A single game cannot be for everyone, and any design decision is going to alienate or turn off some set of users. But what happens when your game does the opposite, and attracts a set of users you never anticipated or accounted for? That’s the problem developer Psychic Bunny faced earlier this year with FREEQ, an auditory, interactive adventure about manipulating time and space.
FREEQ was a crowdfunded game before the idea became popular. It was part of Kickstarter’s beta way back in the fall of 2009, when the game raised a hair over its $12,300 asking price. Development on the game was a series of ups and downs, with poor design decisions and unexpected departures of programmers pushing the game further and further back.
“Nobody died! [laughs]” said producer Diana Hughes.
It was just bad luck.
The game was inspired by designer Jesse Vigil’s love of radio dramas, and wanting to take advantage of the peripheral included in every portable device Apple produces: headphones.
“We always intended the game be very largely auditory in nature,” said Vigil. “There was always the hope that you could play it without looking at the screen at all. I had this idea that this was a game that you could play while riding the subway, without necessarily looking down so much that you weren’t being alert to what stop you were on and stuff like that.”
But as time went on, the game’s backers became restless, and eventually Psychic Bunny had to find a way to ship. That happened in April of this year, and the game was warmly received. In FREEQ, players are a futuristic switchboard operator, locating frequencies in the rift, and choosing whether to connect people with one another. You can listen to the conversations, and decide how the story should play out.
After release, Psychic Bunny moved on to other projects. Though FREEQ didn’t become a breakout hit, it never expected that to happen. FREEQ was always meant to be niche, and it seemed to make the players that found it happy. In the weeks and months that followed, however, the developer started receiving comments about the game’s design in emails, reviews on the App Store, and Facebook posts.
There was a common thread to these comments, too. They were low-vision or blind players who had purchased the game, believing that as an audio-focused game, it would be playable for them.
Though there aren’t many visuals in FREEQ, it wasn’t designed to be played without them. The comments were not filled with anger or vitriol, though.
“They said ‘what can we do?’” said Vigli. “Right from the beginning, offering, implicitly, support.”
Though FREEQ was not making enough money to justify additional development, there was a tipping point in the feedback from impaired players that pushed Psychic Bunny to take action.
“We got a critical mass of those, and decided this was a thing that needed doing,” said Vigil. “We knew that the minute I started getting these emails, I was like ‘well, yeah, we planned to do this, but we couldn’t find a way to make it bloody work!’ [laughs] We decided that we would just ask them. We found a group of people, our most vocal critics, and invited them to be in on this beta/exploratory process while we talked out the problems and the proposed solutions that we had.”
Psychic Bunny brought these same players into its inner circle, and asked for feedback. Very quickly, these users mentioned features within iOS that Psychic Bunny hadn’t even considered. For example, iOS has extensive accessibility features, including a system-wide tool called Voice Over. It does exactly what the name implies, reading everything out loud and includes another new set of gestures.
If a game has a drop-down menu, Voice Over will read the options available to the player. The player taps on the screen twice to move onto the next option or swipes to select that option. Given that FREEQ is mechanically simple, mostly asking players to perform simple actions while pretending to manipulate a switchboard of sorts, it was easy for Psychic Bunny to imagine how Voice Over could work.
This proved a revelation, as Apple had made it very simple to add a few hooks and have Voice Over support within an application. Unfortunately, FREEQ was built in Unity, and Unity didn’t support Voice Over. But since Apple had already spent the time figuring out its implementation, all Psychic Bunny had to do was build around the concept of Voice Over, and make it function similarly within FREEQ.
It helped that Psychic Bunny had experience with similar problems, but more importantly, the players who actually requested these features did so in a way that made the studio sympathetic.
“We’ve done a lot of work doing PTSD therapy for returning war fighters and things like that,” said Vigil. “We respond well to advocacy, and a chance to do something for an underserved community is something that, obviously, already appealed [to us]. When they were not only organized but engaged and, honestly, the most courteous and just...gosh darn nice of video game players that I’ve ever encountered in 10 years of doing this. It made it even easier.”
Once the team had implemented the changes with its testers, Psychic Bunny even released an audio-only trailer for FREEQ on Soundcloud.
“We respond well to advocacy, and a chance to do something for an underserved community is something that, obviously, already appealed [to us].
As a designer, Vigil has been trying to keep issues like this in mind for many years. Early in his career, Vigil was paired with a colorblind programmer who would constantly point out problems.
“He would just constantly yell at me,” he said. “‘You stupid moron, I can’t tell the difference between these two assets, what are you doing?’ [laughs]
(Somewhere, Jeff and Vinny are silently nodding in approval.)
Working with these players to improve FREEQ opened the studio’s eyes to how it might make games in the future, and more carefully consider the ramifications of some of its design choices.
“There are a multitude of different design decisions that cut out a group of people that might enjoy the game, except for this one thing,” said Hughes. “What it’s done is that it’s make us think long and hard about ‘does this decision that we’re making do anything that really helps the game? Or doesn’t add anything but definitely would turn off a group of people?”
"There are all kinds of things that games take for granted that maybe we should be designing a little more openly," said Vigil.