Interview Max « A’Krist » Tishakov (Game Designer Frogwares – The Sinking City)

So my first question is very simple : can you introduce yourself ?

Of сourse. So my name is Max Tishakov. I’m a game designer at Frogwares. We are located in Kiev, Ukraine. And at now we’re finishing our biggest and most ambitious investigation game – The Sinking City. If you didn’t hear about us for some reason – Frogwares was founded in 2000 and was producing a « Sherlock Holmes » game series for the last 15 years. As for me – I’ve started my journey something about 10 years ago or more. I’ve tried to be an indiependent game developer in time of Unity 2.5. And as I remember, a super-duper cosmosim where low poly spaceship is flying through really ugly space and shooting to asteroids and space station was my last « indiependent project ». After that I wrote one more « GDD » and this document I showed to first serious game development company in my life. And this company became my workplace for next 5 years. In april of 2017 I left that company to join The Sinking City team.

 

What is a game designer for you ?

Well if briefly and pragmatic – it’s a person which is not just playing games but analyze them, and knows (or at least trying to understand) how to create the same gameplay and emotional experience.

I mean, of course you don’t know for sure all work processes inside Naughty Dog, besides what they share during conferences. But by looking at their game you should be able to dissect it and tell not only the genre and setting but describe how the game works.

What purposes does Ellie’s character serve inside the “Last of Us”? How does she behave and why? Not only as a person but as an NPC inside the game. What emotions does the combat system deliver? How does it achieve these emotions? Why levels are built in this particular way and not another, etc.

Of course it could sound like Candy Crush Saga clones’ creator perspective. I mean why should I care about analyzing or replicating some game? I’m a really talented person and I will create my super original and unique idea and give it to programmers and artists – they will create an awesome game. But no. Programmers and artists don’t know how the game will succeed with delivering the gameplay. They know how the game looks, how to implement some rules of the game through the code. But what rules should be inside game – this is what a game designer should find out.

And if the game designer doesn’t know how other games work, what rules are inside their mechanics, what emotional and gameplay experience they deliver and how they implement it, the game designer will probably spend much more time finding the right answers to his questions.

 

Which challenges to be a game designer for a game like The Sinking City ?

The main problem for me as a game designer of The Sinking City was the number of other investigation games in open world. I mean, we definitely see detective elements in Batman: Arkham series, The Witcher has good detective quests. What about Open world? We have dozens of good games set in huge, massive worlds. Just look at Ubisoft games! Or GTA, Zelda, Horizon: Zero Dawn. All these projects are amazing. But in the end of the day, we only have LA Noire which ticks all the boxes of the segment of open world investigation games. And this lack of projects inside this segment creates the lack of references of how our colleagues solve problems which we also face. Because after all we were supposed to find this interdependence between 4 different vectors: what the open world inside our game should be delivering? How can we implement it? How do other games answer this question? And what does the player expect from an open world investigation game? And because the pool of the information on one of these vectors was quite limited, we had to spent much more time to understand how open world detective will look and play.

At the moment, we hope that we’ve found the right answer. As I’ve stated earlier that main quest for a game designer is to analyze and recreate gameplay experience which was successfully implemented in other games, while adding some unique elements that will fit his specific game.

Game Designer has to know how games work, what makes them click. Because in this case, even if you have lack of examples in your own niche you still know how to deliver specific experience to the player, based on your knowledge. You just need spend more time for creativity in a specific direction.

And this is another 2 really valuable skills for the game designer. Ability to create something new – well it’s basically why people like this profession. And second – you should be able to focus on a specific problem. Let me give you a small example.

We all know how quest systems work – you are talking to an NPC, getting quest, complete task, subtasks which can be mandatory or not and you receive marker on the map and directions via compass. Your goal is to come to some location, kill « n » enemies, help some NPC, etc. After task is completed, the quest log gets updates and new task appears, new markers are placed on the map and again you are moving on to the new adventure. The only decision you make in such open world game – how to get to the point of destination.

If you are playing the open world investigation game as The Sinking City you have no markers. You have no tasks. You goal is to solve the case. How are going you going to crack it? Find clues and evidence. Does evidence from crime scene tell you « Go to point A and do Action 1 » in real life? No. It gives you a hint what to do next or where to go. But if you are right or no depends solely on your detective skills and mental capabilities.

The biggest challenge was to find the right balance within cases between “simple and obvious” and “overcomplicated and frustrating”. To give players ambiguous hints on where he should use one of another of main protagonist’s skills.

At the end of the day I believe we achieved the state of the game where player will not find the right answer straight away but by gaining experience with investigation flow he’ll be able to progress. Also some of the evidence contains slight hints at where it could be applied – for example you know the name of the person and need to find where he lives – would you go to a Police Station to check if he had any criminal past and was convicted, to the Hospital to see if he was admitted or a City Hall which should contain real estate records? You’ll can go there straight away, look for more clues or analyze information you have within mind palace. We equalize the difficulty of investigation by providing player with enough tools to conduct it successfully. Although for those players who are interested in a hardcore experience, we have separate investigation difficulty settings which completely transform the game by removing and indications on the evidence, as well as removing UI almost completely.

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