9.03m, is a short, first person, art/empathy game for PC. Not a game in the traditional sense of the word; it aims to humanise, and remember the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The media is quick to put figures to death tolls in such disasters, and 9.03m tries to remind people of the individuals behind those figures.
9.03m is set on Baker Beach in San Francisco, where debris from the tsunami has washed ashore in the years following the tsunami.
To play, you must find the butterflies.
All royalties (as of 19/12/2013) are donated to charity. Half of all received Space Budgie royalties go to Aid For Japan (www.aidforjapan.org.uk), a charity that helps children who lost their parents in the tsunami. The other half goes to Redr (www.redr.org.uk) a charity that helps in disaster scenarios.
(As described on Steam)
Now, I could jump into the processes, but before that, I think it’s important to explain why I decided to design and develop 9.03m in the first place.
9.03m started as a project for my final year at university. My dissertation looked into games that affect the player. My aims were to make something that I had a personal connection to, which fulfilled the requirements, and that would be possible in the timeframe.
My main reason for making a game about the victims of the Tohoku tsunami was because I’m personally involved in the Japanese community. I have been married for 5 years to my wife who is a Japanese national, and we have 3 children (2 children at the time of its creation). I also have Japanese friends who live in both the U.K. and Japan.
Back in March 2011, when the tsunami struck, I was in my 2nd year at university, and working in QA for YoYo Games. I had missed the news in the morning and went to work for a half day shift. When I got there, they had the news up in the background and I struggled to focus on the work I had to do. When I got home I was glued to the media reports. I began to try and get in touch with friends and my wife’s family to make sure they were okay! My wife’s parents live in Chiba, which is not too far from the disaster zone, but she has family who live further north, who were also thankfully okay.
I was affected by what I saw in the news, by the videos I watched on YouTube, and by my personal experience. Having a child at the time, and being married only compounded the feeling, knowing that parents had lost their children, and men and women had lost their partners.
At this point, in 2011, I had no intention of making a game focusing on the tsunami or the victims.
Moving forward to November 2013, which was a few months into my final year at the University of Abertay. I had been trying to think up a game concept to fit my dissertation. I had a few ideas down on paper, mind maps, and concepts, but nothing that I felt was good enough. At around this point, I had been reading news reports of debris washing up onto U.S. shorelines, and remember feeling saddened that a lot of the debris was going into landfill, or getting scavenged. It was also around the same time that we had some flooding in the U.K. This was the point in which the idea was conceived. The original concept was not much different to the final released game.
I didn’t have any intention of releasing 9.03m until around June 2013, when a few people had suggested it, and it received some local and national press attention. At this point, we had already been working on Glitchspace since January, and we had a set vision of starting a studio. I approached the rest of the team about the idea of getting some of them involved to polish, fix and complete it for release, whilst everyone else worked on Glitchspace, and everyone was in agreement.
A Couple of Initial Things
Also, I just wanted to also mention a few things before explaining the game development. The objects and the one name mentioned in the game are fictional. I felt it would not be right to the people affected by the tsunami to include real names and objects. Also, for the game to get its message across, it did not require the use of any real names, or references to real people as such. From an artistic standpoint this could be deemed as a fallacy, but whilst I wanted to get across a message, and express something I had a strong feeling about, I also wanted to make sure I was being as sensitive as possible to those who were left devastated by the tsunami.
I designed 9.03m with a specific framework in mind. The framework detailed what aspects were of most importance to the design and implementation of the project.
The framework was largely decided upon through my research into affecting games. My research looked into games, articles and presentations by Brenda Romero and Jane McGonigal, and articles/literature from Ian Bogost, amongst others.
The framework can be broken down into four key areas, which also form a four-step process of sorts.
Narrative structure, and mechanics are interchangeable processes, because a theme may be expressed through the use of a mechanic, and then framed by the narrative, there also may not be any narrative in the media. It is also important to highlight, that mechanics in this process are a focal point, and the potential mechanics should be explored and realised at the first two stages of the process, so that the narrative and themes pave the way for meaningful mechanics.
It’s important to break down these steps, and further describe their application within the context of games design. It’s also important to lay out the boundaries of each step, and what, as a designer, should be considered.
Themes and messages and meanings are the root elements of the narrative that the designer wants to portray in the game. These should open up avenues for a narrative structure, delivery process, mechanics system and aesthetic of the game. The designer may wish to theme the game around an event, a feeling, a person, place or anything. In the case of Brenda Romero’s “Train”, the game was themed around a real life event, in which Jewish people were placed on trains destined for death camps in 1940s Nazi Germany. Romero wanted to honour those who were affected by the event, and also wanted the player to feel remorse, and empathy.
