When Trinket Studios' Battle Chef Brigade landed on Steam and the Nintendo Switch last fall, we at Gamasutra were taken aback at how well it mixes a unique set of mechanics with striking storytelling and art design.
When we had studio president Tom Eastman on the Gamasutra Twitch channel shortly after its launch, we were surprised when he explained that they entered development without a clear plan for its core gameplay.
The stories he told about coming up with and designing the "Match-3 game meets 2D brawler meets Iron Chef" mechanics of Battle Chef Brigade proved intriguing, and well worth hearing if you're interested in making games.
To highlight that part of our conversation, we've gone ahead and transcribed a portion of our Twitch stream that might be useful for game developers trying to "find the fun" in their current game projects -- especially those who might be struggling to express abstract concepts through game mechanics.
Read on for some helpful insight from the development of Battle Chef Brigade, as well as some fun stories about what it almost became along the way.
Bryant Francis, Editor at Gamasutra
Alex Wawro, Editor at Gamasutra
Tom Eastman, President of Trinket Studios
Wawro: It sounds like [prototyping Battle Chef Brigade] was more intensive than you expected; what challenges did you run into when trying to meld these puzzle game mechanics with an action RPG, and also kind of a visual novel, and everything else?
Eastman: (Laughs) It was at the beginning, just for the cooking, we knew it was kind of an improvisational creative cooking [game]. Beyond that we didn't really know what we were doing. So we would just think about different aspects of what a chef does when they're making something, and we decided to make a prototype that captures that feel.
And so we did stuff like a purely table management game, where there's a horizontal grid, all the cookware are certain sizes, where the ingredients are certain sizes, certain widths, and then, you could slice a big dragon thigh in half, and now you've got two smaller pieces, so you can put one back into the pantry and make room for something else. You could bring something else over and you could grind it up and make a filling, and you could put a filling into a kind of pie, or onto a pizza. Or you could grind it up further and get a seasoning, and then sprinkle the dragon thigh that you ground up onto something else.
"We would just think about different aspects of what a chef does when they're making something, and we decided to make a prototype that captures that...We actually ended up with too many mechanics from all our prototyping, and had to spread them out over the whole game."
That wasn't fun at all! (Laughs) That was not a fun game, but we liked some of the aspects. Like, table management is an important aspect of cooking, and we could capture some of that. Like setting up your ingredients before you need them. That one aspect we liked. That happened over and over.
There was a multitude of prototypes. Another one was all about taste and texture profiles, and so we'd work through like, this ingredient has this percentage savory, this percentage sour, this percentage salty, and the judge wants a percentage set and a texture set, like from mushy to crunchy, like three more of those. And each ingredient would that coming in, if you fried, baked or boiled it, all those values would change in ways unique to that ingredient, but that was getting little too "chemistry set." (laughs)
It wasn't an action game, but I think someone could make a really fun game. It'd be closer to a sports management game, where you're managing ingredients.
We made prototypes, and we'd be like, I like this aspect, I like having to manage how much of a given flavor is in there, but it can't be represented by a whole bunch of numbers and bar graphs. So, each prototype we'd figure out, okay, some of these mechanics could work, some of them are not fun at all.
Wawro: So, how'd you settle on the right mix? As more and more creative types try to mix and sort of meld things together into stuff that's innovative, but still exciting to play, how did you settle on what was the right balance?
Eastman: Just a lot of playtesting, unfortunately. Also, whenever we'd get really frustrated with the cooking, we'd hop over to the hunting. The hunting showed up because we were more confident that it [a side-scrolling brawler] was a more solved problem.
It turned out that if you just take a while bunch of brawling mechanics and made them about hunting mechanics, it doesn't really make sense. In brawling, you just go left to right and murder everything on the screen, and you get points. There's this other motivation in our game, you're hunting to get ingredients and not just killing indiscriminately.
And we also have some ecosystem things, like if you want to get eggs, or if you want a certain type of plant to fly, then you need to feed it and get stuff from it that way. But that whole system, we felt that hunting needed to be good too, so that we can mesh them together later.
That process took a whole lot of time too, even after we established we could do cooking well, we actually ended up with too many mechanics from all our prototyping, and had to spread them out over the whole game.
Then it's all about figuring out ways where they interact correctly, not just killing things for ingredients and then cooking. Some of the cookware changed, ovens are all about passive cooking now. So, you can run out, hunt some things, chop out what you don't want, throw it in the oven, then let that cook while you go out hunting more. And so finding those ways to connect hunting and cooking was critical to making it feel like we hadn't accidentally made two separate games.
