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Deckhead Games Interview: The road to IndieCade and beyond

How a student development team brought a morally complex tabletop game to IndieCade 2017.

Deckhead Games’ Vision of the Future

On October 13th, 2016, IndieCade, the largest international independent games festival, took over five buildings on the University of Southern California’s campus. TV screens peppered every room, each one displaying vibrant worlds and creative visuals, suggesting new methods to play games or offering unprecedented immersion through virtual realities. The courtyards buzzed with activity as crowds shifted to and fro within the convention’s space. For three USC students, however, the draw of this convention was an alleyway filled with tabletop games. This was where the founders of Deckhead Games saw a vision of their future.

“We got to see [last year’s IndieCade] up close and personal and that definitely made it more of a concrete thing that we could do in our minds. Because there were students we saw at USC who submitted and so we thought, ‘Oh, this is a thing we can do.’” James Collins, the computer science mind of the Deckhead Games trio, refers to a project that at the time was a board game made for a class assignment designed to stir emotions in players. A game that would come to be called “Ducklings.”

“When we saw [the convention] we were like, ‘We HAVE to submit next year with our game,” recalls Aimee Zhang, de-facto aesthetic lead of the team. “We saw some professors presenting their games and just thought, ‘Wow, we want to be there!’”

Play to Test

“The first playtests were really bad,” Aimee remembers with a small grin. “We weren’t hitting our player-experience goals. The game went through a lot of changes.” As students in the Interactive Game and Media Development major, the team had to push their game through a process known as rapid iteration testing and evaluation. “You basically pump out a prototype, test it with people, see the problems in the test, and then pump out another prototype to resolve those issues. By the end of it, we probably had over 20 iterations of the game.”

Deckhead Games hard at work (left to right): James, Aimee, and Timothi.

Though the team recalls this time, a period that James refers to as “perpetual crunch time,” with a note of anxiety, they’re still thankful that they pushed their game through such a hyper-critical process. In particular, Aimee talks about the difficulty in nailing down the game’s tone. “Even two-thirds into development [the game] had a lot of tonal issues and art issues. We used to have really gruesome art where affliction tokens for the ducklings would literally show bruised eyes and broken wings. Through playtesting we discovered that doesn’t sit well with families or our target customer, so we had to pivot.”

“At one point our aesthetics changed to pink to make it more cute because there was feedback about how people wouldn’t want to see ducklings get hurt,” Timothi Lim, a reserved team member who focuses on marketing strategies, chimes in. The decision cost the team weeks worth of work, time, and money. And the switch didn’t pan out. “It kind of backfired because that’s not what our game is.”

 “Cute” really isn’t the best way to describe Ducklings. Inspired by the film Manchester by the Sea, the game explores the intricate emotions of being a parent, the balance between attachment and fear, and the difficulty of making the “right” parental decision. “We saw that a lot of board games don’t explore making moral decisions,” Aimee comments. “A lot of digital games do that. But nobody’s really brought that to the board game space before.” Though it is engaging to play, Ducklings isn’t a game where players simply have fun. It’s one where actions have consequences, where the line between right and wrong is blurred. With this player-experience goal in mind, a committed team, and a unique take on the tabletop experience, Deckhead Games forged through 2017 testing, failing, and refining.

Present

October 6th, 2017. IndieCade has moved from the buildings of USC’s media school to Little Tokyo. In one of the many showrooms, a trio of student developers have set up their table, prepared their materials, and positioned their poster in a prominent location. Then they wait. Seconds tick by in the room devoid of activity. Minutes pass. Tension builds in the unusual autumn heat. Attendees start to trickle in from outside. The room fills up. Then a child, accompanied closely by his parents, wanders onto the floor. A poster catches his attention and he stops in his tracks. “Ducklings!” he squeals, rushing towards the Deckhead Games table.