The Narrative Structure & Delivery Process, is the way in which the themes and messages are told. This may be a linear story that the player must progress through to get to the end. It may be a process that yields results. It includes the decisions on the setting, the characters and the backdrop to the story. The story may not be told in a straight forward process, but rather an exploratory, or even a metaphorical one. It may be a direct narrative, or an implied narrative, or it may be that there is no narrative. This will depend upon the themes and messages that the designer wishes to exert through the game. It also ties itself quite closely to the mechanics.
The mechanics are the way in which the player interacts with the game on a mechanical level. These elements should be based upon the themes, messages, meanings, the narrative structure and the delivery process. The mechanics should be designed to fit these elements, to help enforce them within the game.
The aesthetic should consider all forms of visual and audial feedback and should look towards the previous elements for direction. The aesthetic can be used as a way of accentuating the previous steps, a project focused on fear may benefit from an aesthetic that embodies fear.
Design and Development
Initially my high concept was a game in which you walk along a beach on the U.S. coast, picking up and inspecting objects that relate to the victims of the Japanese tsunami. Each time an object was picked up, it would reveal an origami butterfly which would fly off into the distance and the sea would recede to reveal more objects. This changed slightly throughout, and the object materialising into a butterfly was one of the inclusions. I also went through potential scenarios for the flow leading to the end, one of which was not a receding sea, but a beach of sandcastles that would in the end all be washed away once the player had found all of the objects.
Objects and their memories
The idea behind picking up objects was based around how we attach memories and value in objects through our experiences with them. Objects once owned by someone we knew and cared about hold value to us, because they trigger memories of that person. What I was trying to do, was use objects to create fictional stories in the player, or make them relate their own experiences to the objects they found. They may not relate to the object personally, but thinking about the person behind the object, and who they may have been makes them relate it to their own lives, and the people they know, or knew. There’s another factor in this, although this was not really considered during the early design (but it was quite valid upon later reflection), and that’s the context. Someone may not hold any value in an object that they have no memories to attach to it, but if we have context for the object, i.e. “this belonged to Jane Austen” or maybe “the person who once owned this lost a 5 year battle with cancer” we place value on the object, and it may trigger some of our own memories of a similar nature. The context in the released version of 9.03m is given before you even buy the game in the store descriptions, and it was something I had to change from the first iteration. My intention in the beginning was to let the player explore the game unaware of the context, and try to make the clues obvious enough for them to figure out the context themselves. This was mainly because I didn’t want players to have preconceived feelings from the offset, potentially affecting the results of the user testing when I was making it for my final year project.
The objects I selected for 9.03m were selected as ones that most people would recognise. I had originally wanted to include objects found strictly in Japan, or objects that were actually found on the beaches, but if these objects were not recognisable by an international audience, they would not have the same effect, and finding lists for objects found was a time consuming task, which did not prove very fruitful. I chose objects that could be found in Japan but also in countries outwith. Japan is a country where lots of foreign goods and traditions have been incorporated into their history and culture, and so this made the most sense to me. The objects themselves started with the selection of the football. In my research on the objects found on the beaches, this one to me resonated most. The owner of the real football was actually found to be alive, and the football returned. I then decided on the other objects myself, ones which I felt would resonate with different people, and could be found both in Japan and outside of Japan. A wedding ring, a pocket watch, a teddy bear, a toy train, a moses basket, and a music box. Each of these objects tells a different story about different people. All of the people had bios in my design doc; moreso for myself than anything else, but I felt it was a good idea to work out who they were.
Less is more
One of my major design decisions was to make everything as simple as I could, so that it did not detract from the message of the game. This is apparent with the visual style, the gameplay, the narrative delivery, and the music. My thinking in this respect was that if I make the visual style realistic, or very detailed, the players focus may turn to how realistic it looks. Similarly, if the gameplay was too difficult, or there were barriers to progression, it may place the focus on that. I wanted the focus to remain with the message.
The flow from object to object was problematic. On the one side, I didn’t want the player to lose interest as they walked between objects, but on the other side, I didn’t want to detract away from the core message in the game. I had thought of aspects to include in the environment which would react to you as you came close to them, crabs etc – but felt this may have just distracted the player from what I really wanted to achieve in the game. It was a difficult choice to make, but I decided not to include anything between, other than some very basic navigation variances. I decided the time between the objects was the time for reflection, interpretation, and thought.
