A group of recent graduates from the Bachelor of Arts in Game Design program had a chance to work together on Widow’s Walk, the expansion to the classic tabletop game Betrayal at House on the Hill, when they interned earlier this year at Lone Shark Games in Redmond.
Lone Shark Games is a major player in the tabletop game industry, and they’re just down the road from DigiPen’s Redmond campus. Thus, it makes sense that their first-ever crop of interns — Lucy Tibbits, Javier Quintero, Aviva Schecterson, and Thomas Ball — would be drawn from DigiPen’s student body.
It makes even more sense when you consider that Mike Selinker, Lone Shark’s President and Chief Creative Officer, and Gaby Weidling, one of the company’s event/game designers specializing in puzzles, taught an elective course on puzzle design during the 2015 fall semester. “They got everyone in the class who had gotten an A, and sent out an email that was basically like, ‘Hey, we are interested in you as an intern,’” says Ball. The four students were selected, they say, because of their work on their final project, a campus-wide puzzle hunt.
“It quickly became obvious that some of our students really liked what we did, so we brought some seniors on board,” Selinker says. “They got to work on games they loved, and we got some great help from them.”
The internship ran from January to April, during which the four did extensive design work and playtesting on Widow’s Walk, among other games.
Betrayal is a horror-themed board game in which players explore a creepy haunted mansion together. It was popular for its inventive and extremely replayable dynamics, which center around different game scenarios called “haunts.” When a haunt starts, its unique rules take effect, and one player is designated as the traitor, now working against their former compatriots, usually enhanced with special powers unique to the particular haunt scenario.
For the Widow’s Walk expansion, several of the 50 new haunt scenarios were written by prominent game industry figures like Zoë Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Pendleton Ward.
Taking those writers’ haunts and making them work as a game scenario was a difficult but rewarding task, they say. Even the best writers, they joke, aren’t necessarily the best game designers.
“A lot of the haunts were really funny,” Javier says. “We were sort of just trying to make the mechanics work well enough that people could enjoy the funny.” He says that his favorite haunts were actually the ones that needed the most work. Aviva cited Liz Spain’s “Sushi Night” as her favorite. In Sushi Night, the traitor is a mermaid, and the players’ objective is to devour the mermaid before the house floods. Some haunts, they say, were a bit more trying.
“There was a haunt that involved players turning into babies, which wasn’t necessarily my favorite haunt,” Thomas says. “But it led to some of the most hilarious dialogue! Like, ‘Oh, I need to get this baby through this window, so it can fall down.’”
Initially, that haunt scenario included a requirement for players who were babies to actually talk like a baby, which was funny, Javier says, but only for one play session. As design interns, the team had to play through each of the new scenarios multiple times.
While being paid to playtest might sound fun to the average gamer, it can actually be a pretty tedious process, the graduates said. Lucy describes it as trying to “break” every little part of a game, and Thomas adds that it often takes lots of repetition to isolate and identify those broken parts of the game.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘I am making positive changes to this and it feels great,’” he says. “Other times it’s like, ‘We’ve played this 20 times now.’”
All tedium aside, they are all quick to agree that extensive playtesting is absolutely essential to making good games.
“The playtesting we [did at DigiPen] was very useful, because it’s very much in our hands,” Thomas says. “Professors would say time and time again how important playtesting is, but it’s never a thing you’re graded on. It’s just a matter of the final project that you make and hand in. And it’s obvious based on that final product that you hand in whether you’ve done playtesting.”
At Lone Shark, they got the chance to playtest with the pros, running games and trading feedback with Selinker and the other Lone Shark designers. They even got to playtest with the occasional game celebrity. For the game Thornwatch, which is a collaboration between Lone Shark and Penny Arcade, the graduates found themselves playtesting alongside Penny Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik. Indeed, the entire Lone Shark experience, they say, was pretty darn cool.
“They have a giant stuffed unicorn, and as soon as you come in the door they have this massive dungeon table,” says Thomas. “It’s an interesting, fun place.”
While each of the interns has since graduated, they still keep in touch. Interestingly enough, they’re all still working in puzzle games, in some fashion or another. Aviva was hired on as a full-time game editor at Lone Shark. Thomas and Lucy worked together at Epic Team Adventures, a puzzle and escape-room company in Seattle, before Thomas left to join Javier on his indie project. That project, in keeping with the interns’ puzzle obsession, is a game in which players must attempt deliveries within the tortuous headquarters of a company that makes intentionally confusing signage.
On the Lone Shark website, the interns still have their own entry on the staff page, thanking them for their time and noting that theirs will be “big chairs to fill.” Given how helpful they say their DigiPen education was for their work at Lone Shark, it makes sense that those chairs will be filled with two more DigiPen students, Sarah Shuler and Linus Chan, whose internships started last week!