Boarding pass: How Airport Mania made a safe landing

Some game companies use pretty pedestrian means to pick their projects; maybe doing some market research, testing what ideas have been popular in the marketplace, or by licensing an IP and going from there or just making a sequel.

For Reflexive’s Russell Carroll, the producer of Airport Mania, the process is much less regimented.

“I have a book of game ideas that I’ve kept for years, and often a game idea hits me and I’ll scribble it into the book,” he said. “Sometimes the idea is more complete than others, and some ideas just keep working on me until I’m convinced that it’s the perfect time for that idea and that the game HAS to be made.”

For him, Airport Mania was just such an idea.

“I kept thinking about it and expanding on it, and then I was convinced that somehow, that game had to come to life and that now was the perfect time to do it.”

Too cute to fly?

Obviously, the problem with trying to make a game about airports is that, due to the events of September 11, they have become very serious places.

This is countered in Airport Mania by one of the first factors that Carroll settled on for his air traffic controlling game: The friendly, cartoon-inspired look of the airplanes.

“When I first sketched things out, I was convinced that the game needed to have lots of character, and that character would come from the planes,” Carroll said. “Honestly, I really didn’t intend for people to look at Airport Mania‘s art as being aimed at kids. The intent was just for it to be cute and fun.”

The look of the planes was key as they were to be the only real “characters” in the game.

“Though we at several points considered making it so that you could see the passengers, I actually never considered the passengers as the game’s customers,” he said. “Planes are what is cool about an airport for me. In fact in designing the game, I spent a good amount of time getting more familiar with different plane types and each plane in the game is based off of a real plane.”

Carroll admits though that his stars are perhaps a bit too cute and friendly for their own good.

“We probably overshot a little bit in that department as I know some people haven’t even tried the game because after looking at the screenshots they decided the game wasn’t for them,” he said. “That makes me sad, because I really think we have a fun and friendly visual style in the game that will win you over if you play the game and give it a chance.”

Taxiing in the runway

No matter what the planes looked like, the point would have been moot if Carroll hadn’t been able to find away to take the chaotic, intricate world of air traffic control and make it into a relatable casual game.

The design process started by looking at some of the service based time-management games already on the market and finding where Airport Mania could differentiate itself.

“The biggest change, of course, is in the player focus,” Carroll said. “Instead of having a central character, there are all these planes that act like their own characters. Still, I didn’t want to overwhelm players by having too many characters going too many directions at the same time.”

Carroll became very scientific about it, measuring the number of interactions with each Diner Dash customer, so he could keep his game in the same range.

Though the number of interactions may have been close, Airport Mania really set itself apart with how those interactions flow throughout a game. With each plane having a different set of needs, things get pretty hectic.

“In most time management games there is a lot more centralized flow, but I really enjoyed the frantic multi-tasking approach that we were able to create in Airport Mania,” Carroll said. “Of course I’m always splitting my attentions everywhere, so being able to do that in a game, and feel successful at doing it, is really appealing to me.”

Keeping it level

Though the frantic pace would be the game’s hallmark, it was also the source of one of the most difficult spots in development, finding a way to balance the game’s difficulty.

“Near impossible. Really. We had a beta period that was nearly 2 months long and throughout that period I was revising levels to make them easier for the average player,” Carroll said. “However, due to the multi-tasking flavor of the game, it was easy to take away the fun and make the levels boring, or increase the difficulty and make the levels feel impossible. Small changes have huge results because everything is compounded.”

Carroll once more went into research mode, graphing the experiences of beta players in 30 different categories and trying to make the game as fun as possible for the highest number of people.

In the end, Carroll thinks that the final game is probably on the easier side of the time management spectrum.

“I wanted to err on the side of too easy,” he said “and it’s amazing how many people have really appreciated that, especially people who were unable to play these types of games in the past.”

A long layover

Though the game make look simple and be easy to learn, there was nothing brief about its development, which took over 14 months to complete.

It was a long slog, but Russell’s passion for the project managed to keep him from feeling too burnt out on the game. In fact, he admits that he (as many would soon do) would often use the game as a stress reliever.

“Every week I played through a new build and there was always new idea that was being worked in,” Carroll said. “Honestly, I think the game’s focus on fun really made a big difference. I would turn on the latest build as a distraction from the rest of my work. The game made me smile and continues to do so.”

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