I should have written this months ago, while all the memories were fresh, but sometimes you need a little time for an idea to find its place in your mind and sort itself out – perhaps this is one of those times.
A few months back we were at GDC in San Francisco. For the first time we took a risk and bought some booth space on the Indie floor sharing a slot with our friends at OmegaTech. Not being exactly organized we brought three things to show: a working build of Stargate SG1 Gunship, an alpha build of G Prime and a banner for Redwall. (Memo to self: next time try ‘focus’) G, for all the pretty screenshots, really wasn’t a good choice for a booth show – it’s more of a thinker really, and only alpha. SG1 showed pretty well. People seemed to like what we’d done with the UI, but far and away we had the most response to Redwall…even though we had nothing to show but a banner.
Seriously I was shocked…again. At times we had folks four and five deep around our tiny little table and at other times people were literally throwing resumes at us. Tweets and posts and selfies, all because of the way this series of books has touched people. There was a no-man’s-land of open seating adjacent to our booth and I could sit there inconspicuously watching as people would come up to the banner and take long pauses as if they were reliving fond memories. Sometimes they’d want to ask us questions but more often they just looked wistfully on at the sandstone walls and the setting rose-colored sun and seemed to be moved, almost to reverie.
The whole team came away from GDC excited by the level of enthusiasm we saw from the fan base and the degree of support they showed us baed on…next to nothing really. We were tempted to use the “tiger by the tail” metaphor but somehow that seems to paint the wrong picture. It’s too…frantic.
What I see in these people’s eyes isn’t wild, disorganized fandom – it’s something deep that looks more like peace. It’s not Facebook likes and Vine loops…it’s love. And somehow we need to be true to that.
We MUST be true to that.
It’s a tricky proposition. So much of current game design theory is about manipulating a player’s base instincts to make a buck. Basically nueurolinguistic programming in the form of a digital experience tightly drawn out to collect dollar after dollar after dollar. Rewarding the player in specific ways at specific intervals like a maze made by a lab-coated PhDs for training rats.
Indeed we had the regular experience of fans coming to us excited to imagine swashbuckling pirate mice or badger-as-tank combat scenes, basically fantasizing about their own action-filled vision cast by woodlanders. But in every case, I think every-single-case, we’d ask something like, “What did you love most about Redwall? What’s the one thing that we MUST get right?” And nobody said the action. Nobody said the fighting. Instead it was things like “the mood” or “the food” or other aspects that were always scented by peace. Even when we’d follow up with a more pointed question like “So how important is the combat aspect then?” People always seemed to have a second thought and say something like…”Not that much I guess. What I really want is to experience Redwall and it’s atmosphere.”
Lego Hobbit was a recent free demo on Xbox One and I downloaded it (of course). The demo opens up with the scene in front of the goblin king and promptly begins the button mashing. I’m cool with button mashing games, I really am, but this one felt decidedly disappointing. Not because the action in itself was sub-par but because that mechanic is so opposite from what I love about The Hobbit. To be all nerdy for a second, the Ludonarrative Dissonance was pissing me off.
Reflecting on the way so many people felt about Redwall at GDC, this idea that we don’t have an opportunity here, we have a responsibility – was powerfully reinforced. But it further suggested to me that our responsibility really isn’t immediately to the fans or even our customers…it’s to the story.
That thought has acted as a major influence on the game design as we’ve moved forward on this project – which I realize remains decidedly coy. It’s not for lack of work or some vague marketing indicator. It’s driven by this sense of responsibility to the story and the desire to “get it right” in at least the major themes. Some kind of “splat the rat” game was off the table from day one but as we’ve gone on it gets deeper the that. I’m hearing that people want to “feel” Redwall, they want to breathe it in, live there and escape to a place that stirs the deep things in their heart.
So that has brought us slowly to something we’re halting calling a “4D adventure game” where combat is expensive and necessary at the same time. Drawing lessons from GURPS we’re tuning the RPG aspects to be widely flexible. We’re trying to bank out an esoteric game mechanic that allows for both a run-and-win play style at the same time it allows for languid lingering and patient perfectionism. It’s true that getting here has taken longer than we originally thought, but from day one we knew that getting it right was more important than going to market quickly.
Here’s to hoping were on the right track…