Sayraphim: Well, I’ve worked in a lot of offices!
Anastassia: I like talking to the other creators and asking about the world. Kind of what Sayra was talking about: who owns the bank? What’s the manager like? Is he an arsehole, does he treat his employees like shit, or is it a really loving work environment? All of those things will contribute to the atmosphere of a space. That’s where I often start, and once I have enough to go on, I’ll start finding references and source images, bringing them together to create a cohesive style.
Sayraphim: The start of The Wolf of Wall Street was really useful inspiration. Before he becomes a really slick Wall Street investor, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character works out of a really dingy office, but he’s still corrupt. That was an important realisation for us. Even though it’s small, we want to make sure this investment bank feels like one of the bad guys. It’s not the kind of bank that holds old ladies’ pensions and things you’d feel bad about stealing. They’re a dodgy investment bank that have been ripping their customers off, so you feel okay, a bit Robin Hood about stealing from them.
Anastassia: I’ve also been looking at old bank source material; I found this great web site that went through bank advertisements from the 1920s to the 2000s, mainly in America. The ads are just ridiculous! It’s amazing, the manipulation that goes into some of this advertising on a corporate level. They play on people’s insecurities. “You will die if you don’t have this bank card! What if you end up in hospital? You’ll need this credit card, because otherwise you won’t be able to get medical treatment!”
Ben: What are the different parts of the design that you’re overseeing?
Sayraphim: In a general sense, in theatre and film, set design is the stuff that actors don’t touch, and prop design is the stuff that actors do touch, that they pick up and mess around with. For Small Time Criminals, the “actors” are mostly our players. We’ll be designing the set: all the chairs and tables, what’s on the walls, the dressing. And we’ll also be designing the props: the stuff that players will be stealing. So not just files and folders for the office, but jewels and necklaces and other valuables.
Ben: How does this differ from a film or theatre gig?
Sayraphim: In theatre or television, a giant diamond only has to look real. The actor will pick it up and give a bit of a strain and the audience believes that it’s a giant heavy diamond. But the trick to making live games is that it’s real life; the audience get to pick up the diamond. If it feels really light like it’s plastic, that instantly breaks the illusion. So for live games you have to take into account the right feel and weight of a prop, as well as how it looks. We’re looking carefully for things that help the experience feel real.
Anastassia: Yeah, the immersive aspect of it dictates a higher level of detail be put into the world. In the theatre, you’re not going to walk up onto the stage and see how something looks from 10 centimetres away. So there’s a level of detail that has to go into everything, from the character of the desks right up to how the whole world is portrayed.
This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on March 4, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.
This interview series continues with Story (Robert Reid on narrative design) and System (Kevin Turner and Ben McKenzie on game design).
“Immersive” can sometimes seem like a meaningless buzzword, especially in the world of games. Our Artistic Director Robert Reid explains what it means in the context of Small Time Criminals and real world simulations.
When I’ve been talking to everybody about Small Time Criminals, I’ve been describing it as “immersive”.
Theatre, film and television often describe themselves as immersive. Watching a film can take all your focus and let you lose yourself, and you can become so focused on a story that the sense of your surroundings fades and even disappears. In these contexts, immersive often acts as a stand-in or short hand, when what is meant is “engrossing”.
When we say immersive though, we use it in the sense of becoming completely, bodily immersed in an experience. Our games are immersive in the same way you can be immersed in a pool of water or the culture of a city.
In Small Time Criminals, we’re taking advantage of the pre-existing conditions of the building to fabricate a world in which you can become a master thief. We’re using theatrical set and costume dressing, script writing and live performance to create a simulated space and marrying them with game design and digital technology to create a world you can walk into, interact with and affect.
This idea isn’t brand new of course, and has its roots in live performance practice as far back as Allan Kaprow and the Happenings, as well as their more contemporary cousins, like the work of Punchdrunk and modern escape rooms.
It should also be said that Small Time Criminals itself is also only one kind of immersion.Our street games, for instance, are more situationally immersive, demanding immediate attention on a task at hand in a public space; they foreground the “liveness” of your everyday environment.
This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on February 26, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.
Escape rooms have become increasingly popular in Australia in the last couple of years. Small Time Criminals hopes to build on that kind of experience and take real world simulation further than ever. Our lead game designer Ben McKenzie explains.
In an escape room (sometimes called a puzzle room), a team of players is “locked” in a room, and must solve a series of puzzles in order to escape. We love them! Solving the puzzles and getting out is super satisfying, and part of that satisfaction lies in the linear nature of most rooms: the puzzles have to be solved in a specific sequence, with earlier ones providing keys or important clues for later ones. That means you can see your progress toward the exit – you reveal a hidden compartment with a new clue, or find the code to a lock that’s been staring you in the face for the last half an hour. One downside, though, is that you can’t play the same room twice – once you know the solutions, the puzzles are no longer a challenge.
