Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.
Alexander Bevier: Both Threes and Puzzlejuice are memorable for their visual charm. When do you end up deciding on a style? Does this affect the way you make design choices?
Asher Vollmer: Oh good I get to talk about placeholder art! I have a lot of opinions about placeholder art. I know some programmers who go out of their way to make temporary assets as ugly as possible, with the intention of annoying the artist so much that they “get to work.” This process feels backwards and deeply unhelpful to me… it makes the game basically unplayable while that temporary art is in there. Visuals effect the way you feel while playing a game and feelings are pretty much all we have. Especially during playtests.
In an effort to make the game as playtestable as possible along the way, I try to maximize how attractive my placeholder art is while minimizing the amount of effort it takes to make. (It is temporary after all.) This means that I end up with a lot of basic shapes and icons and colors. A fun side effect of using such simple placeholder art is that I can make the game design slightly more complicated. As long as I can communicate the state of the game with basic symbols I am satisfied.
I try to bring on artists as late as possible. Hopefully they come on only after the game design has crystalized to the point where I can give them concrete constraints. In Threes and Puzzlejuice, the final art was created by Greg Wohlwend. It’s been a really good fit because he has found a way to inject massive gobs of personality into my otherwise dry prototypes. It’s always a long back-and-forth to figure out the style that best suits the gameplay and the tone, but he has knocked it out of the park every single time.
AB: Threes was enormously popular. It was also copied and cloned into other popular games. Has experiencing your games being cloned affected the way you design games? How do you feel knowing that your design is loved and resonates with players, despite them not playing your game?
AV: It’s been a long and emotional journey. It started out with pride, honestly, as the first clones started to show up. I was honored that people had chosen to play with the design of my game and a few even used it to learn how to program. Threes was resonating with all sorts of people… including the types who enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together. That felt good. It was something I would totally do as a kid.
But as the clone army grew and Emperor 2048entine came to power as a cultural phenomenon it made me question all my values and decisions. I felt like a putz for not making this game free. I felt like I had failed and that I squandered Threes’ potential.
It was a dark month, but I’ve long since gotten over it. Threes got a big swell of support after Greg and I posted about our feelings and documented our design process. People jumped to the defense of Threes every time 2048 was mentioned, which we are deeply grateful for and has helped us recover.
Nowadays I’m back to feeling prideful about the whole situation.
AB: What were some of the design goals you have for Close Castles? What have you learned about RTS design throughout the experience?
AV: I’ve always wanted to make a local multiplayer game, but it took me a while to dip my toe into that world because I had a lot of preconceived notions about what local MP was “supposed to” look like. They were all either fighting games or platformers or sports games or all of the above… and I don’t feel particularly well versed at making any of those types of games. Those types of games are based on reflexes and small timing windows, which are not concepts that I’m very comfortable with as a designer or as a player. I enjoy concrete puzzle games where the relationships between the objects on screen are very clear and simple. When it occurred to me that I could make a local multiplayer game that has the “puzzle mentality” everything clicked into place.
My biggest design challenge with Close Castles is that I want to inject an emotion into RTS’s that isn’t usually present: player joy. I seriously think that the genre and enjoyment are at serious odds with each other. A barebones RTS, at its core, is a math problem. It’s about income and production and economics. Playing an RTS feels like you’re taking a hardcore realtime arithmetic test that gets harder every time you answer a question wrong. Making that a fun experience for all players has been an interesting challenge. I think I’ve made good headway in fixing this problem, but I still have a long way to go.
AB: What’s one of the best experiences you’ve heard of people playing your games?
AV: One of the more controversial design decisions I’ve made with Threes is that it’s designed to stick around a really really long time. It takes months or years to master. A few people in our field believe this decision is disrespectful to people and their time, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that. I deeply value efficiency and I know that time itself is the most precious resource we have, but I also understand that our brains need to relax sometimes. Sometimes we need to distract ourselves and just… turn off. Threes has turned out to be really good at helping people do that. I am the most deeply touched when people come up to me and tell me that they’ve used Threes to help them cope with difficult times in their lives. I still can’t believe I actually made a thing that helps.