IGF Factor 2012: WAY

By Alec Meer on February 8th, 2012 at 10:00 am.

Today in our series of chats with (almost) all the PC and Mac-based finalists at this year’s Independent Games Festival, it’s indie collective CoCo&Co’s fascinating, dialogue-free co-op puzzle-platformer WAY. The game is nominated for the Nuovo award, and was also a winner at this year’s IGF Student Showcase. Here, the team talk about their impressive games industry origins, the concept of playing games with an anonymous partner, how games can form emotional connections with their players, breaking down the barriers that so often separate gamers who don’t speak the same language, and their answer to the most important question of all.

RPS: Firstly, an introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

We are Chris Bell, Walt Destler, Cynthia Jiang, Katherine Rubenstein, Hugo Shih, and Paulwei Wang. Aside from our independent games, we also have jobs at thatgamecompany, EA, Disney, Wemo Media, and Carnegie Mellon University.

The WAY team began at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, a graduate program for video game and theme-park design. It’s quite the playful place. Kyle Gabler (World of Goo), Kyle Gray (Henry Hatsworth), and Neil Druckmann (Uncharted 2, The Last of Us) got their start here, to name a few.

We each entered the ETC with different goals, but came together when we saw an opportunity to make a new kind of game. Something global in scope and purpose. Despite the reach of the internet, few games encourage strong emotional connections with players around the world—with players in different countries and cultures. It’s a common problem often attributed to barriers in communication. People shy away from those they can’t communicate with, whether it’s in a virtual world or our physical one. WAY is designed to change that.

Games can empower players to have experiences of their own and to share these experiences with others. You cannot help but care when you’re responsible for another human being. Shared personal choice is an immediate portal to empathy. These are the stories that inspire us, and the ones that players so often walk away remembering.

In some sense, we’re “indie” because we aren’t backed by a publishing partner. If someone were to publish us (and we *are* currently looking for funding) that doesn’t change anything so long as we can make the game we believe is worth people’s time. We seek games that break the mould. Games that expand people’s perceptions of what a game can be or make you feel. Indie games are where so many of the conventions are being challenged and where more and more audiences are finding fulfilment.

RPS: Tell us about your game. What were its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?

So, despite the humbling IGF nominations or “Developer’s Choice Award” at IndieCade, WAY is still very much a prototype.

We were inspired after sharing a number of intimate, unspoken moments with players online. Often these moments would come unexpected and unintended…nestled deep within games that don’t pay them much mind.

Imagine venturing to a remote, untraveled corner of an MMO only to find a player sitting and watching the digital sunrise. Now imagine you don’t speak the same language as that player, and yet you sit because you too enjoy the sunrise. You’ve said nothing, and yet you both understand each other. How many games are designed so you communicate and collaborate closely with these players? Our guess is very few.

Consider Final Fantasy XI: Online. American and Japanese players inhabit the same world, and yet the population segregated because players could not communicate well enough to succeed together. It’s not that they don’t want to play together. Of course they do! It’s that the combat system demands solid communication, and so it was far too risky to pair with players who spoke a different language. And so you’d see requests like “English Only!” when searching for partners. It was unfortunate and likely avoidable.

The problem stems from non-universal communication design—the inability to play effectively with people who speak other languages. But see, games already have a language! “Play” is something we all know and love. Even animals play. And so it makes sense to envision “play” as the language—use “play” as the means to bring us together.

In WAY, players communicate through puppetry—no voice chat, no typing. Imagine Sackboy from Little Big Planet, but with far more expressive controls. Cover your eyes, tilt your head, wave your arms…there’s a whole range of gestures and each one is entirely player created. Your gestures are as personal as they are primal.

Together, you and an anonymous player venture toward each other from opposite ends of the world, overcoming the obstacles between you. At times, one player will have information the other does not (like the location of an invisible platform or danger) and so you need to communicate this information to each other to progress. Waving your arms could easily mean “Run!” or “Jump!”, so figuring out how to tell the other person what you mean, or deciphering what it is they mean, is part of the puzzle. It’s a magical moment when you realize exactly what your partner is saying and you haven’t even spoken a word.

