Alex Fleetwood tells Develop about putting play back in the hands of players, his fascination with real-world games and how digital technology can enhance them
Hide&Seek is unlike any other modern game studio. Inside its circus of a laboratory, its small team formulates new ways to play that put you and your friends centre stage.
Its real-world games have gotten people young and old exercising their quick-draw (with cutlery), running about city streets in jumbo-sized Pac-Man costumes and busting dance moves to convince on-lookers they are listening to fresh beats in a game that blends silent disco with deception.
Until now, the only chance to experience such games was at festivals or London’s Southbank Centre. But with the launch of mobile app Tiny Games, Hide&Seek is putting its brand of playfulness in users’ pockets, with some 200 games tailor-made for practically anywhere and anytime.
To find out how the project began and what’s been happening with the eccentric London outfit, Develop spoke to founder and studio director Alex Fleetwood.
So you mentioned Hide&Seek is making a transition from client-funded games – which it has produced for a number of years, Green Lantern and Sherlock Holmes web games, for instance – to own-IP. Tell us some more about this. What is it that motivated you to make this switch?
Alex Fleetwood: At the heart of it is a desire to make truly great games, and to find our niche in the wonderful world of gaming. Clients need you to be responsive, and that means spreading your talent pretty thin. It also means that gamers find it hard to figure out exactly what you do. We think we’ll make better games if we can find and serve a niche of players who like our stuff, and the only way to do that is through own-IP that we can tend and develop in the long term.
Although there is far more freedom in creating your own IP, there is inevitably more risk too. How do you feel about that? And has it ever prompted Hide&Seek to cancel a project that might be just that bit too risky for an independent studio?
Well, we’re just at the start of that journey, but back in 2011 we tried to make something that we thought was a really smart play for the App Store. The Show Must Go On was an arcade action game, and it was pretty good! We got some nice press, and we were really proud of it. But I think in some ways it wasn’t risky enough. There are a tonne of great arcade action games out there being made by studios that have been polishing their skills for years.
Obviously, a huge test of that is in how successful Tiny Games is. The flipside of being new and original is that no one’s quite sure how to find it, or talk about it, or market it. There’s a great slide in a Kristian Segerstrale presentation (number 17) that shows the place we’re trying to get to, where our particular brand of fun, the stuff we’re best at, meets the stuff that’s commercially viable. We’re trying to make our way there.
In September 2012, Hide&Seek set up a New York office, lead by former Hide&Seek development director Margaret Robertson. What have your staff at this new studio been working on? And what part have they played in the creation of your new titles, such as Tiny Games?
We’ve two full-time staff in New York – Margaret and VP of game design, Mark Heggen – who are working with a bunch of talented freelancers from the city’s games community. Hide&Seek is really one studio with two outposts – we share a lot of resources and spend a lot of time on Google Hangout. They’ve been instrumental in Tiny Games, leading the partnership with Sesame Workshop on Sesame Street Family Play and building games like Terra.
And how have you coped with Hide&Seek’s growth when it comes to maintaining the studio’s direction?
It’s been… intense. At times this year, it’s felt like three businesses in one: an agency working with clients, a studio making and shipping two versions of Tiny Games, and a start-up pitching new ideas to publishers and investors. Any one of those can keep you busy.
I think having five years behind us as an agency helps us with the complexity – we’re used to doing lots of things at once – but I’m hopeful we can keep narrowing the focus as we go on.
As well as digital apps and web games, Hide&Seek has long been experimenting with real world games – and digital apps to aid or augment them. And you’ve done this on and even bigger scale with your Sandpit and Weekender events. What is your fascination with real-world games?
I think my fascination is with all the ways that our ancient history of games and play is starting to mate with fifty years of video game design. As technology gets more mobile, more embedded in our bodies, that old division between ‘real-world’ and ‘digital’ becomes ever more spurious. I think a better distinction is between escapism and social engagement – sometimes I want to play to get away from it all, and sometimes I want to play to get into it.
Diversifying or finding new, untapped audiences certainly seems to be crucial for the survival of independent game studios today. Is it fair to say that Hide&Seek’s presence as a curator and inventor of real-world games has helped it to remain independent and successful?
