Last Spring, while I was in Chicago preparing for Train Jam, I had the chance to sit down with Benedict Fritz, Greg Wohlwend and Joel Corelitz at the Cards Against Humanity office to discuss their game, Tumbleseed. All three are creators whom I respect and the conversation we had on their process with Tumbleseed was fascinating. Want to learn about ossified design? Press play.
To help get a better understanding of the Tumbleseed watch their latest trailer:
The game it’s start from their enjoyment of a classic arcade game called Ice Cold Beer. It’s a physical game, with a steel bar that players need to adjust to get a ball to the top while avoiding holes. Makes sense right? Moving it to a digital format is a fascinating process as it gives more options to the designers to play with the mechanics, but a risk is losing key aspects (the physicality of motion and control) of the game in translation.
It was important to retain that degree of separation from the players control of the seed, but also finding ways to keep players engaged. An early feature of the game was giving the player weapons to, like a bow, to shoot at enemies, but this was discovered to be at odds with how players are expected to interact with the game at a base level, as well as introducing additional dexterity feats that seemed to tax players too much. Giving complete control on when to fire, but then also asking them to have this mechanical separation of how one guides the seed was jarring.
This is where ‘ossified design‘ comes into play. Benedict wrote a short article on that describes the process of planting stakes in the ground to measure the full extent a mechanic can go inside the context of the game it resides in. The process is about not moving too many stakes, and thusly not having too many points shifting as you pivot around to see what connections can be made to produce interesting player interactions.
I love this concept as it helps put words to much of the dirty work that goes into development. Sometimes you just have to discover the full reach of a mechanic before you know if its any good. And having some sort of method for this process is paramount to finding truths inside your game. Greg mentioned that this process of ossified design is close to the scientific method, and I agree.
For example, in this recording they discuss how they had a shop system in the game, but recently had cut it completely from the game after exhaustive work on trying to get it to fit with the other systems. It was a hard decision to do and they talked about the difficulties of discovering that all the work they did had to be removed. While chatting with them for the release of this podcast, The Shop is back. And I’m sure it’s because as they continued to push the mechanics to find the full extent of affordances they offered, they discovered that shop actually does pair up well with the final direction.
The devil is in the details and unfortunately in game development that means exhausting a mechanic or system to its outmost bounds before calling it good or bad. Much of development is working on something that is terrible, until it’s suddenly not terrible. And a key aspect in helping this effort is the ability to reach a critical distance from your project. When I say critical distance, what I am referring to is the ability to look at your work with fresh eyes and not to be so consumed with the trees for the forest. This is particularly hard for game development as each tree can be a forest unto itself, so getting stuck in the weeds is so so easy to do. There are two, though they are related, ways of solving the critical distance problem and that is time and other projects, which requires time. Time is important as it gives you the freedom to stop working, to take a break, let your subconscious wrestle with issues while you either relax or enjoy other leisures. Other projects, while still require time, are great because, if done right, will help tax your mind on different problems which allow the original problem to again sink into the subconscious and be solved more clearly and without taking into consideration the larger goal or intent.