So far, we’re pleased our players have reacted so favourably. The game has only about 12 weeks of development time in total and we’ve already received many heartfelt stories. They’re incredibly touching and deeply personal. We couldn’t be happier.

Regarding what we would change… Well, right now it can be difficult to find someone to connect with— a result of the game’s early release and the small, finite number of puzzles. Still, we’re optimistic the IGF exposure will bring more players to the game even at this early stage.

You can also expect an announcement for players who cannot attend GDC. These players will be able to play online and pair with people at the IGF pavilion.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

We’re as humbled as we are honoured. The IGF is a loving celebration of games and their makers, and the quality bar represented therein continues to rise and rise. It’s clear developers are becoming wonderfully self-aware. We’re witnessing the birth of a medium’s Renaissance. The world should be excited. This only happens once in forever. Forever!

Speaking of the Nuovo nominees specifically, we’re in great company. Each developer is pushing the medium forward in new, unconventional ways. This is an extremely collaborative and supportive community and we’re happy to share the nomination with creators we also call friends.

As for overlooked games, we would have liked to see Santa Ragione’s “Fotonica” represented. The game is incredibly reductionist while providing one of the most kinetic, atmospheric, and synesthetic experiences we’ve played in recent memory. Approach it casually and the game has whispers of “Flower”. Go for record scores and you’ll unravel a complex puzzle of pinpoint accuracy. At the finale of one particular level, three ascending steps rise into black infinity. Only players who master the level may climb the steps and leap from their peak. How beautiful!

And though the judges can’t possibly overlook a game not submitted to begin with, we do wonder what has become of “The Stanley Parable”…

RPS: Which game would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

The finalists for this year’s Grand Prize are quite diverse, and each deserving in their own right.

We regrettably haven’t given the time to play *all* the games to a judgable degree, so it would be inappropriate to vote for a particular winner.

That said, Johann Sebastian Joust makes for one hell of a family Christmas party.

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?

The indie scene is thriving, yet we still have ways to go. Personally, we’d like to continue to see indies reaching outside of games for their inspirations, audiences, and collaborators. It’s these outside influences that will bring new answers for how to approach game-making.

We’d also like to see more indies consider how their games are affecting the world at large, and how to shape and improve these effects by design.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

The future of WAY will depend on whether or not we find a suitable funding partner to turn it into the commercial, polished, global game we know it can become. We don’t need much. So we’re considering everything that comes our way.

In parallel, fans can also expect a Kickstarter campaign in the days leading up to GDC (with some pretty neat rewards!) to help us get there.

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

We’d probably have them explain Hell’s absurd physics… We’re shooting straight ahead, and yet we’ve somehow killed Fireball Guy on the ledge above! That, and there’s no law of physics that can explain how John Romero’s hair stays that shape.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

A free alpha version of WAY is out now; updated versions will follow at a later date.

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6 Comments »

  1. RagingLion says:

    I have a game design idea written down in a notebook that bears some strong resemblences to this one, though mine wasn’t a 2-player idea. I think the process of working out someone else’s ‘language’ displayed through physical gesticulation would create some pretty compelling gameplay that’s like solving many puzzles though is more fluid and richer than typical puzzle gameplay. Plus it has the whole feeling of bonding with someone else, which is what this game is going for and is pretty great thing to evoke by itself.

  2. marcusfell says:

    Didn’t Journey do something like this?

  3. Bolegium says:

    marcusfell: Chris Bell is working at TGC for Journey: http://thatgamecompany.com/games/journey/

    It should go without saying that they are completely different games though (AFAIK), a bit like like how flOw and the “cell stage” of Spore had Jenova Chen working on both, but remain independent of each other.

  4. wodin says:

    oooh..I only mentioned this in a comment on the IGF vote thread..seems interesting.

  5. El_Emmental says:

    Interesting idea. However, there is a problem: communication for the sake of communication is not interesting nor fun for more than 30 minutes, communication should be a mean to an end, not the end itself.

