I am always fascinated by how “old school” game and software developers end up in the casual game space and find tremendous success. Take The Article 19 Group, for example. Started 12 years ago as an education software company in Montreal, Canada, The Article 19 Group is now a leading developer of casual games, having released with Shockwave Carrie the Caregiver and just recently, Carrie the Caregiver 2. We spoke with Robert Gordon of The Article 19 about the making of the Carrie series, his unique background in psychology, as well as ask the question: Is Montreal the New Seattle?
How did you come up with the name the Article 19 Group?
Interestingly, over the course of the past 12 years, this is the question I get asked the most often. In retrospect, I’m glad we chose a slightly obscure name…I was in graduate school, just before starting the company (before even knowing I was going to start one). I was conducting a formative evaluation of the Amnesty Interactive CD-ROM, watching and noting as research participants clicked through the various sections of the product.
On one particular trial, the participant (one of my classmates) was investigating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clicking on each article produced a short animation as its content was read aloud. Article 19 read, in part, as follows: “…the freedom to exchange information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers…”. My classmate and I looked at each other and remarked about what a great mission statement this would be for a multimedia upstart. Within the year we were business partners and Article 19 was born.
You started your company back in 1995 before there was a market for casual games (Tetris notwithstanding). What were you working on when you initially started the company and how did you end up developing casual games?
Our initial focus was in training and education. We did work for a wide variety of clients including government, non-profit, and corporate accounts. There was no shortage of work – but there was a problem…the work was a little dry (at least for me). As the years passed it started to become clearer that many of the skills we had developed were very applicable to the games market (at least in terms of production of casual 2D titles). We started to chase more of that work – and found new clients in publishing, communications, and software development. My partner left and we shifted our focus to pursuing the development of entertainment content. Within a few years we started to produce our own titles.
You yourself have an interesting background, with advanced degrees in psychology and educational technology. How did you become a game developer? How does your knowledge of the study of human behavior help you as you develop games?
It seems that these days, a young person can decide very early on that they want to work in games – and then put themselves on that path with the right education, internships, home-based skill development, and so forth. I don’t recall ever saying to myself “I want to be a professional game developer”, and there were no game-design or game-production degrees available when I was in school. While I’ve been a gamer my whole life, it wasn’t until I actually started building games for clients that I realized that I could have an entire career built around this activity.
As for the influence of my education on my work… I’ve always considered myself a user-centered designer. I consider what the player is thinking at every moment in the game as I design, test, and refine a title. Is this the result of my own training – or was I drawn to psychology and educational technology because of a deeper interest in and appreciation of human behavior? Bit of a chicken & egg problem, I suspect.
What is your favorite game that you have created?
There are many favorites, each special for a different reason. If I had to pick though, I would have to go with Carrie the Caregiver. This was our first downloadable casual game – but more than that, it’s a title that we really poured a lot of heart and soul into. We spent (and continue to spend) many hours discussing the character as a completely separate entity from the game engine. We feel a certain closeness to her and it’s been a real treat to see her do so well in the industry.
What are your favorite games from other developers that you are playing right now?
Interestingly, I don’t play that many games any more (no time!). Well, more accurately, I play many games for very short periods of time. In fact, I don’t think I’ve actually played a game to completion in years, but I do try to keep on top of the industry and maintain a handle on the kinds of games that are coming out and especially focus on the ones that are doing well. I do find myself quite drawn to the hidden object games…there’s clearly something very seductive about hunting with your eyes. I’m also a sucker for a good breakout game.
Before Carrie the Caregiver 2, your most popular hit game was… Carrie the Caregiver! Can you give us insight in the development of that game?
The origin of that game makes for an interesting story. A couple of years ago I reconnected with an old friend – a former schoolmate. We quickly discovered that we were both married, and both had kids exactly the same age. We began to exchange emails describing our parenting experience in very game-like terms. How many “points” for a diaper change? How do you compare the value of an hour of baby-sitting to an hour of sleeping? How many baths do you need to give to earn a night out? And so on, and so forth. After about six weeks of that I looked at the mass of content we had put together and it hit me – there’s a game in this! We spent weeks thinking about which game model would best fit. In the end, doing a time-management game seemed to work best and we began to build the first prototype.
You just released Carrie the Caregiver 2 with your publisher Shockwave. Where most sequels simply add a couple of new features to the existing gamelay, Carrie 2 is radically different. Why did you decide to make Carrie 2 such a departure from the original?
Though I’m not entirely certain I agree that Carrie 2 is radically different, doing a sequel presents some unique design challenges. You want to bring back some of the magic of the first title – but you also want to bring something new, both for the audience and for yourself as a designer. We essentially focused on three things: 1) coming up with new twists on the time-management game mechanic, 2) pushing the use of story, theme, and context, 3) increasing the overall ‘volume’ of game.
