Ever wonder what game design secrets the Palm Pilot holds? We had the chance to sit down with Scott Corley, the guy heading up Wideload Shorts, Wideload’s “casual” (though “casual” is a four-letter word in their offices) game design shop. He explained Wideload’s design philosophy, as well as Shorts’ unlikely beginnings.
The Escapist: What’s your background? What’d you do before joining Wideload?
Scott Corley: I started in the games industry back in ’93, right before the dawn of PlayStation. I worked in the business doing console games and ran the software department for a company called High Voltage Software, which was right here in the Chicago area. I was one of the first people there and was basically responsible for growing their whole software division and turning it into a place that could develop games that went from Super Nintendo to PlayStation and Nintendo 64 titles.
In around 1999, we released a whole bunch of titles for a whole bunch of different platforms. That year we released three titles that were pretty good. We did a basketball game for Microsoft called Inside Drive; a game called LEGO Racers that came out on multiple platforms and sold a boatload of copies; and we did a little game called Paperboy 64. All three of those came out right around the same time, and I kinda looked at what I’d been doing; I was pretty exhausted. Anyone who’s been around the industry long enough knows these projects get longer and longer and bigger and bigger, and I wasn’t really having very much fun anymore. So I quit, and I didn’t know what I was gonna do. At that point I started goofing around with my wife’s Palm Pilot. I wrote a couple card games for it, put them on the internet and people started buying them. I sort of accidentally spent the next six years selling games on the Palm Pilot.
It sort of opened my eyes to the world outside the game industry. When you’re inside and reading gaming blogs and playing console games and inside that little world, you forget that most of the planet is not in that world. I fell out of that world and got into this whole other world of these different customers who were really happy to have these games that were made for them.
So in 2006, I ran into Alex – I’ve known Alex Seropian [founder of Widelod] for a long time, back from my High Voltage Days, and we’ve kept in touch since then. I ran into him at an IGDA meeting here in Chicago, and we started talking about the different things we were doing. … Between the two of us, we had grown into this sort of older gamer. We’ve got busy lives, we’ve got kids; we’re not focused on these big, mega-hit games that seem to have a bigger time commitment. So we talked about combining all these things, plus the emergence of these downloadable game categories that were coming up, downloadable games on the consoles, and the idea of Wideload Shorts just shook out of that. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to do some cool games.
TE: What do you view Wideload Shorts to be? They’re downloadable games, but are they casual games? Casual games for hardcore gamers?
SC: We shy away from the term “casual games,” because it has definite meaning for some people, but it seems to have a different meaning for everybody. We’re not really sure what that means. That phrase started out to mean “a game that you can play casually.” You can pick it up and play it for 10 minutes, then put it down. There’s a lower learning curve, easier access, the game is better at communicating with the player. We absolutely see all those things as important parts of these games that we’re doing. We want them to be games that can be played in smaller time increments. … But there’s also another connotation of casual games. We feel the term also implies games that are made for people who aren’t paying attention or don’t know how to work a mouse or something like that.
We’re targeting our games as [games that] could end up on a game console, like on WiiWare or Live Arcade or PlayStation Network. We imagine our games to be these really rich experiences, the same sort of quality and satisfaction that you would get from any other game you would see on a console, but the way you interact with these games is more of a shorter time period; trying to boil it down to these aspects of fun, where we can take all that fun and throw it at you at once.
We do see them all being downloadable, to answer the other part of your question … mainly because the downloadable channel meets our needs of being able to put these things out as pretty low risk and pretty quickly. We think that model allows us to take more creative risks and more gameplay risks.
TE: What type of games do you have in the chute now? Are they building off Wideload’s current properties, or will they be unique IP?[/b]
SC: The three games that we have in the works right now … are all unique IP. They don’t leverage other Wideload games or Wideload properties. We’ve kinda been saying all along that we see the opportunity to have some synergy between the Wideload retail games and the Wideload Shorts games.
We have ideas wandering around the office. We’ll see something on a screen that’s being done for a retail SKU, and an idea will pop into someone’s head, like “Man, we could make a game out of just that,” or “If we took this one level or these characters, we could make a game.” So those ideas are happening, but the Wideload Shorts plate right now is basically full with original IP games. The first one of those we’re driving to have finished by the end of this year. … And the other two are in early concepting prototypes.
TE: Will Shorts be designing the games with just one team? What’s the company’s structure like?
SC: We’re structured like the mini version of the larger Wideload [Check out Allen Varney’s The Wideload Way, in issue No. 61 – ed]. A lot of the best studios throughout history have been small studios, and when they grow past a certain size, different dynamics take away some of that magic. So we’re trying to keep that small core size. … Wideload retail games are made with this core group of people that can define what the game is, design the game, design the characters, and when it comes to the heavy lifting, like the major animation and the major modeling work, we go outside of Wideload and hire experts in whatever particular field that we need to get that major work.
