March 31, 2014

Making iPad adventure “Doggins” by independent game developers Brain&Brain

I discovered the game-design-and-production duo of Brain&Brain via its art/animation half, Brooke Condolora (left), whom I interviewed, concerning her handmade products, which constitute a part of her project called Idle Mouse. The other—software development—half of Brain&Brain is her husband, David (right). Here, they talk about the immersed creation and launch of their first game, Doggins, for iPad.

On realizing iPad game Doggins:

Congratulations on the launch of your iPad game Doggins! On top of this, congratulations on being a “Gamer’s Voice Nominee” at SXSW Gaming Awards (2014)! How did you two arrive at the idea of Doggins?
Brooke: Thank you! We had decided to make an adventure game together and, in discussing what the story would be, were joking about what kind of bizarre adventures our crazy dog, Oliver (below), dreams about. Something about the idea of him on the moon (below) made us smile and start writing.

What was the first thing you did when you embarked on making “a quiet iPad adventure game”?
David: Aside from brainstorming the concept and story, I immediately began researching game-development tools. I have some programming experience, but I knew that there was no way I would have time to learn Objective-C (the native language for developing iOS apps). Fortunately, in the past few years, there has been a surge of tools that make game development much faster. One of those is Corona SDK, which I was able to learn the basics of in a few weeks, and then used to create Doggins. Though I’m not a game designer, I do realize that a game contains a lot of moving parts, in regards to storytelling, interaction, sound design, et al.

In game-design lingo, what were the most important parts to address? How did you manage the organization and work of the game’s moving parts?
Brooke: For Doggins, game play, story, and puzzle design were central. We didn’t want to stray too far from classic adventure game mechanics (explore, pick up items, solve puzzles), but we spent a lot of time working out how to translate that experience to iPad. And we took a different route than most adventure games by solely relying on visual storytelling. It was an experiment, and we had no idea if people would be able to follow the story. But it worked!

As for organization, we both sort of settled into roles naturally as they came up. The obvious ones were David as programmer/sound guy and myself as artist/animator, but the rest fell to whoever was best equipped to do them. David works a full-time job during the day, so we also had to be mindful of his time. I did a lot of writing in the mornings when we were stuck on a particular plot point or puzzle, we’d discuss it in the evenings, and I’d continue on it the next day.

Were there ground rules or overarching guidelines that were followed to ensure that the design and programming were done in a way that you two wanted them to be?
Brooke: I guess our primary rule was always to respect the player. When designing the game, we tried to keep the puzzles fresh, but logical, and to keep things moving at a comfortable pace. We could’ve squeezed in more obstacles to make it last longer, but as players, we find that sort of thing obvious and annoying. In the end, we applied the same principles everywhere: nothing of excess, nothing wasted.

In the two years in took to complete Doggins, what was your collective schedule in working on the game? How did you manage the time for work on the game?
David: This was probably the most difficult part of making the game for me, as I have a full-time job. For the first year or so, I would work on it whenever I felt like it, or when it was convenient, which as you can imagine, was not terribly often. After a while, I realized that this was really holding up the game, and decided to start putting an hour of work in every morning from 6:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m., before heading out to my job. It was hard, but eventually became a habit, and I still work that way today.

Brooke: For a while, I split my time between the game and other projects, but around the same point as David, I realized I’d need to start putting in full-time hours on it. Toward the end, we were both also working nights and weekends to finish in time for SXSW, and I think we’d like to never do that again.

Having seen artwork before the launch, I quickly found the visual restraint appealing. How was the uncluttered look determined?
Brooke: It’s partially a reflection of our own philosophy and aesthetic, but we also intentionally kept things simple to create visual clarity for the player. Adventure games traditionally use some sort of highlight to point the player toward usable objects. We tried to strike a balance that allowed for discovery without driving the player to frustration.

How are you spreading the word about Doggins?
David: The traditional way to get the word out is to send copies of your game to as many review websites as you can, and hope that they’ll review you. We’ve garnered a number of positive reviews that way, and we’ve also used social media to get people interested. Being at SXSW was obviously a huge help as well, but the biggest boost to our discoverability was being featured by Apple on the front page of the App Store. We were very grateful for that.

Are there games that both of you admire? What are they?
Brooke: We’re both in awe of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer and the experience they’ve built around it. Brilliant in every way. I love all of Amanita Design’s games, especially Machinarium. And lastly, Zelda is an absolute lifetime favorite of mine, in every iteration.

David: My favorite game growing up was MYST, and it still has almost everything I love about games: discovery, thought, story, and a huge amount of atmosphere. Jonathan Blow’s Braid is one of my favorite experiences, and all of the LucasArts adventures are huge inspirations, particularly LOOM. Of the more recent games, Ephemerid and Broken Age both fill me with joy.

