To talk about how they are addicted to playing the game, that made me think -- what is it about solving puzzles? If we were going to talk about psychology... Because I know, from playing Portal and Portal 2, and other games that have puzzles, you do get this indescribable positive feeling.
KS: You get a really good endorphin rush from the satisfaction of feeling smart. Like, "I had this problem and I am going to solve it." And I think that's almost with everything. You have a problem in front of you, and if you can solve it, and figure it out, it just makes you feel really smart, and really clever. After people play our game, I want them to feel clever.
How do you achieve that? Is it just by making clever puzzles?
KS: I think good puzzles, combined with -- once again, going back to playtesting! But playtesting, making sure that players are not getting overly frustrated, bashing their head against a problem without seeing the solution. Ideally, you want a player to come into a room, take a look, and within 30 seconds to a minute, know what they have to do, and then it's a matter of executing on it.
That's an interesting point, because that gap, sometimes, in games -- between "I think I know how to solve this" and "I actually can get the pieces into place" -- that can be a really frustrating place to be in, if the game has certain deficiencies in control, or readability. Or sometimes you have the wrong idea. Sometimes you have the right idea, but you just can't get the pieces into place.
KS: Playtesting, there were definitely instances for us as designers that were frustrating, because the player would actually figure out the correct solution, but there would be a bug or something like that that would punish them for that correct solution, so they would try to do the right thing but they would get punished.
And then realizing them thinking, "Oh, well this isn't the solution, so let me go try something else," and then reaching that thrashing point. And then them going back and saying like, "Oh, that was my initial idea in the first place, but I got punished for this one thing." So yeah, playtesting. It's something that you wouldn't catch otherwise; making sure those moments don't happen. Like where we are accidentally giving negative reinforcement for the right thing to do.
You were talking earlier about how the aesthetics are secondary to the gameplay, but you're bringing in things: you are bringing in some characters, you're bringing in arc. Do you have to build to that arc? How do you do that?
KS: I think it's all about having a rough outline to start with, and having flexibility in terms of what it will end up being at the very end, because sound and art and story should all be supporting the fun of the gameplay. And if it's getting in the way of the gameplay, then it's not doing its job properly. Art, or story, or sound should not be a hindrance to the game. It should just make for a more complete, better, immersive, fun experience.
If you had a discipline, are you a level designer? First of all, what's your stated role? But what is your real passion?
KS: I am a creative director, and I would say it fits me pretty well, because I am a little ADD. I like to do a little bit of everything, and I have a background in programming, and I have a background in art as well as design. And I like doing -- and for this game I actually did -- most of the writing. And so I like being able to do a little bit of everything, and I think, more than anything else, I like contributing to the project.
Even though, yeah, I'm in charge, quote unquote, of the project, I want to be able to point at things and say "I made that," or "I wrote that," or having an actual involvement in the game. Not only because it's satisfying to see something that you made come to life, but it keeps you realistic and grounded about everybody -- like your expectations about everybody else.
You know, not making unrealistic choices. Not knowing that it might cost the programmer 48 hours nonstop worth of work to be able to get that feature in. And just being grounded, and knowing what it actually takes to make a game, and put together a product, I think, is really important.
Do you think that's a specific skill? Having that vision of what actually is essential to this, to get it out the door?
KS: I think so, and as a creative director, making sure that everybody else is on the same page, and they're all seeing the same picture in their head. And getting people excited about working on the project. And like I said, we're a very democratic team, and so if someone has an awesome suggestion, I don't care if it came from me or not. Is it going to make the game better? Is it going to make the game more fun? Then do it.
And so like, level design, for instance: most of the people on our team have contributed a level to our game, and so it's not just one person doing all the design, it's lots of people. And I think it makes for a really fun and interesting design process, as well as product.
How do you balance people making levels? People have ideas. You also have a schedule. You also have this need to test things. It's a real balancing act.
KS: It is, but at the same time, using the testing as a driving goal. For instance, if you do want a level, you need to have it done soon enough that it can get through a few playtesting iterations, and so that becomes a driving factor for you to get it done.
At the same time, we're all in the same giant room, so talking to one another and having open communication about what we're all working on, and potential blocking factors. Like, I am working on something, but somebody is waiting for me to finish it so they can do their job. And just making sure that the communication lines are open, so we don't run into times where people are getting stuck waiting for somebody else. So yeah, more than anything else it's just about communication.
Do you really let people have autonomy on the team? I know you talk about democracy, but democracy and autonomy are kind of separate.
KS: Yeah. People work on what they want to work on. So, portraits in the game; you walk through and see different pictures on the wall... Scott and Chris, our two concept artists, they got to paint pretty much whatever they wanted. We would drop in suggestions every once in a while, and it was like, "Oh hey, could you do a painting of this?" So we actually have a painting of one of our teammate's dogs in the game, because he wanted a picture of his dog in the game. And we were like, "All right. That works."
So to me it's like, "Okay." It comes down to, what's the risk versus the reward for doing a particular anything? Whether it's a design concept, a piece of art, a piece of programming, will it take a long time for you to do? Will it block anything else that we already had planned? And can we test it as soon as possible? And if it works out, then it works out. If it doesn't, then -- because we are all communicating and doing the playtesting, too -- we can see when things are not working. Then we know, "Okay, it has to go," and we can basically extract emotion from the equation when making those decisions.