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Experimentation and Exploration in Game Genres – The birth of Space Watchers

Game genres. The genre is a box that's meant to be broken down. Mashing-up genres is a thing but what about evolving a single genre into something else, expanding upon what it already is. Achieving this requires willingness to experiment and explore.

Timothy Staton-Davis

January 21, 2016

6 Min Read

This write-up was created looking back at our development process during this 6-month project.  See more details about the project and team here: Project Faceless Blog

Established game genres are what allow gamers and developers to easily classify a game.  There is a certain style of experience expected from say an action game or a strategy game.  In today’s market, the most common spin on a genre is combining different genres together to make a new experience.  But what about evolving a single genre into something else, expanding upon what it already is.  Sometimes, exploring a game genre from a different perspective can lead to uncharted territory and a new style of gameplay can be created for that genre. 

Space Watchers is a multiplayer video hidden object game but very different from any traditional game in the genre.  The competitive game pits players against each other to find the most objects showing in a video as fast and consistent as possible.  They use their phones as controllers.  The quick, reactive gameplay of seeing what items you need to find and searching for them in the video has given our player’s feelings of franticness and pressure.  This fast paced gameplay is more reminiscent of an arcade game or a music game like Guitar Hero.  Through experimentation and exploration of traditional hidden object games, our team, Faceless, hit upon an interesting new play style.

Curiosity and Questions are essential

The development of the game started with one simple question: “What would happen if you combined video with a Hidden Object game?”  This question is not completely random.  The Hidden Object genre has been around for quite some time and has been evolving, especially over the past few years.  A hidden object game typically involves players searching for objects that are hidden in a 2D image environment.  This image is static. 

Adding a moving image to the game was a reasonable line of questioning.  Adding moving images to the game, the team quickly realized, drastically changed the gameplay.  In addition, video also contains sounds and actions being performed by actors in the scenes.  Our team decided to make these things “hidden objects” to find along with normal static objects.  After identifying all these factors and new pieces to the core experience, we began experimenting with gameplay that combined typical hidden object gameplay with the video attributes. 

When thinking about a game genre and asking “how can this be different?”, it is effective to relate your thinking to core aspects about the gameplay.  For a hidden object game it is the image, the knowledge of which objects a player is looking for, the act of looking for objects, and the ability to touch anywhere on the screen.  For example, many recent hidden object games involve puzzles.  The question for this addition to the gameplay may have been “what if the objects you were looking for allow you to find other objects too?”  Thus now players must find objects and determine where to use them to find other objects.  For our game, we changed the core gameplay aspect of an image into a video which provided our team with a new line of thought.  By keeping the other aspects of the gameplay the same, we enabled ourselves to keep true to the genre while exploring new territory.  As mentioned previously, now players are looking for static objects, actions, and sounds that are happening in the video.  The content comes from the video instead of hiding objects inside a series of static image scenes. 

New Tools can be necessary

I recall listening to some talks given by studios such as Insomniac about how they needed to create new tools to develop the game they had envisioned.  This became evident for our team as we had to develop a new level editing tool to create our levels.  Our programmers were up for the challenge and the designers were prepared to determine what was required for development of this tool.  An important lesson to note about our level editor development is that it was based upon the needs of the game, not the wants of the designers.  Starting off, we needed to have a minimum viable product (MVP) to test level designs and determine if the basic specifications would work for the game experience. 

After this MVP was checked, we could move to add more additional features based on needs.  It wasn’t until much later into development that we began to add additional designer specific features which made design easier but weren’t always necessary.  In addition, with each upgrade, the efficiency of the designers increased until each level took about 30 minutes to create.  This is over a 50% increase given that it originally took 90 minutes for each level.

Without the level editor, it would have been nearly impossible to efficiently create levels.  Our research and experimentation of the gameplay would have been much more limited as well.  I’m convinced that we would not have developed as much as we did if we did not decide to create our level editor. 

Proclaiming What’s Unique

Early into development, our team figured out what was really unique about Space Watchers.  It was mentioned earlier, but the video as the main source of game content sets it apart from others in the genre.  Gameplay is based upon time, object attributes, actions, sounds, and reaction speed.  Part of the success of the project was having others (colleagues, testers, and client members) understand the uniqueness of the game.  During our short four months of development, we playtested our game with over 30 people.  We explained the gameplay with these testers and wanted to get their opinion on the potential of the idea.  To our surprise, many people saw the same potential our team saw and some others even had brand new ideas!    Having people experience the game was the easiest way to have them understand the unique aspects of our game.  As a result, we had different people play our game as often as we could manage.  These showings of our game helped to confirm our team’s convictions about the game and push us to create the best work we could.

From curiosity and a simple question, we were able to create a fun game experience that built upon a well establish game genre.  Through documented experimentation and development of proper tools, the content for the game is easily expandable.  Thus allowing us to make the best experience possible.  After our four months of initial development, Space Watchers is still in development and more content is being created.  Our team hopes to see it released on the platform within the near future.

 

Faceless is a team at the Electronic Arts Silicon Valley campus of Carnegie Mellon Universities Entertainment Technology Center.  We worked with the Office of Chief Creative Officer (OCCO) at EA to develop a new hidden object game for the Xfinity Games connected TV platform called Space Watchers (in-development).

 

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