Small Time Criminals won’t have puzzles in the traditional sense, but you will use clues in the environment of the bank to find solutions to problems, like a locked cabinet or a laser security grid. And while some of those problems will have multiple parts that need to be tackled in order, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose what you will do, and in what order. You won’t have to solve them all to succeed – indeed, that won’t be possible, as there will be too many for a single playthrough! Part of the game is deciding what you will take, and what you’ll leave behind, using the clues in the space to work out what’s most valuable.
Another difference from escape rooms is how we measure success. Escape rooms are pass or fail: you succeed by escaping before running out of time. The only variable is how long you take to get out. In Small Time Criminals, we expect teams to make use of all the time they have – the success of their heist will be measured by the value of what they’ve stolen. Your team will have plenty of leeway to decide on strategy: will you give up a share of the loot for some extra tools that will aid you? Will you spend precious time getting into the most secure parts of the bank? Or maybe you’ll just search the place for smaller, carelessly hidden valuables, hoping they’re enough to make your haul a big one?
Whatever your strategy, you can always come back and try something different; we plan to refresh some of the details of the experience (like passwords or safe combinations) regularly, so while you might be better at finding the answers, you won’t know them in advance. And perhaps you’ll want to try something different – isn’t it possible that the box you ignored first time round hides something more valuable than the rest of the bank’s items combined?
This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on February 25, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.
Small Time Criminals draws on the tropes and traditions of classic heist fiction. We asked the design team to tell us what’s inspired them.
Kevin Turner (Game Designer)
The film I bring up most in meetings is Ocean’s Eleven. I really think it’s the quintessential bank heist film; there are others like The Italian Job or Inside Man which are also great, but Ocean’s Eleven has the right tone. We want players to walk out of Small Time Criminals feeling like George Clooney’s crew. I also keep bringing up the videogame Fallout 4 (Bethesda). I want players to be able to hack into computers, open boxes, to explore a fully realised world. There’s also the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco (Jason Morningstar, Bully Pulpit Games) which is so much fun; in a game like that you talk through what we want to have players actually do in Small Time Criminals!
Anastassia Poppenberg (Set and Props Designer)
I’ve mostly been collecting a lot of images on Pinterest! But I have also watched a lot of heist films. I love the part in The Italian Job where the acrobat come up into the vault, leaps over all the lasers and ends up propping himself up in a doorway, it’s so over the top and ridiculous! I like the level of absurdity, though having never robbed a bank myself I assume the real version would be much less glamorous.
Ben McKenzie (Game Designer)
My favourite heist film is the original The Italian Job, though since they rob a bunch of armoured cars and the focus is the escape through the city, sadly I don’t think it’s very applicable! But one of my biggest influences for this are the adventure games I loved growing up in the early 90s: The Secret of Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer, Day of the Tentacle. Text adventures too, like Zork or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They don’t feel like puzzles, they feel like problem solving: “I have to stop this thing falling into this hole, so I need to block the hole with something, but it needs to be something soft…I have a towel!” Even the more bizarre ones have a logic by which you can work out what to do, guided by the things you find and hints in your environment. At least the good ones do; I have a big LucasArts bias, there won’t be any “walk left and suddenly you die” moments in Small Time Criminals like you used to find in the Sierra games!
Sayraphim Lothian (Experience Director)
We watched some films, including Ocean’s Eleven, some late-80s/early-90s heist films, and The Heist (2001) with Gene Hackman, which does what it says on the tin! The opening scene was particularly good. But the inspiration for Small Time Criminals as a whole was me playing Thief on the Playstation 3. The story is fairly linear, but one of the side things you can do is just break into places and nick stuff. I was really enjoying that, and Rob was watching me play and thought “How good would it be if we could do this for real?” I also play the Assassin’s Creed games, and got into the stealth genre with Dishonoured, and elements from those games also helped form the original idea. Now we’re growing that seed and making it better!
Robert Reid (Artistic Director, Head Writer)
I like old-fashioned heist movies: I prefer the original versions of The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair…I’m watching the remake of that at the moment, and I thought “oh no, he’s talking to his shrink, this is going to take forever”, but then they get straight to the heist, which was good! But I still prefer the original. More than those, though, I’m drawing on things like The Wolf of Wall Street and the UK version of The Office. There’s a kind of run-down nastiness to those characters and those worlds that I find really evocative and interesting. And the other thing is the financial crisis: the actual global financial crisis. I really love the idea of an immersive, interactive performance work where you can get your own back on the people who nearly destroyed the world. The 99% are an influence. My old politics are still part of my art!
This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on February 24, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.
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.
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 popupplayground.com.au on February 19, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.