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Deep Dive: How the Strange Horticulture devs set out to make your next favorite game

The brothers of Bad Viking had a simple but earnest goal--to make a game that was someone's favorite. How did they set out to do that? With thorough execution of theme and a cat you can pet.

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with a goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.

I'm Rob Donkin, one half of Bad Viking. I do the code and my brother, John, does the art. We've been making games together for over a decade, starting out in Flash with silly games like Panda: Tactical Sniper and Super Villainy and moving up to more interesting (but still quite silly!) multiplayer games like Bad Eggs Online. We've dabbled in a wide variety of genres over the years!

Our latest offering, Strange Horticulture, is an unusual game about running a shop that stocks plants for all manner of occult uses. It's more of a puzzle game than a shop sim, and some have perhaps more accurately placed it in the detective genre.

A Different Kind of Goal – To Make One Person's Favorite Game

At some point during the early development of Strange Horticulture we were discussing what success would look like for us. What did we hope to achieve with this game? We felt we had a strong concept that had potential but those are not guarantees of commercial success. Ignoring the obvious "some money would be nice," we settled on a goal that we realised we had never strived for on our previous projects – we would aim for just one person to call Strange Horticulture their favorite game. Not just a game that they really enjoyed but their absolute favorite game.

It was a concept that we came back to over and over during development and we hope that it's interesting enough to explore how it influenced our design decisions. Primarily what it meant for us was that we were making a whole experience rather than just a game. It meant that once we were happy with the gameplay and the art direction, we focused on creating atmosphere and on evoking a sense of belonging. It's a similar idea to adding polish or ‘juice' but I think it goes a little further than that.

It goes without saying that to make a successful game in today's market you have to execute well on things like gameplay, art, sound, etc. That's a given. But what does it take for a game to become someone's favorite? One recent example that comes to mind is Unpacking and their 14,000 unique sound effects for putting different objects down on different surfaces. That's the kind of attention to detail that can help a player fall in love with a game because it shows the amount of love and care that went into it and it elevates the experience of interacting with it. I'm not claiming we went to that extreme (I mean, seriously, 14,000 -- that is impressive!) but this kind of thinking underpinned many of our decisions.

A Strong Theme

We had already decided on the theme of the game before we considered this goal of ‘one person's favorite game' but the theme is partly why we felt that goal was reasonable. I'm not sure how to define why we felt that way. What made us confident of this theme above other ideas that we had discarded? I think partly, it's that the theme is very specific. It's not a game about plants. It's not a game about the occult or witches. It's a game about the intersection of plants and witchcraft, and I think those two ideas complement each other well. I also think they are things that people love and in some cases make up an important part of their identity.

One early idea that helped to narrow our focus was the sense that not so long ago, and indeed even now, plants were thought to have all manner of magical uses and properties, from medicines to warding off spirits. We took this idea, that there is magic and power in plants, and used it to inform our setting and atmosphere -- a mysterious ye olde world feel -- candles, plants, the wooden aesthetic. We were aiming to capture the magical feeling of a pre-science world full of possibility where monsters lurk at the edges of the map. It was important to us to try and evoke a sense of time and place so that players would immediately feel drawn into the world and their role of running an occult plant shop.

We leaned into our theme at every stage. We added different factions that were witchy and plant-y, like the Sisterhood who are considered the guardians of the forest, or the Seeds of Redemption, a cult who worship an ancient plant-y beast. Looking back, it's shocking how long it took us to add a cat to the game! A witchy plant shop game without a cat would have been like Ocarina of Time without the fishing mini game, Cloud without his Buster Sword, or Mario without a moustache -- sure, all the main parts would be there, but something important would be missing. And of course once we'd decided to add a cat there was no question that it would be black -- and we named it Hellebore after the black flower of the same name. The amount of reviews we've had along the lines of 'There's a cat and you can pet it and it purrs 10/10' suggests that adding Hellebore was maybe our single best decision!

