Office Attacks is a new mobile game developed by Arctic Empire, set to release sometime in August. They’ve established a development blog on Gamezebo, allowing users to follow the creative process, give feedback, and gain some unique insight into the game. Office Attacks is a tower defense game that stars Steve, a new employee who is, as most cubicle slaves are, harassed by coworkers bent on increasing his stress level. It’s the player’s job to build towers in order to stave off monsters like “the Bitter Know-it-All,” the “Chatty Cathy,” and the “Smarmy CEO”. Use office objects like pencil sharpeners and computer parts to build martial towers, weld objects together to create something new, or use the marketplace to trader with other users. Office Attacks is a novel spin on an old genre seemingly dominated by zombies. Check out our multi-part interview with Arctic Empire PR director and self-proclaimed “Chatty Cathy” (I’ll also vouch for that title, considering the amount of time I spent transcribing the interview and the fact that we had to split it into multiple parts, and the fact that he somehow managed to work in a tirade about how much Bicentennial Man upset him), Eli Cymet. Hit the break to read about why coworkers are scary, how the community gets brought into development, and the trials and tribulations of freemium games.
Piki Geek (PG):So, Office Attacks has coworkers instead of zombies or monsters–
Eli Cymet (EC):Yes, it’s got real people instead of fantastical creatures.
PG:Yeah, but they’re pretty scary still, probably scarier than zombies.
EC:Perhaps. I would argue scarier because they have real life corollaries. We have a lead animator, Jake Adams, he comes from a background in broadcast and film and very much narrative animation. So what we try to do, what we probably worked hardest on, very early on, was making sure each of these characters felt like almost immediately recognizable parts of a little working world that you could relate to. Whether you had an office job, or just a retail job you didn’t like, or a food service job, or any job you don’t like, even remote jobs dealing with various archetypes of people over the internet in your life, we try to– and it’s very hard because there’s no dialogue, except for the tutorial, except for some text and maybe some sound effects for voices–there’s very little that these characters actually get to do besides walk and animate, and so we had to evoke, or we wanted to evoke, the sense that you knew the office cry baby, or the office “chatty Cathy”, and you knew the CEO, you’ve worked with this kind of boss before, and this nerd, or this sort of brown-noser at the office with the grudge– you’ve met that kind of person in your life. So we wanted there to be that sense that you were not only getting a catharsis taking these fantastical attacks out on people you kind of maybe met. The response has been great so far, we’ve gotten people who see the characters and who say almost immediately to us, “I work with person X” or like, “Oh, that hipster guy, he just got fired at the job I work at.” People really seem to be responding well to these characters and so we’re happy about that.
PG:You mentioned you’ve worked with people like that, so does it ever get personal in the office, when you’re trying to come up with these characters?
EC:Actually, I mean, the irony is that the character that plays the troubadour or like the well-meaning-but-really-untalented musician is one of our junior programmers who was with us for a while, and he’s actually pretty excited that his likeness is still in the game. For a while we had, and we still are batting around the idea of having, bonus characters representing each of us here at the company put in through later updates. But, I don’t think it gets personal, I think where it gets funny is that we’re pretty good-natured here and are sort of willing to acknowledge the elements of us that, as employees in this type of job, could be lampooned. I mean, everyone’s got something about them in their work habits that probably represent something that somebody else doesn’t like, so we try to be pretty self-aware about it and be like, “Okay, this character should animate this way, his signature attack should be this.” As an example, our CEO character, the one who is very smarmy and likes to pass the buck, his main move set is that he’s very dodgy and he’s sort of slimy and slithery, and he walks up to Steve if he manages to get to his desk, and he barks at him– he’s quite aggressive and as a character he’s very powerful. So Steve’s stress (which is your health meter, your ultimate goal that you have to protect) goes up quite fast if a CEO character manages to get to his desk. This CEO character, he’s modeled entirely after our CEO Josh [Garellek], who really took a hands-on approach to the process and was excited to determine what kind of facial expressions he’d make and things like that. All characterized, exaggerated versions of things we’ve seen or been around at moments in the office. No hard feelings, but we definitely try to be self-aware about taking parts of ourselves and in some cases even likenesses of ourselves.
PG:Are you in the game?
EC:I’m not in the game. If I was, I’d probably be the worst character. I’d probably be the character where all the other characters, all the developer characters, don’t think I do anything, and then I’m just really loud. But I’m not in the game as yet, however the crybaby or the “chatty Cathy”, in all of our development process, she’s been styled, like if she had to be assigned a job in the office, we’ve just called her the PR girl, because her only attack, her only power, is to walk up to Steve and complain to him about her broken heart or her house or all these troubles. Essentially what we did was we used Windings, the font, and we just gave her a bunch of ridiculous symbols when she gets to Steve’s desk. You’ll see her whining about all these obscure, esoteric things in this weird speech bubble, so yeah—I’m in the game in spirit. I didn’t quite make the cut.
