[PlayFirst game design manager Patrick Baggatta tackles the difficulties in process that arise when developers struggle to make meaningful change to a sequel in a popular franchise -- in this case casual game 'time management' champ Diner Dash.]
The original Diner Dash launched in 2004 and changed the face of casual gaming. For those who haven't tried it (or won't admit it), you play as Flo, a spunky waitress with can-do spirit to spare, waiting tables and nobly rescuing her friends between shifts. Think of Flo as the Mario of casual gaming -- an unassuming hero type with a dependably great game series to back her up.
As with most breakthrough games, it wasn't long before others were out to emulate the success of Diner Dash. Six short years later, the time management (TM) genre boasts several hit series, each with its own style, plucky hero, and loyal fan base. The question is no longer if Flo (and her fellow TM heroes) will be back in another installment, but when and how.
Combine fan expectations with casual gaming's breakneck development cycles of nine to 12 months, and you quickly find yourself working in Stallone-esque sequel numbers.
I'd been designing games at PlayFirst for about a year; head down on my projects, Dream Chronicles 3 and DinerTown Tycoon, when I first heard grumbling from the Diner Dash 5 team. They'd been at it for a few months and things weren't going well.
The bold new ideas dreamed-up during a "new features" offsite weren't coming together, but the company was already counting on its next big hit. From the outside looking in, I had to wonder, how hard could this be? Hadn't we already made four hit Diner Dash titles?
Assumptions of any size are a potentially fatal temptation in game development, but by the time we embarked on our sequel to a sequel to a sequel, it turned out we'd already made the biggest assumption of all. Because we'd made so many of these games over the years, we assumed we "had a game" by default and started moving forward before anyone was able to specifically say what it was supposed to be.
Unlike an original IP game, a sequel is born as a set of numbers. There's the sequel number itself -- five, in our case.
Then, there are the "bankable" sales numbers, predictable development dollars, the percentage of assets to be leveraged from previous games in the series, the number of original team members required to "recapture the magic," the number of months since the last one was released, the number of new features required to make it fresh, and, of course, the sequel number that will ultimately break the camel's back. The ways in which these numbers can paralyze a game designer are, ironically, innumerable.
Lesson Learned: Set the numbers aside as quickly as possible. Begin by giving your game its own name -- even if it only represents the feeling you ultimately hope to capture in it. Every game, even the fifth in a series, needs its own identity to go the distance. Uncovering its unique identity is the biggest favor you can do for your game (and sanity).
Diner Dash 2
And so it was that we set out to give our set of numbers some form. Sequel designs start with a list of common sense updates. For Diner Dash this means new restaurants, levels, customer types, upgrades, and story.
But these predictable updates only get you so far. You can't wrap an entire game around the snappy timing of level 2.6 or the marginally faster avatar you purchase in the third venue. Besides, all these elements had been thoroughly "explored" by the time we arrived at the fifth in the series. Our customers were telling us they wanted something big. Something new and exciting.
And so, the rally call of "Time Management Game of the Year" was born. It spoke to overall expectations, but lacked substance, except, of course, the paralyzing subtext that anything short of the "biggest and best" equaled failure.
This well-meaning mantra quickly took on a sinister tone that would haunt the team for months. It was top-down direction in a really dangerous form. Not top-down in the sense of execs telling the dev team what to do (thankfully, that's not PlayFirst at all), but rather an end run to the victory circle that inspires overreaching and running before walking.
In the meantime, with little else to go on, it would stand-in for the game's guiding vision.
Lesson Learned: Inevitably, a long-running series hits a point where it must reach new heights or wither and die. This can make the creative team feel a bit like a professional comedian at a party who meets a well-meaning stranger, staring them in the eye with an expectant expression and demanding, "Say something funny!" Dramatic new heights for a sequel grow from the bottom up, like any other game. Go back to your "inspiration place," wherever that may be, and give your sequel its proper due.
Predictably, our game floated through pre-production, pursuing tangents, adding an assortment of new features on top of everything we'd done in the past. The game was getting big, but had yet to find a definitive direction. Soon, the game arrived at the gates of greenlight and, still riding the wave of Time Management Game of the Year, passed into production lacking the razor focus we'd demand from a less established series.
Lesson Learned: Leave the baggage behind. Equally as important as what to add to your sequel is what to cut.