Attention to Detail

Small details can seem insignificant when you're adding them but our thinking was that all of those details contribute to a depth of experience that make a game easier to connect with and, hopefully, fall in love with. There's a lot to like about the game Hades, but above all there is a jaw-dropping richness to it that you can't fail to be impressed by. Supergiant Games went all in on adding details that complemented their Greek mythology theme.

Our game is about plants so we did our best to incorporate plant-y details where possible. I've already mentioned the cat named Hellebore, but there are plenty of other examples. The author of the game's plant guide is Wilfrid Voynich, famous for bringing light to a mysterious booklet of fantasy plants and writings from the 15th century known as the Voynich manuscript. Your map is owned by Nicholas Culpeper, an English botanist who wrote a compendium on the properties of plants in the 1600s. These are details that most players won't even notice but they help the world feel richer, and those that do notice get something out of it. If it made us smile to put in, we reasoned that it would make a player smile to discover it -- like the Wandering Bue mushroom that roams overnight.

In a similar vein, we borrowed from some occult legends such as that of the Cumbrian stone circle known as Long Meg and her Daughters -- allegedly a group of witches who were turned to stone. There are even a couple of characters in the game whose portraits are loosely based on authors Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

And on the visual side too, we added small touches that helped deepen the theme -- swaying vines and leaves that add greenery to the shop screen, a flickering candle that is extinguished at the end of the day, different weather effects outside the windows. It would be the same game without these details. But it wouldn't feel the same.

A Part of Ourselves

Another way we sought to create an interesting, engaging, and believable game world, was by drawing on our own experiences. This is nothing new but I wanted to highlight some of the things that we felt worked in our own project.

John and I spent many childhood holidays being dragged up the Lake District fells in the cold and wet. "It's character building" as our dad liked to say. I never really understood what that meant. But those childhood experiences are something that stuck with us and as we grew older we came to recognise that the Lake District is one of the most beautiful parts of our country – even if it is a bit cold and wet! It's a place that feels like stepping back in time, with its stone walls and bridges, its old buildings, and its strong connection to nature. By placing our fictional game there we had a ready-made setting that was real to us and required little imagination. The rain outside the window, the customers who comment on the weather, the descriptions of nature – these are all a part of us.

Something else that we're both interested in, myself especially, are board games. We thought about what it is in particular that we enjoy about board games, and which elements are lacking in video games, then tried to evoke those same feelings in Strange Horticulture. What that meant was that we opted for a tactile UI -- instead of a map screen for example we have a physical map that you drag out of your drawer and onto your desk. You can move it around and open and close it with a satisfying animation and crinkling paper sound effect.

We also realized that a big part of the excitement of board games comes from before you ever even open the box or learn how to play. You hold a world of possibility in your hands -- and then when you open it there's so much to discover. So many pieces whose uses are an enticing mystery. In a game like Gloomhaven there are boxes and envelopes that you are not allowed to open when you first start playing but you know they are there and that knowing creates anticipation.

We decided not to have any tutorial in our game, to try and emulate that same feeling of discovery, and we added items whose uses aren't clear from the start -- like the disc that sits in your drawer and has symbols etched around its edge. One early idea we toyed with was starting with an envelope that said 'Do not open until Tuesday' written on it and leaving it up to the player whether they opened it early or not, but we never could work out how to do that idea justice. Now that I'm writing this I wish we'd given it more thought later in development when we understood our game better. Maybe next time! A lack of tutorial can be overwhelming for some players so we were careful to strike a balance there and also added some animations to draw the eye if players missed important elements.

Picture: Curious Objects

The Result

Strange Horticulture is now out in the world and, for the first time, players have got their hands on the game. We hoped that some people would enjoy it but we weren't at all prepared for the incredibly positive response we have received so far. It's a niche game and it's certainly not without its flaws (what game is?) so it has been wonderful to see so many people connect with it in the way we hoped they would. We've achieved an Overwhelming Positive rating on Steam and have been nominated for an IGF award so clearly we got something right!

Did we achieve our goal? I don't know. I don't know if anyone would call this their absolute favorite game but that was never really the point of introducing that way of thinking. The point was that it provided a focus for us and helped us think about what was important to include in our game, so in that sense I think it was worthwhile and definitely something we will remember for future projects.

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