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The pain & pleasure of UI design

This is like a photo from the operating table in the surgery room: interface and playing field coming together under the direction of game designer, art director, producer and game programmer, each clipping here and adding there.

This is like a photo from the operating table in the surgery room: interface and playing field coming together under the direction of game designer, art director, producer and game programmer, each clipping here and adding there.

Nothing brings me more pleasure than working with UI, the user interface; and at the same time, nothing brings me more pain. The opportunities are endless. The challenges are great, too. And the complexity. Every decision has aesthetic and functional consequences. Whatever we add, must fit the setting and the palette. And be intuitive, simple, straightforward. And fun. Oh, gods. But the biggest fear for me personally? The moment when decisions are made.

For example, we have a location called Courthouse. When the time came to create an icon for it, that would be used throughout the game (in tooltips, on the map, on action cards, literally anywhere where we mention it), we tried scales; then we tried a wig; then Yaroslav drew a wig over a dark face. Which is better? Will players understand that our dark face is a metaphor for what is happening in this ‘house of justice’? Argh.

That's how we thought the spots on the map should look like. But at the end, we decided against using them, even though we still like these.

That’s how we thought the spots on the map should look like. But at the end, we decided against using them, even though we still like these.

Today, during a conversation about UI, our art director enlightened us with a few words of advice, which I found helpful in setting me free from the UI decision worry. First of all, said Yaroslav, if we created something cool in the past, during the production stage, we don’t really have to stick by it until release if circumstances change. For example, we had a wonderful idea to frame spots on the map as a sort of jewellery/clockwork. But once we saw the whole field, we understood that this is simply too much. So we’re not going to feature these. And we’re fine with it, as we accept the fact that not only bad things are weeded out, but also good things are sometimes eliminated because they might not fir the evolved idea of what the game is.

Secondly, Yaroslav also suggested that we look back on the production and pre-production process, and ask ourselves if the collective effort of our team has ever experienced a situation where we wouldn’t be able to find a solution. In fact, this has happened only once before, with the logo of the game (which is still in production); all the other issues were successfully resolved. Considering this, we shouldn’t have much fear about the future. We’re an able team, we’ll manage.

Finally, Yaroslav also highlighted something else that I take for granted and thus tend to overlook its true value: all of us here are willing to go back and re-do any piece of our work, if our peers suggest that we do so. This morning? Pavel, our programmer, went back and changed the map in the prototype just because he wanted to give us a better tool to test. Then I cut, and re-cut, a bunch of icons from the sketch book. Then an artist with whom we work on a series of Misfortune post stamps submitted a new stamp, got comments from game designer, and went back to re-work it. And finally during the UI call, we all agreed that if the first 50 hours of play testing the new map will show that the layout is confusing, we’ll simply scrap the whole thing and re-design it. In the words of Yaroslav, ‘if we end up with a beautiful but dysfunctional layout, we’ll redraw the map from scratch; we’re not shipping a map, we’re shipping a game’.

So there you go. Sometimes it’s easy to get yourself into a corner when working on UI, because there’s no straight line, it’s a back-and-forth process. However, it’s perfectly normal, and once you realise this, you relax considerably. If your team is capable of solving complex issues, and if your team is focused on creating the best game possible – and not on defending particular choices or options – then the pain of designing UI is temporary, but the pleasure of creating something so complex and so nuanced is incomparable.

@sergeiklimov

The one on the left stands for DANGER. The one on the right stands for COURTHOUSE (both from Yaroslav's sketchbook).

The one on the left stands for DANGER. The one on the right stands for COURTHOUSE (both from Yaroslav’s sketchbook).

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A game of strategy and… what exactly?

This is a sketch of the Infernal Submarine that takes players to the depths of Inferno, once they reach the gates.

This is a sketch of the Infernal Submarine that takes players to the depths of Inferno, once they reach the gates.

A few months ago, as we were playing around with the first versions of logo for Gremlins, Inc., we created a mock-up of how it would look when featured on Steam, and realised that we’ll need a catch-phrase for the game.

I’ve spent a good fifteen years publishing third party games and creating mottos has always been something that we’d do as a part of the routine – however I never really thought about inventing a motto for our own game until then. Which just goes to show that the real challenge for developer/publisher relationship is not in the skills of people, but in the positions, perspectives that they carry habitually.

When you’re spending 90% of your time on the creative side, a motto is the last thing you worry about; and when you’re spending 90% of your time talking to media and introducing your game to new audience, bam!, you definitely want something that will introduce the game in 30 seconds.

And so we sat down (it was in a taxi in Kiev) and asked ourselves, what is the single most important element of Gremlins, Inc. that defines the whole game mechanics? The answer was obvious: STRATEGY. It doesn’t matter how quick your reflexes are, but it matters a lot how well you’re able to plan, especially in a sequence of actions, and more so in the face of circumstances changing with each turn on the map.

