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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

Big Time Designers: Story

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 this second of three interviews, Ben talks to Pop Up Playground’s Artistic Director Robert Reid about his role in directing the narrative of Small Time Criminals.

Ben: How would you describe your role on the project? Are you the head writer?

Robert: No, it feels weird for me to be a “Head Writer” when we have Nic Velissaris, Bridget Mackey and Emilie Collyer. Sayra and I are the equivalent of a director on a theatre show, so we’re experience directors – me from the fictional side, and Sayra from the fabrication side. We’re looking at the overall experience from a player’s perspective and how that translates to a narrative understanding of the world and the experience they’ve been through. So when they walk into the world, they’re having a phenomenological experience; it’s my job to make sure that whatever they do, and whatever anyone brings into the project, it becomes a narrative when they’re done.

Ben: So you’ll combine forces, but Sayraphim will be primarily looking at the physical aspects of the space, and you’ll be primarily looking at its narrative and story aspects?

Robert: I’m looking at the lies we tell; Sayra’s looking at the lies we make.

Ben: Very quotable! What’s the difference between experience design and game design?

Robert: The game designers are looking at the overall structure: what players are asked to do, the problems they’re asked to solve, and the mechanics by which we give shape and meaning to their experience. Games have rules, even if they’re quite obscure and environmental; that’s game design. As the Experience Director, I’m good at saying “I want it to feel like this”, “I want these kinds of problems”, to serve the experience and the narrative, but then I leave it to the game designers to answer “what are those problems?”

Ben: There are four writers on the project, including yourself. What kind of things are you going to be writing?

Robert: Memos, diary entries, reports, post-it notes… All the bits of evidence that we leave in our daily lives. We’ll be constructing a sense of the characters that work in the bank, so when we get actors in, I can hand each of them a character sheet which tells them who they’re playing and what they know, and they can improvise from it. Of course if we make our final stretch goal for the Small Time Criminals web series, we’ll also be writing scripts! Because we can pay actors to learn them, and I can make them say exactly what I want. Which is what I like as a playwright!

Ben: Most of it sounds very different from a regular writing gig, though?

Robert: That’s true, and that’s the thing that excites me about it!

A read-through of #TrueRomansAll.

Robert and Ben during an early read-through trial of street game #TrueRomansAll.

Ben: How are you going to coordinate the whole process?

Robert: The tricky thing is negotiating with the other three writers and working out how their work fits into the overall world. I’ll be giving them that world, and saying “okay, write this bit”. One of them already had ideas of how the gameplay will work, so I’m having some back and forth to make it clear what kind of experience they’re writing for. They’re all theatre writers, they’re used to writing dialogue, and I am asking for dialogue – but in a very different format.

Ben: What other strengths and styles are the writers bringing on board?

Robert: Emilie has written prose, including essays and crime fiction. Nic is really interested in Mafia, the game, so he’s bringing that kind of aspect in. Bridget is super intelligent, I brought her on board because she’s really clever!

Ben: The idea is that they’ll each be writing separate scenarios, each providing a different experience for the bank. Will those narratives intertwine? How will you manage that?

Robert: I did something similar on one of my plays, All Of Which Are American Dreams. That had five writers, me included; I wrote the overall story for it, then they wrote in response to my prompts, and it was my job to decide “oh, that fits into the world here”, or “this character might that interaction with this other character”. I sort of knit them together so they sit in the landscape alongside each other. So for Small Time Criminals, I’ll say to the writers “Here’s your character and the kind of story; go write it!” Then we’ll go through a drafting process, the writers will send me a draft and I’ll say “that’s great; one of the other stories has this, can you work it into yours?”

Ben: The first alternate narrative, or game mode, will be live when the game opens, and the other stretch goals will come in later; do you see opportunities for adding more to the game as time goes on?

