New Thing #241: Interviewing A Game Designer

making4ThronesSometimes I'm amazed at the way people's brains work. I like to think I'm a creative thinker sometimes.

I also like to think that when I recognize that someone is looking at a situation with a totally different approach than mine, that I can appreciate that different viewpoint and that different approach.

For example, I've never looked at a solitaire game on an iPhone and thought, "Boy that looks awfully crowded, which makes sense, considering it's a game that's meant to be played on a table with cards all spread out and here it is on a 4-inch wide screen."

But that's the way Kurt Bieg thinks.

Bieg designed '4 Thrones', a version of solitaire I told you about yesterday, and he cites that reason above as one of the reasons he did.

Intrigued by what goes into app design and the reasons why games are created the way they are, I picked Bieg's brain a bit.

Here's that interview.

Me: I guess I'd like to start out by getting a view of who you are - how did you start Simple Machine [the company that makes the games], what else have you done - all I know is Circadia and now 4 Thrones. Which you created, right?
Kurt: Simple Machine is just me, but I do collaborate sometimes with super talented people. I started the company about 2 years ago after graduating from Parsons to make and release games. Growing up, I never thought I would be a game designer, I didn't even know that existed, it was more something I fell into. My very first game was a card game celebrating the election of Barack Obama back in 2008. That was an amazing experience. I was primarily going to make a card game to generate some revenue when some friends (Charlie and Jeff LaGreca) collaborated with me to make an Obama card game. So I spent a few days drafting ideas, then before I knew it we were standing next to the Washington Monument with a luggage bag full of card games listening to Obama talk about the "makers of things". That was a beautiful day. After that experience, I knew it was my calling. From there I learned to code so I could make my own games. I went on to craft Circadia which has been a unexpectedly successful art/rhythm game, culminating in it being selected as a Starbucks App of the Week, which, sidenote, was really really wonderful to be able to hold a physical copy of one of my games since they are digitized copies on the app store.
After Circadia I wanted to make something aimed at casual players by combining a causal gaming, like Candy Crush or Bejeweled, with a brand new cerebral game. That game is Tomb Breaker which I released in May, I worked with visual artist Vic Soto on that game. It's gorgeous and my favorite game I've made. That has gone on to be hugely successful in its own way.
Finally I recently released 4 Thrones last week, and that has been my most relaxing release yet. Usually you're on pins and needles waiting to see if Apple will feature it or if the press will cover it, but my wife has challenged me to let go of all those superficial metrics and focus on enjoying releasing games. It's been difficult because you want to check the charts, see the numbers, watch it climb, but realizing it's a great game inside, and knowing that numbers don't change that is a powerful attitude. Next, I'll be releasing a game called Even Up in a few weeks which is a super simple logic puzzle, loosely inspired by sudoku.
Me: On the topic of 4 Thrones - that's a totally original idea for you, right? I've never seen that type of solitaire game before, but what do I know. Maybe you just adapted it and turned it into an app. If it's your idea - how did you come up with it? Were you just playing cards and messing around until you found something that worked? Or did the idea come to you and then you turned it into an app?
Kurt: Yup, you're right, 4 Thrones is an entirely original game I created. I mean, solitaire has been around for a long long time, but this version is a first. Actually, the game came out of a bet with my wife, Maria. We were on vacation and I was fatigued because I spent over 9 months developing Tomb Breaker and I was telling her how difficult it is to release a game. Her counter point was that it didn't need to be difficult, that was just how I chose to make it (if you're catching on, I have married a woman of infinite wisdom). So she challenged me to make a game in 2 weeks, and if I did, she would take the jewelry she started making around to some of the boutiques in NYC, something she's been nervous to do. We shook on it, and when we returned I started to make 4 Thrones.
On my way home on the subway one day, I saw people playing solitaire on their touch devices and it looked abysmal. On the touch device it's just cramped, and dated, and uninspired. It looked like people were disarming bombs the way they were squinting and nervously tapping the screen. But that's what you would expect to happen when you take a game that you play on a table and move it to the mobile touch screen. Those things we know and love are a struggle to enjoy on the touch screen. So I decided I would make a solitaire game designed specifically for one handed mobile play that would retain the core aspects that makes traditional solitaire fun and relaxing. That's a tall order for 2 weeks, but hey, shoot for the stars.
Ritual became something I honed in on too. A lot of people play solitaire as a sort of mental ritual. While they're waiting at the dentist's office, before they go to bed, during lunch, etc. It's like this small thing people incorporate into their lives because it feels good, it's a shower for your brain and it organizes the clutter. So that was something I wanted to make sure was at the forefront. That meant making sure the game was simple, but rewarded thoughtful play. And that it retained that same classic solitaire feel of making simple decisions based on a little bit of luck and a little bit of strategy to get through the deck.
