On the 6th of July, I had the privilege of being able to interview a newly formed independent game studio who released the smash hit We Were Here. I set up an interview with Lucia and Benjamin from Total Mayhem Games to talk about their design principles when making We Were Here, as well as how they plan to move forward with the sequel. I highly recommend you download We Were Here (It’s free) as it is an incredible co-op experience unlike any other.
Matt: So your company formed after your minor in Game Design and Development. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you all formed, and what type of games you wanted to make?
Ben: During the minor we had 15 people working and everyone wanted to continue their education with their final essay coming up. So 6 of us put school on hold and said, “Let’s ride this out and see where it goes. Let’s make something out of the original game.” We basically formed the core of the team since 15 is quite a few people to have on a team. After about a month or two, we figured “Let’s try to make a sequel or even a franchise.”
Lucia: We also had this thought that We Were Here was something that we did during school, and for us it felt like a student project, maybe other people don’t see it that way because they don’t know the background of Total Mayhem Games. We separated Total Mayhem Games in the classroom to Total Mayhem Games as a company, so we made some decisions to change the looks and the feeling of the new game.
Matt: So you got the idea for We Were Here during University and then you worked on that?
Lucia: Yeah in-fact we had to finish the entire game in 14 weeks. It took us a few weeks to come up with the concept as all 15 of us minor in Game Design and we all come from different disciplines.
Ben: None of us are from an actual Game Design study, but the minor allowed us all to join. We were just game fanatics and we worked on the game.
Matt: How would you describe We Were Here to someone who had never heard of it before?
Ben: The first thing I ask people is if they are familiar with the real life escape room concept. Those games aren’t really solo projects, you go there with a group of friends like the movies. That was our inspiration and I would describe the game as a digital escape room for 2 players in an unfamiliar setting. You need to communicate to get out, the only thing you have is your walkie-talkie.
Matt: Communication is the gameplay mechanic, it’s not like any other game where you can win by pure skill. The only way you can beat it is through talking to others. What effect did you think it would have by making a game that could only be completed by communicating with someone else?
Ben: Actually our lecturers at the University during the minor tried to steer us in a different direction. They were telling us “You’re going to really need to add in a chat. There’s no target audience for this.” Up until the last day.
Lucia: We said to them “We’ll you can also sit across from each other and just talk without a microphone if you don’t have one.” We understand not everyone has a microphone so you can just be in the same room. Still they thought it was too much of an obligation for players, but I think we’ve proved them wrong.
Matt: It’s not just a voice-chat to communicate. You need to use a radio and that radio has limitations to it. Only one person can talk at a time. It’s an interesting way to communicate where you’re trying to emulate how you talk in real life through a radio, but instead you’re simulating it in a digital medium. Did you think these limitations were important?
Ben: The developers were actually unhappy with putting in the one way radio, because it made the testing very difficult. We noticed it during testing since we built miniature real life rooms with these puzzles and we had real walkie-talkies and a real walkie-talkie only works one way. That brought in a lot of difficulty to an otherwise really simple puzzle, but that made it really interesting. People had to come up with their own strategy on how to play the game.
Lucia: They figured it out quite fast that if you don’t communicate to the other person or they don’t stop talking it makes you unable to hear the explanations of the puzzles.
Matt: Do you recommend playing the game with a friend or a complete stranger?
Ben: During development we came up with the exact same question. We were like “Okay what if only 10 people downloaded the game and you’re waiting for an online match and then you get matched with someone who doesn’t speak your language.” We went a bit more old school by making a lobby system. We had a few streamers on Twitch who played with their viewers or a few randoms. It resulted in a lot of funny moments.
Lucia: We even jumped in once. We had a Dutch interview, and we saw some guy playing on Twitch and he was really sweet and he was trying to play the puzzle with a stranger. This other guy just didn’t talk at all and he wasn’t clearly communicating. It was really difficult for the streamer to communicate and try to solve the puzzle. So Ben said “Wait hang on I’ll play it with you.”
