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Big Time Designers: System

Creating a real world simulation combines many different disciplines: game design, yes, but also writing, direction and physical design. Game designer Ben McKenzie talked to the team members covering all these things to find out more about how Small Time Criminals is coming together. In the first interview, Sayraphim Lothian and Anastassia Poppenberg talked about the physical design of the space; in the second, Robert Reid talked about the narrative and story.

For this last interview, Ben spoke with Kevin Turner, about designing the play in Small Time Criminals. The two are co-lead game designers on the project.

Ben: While we’ve been working together on the design, we haven’t had much time to talk about how we’ve approached the design process. Where are you coming from?

Kevin: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about different videogame systems, and looking at having a strong base goal. While we’re designing an open world system as much as possible, it’s still contained within a structure that has an end goal – to get the highest score, or to steal the most things from the bank. So with every design thought, I try to start from that and work down. What will constantly move a player towards, or present an obstacle against, achieving that highest score.

Ben: That’s a great place to come from.

Kevin: What about you? What’s the conceit that’s most important to you, that you never want to forget during the design process? What’s your base?

Ben: Definitely the player’s experience. Rob and Sayra are experience designers, they’re making sure the space and the narrative work together to give the experience of staging a bank heist. I’m looking through a similar lens at what we ask players to do to make sure that gels. So it won’t just feel right in terms of look and feel and story, the things you do – and the affordances we give you to do it – have to feel right as well.

Kevin: Yes – we have to stay on theme. No-one is locking up safes in banks with a ball maze on a rotating axis. It’s a Melbourne investment bank, it’s not Gringott’s!

Ben: Yes! For this game you have to feel like you’re solving a problem, not a puzzle.

Kevin: We’re trying to create systems that reflect real-world security, without using actual security systems. I’m really excited about taking the things you learn from watching heist films, the things you see and think “that’s really cool”, and abstracting them so it feels like the player is doing those things. Things like lock-picking, or cracking into safes, which are obviously things we can’t actually teach players how to do, but we can abstract them so it feels like you are doing those things.

Ben: Yeah – I think the best videogame analogy is Rock Band or Guitar Hero. You’re not really playing an instrument, but the system is excellently designed – in the shape of the controller, the position of the buttons, the effect those buttons have on the game – to make it feel like you are. This is sort of Bank Heist Hero!

Kevin: That’s a pretty solid comparison! It’s really fun to come up with ideas for those abstractions.

Notes from an early game design session for Small Time Criminals.

Notes from an early game design session for Small Time Criminals. #nospoilers

Ben: You have a lot of experience running escape rooms. What has that taught you that you’re bringing to this game?

Kevin: It’s funny, because a lot of what I brought into running escape rooms actually comes from running Pop Up Playground games! The major thing being that players will do whatever they want when presented with the opportunity. So as much as possible I want the design to facilitate that.

Ben: I think that’s what I was talking about in the blog; it’s much less linear. What’s the biggest difference?

Kevin: At any point a player taking part in Small Time Criminals could just walk out of the place! They’re not stuck there. They can say “Cool, I’ve stolen this much stuff, I think I’ve done quite well, I’m done! I should leave before I get caught.”

Ben: Do you think that’s likely?

Kevin: No, I think they will push themselves to the very limit of the time available – and their scores might suffer from doing that! But I like the idea that the option is there for them, that it’s not an escape room. An escape room has a very clear goal – to escape the room – but the goal for Small Time Criminals, while clear, allows for more freedom in how players move around the space.

Ben: If money was no object, if you could have your dreams come true for Small Time Criminals, what would you put into the game?

Kevin: My answer is super boring! My biggest dream would be an automatic door at the beginning of the experience. Like something we could trigger away from the players that makes the door open for them, so we could drag them into the space in that way.

Ben: Would it please you to know that I think we actually can do that?

Kevin: Oh, that’s pretty great. But honestly, as far as putting cool stuff into the space goes, I think that we can do a lot with the money we’ve already raised; the expensive stuff is the tone and aesthetic of the space. With more money for that we can make it a much cooler experience.

Small Time Criminals will open in Preston in April, and is crowdfunding on Pozible until March 17, 2016. Find out more and pledge to support the project at

Small Time Inspiration

Small Time Criminals draws on the tropes and traditions of classic heist fiction. We asked the design team to tell us what’s inspired them.

Kevin Turner (Game Designer)

The film I bring up most in meetings is Ocean’s Eleven. I really think it’s the quintessential bank heist film; there are others like The Italian Job or Inside Man which are also great, but Ocean’s Eleven has the right tone. We want players to walk out of Small Time Criminals feeling like George Clooney’s crew. I also keep bringing up the videogame Fallout 4 (Bethesda). I want players to be able to hack into computers, open boxes, to explore a fully realised world. There’s also the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco (Jason Morningstar, Bully Pulpit Games) which is so much fun; in a game like that you talk through what we want to have players actually do in Small Time Criminals!

The 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven, starring George Clooney and a bunch of his mates.

The 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, starring George Clooney and a bunch of his mates.

Anastassia Poppenberg (Set and Props Designer)

I’ve mostly been collecting a lot of images on Pinterest! But I have also watched a lot of heist films. I love the part in The Italian Job where the acrobat come up into the vault, leaps over all the lasers and ends up propping himself up in a doorway, it’s so over the top and ridiculous! I like the level of absurdity, though having never robbed a bank myself I assume the real version would be much less glamorous.

Ben McKenzie (Game Designer)

My favourite heist film is the original The Italian Job, though since they rob a bunch of armoured cars and the focus is the escape through the city, sadly I don’t think it’s very applicable! But one of my biggest influences for this are the adventure games I loved growing up in the early 90s: The Secret of Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer, Day of the Tentacle. Text adventures too, like Zork or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They don’t feel like puzzles, they feel like problem solving: “I have to stop this thing falling into this hole, so I need to block the hole with something, but it needs to be something soft…I have a towel!” Even the more bizarre ones have a logic by which you can work out what to do, guided by the things you find and hints in your environment. At least the good ones do; I have a big LucasArts bias, there won’t be any “walk left and suddenly you die” moments in Small Time Criminals like you used to find in the Sierra games!

Sayraphim Lothian (Experience Director)

We watched some films, including Ocean’s Eleven, some late-80s/early-90s heist films, and The Heist (2001) with Gene Hackman, which does what it says on the tin! The opening scene was particularly good. But the inspiration for Small Time Criminals as a whole was me playing Thief on the Playstation 3. The story is fairly linear, but one of the side things you can do is just break into places and nick stuff. I was really enjoying that, and Rob was watching me play and thought “How good would it be if we could do this for real?” I also play the Assassin’s Creed games, and got into the stealth genre with Dishonoured, and elements from those games also helped form the original idea. Now we’re growing that seed and making it better!

Robert Reid (Artistic Director, Head Writer)

I like old-fashioned heist movies: I prefer the original versions of The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair…I’m watching the remake of that at the moment, and I thought “oh no, he’s talking to his shrink, this is going to take forever”, but then they get straight to the heist, which was good! But I still prefer the original. More than those, though, I’m drawing on things like The Wolf of Wall Street and the UK version of The Office. There’s a kind of run-down nastiness to those characters and those worlds that I find really evocative and interesting. And the other thing is the financial crisis: the actual global financial crisis. I really love the idea of an immersive, interactive performance work where you can get your own back on the people who nearly destroyed the world. The 99% are an influence. My old politics are still part of my art!

Small Time Criminals will open in Preston in April, and is crowdfunding on Pozible until 4:39 PM on March 17, 2016. Find out more and pledge to support the project at