Post-mortem on Party Hard: Why we burned our game design document

Post-mortem on Party Hard: Why we burned our game design document

By Alex Nichiporchik, TinyBuild

February 2nd 2016 at 12:00PM

Alex Nichiporchik, CEO of TinyBuild, reveals the role that alcohol, a contract signed on a napkin and throwing away the original design played in the success of Party Hard

3am. The music is very loud. I need my sleep. Do I take the knife, or the baseball bat? Or maybe I pull the plug on their power box. After not getting proper sleep for a couple of nights, you go deeper down the rabbit hole - and start plotting how to get away with murdering as many people as possible.

But being a sensible person, I did knock on their door the first night and got a “oh, so sorry, we will turn it down” response. They didn’t, so I called the cops. And the night after. And after. Apparently after enough late night police discussions there’s a file, and the landlord gets notified. There are no parties next door anymore. Win.

It is only a couple of months later that I remembered plotting early morning party murders, it’s when I first played the prototype of Party Hard, a little game created during a game jam. It was fun and novel, and we knew the developers were really great guys who previously worked on casual, family friendly games. Now they were making a game about stopping loud next door parties in the most efficient ways possible – coming in and stealthily killing everyone.

I love Hitman games and instantly fell in love with this concept, but wasn’t sure if it could be taken much further.

Let’s get drunk at a business conference

We love consumer shows. Exhibiting at PAX has been the most fruitful, rewarding, emotionally and physically draining, brand building, and businees developing experience in my career. There’s just something magical about doing stupid things at a consumer show, having your fans appreciate it, business be done right there on the spot, and the payoff of “hey, I saw you guys at PAX!” reactions.

So despite my better judgement we decided to try a “business” conference. The ones where people come up to you to sell traffic, and other services you don’t need. The ones where you need to explain WHY your game isn’t free. Where people with no passion or interest in the art of video games go to do meetings all day, and report to their managers results of said meetings. So we decided to go, and get absolutely shit-faced drunk.

We bought over 100 cans of the cheapest beer I could find – Finkbrau – got a bunch of bean bags, and set up a few gaming stations for SpeedRunners. Whenever someone would try to come up and sell us something, we’d hand them a beer and show our games. It didn’t take long for everything to go very sad and me and Luke getting hammered.

About 20 beers in from about 10am, we decided to check out other game developers trying to fight off the sales crowd. To our surprise, Party Hard was a very interesting “spectator” game. You could come up and just enjoy watching someone trying to figure out all the traps and little ways to stay hidden while going stabby stabby through the party. I also get chatty when I’m drunk, so after chatting with the game designer for a few hours, and discussing what they’d need to make this into a full game – and more importantly, how it’d work as a full game, we got more drunk.

By the end of the day I drafted out a contract on a napkin, signed it, and went over to the Party Hard guys again. I’m pretty sure everyone thought it was a joke, but nope. Dead serious. Party Hard was signed on a napkin.

PAX East Premiere

The game design doc was pretty clear by this time – we wanted to do a procedurally generated game with lots of complicated scenarios that’d go very deep in terms of mechanics. You would set off a series of events that’d unfold like falling dominos.

We built up our ridiculous booth at PAX East and premiered the game to a wide audience of gamers. A couple of interesting things happened:

  • Random passers by would get glued to the screens and form an organic crowd. They’d chat with each other to discuss strategies involved, and the pitch of “It’s 3am, stab your neighbors without getting caught” echoed in the crowd.
  • We got a slot on the Twitch stage to premiere gameplay footage, with Jesse Cox playing it. It wasn’t rehearsed or scripted – we genuinely had a blast while playing a completely bugging out build. Jesse didn’t even consider using the deeper mechanics, and was enjoying the really simple things – like setting off an explosion, or trying to be super stealthy and then outrunning the cops when they show up and leave (because of a semi-bug). An organic crowd formed around the stage and was cheering for Jesse to win.
  • YouTubers and streamers that we invited in spent a couple of minutes on the title screen just enjoying the music, and also relied on very simple cause-and-effect features to make their video interesting.

Jesse Cox and two abusive orange idiots playing Party Hard on stage at PAX East 2015

It was clear we had to burn the design doc as is and start an iterative design process, using the traction we got with the streaming community to “test” what features work and which don’t. We decided we’d send out preview builds – with just a single level each – as soon as we had something new to show, and would just allow anyone to stream it or record videos.

The Iterative Crunch

Between PAX East and PAX Prime this year, we had an insane crunch – the development team was working around the clock, and I was the producer from tinyBuild’s side. We quickly learned that things don’t need to make sense to be fun. Here are some of the fun mechanics we figured out that made it into the final game:

Picking Up Bodies

One of the small mechanics became instantly very popular. Everyone likes to pick up and hide bodies. Some would stack them in a corner, some would just do a quick stab and try to cover their tracks. The body hiding mechanic gave a new rhythm to the game that we never saw coming, and streamers absolutely loved it.

The Swimming Pool

I’m not sure if it’s because of the Sims (come on, who hasn’t drowned all of their Sims in a pool), but being able to dump sleeping or knocked out people in the pool and watching them drown is oddly satisfying.

Visibility Zones

We saw early on that players expected certain things of the game. “How did he see me when he was facing away? Why didn’t he see me through the window?” We needed to create a line of sight mechanic and give players clear indication when they’re seen.

Suspicion Meter

The Suspicion Meter mechanic is probably the only “complex” mechanic that dragged over from the original game design doc. The idea is that people’s suspicion would grow, and once it hits critical mass – people would flip out, start to attack you, or call the cops.

This can also happen towards other people when they’re seen next to bodies or other suspicious activities. This created fun situations where you’d unintentionally frame other parties, and they’d get arrested. Or killed.

