Vast: The Mysterious Manor | Development Diary - Learning to be a Studio

Designer/Developer Diary, Vast -

Vast: The Mysterious Manor | Development Diary - Learning to be a Studio

I first visited the offices of Leder Games a couple weeks after being hired full-time. With a long list of rentals to visit, I decided to make the ten-hour drive up north alone, sparing my partner and our kids the frustrations of home hunting. It didn’t take long to settle on a place in a quiet Saint Paul neighborhood a little over two miles from where I would be working. The lease was signed in short order, and I found myself with an afternoon to spare. Rather than get a head start on the long drive, I decided to head into the office and put in a half-day.

The excitement of working full-time as a game designer remains as fresh these many months later as it was that first day. But, what brought me in that first day was mostly curiosity. Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what I had signed up for. I’ve been lucky enough to work all kinds of jobs in my life. I’ve been a teacher, a researcher, a journalist, a landscaper, and a waiter. I’ve shoveled gravel while landscaping and corralled kids on fieldtrips. I’ve spent days pounding aluminum pieces out of gigantic laser-cut sheets and I’ve helped children with disabilities through their daily exercise regime. And, even though I had shepherded a few games through the publication process, I wasn’t exactly sure what this job would look like.

My first impression of the place quickly moved from mild bemusement to anxiety. The building we were located in, was almost a caricature of what a startup/maker space should look like. To enter the building, you have to walk by a little brewery and across a nice plaza, complete with a food truck and a looming piece of steel art. On entering the repurposed old factory, the first thing that catches your attention is a gigantic neon sign reading simply “LOL.” It more-or-less summed up my feelings about the place as I wound my way to our second-floor office.

In comparison to the newly chic lobby of the building, the interior of our space was, underwhelming to say the least. Patrick and his team had just moved in, and the cavernous room was chiefly marked by its clutter and deafening echo. Various folding tables populated the center space and a hodgepodge of chairs and stacks of games doted the room. Though Patrick and rest of the staff were as welcoming as ever, the space did not seem encouraging. Having just come from working at a well-regarded (and very well-funded) university, I was, frankly, spoiled when it came to work environments. Every nook of my former campus was designed with intention. I certainly knew that accepting a position at a small company meant a big shift when it came to the kinds of workspaces I would enjoy, but this was a little surprising.

We all clearly had a lot of work to do.

Getting our Footing with Root


It wasn’t long after I arrived that the company’s next project was decided. I’ve written plenty about the design and development of that game. But, one thing that I haven’t talked about much is how I think Root influenced the shape of the company.

Though Leder Games had been around for a few years, it was still in its early stages as a full-time game studio. And, as anyone who’s ever worked at a young company knows, job descriptions are mostly exercises in wishful thinking. There’s just too much work to do. It’s hard to even have a sense of what your role needs to be until the company itself has been stable for a year or so. I don’t think any of our full-time staff (including me!) had a sense of what we were doing. Root would soon get rid of that uncertainty.

Root was a complicated and demanding project made all the more challenging by the project’s breakneck schedule. Why was it like this? Well, simply because it seemed like we could all do it. Right at the start of the project, about ten weeks before we launched the Kickstarter, Jake (our operations guy) asked me how quickly he thought we could make Root. I spent about a day making Gannt charts and to-do lists. Then, consulting with Jake, we came up with the ten-month production schedule for Root (we even built in room for delays!).

Now, I don’t want folks reading this to get the wrong impression. Root wasn’t rushed in the slightest, and I’m happy to say that more testing and balancing went into that design than any game I’ve worked on. And, we kept to schedule. But, it was demanding. I had many 70 and 80-hour weeks and everyone at the company gave the design their all. I could not have produced anything close to the game without them. It was a true team effort.

Every project cannot help but transform its creators, and Root was no different. During the development of the game, something like a studio production system gradually began to emerge organically. We all got better at communicating with each other, we were able to delegate increasingly complicated tasks to each other, and gradually job duties and weekly schedules became to form. The physical space of the office reflected this too. The haphazard initial organization sorted itself into a semi-open office layout with playtesting, meeting, and break areas. By the time Root was submitted to the factory our office looked downright respectable!

Turning our Energies to Vast

During the early stages of Root, Patrick was indispensable to the game’s development. He guided the project, establishing its ethos and its general shape. But, once development heated up after the Kickstarter was completed, he started turning his energies towards the studio’s next project, Vast: The Mysterious Manor. At this point TMM had been in development for over a year. In some respects, the design was about as far along as Root, but Patrick wanted more time with the design.

By the time we turned to TMM, a basic production system was emerging. It seemed to us that the studio could focus on one project at a time, and that it would take about 8 months for the average project to go from getting a green light to being delivered. In the course of this process, other designs could be worked on, but it was important to maintain focus on only a single project. Right now Root had the spotlight, so Patrick relied on a separate set of playtesters and mostly pushed TMM solo, without using too many studio resources.

