The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the 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.
In this deep dive, Wilmot's Warehouse designer and artist Richard Hogg, who was also one of the lead creatives on the delightfully abstract puzzler Hohokum, serves up a meandering and delightfully insightful look at how the emergent puzzler came to be.
If you like what you see, you can check out earlier entries in our Deep Dive series, including creating comfortable UI for VR strategy game Skyworld, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, imbuing cryptic worlds with color in Dead Cells, and developing a unique jump-only movement mechanic in Dandara.
Categorizing and organizing things
At its heart Wilmot’s Warehouse is a game about categorizing things. This is the main thing that people do in the game and the main thing that people seem to want to talk about. That’s great. I am not going to talk about it much here though. I am uniquely unqualified to do so as I am the person who made all this stuff. It seems to me that people who are unfamiliar with it all are much better at talking about the challenges and joys of organizing all the things in this game, an excellent example being this Holly Gramazio article where she manages to compare playing Wilmot with her Brexit Prepping.
Designing a game without computers
I am a game designer but my practical skillset is very small. I can draw. That’s about it. I can’t code, I can’t make 3D art assets and I don’t really understand tools like Unity or Unreal. I make up for these inadequacies by working with other people who can do these things. Most notably my indefatigable colleague of over 10 years Ricky Haggett.
Unfortunately, a few years ago Ricky went off and made a game that I wasn’t involved with. It’s called Loot Rascals and is very good. This left me in a bit of a pickle. Mostly during that spell I did illustration work for money but I also felt the need to design a game. So I started designing one, just by drawing it. This is the beginning of the process that eventually became Wilmot's Warehouse.
I didn’t have any strong vision for what kind of a game it might be. In fact I deliberately avoided that kind of thinking and instead focused on a more practical and achievable goal of just making a bunch of visual elements that would hopefully make some kind of an interesting game.
I proceeded to draw hundreds of square tiles representing different things. While doing this I started playing with ideas about how these things could be similar and different to each other. Thematically, visually, color-wise etc. A mini ecosystem of interconnected visual elements began to evolve. Some in clear groups, linked by color or some kind of obvious motif, some in thematic categories of varying obviousness, and some oblique, esoteric connections that probably only make sense to me. Most things are in more than one category and some things are deliberately in no category at all. Inconsistencies and contradictions were embraced and nurtured.
Hopefully you can see how, without writing a line of code or going anywhere near a game engine I had a set of powerful tools for shaping and tuning a game. I could think about and adjust the difficulty and the ‘gamefeel’ by editing this growing set of images. This is at a point where I still didn’t even know what the game was going to be like!
Despite not knowing what the game was going to be it turns out that the categorizing aspect of Wilmot's Warehouse that I earlier said was the main thing that people do in the game was pretty much designed at this point. Another point about this process is that it was fun. Making these things was a bit like playing a game in a funny kind of way. I would like to think that most good games were also quite playful to make.
I then started thinking about who to collaborate with. I made a document that I could send to possible collaborators explaining what this stuff was and inviting them to get involved with making a game out of it. I deliberately didn’t talk too much about what that game might be because I wanted to leave space for someone else’s ideas. A proper collaboration. I did mention a few possible game ideas in the doc. ‘A better match-3 game’ was top of the list and my favorite at the time. Then there was a bunch of other ideas (both video game and card/boardgame) that I am not going to share here and finally the last idea on the list was this:
A weird kind of inventory management game (this is possibly the 'warehouse' game that I have been wanting to make for years. It's kind of complicated but I can explain it upon request. Ricky and Nate are sick of hearing about it.
(The Nate here is Nathan Gary who we worked with on Hohokum)
I sent it to Ricky to see what he thought about it...
The role of friendship in game design
Time passed. For some reason I never sent the doc to all those cool game designer that I was planning to and then one day, out of the blue Ricky made a prototype of the warehouse game. In Ricky’s words:
"I went away on holiday for Christmas, and took my laptop... and I had this idea that maybe I could make a little prototype of this warehouse idea using these coloured tiles, and surprise Dick with it."
The two points I want to focus on here are about Ricky’s initial attitude about this warehouse idea and about the fact that he made this prototype ‘to surprise me’
Earlier I said that Ricky and Nate were sick of hearing about this idea. That was an understatement. In reality they openly mocked it. They had a running joke that I should call it ‘Clown Warehouse’ and make all the things in it clown paraphernalia. I wasn’t particularly hurt by this. It was good banter. It’s kind of how we talk about game ideas a lot of the time.