But how exactly Gremlins, Inc. differs from other strategies? You have to build things, yes. You have to get money, the more the better. But that’s not really the main goal of the game. What is the thing that makes our game stand apart? And then we had it: it’s the system of karma, what we call MALICE for now. The real trick, and the nuance, of Gremlins, Inc. is how bad you want to be to the other players, and how far they allow you to go, being that bad.

As I type this from the airport, I took a pen and paper and wrote down the other key characteristics of what we’re building, and what we already have in the game, and the list looks like this:

YOU PLAN AND YOU EXECUTE

At every turn of the game, you get to make decisions. This is important. It wasn’t always so, e.g. in the first prototypes there was too much luck, too much chance, and sometimes it got boring or frustrating. But right now, you have choices to make all the time, and then it’s not my turn, I’m actually thankful because I can finally get down to planning my next moves.

Which of the 6 cards to play? And where on the map to move next? Will I have enough money to play this one, when I reach that spot? It’s a balance of what you can control (your resources, your actual moves), what you cannot control (risk factors like passing through the Misfortune spots, if you have to get beyond them) and what you cannot control but can more or less predict (behaviour of other players, in-game events, cards out of the decks that are nearly exhausted and so you can more or less know what to expect by now).

CHANCE HAS A ROLE

Remember the original King’s Bounty, or HoMM, when you would see somebody’s army, or a castle, and would never really know how strong that is, until you look it up? Maybe it’s only 100 fairies. But maybe it’s 2 black dragons. The same feeling I get when playing Gremlins, Inc., because of the deck structure of the game.

The deck of Misfortune events has 30 different events (they look like postcards). Some of them are kind of Okay (“give someone $50 in exchange for improving your karma a little”). But some are totally not Okay (“everyone’s savings are cut in half”). When you look at Treasure, the location where you’re guaranteed to make money, you’re looking at 2 Danger spots on the way there, as well as one Misfortune, so you have to decide if you want to take the chances – or follow a safer route to Bank.

YOU CAN BALANCE YOUR CHANCES

In the early versions, chance played too much of a role. Throw dice, land in jail, rot there for five turns, bah. Right now, there’s ways to circumvent things. First, you’ve got 6 cards. The chances of having 6 bad cards at the same time? Low. Secondly, there’s ways to refresh your cards. You can go to Inferno, change all 6 cards and even get $100 extra (but your karma will suffer). Or if you’re stuck in Jail, you can throw “1″ and replace any card you want. There’s now also multiple action cards that allow you to pick and choose among certain decks in Marketplace, and in Junkyard. I think even in Office we have at least one card that allows you to choose your new card from a few incoming.

The most important feeling that makes me certain that we’ll make the TBS crowd happy is that you do have the chance, but you also control the chance, and you can work to affect your chances, your luck, to whatever degree you want. Some days I dive into Inferno, then go and crash other players, giving no care about my reputation. And some days I’m paying bribes to every policeman on the way around the map just to avoid having to deal with sen a small chance of going to Jail while I’m en route to a specific destination.

YOU CAN TAKE RISKS

When you stop on the Police spot, you can pay the bribe or roll the dice. When new players start their first sessions, it’s always fun to see different people use afferent strategies: someone pays $20 and goes forward with certainty. And someone will never ever pay, preferring to trust the dice instead.

Whether you hit the sweet spots at the cost of passing through Misfortune, and taking the risk, is really up to you. You can take risks and you make this choice – how many, and how often. This also relates to the strategy in general: there are some obvious routes to get to places where you can play certain strong cards, and if you take these routes, other players will immediately know that you’re up to something serious. Whether you want to do this – and test their resolve not to let you through – is up to your current state of mind.

THE BIG QUESTION: TO BUILD OR TO DESTROY?

A big part of enjoying Gremlins, Inc. is the opportunity to be a different person in a different session. The biggest question that every player faces in the game is whether to go for building something for yourself, or to use the opportunity to destroy another player. Time and time again, I find myself with 2 “juicy” cars at the crossroads: one will give me, say, $200 when I play it in Casino; the other will take away $150 from any player of my choice. Should I go for the money, or for the disruption of plans of somebody else? Ah, the sweet freedom of choice.

Sometimes all I want is to cause waves, and so I go and destroy players, even at the cost of losing this session – and maybe I’ll put them into enough trouble to actually win the game? And sometimes I’m playing a long game, playing fake moves just to get where I want without tipping anybody off on what I’m up to. Importantly, human psychology plays a big role in how each session unfolds. If someone takes money, votes and scores away from you, and then put your in Jail, the desire to revenge the moment you;re out is simply immense.