Robert: Oh yes! Small Time Criminals is going to be amazing fun, and it’s a really interesting way to explore the notion of live performance and live games. But the thing that interests me most about it, the real motivator for me doing it, is the potential for this to be an ongoing story. With the actors on YouTube, and the contributions that players inevitably make by playing, we have the opportunity to tell a year’s worth of story. It’s like a sit-com, a soap opera, a serial – but it’s a serial you can walk into and explore. Potentially, if you’re smart about it and following the narrative, players could write notes for characters. You know, find out what Kevin is doing behind Anastassia’s back, and write a note for her. If we find it we should take that into the story. We’re building a machine for a year’s worth of immersive story to come out of.

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

Big Time Designers: Space

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. First up are Experience Director Sayraphim Lothian and Production Designer Anastassia Poppenberg, talking about how they’re creating the space for the game, and everything in it.

Ben: What are your roles in the design and making of Small Time Criminals?

Sayraphim: I’m overseeing all the physical design on the game, working with Anastasia.

Anastassia: I’m designing the set and props and the way the aesthetic will all come together.

Ben: You’ve both worked with theatre and film sets, where you get to create a space from scratch, or close to it. Here you have to work with an existing space. How is this different?

Sayraphim: The building is actually an old bank!

Anastassia: I love that. You’re going to walk into the space and be sympathetic to the world that already exists there, that’s a really exciting design challenge. It’s good problem solving: we want this space to fulfil a certain function; this is what we have in the space; how do we achieve that? That’s exciting! It’s a different kind of design.

Models used in the set design for Small Time Criminals, created by Anastasia Poppenberg with Nick Sanders.

Models used in the set design for Small Time Criminals, created by Anastassia Poppenberg with Nick Sanders. Photo by Anastasia Poppenberg.

Sayraphim: The main play space is an office, so we need to design an office space. That isn’t just about desks and shelves and books, it’s also about the staff who work at these desks every day. Who are they? What do they bring to work? Do they have photos of their families, are they that kind of person? Our role is designing that and making sure that it’s a coherent whole. The theme and the feel of it should be consistent, not clashing with itself. It all needs to fit together in the same world.

Ben: What’s that world like? Where’s it coming from?

Sayraphim: Well, I’ve worked in a lot of offices!

Anastassia: I like talking to the other creators and asking about the world. Kind of what Sayra was talking about: who owns the bank? What’s the manager like? Is he an arsehole, does he treat his employees like shit, or is it a really loving work environment? All of those things will contribute to the atmosphere of a space. That’s where I often start, and once I have enough to go on, I’ll start finding references and source images, bringing them together to create a cohesive style.

Sayraphim: The start of The Wolf of Wall Street was really useful inspiration. Before he becomes a really slick Wall Street investor, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character works out of a really dingy office, but he’s still corrupt. That was an important realisation for us. Even though it’s small, we want to make sure this investment bank feels like one of the bad guys. It’s not the kind of bank that holds old ladies’ pensions and things you’d feel bad about stealing. They’re a dodgy investment bank that have been ripping their customers off, so you feel okay, a bit Robin Hood about stealing from them.

Anastassia: I’ve also been looking at old bank source material; I found this great web site that went through bank advertisements from the 1920s to the 2000s, mainly in America. The ads are just ridiculous! It’s amazing, the manipulation that goes into some of this advertising on a corporate level. They play on people’s insecurities. “You will die if you don’t have this bank card! What if you end up in hospital? You’ll need this credit card, because otherwise you won’t be able to get medical treatment!”

Ben: What are the different parts of the design that you’re overseeing?

Sayraphim: In a general sense, in theatre and film, set design is the stuff that actors don’t touch, and prop design is the stuff that actors do touch, that they pick up and mess around with. For Small Time Criminals, the “actors” are mostly our players. We’ll be designing the set: all the chairs and tables, what’s on the walls, the dressing. And we’ll also be designing the props: the stuff that players will be stealing. So not just files and folders for the office, but jewels and necklaces and other valuables.

Ben: How does this differ from a film or theatre gig?

Sayraphim: In theatre or television, a giant diamond only has to look real. The actor will pick it up and give a bit of a strain and the audience believes that it’s a giant heavy diamond. But the trick to making live games is that it’s real life; the audience get to pick up the diamond. If it feels really light like it’s plastic, that instantly breaks the illusion. So for live games you have to take into account the right feel and weight of a prop, as well as how it looks. We’re looking carefully for things that help the experience feel real.

