Developing Games with the Player: An Interview with Rick Dakan of Mob Rules Games

"In game development, I’d like to think the mob really should rule, but I might be wrong. We want to see if they can or not."

In addition to serving as host for the Moving Pixels podcast here at PopMatters, Rick Dakan was a founder of Cryptic Studios and the original Lead Designer for City of Heroes, is the author of the Geek Mafia trilogy and Cthulhu Cult: A Novel of Obsession from Arcane Wisdom, and is also currently planning a kickstarter program for the newly formed game development company, Mob Rules.

Mob Rules takes its name seriously and is experimenting with ways to connect game developers with their audience right from the outset of production.

Those interested in Mob Rules, the game that they will be working on, or in getting involved in the community can check out their web site here.

PopMatters: The idea to "develop the game and the community of players" seems to be the central philosophy of Mob Rules. Can you explain how you intend to do that and why you think that it is important to do so?

Rick: I’ll answer those in reverse order, because I think the “why?” question is more straightforward. We really do believe that for a company or a game to be successful long term, it needs to have loyal supporters, especially a smaller company that can’t rely on massive marketing pushes to get the word out about their games. I was particularly inspired by Kevin Kelly’s famous article about “1000 True Fans” from a few years ago, wherein he does the math on how artists and creators can sustain themselves with a decent, middle-class income if they can accrue a relatively modest number of devoted fans. That’s what we’re aiming for, and so I think that the easiest way to do that is to engage your customers and potential fans from the beginning with as much openness and honesty as you can.

As to how to win over those true fans, well, that’s part of this grand experiment. I came up with this idea of doing a Kickstarter launch and giving away votes as part of the premiums for everyone who pledges support. Part of that came from the fact that we had three or four game ideas that we were excited about, and so this seemed like a great way to both build the community and get them directly involved all at the same time. Plus now we don’t have to choose which of our babies we love the most.

PopMatters: Since voting is the the first way that this potential community will particpate in the development process, do you have any concern about alienating voters whose game doesn't win the vote? Will they have other ways to involve themselves in the development instead?

Rick: We obviously don’t want to alienate anyone, so there is a concern. First of all, we plan to make all three of these games. And making any one of them will mean that it’s easier to do the other two, since they share some code under the hood (even though they will all play very differently). We’re also kind of hoping that people will, like us, be interested in all three games. By being up front about the voting process from day one, I think people will realize what they’re getting into by supporting early on. I’m sure there will be folks who are only interested in one or two of the games and so won’t feel like pledging to the first Kickstarter, and that’s fine. Hopefully they’ll get involved and pre-order when we do make the game they’re into. And we’ll have other ways to earn votes besides through money, including referring others to become supporters and participating in polls and votes and giving feedback. So even if you only give $1 and get 10 votes, you can participate and grow your influence on events.

PopMatters: Besides voting, will the overall community be involved in development in some other manner?

Rick: We plan on having community involvement throughout the process, although we’re going to try hard to maintain our own vision for the games. As we’ve said, design by committee seldom brings good results, but there are plenty of moments that come along the development process where community feedback will be really valuable. We’re looking forward to it. Obviously beta testing will be hugely useful for us, and we’re looking at ways to make that a rewarding experience for the community members who help us hunt down bugs and make improvements.

PopMatters: Tell us a little bit about the games that you are considering working on.

Rick: We’ve got Guerrilla Gorilla, which is a title and a concept I had years ago. Originally it was going to be a comic book about a gorilla freedom fighter who rises up against The Man, a human who was orphaned in the jungle as a child and has grown into a tyrant. Now it’s going to be a strategy game with the same exact plot. In addition to the unusual setting, the game will feature an unusual campaign mechanic that breaks battles into linked sections and forces the players to divide their forces and prioritize goals and objectives before the final fight in each battle. It will make for a lot of extra interesting strategy, I think.

We’ve got The Last Second, which is an action puzzler and which I got the idea for while watching super slow motion photography on Mythbusters. It’s set in the 1930s and features a super-scientist, a pulp-hero named Zeta Cervantez, who has a device that freezes time. Each level of the game is a crisis, like a bank robbery or a super-villain attack. She begins the level by stopping time and then you have a limited number of moves to rearrange the baddies, innocents, and objects on the level so that when time starts up again, everything works out well for the good guys.

Then there’s Haunts, which was inspired by our programmer, Jonathan’s desire to do an asymmetric game where the two sides have very different experiences. He was inspired by that classic Dungeon Keeper, and I suggested a haunted house setting instead and things took off from there. One player is a team of explorers who venture into the house, the other controls the entities haunting it. The house map changes randomly every game, and there are different kinds of haunts and explorers, so you’ll never be sure what you’re up against in any given game. You’ll be able to play against the AI or another player from either side.

PopMatters: You are working with a small team. Can you tell us about the other folks that you are working with and their role in development?

Rick: Right now it’s just three of us. I’m doing designing, writing, and producing duties. Jonathan Wills is a programmer who used to work at Cryptic Studios and then at Google. He’s, naturally enough, doing the programming. Austin McKinley is an artist who I’ve worked with on some comic book stuff in the past, and he’s talented across illustration, design, animation, and video, which is awesome. Right now Jonathan is building the core systems that will be useful across all three games: moving things around the game map and having them kill each other, level editor, and basics for animation and AI systems. Austin’s been pulled in every direction, from editing our launch video to bouncing between concept art for the three games. I have too -- I wrote the basic design proposals before we got started, but they’re always being expanded on, and I’m spending a fair amount of time working on basic gameplay systems with Jonathan. Plus, all the promotion and PR stuff of course.

PopMatters: Your previous work in the game industry has included work on the MMORPG City of Heroes. MMOs have notoriously vocal communities. Any lessons that you learned working with the MMO community that might inform your efforts to build a community with Mob Rules?

Rick: The lessons I’ve learned from that experience with City of Heroes and with being online in general is that it’s important to be honest, generous, and specific in your communication and stern when it comes to bad behavior. People in general have a good nose for glibness and insincerity, and I think the more straightforward you are with people, the better. People online also tend to think the worst of something on first blush, which means it’s usually a good idea to give people the benefit of the doubt and make sure you understand criticisms and comments before reacting negatively to them. I’m all for reasoned or even impassioned criticism, but you can’t let trolling and offensive language/behavior go unchecked or it poisons the whole atmosphere. It’s going to be an interesting line to walk.

PopMatters: So, aren't we just supposed to sit tight and eat cake? Should the mob really rule?

Rick: Well, I’m a radical at heart, so that’s part of the experiment we’re running here. I’d like to think the mob really should rule, but I might be wrong. We want to see if they can or not. Although this sitting and eating cake thing you mention does sound dangerously seductive... maybe we can have a vote on which kind of cake? And is pie totally out of the question here?


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