What I learned after making a game as a gift for one person

With that one stranger in mind, I set out on an adventure to create the perfect personalized game

During the holidays, I was inspired to create a game as a gift for a stranger, based on a design principle from a prominent game developer.

Hit mobile game “Crossy Road” creator Matt Hall of Hipster Whale has a very simple philosophy. He believes in choosing his target audience carefully. So carefully, in fact, that in 2015 he designed games for the individual.

When Matt was working at the game studio Tantalus and assisting with the development of “Pony Friends” for the Nintendo DS, he focused on a single photo of a rich young woman with a prize horse. “What would make her happy?” he thought as he instructed everyone in his studio to study the photo and keep it at the forefront of their minds during development.

“When I make a game this way, I don’t have to get bogged down in demographics or store trends. All I have to do is make a game that is everything for someone.”

— Matt Hall, Source https://bit.ly/3rCr8r0

Pony Friends went on to spawn a sequel, due in part to Matt’s passion for designing games for one person. Source, https://www.igdb.com/games/pony-friends-2/presskit

“Pony Friends” went on to sell millions of copies and spawn a sequel, “Pony Friends 2”. And we all know how much of a monumental success Crossy Road became back in 2015.

Well — it sure seems like he’s onto something!

As an independent game developer, I am prone to burnout and lose passion and motivation for projects. All professionals and even hobbyists can relate to this. So in November, I swore to create a small standalone project to rekindle my motivation.

The Secret Santa Jam hosted by Sheepolution saved me from a major slump. Source, https://itch.io/jam/secret-santa

With this desire in mind, I participated in a game jam (i.e. a time-limited hackathon where developers create playable game prototypes) called “Secret Santa Jam”. The premise was to replicate the traditional secret Santa gift trade but with games. Each game dev received a letter from another person, outlining their likes, dislikes, favorite games, etc. Then you are tasked with creating a game that you think the person would enjoy. You in turn submit a letter and wait with bated breath for your fully personalized game to be delivered.

“This concept is genius,” I thought. My giftee sent me a spirited letter about their love of action role-playing games, customization of playstyle and techniques, and their personal love of sports and weight-lifting. This set my mind in motion.

“Maybe he will enjoy a power system around weight lifting!”

“Including a multitude of skills and making them effective against enemies and the environment is key.”

“Maybe something like a Zelda-style top-down action game with a locked-door mechanic would work best.”

I began coming up with the concept — a warrior mage that must retrieve a treasure from a monster and trap-laden castle. This helped me constrain the scope to a single environment and purpose. Creating the playable character as both a spear-wielding knight and an adept magician helped me design many playstyles as quickly as possible, and throw in the weight lifting power up as an added thematic bonus.

In the end, I made a game heavily inspired by Legend of Zelda’s dungeons. Source, https://itch.io/jam/secret-santa/rate/861322

As ideas flooded my mind, they became clear game mechanics and thematic elements in a flash. The power of designing for a single person comes from the specificity of their desires, their personality, and their proclivities — these all allow you to design a custom-tailored experience. With the scope reduced, I was offered the opportunity to build an experience that is sure to please 100% of the target demographic; that being my game gift recipient.

When Matt Hall began designing a new game, Pac-Man 256, he used a very similar approach as well. He knew that he was really designing the game for hardcore Pac-Man fans. You know, the boys and girls from back in ’80s that clung to the arcade machine, learning the names of the colorful enemy ghosts, figuring out the best routes in the course, and gunning for the coveted 256th level (from which the remake gets its name!).

Those kids and teens are now well into their adulthood and giving them that nostalgic experience was key to the game’s design.

With this design philosophy, Matt highlighted yet another concept that dominates designing niche games — you can’t please everyone, so at least nail it for the passionate fans. He leaned full-tilt into the minutia of the game, giving hardcore players the remake they always wanted.

Look at this impressive and masterful rendition of the glitch screen from Pac-Man 256. Source, https://www.igdb.com/games/pac-man-256/presskit

“Pac-Man 256 isn’t like Crossy Road. It won’t appeal to everyone. We made a game that anyone who has played Pac-Man will feel the nostalgia for.”

— Matt Hall, Source https://bit.ly/3rtASDB

For my Secret Santa game, I spent 90% of the time cramming in unique abilities, puzzles, and monsters until the very last second of the hackathon’s duration. In the end, I had to go a day over the deadline to fix bugs and create the win and lose conditions. But it was worth it as every element I included was to further please the recipient.

The end result was a very happy giftee and an amazing feeling of accomplishment! I am a firm believer that games are meant to be made as much as played. However, I think games are also meant to be shared, social experiences as well. And in the spirit of giving that the Holiday season fosters, giving the gift of a personalized game provides the greatest win-win result.

So, what became of Matt Hall and his game studio Hipster Whale? They went on to continue making arcade mobile games, partnering with Disney to update Crossy Road with iconic Disney characters. They have recently released an epic multiplayer game Crossy Road Castle for the Apple Arcade. And from the looks of it, they continue to pack the game with content that will please their fans for the foreseeable future.

Hipster Whale’s new game Crossy Road Castle is a fun multiplayer romp! Source, https://www.crossyroadcastle.com/press-kit


Interested in indie game development and game design? Check out some of my other articles to inspire and inform you on how to make the greatest game from start to finish!

Freelance game designer / developer. Full stack developer. Board game geek and cat tamer.

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