But then Ricky made a prototype to surprise me. (Not to mention spending months taking it from a prototype to a finished game.) And my point is that this is how friendships work. These expressions of good natured antagonism and affection, Winding someone up one day and giving them a nice surprise another, are the hallmarks of real friendship.
If you make games and your game development process isn’t like this you are doing it wrong. In my opinion.
I play a lot of Tetris. In fact I never stop playing Tetris and play it pretty much every day.
Wilmot's Warehouse isn’t actually that much like Tetris but one way that it is, that I find interesting, is that it incorporates what I call emergent puzzles. There is probably a better word for this. What I mean by it is that the puzzles in the game are a function of the player's behavior. Rather than solving puzzles that have been ‘authored’ by a game designer you are solving puzzles that are a byproduct of how you solved the last puzzle. Or at least a byproduct of your overall behavior and the choices that you have made leading up to this point. It is what I love about Tetris and I am proud that Wilmot’s Warehouse is a bit like that too.
Why do I love it?
Firstly because from a design point of view it has an elegance to it. Rather than having to design puzzles we have to design systems that lead to spontaneously emerging puzzles. This is a good thing because I am no Alan Hazleden. I am not clever enough to think of good puzzles, let alone work out a nice progression from easy puzzles to really hard ones. Turns out I don’t need to. I just need to make a system that allows the player to make and solve their own puzzles.
Secondly, as a player I like the element of balance in these kinds of games. I like how, in order to ‘be good’ at the game just solving a problem isn’t enough. You have to solve it with economy and prudence in order for the next problem to hopefully be easier. There is an element of overall ‘management’ here, maintaining an equilibrium. I like this kind of gameplay. It is very satisfying when it goes well but also fun and exciting when it all goes to shit.
Thirdly, because it is like life. Real life works in exactly this same way. Life throws challenges at you and you have to deal with them but how well you deal with them often affects the nature of subsequent challenges. This is true of doing your accounts, your weekly shop in the supermarket or snowboarding down a mountain.
Realism is a guiding principle in the games me and Ricky make. A good example is our game Hohokum. It is considered to be quite a strange game and you might not think that ideas bout realism had much to do with its making. In fact there is one key way in which it is more realistic than most other games. This is to do with how Hohokum operates as a place. When you play Hohokum you can go anywhere at any time. You can visit any area of the game and spend as long as you want there. In this respect it is like a real place. When you go for a nice city break in Glasgow you don’t have to accomplish a set series of tasks in the Merchant Quarter before the West End unlocks for you. Yet most video games work like this. Even many that purport to be ‘open world’ games.
Wilmot’s Warehouse is a realist game in a different way. Simply that it is based on my real life experiences of working in these kinds of jobs. I worked in two warehouses, Asda and Boots, and also spent a year working in a picture archive at the BFI. The initial idea for this game comes from how much I enjoyed these jobs. They were rewarding, interesting, fulfilling jobs for various reasons but the main one to focus on here is how game-like they were. A big part of my enjoyment in all three of these jobs came from trying to be good at them. Optimizing my routine. Becoming an expert on the informational-topology of the space. Even altering and improving that topology when the opportunity arises. I kind of self-gamified these jobs for myself.
During development we constantly used this principle of realism as our compass when making design decisions. “What would happen in a real warehouse” It is really gratifying when you realize how often the solution to a design problem in the game turned out to be the thing closest to how warehouses work in real life. Realism in this case is not just an inspiration but a tool.
We need to talk about Amazon
This is from a YouTuber. It is a familiar refrain and one that troubles me a lot. Large logistic hubs like Amazon are a terrible thing. This is something I care about a lot and have spoken about before. Without spoiling it for people who haven’t played it, this is also a thing that the game tackles, albeit in a gentle humorous way.
It saddens me when people see that there is a game about working in a warehouse and instantly jump to the conclusion that it is some kind of Amazon Simulator. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Companies like Amazon have systematically used technology to strip logistics workers of any agency. These jobs dehumanize and abuse the people who do them. No one would want to play a game that is like working for Amazon.
I like this tweet. It contains an important distinction:
Fortunately even in 2019 there are still many jobs in logistics that are not working for Amazon and that are capable of still being enjoyable in the way that Wilmot’s Warehouse hopefully is. During playtesting a build found its way into a vinyl record distribution warehouse in London and it was lovely to hear about people whose real life jobs involve sorting, stacking and dispatching products playing Wilmot and relating to it.
I Live in Hastings, East Sussex and often find myself daydreaming about what kind of nice local warehouse job I can do when this video game business dries up. Current top of my list is Source BMX.
