Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Interview with Heather O'Neill & Heather Wilson, creators of Schrödinger’s Cats

Doug Levandowski here with the creator(s) of Schrödinger’s Cats, a card game for 2 to 6 players that’s on Kickstarter until February 19th. I’m chatting with the Heathers, Heather O’Neill and Heather Wilson, two of the three creators of Schrödinger’s Cats.

Before we talk about the game, tell me a bit about you. Who are ya? What got you into game design?
Heather O'Neill: I’m a creative and social person but love math, science and spreadsheets too! My day job is at AT&T in the construction and engineering department and I’ve worked at other engineering firms in the past. In additional to making games, I also run BestConEver which is a small event company that hosts game days and mini-conventions (50 people or less).

I am a tabletop gamer. I love strategy based games as much as bluffing, social and party games. Over the last 5 years or so I’ve been offering advice or suggestions on other people’s games but didn’t really consider making them myself.  Back in 2012 I created my first game with my husband Chris.  After that, I knew that I could actually do this and started working on a few ideas.  Schrödinger’s Cats is just such a marketable idea that we felt it should be the first one in (hopefully) a series of many.

Heather Wilson: I’ve always loved games but it never occurred to me I could actually make them myself (aside from the board games I created in elementary school) until I met Heather and Chris years and years ago. A couple of summers ago we decided to actually start producing more of the random ideas we had and Schrödinger’s Cats was the one we were the most excited to make. In my professional life I work in video game development. I sort of fell into it, but it’s a lot of fun. I’m currently working for Brace Yourself Games on their Crypt of the NecroDancer title. Before that I worked at Harmonix Music Systems, makers of Rock Band, Dance Central, and lots of other rhythm titles, for 9 years.

I definitely spent WAY too much money on Rock Band instruments and songs. I got the keytar and everything. Did working for Harmonix influence you as a designer at all?

Heather Wilson: Awesome! I think the keytar is my favorite Rock Band instrument, although when I play the game I usually play bass. I think it helped me to understand and articulate certain design principles. As well, the writing I did there helped me to focus my ability to evoke themes when I am designing and writing for tabletop games.

I always play the bass, too. What design principles did working there help you understand?
Heather Wilson: This is the most important one: we worked with this idea that Dan Teasdale, lead designer on Rock Band 1, stated for us, the one question. Every game should have this one question, or core concept, that every decision you make needs to answer. On Rock Band it was “Does it rock?” and while that might sound simple of the surface, it’s really not. You need to be able to articulate a definition of “rock” that everyone understands, like the Platonic ideal of rocking. For Schrödinger’s Cats we had a very clear idea of what SCIENCE! + cats would mean and that’s what helped us to make all the decisions we made.

Heather O’Neill, how has your work with BestConEver influenced you as a designer?
Heather O'Neill: Working on the events over the years I’ve been able to see tons of game play.  There are many different types of gamers and I’ve seen how they interact, what they like and what they don’t!

For anyone who hasn’t checked out the page yet, tell us about Schrödinger’s Cats.
Heather Wilson: Schrödinger’s Cats is a bidding game, the theme and Cat Physicist abilities add a level of both interest and gameplay complexity. Each player is dealt the same number of cards as there are players (so if there are six players, each player get six cards). All of those cards together make up the total number of boxes in the experiment. On your turn you state a hypothesis of how many Alive Cats, Dead Cats, or Empty Boxes are in the experiment. At some point the bidding will get out of hand and when it does one player will “call” another player and whoever is wrong in that situation is eliminated until there are only two players left.

Heather O'Neill: There is a 2-3 player suggested variant where a number of rounds are played and the winner is determined by having a certain number of wins.

Personally, I’ve never designed with variable player powers just because I don’t have the patience to test them. In your design process, what did you do to make sure those are balanced? I may need to steal some great ideas.
Heather O'Neill: We started out with just the base game where players made hypotheses on the number of alive cats, dead cats or empty boxes in the experiment (or round).  Over 2014 we play tested the game with a variety of different gamers and had hundreds of play testers at the ORIGINS Game Fair.  The response to the cat physicist characters was overwhelmingly good so we knew that we needed to keep them.

As we worked on the cute cat puns we realized that adding special abilities really differentiated the game and gave players more power. Plus we totally fell in love with cat physicist characters!

We worked out the base game math through our friend Sharky who’s a human calculator!  He also influenced the decision on which character abilities we would put in the game.  The abilities need to be different but still balanced.  That is definitely tough to do.   Even now I’m considering changing at least one of them before sending to the printer.

Heather Wilson: As far as coming up with the specific abilities, our process started with a list that related to the actions players were already taking. We then tried to weed out things that seemed to be too powerful. We picked the six that felt the most balanced on paper and then played with them. One of the best parts about working on game in this way is that we really do have flexibility. As Heather said, we will likely change one of the existing abilities before we go to print.

