[Test Case] Cryptica: The Making of a Mobile Game
"It’s like something I write for myself, that only I can understand. Nobody’s going to be impressed by that, but it tells me whether I’m on the right path!"
Aviv Shechter is the perfect guy to be my first interviewee. He’s a true renaissance man, and one of those rare artists who can switch comfortably between highly technical work and artistic work. He is one of the best animation riggers I know, and yet when I met him years ago he was an animator – and a very good one at that. However, it was only when I saw his work on the original game Cryptica that I realized that he also has an excellent eye for graphics. For Cryptica, Aviv created all the graphics (some painted, some created with a 3D software), much of the sound, and of course assembled the puzzles themselves. Some of Aviv’s ability to successfully switch between different art forms is, as we shall see, the result of being highly skilled in the creative process – which is the reason we’re all here.
How do you come up with ideas?
I usually think of ideas while walking. But the most important thing for me is sharing my ideas with other people. First of all, people may suggest great improvements for your ideas. Second, even if their suggestions aren’t so good, they oftentimes get you thinking in a different way. Third, when you tell people your idea you really get to think about it again, so that many times you’ll get a better idea even when the other guy never uttered a word!”
So how did you think of Cryptica?
“I don’t exactly remember how it happened, but I love puzzles and brain teasers, so when I started working on a game I was naturally attracted to this type of game.” It turns out that Cryptica actually began as an online game, which Aviv created by himself with a software called Unity. “In the end I got a bit tangled up with technical issues, and after a while I decided to stop working on it.”
A few months later he was approached by software developer Meni Besso, who heard about Aviv through mutual friends. He offered a collaboration making Android games. Together they wrote a very simple first game, mainly to learn how it’s done. After that they started looking for a ‘real’ project. “I showed Meni my game when we first met, but he didn’t like it so much. After the first game I showed it to him again, and this time he was much more enthusiastic.” Aviv and Manny decided to go for it, with Manny as the technical person and Aviv the game designer and graphic designer of the game.
When you started out, did you set any specific goals for the game?
“Yes, we wanted a few things. We wanted it to be more ambitious than the previous game, but without being too hard. We wanted to get it done within a year. Second, we wanted the game to make money. We didn’t expect to get rich (we intend to create a series of games, Cryptica is only the first one), but we did want to start making money and see what happens. As a general secondary goal we also wanted to study the issue of game-making from every possible angle – and indeed, we learned a great deal.”
The Aztec Board
How did you decide on an Aztec look, of all things?
“I thought of puzzles and riddles, and it reminded me of treasure puzzles – Indiana Jones-style. This of course led me directly to thinking of ancient civilizations – Egyptian, Inca and so on. The truth is that the design is not actually purely Aztec. It’s a bit of a mash-up of exotic ancient cultures.” Aviv shows me his sketches, and how they relate to the game’s final artwork. I find sketches fascinating, as they make it possible to trace the artist’s thought process. In this particular case, the sketches also display the proper way to build a full and functioning concept out of bits and pieces of scattered ideas.
Sketchbook page #1. In the center you can clearly see the evolution path of one of the game’s graphic symbols, from a complex drawing to a more abstract icon. The comment marked says “painted diamond”, reminding us that the quick sketch often combines text and imagery to convey maximum information in minimum time and effort.
Sketchbook page #2. Some of the doodles capture preliminary ideas for different levels (for those of us who played the game: the X’s mark movable stones, the numbers mark the colorful target stones). In the upper section you’ll find a written list of ideas that didn’t make it into the game. What is the picture that emerges from all this? Clearly, Aviv’s mind is in free-flow mode, shooting thoughts in all directions. Aviv doesn’t interfere, doesn’t judge, doesn’t try to direct his thoughts or work in some specific order. He just listens – and captures everything that comes out with quick sketches.
Working in passes: the preliminary sketch of the game (‘blocking’) vs. a fleshed out version. It’s important to realize that the raw version (above) was created after the quick sketching session; which means that it’s just a quick representation of a much more elaborate vision.
We’re looking at Aviv’s first full-size design image. This is the first step when you work in passes: a preliminary, raw version that can now be slowly shaped into the final version. Note how this happens after the sketches stage. Why is this important? Because that makes it clear that this preliminary creation is just a simplistic representation of a much more complex vision that Aviv already has in mind (and in his sketchbook). Note also that the entire image is made of placeholders: parts of downloaded images, assembled together to create a rough picture of the final game. Aviv: “It’s like something I write for myself, that only I can understand. Nobody’s going to be impressed by that, but it tells me whether I’m on the right path!” This, by the way, is a very accurate description of the stage I called ‘blocking‘.