We did actually have a rough plan for the sequel, even before we completed the first game, so we always had an idea where we would be headed if the opportunity to do a sequel presented itself. At all times, we try to let the “story” dictate the action on screen… not the other way around. Using preschoolers instead of babies helped immensely in terms of having access to a wider selection of behaviors and attitudes to work with.
Was it ever a concern that fans of the original Carrie might not be able to relate to Carrie 2? What steps did you take to make sure Carrie 2 was still accessible to fans of the first game?
To be honest, this was never really a concern. The sequel works with a very similar set of mechanics as the first game – so we knew that the game’s learning curve would be very low. We also updated our handling of the tutorial concept to make it quicker and easier to receive basic instructions for working with each of the five activities in the game. Finally, we kept the exact same production team for the sequel – so there was an appreciable continuity in terms of style and treatment.
The Article 19 Group is a distributed (or virtual) company, meaning that you work with a variety different people for different projects and no physical office. What are the benefits and challenges of this approach?
We are a distributed company – though over the years we have forged some very strong relationships with our team members, some of which go back ten years or more. Managing people at a distance is one kind of challenge, but we have found that there is really no substitute for working with people that you know and trust – especially on a highly creative endeavor such as a game. So, we regularly meet with our team members (most of whom reside in the same city as us) which hugely mitigates the management issue.
That said, there are times when I would love to be able to just walk over to someone’s desk and discuss something. Going virtual has really helped us to manage our costs (we do consider ourselves indie developers) and for the most part, the kind of people we work with would never take a cubicle job… so while I don’t doubt that there are plenty of talented people available for permanent hire, we rather enjoy picking and choosing from the people who live a lifestyle similar to our own.
Increasingly, we’re seeing a lot more developers like you working out of Montreal, Canada on casual games. Is Montreal the next “Seattle” for casual games development?
Montreal has been a hub of activity for the multimedia industry for quite a while now. A few years ago the province & city established a number of tax programs to provide financial assistance to companies specializing in “new technologies.” We have a large number of game companies that are based here – including some of the heavyweights of the hardcore game industry, most of whom have recently announced interest in and pursuit of casual games. We have an international games conference here in the form of the Montreal International Game Summit that seems to be growing every year. So, to answer your question, yes – I believe Montreal is the next “Seattle” for casual games development.
There has been lots of talk among developers about the state of the industry and the growth and entry of publishers in casual games. What is your take? Is it a good or bad thing that publishers are more involved now than they were years before?
I never really looked at the emergence of publishers in casual games as good or bad… simply as the next logical evolutionary step for our growing industry. Looking at more mature industries such as film, tv, books, etc. it seems you see a similar pattern. You have developers at one end, distributors at the other, and in between someone (or a bunch of someone’s) to marry the two and provide additional unique services.
Because of the nature of digital distribution, nothing ever really stops a casual game developer from selling and marketing directly to their own audience or from seeking out new audiences for their game. It is, however, a separate concern from that of designing and building the game. I suppose each organization needs to decide for itself what it considers to be its core set of competencies, and more importantly, how it wants to spend its time every day. We’ve made our choice in working with Shockwave.com as the publisher for our Carrie the Caregiver series, and are very happy with the results.
Where do you see the future of casual gaming in 5 years?
Obviously it’s a little difficult to predict, but clearly growth is on the rise and so I suspect budgets, team sizes, and production quality will rise as well. My hope is that there will always be a market for ‘smaller’ games that can be developed by smaller teams – but I’m comfortable with the thought that the days of single-team-member studios might be numbered, at least in terms of being able to meet the needs of the broader mainstream game markets.
Web-based games will become more prevalent and quality will rise there as well – and for a while I think this will remain an interesting playground for smaller shops who find themselves unable to keep up with the escalating costs of developing download titles and who don’t want to work with a publisher or other third party to receive additional funding.
Lastly, I suspect we will see even more consolidation in the form of buyouts at all levels of the industry. Coupled with that I would not be surprised to see more specialization at the distributor (portal) level. The days of all portals carrying all titles may be going away… and I’m not ready to say if this is a good or bad thing.
Can you give us any hints about your upcoming games?
Sure – we’re making some! Seriously, we are working on some Web-based stuff as well as some downloadable games (one of which should be hitting portals in the next few months). And for fans of the Carrie franchise… you don’t think we’ll stop at just two titles, do you?
Any final words to your fans out there?
We are extremely grateful to the people who play our games – without them we simply couldn’t do what we do. We have a loyal following for our Daily Jigsaw Puzzle to whom we owe a lot. And as for Carrie the Caregiver – we are tickled pink that she’s been received so well. It’s an extremely satisfying project to work on, and getting email from fans of the game really puts smiles on all of our faces. Thank you! You can check us out at Article19.com