Gameplay and theme are, in the casual space at least, sort of a chicken and the egg type of relationship. Which gives birth to which? The answer varies from game to game, but every once in a while, the two arrive so closely together that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Such was the case with Build-a-Lot, a title which has its gameplay and theme so entwined, it would be almost impossible to separate the two.
An RTS without the fighting
HipSoft was busy looking for their next title. As they brainstormed, co-owner Brian Goble said the team came up with what they thought would be a great thematic match for a casual game.
“We knew that the real estate theme was something we wanted to, because we thought it would be a good fit with this market,” Goble said. “So that was kind of floating around.”
At the same time, fellow co-owner and artist Garrett Price was being inspired by a classic real-time strategy game. Curiously, Build-a-Lot would eventually build off of that game, but by removing its central gameplay mechanic.
“His wife used to love playing Warcraft II, she loved building the structures. But as soon as the orcs came to attack her she would stop playing, because she hated the fighting,” Goble said. “So we had this thing: What if there was an RTS without the fighting?”
To fans of that genre, it might sound crazy. But for HipSoft, it was just the partner that their real estate theme had been searching for.
Off of the drawing board
Though they thought that the idea was a good one, the team let the idea sit on the company’s white board for months, “percolating” as Goble describes it.
After a while though, the board started to fill up with other ideas related to the peaceful RTS meets real estate game.
“That’s how a lot of our games get made, they have to percolate for six to twelve months, then we come back around and talk about them,” Goble said.
But soon the team saw a whiteboard full of ideas and knew it was time for the real work to begin. After so much time brainstorming, the leap to a working prototype was not a far one to make.
“We actually got the core gameplay of like building the houses, upgrading them, selling them buying them, we had that going pretty quickly and we kind of knew we were on to something,” Goble said.
For simplicity’s sake
One of the keys was to help the player understand the real estate world early in the game, something made a bit more challenging by the fact that none of the team had much of a background in the field. (Goble jokingly referred to the company as “armchair real estate agents.”)
Goble knew that the key was streamlining, not only in gameplay concepts but in the way players interacted with Build-A-Lot.
“For a brand new player, it can be a little overwhelming, all the different stuff you can do. So we knew we had to pace it slower,” Goble said. “But we to make sure that it wasn’t so slow that some users would get bored.”
What the team soon discovered was that their own lack of expertise about the real estate market was a blessing as much as it was a curse.
“We found ourselves focusing on an average person and thinking ‘What do they see when it comes to real estate?'” Goble said. “It’s probably like ‘Buying and selling houses and renovating houses.’ So that’s what we focused on.”
That meant a few things could be scrapped out of hand, with facets like borrowing money and mortgage rates some of the first to go.
“That can just get into a bunch of complicated math that nobody wants to deal with,” Goble said.
The team sunk plenty of time and work into the interface, how players would interact with the game. That made it all the more frustrating when the whole thing had to be junked.
Back to the drawing board
It was a couple months into the development process and Goble still wasn’t happy with the game’s interface. With so much information to communicate, that aspect had to be flawless. After a couple of iterations though the team had what they thought was a workable solution.
But when the dev team showed the game to some of their spouses to get their impressions, HipSoft received clear feedback that the interface was just too complicated to be usable.
“We actually did like a complete re-do and pretty much started over from scratch,” Goble said. “We changed the look of everything and how it all worked.”
In the end though, it was clear to the team that it was the right move. Their new tabbed interface (the one players will see in the game) was clearer and much easier to use.
“When we started showing that, it was clear we were on to something,” Goble said.
The old interface wasn’t the only casualty in the journey from whiteboard to game. Another of the other major facets of the early planning also had to be scrapped.
“We had some turn-based stuff,” Goble said. “For a while, we had an opponent AI, like another agent you were competing against. But we ended up taking that out.”
But the opponent agent had served the important function of being a guide throughout the game. Leaving the enemy out also left the player without a source of information.
To fill the gap, the team struck upon the idea of mayors of each area, someone who could work with the player to help them achieve their goals.
HipSoft made every effort to make their game as simple as possible. But once Build-a-Lot was put into the wild the team was surprised by how much depth their simple game appeared to have.
Players have even headed online to swap strategies with others and pick up a few pointers. Goble said that that hidden depth and that passion players seem to have for searching it out is what he’s proudest of.
“Some people build a house and sell it, some people want to get the rent going in,” Goble said. “It’s just really neat that people have found so many different ways to play.”