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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).

Let’s talk immersion

“Immersive” can sometimes seem like a meaningless buzzword, especially in the world of games. Our Artistic Director Robert Reid explains what it means in the context of Small Time Criminals and real world simulations.

When I’ve been talking to everybody about Small Time Criminals, I’ve been describing it as “immersive”.

Theatre, film and television often describe themselves as immersive. Watching a film can take all your focus and let you lose yourself, and you can become so focused on a story that the sense of your surroundings fades and even disappears. In these contexts, immersive often acts as a stand-in or short hand, when what is meant is “engrossing”.

When we say immersive though, we use it in the sense of becoming completely, bodily immersed in an experience. Our games are immersive in the same way you can be immersed in a pool of water or the culture of a city.

In Small Time Criminals, we’re taking advantage of the pre-existing conditions of the building to fabricate a world in which you can become a master thief. We’re using theatrical set and costume dressing, script writing and live performance to create a simulated space and marrying them with game design and digital technology to create a world you can walk into, interact with and affect.

This idea isn’t brand new of course, and has its roots in live performance practice as far back as Allan Kaprow and the Happenings, as well as their more contemporary cousins, like the work of Punchdrunk and modern escape rooms.

Michael F Cahill as Caesar at the climax of #TrueRomansAll.

Michael F Cahill as Caesar at the climax of #TrueRomansAll.

It should also be said that Small Time Criminals itself is also only one kind of immersion.  Our street games, for instance, are more situationally immersive, demanding immediate attention on a task at hand in a public space; they foreground the “liveness” of your everyday environment.

Both street games (like Spirits Walk, #trueromansall or Citydash) and real world simulations give you a goal to accomplish, the tools to accomplish it and the environment to accomplish it in.

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

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

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

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

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

Pozible Rewards: Bespoke Street Adventure!

“We made it to our first location, where did we need to go next? Were we being followed? We better sneak down between these two buildings. I looked over my shoulder.. It seemed the coast was clear but we had to solve the next clue. Time to pick up the pace. I looked at my watch. Damn, we’re running out of time. Is that person watching us? Wait, I know where we need to go next. We ran down an alley, scanning the signs. This seems like the place. Treasure recovered. Cocktail time.”

jadeMonkeyThat’s how Alex describes the Adventure of the Jade Monkey, a custom street adventure made for her and her partner Elliot by Pop Up Playground’s Robert Reid and Sayraphim Lothian – and with the Bespoke Street Adventure reward in our Fresh Air 2015 Pozible campaign, you could have a unique experience like this of your own!

Designing mostly for festivals and open to the public events, Pop Up Playground usually works within certain constraints of size, budget and resources-to-players ratios. But this reward lets us throw a lot of those constraints out the window to make something entirely different: a once-only, unique adventure for a small group!

DrMonkeyWe’ll get in touch with you to figure out a time and place where you want to start, and perhaps go back and forth with a few requests for information, but then it’s down the rabbit hole you go. It’s up to you who you invite, and whether you tell them what they’re in for: a unique adventure experience, just for you, in which you will have to find clues, solve puzzles and complete challenges to reach your destination. You might end up on the run from spies, chasing a monster, searching for a stolen artefact or unlocking a bizarre mystery – but whatever the case, you and up to seven of your friends will be the only ones to ever go on this particular adventure.

We’d love the chance to make something like this – and by choosing this reward you’re not just embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, you’re also supporting the growth of the Fresh Air festival. Your support will allow us to bring out international artists, pay our staff and make our games bigger and better, all while keeping the festival free to attend. You can find out more at our Pozible campaign page.

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.

Pozible Rewards: Workplace Games Workshop

Most of the games we run at Pop Up Playground are for the public: they’re fun, they’re silly, they’re designed to reconnect you with the playful side of yourself you were told to put away when you were no longer a child. But you can also play some of our games at work!

Games can combine an exercise in imagination with the interpersonal and analytical skills you use every day in the business world: teamwork, communication, problem solving, leadership, confidence, risk management. They won’t magically level you up overnight, but the systems used in games present a new context in which to exercise those skills – plus it’s a lot of fun!

Pudding Lane

Pudding Lane

Pop Up Playground has a variety of corporate workshops – and as a special corporate support level in our Pozible campaign, we’re offering the two-hour version at a discounted rate! Our game runners will come to your workplace, warm everyone up with a few smaller games, then put your team through their paces with games tailored to promote team building and business-applicable skills, all while having a good time your staff will be talking about for weeks! And as if that’s not enough, you’ll also be named as a corporate sponsor of the Fresh Air Festival for 2015.

While our corporate workshops are available all year round, this special discount rate of $1,500 for the two-hour version is only available as part of our Pozible campaign, so if you’ve thought about doing something different for your staff, get in now! We’ll negotiate a time with you to make it happen. And if you have any questions you want to ask, just get in touch.

Pozible Rewards: Wanna Play a Game?

We love to run our games for people, but outside of festivals it can be hard to organise a time and find people to play them! Likewise, people love to play our games, but the opportunities to play them aren’t as frequent as we’d like. And that’s where the $250 “Wanna Play a Game?” reward in our Pozible campaign comes in!


Members of the public playing Gong! at Fresh Air 2014.

We’ll come to you and run one of our stand-alone games (plus a few little ones to get you warmed up) for as many as 20 players, over the course of about an hour! This would be a great addition to a birthday, wedding or other celebration, or even just a great diversion for a bunch of friends for an afternoon. Here are some of the games you can choose:

The Ride – an epic battle between two Viking villages; can you achieve sufficient glory to be taken to Valhalla?

Gong! – a street sport where you get to change the rules!

Bury Your Treasure – thievery and combat on the high seas – can you steal and hoard the most booty?

Ben’s Big Board Game – roll the dice or test your skill to move

Pudding Lane – London is burning! Can you work together to put out the fires before all is lost?

Wikisneaks – devise a secret code and transmit information without getting caught in this game about unlocking secrets!

Spy Catcher – the Agency has been infiltrated at the highest level! Only the junior spies can be trusted to interrogate the spy leaders and expose the double agents before it’s too late!

This is a special price for this kind of service just for this campaign, so if you want to add some Pop Up Playground magic to your next party or big event, get in before the campaign ends, and help spread the word so we hit our goal! All the details are can be found at