LAYER UPON LAYER

Finally, the real beauty of the game’s system - why I believe we will have players engaged for weeks and months, and not just for a few days – is that it’s built as a layer upon layer of different mechanics. We have the map, with its locations and spots, and we have the rules and the decks. But then we also have the calendar, which you can turn on and off; we have Chaos Cards, which you can choose to have or not to have in a particular session; we also have 12 different types of characters, each with a unique set of pros and cons; and then we’ll work on the tournament system and in-game items that you can win by unlocking certain achievements.

I’ve played a lot of good TBS in the past and something I always wanted was “more”: more maps. More content. More opportunities to replay and use my knowledge, my experience, to win something that’s harder than usual. In Gremlins, Inc. we’re offering this through layers of extra mechanics, extra features that are great for players who are pros, but at the same time these can be turned off not to bother the newsbies.

So, ultimately, what’s Gremlins, Inc? A game of strategy and malice!

@sergeiklimov

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Four main values that we use in Gremlins, Inc.

There are four main values that we have in the game: score, money, votes and malice (we’re not sure about the name of the last term: it’s essentially the bad karma that you accumulate for doing bad things to other players). Here they are, on a sketch from a session where we brainstormed on what their icons may look like:

gremlins_values

Throughout the pre-production and production cycles, my own relationship with these values has changed considerably: firstly, the more playing experience I accumulated, the closer I moved to the picture that Alexey, our game designer, presumably had in his head from the first day. As usual with any new game, when we start, we must first explore the limits of any mechanics before we learn how to use it. Secondly, the actual mechanics evolved form one version to another as we playtested the board prototypes (we’ve gone through five major revisions in five months).

When we just started playing with the board – in September 2013, during the games industry’s 2013 Croatian regatta - I remember us sitting in the marina over a few beers, rolling the dice and looking at some of the $600-1,200 cards while having mere $200 in the account (the $500+ cards in Gremlins, Inc. are typically for building major mechanisms at the Plant, which normally nets you at least 5-6 score points). These expensive cards were simply out of reach! So my game tactics was to say “screw it” and to go straight to Inferno to refresh my hand, in the hopes of drawing something cool.

But nowadays, half a year and many revisions later, I no longer feel this barrier: I know how to make money in this game, and I plan my way around the map to get the proper amount before I reach the point where the expensive card can be played. This is a good feeling, the feeling of “control” over your next moves, which I love most about all the TBS titles.

In this way, game designer’s job is similar to that of a sculptor: he/she is playing, and changing the mechanics, and playing, and changing again, until the “vision” in the head is more or less aligned with the “reality” in the current version. This requires a head that can keep multiple perspectives and dozens of variables at the same time, in order to know what to change to achieve the desired result, and to measure the effects of any change before actually making it (as there are dozens and dozens of these).

I know that I can do this in business and in communication after working in the industry for 15+ years - but I have zero illusions about my skills as a game designer, which is why I’m so happy to work with Alexey (in fact, the few negative experiences of working with game designers that I have had before, can all be traced back to the fact that those teams were ‘lead by the blind’ – by people who did not have the mechanics in their head, who made certain corrections without thinking about the effects that these would have on the gameplay, so that projects were jerked left and right instead of following a pre-thought course).

Now, about these fours values: the first is score points. This defines who wins the game, no matter how you limit the session (by time, by certain cards being played, or any other value reaching a certain limit). Right now, we typically play until one of us hits 30 points. With the board prototype, this may take 2-3 hours, as calculations need to be written down. With the 1st playable that we currently test, this normally takes about an hour (unless terminated prematurely by some horrible gap in game logic).

The other value is money. Money is the means to get score points, or votes. Or to clean up your bad karma. Money is also a dynamic value because other players may hit you with fines, or someone may trigger an inflation that will cut everyone’s savings in half. In this sense, money is the “use it while you can” value.

Votes are what gets you elected at the Governor (and if you’re the Governor, you don’t pay any bribes; in fact, you can collect them). Some votes are also required to play a few cards, mostly political (like exposing someone) and then there are two great Chaos Cards (that give you at least 7-8 score points), which cost 10 votes each and can be played in Astral and in Inferno.

Finally, malice is the balancing element of the whole system. You accumulate it by doing bad things to other players (e.g. if you trigger loss of income for everyone? everyone will lose plus you specifically will get 1-2 extra malice points). The more malice you have, the higher your bribes. Also, some of the misfortune events are directed at “the player with the most malice”, so you have to watch it not to stick your head out too much. The only way to decrease your malice is by playing certain cards (which cost!) or by going up to Astral to ‘soak in the heavens’ (however, the path to Astral is lined with bribe spots, so not everyone will reach it).

