After a number of panels featuring discussion between independent puppetmasters and members of different design companies, 42 Entertainment‘s Jim Stewartson (Chief Technology Officer), Elan Lee (Co-Founder, Vice President of Experience Design), Sean Stewart (Co-Founder, Creative Director), Steve Peters (Game Designer) and Michael Borys (Visual Design Director) sat down for a roundtable discussion, moderated by Kristen Rutherford, about how their team works together.
Stewart began the roundtable with a discussion of a chemistry puzzle in the Beast that was intended to look “cool and spooky” but be relatively easy to solve, and 42’s subsequent efforts to reproduce that effect in their other games. One of these attempts was Flea++, the “programming” language used in I Love Bees. In a similar vein, players would “teach” the character of the Sleeping Princess to speak as she cobbled together words and phrases from their emails and replied to them. Stewart’s favorite draft reply was “I want a cupcake.” Lee told him they couldn’t use it because it was too ambiguous — it could be a call to action for the players. According to Stewart, one of Lee’s main roles within the company is removing ambiguity from what the players see (Stewart’s summary: the creative process at 42 consists mainly of Lee saying, “That’s really good but can we have another draft?”).
Lee explained that this is important because it’s easy for puppetmasters to forget how much information they have that the players don’t.
Peters and Borys joined the company after the Beast and I Love Bees, and for Peters the creative process, at least for Vanishing Point, revolved around adding greater elegance and enjoyment to the puzzles they created and removing the potential for frustration. (Peters’ summary: the creative process at 42 consists mainly of Lee saying, “This is a really good puzzle but it’s not quite fun yet.”) Borys observed that a mistake they made during Vanishing Point was creating the first group of puzzles first; they got better as they went on, so they should have waited to do what the audience would see first until they’d had more practice. Lee explained that never designing level one first is common practice in video game design, but the just-in-time delivery nature of ARGs often makes that an impossibility, prompting Borys to lament that playtesting is another luxury often lost because of that delivery schedule.
An audience member inquired as to whether this meant that 42 doesn’t get to do any playtesting or prototyping. Stewartson and Peters agreed that in general, the company gets one shot at much of what they do. Stewart added that as Brian Clark noted in an earlier panel, turnaround times for corporate games are often extremely condensed, and that even when they have time to test elements of their games, the small groups with which they could test them don’t necessarily respond in the same way a large audience would. He credited much of their success to Lee’s ability to predict the behavior of large groups.
Another question asked about visual design for 42’s games. Borys described how love for the projects makes them go the extra mile, prompting a discussion amongst the panel members about how much they loved working with one another and admired the talents of their coworkers. Stewart described the atmosphere as more akin to playing with a band than working at a production house or ad agency. The other reason he is willing to work outrageous hours is because he feels that with an audience that is willing to pour their own outrageous hours and energy and passion into a project, the puppetmasters owe it to their audience to give it their best effort.
Rutherford repeated a question from an earlier panel about puppetmaster nightmares, in answer to which Stewartson wryly described his life as “a series of actual nightmares,” reminiscing about Last Call Poker’s poker system failing to work 40 minutes before the site launched, and realizing in the second week of I Love Bees that all they had was payphones when the players were already sick of the structure. Turning serious, Lee described his own greatest fear: that the genre into which so many people have poured their time, energy and passion will turn out to be merely a passing fad. Stewart added that the fear of disappointing the audience is one of his recurring waking nightmares.
Reasoning that things couldn’t always fit the “rosy” picture the panelists had painted about working at 42, an audience member asked if the company had suffered any growing pains. The panelists agreed that their biggest growing pain is figuring out how to grow: finding people with the relatively rarefied skills the company needs, hiring business-minded people who still understand what they do, and overcoming the difficulties of working on multiple projects at once.
A question about archiving games revealed that replayability is Lee’s “great white whale,” as well as that Stewart has in his possession the manuscript of a Beast novelization which can never be published due to complications with who owns the intellectual property.
To lighten things up, an audience member posed a more positive final question: what are the “wow moments” that the 42 team remembers most fondly? For Stewartson, it was a day of player interaction with Melissa in the programming language he’d invented, which he described as “one of the most thrilling three hours of my life.” For Lee, it’s realizing how their work has touched people, which was brought home to him when he visited Rutherford’s house and saw all the gifts and letters players had sent her. Stewart cited a puzzle from the Beast that had all the qualities that make up “the pure product” for him: a tight loop between players and puppetmasters, the risk of a highwire act, and intense emotional effectiveness. For Peters it’s the whole picture: how far the community has come. And for Borys, it’s the community responsiveness: that a day after a puzzle is launched there’s a player-created wiki page dissecting it in greater depth than its creators knew it had.
Stewart got in the last word, observing that another high point for him was during the voice actor auditions, when an unknown actress in the green room turned to her husband and said that the script reminded her of the Beast. Stewart gestured toward Rutherford: “She got hired.”
Editor’s Note: Jessica Price works on Cathy’s Book, a 42 Entertainment property.