I think we’ve managed to punch above our weight in terms of the attention we’ve managed to create for our work, partly through the strength of the ideas and the creativity, but partly because we tell a different kind of story about what games can be. We’re fundamentally quite optimistic about the potential of games, and I think that matters.
So Hide&Seek’s latest creation, Tiny Games, is an app that will recommend real-world games no matter where the player is or who they are with. What was the thinking behind it?
Tiny Games started out life as a project by H&S lead game designer Holly Gramazio to see how much game you could fit in a tweet. That led on to two poster-based projects – ten at the Southbank Centre, and then 99 of the suckers all over London for the Lord Mayor’s Showtime festival.
We felt we’d really evolved a house style for them, and we could see how the location-specific nature of the games could evolve into an app.
To make that possible, you launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, which turned out to be a big success. Why did you feel crowdfunding was right for Tiny Games? Could the project have happened without the aid of crowdfunding?
Definitely not. We crowdfunded to test demand and interest. With such an out-there idea, we wanted to see if we could make a reasonably (for a small indie, anyway) steep funding target [£25,000]. We needed that money to buy a little space in our agency work schedules too. We were really bowled over by the support on Kickstarter. We had a lot of support from the indie games scene, from Kickstarter backers and from our friends and family to just make it over the line.
Getting back to the game itself, what have you learned from your previous real-world and digital projects, such as the 99 Tiny Games project and the Board Game Remix Kit, that you have brought to Tiny Games?
The first thing is make the rules as small as you can. We’re used to the ease of learning that’s baked into all modern video games, and Tiny Games brings that to real-world play. The second thing is use the world around you. Don’t be limited to what’s on the screen and in player’s heads. If you’re in a kitchen, that means definitely spoons. In the city, there are signposts. In the park, there are twigs. Location-specific doesn’t have to mean GPS – it can just mean knowing some sure things about the environment. The third thing is game titles are very important. I say this mostly because as I’m about the ninth best Tiny Game designer in the studio, but definitely the best at coming up with game titles with shocking puns in them.
Condensing the rules of over 200 real world games into an app in way that is easy to understand, but remains lively and concise must have been some feat. How did you go about it?
With the digital smarts of our technical director Dan Borthwick, who made sure we had an internal design tool that meant we could see draft games in the app, enabling us to build, test and refine at speed. That, and Hide&Seek’s enormous appetite for writing stuff. We’re super good at that.
For Tiny Games, you’ve managed to enlist the services of some of gaming’s most creative designers, including Jane McGonigal, Robin Hunicke, James Wallis, Ricky Haggett and Charles Cecil. What was the process like of working with them to incorporate their games?
It was delightful. They were all so kind and generous with their time, and came up with so many cool ideas. It really speaks to the generosity of the indie game scene that so many designers were willing to jump in and get involved.
And can you describe one or two of your favourites by other game designers?
My personal faves include:
- Talking Points by Colleen Macklin, which puts a spin on the usual buzzword bingo format by allocating each score 100 points, but dividing those points between everyone who picked that word.
- High Concept Fuck / Marry / Kill by Doug Wilson, where you pick concepts instead of people. Despair / Loathing / Resentment – what would you choose?
- Boba Fett Fridge Magnet by Ricky Haggett, which you’re just going to have to download the app to find out how to play. It’s great.
What does Tiny Games mean to Hide&Seek? Do you see it as a core part of the studio’s identity now?
It means a heck of a lot. It shows we can pack our spirit, our energy and our enthusiasm into a digital format that just might scale. It shows that there’s an audience for games that do more than distract you. Ultimately, it’s up to everyone out there whether it remains a core part of the studio’s identity. But if people keep playing it, we’ll keep making it, for sure. Tiny Games for the beach, Tiny Games for weddings...
Finally, what’s next for Hide&Seek and Tiny Games?
Maybe, a really, really big film licence. Watch this space… [Pause for breath] We shipped! RAWR.
Tiny Games is available now on iOS from the App Store.