October 30, 2012 2:00 PM | John Polson
The Twinbeard himself Jim Crawford's sensation Frog Fractions is a game more about metamorphosis than about math. Its subversion catches players by surprise, when what seems like a quirky Missile Command clone becomes something far more exotic.
For the moment players discover that exoticism, Crawford's friend and Jamestown developer Tim Ambrogi compared it to learning one could burn bushes with the candle in The Legend of Zelda. It's that kind of awakening that suggested Crawford was on to something big. But even after many played Frog Fractions, their responses suggested not knowing what that "something" was.
In this *SPOILER-FILLED* interview, Crawford sheds light on the meaning behind Frog Fractions, a shameful design secret that was ultimately cut, why not getting the game is part of the appeal, and how the game taught at least one person math. He discusses a possible iOS port, gives advice on how to tell people about Frog Fractions without giving away its surprises, and tries to explain Bartholomew Salience.
He also highlights the importance of having a Brandon Sheffield-like (well-known member of the gaming press) in his corner early. Even when a game doesn't pack a series of subverted punches behind a veil such as edutainment, having someone thoroughly understand and champion it is critical.
A lot of people don't get Frog Fractions but love it. What is this game really about, so that people can finally get it?
At least two of my friends have described this game as autobiographical. "The essence of Jim, distilled." I think that's probably apt.
My intent was to make a game about the joy of discovery. It took me a lot of messing around to come around to this intent. Here's my big shameful secret about the development of Frog Fractions: I initially had pop-up tips that walked the player through every mechanic in the game, including diving underwater.
Then, Tim Ambrogi, an old friend of mine -- and lead programmer on Jamestown -- playtested it and refused to read anything, taking half an hour to dive even after buying the "diving helmet" upgrade. I was pulling my hair out! Afterwards, he compared finding the pile of fruit underwater with discovering that you can burn bushes with the candle in The Legend of Zelda, which is one of my all-time favorite moments in video games. That was when I realized that I could do something really special.
How and why is not getting it part of the appeal?
People like mysteries. People usually like mysteries more than they like the solutions, because it's way easier to ask a thrilling question than to come up with a thrilling answer.
For example, many of Lovecraft's stories are about the mysterious nature of the universe, because he was so affected by living through the scientific upheaval of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. But as his protagonists so often find out, once you actually internalize the mysteries of the old ones, it's not thrilling any more than any other aspect of history or law of physics, just more gross probably. Luckily for his readers, Lovecraft usually did a good job walking the fine line between leaving the door shut and opening it entirely.
Finessing this line is one of the things that separates good writing from bad. Again from Lovecraft's canon, a bad example would be "The Mound." The setup of the story is excellent, full of thrilling questions -- the guy came back with mirrored internal organs? WEIRD! -- but when the answers start coming in, they're all disappointing. Turns out they have a dude down there whose job is to reverse your internal organs. Oh.
A bad example going the other direction would be Lost, which throws out question after question, steadfastly refusing to provide answers to any of them.
In Frog Fractions, I play up the mystery a lot, especially early on. Half of the upgrade selections seem to be jokes. How does the scoring system work? What's in the gift boxes? How am I supposed to afford the Warp Drive? I do all this to keep the player engaged. Then, when it comes to the payoff, I sidestep the whole finesse issue effectively by brute force, making sure there's *so much* there that nobody's going to be disappointed.
So how does the game teach fractions, again?
For a while, the working title of Frog Fractions was "Frog Defense," and it was a Missile Command clone on its face. Then I added a bunch of fake-outs to the then-end of the game, and I decided I could add some to the beginning too. Painting it as an edutainment game just increases the disparity.
I did have to refresh my memory on how to do arithmetic on fractions to implement the score, though. So *somebody* learned something.
What are some of the finer things that no one has noticed?
I don't think anybody understands the name "Bartholomew Salience."
Is that a religious reference?