A popular Twitter account called ‘wholesome games’ gave Wilmot’s Warehouse the thumbs up and that makes me happy. I like the idea of wholesome games. Me and Ricky have always tried to make games that are useful and welcome parts of people's lives. All our games are non violent, and we generally focus on experiences that are not stressful and possibly even therapeutic in nature. Wilmot’s Warehouse presents some problems in this respect.
A common reaction to it is that people find it very therapeutic but in a way that inherently includes an element of stressfulness. I guess this is just the nature of a ‘sorting things’ game. It can be incredibly relaxing and rewarding but in a way that easily tips over into something that feels overwhelming or daunting. I don’t think there is a complete solution to this. We have done the best we can to build in systems that help people feel relaxed and content while playing the game. The fail states are very ‘soft’, almost meaningless fail states and the game is very generous in terms of giving the player all the time and space that they might need.
A similar, and perhaps more troubling issue is addictiveness. When I meet people who aren't interested in games they often tell me that they don’t play video games because ‘they are addictive’. Until recently I have been able to reassure them that I don’t make addictive games. Now I have made Wilmot’s Warehouse and am not so sure.
The thing that baffles me is all the people who are saying that Wilmot is addictive are all saying it in a complementary way. “My life is going to shit because I can’t stop playing Wilmot’s, lol”. I take comfort from the fact that there is mostly a cheerful tongue-in-cheek nature to these admissions of personal weakness.
I want to make games that respect people's time. That don’t take the piss. That don’t trap people in unhealthy fun/not-fun gameplay loops. Games that are compelling but that don’t overstay their welcome. I know what it’s like to feel resentful towards a game that you can’t stop playing. (Here's looking at you Alexey Pajitnov) I never want to make games like that.
Hopefully Wilmot is on the right side of the line between that nice compelling feeling you get from a good video game and unhealthy feelings of addiction. We have done our best to make it that way. Wilmot’s Warehouse takes about 6 hours to complete. It has a finite end and limited replayability. I think your average person who is really into Wilmot might play it through twice. Perhaps one normal game and then a game on hard or with a friend. We have made very deliberate design decisions to that effect. There has been lots of calls for an ‘endless mode’ and that will never happen. To quote Ricky:
It would absolutely have been possible to keep the warehouse in equilibrium, so you can keep going forever, or to gradually make it harder and harder at the end until you just can't continue any more...
None of those felt like satisfactory ends to the game though. We didn't want everyone's experience of the game to be 'I played it until I got bored/frustrated, and then stopped'. Also, keeping players on the hamster wheel doesn't feel ethical. Time is precious, and as game designers, we don't want to waste it. Building in meaningful, satisfactory off ramps feels like a thing more games should be doing.
I think I spent somewhere in the region of 200-400 hours playtesting this game.
Nate Crowley, in his RPS review, said:
"It feels very much like a game where every feature has been through hundreds of iterations in order to end up fitting just so with everything else; if not, the developers are sorcerers and I fear them."
Yeah. We are not sorcerers. We just spent a lot of time on this stuff. At times I felt like I was going mad. Playtesting your own game is an awkward and cringeworthy thing to do. It’s not much fun. Then after a long period of torment you kind of break through into some new higher state of not-giving-a-fuck and it is like a weird kind of enlightenment. Like it’s not your game anymore. It’s liberating. I cycled through feelings like this and then back in to doubt and self-consciousness quite a few times. It’s also boring a lot of the time. I fell asleep while playing Wilmot’s Warehouse ...quite a few times.
I’m not sure I am recommending this to anyone. After all, not all games even benefit from this kind of playtesting. Many games are somewhat spoiled by prior knowledge that, which as a designer you're bound to have. That means the effectiveness of spoilers, surprises and twists can’t ever really be gauged by the person that made them in the first place, which is probably a touch obvious.
But if your game is the kind of game that you can repeatedly playtest meaningfully yourself, say a rogue-like, then it’s a good idea to do a lot of it. I’m not saying this in a bullshit macho ‘you have to put the hours in.’ kind of a way. We don’t crunch. We work sensible hours. It’s more that I think you should expect to make playtesting time a big chunk of your overall development time. See playing your own game as a big part of the work that you do as a game designer. As valuable as coding or making the art or whatever. And do it in a healthy way.
Ultimately, with this kind of game it is worth it. Wilmot's Warehouse is undoubtedly a good game rather than an ok game because of all the playtesting I did. Anyone who has also played the original version that we released as part of Humble Bundle probably has a sense of what I mean.