What Is the Escort Quest?
In short the Escort Quest is a big game that is played in two-player partnerships at outdoor, crowded locations. The goal is for partnerships to collect items in the public space and return them to a cash-out locale, with the twist that players are tied together and one of them blindfolded. While on the outside the game looks like a bunch of kids wandering around the park looking absurd, in practice, the design gets at forming strong bond of trust within your teammate and allows players to completely rethink our designed game space.
The game was initially developed in last spring’s Introduction to Game Design course here at the NYU Game Center, with Grant Reid, Robert Meyer, Andrew Gaffney, and Eszter Osvald. It has since been in continued development and just recently been invited to be a part of IndieCade’s 2011 Big Games Program.
There will be a play test of the game this weekend (details here: The Escort Quest Play Sessions), but before that, we thought we’d recap the process that took this strange idea from in-class assignment to an IndieCade Big Game.
The Assignment and Conception:
The school year was well under way and by now most of us were beginning to realize how much work was actually involved in designing a working and meaningful system that others would be interested in spending time with. We had only completed one of the projects for the course when the Intervention Game assignment came around. For this, we needed to make a game that would beg players and bystanders to rethink and reshape some physical space.
While nothing that fit the bill came directly to mind, as is the case with most complex projects, we decided to try out a variety of small mechanics in order to see what felt right. This included everything from riding elevators, roping off random people (not recommended!), entering and exiting buildings, and everything in between. While most things fell to the wayside, one thing we felt really attached to was rope and the number of ways it could be used to incorporate cooperation. Another thing that we were caught up on was an article written by fellow NYU Game Center student Robin Arnott about sensory deprivation. After a series of iterations, we finally came across the game’s core mechanic: tethering together teams and blindfolding one of the players. We fondly referred to that iteration as “the seeing eye dog experiment.”
This didn’t mean the end of the road though. In fact, it only allowed us to get a sense of direction for the project. We still needed an underlying structure that didn’t make players feel forced to perform in front of others, but still enticed onlookers to join in. Now, I’m not going to pretend that we knew in any way how to do this (see image below), but we were committed to attempt number of different ways until we found what felt right. Much like how we got to our golden mechanic for this game, we just had to test and iterate over and over, honing in on the positive aspects, until we began to get a grasp of how this structure was going to play out. Finally we were left with a fairly basic game that was easy to learn, allowed players to feel comfortable engaging with,/and still provided a new and meaningful experience.
Putting in a dozen hours of work or so for this two week assignment, we finally were at a place that we felt comfortable with. Unfortunately, we did not have the resources to playtest our game with the number of people we wanted to accommodate for during our final play session. While I wouldn’t recommend it, we decided to go through with it and asked that everyone in the class participated in our session. While our design team was pretty nervous to how the game was going to hold up, our audience (hundreds of people hanging around Washington Square park on a nice afternoon) wasn’t quite sure what to think. Onlookers began with given us inquisitive glares, but once the game started rolling, they softened up and began helping out the players. All in all, the game went better than we could have expected and we were told that this was “exactly the kind of game [our professor] had in mind when assigning this project.” We couldn’t have been more excited about the state of the game and began to look into other avenues we could take it.
The Post-Class Iterative Process:
After we played the then final version of our game with our class, it seemed like the end of the game’s structured development. Like many other class-assigned projects it would wither away in some archive never to be seen again. Our group would go its separate ways inevitably, but I think we knew we had developed something special. As a group we submitted it to Come Out and Play, but by that time it was a very late submission and nothing really came of it (perhaps next year!).
Time went on, and when IndieCade submissions came around we heard from co-chair, Andy Nealen, that the festival had a great Big Games Program, and, with a little bit of encouragement, we decided to submit. Grant and I met up and brainstormed some rule changes before the submission. At this time it was the summer, which made it difficult to jump back in the same development process we used during the school year. When we decided to keep working on the project, we made an effort to contact our old classmates about ideas, playtests, and submissions to give them every opportunity to stay involved. Often, this was really beneficial. However, we also found it important not to pressure them into working on it to the same level we had committed to, since it wouldn’t necessarily be fair for us to expect that. It was sort of a tricky balance, but in the end, being open and inviting always paid off.