Anastassia: Yeah, the immersive aspect of it dictates a higher level of detail be put into the world. In the theatre, you’re not going to walk up onto the stage and see how something looks from 10 centimetres away. So there’s a level of detail that has to go into everything, from the character of the desks right up to how the whole world is portrayed.

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

This interview series continues with Story (Robert Reid on narrative design) and System (Kevin Turner and Ben McKenzie on game design).

Taking It to the Next Level

We’ve reached our base goal for Small Time Criminals! But there’s still plenty more to do. Let’s talk about stretch goals – including two new ones we’ve added today.

The accepted (not to mention tried and tested) wisdom when crowdfunding is to set your goal at the minimum amount of money required to make your project happen. In the case of Small Time Criminals, we came up with a real shoestring budget that would nonetheless allow us to create a great, working experience for players.

Now, thanks to our wonderful Pozible supporters, we’ve blown past that! This extra money will not only allow us to improve on the basic aspects of the game, but also to achieve some of our stretch goals – things we always knew we wanted, but didn’t know if we’d be able to afford. Already this extra support has allowed us to budget for laser tripwires, a pressure-sensitive alarm setup, improved technology including headset radios for players, and the first of several alternative narratives, allowing us to bring in extra writers to create multiple games inside the one space.

With the campaign going strong, it looks like we might hit our last couple of current stretch goals! So we decided to go back to our wish list and add a couple more things that can make Small Time Criminals even better. Here they are:

$11, 400 Stretch Goal: THE DEAD OF NIGHT

At this level, we can add to our infrastructure budget to dramatically alter the ambience of the bank. While it was always going to look like a real space and feel like the home of corrupt scumbags you were happy to rob, this extra money will allow us to purchase flats, light boxes and other theatre trickery to realise the dream of ETERNAL NIGHT: even during daylight, your heist will be able to take place well after working hours! The space has a lot of windows, so this is no small undertaking…


Robert Reid directs the action in a promo video for Small Time Criminals, featuring Kevin Turner, Kat Yates, Jack Beeby and James O'Donoghue.

Robert Reid directs the action in a promo video for Small Time Criminals, featuring Kevin Turner, Kat Yates, Jack Beeby and James O’Donoghue.

The bank will be filled with characters who you’ll meet through the debris of their working life: post-it notes, emails, official documents and more. But if we reach this goal, we’ll bring them to life! We’ll hire actors and make a web series of four 5-minute episodes chronicling life in the bank: the drama, the cruelty, the dashed hopes of escape and crushed dreams of avarice. There might even be some joy amongst the corruption! You won’t need to watch the series to play the game – but if you do, who knows what kinds of clues you might find?

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

Pozible Rewards: learning games

We run a lot of live games at Pop Up Playground, but actually we love all kinds of games: board games, videogames, card games, parlour games…you name it, we play it! Within the team we have a pretty great collection of different games, because just as with other artforms it’s important to experience the work of others as well as to make your own.

CalledYouHereBut we don’t often get a lot of time to play those games – which is partly why we’ve created the Learn to Play reward! For $50 you not only get the PDF book of games and a copy of our first StickerGame, but also an invitation to a fun, relaxed three-hour session of games with the Pop Up Players. We’ll bring a bunch of games of all kinds and teach you to play them! This is a friendly event for everyone, regardless of your level of experience with board games, and we’ll be bringing games of varying lengths, complexities and themes – as well as teaching you a few of our own!

But perhaps you already play a lot of games, and you’re keen to take the next step and make your own games? Well, we’ve got you covered there too, with the $100 Games Design Workshop reward! Ben will run you through the basics of game design with a three hour workshop whose basic principles will work across most kinds of games. The workshop draws on Ben’s three years of experience designing for Pop Up Playground and independently, and will cover player experience, mechanics, playtesting and more. Plus you also get the book of games, the StickerGame, and there will be cake!

By selecting one of these rewards you’ll not only learn to play or make games, you’ll be supporting the Fresh Air festival for 2015, enabling it to grow and to support the people who make it. You can find out more at our campaign page on Pozible.