[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.]
Diner Dash 1, 2, 3, 4, and...
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.
Even Sequels Need a Vision
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.
The Upside of New Blood
It was just after the first major user test that the company officially recognized the game had a focus problem. The decision was made to augment the team in design, engineering, and production to give the game some much needed form. But the company was still expecting its hit sequel, and the team embraced the challenge of honing without slowing production. Looking back, this proved to be a huge missed opportunity to hit the pause button and definitively find our game before moving forward again.
I didn't bother reminding anyone at the time that I'd never led the design of a TM game, or that I'd spent very little time playing Diner Dash. I credit any clarity I brought to the table in my first few days on the project almost entirely to my lack of attachment to past Diner Dash games. After all, I hadn't slaved over anything in the game, and I had no emotional attachments to speak of. I only knew we had to find a great game, and quickly. This proved an invaluable, time-saving perspective, far more so than years of Diner Dash experience.
What surprised me most in those first few days was that there were plenty of good, even great, ideas in the mix, but none of them seemed to be pointing in the same direction, except for maybe "BIG."
It was clearly time to chuck Time Management Game of the Year and get the team driving towards something real. This launched a vigorous interdepartmental discussion around customer expectations and product positioning for this game. It wasn't easy, but ultimately it would be a line in the intro animation script that would unify our vision.
One thing to come out of pre-production that everyone loved was the game's fiction. Basically, Flo's Diner, the symbolic heart of DinerTown, blows up, and Flo spends the rest of the game working her way back up from the streets.
At the end of the intro cutscene, Flo stands in the rubble of her diner and announces, "If the people can't come to the food, then we'll just have to bring the food to the people!" Finally, we had something meaningful to rally around, and it had been right there in our intro animation the whole time.
From that moment forward, everything had to pass through the filter of our new creative vision point. If it it didn't fit, it couldn't stay. It was liberating. That's certainly not to say we didn't all use some creative interpretation to hang on to our favorites for a while, but it seemed, for the first time, the game had potential beyond Diner Dash with a bunch of new features stacked on top. It was its own game, with its own mission to pursue.
Diner Dash 5
All the Whiz-Bang New Features
Another of our early assumptions was that to deliver on customer expectations for something new and exciting, we'd have to overwhelm them with a ton of whiz-bang new features. We were thinking wide, not deep, and our reward was an almost unplayable mish-mash for a long time. Early user testers were not impressed. At best, they were confused. At worst, kind of angry.
Exploring multiple feature ideas, even the really dumb ones, during pre-production is healthy, enlightening, inspiring, shocking (in a good way), and in the right light, even funny, but we'd passed that point, and still felt like we had to try new things to make the big impact our fans were demanding. This spoke to both our mistaken impression that bigger was the answer and the mistake of trying to figure out the game on the fly, during full production.
Lesson Learned: Be honest about where your game is creatively. If you're in pre-production creatively, acknowledge it and embrace it. If you're in production, act like it.
It would be months into a bumpy production, and a few intense culling sessions later, before we finally had the game down to a realistic set of new features that felt worthy of the franchise. Ultimately, the magic number of major new gameplay features turned out to be three (plus all the predictable updates). Plenty enough to satisfy our audience, it would turn out.
Messing With the Core
With our newly crystallized vision and a more focused feature-set emerging, it became clear that, even with all the new stuff in the game, the core gameplay loop was still sitting largely untouched. Were we going to be able to deliver on customer demand for "new and exciting" without revisiting the core gameplay? I admit I was nervous even thinking about it. Good time management is a delicate thing. Many games never get it right, but we had. I definitely didn't want to be the idiot who broke Diner Dash.
I must have asked, 'how does this work in Diner Dash?' about 150 times before making my first suggestion about the core loop. While my outsider perspective had served us well to a point, I found myself leaning more and more on the team's Diner Dash experts as we got closer to the core. After all, I wasn't the first designer to have a crack at this game. My first 150 ideas were likely to have already been explored in some form or fashion.
In the core loop of Diner Dash, customers come into the restaurant and queue up. The player seats them, serves them, and cleans up after them. If they do it well, customers leave a big tip. Play level one of any Diner Dash game and that's pretty much what you'll experience.
There was no reason to replace or remove any part of that loop, and inserting another step felt like adding just for the sake of adding. I was beginning to recognize another dilemma of designing a sequel. Change starts to feel like an obligation.
I literally found myself combing the game thinking, "What can we change here?" It felt so wrong, even when it eventually led to something good.
Lesson Learned: Making something worse just to make it different is not a healthy trade-off. If it's not broken, don't fix it. If it's got room for improvement, improve it. A tighter, familiar feature has a much longer shelf life than the fleeting delight of "Hey, that's different!"
We all knew how delicate the flow in the middle of the core loop (seat, serve, collect, clean-up) was, but, in our vigorous scouring for change, we'd identified what looked like opportunity at the beginning that promised to give the core loop more pop. This lead to a new feature called the Townies.
This new addition allowed players to grab DinerTown residents from around the edges of the gameplay area and add them to the queue before seating. This simple addition opened up a new part of the gameplay and fed into the familiar strategic aspects of the game. In short, the stars aligned behind it and it suddenly felt a lot less like change for the sake of change, and more like legitimate evolution.
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom
One new feature that ultimately went the opposite direction was something called Zoom. It was the biggest of the big new gameplay ideas from pre-production, designed to dazzle and impress even the most jaded fans. The feature was so central that the game was referred to as Diner Dash Zoom throughout the early months.
