Dan, a game designer, talks about designing casual games
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Interviewer: I’m here at the Casual Connect Conference, and with today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Dan: Hi, my name is Dan Kratt. I’m a game designer with Phoenix New Media which is the owner of Big Stack Studios which is the iPhone Division of Phoenix New Media.
Interviewer: What games have you worked on? What games have you designed?
Dan: I got my start making Game Boy games, and the first game that I was kind of a co-designer on was called Scurge: Hive for the Game Boy and Nintendo DS. Then, that company kind of dissolved and moved into casual games with Games Cafe. We had a couple failures, and then we had a big success with Sally’s Salon followed by Sally’s Spa.
Now, I find myself at Big Stack Studios where we just finished Sigma for the iPhone. And there’s been a few other hits and misses along the way, but Sigma and Sally’s Salon/Sally’s Spa have kind of been the showcase.
Interviewer: What would you say has… because you’ve been through hits and failures. I guess, what is the difference then between a hit and a failure in terms of why one succeeds versus one doesn’t. Is it just theme? Is it something that you learn from the previous failures or…
Dan: You definitely learn from your failures, for sure. I think it takes a special person to be able to dust themselves off from failures because it’s really hard. Failures are really, really hard. Sometimes, your games are failures commercially. Sometimes, they’re failures critically. Sometimes, they’re failures critically and commercially.
Sometimes, they’re successes critically and commercially, but for me it’s been all about dusting myself off from any kind of failure, pick yourself up and learn from everything you do.
Interviewer: So, going back to Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa, you mentioned that you did some games before that that didn’t work out. I guess, what were the lessons you took from that that you applied to Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa, or what did you change because this is something where indie game developers, other developers who are trying new platforms, try something. It doesn’t necessarily work, and then they’ll just be like, well… It’s magic, but you persisted and you got this huge hit.
Dan: Yeah. There is an element of magic. I think the failures that preceded Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa were – I don’t know how to explain it – like games that either I thought I wanted to make, we thought was right for the audience. I don’t know…with Sally’s Salon I listened to my wife. The team was small. We got sort of decimated to a four person team. Our backs were up against the wall.
It was either this thing was going to work or we were all gong to be making websites. We knew we wanted to make a time management game. We wanted to try and compete with Diner Dash, and at the time it was crazy because it was like four people saying they were going to kill Diner Dash.
The inspiration for the Sally games came from my wife. She’s a lawyer and she has a pretty high stress job. Sometimes, she would come home from work and just be like, “Man, I just want to be a hairdresser. I just want to be able to wake up in the morning, have a hair salon in the basement, and that’s it kind of deal.”
I looked at the time management genre and Diner Dash. At the time it was Cake Mania and Delicious, and I noticed that all the time management games were revolving around food. For me, I was like, “Man, these people go to school for four hears et cetera, et cetera to not have to be waitresses for the rest of their life. This isn’t what they want to do.”
They want to escape into these games, and that’s why Salon followed by Spa is more escapist destinations than a cafe where you’re handling dirty dishes.
Interviewer: Did you have your wife play test the game while you were developing it?
Dan: Yeah. Yeah, I did. She hates games, and she didn’t mind the Sally games. But, she wasn’t in love with them. I wasn’t really too worried about that. It’s funny where you’ll find inspiration. In this weird world that we live in where you can make games for girls, it’s kind of about listening to the people around you and what they like and what excites them.
For indie developers, it’s if you can afford it and if it’s just sort of a part-time passion and you want to make things that you just want to make. That’s great. But, if you’re concerned about making money and building a company and having a team and you have to work on something that isn’t necessarily your passion, listen to the people around you. They will inspire you.
And that kind of segues into Sigma, where after four or five years on the Sally franchise, I moved on from Games Cafe and joined Phoenix New Media. Some of my old crew from the Sally team went with me, and we just launched Sigma on the iPhone.
This was the first game that I ever made where I really felt like it was my own. I made it for me or we made it for us. We didn’t really listen to anyone. We didn’t focus test anything. It was definitely a game for us by us. It did OK. It didn’t do any Sally numbers, but critically it was very well received, and we’re pretty excited about it.
Interviewer: What suggestions then do you have for game developers who are either developing for a different audience, or what are things that you changed, based on your whole experience of success and failures and your big number one hit?
Dan: Well, there were a few failures after Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa. I’m not going to lie. After making those mega-hit games, you kind of feel like you can do no wrong.
Dan: But then, to fail again, it put me right back in my place. Part of the reason I left Games Cafe was I felt like I was going to be pigeon holed in this Sally world. You know, I was going to be Sally until the day I died kind of thing, and I wanted to branch out from that.
And I wanted to get that feeling back of that four person team where everyone’s backs against the wall and it’s like, do or die. So, not only did I get that but then I failed a couple times, and now I’ve really got that again.
Sigma was nice because it was that taste of success again. But, now I know that I need to live in both worlds. I need to work on the Sallys, and I need to work on the Sigmas. I need to do the Sigmas to satisfy my own personal creative desires, and I need to do the Sallys to build a company that will allows me to work on my own creative desires.
Interviewer: Any other design understandings that you’re using now as you move on to make more games? Anything different that you’re doing now compared to when you designed Sigma, when you design the Sally games?
Dan: The only thing I’m doing different now is planning for multiple platforms from the get go. I need to be thinking about PC, iPhone, iPad, Facebook right from day one. I’ve tried to do ports that were like shoe horn ports, let’s just get it on this device kind of thing. But, now the world’s so open that it’s way better to plan for that ahead of time.
Interviewer: And are you focusing on social game mechanics and all that stuff compared to before?
Dan: Like I said, I have to. I know I have to, but my heels are kind of dug in and I really don’t want to. But I know I have to, so yes and no. Yes, I know I have to and no, I don’t want to, but I’m going to have to, yeah.
Interviewer: And where can people then find out more information about the current games you’re working on like Sigma?
Dan: The current games that I’m working on? You’ll want to go to…
Interviewer: Or the iPhone apps.
Dan: You want to go to BigStackStudios.com.
Interviewer: How do you spell that?
Interviewer: Thank you very much.