On one hand, having just these four values makes things easy. Here’s how a score table looks like, this is 3 players playing board prototype until 30 points (whoever won, scored 35) -

gremlins_board_stats

On another hand, the four-value system proved to be very flexible and adaptable. As an example, when we just started playtesting the game, we had a few sessions in Cologne during Gamescom 2013. One of the friends playing with us went on to accumulate the votes, making a guess that this, perhaps, could be the right strategy. But collecting 7-8 votes didn’t really help him much, as at that time, the mechanics did not allow us yet to convert these into money, or use them to inflict damage on other players.

In the following revisions, however, Alexey added the possibility to trade 1 vote for $100 in the Office. Which suddenly made the votes valuable at least in a straightforward “get votes and sell them” fashion. Then we got the Calendar in, which normalised the elections (every 30 turns) - and once they became predictable, the whole play around the few preceding pre-election turns became pretty intense, as now you’re able to save some of the most malicious cards for this period, and attack the leading candidate around that time specifically.

Then followed a change in how the Court works: now players are able to buy (steal!) another player’s vote there for $40. Also, losses of a few votes made it into quite many of the Misfortune events (these are the events that are triggered by players passing certain dangerous spots on the playing field), so staying far ahead in the political game became a bit harder. Finally, Alexey adjusted the mechanics of the Tribune (a spot where you can gain 1 vote): now you need to place a bet ($10-$50) to score that vote, which allows for a certain level of control over your destiny, in the same way the insurance works in real life.

And so a few months later, we finally have a system where votes are valuable and where they are a part of the winning strategy. In one of the last sessions, looking at the approaching elections, I was able to run to the Court to steal one vote from the lead candidate, then stop at the Tribune to win another, and I would have made a nice Governor if not for someone reaching out of Jail to hit me with a misfortune that cost me 3 votes. Realizing that I won’t win this turn, though, I was still able reach the Office, offload some votes there in exchange for a few score points (playing a minor card), and sell one of the remaining ones for an extra $100 (since elections would have halved my votes anyway). This change - from a value that was nominally there but not essential to gameplay to a value that’s indispensable – is what, in my opinion, is the real test of a game designer’s skill.

@sergeiklimov

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pim pom

One of the first pieces of concept art for Gremlins, Inc. drawn by Yaroslav working off Alexey's references and descriptions.

There are probably way smarter ways to start a studio blog, but who cares? Maybe “pim pom” has a hidden meaning (I don’t this so). It’s just that I really, really did not want to type in there something like “…and now we’re LIVE” or another cliche title. Anyways, the cat’s out of the bag, blah-blah, etc. etc., and this is the first post in the brand-new blog of Charlie Oscar.

In a year from now, clicking on the link in one of the numerous stories about the success of Gremlins, Inc., you’ll scroll all the way down to here and say to yourself: “oh my, they are human, like me and my team! what a surprise“. Yes, we started small. It’s four of us against the world, plus friends and colleagues working on some specific sides of the project (like this web site – thank you, Kirill).

What this blog is all about is our upcoming turn-based strategy, and the story of its development. In July 2013, Alexey and I agreed to work on this game as partners. Sergei B., who worked with me at another studio, moved over as production assistant/community manager. And a couple of months later Yaroslav accepted our offer to step in as its art director. In December 2013, we started the actual production, with Andrey and Paul, our programmers, writing client and server sides. In February 2014, Sergei B. moved to another city and another project. And later in the same month, Andrey moved back to his original occupation, which is writing tools and tweaking engines.

And so here we are, the four knights of turn-based-alipsis: me, Sergei, who writes this blog and works as bizdev/producer; Alexey, who created this game and works as game designer/logic programmer; Yaroslav, who gave this game its visuals and who directs everything about its looks; and Paul, the all-purpose programmer who gets up at six in the morning and has unlimited patience for us, youngsters.

Let’s clarify some rules of engagement: blog = about process, audience = industry + super-smart players who know enough to find us early on, and join our alpha/beta, i.e. contributors. Later in the year, there’ll be a proper forum, on a different domain, where we’ll have the discussion of the rules, tutorial, bugs, fixes, more bugs and more fixes. There will be also the tournament system somewhere up there, and a profile system linked to your Steam account. Or maybe not. Anyway, what’s important is that this is us – the team - talking to you - our peers and friends.

So welcome to our little blog! (something you’ll note is that this post has 6 paragraphs; and our game has 6 days in the week; 6 options of any dice roll; up to 6 players in a session, each with 6 cards on his/her hand; 12 types of characters; and 18 types of spots/locations; thus, purely aesthetically, the first post simply had to have 6 paragraphs).

Sergei Klimov (Stockholm)

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