Aviv goes on to prepare a more advanced sketch, one that looks a lot closer to what he has in mind. He shows the result to some trusted friends, and concludes that: (a) the graphic design is too anemic, (b) a lot of people don’t like the spiky element on the right. He works to improve his image. Meanwhile, Meni is ready with the technical part. They issue an initial working version of the game (what game designers call an ‘alpha version’), and let some of their friends test-play it.
“We discovered there was a problem controlling the stones. At first we thought to use the gyroscope – that players would move the stones by tilting the device. This turned out not to work so well, so we replaced it with on-screen arrow buttons. Friends who played our first few versions didn’t like these buttons: because they weren’t physical buttons, you had to keep looking for them instead of remaining focused on the puzzle board. We then tried to use a virtual joystick, and that too wasn’t good enough. In the end, the best solution was for the player to slide his finger across the screen itself. By the way – in the final version, the whole right part was completely omitted. This was due to technical problems related to inconsistent screen sizes in the various android devices.”
The human touch
The puzzles in the game are really interesting and unique. How did you come up with them?
“Some of them I drew on paper, as can be seen in the sketchbook pages above. Some were taken from the old web game. In some cases I just tossed in a random arrangement of stones, and then played around trying to solve it. Once I had an initial design of a puzzle, I was able to continue working on it and improve it: make it a bit harder, a bit easier, or improve it visually. ”
So it was actually important to you that the puzzles are visually attractive?
“Yes. For the same puzzle you can find different initial arrangements, and some are more elegant than others. Besides, I wanted the riddles to feel ‘human’. Basically, I could have used the automatic level-solver we wrote and ask it to produce 2000 random levels. There are games like this in the market. I wanted the solutions to my riddles to be original and interesting. Apart from that, I think that more is sometimes less. It’s more exciting for me to solve the single Sudoku puzzle in the newspaper, than buying an entire Sudoku booklet … In the end we preferred a finite game with high quality levels, over an endless game with mediocre ones.”
Last question: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently in terms of the creative process?
I don’t know, I think the process we did wasn’t bad. I guess I’d buy an Android device; I think that, if I had had an android device to test with, we could have detected problems much earlier.
Above: the premake for the level selection screen. Below: the almost-final design of the same screen. Here too one can see the smart use of placeholders: simple rectangles along with temporary decorative elements ‘stolen’ from the web and planted in to represent yet-to-be-designed items.
The main menu design – old version vs. final version. Aviv: “I should have stopped at the quick-sketch stage and gotten some feedback. I guess I just got too fascinated with the whole painting thing… in the end, when people saw the final result, they said it looked like the opening screen of some quest, not a puzzle game.” It’s true – but it takes an open and honest artist like Aviv to accept that truth and be ready to shelve his pretty work and start over. It’s certainly not obvious, and also not very common.
My two cents…
There is no doubt that Aviv and Meni worked through an excellent creative process (and got excellent results for it!). They defined requirements (context), worked with quick sketches, used study and research and worked in passes. Aviv made a clever use of placeholders, and his sketchbook pages make a great example of how a game design vision is formed.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying to learn not just from their achievements, but also from their mistakes. After reviewing the entire process, I can point out that Aviv and Meni could have tested their ideas in context much earlier in the process. I would have recommended creating an alpha version of the game with the roughest version of the graphic design. Technical problems and design problem that were discovered too late in the game (pun intended…) and formed inconvenient constraints, could have been detected at this early stage. Case in point: the optimal form of game control could have been tested and decided already in the alpha testing, before the graphics were fully designed, thus preventing a lot of hard work that ended up in the trash.
This process also affected the outcome, which could have been absolutely perfect were it not for important changes that came too late and had to be patched in. The numbers above the screen in the final game are a good example of such a change, which could have been more elegantly fitted in if only that decision was made much earlier in the process.
Just do what you love to do
The story of Cryptica starts with a small, playful attempt at designing a game; a pleasant leisure project Aviv started and then abandoned. Having spent some years studying the creative process, I can tell you this is not exceptional at all. In fact, it can almost be said to be the usual case! You won’t believe how many novels began with a short story written and discarded, how many full length features started out as experimental student films, and so on. Even ‘The Mechanics of Inspiration’ began with a brief article I published in an online forum.
The moral of the story? Don’t wait for the right opportunity to create your magnum opus. Spend some time doing what you love to do, and give yourself the freedom to create small projects for your own enjoyment. When opportunity does knock on your door, you’ll have some good materials in your a drawer.
I’d like to thanks Aviv for the interview, and congratulations on creating one of the most enjoyable and challenging puzzle games ever (I played it for hours!), and in my opinion also one of the most beautiful ones. You can find the free version of Cryptica here (the more technically sophisticated among us can use the QR code below). I hope you’ve enjoyed this first creative proces interview! I’d love to hear what you thought. ‘LIKE’ the blog’s facebook page (on the sidebar) to get updated with ‘The Mechanics of Inspiration’ posts as soon as they’re published!