Many games attempt plot twists to varying degrees of success, but it’s a precious few that deal with gameplay twists. Giving the player a reasonable idea of what a game may be before suddenly turning the knife and transforming into something completely different is a rare thing indeed. Twinbeard’s Frog Fractions was one game that used some devious misdirection in that regard, and Michael Townsend’s A Dark Room was another, the browser-based title starting as a mindless click ’em up motivating you to gather resources in order to construct a settlement, and suddenly evolving into a mercilessly tough exploration based adventure game.

It’s a twist that surprised Amir Rajan when he developed the iOS version of the game last year. ‘I’d taken a sabbatical from work and wanted to learn new things, like iOS development. I came across the Web version, and based on the first few screens thought “this’ll be an easy thing to try to port”, so I emailed Michael and asked if I could do it and he said yes. I thought “oh, it’ll just be some buttons and text, no problem,” and then came across the Dusty Path’.

Not content to bring the game across as was, Rajan made several tweaks to pacing, changing the timing of when players emerged onto the Dusty Path as well as tightening timing. He also expanded upon the original’s mysterious story, using short and punchy dialogue boxes to elegant craft an impressive lore and a breathing world, albeit depicted in ASCII art.

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A Dark Room

‘The only reason it was in ASCII art is I didn’t know how to do 3D graphics!’ Rajan laughs. ‘With the writing, there’s a lot of games that almost treat (lore) like they have to write this massive book and you have to read a lot. But as people, we have this wonderful ability to just fill in the blanks, so we were able to use these short sentences, primarily for screen real estate, but also because we decided on some writing guidelines early. We wanted these short sentences, all lower case, and no pronouns; no ‘he’s ‘she’s or ‘I’s. We wanted to let the player fill in their own blanks’.

While text was written to guidelines laid out in advance, nailing pacing was more trial and error and the result of a lot of play testing, as Rajan explains. ‘I just had to go from friend to friend, asking them to play this game and carefully study them to see when they began to lose interest. It’s hard, too, because a lot of friends would just be polite and play for the sake of me. The timing (of when to open up the game) was something that took a lot of work, and it’s frustrating because you can’t use the same tester twice; they’ll know what’s coming’.

Life imitated art when A Dark Room iOS was released in November 2013, making very little impression to the point where Rajan was willing to let the project lie as a failed experiment. Then, suddenly and inexplicably in spring this year came the twist in the tale, the Dusty Path to the initial release’s Tiny Village. A Dark Room became the talk of the gaming world. There had to be some shady marketing ploy behind that, surely?

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The Ensign

‘Honestly, I have no idea what happened. The first day we had something like fifty downloads, which is pretty awful, and I’d be searching online to see if just anybody was talking about us. Then, around the end of March…I check the downloads every morning, and I saw it had gotten 800 downloads in a day. It wasn’t ranking at all in the US, but was getting into the top ten in the UK. Then the next day, it was number one. We went from the 1500th paid app to number one in two days. I have no idea what happened. I guess it was just the domino effect of one person talking about it and prompting someone else to, until it got to the “right people”, and it went to number one in the UK, then number one in the US for fifteen days’.

With many developers frustrated at what’s perceived as a soul less, metric driven market in the mobile space, A Dark Room’s sudden and organic success is heart warming. ‘The only real contributing factors to its success I can think of is the uniqueness of the game and just putting the player first,’ Rajan explains, ‘but I feel the pain of a lot of devs. You’d think that being number one for so long that “oh, we’ve made it,” but both Michael and I have full-time jobs, because even with that success, it just doesn’t cover the bills. The one caveat Michael gave me when he let me work on the game was there was to be no in app purchase at all. Now I’m thinking “man, we could have cleaned up”!’

Dark Room’s time to the top did make a second game viable, and Rajan worked on the recently released prequel, The Ensign, on a part-time basis from scratch. Gameplay wise, its focus on the Dusty Path section of the original is a departure from Dark Room’s mix of economy management and exploration. ‘The concept of a sequel didn’t quite feel right to me,’ Rajan explains, ‘and at the same time Michael was working on another game, too, (browser-based puzzler) Gridland. We both felt that Dark Room is the kind of game you can only make once, or maybe a couple of times before people start expecting these discoveries that happen, they know it’s going to unfold this way’.

While A Dark Room had you sending survivors under your charge to explore and exploit the land, you’re only in one pair of boots in The Ensign, and death means starting again. Random elements put The Ensign in the Rogue like pigeon-hole, a crowded market to say the least. A significant reason for this, Rajan explains, was a desire to make a challenging experience that made exploration key.

‘We got to the point where people started doing speed runs of the game. I figured out the fastest possible time to beat the game is sixty minutes, and someone did it in 52, which is insane. People were that dedicated to play and replay the game, and while the management part might be fun the first few times or so, I wanted to make something where people can just get out there and see the world. At the same time I wanted to give people this challenge, and tell more of the story, so it was all very difficult’.

Gridland-browser-game-play

Michael Townsend’s Gridland is a compelling match three crafting and survival game. An iOS port with Rajan is ‘up in the air’, but the game runs in mobile Safari as is.

The result is a more carefully structured experience than a first glance reveals. ‘The first part of the game is about training you, and telling you that this isn’t the same kind of difficulty you find in A Dark Room. From there it layers in quite a few moral choices that might see some characters or even yourself live or die. When villagers became slaves in A Dark Room, many players felt they didn’t have a say in becoming this person exploiting all these people, and here was a way to give more choice and explore more of the story. Then, of course there’s a final twist that ties everything into the first game.’

Rajan now has a lot under his belt for someone who doesn’t work in game development full-time. He’s produced a port that markedly improved on the original, and a follow-up that never rests on its predecessor’s laurels, not to mention ceaseless content updates that address almost every reasonable criticism levelled as well as add developer commentaries and many other secrets to uncover. There’s more ideas Rajan would like to explore, including rounding out a Dark Room trilogy but only on a part-time basis.

‘I suffer from Imposter Syndrome,’ he admits, ‘I see the success, and then talk myself out of it. When Dark Room blew up, I was telling myself, “yeah but it’s a port, not your own work really”. The Ensign came out to good reviews, but I’m telling myself “oh, you’re rehashing things, it’s not original”. So I really struggle with this thing of people seeing me as a game developer but I don’t see myself as one. But if an idea comes to me, I’ll still make a game from it, so I guess that makes me a game developer.’

You can listen to the full audio from this interview below, directly or from our iTunes feed (s-u-b-s-c-r-i-b-e). Sorry for the shaky audio at the beginning, it fixes itself ten minutes in.

Huge thanks to Amir(@amirrajan) for chatting.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)