Road to the IGF: Coco & Co's Way

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, we talk with Coco & Co's Chris Bell about Way, the wordless, co-op puzzle-platformer nominated for IGF's Nuovo award and selected as a Student Showcase finalist.
Developed in a single semester by a group at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, Coco & Co's Way is an unusual cooperative puzzle-platformer that pairs players with an anonymous person they need to work with to progress. The challenge comes from the Windows/Mac game not allowing players to speak or type messages to each other -- instead, they need to communicate what they need their partner to accomplish through gestures with their virtual characters. This year's Independent Games Festival has selected Way as not just a Student Showcase finalist, but also a nominee for the Nuovo award, which recognizes games with innovative experiences. Chris Bell, who helped design Way's alpha build and is now looking to fund a more fleshed out version of the game, talked with Gamasutra about how getting lost in Japan inspired the concept, and how failures in games can make them feel more personal. How did you come up with the game's concept? Chris Bell: Way follows a series of prototypes seeking to inspire meaningful bonds between strangers around the world. Finding a successful game was a long, rocky process. We took inspiration from all sorts of sources: drum circles (for their non-judgmental, accessible nature), games (Endless Forest, Swarmation, LittleBigPlanet, Final Fantasy XI), communal art (The London New York Telectroscope, The Fun Theory), and many others. It wasn't until we asked the question, "What if communication was the game?" that Way appeared. After months of experimentation, the most definitive elements of Way sprung up overnight. In Way, you and an anonymous other player venture toward each other from opposite ends of the world, overcoming the puzzles between you. Each player sees the world differently. At times, one player will have information the other does not (like the location of an invisible platform or trap) and so you need to communicate this information with each other to progress. The catch: players cannot talk or type. Instead, players communicate through gestures, puppeteering their avatars like advanced Sackboys from LittleBigPlanet. Waving your arms could easily mean "Run!" or "Jump!," so figuring out how to tell the other person what you mean, or discovering what it is they mean, is part of the puzzle. Imagine the feeling of knowing exactly what your partner is saying and you haven't even shared a word. What other things served as inspiration? Chris often tells his frightful story from Tokyo, Japan: "I was visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world, and was awestruck by the insane scale of it all. The place is a surreal madhouse of wriggling fish, darting trucks, and sword-swinging butchers. Understandably, I got disoriented and lost track of time. In minutes, my party would board a bus at our rendezvous and I would be abandoned with barely a word of Japanese to get me home. To say I panicked is an understatement. Fortunately, I had taken a picture of the shrine we scheduled to meet at and held up my camera to a nearby Japanese woman. She was smack in the middle of a conversation and yet she saw the picture, grabbed me by the hand, and we took off running. It was a real-life Ico. We arrived just as everyone was boarding the bus. She smiled, bowed, and disappeared forever." Way is inspired by a number of real-world and online moments like this. Moments where we bonded with strangers without ever speaking. Could you tell me about the team who worked on the game? Any notable previous game projects? The team formed at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, a graduate program for video game and theme-park design. We made Way during our second-to-last semester, and have since gone on to work at studios like EA (The Sims), Schell Games (Mechatars), Wemo Media (The Blu) and Walt Disney Imagineering. In a bit of serendipity, Chris went to Thatgamecompany following their announcement of Journey, compelled by its similar spirit to Way. What development tools did you use? How long was the development cycle? Way is developed in the Unity3D game engine and with tools like Photoshop, Maya, 3DS Max, and Soundbooth. The game has about 12 weeks of development time-to-date, developed almost entirely in a single school semester. When that semester ended, we immediately ran off to various internships. Because of that — believe it or not — the game went unplayed for months. As the deadline for IndieCade approached, we dug it back out, polished it up, and submitted to the festival. With two nominations at the IGF, a "Developer's Choice Award" at IndieCade, and many personal letters from fans, we're now searching for funding partners so we can transform Way from a prototype to a larger, polished, global release. Were there any notable advisors or external sources of help for the project? All projects at the ETC are assigned faculty advisors. Advising Way were alumni Jiyoung Lee and Carl Rosendahl, founder of PDI (now half of PDI/DreamWorks). We were fortunate to develop Way at our school's sister site inside Electronic Arts. Above all, working inside a professional game studio meant quick access to knowledgable playtesters. With little precedent for Way's mechanics, and because puzzle solutions in Way are created by the players, playtesting has been critical to understanding and shaping how players choose to play. More recently, musician and all-around teddy bear Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac, Canabalt) played Way and approached us to remake the music free of charge. Given his superb portfolio and busy schedule, we were extremely flattered he was so inspired to help. Why do you think your game deserves to win the Student Showcase? Like exploring