I used a standard physical deck to prototype with and I started by laying four piles since I knew that would be a perfect fit on a mobile screen. Then, I knew I wanted to keep the idea of placing larger numbers on smaller numbers, but would have to drop the alternating suits aspect of traditional solitaire (red suit on black suit, etc). It was basic, but there was definitely something there. After that, I kept feeling like the game needed a twist, something not typical of solitaire, and I thought about the Sting song "Shape of My Heart" where the chorus says, 
I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier I know that the clubs are weapons of war I know that diamonds mean money for this art But that's not the shape of my heart
So I thought about the cards as people who want these things, and that's when I considered the King only wanting spades for war, the Queen only wanting money (diamonds) or love (hearts), and the Jack taking anything because he wants to remain in the shadows. That's when I started to think of them as inspired characters from Game of Thrones (because I love that show so much) and the characters just fit, like the Jack being Little Finger, always trying to stay in the shadows, the Queen being Cersei who longs for real love, but also accepts money, and the King being Tywin Lanister, who only wants war, and is only interested in listening to anyone who can swing a sword.
That was pretty much it, I prototyped it in about a half hour while Maria and I ate pancakes on a lazy Sunday. Then the rest of the weeks I spent designing the aesthetics and coding it.
Me: Do you have a favorite of the games in 4 Thrones? Single? Endless? Kings? I like Kings, but I find if I play Kings too much and then switch to one of the other games I screw up because I leave the Kings out there when I shouldn't.
Kurt: Kings mode is definitely where it's at. I like that mode the most. You know, it almost didn't make it in, lol. It was super last minute. Previously it was a speed mode, where you played the single mode, but with a timer. I hated it, like ... I hated it a lot. I never actually placed a time because I couldn't even focus enough to beat deck. But then, at the end of the 2 week challenge, Apple was hacked (this was the end of July I think), and they shut every developer portal down. So I couldn't submit the game, thus I lost the 2 week challenge to Maria, lol. But over that next week while I was waiting for Apple to come back on line I played the game a lot, and on the subway ride home from my office I thought about what would happen if the Kings were the only cards that could generate points. People who know me would say that's fairly typical of me as a die-hard contrarian, make a game, then break that game by reversing a core rule. It's most likely why Kings mode is so different from the other modes. Once you play it, Kings become this whole other kind of card, you're waiting for them to show up, and then when they do, you don't ever want to get rid of them, even though they are obviously, hands down, the worst card when it comes to staying in the game.
I'm happy with that mode, it raises the game to a new level and perfectly illustrates how I make things.
That's funny that when you go back to a different mode it gets all screwy because you're so used to Kings mode, but I wanted those three modes for different types of players. My dad seems to only play Single mode, he likes that finite ending, knowing how many games he beat, how many he lost, and endless is kinda in between, people who want to get a thrill out of endurance, but without all the points and such. So hopefully players will find that there's something for everyone.
Me: I've always wondered about games like 4 Thrones - is it all luck of the 'draw'? Or is every game programmed so that you can win if you make all of the exact right moves? (The more I play 4 Thrones the more it appears to me it's random, because I've had games that I just couldn't win based on the cards that were dealt to me. Unless I am just bad at the game.)
Kurt: All the modes in 4 Thrones are random, it doesn't predesign decks to ensure it's beatable so there are certainly decks where you won't make it past the first three cards, but that's one of the draws of solitaire, you never know what you're going to get, and in a lot of ways, that's why solitaire is such a ritualized game, it mirrors real life in a lot of ways. Some days you never had a chance no matter what you do, other days you win without trying, in between, we work with the randomness and make our own ways. I like that about solitaire, and I like that people recognize that in solitaire.
I will give a small secret away about the next update of 4 Thrones, it will have a new puzzle mode, which is a fancy way of saying "here are decks that are solvable, try to figure them out."
Me: Anything else? I'll throw this out - why is the name '4 Thrones'? If you have 4 Kings on the board, even in the 'Kings' version of the game, you're pretty much screwed. What am I missing?
Kurt: Haha, that's cool to hear your theory on the title, the title came from the idea that the 4 piles are kingdoms, or thrones, and each card is a person who controls the throne. Each card eventually is out done by a more powerful card. Aces are the only cards that aren't "people" it represents assassination, or anarchy, in that it removes any person from power and opens the throne to anyone who wants it. It's why when you play the single/endless mode, the best card you can play on a King is an Ace, lol. Kings always lose their heads.
Me: Is 4 Thrones available now? Will this be offered as a free Starbucks app like Circadia was? (Do you even control that?)
Kurt: 4 Thrones is out now, it released last Thursday on iOS and Android. It's currently .99 on sale for 50% off to celebrate the release. Starbucks is kinda one of those "hand of god" things, but if it gets popular, I could see them wanting to share it there, that'd be cool to have two Starbucks selected games!
Oh and some pics and more info on the making of at