Metaphors played a strong part in the design, and there were a few I didn’t include in the game. The first of the main metaphors are the objects themselves. The objects are metaphors for the people who owned them, and you could say that they are the remaining memories of the person. The placement of the objects in the scenes, and the environments around them are also metaphors of their lives, or their moments before the tsunami. The butterfly itself is often seen as a sign of the soul passing from life into death. I used it to this extent, but the butterfly can also be seen in the game as your acknowledgement of the people, and the memories they left behind. The sea receding back is in reference to the tsunami. Often before a tsunami occurs, the sea will recede. It’s also revealing its secrets of the people it has taken.
The reason I went with metaphors is because I feel that thinking about something, and coming to a conclusion on it means you take more away from it, and you’re more likely to become satisfied and remember it, as opposed to if it is given on a silver platter. The only issue was trying to balance the metaphors, so that they were not too ambiguous, leading the player into unravelling a completely different meaning to the one I was trying to convey.
The setting of 9.03m had to be on a beach. I decided that the beach had to be recognisable to most people, and so Baker Beach in San Francisco made a lot of sense. The Golden Gate Bridge in the scene gave a good indicator as to the setting. Whilst I did set it on Baker Beach, I had never even left the U.K., let alone visited the U.S. and so I had to use reference images and Google Maps to work out roughly what the beach and surrounding area was like. I firstly mocked out the area on paper, then blocked it out in Maya, and then into UDK.
The beach started as a lot longer to begin with, because I initially wanted to have areas the player could explore and find other objects not core to the main progression, but I decided that this would be out of context with the main aim, as the player would therefore not be acknowledging those people if they missed them.
The ending in 9.03m was something I hadn’t decided fully until midway through developing the game. To begin with, I wanted to make the player feel as though the ocean was an antagonist, and I had played with the idea of making the game end with a tsunami. In terms of how the player would feel at the end if this was to happen, it would have been wildly out of touch with the rest of the game and so it was not an idea I kept for long. After discussing it with some people (including my dissertation supervisor Dayna Galloway, and Quartic Llama developer Tom DeMajo), I decided to make the tsunami one of metaphor – the tsunami is seeing the many silhouettes appear when the sea recedes back for the final time. I also, as explained above thought of a direction which included sandcastles on the beach, which would wash away by the end, this was not desired as it would have to emit the receding shoreline to work correctly, and I felt the receding shoreline was important to the interpretation, meaning, and progression of the game.
Polishing, fixing, and releasing.
By the time I had built the prototype in UDK, and after deciding to work with my team on preparing it for release, there was not a huge amount that needed to change in the design, but a lot in terms of the implementation of it, and the assets I was using.
Everyone was taking a break after finishing university, and spending time with family, so I had to make sure I was not labouring them with too much work, especially if there was no way to repay them (at this point, my mind was fully set on a free release).
The aspects that I wanted to change were the music and sound assets, the character models (which were originally just planes that followed the players vision), the objects, and the butterfly (which also needed to be animated). Mustafa Cetiner worked on most of the objects, and all of the character models, Ronan Quigley worked on the audio, and Robin Griffiths worked on the butterfly model and animation. This was done on a part-time basis from July, up until the start of September 2013.
Once everything was in and finished, we released it on IndieCity, and put in a release request for Desura, later getting it released on IndieGameStand too. We put it in for Steam Greenlight, and it got added to Steam in November. This was also the point where we set up Space Budgie as a registered business, and switched our focus to brining everyone in to develop Glitchspace.
We had discussed a few times about whether we should put 9.03m up on to Steam Greenlight. I was always of the impression that it would not get Greenlit, and so this was left until after it was already released, with someone else from the team paying for the Greenlight fee as an incentive for me to put it up.
When going through the Greenlight process, it was apparent that there was interest in getting the game onto Steam, but similarly, there were many people who didn’t want it. The numbers for Yes and No votes were not very comforting, and it soon fell to the back of my mind as something that would never happen.
However, in November, Albert and I were preparing for a presentation for funding Glitchspace, and we were completely blocked off from the outside world focusing on it. We, after 3 hours of being Greenlit found out about the news! The main reasoning behind the Greenlight must have been with the positive reviews, TIGA award nominations, and we were also going through the review process with BAFTA, which Valve was aware of.
