This is the story about how AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Aaaaa! for short) put Dejobaan Games on the map. We're a small studio that proudly makes its home in Boston, Massachusetts, alongside game dev companies of all sizes, from industry heavyweights Turbine and Harmonix to tiny one-person affairs. Our company is tiny, with a core team of three people and a handful of part-timers.
The team structure at the time we started writing this article.
Aaaaa!, our 13th title, was a finalist in the IGF 2010 and Indie Game Challenge 2010 awards, and was selected to be part of the Penny Arcade Expo Indie Showcase in that convention's first appearance on the East Coast.
The game challenges you to walk off of a perfectly good building, create your own stunts to impress the judges, and flip people off for points. It also teaches you how to debristle a pig.
The question we want to answer with this article is simple: How on earth did this happen?
1. Marketing = Game Design = Marketing
This is it -- if we did nothing else right, we hit this one on the head.
Marketing [n.]: Creating a game so wonderful that people will a) give you their hard-earned money to play it and b) talk to the world about it. Marketing is an integral part of game design, rather than a spare afterthought.
Say "marketing" to many people, and it's an evil, filthy thing that you use to force people to buy something they don't need. But to us, it starts with designing an experience that makes people so passionate about that they actually pick up the game and tell all their friends. To wit, both Dejobaan's design lead, Ichiro, and our marketing and strategy guy, Leo, have hands in both business and game design.
With Aaaaa!, we started by tossing ideas back and forth until we had something that interested us as gamers and businesspeople. It went exactly like this:
Leo (Marketing & Strategy): So, what's this game about?
Ichiro (President): Jumping from buildings and landing without dying.
Leo: That's dry. You know that bit you put into the video about mooning people?
Ichiro: That was a throwaway joke, dude.
Leo: What if that was in the game? You could moon people for points.
Ichiro: I could get fired for suggesting that.
Leo: You own the company.
Ichiro: Fine, we'll put it in.
That evolved into a mechanic where you could give passing fans the thumbs-up and flip protesters off, which is something that journalists and gamers always talk about. Designing the game and thinking about how it would engage our audience were the same thing.
Amusing concept -> Realization that people might like this -> Incorporation into game
This seems like a no-brainer. But countless times, we've heard developers propose something absolutely ridiculous and hilarious. Everyone will laugh until tears start streaming from their eyes, then someone will reign it in. "Come on, guys, let's get serious. What do we really want to put into the game?"
Why do people do this?
Flipping off protesters was a throwaway gag that became one of the game's central mechanics. At PAX East, we told gamers about it in conversation, and they laughed in delight (and then signed up for our fan club to hear more).
Things like "over 80 levels" or "15 music tracks" aren't as noteworthy as "deploy obscene gesture for points" is. We tried to apply this throughout the game -- for example, if you get too keyed up playing, you can unlock a full, 3-minute guided meditation.
We think that this process made Aaaaa! more remarkable and generally more awesome.
2. We secured core gameplay, then spewed awesomeness all around it.
An excellent video game isn't just about presenting interesting rules -- it's about delighting the player with bits of awesomeness all over the place. The best arcades did this well during the '80s.
Big lights and lots of games like these.
In their heyday they were like miniature Las Vegases for kids, filled with interesting details. At the core were the games -- but they weren't just all dumped into a dusty warehouse. Step inside one now -- the decor (tacky, yet awesome) starts with a pitch black room with wavy neon lights and disco balls. The cabinets are densely-packed, with illustrations sprawling over them. Peek around to the front of each one, and you get a glimpse of a ridiculous matrix of lights playing out. Off in one corner of the room is an illuminated glass cube filled with plush toys and a gleaming claw.
While you're picturing the ambient glow, listen to the sounds of a dozen games beckoning with their distinctive sounds. The best arcades were spaces to explore. And like that, our favorite games delight us all over the place -- it's a little like stumbling across little Christmas presents wherever we go.
We tried to do this with Aaaaa!, starting with a solid core of gameplay. If we could then make people grin at something as silly as the options menu -- and then apply that to all the details -- people would want to keep playing the game just to see what'd happen.
So! BASE jumpers must lose a lot of teeth -- why not make teeth the game's currency? Elevator music in the level selection menu? Sure! And we included a guided anti-meditation, in case you lived a life of too much relaxation, and wanted to feel as though bugs were crawling around your body. Each little piece made the game stand out a little more.
Games can always do this, but they often don't, because we fall into a checklist mentality:
Q: How do you make a good game?
A: Here's a recipe:
Okay, that's a game. Ship it!
One of Dejobaan's development tenets is to create games that make people scream "That's so awesome -- I can't believe I just played that! I have to tell all my friends!" One thing we did with success was to add details that the players keyed in on and talked about.
Are you still listening to the above MP3 (which may or may not have taken you back to a time when parachute pants were fantastic)? In the spirit of giving you, the reader, something extra, we're going to give you a bonus photo of some alpaca:
A bonus picture of alpaca.
Read their Wikipedia entry to become unbelievably well-versed in alpacas! This is value, my friend -- all for the price of reading our article.