"Salient" is most commonly used to mean "standing out." I've mostly heard it used in neuroscience to describe the thought that comes first to mind to a given prompt, and I've literally only heard "salience" used to refer to the idea of a particular thought standing out prominently in a crowd of possible thoughts. But a less-used definition of salient is literally "jumping." So, yeah, it's terrible wordplay.
You have released several games. What made this one stick out?
All of my games have the common thread of subverting expectation, some in more interesting ways than others. I think Frog Fractions sticks out mostly because the subversion is so extreme; I exaggerated both the expectation and the reality to enhance that effect.
The touchstone I kept coming back to when discussing the game with friends was Portal. It too had a classic "false ceiling" reveal, and it led people to it simply by making the first two hours of the game a truly excellent game. But I couldn't go that route, and not just because I don't have the resources or the design chops to make a Portal. Making the first part of the game be a great game would actually have *reduced the impact of the reveal*. Hiding the thrill ride behind a mundane surface makes people feel like they're in on a big secret, and I think letting people feel complicit, and want to go share it with their friends, is where the game's power comes from.
But with the release of Frog Fractions, my other games are getting attention and respect too, so another difference is that people are just paying attention now. The turning point from a publicity perspective is very clear to me: Brandon Sheffield had playtested the game, and offered to tweet about it. The trick is, as usual, to know the right people, and if you want to make it as an indie dev, maybe the best advice I can give you is to move to the Bay Area and start
attending some game jams.
Which of your games is your favorite, second favorite?
Frog Fractions is the one I'm proudest of. Futilitris is probably second.
How do you feel about how the game has been received?
I'm still reeling. I'd gotten wildly positive reactions from playtesters, but it was hard to know how much their opinion was skewed because they were friends.
The nature of the game's presentation, by design, is such that you kind of have to be goaded into playing it. It takes convincing. I was worried that it would fall by the wayside at IGF, because the judges are volunteers and don't have a lot of time per-game, and it's very easy to play Frog Fractions for 30 seconds and assume that's all there is. The collective gush about the game means that I don't have to worry about people making that assumption any more.
My best hope was for it to quietly spread via word of mouth. Honestly, I kind of wish that's what had happened, because the payoff is weaker the less it feels like a secret, just between the player and me.
I'm also curious about events in games where their outcomes don't matter. Why give a task if everything the player does or says is correct?
One thing I believe very strongly, that a lot of gamers seem to disagree with, is that making a narrative interactive fundamentally changes the experience, making it much more powerful than that of a story that is merely told to you. This is one of the great strengths of interactive storytelling, that they can make a story *about you* in a way that no other medium can.
The frisson you can get out of the threat of explicit failure is strong, but it is by no means necessary to make a game engaging. For one, there's the implicit failure of giving up before you can solve the puzzle. A *lot* of people got stuck in the text adventure, even though it's constructed such to be impossible to enter a true failure state.
For another, even in cases where success is inevitable, like the courtroom scene, the player is still engaged simply because he or she is actively participating by making choices.
Also, as I learned from The Secret of Monkey Island, the best use of a dialog tree to is to give the writer the opportunity to write six punchlines to the same joke.
How did you know when/where to stop the game?
I hit on the ending about halfway through development. I'm very proud of that particular story beat, the timing of it, and how it plays into the player's expectations by that point in the game.
It was also fairly clear where I had to start, but the middle was open-ended, and I spent a good chunk of the project in blue-sky mode. It was only when IGF came onto the horizon that I decided it was timeto buckle down and start cutting planned features out in service of shipping.
Previously, you mentioned being scared shitless about trying to follow up Frog Fractions. At this point, when do you have to face this and how will you?
That's the trick, isn't it? I'm proud of, e.g., both Futilitris and The Asshole Game, and I'd hardly feel ashamed of releasing another game with their smaller scope, but I'd surely be disappointing people. I also really don't want to make the Duke Nukem mistake of spending years trying to recapture the moment of magic with the perfect followup. Frankly I'm tempted to shit something out immediately, just so I can stop fretting about it.