PG: How are you working with the Gamezebocommunity to develop the game?
EC:What we’re doing with the Gamezebo community is that for the next batch of weeks up until the game releases, we’re teasing out core elements of our game. What we’re doing in terms of a promotional strategy is we’re engaging in a lot more deep discussions than discussions about the background of the game in other outlets around the Internet. For Gamezebo they were really great in that a lot of mobile game sites don’t really host dev blogs, but Gamezebo was really receptive to the idea and said that they were hunting for more feature content, more original content, so we’re teasing out what we think are the most unique elements of the game as they develop, being very honest with our audience. Like, we pushed the release date forward on Gamezebo’s website a while ago to early to mid-August as opposed to the end of July to give the game more time to bake and the elements to gel together. So we’re sort of field testing the various elements of the game. The issue with Gamezebo is that they are still implementing comment systems, because they started as a social network site more, so this system is not very comment-friendly, making it hard to gauge fully what the audience thinks. But, what we are going to be doing is doing an all-call for beta testers in the Gamezebo community and then using that as an opportunity to leverage the blog we’ve been doing, and probably get beta testers a lot easier because they’ve been seeing the game week after week and they can say, “Oh, that game, yeah I’ll test that out.” And from there, those who volunteer will be tapped for more detailed feedback. What we’re largely doing with Gamezebo is using it as an opportunity to really, if anything, keep ourselves in check about the development process and see how the game is going, and we always have these very public records to refer back to so that we can hold ourselves accountable, because one of the biggest issues, I think, is over-promising under-delivering, and what we’re trying to do is make sure the game launches with all the things that we’ve talked about, all the bells and whistles we’ve talked about. So we’re using Gamezebo both as a promotional outlet and a way to really give us good perspective on the dev process as we go.
PG:You mentioned beta, do you know when that might come out?
EC:Yeah, beta is, if all goes well, within the next 7-10 days. So we’re very excited about that, and then we’re going to have 4 weeks, 5 weeks of really heads-down crazy testing. Throughout the process we’re going to be taking feedback, pushing updates to the game virtually every day based on what we hear back, and then using that as a time to really really perfect it. Because the best part about the App Store ecosystem is that you can easily update content, so we’re really going to be using our beta testing processes, probably the most crucial process in the game. What we’ve found from our earlier development cycles with smaller games is that if you beta test for one week to two weeks, it really isn’t enough time to do more than maybe catch the crucial game-blocking issues. On a game like this, our biggest title yet, the title we’ve spent the most making, the title we’re interested in really pushing out there, our first freemium title with in-app currency, we really need to determine whether it is fun at the base level, because we’ve been so insular about the game, what do people who aren’t a part of the team think about the characters—do they feel they can relate as much we do? Do they feel like the mechanics are fun? Especially with the in-app currency system, too, we’re not going to be implementing the store until late in the process, that’s something that we, if we could be so bold, stole from Nimble Bit, the company that makes the amazing Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. They spoke to us at GDC and talked about the fact that the last thing they do in their games is put in the payment system and the store, because first they test internally and with users to determine, “Is this fun? Is this something I would be interested in paying for?” And if the answer is no, why charge for it? So there’s this idea that we’re going to give users a fair amount of the currency to start when they’re playing beta, and let them spend and go crazy, and then take feedback on, “What did you enjoy spending currency on the most? If you had run out of currency while buying X, would you have spent real money? Does that feel like something we earned from you, or that we were being sleazy?” We want to really make sure that they game comes out as fun as possible, hit the ground running, without having to pay a cent, and that anything you’re paying for feels voluntary and it feels rewarding to pay for it.
PG:Is there also a tower part marketplace where you can exchange parts?
EC:Yes. So, what we wanted to do with the game was like a secondary market. I don’t know if that’s a term used in freemium or if I just spat that out randomly but if it becomes something, I have to get on copyrighting it. What we really wanted to do was create channels through which users who monetized and didn’t feel satisfied, or those who didn’t monetize could still enjoy the game at the level of those who were paying—maybe not on equal footing, because that’s the whole idea of freemium games, that if you pay you get certain little edges and certain little advantages that make the game, not more fun, but more unique to you. So not on equal footing, but at the very least, close. And then what we’ve done is devised two systems. The part marketplace is going to be a Facebook login powered secondary market, almost like an asynchronous Craigslist system whereon you can take parts you are not using or parts that you don’t feel you have value on anymore…. and put them up online. All that will be revealed online, on marketplace, is your first and last name, which you might say, “That’s a lot,” but that’s what you have publicly available on Facebook as it stands right now. We’re totally interested in addressing and talking to people about privacy concerns because it’s super important to be aware that if your kid is playing the game, you have to get involved and see what your kid is playing, of if you’re playing you have to be comfortable with Facebook login. But to be frank, for now it was the easiest way to do a one-touch way to power a full social system. So you go online, you see the names of other users trading parts and what part they’re trading, and you’ll offer something up. From there, people can make counter-offers, reject your offer, or accept, and then asynchronously you’ll come back online after you’ve finished playing or pop back on after a couple days and see all the results of your trades, and then you can use those parts to make new towers. So this a way to get value out of parts that maybe you paid for, like you bought a pack of parts (which you’ll be able to do), didn’t like anything you got in it or already owned some of them, sort of Pokémon card style, so you trade them.