The biggest revision to the game’s ruleset before the submission was the addition of a third round, where teams picked which roles they wanted to play. Playtesting showed this to be a very successful decision, giving agency and strategy to players who could now evaluate their earlier performances in the game. Other minor changes included changes in the scoring and cash-out bonuses.
After submitting to IndieCade we heard back the exciting news that several judges wanted to play the game in New York, since they felt it was the only appropriate way to judge a big game like this. We quickly jumped on board and pooled about 16 people together for a play session on a blisteringly hot day in Washington Square (Big thanks to all who came!). In our humble opinions, it was really successful. Some players who were partnered with strangers really seemed to develop a bond by the end, and the increase in skill from first to last round was undeniable. It was rewarding but not without its flaws. Both judges and players noted that the game might be a bit too self-policing, the ropes themselves not enforcing directors and actors to stand apart. It also seemed to lack a bit of variety, and possibly another twist to push it towards more social innovation.
Grant and I took these notes, and casually worked on improving the game over the coming weeks, as we waited to hear back from IndieCade. During this time we made many significant changes. The first of which was the addition of pool noodles, through which the rope binding the two players would be fed. We declared the rule that partners must maintain at least a distance of the length of the pool noodle apart from each other at all times. The pool noodle both helps it look more like a big game, making it more accessible for some players, and also is simultaneously more sturdy than the rope, yet soft and flexible enough not to provide any mobility issues. We also added group of items, called Social items. These would be placed in areas that required the players to interact with people, whether it be in large groups, with a nearby food vendor, or just handed to pedestrians to hold. They’d be the most valuable item, but only a few could be retrieved in any given round. We decided to add this in an attempt to incentivize the interesting social interactions that arose from our rule encouraging only the blindfolded players to speak to pedestrians.
Our last major change, was that we decided to allow teams to chose one category of cones: easy, hard, or social, to double the point value for on the last round. Teams would do this in secrecy, so it would add a sort of double-jeopardy level of excitement as well as strategy, for teams as the game climaxed.
On a fateful late summer’s day, we received a very gracious e-mail from IndieCade’s wonderful Sam Roberts, inviting The Escort Quest to be a part of the Big Game Events and this year’s IndieCade festival. With it, came the clause that the Big Games program is separate from the festival selection and had no bearing on the submissions. We were extremely excited, shocked, confused, then excited again. It sounded good, right? But what was that no bearing on the festival thing? Well, it turns out that as anyone whose been to IndieCade probably knows the Big Games program is sort of this ongoing thing that happens during the day in conjunction with the festival. Games can be included in the Big Games program, and be finalists for festival awards or not. The two are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive. Regardless, Grant and I were thrilled to have our game invited to be played at the festival.
Joe Sklover, designer of Big Game darling, Humans vs. Zombies, has been amazing with his support guiding us through the preparation process in regards to equipment, space planning, and anything else we could possibly need. So far it’s been a treat working with everyone there. Our plane tickets booked, our hotel room reserved, it seemed Grant and I only have one thing left to do before flying out to California…
So all this pool noodle and double jeopardy scoring malarkey has yet to be play tested with a large group, and that’s where you guys come in. We’re holding two more playtest sessions of the game this weekend. One is on Saturday September 24th, and one on Sunday the 25th. Both are at 3pm in Washington Square Park. We’ll be the group with a bunch of blindfolded people tied together with yellow ropes and pool noodles. Confirm your spot here: http://on.fb.me/nzSecf and help us refine this game and be a part of the iterative process that’s been such an amazing experience for everyone whose worked on and played The Escort Quest so far.
Rob Meyer is a recent graduate of NYU who majored in Film, but also concentrated in game studies and design at the Game Center. He has developed a variety of games from analog projects like The Escort Quest, to “Chip,” a puzzle platformer made in Flixel. He currently works as a Junior Game Designer at Guerillapps, mostly focusing on the new Facebook game, “Trash Tycoon.”
Grant Reid is a senior at NYU majoring in Sociology with a focus in Game Design. He is an administrative/technical assistant for the Game Center and is highly involved in the community surrounding games at NYU. Currently, he is developing a Google Form based game that emulates the interstitial moments within a relationship through a number of Google Apps.