Shortcuts

We had a Shortcut mechanic where you could climb through a window, or teleport through a hatch to another part of the map. The cops that chase you originally wouldn’t be able to use the same teleports, and players quickly started abusing that. Eventually we made the cops grow “tired” of chasing you and just say “fuck it” and call it a night.

We decided to integrate this mechanic into the core game, and block off shortcuts if they’re being abused. A plumber would climb out of the toilet, and board the shortcut up. Everyone tried to stab the plumber, so we made sure he kicks your ass if you do.

Special Agents

Special Agents were introduced as a more advanced form of the cops. They’d instantly kill you if you’re spotted, and they would scout the area and hold a perimeter, making it very difficult to pull off kills. It added variety to the gameplay and rewarded patience.

Ambulance

Originally the cop would just walk around and bag all the bodies, stacking them on his shoulder (all at once!), but it felt like the game could use a bit more fiedility. Discovered bodies get highlighted and stay highlighted until they’re bagged up by ambulance workers.

Crowd Behavior

It felt stupid when there’s a large crowd of people and you’d just go and stab everyone in it. The crowd behavior also fed into a similar mechanic as the suspicion meter – when there are enough people watching a murder happen near them, they’d gang up on the player and beat him up. Someone would call the cops and you’d get screwed. Going guns blazing isn’t the best tactic in Party Hard, yet everyone tries it and laughs at the results.

Conga Lines

Probably the first idea we had was a Conga Line that’d form when you do something in the level. You’d be able to stab everyone in the line. It’s one of those special events that makes everyone go “Whoah!”

Random shark attacks

There are plenty of easily triggerable scenarios, such as shark attacks, or triggering a golf cart to run over a bunch of people. These are great because they set the tone for Party Hard.

Different Characters

It was a fantastic – and easy to implement – idea to introduce characters. Below, from left to right:

  • Normal guy. Everything is normal, can stab, use traps, can blend in.
  • The cop. Can frame other people, but can’t use traps.
  • The ninja. Hides in plain sight, moves quickly, but freaks everyone out instantly -- they run to call the cops. Also has a smoke bomb and a powerful sword attack.
  • The girl. Not going to spoil the story here.
  • The massacre guy. Kills everyone with a chainsaw, can charge through a crowd.

 

The massacre in action

Replayability

Party Hard was already replayable, but adding characters created a great level of extra challenges. All of them play out differently and flip the gameplay. This is what I love about Party Hard – it’s a systems-based game where you can approach situations differently. But having easy payoffs was very important to the game’s success as a spectator game.

 

The Hate

As we were putting out trailers and builds, more and more press tried taking stabs at me for marketing Party Hard as a “mass murder simulator”. For a while we were considering toning that down, but in the end I ended up sending gifs of dancing bears in responses to the negative or provoking press inquiries.

The response to silly things we were adding (and now a bear wearing sunglasses comes out, starts to kill everyone, dances, and then passes out and gets arrested) was nothing short of great. So we ended up adding lots more silly instances into the game, like a zombie apocalypse, UFOs, and Sharknados.

The AI Challenge

The biggest challenge design wise was to make a behavior tree that would facilitate fun and natural situations. Even if the situation isn’t expected by the player, it’s still important that it makes sense within the context. The designers spent a lot of time tweaking this, and even though we wanted to make behaviors more prominent and complex, most of it happens under the hood.

Twitch Integration

Party Hard was amongst the first ever games to have full Twitch chat integration, and the game made a lot of sense for it. We reserved super rare events like Sharknados to be triggerable via the Twitch Chat. If you’re streaming, you can enable you audience to mess with what happens in the game.

The Launch at PAX Prime 2015

You know how any good games marketing person will say it’s important to have the game ready four weeks before launch? And how you should send out codes to the media at least three weeks before launch? Party Hard was “done” three hours before launch.

We knew that everyone was all over the Twitch Integration part of Party Hard, and that the game itself lended really well to entertain viewers. We also knew reviews wouldn’t matter, and that streamers would the driving force during launch.

So we made a party. We partnered up with a bunch of fine folks and made a party for streamers the night before PAX. Apparently a lot of them came. I don’t remember much, I was drunk. Someone played Party Hard and we raised some money for charity.

The big launch event itself was making sure we have an enormous crowd around a loud and bright Party Hard booth.

Being “opportunistic” as I am, I decided to make a party with fog and bubbles. DO NOT use fog machines at convention centers. It’s a bad idea and you will quickly find out why (smoke detectors).

The bubble machines idea backfired in more than one way:

It made our tiles incredibly slippery.

 And it gave everyone around the booth a free bath. 

However the LED lights and giving away game codes to winners of crowds, along with loud music, worked wonders! We constantly had a huge crowd around the Party Hard area.

The crowd tends to draw streamers in. Streamers come back and bring their friends, and suddenly everyone in the livestreaming communtiy at PAX knew about Party Hard’s launch. The idea of interacting with your audience while you stream the game made for a great talking point, and even mainstream sites that would typically destroy a game like this in a review, opted for livestreaming the game and sharing their experience.

On burning down the design doc

If we went with the original plan and design document, the end result would have come out in 2016 and be much more boring than the final game. We were able to crunch for six months and iterate on what worked. The end result is a much better product and a crazy crunch story.

Whenever you are getting traction, it’s important to maintain it, and not lock yourself up with tunnel vision – the game development landscape is constantly changing, and opportunities emerge daily. Being a small company, you can take action much quicker than the bigger guys, and adapt to what works. 

In a way, Twitch streamers designed Party Hard – or heavily influenced the decisions we took during development. I love my job.

 

P.S. This gif was sent to me mid-development with the question: “Too much?”. I answered: “It’s not enough!”