There’s the Welder as well, which is a way that we could circumvent those users who were not comfortable using Facebook login, or maybe those players who were too young whose parents didn’t feel, rightfully so, that they didn’t want them to go online and use that Facebook info. So what we’ve done is allowed users to take two parts of any tower they’ve built or any pack they bought and then “weld” them together, and the result is that they will be given a part that is guaranteed to be different than the two parts they welded and at least marginally more powerful or rarer. So the idea is that you turn around things you don’t like—one man’s trash is another man’s treasure– and you come back with something you can hopefully use.
So those are our two systems of secondary market purchasing, where you’re not using real money perhaps, but you are still able to get the same things that those who are using the freemium currency get.
PG:In one of your most recent updates, you guys said there would be online competitions for the best looking or the best working towers. Do you think that people who are just playing for free would have a chance against those who are paying for their parts?
EC:I see what you’re saying, the idea is like, do those who choose from the beginning, “I’m not going to monetize, I’m not comfortable with monetizing,” do those users have the same chance at participating in, winning, and feeling valued in these aesthetic competitions as those who are paying?
A couple of things we really think help even the playing field is that, if you pay, the primary thing you will be paying for are Chachings, which is our premium currency, and those Chachings allow you to buy packs of tower parts. You can buy the standard pack, which comes with three parts: one common, one uncommon, and one rare; or you can buy the premium pack which comes with between five and seven (we’re still working out the numbers there) with just a more robust distribution of all of those different types I just mentioned. However, because all of the parts are random, you’re not guaranteed the most aesthetically gorgeous, or the best parts, or even parts that you don’t have. So by virtue of that, there’s no guarantee that you can just buy your way into the prettiest tower, but it is true at the base level that if you do buy more parts, you’re likelier to get a variety in there to build interesting towers. However, what we’ve done to combat that, and we think this is something that engenders good will, is we think the best way to get people interested in monetizing (because of course a game is a business) and interested in getting people to help support us so we can make more games, is to give them really big doses of the kind of content they would pay for and then entice them to buy more instead of just holding them hostage. So as you play the game, every time you beat a level you’re going to get Chachings, you’re not just going to get coins, so you’re going to get our premium currency every time you beat the level. There are going to be boss-style enemies that are bigger, more powerful versions of the regular enemies that you’re going to get premium currency for beating. You’re going to get premium currency if you go back and beat a level on a higher difficulty setting, or if you get three stars on a level which means that you don’t lose any of Steve’s stress. There are going to be huge and frequent opportunities for players who choose not to pay to earn premium currency and buy packs of tower parts, and in addition to that we’re going to have levels and, in some cases, enemies drop random tower parts at the end of them or after beating them, so that you’re gaining tower parts as you go. And again, it’s all randomized, and we’re even working on a system where we can even give away boxes of tower parts and do it in such a way that you’re seeing the kinds of things you would get if you paid, without having to pay. So you can go, “Oh wow, I really love this, maybe I’ll pay for some more of it.”
At the end of the day, to answer your question, the only difference between those who pay and those who don’t is that those who pay will be more firmly able to control the amount of premium tower parts they get, whereas those who don’t pay will be dependent more on the random system. But the random system is something we’re making so robust that you’re never going to feel like you’ve played five or ten matches and gotten enough to build one new tower, we really want that not to be the case. Especially since it’s a game where there’s a lot less emphasis on pre-built towers, so we need users who are paying or not paying to be able to build towers because that’s going to power their game. So at the end of the day, the randomness of the system where you pay and the generosity of the system where you don’t pay is what we think will help balance that out, so that players who choose not to pay and those choose to are on equal footing to be able to really take advantage of those contests we’re having for coolest looking towers. And of course, “cool” is subjective, so we’re going to try and put it to community vote as much as possible and use our Facebook page, and use the forum we’re going to be establishing to really get user input, which means users will be able to lobby for their own tower. We really want to build a community around the game, where people can feel like their towers are their own little creations come to life, getting people invested in the little things they’re tinkering around with as much as they are in just putting the tower down and watching it work, which we think is one of the more important parts of the genre, where you just sort of plop down the tower and let it go on auto-pilot—there’s less play in the game, and we just feel like we want to return a sense of play and whimsy to tower defense, and that’s where these sorts of competitions are really coming from.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the continuation of our interview with Arctic Empire’s Eli Cymet, where he talks about community integration, lessons taken from past titles, a potentially self-aware in-iPhone iPhone, and why Bicentennial Man is bad.