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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

Escaping the Puzzle

Escape rooms have become increasingly popular in Australia in the last couple of years. Small Time Criminals hopes to build on that kind of experience and take real world simulation further than ever. Our lead game designer Ben McKenzie explains.

In an escape room (sometimes called a puzzle room), a team of players is “locked” in a room, and must solve a series of puzzles in order to escape. We love them! Solving the puzzles and getting out is super satisfying, and part of that satisfaction lies in the linear nature of most rooms: the puzzles have to be solved in a specific sequence, with earlier ones providing keys or important clues for later ones. That means you can see your progress toward the exit – you reveal a hidden compartment with a new clue, or find the code to a lock that’s been staring you in the face for the last half an hour. One downside, though, is that you can’t play the same room twice – once you know the solutions, the puzzles are no longer a challenge.


Escape rooms are all about the puzzles that stand between you and getting out.

Small Time Criminals won’t have puzzles in the traditional sense, but you will use clues in the environment of the bank to find solutions to problems, like a locked cabinet or a laser security grid. And while some of those problems will have multiple parts that need to be tackled in order, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose what you will do, and in what order. You won’t have to solve them all to succeed – indeed, that won’t be possible, as there will be too many for a single playthrough! Part of the game is deciding what you will take, and what you’ll leave behind, using the clues in the space to work out what’s most valuable.

Another difference from escape rooms is how we measure success. Escape rooms are pass or fail: you succeed by escaping before running out of time. The only variable is how long you take to get out. In Small Time Criminals, we expect teams to make use of all the time they have – the success of their heist will be measured by the value of what they’ve stolen. Your team will have plenty of leeway to decide on strategy: will you give up a share of the loot for some extra tools that will aid you? Will you spend precious time getting into the most secure parts of the bank? Or maybe you’ll just search the place for smaller, carelessly hidden valuables, hoping they’re enough to make your haul a big one?

Whatever your strategy, you can always come back and try something different; we plan to refresh some of the details of the experience (like passwords or safe combinations) regularly, so while you might be better at finding the answers, you won’t know them in advance. And perhaps you’ll want to try something different – isn’t it possible that the box you ignored first time round hides something more valuable than the rest of the bank’s items combined?

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

Real World Simulation

Small Time Criminals is the first “real world simulation” game we’ve built – but what does that mean? Our lead game designer Ben McKenzie investigates the term.

Petra Elliott in the Small Time Criminals Pozible video shoot.

Petra Elliott, dressed in PI gear, on location for the Small Time Criminals Pozible video shoot at SAE/Qantm.

Live games don’t have it easy when it comes to describing them. After all, aren’t all games live, in some sense? Plus it’s an incredibly broad category: “live games” can encompass everything from hopscotch to Citydash and puzzle rooms. So it’s helpful to try and find more specific categories. For example, hopscotch is a traditional “folk game” – one of many that have been passed down by word of mouth for generations, and rarely require anything except simple rules, a bit of space and common household objects or toys. “Street games” like Citydash add a playful layer over the urban landscape players are already familiar with, hidden in plain sight under the noses of unsuspecting city dwellers.

Small Time Criminals is what we’ve called a “real world simulation”: a game that seeks to put the players into a situation that, while artificial and constructed, is not an abstraction – you just respond to the game as though its fiction was real (with a few caveats for safety purposes). Escape rooms fall into this category: you really are in a room, solving puzzles to find keys, unlock doors and get out. And in Small Time Criminals, you really are in a bank, looking for valuables and working out how to get them without alerting security or setting off alarms.

One of the great strengths of real world simulation is its simplicity: while much time, thought and design must go into such a game’s construction, players don’t need to learn how to use a game controller, read and understand (or be taught) the content of a rulebook, or acclimatise to the 3D of virtual reality. You can’t press the wrong button, misinterpret a crucial rule, or accidentally cheat because your feet land outside a boundary. And while you certainly can get into the spirit of the thing, you also don’t need to take on a character; you play yourself, in an extraordinary (but realistic) situation. This gives the experience an intentionally low barrier to entry.

That said, robbing a bank is outside most people’s experience, so there are some things we can’t reasonably expect players to do; lock picking is an art, you can’t learn it inside an hour! For those parts of the experience, we’re working hard on some special designs that, while abstractions, will feel as real as possible. For the most part that’s where the technology will come in, and it’s proving to be one of the most exciting challenges of the design process.

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