Ben: Back to the question, I would really recommend playing it with a friend. Playing with strangers is interesting, but It’s much more fun getting thrown into the deep end with a friend.
Matt: How long did it take for players to get accustomed to the room?
Ben: We really wanted an experience of Information Overload. There’s all these things you can look at. Really, it was just trying to sneak in a few small hints, like when the Explorer gets to the third puzzle. It wasn’t clear for people where to go, so we added copper pipes in the Librarian room just outside of the door, to show that this side of the room is more themed to one kind of thing. We had a few tests where people took around 20 minutes to figure out what the first puzzle was, but people kept playing. We don’t want to give hints, in fact in the second game we are getting rid of most of the UI.
Matt: The Explorer takes a more active role, while the Librarian serves as more of a guide. What were the difficulties in balancing the two roles?
Lucia: It was really hard.
Ben: It still is. We had a lot of cases where the Librarian would just sit there for 15 minutes while the other person did whatever. We put players in a bit more threatening situation to solve that. In the second game we are trying to actively resolve those periods of waiting.
Lucia: We’re also adding more story to the game so the Librarian has more to do than to wait. There’s more background story and personalities.
Matt: The puzzles are quite short but impactful, especially the final puzzle. What was your inspiration, and why did you decide to create an encounter?
Lucia: We had this whole idea that so much was going on in the castle, but you can imagine that [making the game] in only 14 weeks that some parts lacked since there was so much else to do. That puzzle is the closest you get to finding out what’s going on. I’m really fond of that puzzle, because it has the most interesting elements.
Ben: We were basically thinking what kind of room would connect to a study room, and we thought maybe a theatre?
Lucia: It was one of the earliest puzzles we came up with wasn’t it?
Ben: Yeah I think we were inspired by the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. We said “Why not just add something that keeps getting closer but you have to look the other way.” We also wanted to make it kind of look like a pop-up picture book story, with how the things slide on stage and you have to retell the tale.
Matt: There’s more stuff to come. There’s the sequel coming. You said there’s going to be more story, will that involve the events of the play?
Ben: Yeah it will be inspired by it. We’re not trying to make a spiritual successor, we’re really trying to make it say, “This is happening at the same time as We Were Here.”
Matt: Will the communication system be the same or are you looking to implement some new elements or restrictions?
Ben: We’re really trying to expand upon it and streamline it. Make it more of a necessity actually. There were a lot of people who had issues with the voice chat. Some people didnt use the in-game chat, and instead used another program to communicate, and they missed the element of one way communication. That’s fine, but this time around we are trying to make the walkie-talkie an element that makes the game interact with you. Something like radio static or trying to involve the radio in the puzzles.
Lucia: The radio itself should be a puzzle when it comes to communication. If you want to have a 100% pure experience of the game, you should use a microphone and use the walkie-talkie, and make sure to put the volume up really loud to hear everything.
Matt: The first game was free to download and play. Since this is a sequel are we expecting a full price release?
Ben: So internally this has been a long discussion. We thought about releasing it in chunks for this price. We might have been straying away from our main audience. We had half a million downloads, but those were from people who saw it was free-to-play. The entry free was nothing. For the sequel, we’re happy to announce that we’re going to release the game in segments. Each segment will be about the length of the base game, and we’re going to release the prologue, which is the base platform for the game, for free. They can download it, play it and see if they like it. Then we will release each segment for a small price. It’s not going to be a full $60 release.
Lucia: We came from 15 people and we had only 14 weeks to make our first game. We didn’t want to ask money for it, since it was our school assignment. However since its release we’ve been working for 5 months for free to make this game, we even delayed our studies.
Ben: We have people screaming “It’s criminal this game is free!” This is a new kind of game. It’s experimental. We want to give people a chance to go, “Is this the kind of game I want?” It’s exclusively co-op as well, so the price is basically doubled. If there’s no-one on the servers and you own the game, you have nothing. We felt bad about doing that. We just want people to try it out.
Lucia: This is our first ever game. It’s still a situation where we have to learn everything.