“We went out to [the Game Developer’s Conference] and we showed it to a few publishers, and there were a couple who thought we were completely crazy. They said ‘We think it’s an interesting idea, we just don’t think it will go.’ They didn’t think it would fly…so to speak.”
Though designer Wade Tinney admits his company’s game Snapshot Adventures may have not received the warmest of welcomes, just a year later, the game is proving that its concept doesn’t just fly: It soars.
The origins of the game were not the product of a birdwatching fan looking to make his dream game, but rather of Tinney’s Internet searches for popular hobbies that would translate well to the casual game medium.
“Birdwatching just kept coming up, it wasn’t necessarily the most popular, but it just kept catching my eye,” Tinney said. “And I just thinking: How you could make a game out of that?”
The answer? You can’t … or at least, not a game about birdwatching proper, which largely involves catching birds in your binoculars and then noting the sighting, not exactly a compelling gameplay mechanic. The team realized that the player would need to take some sort of concrete action before they’d truly have a game on their hands.
A pretty picture
“It pretty quickly evolved into a bird photography game, because we just felt it would be really satisfying to snap a photo,” Tinney said.
Photography had another attraction for the team: The idea of letting players create something unique to them just through the act of playing the game. With that realization, they decided that it was a strong enough idea to run with. Unfortunately, a rough mockup of the game they showed at GDC wasn’t enough to convince many publishing prospects to run with them. Luckily, publisher iWin was willing to take up the baton.
Large Animal was then, as the real work began, faced with a simple task: Prove that iWin’s faith was justified, and prove everyone else wrong.
Hitting the books
As is their custom on most every game they work on, Large Animal began extensive research on their topic, which none of them were terribly familiar with.
“That’s kind of my favorite part of my job,” Tinney said. “Every new theme that we take on, we do a ton of research on that game. Any time we take on a new game, we find out what people who are passionate about that thing like about it. What’s the subculture around it?”
Double duty had to be pulled for Snapshot, which required not only extensive knowledge of the likes and dislikes of “birders,” but also … well, birds. The team went to New York’s Central Park with guides to watch the spring migration, subscribed to every birding magazine they could find and even sought advice from some of the top minds at Cornell University.
“They’re pretty much recognized as some of the top experts in the field,” Tinney said. “We realized pretty early on that we would need to bring experts on board, basically so we wouldn’t get anything really wrong.”
The whole team was packed in a rental van and driven to Ithaca, N.Y., not only to get a little of Cornell’s ornithological expertise, but also some feedback on the early build of Snapshot. Their working relationship continued, with Cornell continuing to provide critiques of updated builds as well as authentic songs for the birds in the game.
Fear of the unknown
Though it might seem that some expert help would make the game’s 12-month development smooth sailing, Tinney said that the challenges were still unlike anything they had faced. The hurdles were made even more difficult by the very real concern that even when the game was finished the public simply wouldn’t get it.
“It was definitely the most difficult game that we’ve made. The mechanic itself was something new; we didn’t have a model to go off of. But also we were working with this subject matter that we weren’t sure if it was going to work with a broad audience,” Tinney said, before adding with a laugh: “We basically bit off a lot.”
Part of the way the team helped make the game accessible to mass audiences was by making much of the experience fit into the typical casual game mold. For Large Animal, that meant, in part, integrating power-ups into the gameplay.
Tinney said that power-ups, instead of just adding to the gameplay, actually became the gameplay in a sense, with each item dictating the sorts of pictures players would try to snap and vice versa. Tinney said his only concern was how the birders would respond to the more fantastical elements of the game.
For all of their worries about authentically representing birds and the birding hobby, the team soon found that the hardest thing for them to translate was artistic value. Tinney said that the game’s scoring system, which judges the composition of each photo, was the hardest thing to nail down as it required trying to figure out how each player would judge the artistic value of each photo.
“Obviously it’s a very subjective thing,” Tinney said. “But we kind of realized at one point that the most important thing was that it was predictable. So we view it now almost as a sort of minigame. We’re testing your knowledge of that scoring system.”
Tinney needn’t have worried, neither about his gameplay or his scoring system. His presentation to the photography special interest group of the Audubon Society went extremely well, generating a lot of excitement among members.
“They were really in to it, and really engaged in it,” Tinney said. “No birder has been like ‘It doesn’t make sense that you’d be able to stop time,’ they all understand that it’s a game.”
Round the bend
For a team to whom authenticity was key, the adulation from birding experts meant a lot, the completion of a journey from bird neophyte to certified (digital) bird expert.
Tinney said that his team has considered expanding the game or following it up with a sequel. Though he sounds excited about the prospect, a follow-up would ironically have to vie for Tinney’s time with his new real-life hobby.
“Oh, I go birdwatching,” Tinney said. “I’m going tomorrow, as a matter of fact. I kind of see the world in terms of game design, but I really think that birding does have a lot of game-like qualities.”