a foreign country and miming to the locals, Way is designed so that two strangers come to a shared understanding — and it's fun! In Way, you're actively trying to understand how this other person sees the world or what it is they're trying to tell you. Empathy is a powerful emotional phenomenon and is what structures Way's gameplay. With only a 12 week prototype, we've received numerous letters from our players recounting their personal stories with Way. Stories where players recount caring for partners who were strangers prior to playing. They're the most touching remarks we've ever received about something we've made, and they motivate us by suggesting we're on the right track. Of course, there's still a long way to go. Water cooler talk: why should the average gamer play your game? We feel Way will be familiar to online players, and yet twists the focus of things so its unlike anything they've experienced before. It's a chance to communicate and collaborate with a complete stranger — one who may not even speak your language — and you may likely share a touching story by the time you're done. What are some interesting things about your game that you haven't talked about before? Modern games often go great lengths to ensure you never have a "bad" moment. But by numbing the bad, we numb the good. The greatest victories come after periods of struggle, and it's these victories that we often remember and tell stories about. In Way, players must rely on persons they do not know. Failure is common, and yet it's a big part of what makes the game personal. You are at the whim of another human being, and they at your's. If you quit the game mid-way, you will abandon this person. Still, it's important to note that failure is never necessary in Way. We never force you to fail. We've seen new players, even children, breeze through the game with minimal trouble. It really comes down to how you and this other person approach each puzzle. Like in the real world, how people choose to communicate can mutate a simple idea into a complex one. So is true of the puzzles in Way. If you find yourself struggling, perhaps you're not communicating in the best way possible. What about Way hand puppets? Ha! So funny you ask. We're currently in the process of putting together a Kickstarter campaign so fans can help make a full-scale Way a reality. It's a lot of work! We've discussed making hand puppets of the characters as a reward for the Kickstarter, though we're still looking into how feasible it is to make a bunch for lower tier rewards, or if this would be a one-off item reserved for the highest tier. Regardless, should the game be a success when it's complete, we'd be more than willing to offering these to fans who want them. Hell, we want some for ourselves! Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed? We haven't played them all — still itching to play Dear Esther and Fez — but particular favorites among us are Johann Sebastian Joust, Spelunky, Antichamber, Storyteller, Proteus, and GIRP. It's great to see so many designers exploring different concepts — something the IGF celebrates so well. What do you think of the current state of the indie scene? Considering "Indie Game: The Movie" was at Sundance this year (thanks Lisanne and James), we're doing quite well! That film will expose games as an art form to the greater public who might not recognize them as such. Looking inward, we continue to see independent games recognized in the more mainstream Game Developer's Choice Awards, with games like Joust following Minecraft of last year. We personally believe we are at the birth of our medium's Renaissance, with more and more designers recognizing what greater meaning can be found through mechanics both old and new. We're seeing a lot of firsts: designers experimenting with entirely new forms of gameplay. It's important we recognize just how significant being first is — that we explore and respect what we've discovered from every perspective. It goes without saying, but each particular discovery only happens once in the infinite history of our medium. We can't be selling these discoveries short. Honor each new contribution. A game about learning to communicate goes against the grain of what most others do, independent or otherwise. Is there a statement you're trying to make with Way? It's no coincidence that we've made Way at a time of an incredible number of political revolutions, both here and abroad. People are fighting to be heard and are sharing these feelings with strangers around the world. We hope Way can function as a platform for people to play, connect, communicate, and empathize with each other. After all, play is a language all humans can get behind. This game seems to rely a lot on a player's instincts and real world experience. How do you playtest something like that? It's interesting you recognize Way for its use of instinct, since games tend to play off what makes sense instinctually. If they didn't, players would likely get frustrated and push them away. And yet games that reject instinct outright can be interesting too! Alex Bruce's mind-bending Antichamber is a case in point. But even that game can't escape certain instincts — such as the player's instinct to unravel the mind of the designer. Nature is often the voice of the designer — those natural laws that govern physics, economics, absurdity, time... Perhaps the reason you identify Way's reliance on instinct and real world experience is because we're so used to seeing so many of the same games repeated. And so it doesn't really make sense to point out that stealth games reveal how we instinctually plan attacks, or how pet games showcase our parental tendencies. Games are often mirrors of human behavior. What's particularly neat about Way is that it captures a communication behavior we experience daily, yet rarely see represented as a game itself.

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