When we last left our intrepid heroes (my students and I), we had decided to explore the borders between the realm of casual gaming and that walled off, exclusive land inhabited by the hardcore. We explored this place in between in an effort to create a game that could bridge the gap between the two gaming styles and be something both could enjoy. While many have tread this path before, we knew it was rare for designers to consciously do so, instead focusing on one or the other. What we discovered is the need for a game that is easy to pick up and play, hard to master, involves elements of strategy and puzzling, that had thematic elements that both found appealing, a classic-gaming flavor, with characters that the players could center the experience on, and with both a sense of realism and the surreal.
Juggling an assortment of design criteria
We got a lot of suggestions that could be considered design guidelines, so from that point on our job became to organize them to create a coherent design. The white board in our room was a jumbled mess of game mechanics, multiplayer models, and thematic elements that we had to tame. We began by looking at other games that had puzzle elements and strategy in their designs. While puzzle games have both, we thought that the hardcore would respond better to something with an overarching plot, yet one that could be enjoyed in short spurts for the casual crowd. Looking at precedents, we thought that a Pokemon-like collection approach would be best. Casual players could enjoy the short bursts of gameplay provided by catching each individual character and the hardcore could enjoy organizing and comparing the many different possibilities. Obviously, these characters needed to be utilized somehow for the player. For this we looked to games like Plants vs. Zombies, where individual units could be called out onto a simple, strategic battlefield after they are collected in challenges. We decided from here that our game would feature simple turn-based strategy gameplay that would allow players to utilize their collected characters.
With the idea for a battle system materialized, we needed to tie it to some mechanic collecting characters and an overall theme. Our survey had shown that both hardcore and casual gamers valued historical drama or horror movie themes. We came up with two ideas: a Bill and Ted style time travel theme, where players would go on adventures in different time periods and a horror game where a horror movie geek’s DVDs have opened up portals to horror movie realities. With two ideas that research showed would go over well with gamers, we chose which appealed more to us: the horror movie game. By discussing both ideas, we even planned the mechanics of the collecting levels to be similar to Lucasarts point-and-click adventure titles like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. The success of the Monkey Island games on the iPhone gave even more credence to this choice in that it is a gameplay style that is respected by many hardcore gamers and enjoyed by the relatively newer mass market of casual gamers.
"My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a design precedent!"
So we had a design concept together for a horror game that had players using point and click controls to solve puzzles in an adventure game so they could collect horror movie heroes and villains and battle one another. The other element of the game suggested by the survey was a “classic” gaming style. While a pixilated approach was originally suggested, many of the students’ favorite gaming memories were from the Playstation era (kids today…) so we decided to create a set of blocky polygonal characters that were a mix of Final Fantasy VII character models and Lego people. The connection to classic adventure games would be further established by having the horror plot be comedic in tone, portraying many parodies of popular horror scenarios.
Our brainstorming whiteboard for basic gameplay and theme scenarios
These scenarios were the next things to be brainstormed. Our criterion was that each scenario had to have a hero and villain character that could be recruited. These characters would be used in the multiplayer strategy battle arena and use their singular special attack on the opponent’s units. We first established that the characters would be summoned by spending some sort of resource, like in most strategy games. We felt that, similar to casual strategy games like Plants vs. Zombies, the resource should be singular for each unit rather than a combination of things like minerals, gold, and fuel. This created one of the more fun opportunities for brainstorming, as the resources all tended to be horror movie in-jokes revolving around the teenage victims of slasher movies. We eventually decided on one resource each for heroes and villains: villains would be summoned with the blood of promiscuous jocks and cheerleaders that would be on the battlefield and heroes would be summoned by harvesting the “sparkles” from dead Twilight-style vampires.
The units allowed us to plan out some very classic and hilarious mash-ups. As required in most brainstorming sessions, we wrote every idea we had on our whiteboard. After an hour of discussing summer camp killers, psychologists, detectives, evil dolls, Cthulhu, and Japanese Tentacle monsters, we ended up with a robust list of potential scenarios and units. One of the students, particularly adept at planning numeric strategy/battle systems, was tasked with prototyping the battle system on paper. For the adventure themed sections we decided to begin full production on a Friday the 13th parody level about a masked killer named “Bag Face” who terrorizes a summer camp on a lake, and a 1920’s style silent horror movie with an H.P. Lovecraft theme.
With the funny and somewhat twisted nature of the game we were creating, I suggested it have an equally twisted name. I made my students aware of the game I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 and, finding the l33t speak of the name very funny, decided to call our game OMG Scary People! With these decisions made, we were ready for documentation and production.