Wawro: Yeah, something I'd really appreciate from watching Bryant play and seeing the stuff around this is how this game is designed to communicate common ideas about cooking and baking through match-three puzzle mechanics.
"Some of our mechanics, some people wouldn't understand without the amount of polish...it wasn't until we added some more of that polish that it was communicated to the player how the scoring system was actually working."
You mentioned the oven. The player is playing this match-three game to make the ingredients more potent and refined, and simmer them down. You can use the oven to kind of passively make everything taste a little better while you're out getting things? I thought that was a small touch that was really ingenious.
Eastman: We designed this game by saying, it wasn't like we wanted to make match-three, or even a puzzle game really, we wanted to make an action game. So that let us to look for mechanics that would fit that abstraction correctly. And I think the result is something that wouldn't work without the wrapper. So if you don't have the cooking theme, and you have a pot, a pan and an oven, or a chopping block, those would not make any sense if you had little four-by-four grids in more generic-theme.
Especially if those three had totally different mechanics. The player would just feel like, "I have no conception, this is unintuitive." But if you put the cooking wrapper on it and introduce it well, then you could suddenly have an intuitive system that has totally separate mechanics in each puzzle.
We didn't realize that as we were working? That wasn't out original intention, I think it took us a long time to really realize what we were trying to do, and how the puzzle mechanics that we were slowly building up could facilitate and be enhanced by the cooking theme of the whole game.
Francis: Part of the loot box discussion is that a loot box isn't just an RNG thing, it's also about the UX and the compulsion of opening those boxes. Obvious Battle Chef Brigade doesn't have any of that. I wouldn't call this game exploitative by a mile, but I did notice that you match-three mechanics borrow from some of the UX lessons that work really well on phone games.
So I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about how this kind of positive-feeling, poppy, polished, juiced mechanics. Obviously in games like this, there's part of what makes it fun, it's part of what makes you drop the money, you play it and it's part of what keeps you coming back to see the story.
There's a nice mix of ingredients, if we keep using chef references all day. How do you feel about seeing the things that make your game work well also being used in more nefarious -- I say nefarious, but Blizzard uses them in all their RNG stuff, and that's debatably better than other RNG stuff, but it's that poppy, juicy stuff, if you get my ramble.
Eastman: I think that making a game juicy is just good for games, it's just making a good experience. If you end up with something really bland it's hard for anyone to care about it. So, I think we always view it as more of a necessary part of game development. You gotta polish things, you gotta have effects.
I guess I should go ever further than that and say, some of our mechanics, some people wouldn't understand without the amount of polish.
You'll notice here, whenever you make a match, there are little stars fly up and the score goes up. Before we had that, people didn't understand where the score was coming from. People would just be like "When I put in an ingredient the score goes up, why is that? Or when I make a match the score goes up?" Literally every gem just has a point value, and so when you add ingredients your score goes up.
But it wasn't until we added some more of that polish that it was communicated to the player how the scoring system was actually working.
Francis: I noticed, as I started this game, that there's a lot of characters that talk about game mechanics as though they were natural parts of the world. I just noticed how that's such an interesting way to mix your narrative design and your mechanical design, to treat weird game ideas as if they were things that people deal with. Can you talk about why you did that, and how it worked out?
Eastman: That was a really hard decision. Even going a step further, and like, "Do the characters get to mention buttons and whatnot?" (laughs) And for the most part we avoided talking about buttons, but it was sort of necessary in one of the combat tutorials, and we just gave up basically.
But I'd say that we really needed, in the same way that the cooking system here is an abstraction of real cooking, we needed that abstraction to be normal to the people of the world, because otherwise anything makes any sense. Because you can't taste or smell your screen, we need the player to understand whether or not a dish is good, whether or not they've done a good job. And we also need the computer, in the form of the judges, to be able to grade that as well.
So the player and the judges, at least, need to be on the same page about what the heck they're talking about. To some degree that's a little weird, like when a judge says "I want Water to be the dominate taste." That's a little weird. And we're sort of like, "That's crisp! Like ice cream or something." And then like fire is spicy, sort of works. But at some point you just gotta... at least we felt like it was necessary that there for the judges to just come out and say it.
Because there's so mechanics all happening at once anyway that you gotta just have the player and judges on the same page. And that meant all the characters have to have some sort of understanding of what a dish is made up of.
For more developer interviews, editor roundtables, and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel!