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Re-imagining JRPG: for Mobile Touch-Screen (Part 1)

Built a mobile specific, touch-screen, bite-size 12-Hour JRPG with 2.6 people in 9 months using $6,000 USD. We used several design paradigms found in Enterprise Software Development. We hope that you'll find our little tricks useful.

This is the fifth post in our multi-part blog on Gamasutra. We're an independently funded development group chasing our dreams.

Check out our previous posts on Gamasutra Blog:

When people say "chasing dreams," it often sounds like acting on impulse. For us, it's actually quite the opposite. We've been wanting to participate for a long time, but never had the savings to do so.

We're jumping into the industry now because it's a great time for mobile. The cost-of-entry is low, the tools are mature, and the mobile space is still an emerging market. Of course, opportunity doesn't come without risk.

We feel that our greatest tool for staying afloat is our heavy focus on design. Focusing on design will help us reduce production costs. Lower costs means we can make more games and learn from our own struggles.

We'll be listing our design and production tricks below. We hope that you'll find our experiences helpful. 

Nameless: the Hackers RPG for iOS

Nameless the hackers brain storm design cyberpunk

iTunes Link: http://nth.box.cat
Free Lite Version: http://nthl.box.cat
Reviews & Mentions:
 http://box-cat.com/

We love Kemco RPGs, Knights of Pen & Paper, Final Fantasy RPGs, The World Ends with YouDragon Island Blue, and many more. As new comers, we felt we had to strongly differentiate ourselves. For us, this was our top priority.


Designing Product Differentiators
We recognize that the AppStore is sufficiently flooded. This was also reinforced by our findings on the internet. We knew we had to be different, but how? We came up with the following "Pillars of Design":
  • Touch Specific Interface
  • Cyberpunk Aesthetic
  • Bite-Size RPG

Pillars of Design

To us, pillars are unmovable and indestructible concepts that help guide design. These help focus the team on what should take priority. They further narrow the number of possible solutions by providing a mental point of reference. Lastly, they are also great mid-production sanity checks.

It's not easy coming up with pillars. We actually spent many weeks debating back-and-forth. Many times, quoting video game mechanics like judicial precedence, googling business metrics, and also loading up hundreds of games as case-and-point examples. 

We went through several pillars. Some crumbled under pressure, some stood well. 


First Pillar - Touch Specific Interface
This one comes out of our personal frustration with virtual-pads: you can't see, it's not tactile, and it could be so much more. We feel strongly that the touch interface potential has not been fully unlocked in mobile games.

We thought about all the non-game Apps on the AppStore and how innovative many of them were: sliding widgets, scrolling pages, and contextual dragging. By examining iOS Apps like Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, etc... We focused our attention on:
  • Flat interface design, nothing too deep. 1-3 menu depth, max.
  • Single-handed usage, keeping most touch regions toward the bottom.
  • Scroll views! We decided to use this to excess!
Touch interface design for iOS App


Second Pillar - Cyberpunk Aesthetic

Picking a theme was difficult, but we ultimately settled on Cyberpunk and specifically Hackers. We felt that if we picked fantasy, we would have a hard separating ourselves from other games. At the moment, there are no-other cyberpunk RPG about hackers on the AppStore that we know of.

Another reason why we picked Hackers was because we could leverage my years in Enterprise Security. We had intimate knowledge about real subject matter that might have been compelling to anyone that was bi-curious about the hacking.

Cyberpunk game screenshot


Third Pillar - Bite-Size RPG

We love RPGs and have been playing them for years. The one thing that keeps us away from RPGs is the time-commitment. We also felt more RPGs had a long sit-down requirement. 

To us, a Mobile game will have the player's attention for the first 10 mins of play, if we did our job, then the player will possibly give us another 3 mins. Then we ask ourselves, "Will they give us another 3 mins? And another? And another?"

Mixing these two thoughts meant that we had to build our RPG in 3-min arcs. Cut-scenes, dialog, and even battles had to fit this small "bite-size" content structure.


Picking User Experience Targets
Choosing user experiences is different from picking product differentiators. These are focused on "in-the-moment emotions". In traditional non-game design, it's pretty much focused on:
  • Removing confusion
  • Eliciting urgency
  • Reducing frustration
You then make them into targets. They end up sound like:
  • Simplification of displayed information
  • Ensuring the user is aware of issues
  • Ease-of-use
We tried to do the same thing by picking specific "in-the-moment emotions":
  • Intrigue for characters
  • Curiosity about hacking
  • Reducing frustration
This ended up as the following targets:
  • Character focused story
  • Explore close to real hacking culture
  • Mobile easy to play RPG

Experience Target - Character Focused Story
As an experience goal, we wanted to use the characters within the story as bait to keep the players motivated. This actually moved our focus away from the main story and more onto the personalities and speech of each character.

The design question changed from "How do we make the story more engaging?" to "How can we make the character's reactions to the story more engaging?" This slight difference saved us hours of time (cost) throughout the project.


Experience Target - Explore Close to Real Hacking Culture
For those looking for it, they may have found some interesting things about out game. We have a play on several parodies such as "BitCoins" and "MtGox". We also have real definitions for "Blackhat", "Whitehat", and "Greyhat". We also jump into some plausible scenarios about Digital Forensic Evidence.

Our goal was to write a story that contained just-enough technical detail that an IT Admin would approve, but a non-technical person could understand.

Social engineering card


Experience Target - Mobile Easy to Play RPG

Easy-to-Play ended up being a core target. We had to scrap several interesting ideas simply because we couldn't figure out a way to integrate it into the UI. This has two major sub-notes:
  • Player can easily navigate and move around within menus
  • Player can easily pick up the game from when they left off
We used Storyboards
This was important to our design process because we wanted to pay special attention to how the characters would react to each situation. If the situations were dull, the characters would have less content to react on. If the pacing were awkward, we would have awkward reactions.

Having a storyboard also allowed us to lined up and position each character's emotional milestone within the story.

Mobile Game Design Storyboard



We used Mood-boards
Mood-boards are awesome. Mood-boards are a collection of images that set the tone and pace for the entire project. It allows multiple team members to visually understanding what the game be. It serves as a reference guide whenever there's a dip in productivity. We created a mood-board for each of these categories:
  • Graphical User Interface
  • Cut Scene Backdrops
  • Characters
  • Information Cards
  • What is Hacking Culture to us/the world?
  • Network Diagrams
We did the following with each mood-board.
  1. All members gather as many images as we can from the internet
  2. Talk about all the images and archive the ones we don't want
  3. Establish a mutual understanding of:
    • What we want.
    • Time/Cost we're willing to spend on it.
    • What is feasible.
    • If it works with the rest of the design.
  4. Have them prepared for Rapid Mock prototyping

Rapid Mock Prototyping
Prototyping is extremely important for reducing cost. This is significantly easier to do on mobile games than it is on Enterprise Solutions. We just have a huge directory connected to Dropbox, throw a ton of images in there, and then use dropbox's mobile app to view our images directly on the phone. 

Here are some of the failed UI prototypes we didn't use. We prototyped all of these without development hours.

Mobile GUI prototype design

More Tricks to Come in Part 2
These are pretty simple and minor design tricks. Each of them alone seems pretty insignificant, we agree! But when you stack them, they can generate a significantly huge amount of project momentum.

Picking pillars and targets was done before implementation. Everything else was done during our implementation. In part 2 we'll talk about how we compartmentalized and pipelined our process. What we did was execute Art, Development, and Story writing in parallel.

There's often a balance between too much overhead and too little design. We tried our best to throttle this correctly. 

Our Thoughts on Heavy Design
  • Love it.
  • Choosing strong Pillars of Design will focus your team.
  • Picking specific User Experience Emotions/Feelings will focus your content.
  • Storyboarding helps unite a shared roadmap within the team.
  • Prototyping allows you to play test without spending development time.
Next Upcoming Topics
We have the following topics we'll be also touching on in a few days. It takes a while to make these, we'll be posting until we're done.
Check out our website: BoxCat Games

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Feel free to ask us anything in the comments. =)  

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