(Article originally published on Gamesauce)
An Origin Story
As part of the NYU Game Center MFA track, all candidates go through a year (more realistically, seven months) of research and development time on one Thesis project. We banded together over the initial idea that we would be constructing a game about the tale of Pluto, the ninth planet that was unjustly cast out from the solar system. Pluto travels cross-galaxy to seek solace, helping others along the way by terraforming their atmosphere through a slinging game mechanism. It was a delightful idea, and after a few prototypes, we remorsely decided that there was no way any portion of this playable was moderately enjoyable.
Enter our external advisor Pendleton Ward, who gave us the marvelous suggestion of looking at Pluto’s relationship with one of their numerous moons, Charon. Pluto and Charon perpetually rotate around each other, which gave us the starting point to create the first version of Cognition’s mechanic, a little game called Celestial Buddies.
Players could tap on the sides of the screen to toggle which celestial buddy was stationary and which was moving, allowing them to “walk” in a certain direction and “eat” other masses to increase their own. Players could also adjust their radius and size, with the goal of them being the hungriest ever. Our showcase at Sheep’s Meow was a huge success compared to previous iterations; however, we weren’t satisfied.
The Most Important Thing
Foregoing the positivity, as every artist is a critic of their own work, we addressed every element that could pose as an issue. The matter of usability being too complex or intuitive came forward consistently, and we decided to simplify it. After all, how great is the outcome of construction on a game, if no one can easily figure out how to enjoy it? Especially for our intended platforms (iPad/iPhone), users aren’t forgiving if they cannot understand how to play effectively or feel rewarded within the first few minutes.
We decided to add a deathless Rewind system (players move back in time instead of “losing,” preventing frustration from restarting), stripping off the orbit-changing and eating/poisoning game mechanisms to keep interactions as painless and satisfying as possible. Players only control what direction the characters, Click and Cogsworth, are moving in through timing their taps. This simplicity of play allows them to perform skillfully with one hand while their body is sandwiched between a well used subway pole and an ocean of formal wear during rush hour.
A Commercial Vision
It was initially a student project, so we did not consider any monetization tactics until the game was almost fully-designed. With the introduction of the Incubator program, which promoted us to think about different ways to advertise and establish a business identity, we decided to tackle this to the best of our abilities.
We started talking to various publishers and realized, through internal and external discussion, that our game was a Premium. To allow this to be a free-to-play title with commonly obvious methods of monetary gain (stamina/energy, power-ups, advertisements) would not only shatter the design vision to a million irreparable pieces, but also make it impractical to redesign within the limited timeframe we had. Instead, we switched to a more subtle approach: replayability and sharing information about the game would provide organic growth, leading to more downloads and another half a shot of espresso.
Modifications to increase replayability included collectibles (the little Neurons that players can gather to unlock iMessage stickers) and a timing system for those who enjoy seeing the familiar ticks from the match-three glory day in their level overview. It was an important design decision that we do not gate players even with this system, for accessibility was a design pillar set in marble and covered in copious amounts of sealant – achieving three medals is purely optional and does not interfere with completing the game or collecting stickers.
Sharing one’s time score isn’t that interesting at all, and we wanted some organic sharing on social media, one of the best ways to promote ourselves. After watching people play for an extended period of time, we realized that one of their best moments was seeing each new puzzle that the clockmaker carefully constructed. Thus, sharing provides a treasure map screenshot of the recently completed level, with markings along the way of when Click and Cogsworth would have met their ultimately demise.