Illustration of the spider from Vast: The Mysterious Manor board game


One resource that Patrick did make use of was our new graphic designer, Nick. Root’s success had meant that we could add a staff position, and it was obvious that we needed another graphic designer in the studio. After all, I was hired to do design and development! That I ended up doing so much of Root’s graphic design had less to do with my graphical ambitions and more to do with the fact that I knew I could work quickly enough to keep us on schedule in that regard.

Nick was a force multiplier. While the other staff and I moved Root through the final stages of development and readied the files for production, Patrick and Nick worked on TMM. Both Patrick and myself are very visual designers, so having someone else in the office who could help build graphics for the game meant that the design could develop much faster.

By March, the design and development of Root was done and so I shifted fully over to final graphic design and project management. With a title like Root, a gigantic number of files needed readied for the print, so I brought Nick on to help me finish them on time. The rest of the studio went over to TMM.

Manor, in-House

The first few studio playtests of Manor, in February and March, looked nothing like the first tests of Root. For one thing, our office had started looking like a game studio. Not only did we have another staff member, bringing our on-site staff to a robust five, but we also had nicer tables, and a sensible layout. No longer bare, our walls hung with banners from our projects and white boards, filled with production schedules and design ideas. It may seem small, but those material things matter. The nice new paper cutter and printer we bought during Root’s development meant that it took less time to build a playtesting kit. The faster you can build a new kit, the more time you can spend thinking about how a design works.

Of course, the non-infrastructure systems mattered too. By the end of Root, we had the rough outlines of a system by which we could reliably build a game. Granted, we still needed our remote staff. The company could simply not exist without their contributions, but when it came to design and development, the bulk of the work would happen in Saint Paul using the general organization that we had first developed during Root.

While our studio certainly had a business and operations side. In those respects, it functions a lot like any other company (yes, we too have meetings about logistics, marketing, paying the bills, etc). But, one thing we were absolutely primed to do was to build games. With a staff of five, playtests can be called at almost any hour of the day and a design could be iterated weekly without much stress on our resources. In fact, Root had taught us not to be afraid of rapid iteration. Usually when you work on a design, it’s best not to change the design too quickly because you burn through your most precious resource, playtesters. But, with essentially a staff cross-trained in development and playtesting, the great weakness of game development for most companies became our absolute strength. In a month we could crank through a dozen plays of four different versions of a game and still be fresh for version five.

It was immediately clear how dramatically the experience of making Root had changed the way we all thought about development. Though TMM was in fairly good shape when Patrick first started playing it in studio, the post-game analysis session blew the design apart in a hundred productive ways. Root had made all of us sharper critics and (I hope) raised the standards by which we judged our work as a company. It wasn’t enough for TMM to be a good game, it needed to be excellent.

Illustration from the Treasure card, Armor, from Vast: The Mysterious Manor board game


Patrick, for his part, handled the critique with aplomb. He guided the discussion, keeping us on task and drawing out specific proposals from our little think tank. One the biggest differences in designing in studio (as opposed to most design work) is that you are much more like a director than a singular creator. Of course, at a certain point all designers usually have to deal with this kind of management (with play testers, editors, publishers, developers, etc). However, the studio system we built intensified the degree to which an even-tempered, managerial style was needed. For the system to work, the project director/designer needed to listen to everyone, pick the right voices to listen to at the right time and shrewdly delegate tasks. I had found this aspect of Root totally thrilling, and it was cheering to see Patrick thrive in this changed position.

I was certainly happy to step aside and let Patrick sit in the captain’s chair. Freed from Root, I could now jump into the exhilarating work of sketching out new ideas and building proof-of-concept games. Of course, like everyone else in the office, I found myself playing TMM as many times a week as Patrick would need me.

In addition, I agreed to serve as the game’s developer and project manager. In this role, Patrick has given me small elements of the design that needed rebuilt or tightened while he directed his attention to bigger picture concerns. The constraints of these tasks were a welcome break from the early-stage design concepts I work on. The position of developer also allows me to be a check on Patrick’s feelings, encouraging routes that I find promising and dismissing rules or game systems that I don’t think are worth the effort. In this respect, I was taking on the role that Patrick had provided for me during the early stages of Root.

A Vast Difference

One of the most common questions we’ve gotten about TMM since launching the project a few weeks ago is about the difference between TCC and TMM. It’s a complicated question because, in terms of the design, TMM is still a Vast game. After all, we want these things to be cross-compatible.

But, at a very fundamental level, TMM is different. And, I think that difference owes itself in large part to how this little studio has grown over the past year. For all of its innovation, Vast: TCC was built on the traditional designer/publisher/developer model. In contrast, Vast: The Mysterious Manor benefits from what is, in my estimation, one of the strongest development teams I’ve seen in the industry. It’s a team that has less to do with myself or with Patrick than with the camradire that emerged from an amazing and demanding year. Already, I think TMM has benefited from this process. I think the game is sharper and more strategic than Vast: TCC.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll also be putting out a few more essays like this which discuss elements of the game through the lens of our studio’s development process. First up, the Enchanter. But my hands are a little tired so that will wait till tomorrow.

illustration of the Enchanter from Vast: the Mysterious MANOR

 

- Cole Wehrle

 

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