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 is created by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, with design and development assistance from David Fox, Jenn Sandercock, and numerous other individuals. You control five characters simultaneously in a story that in itself contains multiple sub-stories, interact with a multitude of characters in the game, and solve the puzzles that you encounter. Each of the animated characters has very distinct personalities that you cannot forget even after you long remove the game from your phone or computer.
After spending more than 20 hours playing the game over a period of time (22hrs and 15minutes in my last attempt per game record), I was so marveled with the game that I search the net on its origin and found a podcast by the game creators that ran weekly for 2 years from April 2015 to April 2017 plus one more episode in April 2018. Most of the episodes are 15 to 20 minutes where the game creators discuss the progress of the game development. One episode each month is an hour long and includes answering questions raised by Kickstarter-backer of the game as well as those posting comments on the game’s website blogs.
In the last couple of weeks, while driving to or from work, I went through all the podcast episodes in chronological order instead of listening to my usual music. My curiosity for listening to the podcast started with no apparent reason besides wanting to know more about the game, but it quickly turned into something bigger. It wasn’t about how to build a similar game or a nostalgia to bring back memories of the 80s. It was about developing something innovative with a tremendous focus on detail while maintaining a set of rules and constraints that the developers themselves intentionally decided to bound themselves onto to stay committed to their original idea, and that keeps the game with an 80’s look and feel but using modern-day technologies. The developers used to developed games together twenty to thirty years ago including Zack Mackraken, Maniac Mansion, Indian Jones, Loom, and more. They were in their twenties at the time. Now they are in their fifties and sixties with a lot of life experience combined with their lifelong passion for adventure games and science fiction - your typical geeks that I personal align with.
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 something unthinkable of in the 80s, working remotely and using Skype for communication, and were interacting with their game supports on social media channels. In the eighties, such technologies did not exist, of course. The limitations of hardware and software on old computers like the Commodore 64 generated a lot of creativity but bounded with can be done in terms of graphics, music, and 8/16bit computing power. Nowadays, games run on 64-bit computers and mobile phones, and can easily leverage augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence technologies to maximize gaming experience without sacrificing performance or cost. The developers for Thimbleweed Park decided to do none of the cool new stuff.
Thimbleweed Park creators made sure all the graphics are limited to the 80s era, but they perfected all the details of the animated characters and the scenes. They added voice, special effects, and music that still makes you feel it is the 80s. They also expanded the game to support international speaking game players. They added innovative ideas including Kickstarter backers could record a voicemail which can be played back in the game when a character in the game dials a number from the phonebook. Other game backers would send some text of books which the developers then add to the library scene in the game. The game also includes entertaining puzzles such as ones that make use of the microwave or the air blower in some bathroom or some berries in the forest. Some puzzles are challenging but have an “Aha!” moment when some character makes a phone call while the other character does something else. I am not giving details because I don’t want to ruin the game for those that would like to play the game. While the game itself was so innovative and entertaining, the conversations between the developers in the podcasts were geeky sometimes but and most of the times were like normal discussions that can be taking place between friends in your backyard.
The recording of the podcast episodes started at the same time the game was getting developed and continued throughout the development stages. Like in any typical development process, things start with early ideas and preparation work. The creators do not disclose the details of the game in the podcast because they do not want to ruin the story before the games get published. It made listening to the podcast episode as adventurous as playing the game especially when I started listening to the podcast after the game was released and while I was playing it. Unintentionally, you would relate the actual game with what is being discussed in the podcast. Sometimes you would hope to find clues about the game even though the game itself as an option for you to ask for clues. Moreover, you would start to wonder how the developers are organizing their work - one is the artist, another is the developer, and a third is the project lead and is also an artist and a developer.
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 added into the podcast. Sometimes they invite other members of the team working on the project. The episodes frequently include humor and nostalgia moments from the past. Even their personal lives would get shared on the call. As the episodes progress, they share concerns about release timetables, bug fixes, issues with platform rollouts, and different problems which are not uncommon in any project. In general, the episodes felt human and not some business production, so why all this important? The authentic experience of playing the game and listening to their thoughts and interactions throughout the lifespan of the podcast that ran in tandem with the game development made me rethink about how innovative thinking, natural human behavior, and organized execution can generate amazing results.
When the efforts by the developers were rewarding to its creators and its players while at the same time it was fun and challenging then why not take more of such lessons and apply it in corporate innovation. Key takes that I learned from Thimbleweed Park the game and the podcast:
- 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 idea 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 humbleness.
- The game itself had lots of challenging puzzles but also include an option to get a hint. Just like any product, you always need some guidance when you get stuck.
- The story of the game is long but not long enough 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 then return, you can quickly get back to the same rhythm before you left the game. The user experience is excellent. Design a product with an intuitive user interface that makes it easy for you to return to where you last stopped and can help you recall what you should be doing next.
I can think of other ideas that one can 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 and let the users enjoy what they are doing with the product, be honest, do not 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.