Besides, at this point I don't think I could surprise anyone by being surprising. The best way to subvert player expectation now might be to make a genuinely educational game. I'm meeting with someone tomorrow about that very idea, actually.
Here's a tangent for you: I think the problem with educational games, since the golden age of MECC, is that the industry has been trying to sell games to school boards and parents. I can hardly think of a faster way to kill any child's interest in the project than to make something their parents would like.
Take a game like Oregon Trail. What that does so successfully is to use game mechanics, with fairly sparse narrative, to put you in the shoes of a pioneer making the trek westward. It is a brutal, harrowing game, and in that it conveys the experience of making that trip in a very human way, making it *your* story. It is a fucking masterpiece.
Have you read "All Quiet on the Western Front?" It's the same sort of thing in literary form, conveying the experience of World War I on a human scale. Since books are accepted as an important part of culture, that's something we allow ourselves to give to teenagers, on the basis that its literary importance overrules the distasteful subject matter. Imagine trying to sell a World War I game with the same subject matter to schools. Kids would be *enthralled*, for exactly the same reason it'd never get its foot in the door.
The best educational games I've seen these days aren't explicitly educational. They're games like Minecraft, Kerbal Space Program, and Universe Sandbox: games that encourage you to think, and experiment, and be creative, and get excited about their subject matter enough that you might actually pick up a book about them.
Will you ever try to sell Frog?
The biggest problem I have with the idea is that since Frog Fractions almost entirely about subverting expectations, selling it is almost by definition fraud.
This puts me in a monetization pickle, because I'm also heavily opposed to putting ads on my site. What I've done as a compromise is put the soundtrack up for sale. I'm lucky in that I composed the bulk of the soundtrack, so I can keep the bulk of the money; that's not a strategy most devs could take. It does cut the artists out of the pie, and I'm still trying to figure out how to solve that problem, but I'm in touch with everybody and nobody seems upset.
Speaking of which, this is probably a good place to talk about everyone who helped. On the art team, Rachel Sala did the bulk of the art and animation, with Shannon Thomson pitching in late in development.
Brandon Sheffield introduced me to Juan Ramirez late in development, and Juan banged out some key artwork very quickly and very well, right when I needed it. I won't need to tell you which art that was once you've seen his portfolio.
More than one person has suggested it. I'm definitely considering it, but it would be a big design challenge and a big technical challenge. From a design standpoint the challenge is adapting the various control schemes. Even for the parts that are fully under mouse control, I use the mouse hover channel, which doesn't translate to a touch screen.
And while the game has a very retro, 2D look to it, traditional Flash is fully software-rendered so it requires a deceptively beefy CPU, so I couldn't just rely on AIR to get it running on iOS easily. I'd have to at the very least rewrite the rendering pipeline to use Stage3D.
You also mentioned prior to this wanting to tell people how to tell their friends about Frog Fractions.
The most important thing to me is that you don't sell it too hard. I've seen a lot of people giving their friends hints even before they start playing it. "Be sure to dive!" I think it's really important to let the player walk away if they're not feeling it. The reveal is *so* much more effective if you find it on your own terms.
I made the decision during development to let, say, 75% of players walk away asking "Is that all there is?" if I could give the remaining 25% the "holy crap" experience. One thing I've been seeing, which makes me a little sad, is for players to play for longer than they naturally would due to all the praise, or due to pressure, and get frustrated or angry.
I also never wanted players give each other shit for not "getting it." Being confused by the game is normal, because it's by design a confusing game. The interpretation that it's a lackluster Missile Command clone is valid, because in part that is in fact what it is. The secret wouldn't be a very good secret if everybody found it, would it?
One trick that I have found to work well is to show the game to a group. Groups have more momentum and are less likely to stop playing early, and they also tend to reinforce each other's reactions, so if they're enjoying it, they'll all be enjoying it even more. Also, during the early part of the game it's much more likely that someone in the group will figure out how to advance.