    What is going to be interesting is how you deal with various and unexpected problems, when your communication is limited to a virtual body language – not the body language itself.

    And it sounds really hard to pull that off correctly, the gameplay really need to be designed to work well with the non-verbal communication idea, it’s like designing a game for the Wii or the Kinect, that’s seriously challenging.

    Also, I don’t really agree when they (hivemind ?) say “You’ve said nothing, and yet you both understand each other. How many games are designed so you communicate and collaborate closely with these players? Our guess is very few. “.

    Hundreds of games allow non-verbal communication, the most frequent and obvious is the “imminent danger” communication: the other player(s) position, movements, looking direction, actions, etc, indicating one shouldn’t go there without proper preparation.

    There’s also the “I need help”, when you’re hiding behind cover/in a corner, not fighting (or just fending off the few minions) while constantly looking at your teamates, and suddenly making movements/actions when they’re looking at you so they can clearly see you want their attention.

    There’s also the “Let’s go”, after indicating “Imminent danger”, when you look at your teamates to confirm you noticed they understood the “imminent danger” message and prepared themselves, you make small moves toward the imminent danger, mimicking an attack.
    If they happen to not be ready, they’ll take a more defensive stance, walk backward a little, to indicate they refuse to attack immediately.

    And in case of extreme imminent danger, using a projectile (shooting a weapon, throwing a fireball, etc) a few meters ahead of your teamate position will certainly get his/her attention and make him/her think twice or thrice before continuing to move on.

    There’s many other messages, the most complex ones being possible after a few minutes of playing with the same teamates.

    In third-person view game, position and movements are essential (since you can’t really see their looking direction), in FPS it’s more about the looking/aiming direction and stance (standing/crouch), in RTS it can be a small unit, minimap warnings [!] or your troops movements, etc.

    If you’re still skeptical, play TF2 as a Medic or with a Medic and you’ll quickly see what I meant.

    The Left 4 Dead series is also well-known for its 4-players co-op non-verbal communication (most people don’t use voice commands nor have mics), same with Alien Swarm or Magicka.

    Then, there’s also the voice commands : to be efficient, they need to be quite simple. To convey a complex message, players will then use the context and sometime combine several short voice commands to communicate.

    In Firearms (Half-Life 1 mod), you could buy more voice commands with a skill point. Since skill points were extremely precious (at least for 90% of the map round), almost no one bought these additional voice commands.

    Instead, players improvised with the few “basic” voice commands:
    - “UNDER HEAVY FIRE” meant “Watch out, danger!”, or “Need help/medic!”, “I refuse to attack right now”, or actually being under fire (pretty rare though, flying bullets already conveyed the information).
    - “HAAAAAAAAAAA”, a guttural war cry, meant a lot of thing: “Attack!”, “Nice shot!”, “Woohoo!” (after capturing an area), “Let’s show them what we got, in defeat we stand still gentlemen !” (last stand counter-attack), “Yes”, “Roger”, etc.

    Sometime, voice commands mean nothing at all (random gibberish), and players create a new language (or recreate english with these new words/sounds), like in the zombie-apocalypse survival browser game Urban Dead, which has several different zombie dialects, based on a few zombie groans.

    There’s also examples of games without voice commands, who failed because of that. Most recent example is Brink, with its face-paced gameplay it couldn’t rely on body language communication nor position/movements, while with its small playerbase it couldn’t rely on microphone communication (since players came from many different countries, not much english-speaking players). Players would then have to type, even if it’s making them very vulnerable.

    “The problem stems from non-universal communication design—the inability to play effectively with people who speak other languages. But see, games already have a language! “Play” is something we all know and love. Even animals play. And so it makes sense to envision “play” as the language—use “play” as the means to bring us together.”

    => That’s what is happening when you’re trying to non-verbally communicate with a teamate, you are using the game=>gameplay=>play language to convey information and feelings (fear, courage, confidence, congratulation, etc).

    It’s already there, it’s just that no developers clearly identified it as their main gameplay dynamic “yet” :)

  6. Dances to Podcasts says:

    I think we can conclude from this that John Romero is a digital character and we can play him.

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