The GDC game always presents us with a bevy of interesting design challenges. We have to think of a game with broad and immediate appeal that busy people can play in stolen moments without having to memorize a lot of rules. The game must capture their interest and imagination quickly. Both of us also have a lot of experience with big games so we were aware of the pitfalls often associated with these types of games. Keeping track of the state of the game and communicating it to players is typically very difficult in big games and as a result designers too often end up turning players into cogs with little sense of individual agency, which obviously we wanted to avoid.
With these issues in mind we came up with the following set of design goals to help guide us through the design of the game:
Accessible: The game needed to be extremely easy to understand, pick up and play. Our general guideline was that players should be able to understand the basic rules and make a meaningful move in the game in less than two minutes.
Individual goals: It’s easy for individual players to get lost in these games. Also in a conference setting it’s often difficult to have a strong sense of team identity since most of your teammates are total strangers. To address this we made it a goal that players be able to have some form of individual advancement that was related but not identical to their team’s advancement.
Group goals: One of the chief pleasures of these large real-world games is that you get to play them with and in the presence of other real-live human beings and we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that by isolating players. While we wanted to make sure that players could have individual goals they should also have an incentive to group up and do things as a team.
Spectacular: In order for the game to attract players in the buzzing confusion of the conference it needed an element of spectacle. As a side benefit we also hoped that adding some spectacle would help break down social barriers and make players more likely to approach one another.
A short period of brainstorming and a particularly fruitful round of beers later, we came up with the four basic features that we felt met our goals:
Cell-phone: Since we wanted to use technology in the game to help keep track of the game-state the obvious candidate for this was cell-phones. Cell-phones are ubiquitous, easy to use and (except for a few cave-dwellers like Mattia) universally adopted. For all their advantages cell-phones also have the drawback of coming in an enormous variety of models with few shared standards that you can easily develop for. In order to avoid all those compatibility and platform headaches we decided that the game should use the one universal feature that absolutely all cell-phones must have: touch-tones. With touch-tones we were guaranteed that anyone with a cell-phone would be able to play and that we were using the clearest, best-supported interface on any phone.
Fighting Mechanic: Deep down just about everyone likes to kick butt. Fighting is clear, intuitive and since we had settled on a gang theme a while back it worked well with the content. However, fighting games are also notoriously difficult and rely on elaborate control schemes, which we definitely didn’t want.
Our solution was to strip the fighting game down to its absolute barest bones. We removed position, blocking, throwing, combos, etc. until we were left with just the essence of most fighting games: rock-paper-scissors. Rock-paper-scissors has the advantage of being simple, fast and almost universally known so we could meet our goal of having players learn the rules quickly and jump right into a short fight.
Large Displays: Some of the original ideas for the game involved players finding members of opposing teams via name tags and challenging them to a fight that would play out entirely on their cell-phones. While this had the advantage that the game could be played anywhere we felt that it might not provide the game with enough of a visible presence and that the potential social awkwardness of challenging random strangers could be barrier to people playing.
To resolve these issues we decided to have the game played on large widescreen displays that could act as a kind of attract loop for passers-by and help bring players together without them feeling self-conscious. A side perk of this was that players could scale their social interaction to what they felt comfortable with. You could choose to talk smack to the opponent next to you or quietly pound away at the roundhouse button – it was entirely up to you.
Ranks: To provide players with a sense of individual achievement we had players gain ranks in their gang based on how many fights they had won. The fighting mechanic was fast and extremely simple so pretty much any player would win a decent percentage of the fights they entered into guaranteeing advancement.