Thimbleweed Park is an award-winning point-and-click game released in 2017 as a tribute to similar PC and Commodore 64 adventure games in the 80s. It was created by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, with design and development assistance from David Fox, Jenn Sandercock, and numerous others. You control five characters simultaneously in a story containing multiple sub-stories, interact with many characters in the game, and solve the puzzles you encounter. Each animated character has a distinct personality you can always remember, even after completing the game and removing it from your phone or computer.
After spending over 20 hours playing the game, I was so impressed that I searched the net for its origin. I found a podcast by the game creators that ran weekly for two years, from April 2015 to April 2017, plus one more episode in April 2018. Most episodes are 20 minutes long, with game creators discussing the development progress. One episode each month is an hour long and includes answering questions raised by Kickstarter-backer of the game and those posting comments on the game’s website blogs.
My curiosity for listening to the podcast started with no apparent reason besides wanting to know more about the game, but it quickly became more significant. It was about something other than how to build a similar game or a nostalgia to bring back the 80s. It was about learning that such a talented team developed something innovative with a tremendous focus on detail while maintaining rules and constraints. The developers intentionally bound themselves to keep the game with an 80s look and feel. The developers developed hit games for over thirty years, including Zack Mackraken, Maniac Mansion, Indian Jones, and Loom. Back then, they were in their twenties. Now, they are in their fifties and sixties with much life experience and a lifelong passion for adventure games and science fiction.
From a technology perspective, the developers leveraged a lot of the traditional, modern-day technologies, such as Git for code repository, Adobe Photoshop for the art and animation in the game, software development kits (SDKs) for Steam, GOG, Xbox, Swift, Nintendo Swift, OSX, Android, Windows, Linux, and more. They were also blogging and podcasting their process, which was unthinkable in the 80s. They were working remotely, using Skype for communication, and interacting with their supporters on social media channels. In the eighties, such technologies did not exist, of course. The limitations of 8-bit computing, like the Commodore 64, continued some of the creativity with music, graphics, and game playing. Nowadays, games run on 64-bit processors and are more technically sophisticated, such as leveraging augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. The developers for Thimbleweed Park decided to do none of the cool new stuff.
Thimbleweed Park creators ensured all graphics were limited to the 80s era. They also perfected all the details of the animated characters and the scenes using pixelated art. They added voice, special effects, and music that still made you feel that you were in the 80s. They also expanded the game to support international-speaking game players. They added innovative ideas to the whole project. For example, Kickstarter backers could record voicemails that can be played back whenever your character in the game dials a number from the phonebook. Other game backers can also send texts of some books, which the developers would add inside the library scene in the game. The game includes many entertaining puzzles, like a microwave, a bathroom air blower appliance, or some berries in the forest. Some puzzles are challenging, but there is always an “Aha!” moment when you seek a hint within the game. I am not giving details about the game because I don’t want to ruin the fun of playing it.
While the game was innovative and entertaining, the podcast developers’ conversations were also very casual and informative. It was equally fun as playing the game. The recording of the podcast episodes started when the game was being developed. Like any typical development process, things begin with early ideas and preparation work. The creators would not disclose many details about the game in their podcast because they did not want to ruin the story before its publication. Listening to the podcast episodes while playing the game was double the fun. Unintentionally, you would relate the game scenes discussed in the podcast episodes. Sometimes, you hope to find some clues about the game guilt-free because you want to avoid using the hints option. The game creators talk in the podcast, and we listen. They call out specific feedback received from their Kickstarter backers and discuss it. Hence, you feel users’ voices are included in the podcast. Sometimes, they invite other team members to work on the project. The episodes frequently include humor and nostalgic moments from the past. Even their personal lives would get shared on the call. As the episodes progress, they discuss their concerns about release timetables, bug fixes, issues with platform rollouts, and problems that are uncommon in any project. It is easy to wonder how the developers organize their work - the artistry, the development, the management, and everything else.
The podcast episodes feel authentic and nostalgic at the time. The experience of playing the game and listening to the creators’ thoughts and interactions throughout the lifespan of the podcast that ran in tandem with the game development made me rethink how innovative thinking, natural human behavior, and organized execution can generate excellent results. If the project was rewarding to its creators and players, why not take more of such lessons and apply them to any project innovation?
Some of the insights that I learned from Thimbleweed Park, both the game and the podcast, are:
- Nothing is impossible, but don’t be overly ambitious. Even though the developers and the artists were masters in their field, they did not go overboard with the project. They stayed faithful to what they wanted to do and did it exceptionally well.
- They dedicated regular feedback channels for their customers. They allowed their users to suggest ideas but made the call whenever a draw occurred on which statement to pick. They also gave an option to their Kickstarter contributors at a specific level to be part of the game by letting them record their voicemail, which you can listen to in the game if you dial the person’s name and extension located in the game’s telephone book. That is cool and original.
- The podcasts were very entertaining and informative. They didn’t shy away from discussing their past or sharing their concerns about the game development progress. A great lesson learned about honesty and humility.
- The game had many challenging puzzles but also included an option to get a hint. Like any product, you always need guidance when you get stuck.
- The game’s story is long but needs to be longer to give up. There was still something in the game that pulled you to continue playing. Even when you leave the game for days and return, you can quickly get back to the same rhythm before leaving the game. The user experience is excellent. Design a product with an intuitive user interface that makes it easy to return to where you last stopped and can help you recall what you should be doing next.
I can think of other ideas to learn from playing such a game. But at the end of the day, I can summarize it all as: Design something as intuitive as playing some game. Have fun doing it. Let the users enjoy what they are doing with the product. Be honest. Refrain from over-commit, but do not underachieve, either. One last thing: play the game!
Game information is available at https://thimbleweedpark.com
Note: images are copyright of Thimbleweed Park.
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