Overall I was overwhelmed by the response. The reviews it did get were largely positive, with a few quite critical reviews. I always knew that 9.03m in terms of its gameplay and theme would not appeal to a huge audience, and I knew that there would be a mixed response. The biggest shock in the response was a let’s play by the gaming YouTuber, Markiplier. Not in my wildest dreams would I have expected him to play it, and I struggled to watch the video from start to finish. I also struggled to read the comments left on the video, in which many people shared their experiences, and how they felt when they played 9.03m, or watched the video. Some of those comments people explained how they were impacted upon by the game, giving them a fresh perspective. Many people said it made them cry. One comment someone said they had to take a long reflective walk outdoors. Some of the other touching comments stated of their own loss due to the tsunami. One of them, which will stick with me for the rest of my life, was somebody who had played the game on several occasions, remembering the good times the person spent with his/her best friend lost in the tsunami. Just describing it here is very difficult – hugely touching, and wholly unexpected. Similar comments were left in Steam reviews. The Markiplier video can be found here:
Steam was fairly mixed in terms of the reviews though, with mostly positive reviews, but some negative ones too. The response in the discussion boards on Steam had many sceptic threads, where a handful of Steam users gave very explicit and sometimes angry statements on why they wouldn’t buy it. The same people also questioned the charity giving, our honesty, and the fact that we only gave 50% to begin with. We also had a thread which stated that we had created the game to capitalise on the (then) recent typhoon in the Philippines. We allowed these threads to continue, because we felt it was fine for these things to be brought up, and we also felt that any conversation around such disasters was a good thing. Of course, we knew we were not trying to con people, and so it did hurt a bit to see the comments. We responded to a few of the posts to give more details, and to clear up some details that were lacking.
We also had 9.03m nominated for two TIGA industry awards, as well as getting into the final top 100 games in the IndieDB IOTY awards.
In terms of sales, we made roughly 15,000 sales in total (this includes all sales, bundles and distribution platforms). Not a huge amount by any stretch, but because we were giving most of the revenues to charity, and because our break even costs were quite low, it was financially successful. We raised more than $10,000 for charity.
Steam was our biggest distribution platform, with the Groupees Holiday Helpings bundle in second, and IndieGameStand in third. The good thing about it is that it will continue to bring in revenue, and will indefinitely remain as a constant payment to charity.
What went right
From the very beginning, my expectations of 9.03m were that it would be a project I could be proud of for my coursework submission, and something that could spur my children to create. From this point of view, 9.03m has exceeded my expectations, and it did throughout the whole process!
Releasing the game, getting press, getting onto Steam, and providing thousands of pounds to charity; I did not expect any of this, and so I could say it all went right!
In terms of its design and implementation, I think the game did what I intended it to from the beginning – it brought up a topic, and helped to prompt people about those affected in such disasters. Overall, the experience that I was trying to put in the hands of the player worked as intended.
What went not so right
Implementing aspects as a designer could be tricky, and it took a bit longer than if I had a programmer on hand. We also went over schedule on the project, which put strain on the programmers who were working on the Glitchspace prototypes. Gameplay-wise, I would have preferred to include a bit more interaction with objects. The music box was one of the first intended objects which would feature more than just a single click to interact, winding it up would have been a second interaction – but time did not allow for anything else. I’ve been fighting myself in my head for a while over the cutscenes too.
I think the major factor in this is time – if there was more time it would have better fit my expectations as a game.
Another aspect that didn’t go as I’d hoped was the pre-release discussions about how we distribute it, and whether we charge, how much, and if we take anything from it. Whilst I personally was of the opinion that it was not a game intended to make any kind of money, and that it went against the design and principles of the game as a way of putting across a message, some of the team felt differently. The general feeling was that it was okay to charge, and take revenue to make up for time spent working on it, just as a charity has to make up its costs for staffing, upkeep, etc. I was against the idea, but I felt I had to compromise on it to make sure everyone was happy.
A fitting end
One last thing I want to bring up, this being more recent! Back in March, we went to GDC. This was in relation to Glitchspace, our next project. One of the most important aspects of this trip for me was that it was in San Francisco, and it was also in the same month as the anniversary of the tsunami.
Whilst I didn’t promote it at the time (I had been hoping to put this blog out a lot sooner) I managed to get to Baker Beach. It was a very sombre experience. It felt like I had been there before, and it was a great way to end my time in San Francisco. As a way of me paying homage to the disaster, I decided to place an origami crane into the water to be swept out to sea.