Concerning the storytelling in game design, are there influences that you appreciate?
Brooke: Again, Kentucky Route Zero. I love their non-linear approach and the way the story starts to cross over into reality with The Entertainment (an interactive play that can also be bought in print). Simogo has also done some really interesting things with Year Walk and Device 6.

David: Double Fine’s Broken Age, while traditional, has very strong settings and characterizations, and it’s a good showcase for how games can forge new structures for storytelling.

Are there more games in the works?
Brooke: Yes! We’re each starting to develop a couple of ideas we thought up during Doggins, and we’ll go into production on mine first. We hope to release a game every year, going forward. For the moment, though, we’re working on localizing and porting Doggins to other platforms.

On creativity, design, working:

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?
Brooke: Everywhere! The indie game space, especially, is full of super-talented women doing what they love. We met so many at SXSW, like Claudia of We Are Muesli, who is currently doing beautiful work on Cave! Cave! Deus Videt.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Brooke: Not entirely gracefully, but the majority of our disagreements lead to a compromise that we both agree is better. In rare cases where we can’t reach an agreement, the decision usually falls to whomever is leading that part of the project.

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?
David: The hardest part about designing and programming games is that you never know what the player is going to do. Often when I implement a new piece of the game and test it, it works perfectly. But when I hand it to a player, or even Brooke, they start doing things I never would have imagined, which inevitably causes the game to break. As a programmer, I need to always be asking myself “What if” questions, and making sure I account for every possibility I can think of—and recognize that I can’t think of everything, and that’s okay. The iterative process will work the kinks out.

Brooke: I found it difficult to be confined to the same style of work for such a long period of time, but it did allow me to focus and refine my skill set. At times when I felt burned out and we weren’t on a deadline, I’d take a week or so off to experiment with other styles or media, and spend time outside.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
Brooke: We work from our home studio during the week, though not usually at the same time, because of David’s other job. It’s an open, creative space, with a shared desk, giant board for pinning things like storyboards and concept art, tons of books, and all the tools we use to make things. If we have to work on the weekend, we prefer to go to a coffee shop and sit outside. Since we don’t get to work together as much as we’d like, spending a quiet Sunday afternoon that way is actually kind of nice.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
David: We use Asana for task management and bug-tracking, and really like its simplicity. We’ve tried several options for document and notes sharing, but haven’t really found “the one” just yet. Google Chat keeps us connected during the day when I’m off at my other job, and we tend to talk out ideas and problems while walking our dog at night. Being married helps make collaboration easy!

Brooke: My favorite tool is easily my sketchbook, and I actually worry more about losing it than my phone. I just filled up a Leuchtturm1917, which I love, but I thought I’d give the Baron Fig Confidant a try next. In fact, it just showed up in my mailbox!

How do you stay creative? What are some
of your sources of motivation/inspiration?
David: We started our first game after I saw a screening of Indie Game: The Movie at work, and we continue to be inspired by other game developers. There’s so much exploration, innovation, and sharing among independent developers, that motivation and inspiration is always around the corner. We also like to get out into nature, going on hikes or walks, and try to travel as much as we can. We always return with refreshed spirits and renewed energy to press on.

Brooke: I find a lot of inspiration in new experiences. Being human is about change and growth, and I’ve found that it’s usually when I stand still for too long that my creativity runs dry. At Christmas, I made notebooks for friends and family with the words “All Things New,” and that has sort of become my credo lately. I love Jack London’s words: “I would rather be ashes than dust!”

What is your definition of bad design?
Brooke: Creating an experience that doesn’t hold respect for the user. In games, that tends to result in hand-holding, which also says you’re not confident you’ve done your job properly.

If you were asked, “Brooke, I want to be a game designer?” What’s your response?
Brooke: Design a game! This is potentially the most exciting and most open time to be here. So much has yet to be explored. There’s a lot to learn, but some really interesting projects, like Pixel Press, are making game creation more accessible than ever before.

Any other aspects of your work that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?
David: Having a partner is extremely helpful. There’s no way I would have finished Doggins as quickly as I did, or perhaps ever, if I was working alone. If you are working alone, find ways to be around other people doing similar work. There are meet-ups and coworking spaces everywhere. Not only will you stay motivated, you’ll learn a lot, making your work better than it otherwise would have been.

How does the San Francisco Bay Area
contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
David: The Bay Area is a double-edged sword: it’s full of creative, curious people who are experimenting in every field imaginable, but it’s also prohibitively expensive to live here. While the cost makes it a bit more difficult to sustain your business or project, the people you meet and beauty of the place make it worth it.

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In addition to being a “Gamer’s Voice Nominee” at the SXSW Gaming Awards (2014), Doggins was also selected to exhibit in the Indie MEGABOOTH showcase at PAX East!

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All images courtesy of Brain&Brain.

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Typeface of quotes is Hero designed by Fontfabric in 2010.

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