On the retail side they may scale up to 100 people at some point in the project, and then in between projects, when we’re doing design work, it can scale back down. Wideload Shorts is doing that same approach. We have one team right now, and the way we’re doing the three projects overlaps right now. The one project that’s in production to be finished this year clearly takes the bulk of our time. But we set aside at least a day a week to tend to the other projects; do some more kind of creative and brain storming and visionary work on those. By using this model of saying, “It’s OK and great to use outside people,” we have people outside of Wideload who are working on concept sketches; we’re doing a lot of iterations on these other ideas that are working outside of Wideload and working in parallel with us.
By doing that, we can work on these ideas over long periods of calendar time, let those percolate through our minds, sleep on things and get the designs really solid in our heads before working fulltime.
TE: Is there any name we might recognize for who you’re working with on the “heavy lifting” stuff?
SC: There probably are some names you would recognize. On the Wideload retail side they use some bigger outsourcers. On the Wideload Shorts side, we work a lot more with individuals.
TE: Do you ever intend to act as a distribution platform or publisher for other designers with a similar take on the industry, a la Manifesto or Kongregate?
SC: We regularly remind ourselves that we are a developer. Part of the Wideload idea of sticking to what we know and hiring experts in other fields definitely applies to distribution and publishing.
There’s a possibility that we’ll open up a Wideload Shorts store on the web. But we talk about those things, and we think if we’re going to do something that’s a big storefront or something like that, it’s much better to find someone whose goal it is to become an expert in that and work with them. Our goal is to be experts in designing and making original IP.
TE: Is this PC only, or do you plan on going to consoles, too? Are you hoping to release across all platforms, or to just start on one and see how things grow?
SC: We’re starting off dipping our toes in the water, and we’re going to see how it goes. The different consoles have different strengths and weaknesses and different target markets, especially if you look at the Wii vs. the other two.
We take all that into account, and we look at some of our game designs, and we think, “OK, these would be better on this platform or better on that platform.” The way we look at projects as either it would awesome on one platform and would be fine on just that one platform, or maybe it should lead on that platform and trickle to the other ones. Some of these designs we look at and think they should be on all platforms right away.
Another one of our strategic goals is to leverage outside technology as much we can. We end up doing quite a bit of stuff internally to make our games do what we want, of course. … If we can get a game out on all platforms by leveraging someone else’s technology to do that, then we will. But right now, especially since the downloadable channels are each a special case, we’re looking at each game on a platform-by-platform basis.
TE: Do you plan on having a fixed pricing scheme, or will price vary?
SC: We think the price will vary per game. We want to leave our options open to put out a game that’s very low cost, and have games that are a little bit more involved. One of the things that we’re really trying to reign in or the Shorts side is we really don’t one of our games to blow up and turn into a full retail SKU, because then we’ll be working on it for two years, and we’ll totally miss the whole mission of Wideload Shorts. … But below a certain threshold of price, we still see some room to do some that are really low cost and other ones that are simply mildly low cost.
TE: What’s the ultimate Shorts experience? How do you want the games to play? What’s the “theme” for the whole company?
SC: We were just talking about that this morning. … We’ve got a wiki internally here. … There’s this whole page in here that covers this question you’re asking. If there’s a way to describe the experience of a Wideload game, I wouldn’t put out an example of a game or a genre that would typify what our games are going to be – we probably could do that, but it would send people down a trail that led the wrong way. But we do think the games that we make should have a really solid gameplay hook that you can identify and understand.
The best way to describe it is there’s games out there that have this one gameplay hook, and that gameplay leads to this constant flow of fun that flows all from this one idea. When we’re looking at our game ideas, we can identify those things pretty early. We can look at something and say, “That’ll be fun for a few hours, but after that it’ll be horrible.” And then we see other ones and think, “Well, that might be fun.” Then we look at it a bit more, and it kind of reveals itself … and we see more and more fun. When we tap into those mother lodes of fun, that’s what we like to grab onto.
TE: What do you think there is to be learned from the casual/downloadable market? What does a Bejeweled or a You Don’t Know Jack do that Half-Life can’t?
One thing that’s obvious is they don’t try to cater directly to what you would think of as a core gamer person. They don’t try to fill all the check boxes of the games that have come before that have been top sellers. We want to be able to step away from a Half-Life and say we’re not gonna do the obvious evolution of games from a certain chain.
We look at ourselves as making games that are on the one hand for the people like me … that are lapsed gamers. We used to play games and our lives have changed. We still wanna play games, but they have to fit into our schedules and be done on our terms.
We also see some of our games going after the expanded market. Obviously, Bejeweled is the prototype for the game hit that on the head: All these people that were not being served with games that they wanted to play. We tend to think of the really simple games like that as best served by the companies that specialize in those super simple games. We definitely feel like our games fit into the category of pick-up-and-play and learn it really quickly; games that really take into account the customer that doesn’t sit in front of a game console 40 hours a week.