The idea: Just as everything was reaching maximum chaos, the camera would dramatically ZOOM back, revealing more environment, more tables, more customers, etc. It was big and flashy and... its wow-factor obscured a fundamental issue for quite some time.
Back to TM being a very delicate thing: the best TM players in the world fall into a zone, where they begin clicking in anticipation, staying an impressive number of moves ahead of customer requests. With thoughtful difficulty and feature ramping, designers can escort players down a path that leads from the ability to cover a few simple requests to directing a dizzying symphony of requests over the course of the game.
But with Zoom, when we pulled back to reveal more, more, more, we made the hot-spots smaller, inadvertently increasing the click-accuracy challenge. Casual players do not possess the same level hand-eye coordination as a 13-year old playing Halo, and they do not want to be challenged in the same ways. The result of Zoom was frequent mis-clicks that broke the game's satisfying chaining mechanic and left players frustrated and feeling like they'd taken a big step backwards in their ability to manage all the new customer requests.
Unfortunately, instead of cutting our losses and moving on, we clung to the flashy appeal of the new feature and struggled with it for months. We were stuck on the idea that Zoom was our big new thing, just the kind of thing we were certain our customers were demanding. We didn't want to let it go for fear of underwhelming without it.
Ironically, it ultimately took a resounding "meh" to the wow factor of Zoom from our beta testers to finally tip the scales against it. It was shocking how little it was missed after cutting it, and how quickly a better game emerged in its wake.
Level Designing a Sequel
Meanwhile, in our entire struggle to impress with big new features, we nearly overlooked a huge opportunity to evolve the series through traditional level design. Level design was simply a matter of course for development. We knew it was there all along, but didn't fully appreciate its very specific potential value in making our sequel, and all the hard work we'd put into its fresh new features, reach the new heights we'd been shooting for all along.
Fortunately, along with a new blood to lead the design, we brought in a fresh level designer. Again, someone with no previous Diner Dash experience, working under the tutelage of former designers for the series. We even contracted Nick Fortugno, the original Diner Dash game designer, to consult on the first couple of levels just to be sure we were capturing the Diner Dash magic.
Something about this combination of fresh eyes and experienced guidance, along with a new focus on puzzle solving in sync with the game's new features, helped us deliver some of the freshest-feeling level designs the series has had for years.
Lesson Learned: In the mad frenzy of adding whiz-bang new features, don't let boring old level design become an "also ran" element of the design effort.
It felt like we'd gone full circle. From the beginning, we knew that new level designs were never going to be enough to offer the thrills we needed, but now that the game was finally taking form, we found ourselves leaning heavily on the level design to maximize all our great new features.
Staying With the Times
Inevitably, market opportunities and expectations change over the lifetime of a long-running series, and for the fifth game in our series, we found ourselves examining opportunities that didn't exist during the development of previous Diner Dash games. In this case, it was the recent explosion of social gaming that had everyone looking at our otherwise traditional download game through new eyes.
And so it was that we set out to integrate an innovative new Facebook Connect feature, called Flo's Super Sneakers, which promised to enhance the in-game experience via Facebook gifting.
As with any new feature, the Facebook element (which had bubbled up from our central engineering team of all places) required the game team to embrace the possibilities of where the series could go while maintaining the focus we'd fought so hard to reclaim. The result would be a feature that would introduce cutting edge social technology to a desktop application in a whole new way and widen the concept of social gaming as a whole.
Lesson Learned: It's as cliché as it is true -- think outside the box for every game (sequel or not).
User Testing a Sequel
Although the team deserves a ton of credit for ultimately "figuring out" the game, the unsung heroes in the equation -- and perhaps the most important Diner Dash experts of all -- were our fans.
I went into early user tests with the same base-level expectations I'd have for any game user test, but quickly discovered there's a big difference when testing a sequel. Never before had I heard such distinct and emotional reactions from our testers. We were regularly getting reactions, such as, "Hey! Why'd you take out my favorite part?!" or "This part doesn't feel like it used to. I don't like it. Change it back!"
It was the emotional edge that caught me off guard. Players form a bond with a good game series, and it's surprisingly easy to inadvertently drive a wedge where you intended to build a bridge. It was a sobering reminder, but also an excellent litmus test that we would revisit often throughout production.
When we finally got to our large-scale beta test, we were relieved to find things were mostly on track. But, for all our efforts, the results were still below the high expectations for our flagship series. We determined we had just enough time for polish and fine tuning, and we took it, instead, by cutting one of the biggest features in the game (sorry, engineers) and rapidly stitching the game back together in time for release. It would turn out to be one of the healthiest decisions we ever made for the game, but we never would have had the confidence to make such a risky last-minute move without user testing results backing us up.
Lesson Learned: Double your user-testing effort for sequels. Test early and often. Test with newbies, fans, and fanatics to paint a well-balanced picture for your game.
Two weeks later, we were getting our first real look at the product we were planning to ship. We'd started with so many big new things, a game that tried to be everything, but here we were staring at a game with a handful of tightly integrated, innovative new features, polish, and its own unique identity. It felt good.
A few weeks later the game hit the market and made an immediate impact. Sales and reviews have been very good, but more importantly, the fans got what they really wanted all along: a game that lived up to the good name of its franchise while delivering a few new and exciting enhancements.
With time to reflect, a few things still jump out as missed opportunities due to all the time we spent chasing Time Management Game of the Year. Maybe there was no choice. Maybe this was simply the path we had to take to find the game inside our sequel to a sequel to a sequel.
Guess we'll find out in Diner Dash 6.