So what are some of those variable player powers? And were there any that you had to drop out in the playtesting process?
Heather O'Neill: One of them adds +2 ALIVE CATS to the experiment. This is a constant that is face up to all players. This takes away questions of when does it go into effect or how can I use this power properly.

Another one makes Heisenbergs (WILD CARDS) worthless for one round.  This is a bit trickier as it could hurt you as well as the other players.  If you play this you need to decide if hurting the other players will help you survive the round.  However, if the bid continues around and you are forced to make a new hypothesis bid the wilds are not there to help you.  

One of the powers we thought of but never made it into the game was one that made everyone pass their hands to the right. We liked the “quantum” part of it but it really gave away too much information to everyone, even though they all got the same amount of information.  One that we had in our original version that was removed gave that player the ability to start the next round.  Though starting does give you a slight advantage it was really a weak power compared to the rest.

You mentioned Crypt of the NecroDancer before. I love that name. Can you tell us more about that one?
Heather Wilson: Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rhythm based rogue-like available from Steam Early Access. It’s so much fun! The main character is in search of her lost father, who’s been trapped in the NecroDancer’s dungeon. She sets off to find him and is cursed by the NecroDancer to always have to move to the beat. You can play with your own music, although the soundtrack is fantastic, and we’ve even got Dance Pad support if you want to dance your way through the game. It’s honestly the most fun I’ve ever had with a rogue-like. You can check it out here: http://www.necrodancer.com/

I’ll definitely have to! Being able to play with your own music is a neat element to it. The art for the game is a LOT of fun. How’d you get hooked up with James Stowe?
Heather Wilson: James is a fan of Kobolds Ate My Baby [Chris O’Neill’s previous game] and we are fans of his comic Sidekick Quests, so we were actually looking for something to work with him on. His art is fantastic, and he is so fast! He was super excited to work Schrödinger’s Cats.

Let’s talk about some numbers. You’re sitting at over 1200 backers. How did you guys help to get the word out there about your game to reach that many supporters?
Heather Wilson: For the initial push we definitely leveraged our network of nerdy friends and relations. We also made sure we had our social media accounts (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) set up before we launched so that we’d have an easy way to build our audience and to communicate with them. Heather’s husband Chris and his writing partner, Dan, had run a successful Kickstarter to re-launch their RPG, Kobolds Ate My Baby so we had their experience to fall back on.

Heather O'Neill: We also wanted to be sure that we had the game at a point ready to go prior to the Kickstarter. The base game play, character abilities, game art and draft rules were done.  That allowed us to share all of that information with our potential backers. We found that the board game community really appreciated that level of professionalism and preparedness prior to launch.  

What has surprised you about the Kickstarter process? I see this is the first project you’ve run, and I know from personal experience the learning curve is stupid steep! 
Heather Wilson: Having Chris’ knowledge of the process helped eliminate a lot of surprises for us. But I was definitely surprised at how unintuitive the back end of Kickstarter is. It’s useable but it could be so much better.

Heather O'Neill: The overall process is pretty close to what I expected, but I actually expected more negatives than we’ve seen throughout this campaign. However, the level of understanding and genuine encouragement from our backers was not expected!  It was a real nice surprise! You all rock!

Anything else that you want to let everyone know?
Heather Wilson: Our cat models are exactly as soft and cuddly as you think they would be from our videos.

Heather O'Neill: This is my second game.  I had the idea and co-wrote Demon Realms with my husband Chris. It's a storytelling adventure game using the classic recess MASH mechanic. Sorry boys and millennials, you probably don't know what I'm talking about.  MASH was a 90's recess game that young girls played.  They chose categories and options for their future life and the swirl determined their fate.  The premise of Demon Realms is that it was designed by an 11yr old girl who thought that was what role playing was. In Demon Realms you first create your character and then all players go on an adventure. It's so REAL!

This idea came from my real life experience. I met my husband the weekend that I graduated high school (1997) and when he said he played D&D I thought he meant a board game that I'd seen before based on the D&D cartoon.  I had no clue. You can find that right here.

Awesome! Lots of stuff to check out! Thanks for talking with me, and good luck as you go into the last two days of the campaign! And if you're reading this, hurry over to their Kickstarter and check out Schrödinger’s Cats before it's too late!
Doug Levandowski is a game designer for Nine Kingdoms, which currently has a Kickstarter up for Ivan Turner's Titans of Empyrean. When Doug's not designing, interviewing, marketing, or sleeping, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on Macbeth right now, which is his favorite play to teach. You can find him on Twitter (@levzilla or @ninekingdoms) and on the web (ninekingdoms.com).

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