Addressing the fact that Ducklings had never been presented in so public a fashion before, Aimee refers to IndieCade as a “giant, conglomerate playtest,” a huge opportunity for the young development team. “I remember still feeling nervous after we fully set up the booth. But then after the first people played a round of our game, I felt calm because they actually enjoyed it.”  James agrees, saying, “Once you start explaining the game and setting people up, you fall into kind of a rhythm. By the fifth or sixth time you’ve explained it to somebody you know questions people are going to ask, where the flaws in your explanation are, so it gets easier and easier to explain over time as well.”

Deckhead at IndieCade 2017

But there was also something different about the convention. It felt…comfortable. “Having attended conventions like E3, GDC, and Anime Expo, you don’t really get to talk to people. It’s super packed. You feel stressed all of the time,” James says, explaining the difference between interacting with people at IndieCade and haranguing crowds to play Ducklings on the show floor at GDC. “At IndieCade it was really cool because everyone was really passionate about indie games and you could have actual conversations with people for an extended period of time. Even though we were presenting there, which we had never done before, it felt less stressful than even attending other conventions.”

“Everyone has the same passion.” Tim chuckles as he elaborates, “Everyone kind of understands your pain, and your passion, and your struggles, and what you really want to do. Some of them really have advice to get you there.” This is one of the things that makes IndieCade a special experience, not just for journalists and players, but developers as well: it’s about people.

On to the Next Pond

The sun has set on IndieCade 2017’s first night. Twinkling lights reminiscent of Christmas spring to life strung all around the buildings of Little Tokyo. People gather beneath them, festival attendees, journalists, and developers to exercise that muscle that links everyone at the convention together: play. It’s a celebration. As the crowds begin to compete in games curated by the festival staff, the Deckhead Games team is able to take stock of what they have accomplished and how far they’ve come. Before them is a community that they have truly become a part of, and beyond is a clear path laid out for them. “It was kind of romantic,” Tim recalls, half-joking as his teammates erupt into laughter.

IndieCade not only fosters a close sense of community but combines it with a constructively critical forum that allows people to grow. For Deckhead Games, this isn’t about changing their game, it’s about learning how to become the effective development team they strive to be. James especially found both a sense of peace and newfound motivation after presenting a finished product, “There were certain pieces of feedback that you have to think about and store for later because you can’t change the game now. It’s already finished development. It makes you think about maybe some biases you have in how you design games and how the next time around you might make some of those same mistakes. But you have to store it over an extended period of time because the mistake you make in one game might lead to a mistake in another.”

Playing Ducklings during Friday Night Fights.

“It makes everything seem more real,” Aimee comments on the effect the experience had on her. “I think becoming an IndieCade Official Selection kind of changes you as a game dev because after that point you’re like, ‘The next project that I make needs to be even better than what I did the year before.’ It’s really motivational and drives us to work even harder to get even more intense recognition. And I think it kind of taught me that we should just try to apply for more events like that because we originally wondered, ‘is our game even good enough to make it into IndieCade?’”

Tim offered perhaps the best summary on the event. “A big thing about going to IndieCade is you get to see everything. Every age range, every type of person come by and play the game. That’s what really shines for me. All these groups coming together. You have such diverse personalities and thoughts and ideals and these people get to interact with each other because of a game.” Tim likens it to a campfire, a space where people from all walks of life can gather, share, play, experience, and grow together.

A dev team at ease.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for IndieCade, or the gaming community in general.

*Check out Deckhead Games’ Kickstarter, Twitter, and Facebook for all the news on their exciting current and upcoming projects! There are still copies of Ducklings’ first print edition available for purchase, hurry and snag them before they waddle out of reach!

**Special thanks to Charles Choo for connecting TSG and Deckhead Games!

Evan graduated from Chapman University in 2017 with a BFA in creative writing and a minor in leadership studies. A love of storytelling propels his interest in video games, though he is equally comfortable on the battlefields of multiplayer games as in the middle of an RPG grind. When not gaming he can be found producing music, writing stories, or pondering the big questions in life.

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