Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Grace Under Dresser

This is the story of the Grace game design.

Feel free to check out the game design doc at davetaylor.name/grace_concept13_large.doc

Grace has not been made, but it is nevertheless one of my favourite game designs. It's based on the hateful, mean things girls do to each other, particularly from grades 6-12.

It's an interesting design to me for a few reasons:
  1. I think it's one of the only game designs in history to intentionally feature concept art of girls that aren't uniformly gorgeous.
  2. It is ultra low-tech, which is unusual for my designs.
  3. It is one of the few designs I've done where product tie-ins make a lot of sense and would be appropriate.
A part of the game involves buying clothes (that was the obvious product tie-in) to get yourself into certain cliques, and those cliques act like character classes, giving you super powers. The popular clique can make someone popular for a week, the geek clique can raise someone's grades for a week, the goth clique can worsen someone's mood for a week, etc.

More importantly, the cliques give you access to different people to make friends and enemies with, or boys to date. Your entire class starts with pre-existing friend/enemy connections, and when you change your relationship with one person or a clique, it can have ripple effects throughout the network.

On top of this is an RPG-like system where you allocate resource points to your character, like intelligence, fitness, beauty, charm, wealth, etc. It had an exponential back-off system featured in classic RPGs like Fallout, so if you maxed out a particular facet like wealth, you'd probably be ugly, unfit, etc.

Speaking of ugly and unfit, I spent grades 6-12 largely in front of computers. I never went on a date with anyone that entire time, and I didn't have many friends at all, much less friends who were girls. Girls were a complete mystery to me, so this was a wonderful catch-up education. It seemed to me like an opportunity to explore an alien species that lived secretly amoung us.

In addition to doing a lot of interviews, a lot of my research was based on the books Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabes. The latter book was made into a film called Mean Girls, and the former was optioned by Imagine, if I recall, but I don't know if it was made into a film. I even interviewed the author of Odd Girl Out.

I wrote this design while at Carbon6. Carbon6 was an independent game production company, one of the first in the game industry, that I formed with American McGee, Scott Faye, Paul Rosenberg, and Rick Jacobs. American is a celebrity game designer, and Scott, Paul, and Rick are film producers.

As I was writing this design about the gameplay mechanics of dark, feminine politics, my relationship with American was deteriorating fast. American has a reputation for being rather darkly competitive, but I had always turned a blind eye to this and felt I was exempt. It's a long story, but by the time I was ready to take the Grace design out, I was being repeatedly excluded from both external and internal meetings, teased for not being able to handle the cigarette smoking in the car on the way to the few remaining meetings I was invited to, for my ever-present engulfing English robe, even for masturbating. American's taste in women had changed seemingly overnight from petite Asians almost exclusively to the extremely busty (my type).

To make all this properly exquisite, we lived in a house together that featured its own financial drama. I was paying most of the mortgage instead of our agreed-upon 50/50 split, and unbeknownst to me at the time, he was describing it as his house in the press.

I was extremely inept at these sorts of politics and would respond by alternatively trying futilely to placate American and retreating to beat myself up for what seemed like my endless litany of issues. This is precisely the sort of things girls do to each other at those ages, and that is actually a classic example of an extended campaign against a girl as well as a classic reaction of the ostracized. Here I was doing research on it while completely unaware that I was essentially living it.

No one was entirely innocent of the brutality, either, another hallmark of girl politics. American and I were busy ostracizing Paul, Scott, and Rick well before I would become the next target. In fact, in forming the company, before they had even met me in person, I took it upon myself in a colourful phone call to negotiate a dramatically smaller stake in the company for Paul, Scott, and Rick. I did manage to reduce it significantly, but not without getting my relationship with them off to a horrible start as well as insulting them by comparing their role to that of agents. I would learn later that this is considered an extremely impolite thing to say to a producer.

It turns out "do unto others as you'd rather not have them do unto you" is not exactly how the saying goes, so there's your poetry.

Anyway, during this prolonged (and perhaps karmic) campaign against me, one of the many things American found fault with was the Grace design, and towards the end of this excitement, we came to an ultimatum-like agreement. I would pitch it to Sony, and if there was love, I could continue. Otherwise, I had to abort it. I was very fond of the design and was quite certain it would do well at Sony.

It didn't, and I was surprised by some of the reactions. They fell into three camps:
  1. Women who were insulted that a man would dare make such a design.
  2. Women who were appalled that someone would make a game design about such a painful period in a woman's life.
  3. Women who thought it was brilliant and wished they had the game available when they were growing up, so that they could try some of these politics in the safety of a game instead of with actual people, where feelings get hurt.
I guess camp #1 amounts to sexism? Not sure. If so, I didn't much mind. Was happy to take my name off the design and ghostwrite it under my friend Laura's name.

Camp #2 actually got me excited. The controversy seemed like a very good sign to me that the game would create its own publicity, but controversy wasn't serving me within Sony itself. It basically killed the deal.

Obviously, camp #3 was where the party was at, and this was the general impression I got from most women I interviewed as part of my research for the game design.

I should probably have pitched Take 2 first, as they are clearly much more comfortable with controversy, but I didn't really have a sense for how controversial it was until I got that reaction. Turns out the reaction to the design disembodied from me pitching it was a lot more offensive than in context. Here endeth that lesson.

We had a really neat team attached at the time, appropriately called Exile Interactive. They were good with sports games, which meant they had a strong sense for doing human characters, a rare talent in the game industry. You can see some of their notes and concept art attached to the bottom of the design doc. I approached them after doing the game design doc, and I suppose attaching a dev team to a design is a big part of what indie game producing is.

As a footnote, I ended up taking the Grace IP with me from Carbon6. I would still love to see it made someday and am surprised to note that the design has stood the test of time fairly well. I would welcome feedback, and if something should develop, I will update this post.

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